Thursday, August 14, 2008

New Work in Progress

Today I broke ground on my new book. I need to save all the ideas for the writing, so I won’t do any synopsis or story specifics on this blog, but I will go into process a little.

This will be my third novel, and the third approach I’ve taken to writing one. The first two were each pushed out in a month for National Novel Writing Month, and this will be my first outside the confines of November. A little about the approaches I’ve taken:

For my first novel, Loss Prevention, I paid a lot of attention to structure. I started with a character – a loss prevention specialist (sort of a supermarket security agent) who has a knack for detective work but who has suffered a series of losses in his personal life. I wanted to write the complete story in a month, so I drew out a character arc using Lew Hunter’s Screenplay structure as a guideline and multiplying by two (Nanowrimo guidelines require novels be 50,000 words / about 200 pages – roughly twice the length of the average screenplay). Next I broke the story down into 28 or 29 chapters of 7-8 pages each. I wrote a one sentence description of what should happen in each chapter, giving each chapter its own mini story arc, as well as using those pages to move the overall story along. I wanted the book to be zippy and cinematic so I committed myself to write in chapter blocks (usually one chapter per day) to keep the tone and pacing consistent within the chapter and to make writing the book feel like a series of small tasks instead of one overwhelmingly big one. That first year, I was concerned I wouldn’t finish the book in a month so the structure helped me gauge how I was doing and made 50,000 words feel reachable. The organization and plotting was useful for me, and boosted my confidence in my abilities to produce large works. I did finish Loss Prevention, but by the end I had lost a lot of my interest in the story. In retrospect, I should have chosen a topic that I knew better or that was more interesting to me. But my main goal that year was just to see if I could do it and what the process would be like, so it was, in that way, a success.
For last year’s novel, instead of a character I started with a theme – doubt – which I explored through a mystery/suspense book set in the woods of Maine. I still remember writing the first chapter with every light in my apartment on and the radio playing just to keep me from scaring myself. The idea for the scene developed out of my own claustrophobia one dark night when Greg and I stayed in an un-electified cabin near the end of the Appalachian Trail. The room around me was as dark with my eyes open as closed and it occurred to me that the nearest light might be miles away – with who knows how many animals and people between. That feeling of being vulnerable without sight stuck with me and I used it as an entry-point into a story where unseen forces were constantly inflicting doubt and anxiety on the main character. I gave myself a lot more leeway in my writing schedule. I wrote chapters out of order, rewrote chapters, and even wrote some pages that didn’t directly fit in with the story. I really enjoyed writing this book, and I’d love to go back and finish it one day. At the end of the month it wasn’t as well paced or filled in as Loss Prevention, but I did complete 50,000 words and had an ending of some sort.
With the new book I’m leaving things very loose and giving myself a lot of space to figure out how the story will work. I’d like to have a finished draft by the end of the year, but I plan to spend a lot of time at the start of this one finding the best entry point. Beginning the book is the hardest part for me because I can’t do the work in my head, I need to write it all out and read it to see if it works. My personal style on art projects has always been to produce 10 times what I need and then cut out the worst stuff until it looks like something manageable. I’m hoping I can do some of that editing as I go so I won’t need to actually write 10 novels before I get one good enough to show somebody. But, even if I do have to write 10, at this rate I’ll only be 34 by the time I write a good one, so that’s not too bad.

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