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

Friday, May 16, 2014

Four Questions on Writing


MrsDarwin

Betty Duffy tagged us in this meme last week (her answers part 1 and part 2), but I didn't have the gall to answer it until I'd finally turned out some writing. Now that I've posted an installment of Stillwater -- only four months after the previous one! -- I feel like I can procrastinate with confidence once again.

1. What are you working on?

Stillwater, a novel that started as a National Novel Writing Month project in November 2012. It's a modern reworking of an under-appreciated classic, which source I've not revealed yet because the goal of the project was to see if this story, the most critically maligned offspring of its author, had enough universal appeal to transcend the cultural trappings of its original setting. To that end, I've changed the location and set it in the present, but I've tried to remain true to the essentials of the plot and to the characters as the original author presented them, especially the main character, whom many critics love to hate.
(Note to readers: I think I can commit to ending the story in six more installments, bringing the total number to 50.)

I'm always composing a blog post in my head, but due to time constraints and inertia, very few of them are written and then posted. My spiritual life is always a work in progress, so putting my thoughts and meditations and reflections into written, archival form helps me to give context to my current efforts and failures, which are generally my past efforts and failures made new as I grow, change, mature, and regress.

2. What makes your work different from others' work in the same genre?

I don't write to fit into a genre specifically, but I prefer to write stories that are driven by the moral choices characters make, as opposed to grand spectacles of action or plots that advance through the intricate working-out of magical systems or ethereal poetic scenarios. I am not especially lyrical, and I don't believe (though I've not tried) that I could plot out a mystery. I have a background in theater, and that helps me to approach scenes and stories in terms of motivations and movements: the way that the actions of one character cause another character to change, and the way that physical action often expresses the truth of a scene more clearly than speech.

We are unusual in our blogging, being a husband-and-wife team. Our blog is simply an expression of what interests and compels us at any given moment. It's not a platform for personal promotion; it's not an advertisement for a business; it's not a springboard into the cult of personality. Our readership is not immaterial to us -- far from it; we write mainly to start conversations with friends -- but we don't care if we have ten readers or a thousand as long as those readers are willing to engage with us honestly and intelligently.

I don't write a Catholic "mommy-blog", not because I think that being a mother or a woman or Catholic is unimportant, but come on: I'm on my sixth child. I just do this stuff now. Sometimes it's funny and profound, and other times it's not. Every child and every smile and every poop blowout is unique, but at the end of the day, sometimes I just want to write about something else, because motherhood is not the entirety of my person. And sometimes I do want to write about these things, because they are a vital part of who I am.

3. Why do you write what you do?

Because it interests me, and through writing about what interests me I find other people who share the same interests. I have come to enjoy writing much more than I ever thought I would; I would almost describe myself as a writer now; but in general my writing is subordinate to the personal connections it fosters. Even if no one comments on a post, it comforts me to know that my friends are reflecting with me on the same topics, and weaving chains of ideas from a thread I've tossed out. And then, when we meet up, we've laid the groundwork of conversation.

Writing for the blog, I tend to approach topics from a personal angle. I love reading impartial, objective writing, but historically that has not been my style. I try not to distort my personality in my writing and I try not to write with more anger or snark or hysteria than I need to, and I hope that anyone meeting me in person after reading me can build a friendship on the consistency between word and presence. Every now and then it does give me pause that because I have nine years' worth of easily accessible personal archives, so many people know much more about me than I do about them, but then, that is the nature of writing for a public platform.

4. How does your writing process work?

I was fascinated to read Betty's description of her process because it's very much the opposite of mine. I rarely make notes for future posts, and most of my scintillating insights pass forgotten without ever being recorded. Much of what I write, whether fiction or blog post, is usually pounded out in one sitting. I like to edit and revise, but I often do it immediately after writing. Oddly enough, I find it very difficult to write with pen and paper. I'm a great devotee of the delete key and the ability to instantly change and hone and see changes reflected right away in the structure of a piece. I haven't kept a journal since I was 17, and although I love the concept of the tactile experience of pen and ink and notebooks made from sustainable cardboard and aspirational paper, those things end up unused in a drawer. Maybe if I had a fountain pen with a great nib it would be different...

Since I started writing fiction as part of NaNoWriMo, my writing process is based around several hours of procrastinating while gathering thoughts followed by a few early AM hours of flow. Even the sections I start writing line by painful line in scheduled sessions at reasonable times don't take off until I'm sipping bourbon at 1 AM. We use Scrivener as a writing program, but I severely underutilize all its many fine features because they aren't conducive to the way I plot and characterize a story. One reason that I don't develop my work in written notes is that Darwin and I spend a lot of time hashing out our stories through conversation. Even when I have notes to consult, they're generally records of conversations such as email chains with friends helping me work out details.

***

I agree wholeheartedly with Duffy's Laws:
If I’m writing about a personal problem, dilemma, weakness, mishap, or stupid thing I did or thought–I always wait to publish until the moment has past, I’ve figured myself out, and all the emotions associated with the problem have dissipated. Sometimes it takes days, sometimes a few minutes. 
I never, ever publish under the influence of rage or confusion. Sometimes I let a thing written in the moment stand for publication–but only when I can view it objectively as an editor, even if it doesn’t read objectively. 
If I’m tempted to write about someone else’s problem, dilemma, weakness, mishap or stupid thing they did or said, I overcome the temptation. Failing that, I get permission to write it from the person in question. Failing that, I disguise the person beyond recognition. 
I’ve broken these laws in the past, and it never ends well for anyone.

And my kids are reminding me that most of writing time is stolen from them personally.



Darwin

Though I'd been blogging for a number of years before I went back to writing any fiction, I always thought of "writing" as writing fiction, or some kind of "real" non-fiction like a book or at least a published article. Nonetheless, I'll follow MrsDarwin's lead and answer on both types of writing.

1. What are you working on?

I keep a sort of mental circular file which typically has 3-5 potential posts in it. About half of these ever get written, as the rest age out until I decide they aren't relevant anymore. One of my difficulties having blogged so long is that it's a fairly fleeting medium, and yet although my memory is often very scattered on other things I have a very immediate memory of most things I've written. Thus, I'll often think of a topic, "But I've already written about that." And since I don't like to repeat myself, once I've said my piece on a topic I tend to leave it alone unless some new angle occurs to me. As such, I often find myself thinking that I've run out of things to say and should fold up shop. However, since I've been feeling like this off and on for the last seven out of nine years of blogging, I figure it's a sort of chronic thing and best ignored.

My first novel since I started writing again was a fairly incidental, small-scale piece, though I would like to go back and revise it into finished form at some point, if only because it was a lot of fun to write about the kind of office milieu in which I spend my days. The project that's had me busy with research and outlining for the last year and a half, however, is one that I'd been thinking about on the back burner for a number of years: a large scale historical novel about World War One. It's a period which has increasingly fascinated me over the years, and the more I read about it, the more I become convinced that far too much fiction about the Great War (particularly in English) has become clustered around a couple of rather simplistic tropes. One of the ways I'm seeking to get away from that is by focusing almost exclusively on the continental Great Powers in my story and not having any British or American main characters.

What was meant to be a novel seems to have developed into three volumes. I'm currently nearing the end of a rather shockingly long chapter-by-chapter outline of the first volume. If all goes according to plan I'll start writing actual draft soon here and start publishing chapters on the blog in August, the 100th anniversary of the war. Here's my back cover style summary of the first volume:

The Great War, A Novel

Vol One: Things Fall Apart

In the last six months of 1914, four sets of characters experience the disruption of their peacetime lives as the Great War engulfs Europe.

Henri and Philomene have a quiet family life in a village in northern France. Philomene is looking forward to the end, next year, of Captain Henri’s years as an active reserve officer, while Henri misses the military career he gave up in favor of family life. The outbreak of the war summons Henri back to active duty, then separates them as German troops occupy northern France, leaving both to face new difficulties while desperate for news of each other.

Walter is a young metalworker torn between solidarity with his fellow workers, who are struggling to organize, in a Berlin bicycle factory and the lure of an offer to become a foreman. Called up into the army during the war’s first days, he finds a new solidarity in uniform.

Raised in a convent school for “natural daughters” of gentlemen, Natalie is sent to work as governess to a celebrated surgeon’s family in Kiev. At first welcomed into the family, she becomes the target of the affections of the cavalry officer eldest son. Seeking to escape her predicament, she finds new purpose working as a nurse in a Russian field hospital.

Jozef feels trapped by his mother’s ambitions for him to make a career in the Austro-Hungarian civil service. He expects adventure and independence in joining the cavalry at the outbreak of war.

2. What makes your work different from others' work in the same genre?

There are fairly few couple-written blogs that I'm aware of, so I guess that's a bit of a distinction. Also, the mix of topics we write about is driven very much by our interests rather than sticking to a single theme, and since those vary and have varied over time, I like to flatter myself that the mix of topics here is moderately different from many other blogs.

In regards to the in-progress novel: The non Anglo-centric setting is different from a lot of other WW1 novels. That, however, is mostly a tool to allow me to do what I think a good historical novel should do, which is to take a period as its denizens saw it. Because our view of the Great War has been so heavily influenced by some very good anti-war writers from the 30s and 60s, I think that the war has to a great extent come to be used as a literary trope for futility while the second world war has become the stand in for a "war of good against evil". I think that approach to writing about the war is fundamentally uninteresting because it's not human.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I enjoy discussing the topics I write about, but people who also enjoy talking about them are moderately thin on the ground, so writing to a worldwide audience allows us a reach a sort of critical conversational mass. Also, I think that some contentious topics (religion, politics, etc.) are easier to discuss through the formalism and distance of the written word rather than in person.

In regards to fiction... I'm less sure how to answer that question. At root, I find people interesting, and I find how people have lived in different and difficult times interesting. There's also an element of simply writing (or at least trying to write) the kind of thing that I would like to read.

4. How does your writing process work?

My blogging process is pretty straight forward: I have something or other that occurs to me (or more often bothers me, since a lot of posts originate in some sort of critique or disagreement) and I mentally pick at it for a while. Often I end up discussing it with MrsDarwin and figuring out exactly what my thinking on the matter is. Then I find a free hour (often over lunch at work) and bang out a post. I almost never revise or even proofread my blog posts, which I fear is all too evident.

The main similarity in my fiction-writing process is that discussion is very helpful to me. Luckily we both enjoy talking about each other's work and coming up with plot and character ideas, because otherwise I think MrsDarwin would scream whenever she heard me say, "I was thinking about the novel and..." There's a lot that I figure out by talking it through, and then there are other things that I think of while reading some research or when something else triggers a thought, and I try to note things like that down immediately (either in one of my project notebooks or in one of the GoogleDocs that I keep notes and snippets in) so that I won't forget.

On the previous novel project, I had a very rough idea in my head of the structure and plot, and as I went along I'd put down a quick bullet-pointed list of what would go on in each section or chapter so that I'd know where I was going. With the current project, the complexity of having five mostly separate storylines and including huge amounts of research is such that I knew I needed to be a lot more organized, so I've been writing a very detailed outline. To make it feel different from writing prose, I've been writing it in the present tense, which seems to feel oddly right. But I try to make that as detailed as possible, even including some dialog, so that when I go back to write the actual prose I can be focused on character development and description and won't be having to figure out what will happen in each scene on the fly.

For actually writing prose (or even outline, I'm finding) I need a long period of time to write without interruption. I can't get much of anything done on a short period like a lunch break. So my fiction writing is almost exclusively done at night. The first couple hours I have very slow progress and keep breaking off to read research or check Facebook or generally waste time. Then as it gets later (often not till everyone else is asleep) things finally start to click and I'm able to be very productive.

I'm trying to learn to be better about revision. I may re-write a bit as I go along, but aside from basic proof reading and a tiny bit of phrase polishing, once I've written something I find it hard to imagine it being different than it is, unless I'm able to let it rest for a long time and then come back to it fresh. It reads too much to me like how I meant it to be rather than how it is. Thus if something isn't quite working, I generally have to ditch the whole scene and try to do it over, because I'm not good at crafting my existing prose. This is definitely one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer and it's something that I'm trying to correct.

***

We'd like to tag Literacy-Chic and Brandon, but everyone's invited to play along.

6 comments:

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I'm always fascinated to read about the process of writing.

--C.B.

BettyDuffy said...

I'm rooting for you guys to publish those novels--become a new kind of great "literary couple" on the buzzfeed. Ha.

Thanks for playing along.

Literacy-chic said...

Thanks for the tag! I'll meditate for a while and post this weekend! Enjoyed reading your answers even before I noticed that I had been tagged! :D

Literacy-chic said...

I did it! *phew*!

Finicky Cat said...

This was fascinating! I rarely comment (except about Stillwater, ahem), but very much enjoy your blog. Thanks!

ladyhobbit said...

Mrs. Darwin, I've been greatly enjoying Stillwater. It's fun to see how you've been placing the original in the contemporary era. I agree, the original is an under-appreciated work. Please keep on to the end!
Mr. Darwin, I liked your novel, too,and I hope that you will rework it for publication some day.
Meanwhile, I do enjoy this blog very much!