Friday, January 23, 2009

Novel next

So I've decided that for my 40th birthday, coming up next month, I'm going to start a novel. Only it's not so much that I'll be starting one, as that I'm converting a story project, "The Wonder Kid," one that's bugged me for three years, into a novel.

On the plus side, I've stuck with this one for a long time; I love working on it, so I believe I can stick with it for a long haul. On the minus side, my lack of success at producing a draft of this one that conveys a small part of what I'm trying to say with it is discouraging. But it feels constrained in the short form, and my wife suggested doing it as a novel, and she's always right, so there you go.

I've been working daily this month on various ideas for expanding it, and on an ending. By my birthday February 23rd, I want to working on prose. But before I start back into writing scenes, I want to have a strong ending to aim for, and a lot of work on outlining done.

I did NaNoWriMo a few years ago, and it was great, but I never quite got a full structure and I didn't write a complete story. A few years before that I worked on a novel and filled something like fifteen notebooks...but I didn't have an ending for the novel, never had a complete outline, and I eventually lost interest in the thing, found myself writing scattered pieces that took the story off on tangents.

So structure is really important to me here. Luckily, I have a lot of that work done for the short story, and a novel will let me do multiple points of view, which will make it much easier to show all the many things that are going on.

The frustration in this story has been to find ways to entertainingly show all the things that make the story have meaning. It's set in a fantasy world populated by elves and goblins, where the elves lord it over the goblin underclass. The intermingling of the races is important.

The races are quite similar, but the goblins are hermaphrodites, which is a huge thing and a very difficult one to write about. I've also got an interracial relationship, and that's tough. Heck, I write that, and I have to wonder what the heck I'm biting off here.

But those thoughts are similar to the ones that have always led me to choose to write only single-point-of-view stories. And I think they are unhealthily limiting. I know I've got something to say with this piece. So far, I've only said it clumsily. But it gets better every time.  I know that I tend to limit myself, and there's no reason for it here.  

Corey Doctorow wrote a piece about writing in the age of distractions that I found inspiring as I embark on this project, and Holly Lisle has a piece about how to finish a novel that is much on my mind. 

For Christmas, I received a long-wanted copy of the book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. It's really interesting. I'll probably post about it more in the months to come, but the main concept I'm looking at from it right now is called premise. Egri holds that a story should align tightly around one concept, one that he often expresses like a moral. I like this idea but I find it extremely difficult to express a premise, even for a story where I think I have a strong concept. I have a story "Dragon Hunter" whose design and execution came quite easily because I always had a strong idea of what it was about. But I'd find it hard to tell you what that is in less than 150 words. 

I started to say that I want to be ready for my birthday deadline by having an ending and an outline. I've pretty much got the ending planned out now; in the last few days I think I've solved the plot issues. I'm sure there will be more; essentially, my writing process is one of happily writing along then suddenly realizing I've got something in the story that has a huge logic problem. The last ending for "The Wonder Kid", for example, has the main character fighting a monster who for some reason throws heavy things at him but never tries to charge him despite its advantage in size. I feel great about it today so I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'll probably work on the overall outline some more, but the next big step is to actually write the ending in prose.

I've long thought writing the ending of a story first was a good idea but rarely practiced it in depth. Lisle's article made a lot of sense to me though and I'm working on it here; she advocates writing the novel's ending then writing the stuff that justifies it. Luckily I have  lot of work on this plot and setting already, so I'm making a list of the things I need to have shown before we get to the ending. There were key things missing before, like making the main character, a teacher, a likeable one who clearly cares for his students, where my prior draft mainly shows how he gets irritated with his students. 

Heh. I love this contrast and am frustrated by it. This is a great guy here, he loves his students and he works hard to help teach the goblin minority as well. But you can't actually see that in the story at all, it's only in my notes. I thought this fellow's post about how a character is defined by the text alone was useful in this regard. I mean, I know this, but it takes someone else reading the story to point out that they didn't see him the way I did at all. 


  1. Wow, so much to comment on here that I am a bit overwhelmed.

    You know, of course, that I'll make the time to read any manuscript drafts that you feel like sharing.

    What sort of research have you done on the hermaphrodite angle? I've heard of the book Middlesex but not read it. Of course Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness is full of interesting thoughts on the topic, especially those on how an individual might have a different relationship with offspring based on whether they sired them or gave birth to them.

    There's an essay in anthropologist Clifford Geertz's anthology Local Knowledge that compares western, African, and Navajo views of "intersex" people. Each sees them differently. Not sure if that would apply in your setting where so many are hermaphrodites.

  2. I have the same challenges with the concept of premise for the stories I think and plan about writing.

    At heart I just want to travel to imaginary places that interest me, experience adventure vicariously, and encounter characters that intrigue me. And I have ideas for those things, but not always for how to tie them together.

    Just as I was always told I was an excellent graduate student but never felt ready to make the cognitive leap to being a scholar, I've been told (at least in my freelance work) that I'm a good and reliable writer, but I worry that I may not be a real storyteller.

  3. No research on hermies, really, unless Left Hand of Darkness, counts, but I want these guys to be different. These guys don't shift roles, they're on all the time, and I'm starting to think they should be pretty randy, which isn't going to make things easier. :) So far I think of it as having a race that is effectively gay, in the sense of from the other race's point of view, they're all sexual deviants. It's a beautiful thing.

  4. Doug: when you worry about your storytelling ability, I suggest you go back and reread "Davo's Treasure." And storytellers are made, not born.

  5. I like the suggestion about that Geertz anthology, I'll look for that.

  6. Yeah, the Geertz essay is pretty short, but interesting. It might give some possibilities for how different cultural configurations of Elves choose to treat Goblins in their midst, depending upon their frequency.

    As I recall, the analysis boils down to: in Western European societies, intersex people have to pick a sexual/gender role, complete with external trappings (clothes, work roles, etc.), and stick with it.

    In Navajo culture, intersex people are considered inherently magical and gifted with wisdom. People come to them with questions and want them to provide fertility related blessings.

    In the one African tribal culture profiled, intersexed people are seen as flawed creations. They are ostracized from normal social interactions, forced to live on the edge of the village, unable to marry, and seen with pity, but not seen as evil, nor forced to change. Often they end up fairly wealthy doing certain kinds of craft work. They aren't abused or exiled so much as shunned all things relating to families and religion.