Sunday, December 29, 2013

Writing a Novel: An Ineluctable Modality - Part 3

(Initially, I'd set up this blog to cover (among other things) stuff like creativity, being a composer and writing frequently about music. But since I'm not composing any more (and I say that in order to goad my creativity into jump-starting a new piece of music, with any luck) and instead writing novels (usually about music), I can still write posts about the creative process (at least, my limited experience with it) since this seems to be something people who are not composers or writers are sometimes curious about if not exactly interested in.

These posts are about the process behind writing my most recent novel,
An Ineluctable Modality: you can read the earlier posts here and here, and you can begin reading the novel here.)

One of the things I like about the NaNoWriMo experience is the fact many people who might never try it will actually take the time to find out what it's like trying to write a novel. Those of us who read novels might think it'd be easy to write one – you start at the beginning and keep writing till you're finished. How difficult can that be, right?

But once would-be writers have taken a shot at it, they might realize “just because you speak the language doesn't mean you can write a novel.”

One of the things I don't like about the NaNoWriMo experience is the fact there are an awful lot of bad novels as a result and people who've met the 50,000-word challenge may feel, now that they've written a novel, that the next logical step is getting it published so they can make enough money to retire to that summer beach house they're going to build from its royalties.

There are certain realities of the business that go far beyond the ability to put words on the page to tell a story. Quality of the end result is not the point but unfortunately quantity is not the end of the process – in many cases, it's only the beginning.

While it's fun to reach that goal, I'm not sure receiving an e-mail from somebody on the NaNoWriMo Team congratulating you on becoming An Author (one that is usually rife with grammatical and spelling errors) makes you one. But at least you're finding out what it takes to become one.

And while I don't need to get into the whole American Idol mind-set that society foists on the Arts these days, let's leave it that coming to terms with a dream is good for the soul and sometimes that is success enough.

Rather than sitting down and starting a novel “from scratch” on November 1st and seeing where it went by November 30th (all the while keeping track of my word-count), I decided to do some planning beforehand – though this time, I gave myself less time to plan it because until the day arrived I wasn't even sure I was going to write it. I needed to get to a point in The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben where I could put that one aside to say, “and now for something completely different.”

After all, I spent months working out the details of the plot and the setting and many of the characters before I began writing the opening paragraph of The Labyrinth which will be a novel of less than 150,000 words. As a mystery, it has to have a particular flow to keep the reader's interest going (“and now, once again, our host, Paige Turner”) and, like a piece of music, there needs to be some variety and contrast to keep it together and give it a sense of rhythm. For my taste, too many page-turners are so high-speed – where not only ever chapter ends in a cliff-hanger but almost every paragraph – they leave you breathless, exhausted by the time you reach the goal.

This time with NaNoWriMo, I really only wanted to write a “short” novel (considering my others were planned to be between 130,000-180,000 words – figure the difference between a 50,000-word novel of about 120 pages, and a 180,000-word novel of maybe 425 pages), but I wanted it to be complete, not just the start of a longer novel I would continue working on for several more months beyond December 1st. None of my previous November Novels were intended to be complete in themselves.

Since I had decided my “story” (or “plot,” using these terms loosely) would be told basically in the format of daily blog-posts (a modern-day “epistolary” novel), I felt these episodes (chapters in a more traditional sense) needed not only to be complete but have a place in the overall “arc” or shape of the novel, the usual beginning, middle and end of a traditional story (the exposition, development and denouement – or in music, the recapitulation – that ties it all together).

Now that I had my characters and a setting to place them in, I started fleshing them out. Fortunately, not everything needs to be understood from the very beginning. Notice that my narrator doesn't even introduce himself by name until the opening of Chapter 2. Other characters only hinted at may not show up until considerably later. Others, mentioned in passing, may never show up at all. It's possible that some of this may change – but how: in the way the narrator perceives them or by discovering things he hadn't noticed before? Or is it something that doesn't explain itself well – aside from having blue eyes in Chapter 5 and brown eyes in Chapter 29 – and may need to be rethought? That is what the editing process is all about – checking for inconsistencies and correcting or explaining them if needed or, as happened a few times with me, weeding out things that had nowhere to go (one thing I've remembered, now, is giving the narrator a sister but then never mentioning her beyond that: if she's not going to become a character, that's one thing, but why would he never mention her again?).

Characters may come and go as the story-line requires but why are they in these settings? Why did my narrator end up in Maine? What happened to his wife? How did he become estranged from his son? Why is his friendship with Sibyl such an annoyance? What purpose does Henry and his on-going novel-project serve? How do these lines evolve or intertwine?

As it turned out, Henry's line receded considerably as my writing progressed: eventually, it was there more to remind the narrator his friend was working hard to do something he'd never done before while he's working hard to overcome his own creative issues as a composer who finds himself unable to compose. But no, I didn't want to have Henry calling up and saying “I wrote 3,000 words today” or “at this point, I decided I need to kill off my heroine's friend – how can I best do that?” That was not important to my narrator's thread.

Lots of these details can be left till later – the problem is finding yourself backed up into a corner without any idea how to make the reader believe what's happened unless, of course, the old deus ex machina works for you (it happens more often that it should even in the best of stories and films, the hero arriving in the nick of time against all odds, for instance). But it is sometimes fun for a writer to let his characters (as well as the plot) reveal themselves in the process. How do they react to this situation? Why did they make the choices they've made?

And of course there's always the wonderful “what if” method, wondering what might have happened if they'd made different choices or if something else had happened instead. We all have doubts: why can't our characters have some, too? A novel is as much a personal journey for the characters as writing it can be for the writer.

So given all that, what was I going to do with my handful of characters?

As a composer aware that music either fits into a pre-existing form or creates it own, I started to work out a “form” for my novel, how that beginning-middle-and-end would unfold. Since I like pacing things according to the natural divisions of the Golden Section, I decided there would be three individual threads for my narrator – his own personal concerns; another regarding his son; and a third regarding his friend, Sybil. The main climax of this arc, then, would be his own personal concern about his health which in essence is the result of his creative crisis, his fear of aging and his dread of stagnating, of being useless.

If there are 30 episodes in this story – a month's-worth of daily blog-posts – that means the Golden Section falls in the 19th Episode (not the half-way point). This creates two “halves” of the arc and I chose to put the son's conflict primarily at the Golden Section of each of those sub-segments. The son is a distant figure (in more ways than one) but Sybil is “local,” and so he rubs against her tension more frequently; the Golden Sections of these further sub-segments are given over to various encounters with her. Sometimes they're combined; sometimes they are not the focus of the whole chapter – and then, too, each chapter basically has its own proportionally divided arc.

In between these specific chapters are those needing less tension, the contrasting “release” chapters, which perhaps might not have any character or plot-thread associated with it. These might be more lyrical episodes or, in the manner of one having a creative crisis, meditations on what it takes to be an artist. These might have no “action” in the sense of driving the story forward but they give the narrator, in particular, a chance to evolve. If the other chapters, the “action” episodes, are what the characters do, these episodes might be where the characters think about what they'll do or might do or might not do or why they won't do something or how they reacted in the past, consider their historical legacy to better understand themselves. If we the readers have a chance to watch them act and react to something, we get a better chance to understand “where they're coming from.” And also, eventually, where this novel is going.

Now, because I wanted it to have some sense of “shape,” I decided my series of climaxes (great and small) should somehow reflect each other in the way they build and recede. This was not a mystery where the final resolution needs to happen on the last page – solved it! – but the delineation of a process in which my narrator comes to terms with himself in some way during the course of one month of his life.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Time, of course, is an important part of this novel, even as short as it – by comparison to Ulysses or In Search of Lost Time – and the flowing of tides (living near the seacoast) is as much a part of it as our perception of the speed with which time flies (or doesn't).

I didn't want to have a strong and tidy resolution at the end – the son doesn't solve his problem, Sybil doesn't find the Man of Her Dreams and the narrator isn't going to wake up with the solution to that elusive new composition he's been trying to get started. At the end of 62,000 words, the son is only taking what might be one step in a possible direction but at least he seems to be taking a step; Sybil is making plans for a change in her life as well, though there's no indication it will work or even happen – again, it is only one small step away from the hamster-wheel of her frustration.

As for the narrator, I'm not even sure how his works out, if it does, since he's writing this himself. It's one of those things that doesn't end as much as it stops – or like Finnegans Wake goes back to the beginning again to start over (the famous last line which, unpunctuated, recirculates to the novel's opening line some 600 pages earlier, a thought overheard in the middle of a sentence).

Even in Proust, the plot is ultimately circular – the whole time Proust's narrator is describing (in often excruciating detail) the story of his life, it is only at the end he discovers he has the necessary life-experience if not the skill, finally, to write the great book he has always dreamed of – and it's the book you've just read.

In Homer's tale as well as Joyce's riff on it, Odysseus and Leopold Bloom reach their destinations – the conjugal bed, beside their wives – but Stephen Dedalus' own journey is not yet resolved: his search will continue past his final appearance, past the final curtain of Molly's famous soliloquy, whether the novel you've just read will actually be the one he now feels mature enough (as a person but more importantly as an artist) to write.

In this sense, I drew two parallel lines, one from the opening to the main Golden Section (phi) which will include 19 chapters, the other from there to the end, which will include 11 chapters. The beginning and the ending are therefore parallel points on the now potentially connectable lines.

Then, I marked the various levels of climaxes, given Greek letters to distinguish them – the narrator's at phi, the son's at the two alpha points and Sybil's at the four beta points – at corresponding, parallel points. These should be related if not necessarily in some mirror-like fashion as they approach and recede from the central phi-climax.

The chapters in between these climactic points could be about almost anything, but I decided, however they fit in, they would also follow this structural mirror. The content of these non-climactic episodes may change in the writing process (and usually did), but I knew that whatever topic I chose for this early episode would be met again in the corresponding later episode. In the process, these correspondences may become more ambiguous than initially planned; on occasion this outline only became a point-of-departure. The whole thing, after all, is only meant to give the writing process just that, a point-of-departure, rather than starting each day from scratch and wondering “what next?”

So now I have a kind of graph for my novel – a skeleton, more than a map. Within this – rather than thinking of it as hills and valleys – are sections that increase tension and others that resolve it or, as often happens in music and many other novels, disperse it with contrasting material: another plot thread, a different sense of rhythm and energy, reflection rather than action, background rather than forward motion, perhaps even a change of style.

Now comes the flesh. I was ready to begin.

(You can read the next – and final – installment, here.)

Dick Strawser

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