Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How I Write

It would be more than a little presumptuous of me to claim to be any authority on writing based on one and a half NaNoWriMo drafts, but since my 3:30 am bedtime has left me rather unfunctional today, I thought I'd talk a bit about how I how I write my installments.

The first issue I deal with is plot. In Stillwater, I'm trying to stay essentially faithful to my source, but that faithfulness is to mood and character, and not to every particular incident. So I draw on my theater experience and dig for objectives and motivations: What does each character want? How does he or she achieve that? How do these objectives clash? How do they come together? All drama is change, so how are the characters different at the end of the scene? I consider the details of my source, and look for the best way to alter them so to fit the particular story I'm telling without warping their original significance.

When I start to write, first I focus on telling the story, then I start layering on details that convey mood or character. If a line doesn't push the plot forward, illuminate character, or convey mood, pacing, or setting, I cut it out. I've had to kill several of my darlings that way, but sometimes I find that a detail or observation that was irrelevant and clunky in one segment fits perfectly into another.  Sometimes I know that I need to fit a particular line or quote in, and I need to craft the scene to let that bit flow seamlessly from what's already happened.

For me, the dramatic arc of a scene is crucial, and since I'm writing in small installments, I have to make sure that not only the story as a whole but each segment has its own rise and fall. Sometimes, as with part 30, the dinner with Rene, I have to keep writing until I reach a certain closing point, no matter how long it takes to post; sometimes, as with part 31, I find that I'm simply not going to get as far as I wanted to without killing myself, and I need to focus on a smaller incident instead of pushing through to a bigger scene. Either way, I have to find the dramatic timing of the section so that it stands as a complete incident within the context of the larger story.

I try to make the strongest character choices possible. Is it more significant if Melly mutters a line or whispers it? What if Alys turns away when she says this? On stage, distance creates tension and often an actor conveys more truth through physical action and gesture than through dialogue. I don't have those visual cues on the page, so I try to find details to convey the subtext as efficiently and elegantly as possible. The setting of the scene can often help with this: is it intimate? Is it cavernous? Cozy? Uncomfortable? Familiar or not? Does the setting reflect the character of the scene? How different will a scene between Melly and Malcolm be if I set in in the car, a place of tension, rather than on the stairs, a place of intimacy?

When a scene involves a lot of characters, plot, and idea, I find it helps me organize my ideas to write a rough draft to get everything in place before I go back and craft it to make everything hang together. As an example, here's my first rough script for the dinner with Rene, containing lines I think should be spoken by particular characters to build my scene:

Richard: But does Carson Winter seriously believe that people should be cannibals? 
Alys: Oh no, he’s never serious about anything except publicity. 
Rene: He doesn’t seriously believe in objective morality, anyway. He holds that morality is all a construct, and that all ethics are situational. Cannibalism is just an extreme way of making that point. 
Richard: But what is his argument? 
Rene: Oh, It’s entirely specious. First off, he says that cannibals ought to cook and eat people in ways that don’t cause any suffering. 
Esther: Well, okay. Who wouldn’t agree with that? Less suffering is always better. When I was at the Buddhist retreat, we spent the whole weekend talking about compassion.” 
Cheryl: Do you know that in some places they eat dogs? I think someone ought to write about that. 
Rene: Now, suppose we’re cannibals. 
Melly: But we aren’t cannibals. 
Alys: But it’s so much fun to pretend! 
Melly: I don’t think it’s fun to pretend to be a cannibal.  
Rene: No, Melly’s right. We don’t have to put ourselves into it right now. Suppose that there are cannibals somewhere, as we know there have been. Winter says that cannibals are in fact obligated to kill humans in ways that don’t cause them any suffering, even if they’re just going to char them up on the grill and eat them for dinner. Would you agree? 
Alys: Yes. 
Melly: No. They shouldn’t be eating people at all. 
Ian: Melly, how is Rene ever going to get through his argument if you keep objecting? 
Malcolm: It’s your uncle’s argument, not Rene’s. But Melly’s right. 
Rene, with his mouth full: But if they are obligated to cook up and eat people in ways that cause the least suffering, then that supposes an obligation to cook and eat people at all.  
Esther: Well, it’s good to know that even cannibals have standards. 
Cheryl: I don’t even understand what you’re talking about, but I think it’s just nasty. 
Alys: Does he really say that in his book? I never read it. 
Ian: What do you say to that, Melly? 
Melly: It’s all wrong right from the get-go. Just because there have been cannibals in the past doesn’t mean that people have to be cannibals. It means that some people did bad things. 
Ian: But don’t you think that people who are cannibals have an obligation to at least minimize the suffering you cause? 
Melly, stubborn: They have an obligation not to eat people in the first place. 
Ian: But then they wouldn’t be cannibals. 
Malcolm: So much the better. 
Alys: Oh God, don’t we all have an obligation to talk about something over dinner other than Uncle Jerk’s theory of cannibalism?
You can compare that with the finished scene and see how I fleshed this out into a working part of the whole.

When I first started the project, I had a very different idea of the style of the story. The very first thing I wrote -- before November 1, so it was never part of my NaNo count! -- was a little isolated prologue in the loathed present tense. Interested readers may find it amusing to compare this with the final scenes in which I actually used these incidents: first and second.

A girl, sitting at the bend of the attic stairs, crying. She is small for her age, 15, and her long dark hair falls around her face. A man, passing the door, pauses, then opens it and stands silhouetted in the light of the second-floor hall. 
He asks the girl what’s wrong? He knows her by sight: Melly Arceneaux, daughter of a family who used to live and work at Stillwater, the plantation his family owns. The family has moved to Baton Rouge where the father, recently retired from the Marines, moved them after finding life in the country too dull. But Melly has stayed behind. She is not always in good health: the man has seen her in the past, as a child, unable to run with the others in their games. Sometimes she has been on crutches or canes; occasionally in a wheelchair. She uses neither now, but her walking is slow, timorous. She does not rush, and it gives her a dignity beyond her years. 
She is not dignified now. She is crying, fit to break her heart, and her face is wet and her dark hair tangled. The man coaxes her to speak. Is she hurt? No. Has anything happened to her? No, sir. Has anyone been unkind? A pause, but she shakes her head. Everyone has been very nice, Mr. Malcolm. 
You know my name then? 
Yes sir, I use to hear you called in when you was playing in the field. My mama told me who everyone was, too. 
She speaks with the soft Cajun twang of her family, and Malcolm knows that Sophia and Olivia, who have a talent for mimicry, have likely been parroting her accent and her loose grammar to amuse each other. 
Do you like living at Stillwater, Melly? 
Another pause. She is honest and does not want to say yes, but she has a sense of propriety and does not want to hurt Malcolm’s feelings when his family have been so good as to let her stay in the country for her health. Malcolm tries another tack. 
Do you miss your family? Stillwater isn’t the same without the sounds of children playing over at the cottage. I miss it. 
She looks up, quickly. No one has missed her family. She has heard Miz Esther Davis, Mrs Spencer’s sister, say repeatedly, when she thinks Melly isn’t listening, that it’s a marvel what a difference it makes to the place now that all those noisy children have left. 
Melly does miss her family. She misses her familiar home, where she felt safe and comfortable. She misses the responsibility her mother, so often a single parent, was happy to push off onto her. She misses the small brothers and sisters who looked to her for the offices her mother was often too hassled to fill. She misses Reńe… 
Reńe? Your oldest brother. He’s in college. 
Melly’s eyes light up. You know Reńe, sir? 
I talked to him several times. A very smart young man. 
Oh, the smartest there is, sir! There’s nothing Reńe don’t know, or can’t learn. He’s gone up to college. He wants to be a professor one day, maybe even write a book, sir — said in the reverent voice of one for whose family this is a rarity, a vast and noble pilgrimage into higher education. Malcolm is touched. His own family, plantation owners and descendants of generations of college men, have not supported his own particular educational goals with such respect. 
You miss Reńe. 
Yes, sir. He says that he and I, we’re twins. We understand each other. He tells me, Melusine, one day you’ll go to college too, and you and I, we’ll pull this family kicking and screaming out of ignorance and sloth, you see if we don’t.  
She pauses, flushes, embarrassed at having spoken so freely about her family and its flaws. But Malcolm does not seem to want to condemn her family as Cajun trash. He asks: 
Is Melly short for Melusine? 
Yes, sir. 
That’s a beautiful name. 
Thank you, sir. Reńe told me that Melusine was a mermaid. She swam free in the water, and then never did she have heavy legs.  
And how are your legs today? 
Better, sir. Melly says this with a sigh. She seems ready to cry again. 
Do you want to go to college, as Reńe does? 
No sir, said emphatically. 
Malcolm is surprised. In his world, No is not an acceptable answer to the question of college. Why not? 
Sir, to go out… To go out where people stare, to have to talk before strangers, to go away from what is warm and close and safe…  
It is hard, Malcolm concedes, almost in spite of himself. But one learns to speak in front of strangers. One learns to find what is familiar and cling to it. One can push down the ache for what is familiar and lovely until it becomes a hidden treasure that gives strength… 
Melly is wide-eyed. She has forgotten to hide behind her dark hair. Do you hate to go to strangers, sir? 
But Mama said you are going to be a priest. A priest can’t stay at home. He has to go out. 
Yes, Malcolm says with a sigh. I’m studying to be a priest. And you’re right — a priest must leave home. But it is hard. So hard that I wonder if I have the strength to do it. Stillwater is my home, and I think that no one loves it as I do. 
I love it, says Melly.  
Do you? 
Yes, sir. It has always been my home too, though I didn’t live in the big house until now. But I could not leave it when my family did. Here I can walk, Mr Malcolm.  
He looks at her. We are kindred spirits, you and I, Miss Melusine. They say that blood is thicker than water, but we have Stillwater in our veins, and it runs deep. 
Her face glows. Reńe loves Stillwater too, sir. 
Then he is better than a brother to me, and that makes you better than a sister. 
The bell rings for dinner. Melly jumps. The shine dies out of her eyes, and she seems to shrink and fade. 
Will you come to dinner, little sister? I’ll sit by you so you won’t feel so alone. 
Thank you, Mr Malcolm. 
You can just call me Malcolm. I’m your brother, remember? 
Thank you, Malcolm. 
You’re welcome, Melusine.
This was fun to write, but it was wrong on several levels -- too much inappropriate tension between Melly and Malcolm too early, too much affectation, and not a style that I thought I could maintain. Still, it carried the seeds of dialogue that I could use later, and it helped me get my first impressions down -- always key!

The process of writing Stillwater is different from last year's draft chiefly in that last year I started with only a few images for the story instead of having a full-blown source to consult, and so the chief questions I asked myself were, "What happens next?" and "What if...?" But for each story, my main concern has been how to make it as interesting and honest and consistent as I can, installment to installment.

Forgot to mention: one thing I do before posting is to read each scene aloud to make sure that the prose isn't clunky, stilted, painful, or just incorrect somewhere. This isn't infallible -- often I'm reading it so late at night that even with precautions I miss something -- but it's one of my most foolproof editing tricks for recognizing when something doesn't flow or just lands flatly on the ear.


entropy said...

I've noticed that you do do a great job adding meaning through movements.
Love this. Thanks for sharing.

Jenny said...

So when you have to cull a line, do you record it in another spot to refer to later or do you just keep it in your head?

I'm still impressed you have the discipline to stay up late and write.

mrsdarwin said...

If something's not working for me, I move it down the page and keep typing above it. If I can fit it in, great; If not, I just leave it there. I can generally tell if it's a good line that needs salvaging or just a bad phrasing or distraction. In the program I'm writing in (Scrivener), you can make new files for each scene, section, chapter, etc., and there's a notes section. If I know that something should eventually go in a scene, I stick it in the notes for later use. That's where I typed up which character read which bumpersticker on Rene's trunk, and then I made sure to give each person a pass by the car.

I wish I had the discipline to do anything else today. Mostly I've sat in this chair feeling stupid, and the kids have watched a movie, fought, and eaten. We did read MLK's I Have A Dream speech, so that's something. Turns out you can't do much useful on four hours sleep. Good thing I homeschool and can fudge my day and just trust that we'll make up the formal education later -- I don't know how I'd do this if it was absolutely necessary that I get up at some real time in the morning. Lord, I can't wait until I'm done with this thing.

Brandon said...

It works out very well. Stillwater especially has been top-notch: very good quality stuff.

And it's certainly a better way than the way I write; all my drafts are really and truly first rough drafts; for these NaNo things, I write directly into Blogger (or, if that's inconvenient, into Notepad, then cutting and pasting directly into Blogger when I have the chance. And if it doesn't get revised on the fly, it just waits until it's all done for a major revision, except for cases here and there that really bother me. Which is why they tend to be a little on the incoherent side. But then, I'm stronger at revision than draft.

mrsdarwin said...

The main problem with your drafts, Brandon, is that you don't post them as often as your fans would like. :)