Thursday, October 27, 2016

On Taking the Time to Pause

I'm writing a historical piece.

A rather long novel. It's almost endless. I worry that I will not be able to finish it or keep up the tension. That is a fear of mine. That I don't have enough MEAT in my sandwich. You know the feeling, you go to a deli, order a hero sandwich and get tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, cheese, and TWO slices of meat. When you bite into that sandwich you shout out that that deli was a deadbeat deli. They cheated you out of a decent sandwich. You can imagine the feeling.

That's what I think about when I write a story. Am I a good deli owner and fill my sandwiches chock-a-block full of MEAT. The best meat money can buy. When my readers bite into my sandwiches, I want them to turn to the person next to them, chewing around a mouthful of food, and grin saying, "beefy!"

Yeah, I want to knock my readers out!

The truth is if you don't want to fill your stories with tension, suspense, passion, danger, murder, confusion, BANG, then...why are you writing? But that's a given. Every writer knows this, and this is not a blog for writers that know how to write already. I like to write a blog for writers who write and know the basics. I'd rather that more knowledgeable writers share their experiences with other knowledgeable writers. We all find out things that we never knew...just by writing. And sometimes it's great to share such experiences with other writers. Kind of like seeing the flying saucer in the woods. The first thing you do after the experience is turn to the person next to you and ask, "did you see that too?"

That's the thing about being a writer. Or an author. It's all about sharing experiences. So I am excited today to share an experience that I'm undergoing in the writing of this massive novel. Firstly, let me give you a little overview of my writing environment.

As I go along, I find that I need tools...REAL TOOLS! Databases. TONS of databases, simply because as I go along, I need to cull from history. I need a database for that. I need to draw upon historical characters and their histories. I need a database for that. Locations in history. I need a database for that. Events that occurred in history. I need a database for that. Fictional characters, their backstories. Plotlines.

I think you get the idea. There is just so much information that is flying around that it has to be caught, digested, understood as necessary or not, disposed of if it does not add to your story, added if it does. This goes with events, characters, fictional arcs along the historical arcs. Everything.

What does this do? This makes for a lot of research. But put that aside. I'm assuming that you've done that. You're an expert in the field that you want to write about already. You know all that you want to do and all that you need to know. Put that aside. I want to write about the mechanics of writing. What did I experience? What did I learn?

I plot my writing into 'scenes' and then when I'm ready, I line them up and blast right through them. Yes. I burn in a white hot crucible of prose. Boil the words until they are molten in my skull and then pour them out into the mold of my making. It's like extrusion. It just 'comes out'. However, I notice that when I'm typing away at the keyboard, I create characters, locations, events all sorts of things that at the end of the day, or week, I need to refer to. Invariably, that means that I have to go back over reams of paperwork (or screen-work) and search for these characters, locations, events, whatever and  use that information to continue on. Such as, "did Albert get the tattoo of a ship or an anchor in WWII when he was fighting in Europe? Which one did I give him?"

Or was a character from Bulgaria, or Lithuania? Or did she get married in Lyons or Frankfurt? Did he go to college for two years or three? The details can be small or large, but they need to be remembered or you'll fail in continuity. Bald individuals will have long hair. Short people will grow tall. Timid people will become bold. This happens when your number of characters start to move into the twenties or more, and the years do the same. So how do you combat this? Databases.

I use as my primary weapon, Scrivener, which has a powerful suite of databases that does the bulk of the work. Amazingly, it's strong enough to do the entire job. But I need different representations of things and being human, it's hard to refer to one place for everything. We don't store our work tools in our sock drawer, do we? Important papers in the refrigerator? A place for everything, and everything in its place, my father used to say.

So, I use other databases for specific information in certain areas. I use Evernote or some things. I use Microsoft Visio for plotting. I use Microsoft Word for other things. I use Aeon Timeline 2...well, just to keep all of the events in order. This way I don't have pregnant women carry babies for more than nine months...stuff like that. Believe it or not, I even have an old fashion card file and index cards to sort critical information that I need to have at my fingertips, updating it constantly. But to be effective, I've found out something else.

I had to change my writing style. This is the experience that I would like to share. When I write I blaze a trail across the landscape, much like the Road Runner when he bends highways and rips up road signs in his wake. But at the end of a writing session, I find that I have to go back and pick out pieces of critical information in my work to put into databases. This bit of description in a character list. That portion of events in my timeline. This bit of backstory in Evernote or Word. Even that bit of detail in my card file.

To keep from this drudgery and actually very imprecise data collection, I had to learn to pause. Yes, I could no longer race along the story line like a bat out of Hell, but instead, I learned to stop when I wrote some critical piece of prose that I was certain I'd need to recall. Sometimes the gems were so crystal and beautiful, I would stop immediately, and like a man running down the street and passing something valuable underfoot, I would screech to a halt to pick it up, or file it in a database. This way I miss nothing, I input everything and my novel is stronger for it. I find that I no longer have to take long, time-consuming pauses stopping at the end of a chapter and before starting another chapter, search through the previous one for some description or details of an event so that I can continue on. All I have to do is go to the correct database, check it's index, get the details, and off I go again.

The pauses sometimes occur in inconvenient times, like when I'm on a roll, pouring text like white lightning and have to break my 'flow' to cut and paste data into a database. Or scribble it by hand. I've learned to pause. Not because I want to, but because I've come to realize that I waste more time going backward page by page through a chapter looking for a paragraph, or worse, a sentence, than I do if I stop for five minutes to add data to somewhere it can be quickly retrieved later. It's just plain less time consuming. Overall, I move faster, cover more ground and do so with amazing accuracy. And when it comes to how close you want to follow the details in historical fiction, accuracy counts.

Pausing makes perfect. Or well, as perfect as you'd like. Trust me, it works better to break your flow at times than to halt your writing for hours as you pour through what you've already written with a fine toothed comb because the details are too voluminous to pull from memory. When writing historical fiction, let's face it, it's not all about how well you know history, but how well you can follow the minutiae of scores of lives as they pass through history.

Pausing is a muscle that goes stronger as it's worked. You get better as it as you go along. Like the starship Enterprise, you learn to pop from sub-light to warp speed with the push of a button without harming your writing style because you'll learn a new writing style. It'll become as easy as breathing and your databases will become large and powerful. All sorts of information at your fingertips. Whenever you stop and need it, you'll find it and move back to warp speed effortlessly.

This is my experience when writing this story, which, it appears will turn into another of editing because of its size alone. But one thing for a fact is that I do not need to stop and wonder what bit of data is needed to move on because I know I'll have it.

Have you written a large enough novel that you need databases to keep track of information? What do you use? Have you learned to pause? Did you ever have to?



Sunday, October 2, 2016

On Creativity

I've been clean and sober for a year now.

I don't feel anything different but I am different now. I can tell, first of all, from my bank account. I have scads more money and I have more room in my kitchen cabinets. My rear end doesn't hurt from sitting the hard benches at my neighborhood bar and I saw my bartender on the street the other day and she said that she missed me and is proud of me.

What has this got to do with writing you may ask? Because I honestly believed that my creativity came from the bottle and not from me. Yeah, like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Dorothy Parker, Charles Bukowski and many of you out there, and you know who you are, you're under the impression that a glass of wine, a shot of scotch, a belt of bourbon will help grease the wheels of your creativity. I used to think that.

I try to write to please my fans now, and you out there that are trying to do the same are probably as insecure as I am about your next book. How will your newborn child fare when you release it out into the world? Will it be accepted with open arms? Will it flop? So you want it to be the best you can make it. You grouse, you grope, you worry and you fear and so you reach for the muse that will help you make your work the epitome of creativity. There is a light in you that can flare and burn with a uniqueness unparalleled. All you have to do is ignite it.

I used to think the same.

Someone else thought like I did, and he had something to say about it:

"Yet the part of me that writes the stories, the deep part that knew I was an alcoholic as early as 1975 when I wrote The Shining, would accept that. Silence isn't what that part is about. It began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters."
- Stephen King
On Writing

Mr. King became addicted to drinking and drugs and remained a writer until he broke the habit. He found himself in the pull of "an ugly downward spiral" that threatened to crash him upon the rocks of adversity. And he continued to write through it. In the end, I have come to the same conclusion that he had:

" At the worse of it I no longer wanted to drink and no longer wanted to be sober, either. I felt evicted from life. At the start of the road back I just tried to believe the people who said that things would get better if I gave them time to do so. And I never stopped writing. Some of the stuff that came out was tentative and flat, but at least it was there. I buried those unhappy, lackluster pages in the bottom drawer of my desk and got on to the next project. Little by little I found the beat again, and after that, I found the joy again. I came back to my family with gratitude, and back to my work with relief - I came back to it the way folks come back to a summer cottage after a long winter, checking first to make sure nothing has been stolen or broken during the cold season. Nothing had been. It was still all there, still all whole. Once the pipes were thawed out and the electricity was turned back on, everything worked fine."
- Stephen King
On Writing

I used to believe that my drinking was my source, my wellspring from which all of my ideas and creativity sprung fully and full formed. I believed that I was only creative when I was drinking, or at best, that my creativity was unique once I was under the table. My reasons for stopping was not based on my writing, but because of my health. I had a small, insignificant crisis that frightened the shit out of me, but I held onto the bottle because of my fears that my writing would suffer greatly. I was at that pivot point where Mr. King speaks of where he no longer wanted to be drunk, but then again he no longer wanted to be sober. For me, sobriety was an illness that needed medicating. But alcoholism and that was what it was, was a burden on the body. I was in pain on both sides of the table, and my excuse was that my creativity, my books, my little reputation that I had as a writer, my chances of becoming a nationally recognized author, would be greatly affected if I stopped drinking. 

You see, I had great a dependency on alcohol and writing was my excuse.

I feared for my creativity. And so it goes, with all things, it had to come to an end. I had to stop drinking, and if it meant killing the golden goose, then so be it. My greatest love, which is writing, would have to be shorn away and I would have to deal with what was left. Whatever failures that I would have to face, after doing away with my ally would have to be dealt with.

And then a year passed, and almost immediately after I had my last drink did the germ for a novel hit me. A novel that would be an epic. A novel that would demand the greatest challenge, the greatest strength, the greatest creativity that I could devote to it. I would have to give it my all. There would be no part of me reserved from this task, and sober as a judge, I set upon it.

I ordered books, I started online subscriptions to newspapers and archives. I did the same with magazines and websites. I began the task of absorbing data from all sources to make this epic and I did so soberly. And then I began to write it. I began to piece it together, bit by bit, yard by yard, toothpick by toothpick, grain of sand by grain of sand until it began to take monstrous shape. I have more to say about this book of mine in later posts and I have an explanation for the lapse in my posting, all to be done later but for now, I have one thing to say on does not come from alcohol. It comes from you. You are your own source. Your lives, your experiences, your outlook and training all make up the person that you are, and only you, YOU can create the stories that you make. There is no bottle of booze that can and will do that for you. I'm not condemning the social use of alcohol, I'm not. But my drinking was not on the social level.

I remember drinking and writing until I passed out at my chair, before my laptop. Then waking the next morning, cramping and aching and standing to stretch my knotted muscles and creaky bones, only to go to the liquor cabinet, pull out another bottle and begin drinking once more before putting my fingers to the keys. I've written entire chapters of my book and then have gone back to read it again months later and it felt as if it was written by someone else. This is a phenomenon that I've heard many writers have experienced, but I not only don't recognize the style but the framework, the very reason why the story went in that direction. I didn't remember the story itself. Or mainly, the reason why the story went the way it did. Not only the style but the story. Can you understand the gravity of that? That's writing in a complete blackout. That's not social drinking, and it all started with that little glass of wine that I sipped on for creativity.

It's a slippery slope that is unnecessary, and I say that honestly. Use music to relax. Use sleep to grow alert. Use exercise to enervate yourself. Use sex for excitement. And trust yourself for your creativity.

Because, if you start using alcohol to write, as ancient maps and Stephen King will tell you, "beyond this point, they be monsters."

Keep writing.