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Writing Progress: Week Ending January 21, 2012

January 23, 2012

Well, I had a really good writing week, and all-things-considered, I’m feeling pretty good:

Book of M:

  • Background Notes Wordcount: 3,495 words

Grand Total: 3,495 words

My progress for the week was pretty well-distributed across several good writing days – despite having several other days off due to other ongoing committments.  And I made good strides toward my goal of finishing this outline process by the 25th – i.e. by Wednesday.

At this point, I anticipate that I’ll miss that deadline/goal.  But not by much.  I’m still learning, at this stage, about what I can accomplish in a given time period, and about how fast I actually write.  This will have been at least the third time I’ve missed a self-imposed deadline on getting the prep-work for “Book of M” done so I can start the actual draft.  This time, though, I’m really close.  In my outline I’m at approximately the 50% mark, or just a little short of it, for the novel. 

I’m guesstimating, of course, because I’ve reached a very murky part of the plotting for this novel.  The weird thing about this story is, since the very beginning I’ve had a very clear vision of how this story starts, and that vision has only gotten clearer.  But I’ve never been entirely certain where it goes from there.  I had a small catalog of scenes and goalposts in my head, but no connecting thread.  The hard work I’m doing now is sussing out that connecting thread to see where it leads.  So I still don’t know how this thing ends.  I’m finding out as I go.

I suspect that means, as I reach the end of the outline, that I’ll actually have to go back and revise some elements of the outline earlier on.  Actually, I’ve done that already – going back and adding notes about things I want to show or foreshadow at earlier points in the story.  And that’s before I’ve gotten past the halfway.

As things progress, I’ve also become aware of two peripheral things: (1) I’m really in love with this world.  It feels rich and alive to me.  That’s probably consequent to the long time I spent writing out it’s whole history. (2) I’m really worried about the direction of the plot, as a whole, and about the potential reader’s attachment to main character. 

Part of the problem about not knowing how this story ends is that the main character lacks a cohesive direction from the very beginning.  I find myself comparing the first half of this book to the first halves of other books I’ve recently read (or am reading).  Take the current book that I’m reading: The Hunger Games.  It’s clear from very early that the main character wants two things: to protect her sister and to survive the Hunger Games.  Everything else about the plot flows naturally from those two driving character facts.  Or in The Children of Amarid, the main character leaves home to become an apprentice mage, and along the way gets pulled into a quest to find the source of an evil scourge that is being blamed on the order of mages, and to find a way to clear the mages’ name.  The “quest” framework is a pretty traditional and standard fantasy trope that easily allows the author to give a character and the plot a clear direction.  Or before those, in The Magicians the plot is given direction by the promise early in the book that the alternate fantasy world will be revealed to be real – and the protagonist’s disaffection with his present real world makes the question of the existence of that fantasy world more compelling.

The challenge I face: there’s no quest in this book.  I haven’t figured out any driving imperatives on the part of the protagonist except to survive and escape… not some finite specific goal (like “survive the Hunger Games”) but in general (survive in a harsh world, escape the conditions of a corrupt, cruel and descriminatory society).  There’s no logical endpoint at which I can say the protagonist has clearly either won or lost.  And that robs the story of a certain tension and uncertainty.  What happens next matters less because there’s no connection between the reader and the protagonist’s plight.

All of this is wrapped up in and tied to worldbuilding in this story.  The protagonist is from a small village with a harsh system of rule.  When she escapes that, she discovers that the wider world is no less harsh, and no less unjust.  What then?  On one hand, I’m able to introduce the reader gently to this world through a protagonist who is discovering it the first time herself (which is a common fantasy trope, as well, and one that made sense in this story).  But on the other, the protagonist isn’t tied to anything in this new, larger world, and there’s no benevolent guide to help give her direction: again, there’s no quest.

That also means that large parts of the plot, through the halfway-mark, are driven by extra-protagonist forces; i.e. it has been others, not the protagonist, who have driven most of the plot.  Only at about the 2/5ths mark I’m finding the protagonist come into her own, and she acquires new capabilities and strengths that allow her to be more active in her own destiny.  Now, if only I can figure out: to what end?

Hopefully, once I learn how this story ends, I can go back to the beginning of the outline and more convincingly foreshadow it, and also give the protagonist a more sympathetic, active mind-set and a measureable opinion on the subject of how the story ends (even if that opinion perchance changes over the course of the story).  As it stands, now, I’m worried that she’s a leaf blowing in the winds of fate, and right now fate is blowing in a pretty random and haphazard manner.

Unrelated to all this, I ended up feeling the need to reintroduce a certain Final Fantasy borrowing that I had previously more-or-less discarded.  That’s right: I’m bringing back chocobos.

Well, not chocobos, actually.  But large, flightless birds.

I was at a point where I needed the protagonist to be able to cross a decent stretch of arid or semi-arid wasteland in a fairly quick time-frame.  I didn’t want her to have to walk and die of thirst.  So I needed a mount.  A mount that was well-adapted to the desert clime.

I briefly considered camels.  But this is a fantasy world, dammit!  And I reserve the right to introduce fantastic, implausible creatures into my story!  Except, my bird-mounts aren’t entirely implausible.  Just to make sure, I’m basing them on the real-world Elephant Birds of Madagascar, which only went exctinct in the 1600s, and the Giant Moas of New Zealand, as well as on Ostriches.  Ostriches because those animals are already adapted to a semi-arid environment.  And Elephant Birds, it turns out, could weight between 800 and 900 pounds.  Small riding horses, I learned, could weigh between the low-800s up to 1200 pounds.  That puts an Elephant Bird in the range of plausible to use as a mount

My flightless riding birds, of course, won’t be called “Chocobos” (although the name I’ve chosen has echoes of the word “chocobo”).  But functionally they’ll bear more than a passing resemblance to the riding birds of Final Fantasy fame.  In retrospect, I hadn’t actually discarded the chocobo-homage from the story – I just hadn’t fit them in.  But then, all-of-a-sudden, I had a need.  And the chocobo doth provide.

So that’s where things stand, right now.  I’ve certainly got my work cut out for me.  I’ve got a long way to go, in some ways, to figuring out how this story ends, and then refashioning the beginning to better support that ending.  And I’ve got a long way to go to give my main character some focus, some direction, some goals and desires, and some spine.

We’ll see if I can make it by Wesdnesday.  I haven’t given up, yet.  But if I don’t make it, I should still be done with the outline very soon.  I look forward to writing the actual first draft!

And how are things in your own writing world?  Problems with aimless characters?  Still trying to hammer a plot in place?  How has your writing been going?

[ETA: I neglected to mention, in the main body of this post, the key role Dear Wife played in helping make a great writing week happen.  It's not often that I do a week with more than 3,000 words.  Dear Wife saw my goals - and remarked that the self-imposed January 25th deadline for finishing my outline and prep-work was really ambitious, all-things-considered.  Dear Wife is, of course, well-acquainted with my history of missing those deadlines, so far.  And yet, despite the long odds on actually hitting that target, Dear Wife went about doing everything she could to help me make it.  And we still got some good work done on our home-project during the week, too.  Her help made it a top-notch week for my productivity.]

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 6:06 pm

    Great post! And I’m glad to see someone else with similar writing methods and snafus (sp?)! Good luck!

    • January 24, 2012 8:49 am

      Thanks! As for “snafus”… properly speaking it’s probably “S.N.A.F.U.”, since it’s an acronym, but yeah, that’s right. ;) And good luck as well, with your own work.

      • January 24, 2012 9:57 am

        I checked and even the NY Times uses lower case for “snafu” at this point (though of course they use it mostly in their blogs, not in regular news stories.). :-)

      • January 24, 2012 10:28 am

        Yeah, I wouldn’t bat an eye at it used that way (and only commented on usage because of the “sp?” note). At this point, the term has retained most of the meaning of the original acronym, but it’s mostly lost the association with the original phrase in normal usage. At which point, I may guess, it ceases to be a true acronym and becomes a word in its own right. But it’s probably not a particularly professional term to use. ;)

  2. January 23, 2012 6:20 pm

    There’s always space in a fantasy novel for a giant flightless bird. I think that would be awesomesauce.

    I worry about the aimless thing as well. I had several beta comments concerned that my protagonist was not proactive enough. It’s fixable, and I think I have mitigated that concern, but I’m not sure if what I’ve done is enough. However, there should be external forces at play, and sometimes people get in a dark spot, don’t know what they want or what to do. I think the ‘proactive main character’ is far more common in contemporary genre novels than classical novels, but I’ve also seen ‘reactive’ characters, just as you’ve said, blown along like leaves in the wind. The former, is more prevalent though. Do what you think is right for the story, and see how your beta’s react?

    I wrote 5k last week. It’s a little below what i was aiming for and I seem to have lost my momentum. I need to find a way to get rolling again. Weekends have meant zero productivity lately, when it should be backwards.

    • January 24, 2012 9:14 am

      Yeah, I’m much more worried about the “aimless” part than I am about the “not proactive” part. I’m finding the protagonist becomes more proactive as the story goes on, and she gains the ability to be more proactive. At least in the context of the outline, it feels like a natural character progression. But being proactive doesn’t make much sense if the character doesn’t have a direction to turn that activity. But I think I understand why protagonists are much more often “proactive” than “reactive”, at least in speculative fiction. Part of the whole concept of speculative fiction is a certain aspirational element – we’re drawn and attracted to characters who actively pursue their destiny because we want to see that reflected in ourselves. Or I that’s how I think it works.

  3. January 23, 2012 11:16 pm

    Nice work on 3500 words for the week! That’s huge.

    • January 24, 2012 9:39 am

      For me, yes, it’s pretty big. I neglected to mention in my blog post (soon to be corrected with a little editing power) the key role Dear Wife played in making this happen. She took a look at my January 25th deadline and figured it’s extremely ambitious – and then went about being super-supportive in helping me make it happen, even if it looked (and still looks, one day before the deadline) like long odds.

  4. January 24, 2012 12:09 am

    Funny, how sometimes the protagonists are the hardest characters to figure out. What do they want? What are they truly like in their secret heart of hearts? Why do they keep letting the supporting actors steal their show?
    It’s an issue I’ve had to deal with time and again. If anyone ever comes up with a surefire way to get around that difficulty, I’m listening.

    My writing week has felt productive. After far too long neglecting my blog post stockpile, I’ve slowly started building it up again. And following a long night where my mind was more interesting in brainstorming a plot than letting me sleep (my muse must be on a different time zone…), today I cranked out a short story with which I am quite pleased. I plan to submit it for publication after I’ve had a day or two to scan today’s work for areas in need of a tidy up — so possibly the same day I’ll enter my latest novel in a couple of contests.
    Aim enough rockets at the moon, hopefully hit a star or two. …*And* the moon! :)

    • January 24, 2012 9:51 am

      For me, at least, the problem with main characters is something I think of as the “Mirror Factor”. My main characters are often a reflection of my self, of some inner aspect of me. I also want them to be a reflection of the reader – I want the reader to be able to invest in the character some aspect of themselves. The result, however, is often a problem of tabula rasa: the protagonist is effectively a blank slate at the story’s outset, and the situations and conditions of the story apply forces and pressures on the character that mold and shape them. The problem is, this is counterproductive… because no protagonist is a true tabula rasa… they are all human (or at least all the ones that are human are human… this goes out to you sci-fi and fantasy folks who write non-human protagonists… of course, yours are actually human, too, or else we wouldn’t be able to connect with them, but they’re wearing non-human-suits), and they all ought to come with their own preconcieved ideas, beliefs, and emotions. Emotion, I think, is the probably the most important key. Maybe they’re still trying to figure out their ideas and beliefs, but they still have emotions and feelings.

  5. January 24, 2012 8:15 am

    The having-a-goal thing is very important. A friend (an English professor and PhD) made this criticism of the first two-thirds of my second novel: “too much like life.”

    On one hand, I thought that was cool. It resembles actual life. The characters seem real. That’s pretty cool. But, on the other hand, there’s the point he was making. No driving force moving things forward. Characters faced difficulties, but nothing that ran throughout and moved the whole thing along.

    Of course, in mysteries that’s easy. The detective drives things forward because 1) something bad has happened (most often a murder), and 2) the detective needs to solve it. Mystery stories have other challenges, of course, but that usually isn’t a major one.

    My week was pretty good. I’m seeing (I think) how this current project can work out. I even wrote a couple of scenes near the end, to anchor it (following Truman Capote’s advice: always write the ending first; that way you know where you’re going — of course, he spent the last years of his life rather famously not finishing Answered Prayers, so the advice should be taken with a grain of salt). I think I’m fairly near posting the beginning, in fact.

    • January 24, 2012 10:20 am

      I’m working towards that “knowing where you’re going” thing by outlining it all first – at which point I’ll know how the story ends so I can reconfigure the outline to better support that ending. Different process working toward the same goal. But anyway, yes. It might seem cool if a story is like real life, but ultimately, a story shouldn’t be like real life, because at a fundamental level story follows certain rules and forms that require narrative meaning and purpose and direction. It’s a pretty basic and intrinsic part of human psychology, I think, to need meaning that way. That’s part of why I think protagonists generally need a direction and purpose. It drives narrative structure.

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