Waiting For Stories

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bikeI have this stark visual image of a character.

I’ve been seeing her for 5 years now. She rides a bicycle, a blue one, with wide chrome fenders, rusty on the edges, and upright handlebars. There’s a wicker basket strapped to the front and it hangs kind of crooked. Her name is Claudia and she’s wearing a fluttery white skirt with orange poppies on it. I always wonder how it doesn’t get caught in the chain or spokes. Everyone waves at her as she glides into the market square, and she waves back and jokes with the vendors by name.

The problem is, I have no idea what to do with her. I’ve been waiting all this time for her to tell me her story. I do know some things about her. That she’s ill, that she’s going to heal someone. I know her teeth are a little crooked and that all the old men of the neighborhood cafe admire her vitality, wish they were young enough to ask her to the cinema.

I’ve tried to introduce some people more intimately into her existence, but nothing’s worked out. I can’t make her stop being a loner. So I sit here waiting for the right person to show up, the one who will get her talking.

Frustrating, because as often as I’ve tried to leave her behind, she won’t go away. Almost every day, she sails through my mind and into the market square, waving, calling “Ciao, Umberto!” to the baker.

If she didn’t want me to tell her story, why did she come along?

Dissociate Me

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547px-Janus-VaticanSometimes I wish I had a modified version of Dissociative Disorder, a kind I could turn on and off at will. Prolific writers seem to have mastered the ability to dissociate, to turn their minds to disparate worlds, characters, stories as easy as changing the settings on the washing machine. There’s a skill there that is proving gawdawful hard for me to learn.

I’m not interested in proliferation. (Not yet anyway, wheee!) I only want to be able to dig into one story while wrapping up another, to work on them both at the same time. The prevailing wisdom is while the betas have a draft, or while waiting on queries, get to work on your next story. Alrighty, then. Only, now my mind is split between two stories set in very different eras, with characters who would not be friends in real life. I need to be concentrating on one, but my mind drifts to the other. This seems a sure recipe for not finishing either project, and it may be that most insidious form of procrastination I’ve talked about before: procrastination that looks suspiciously like progress. But even this terrible possibility hasn’t forced me to develop a more effective strategy yet. A writer friend suggested that this ability is a habit, one that takes time to develop. In the meantime, it feels like driving in circles.

Learning the ins and outs of creating marketable fiction is a struggle. Just when a writer thinks he’s conquered one aspect—say, dialogue, point-of-view or storytelling—he’s faced with a new, higher-level skill. It’s daunting, and frustrating. No wonder so many people stick manuscripts in the trunk and never pull them out again. There are plenty of resources for learning mechanical skills, but for the more esoteric skills, it’s really a matter of slogging through and figuring it out on one’s own. Because each writer’s process is unique.

No one can actually teach me how to split my brain to manage two (or more) books at once. I have to learn it, develop a working solution. I’m not a naturally effective multi-tasker at the best of times, and when I’m immersed in writing, forget it. I live in my story. Even food and sleep get shunted to the farthest back burner. But to be a professional about this, which is my goal, this skill must be learned.

Like Janus, a writer must be able to look in opposite directions and see two, sometimes opposing, views at once.

Jupiter help me.

 

Photo Attribution: By Fubar Obfusco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Learning From My Mistakes

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Installation_des_Chevaux_de_Marly_aux_Champs-Élysées_1794As I’ve mentioned, the novel I’ve been working on for a year and a half now is out with betas yet again. (Someday maybe I’ll get it right.) While waiting for the jury to come back, I’m working on a second book in the same world. I am determined not to repeat the mistakes of the first. The ones that have me still needing to revise after 5 drafts. I can’t do that again. Not only is it demoralizing, it’s a waste of time.

When I started that one, I didn’t have writing buddies, or Critique Partners, to be more respectful of them. Now I do. Mostly we sit around in a chat room talking nonsense, but we’re all eager to brainstorm when one of us needs a sounding board. A few in the group are sticklers about logic and this is my big weakness. I’m all about story, as in, the tale parts, but solidifying a novel’s logical underpinnings…not my strong suit. At all. But the stories I’m writing fuse disparate mythologies and beliefs, so it’s imperative I have logical reasons behind the character’s actions.

The basic storyline has already been established by the previous book, so this time, once I’d written a few chapters to get to know my characters, I decided to pre-write a query letter, to see if I could “sell” the story. Everything went swimmingly until I got to the stakes. What was at stake for my main character? Um…well…she could…she might…CRUD. It seemed like her choices were all easy and wins for her. BLARG!! That does not a novel make.

So I went begging to my peeps, and after one brainstorming session, I thought I had it nailed. I moved on from the query and wrote a synopsis. I was thrilled with the outcome. I posted it in the chat room for the others to look at and one of the most logic-minded of our group started pecking holes in it until it was a ragged mess.

In my previous life, the one where I’d never completed a novel, I would have quit in frustration. But now that I’ve done it once, not well, but done it nonetheless, I wanted to buckle down. I know how much easier it will be to write this thing if I don’t have to go back and rebuild the logical scaffolding. I need a sturdy skeleton.

I went back to work, bouncing ideas and what-ifs, hammering, re-jiggering, and when I came up with something that felt right, I let the others have at it. And…lo! They couldn’t find holes. Yes, there are choices to be made—I can go wood or iron, bolts or welds—but those are just options. The story makes sense, stands up. There are reasons. Sound ones, ones that will survive the length of the novel and not shift under the weight of the story as happened in my first book.

I have scaffolding. Solid scaffolding.

For a storyteller this has been hard for me to grasp. Doesn’t the skeleton just come along for the ride? You can’t see it, after all. Isn’t it just…there in any entertaining story? The answer is a resounding NO. It must be built, and carefully, ahead of time if a writer wants to avoid endless draft hell.

So now I’m off and running. Moving forward having learned something about myself and my process, having recognized my Achilles heel. Having been challenged and come out, grinning, on the other side.

For my money, there’s not a better feeling to ride into a new project.