Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seeing It, Seeing It Through

A writer is a person who must think in words so as to be able to talk in pictures. And before I can bridge that gap — the gap between the visual and the verbal — for the reader, I must bridge it for myself. My strategies, my solutions for doing so, rely on elements from both sides of the equation. So when I’m planning out a novel, I rely on what we in the magazine trade call infographics — maps, charts, graphs, and tables.
The specifics are different for every project. (The book, as you may remember, is the boss.) The Honeythief is essentially a picaresque, not particularly tightly plotted, and I knew the temptation would be to get myself into blind alleys, exploring the nooks and corners of this world I’d created. So early on in the writing process, I came up with a table to help me keep on track — to make sure that the color was always serving the story, rather than the other way around. Here’s the top part of it:

Deciphering that scorpion-track, you can see that the header reads:

·         Move the Narrative Forward
·         Advance Character Development
·         Build Up a Picture of the World

Listed down the left-hand edge are the “encounters” — the vital events of the story, listed by location. These are “the cool parts,” the big thrill moments, mostly in the form of action set-pieces; I identified ten of them in the initial rough outline. As the story grew longer and marginally more complex, I expanded the list downward to encompass more encounters. It was the looseness of the plotting that allowed for the expansion of the story. As long as each additional encounter satisfied all three criteria — that it advanced the central conflict, while adding to our understanding of both the characters and the setting — the road-trip structure could be made to accommodate it. But if it failed in any of those three areas, it was self-indulgence, and out it went.
The new pulp project is written according to a fairly strict formula, incorporating elements of the Lester Dent Pulp Master Plot, and is therefore structured rather differently. Here’s the Big Board I’m using to help me along:

The white posterboard on the right has some notes on the Orphan Asylum series as a whole, and also some details about the book I’m writing now — which will establish the formula — currently titled “Full Fathom Five.” This was put together slapdash, working quickly, primarily just to get something down on paper to make this project real for myself. There’s a list of characters at bottom right; headings for MOTIVE, SETTING, and SECRET OBJECTIVE, for MURDER METHOD, TICKING CLOCK, and COMEUPPANCE, among others; and a few questions that I must ask myself as I write.
The neon-green sheet to the left is where the framework is laid bare. The book will be 60,000 words — a trifle longer than the longest Doc Savage story, The Man of Bronze — and divided into four roughly equal parts, as per the Dent Master Plot. Each part has its own agenda, its own formula. Here’s the brief for Part I, the opening section:

15,000 WORDS

Going down the board, we continue to Part II:

+ 15,000 WORDS
Part III continues the pattern — another 15k, another puzzle piece, another punch-up or shootout, another setback or reveraal — escalating the stakes, twisting the screws, until Part IV wraps it up:

+ 15,000 WORDS
Along the bottom, there are three lists: CONFRONTATIONS (e.g., “speedboat chase”), MAGUFFINS (e.g., “Scientist identifies toxin”), and REVERSALS (e.g., “Hero falsely accused”).

Each part is subdivided into six short chapters of 2500 words or so, each with the usual requirements of a chapter — a vivid and unified scene, moving the narrative along.
This is a sturdy framework, but it is also pretty unforgiving. To make this machine work, I can’t just start writing and see what happens, as is my wont — I’ve got to have the whole thing mapped out, beginning to end. Which is what I’ve done in the right-hand column, labeled BEATS:

Writing this document, just jotting down the What Happens of the story, beat by beat, was simultaneously one of the most frightening and most revelatory processes of my writing life. I usually begin writing with at least an ending in mind — but just like the characters, I must discover along the way just how I’m going to get there. Not with this book, though. I had to go straight through from Point A to Point Z, touching every point in between, and I had to know everything that happens. There would be no “Then they somehow get back to the boat,” there would be no “I’ll figure this out later.” I had to know.

And if I didn’t know, I had to make something up. Which is, of course, what writers do anyway. Even when we journey long with our characters, we’re making it all up; it only feels like we’re discovering it. It’s just a little weird and scary to have one’s own imaginative process laid so bare like this.

But it’s freeing, also — because just as I must serve the structure, so too the structure serves me. I wrote my beats at a white heat, plowing straight through ‘til the end. If I felt any moment of hesitation, I would glance to the left, see approximately where I was in the story, and see what I was missing: Hey, it’s time for a gunfight! Let’s drop a clue in here! We’re about due for a hostage crisis!
Once the beats were down, I added ‘em up and looked ‘em over, and the patterns started emerging. Two or three would seem to fit together into something that looked like a chapter; the rhythm of the book started to emerge. In short order I had a full chapter-by-chapter breakdown.

And there it was. I felt like the narrator of the Stan Ridgway song:
I’ve been everywhere around this world
I fly on the edge of the ball
I got the numbers all up here
I just read the map and steer, that’s all

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Ever watch a movie that everyone raves about as being super-clever and hard-to-follow, but you followed it quite easily? Me neither — until this week. This time in PopSmarts, find out what makes me think I’m so goddam smart anyway.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


There’s a catchphrase I picked up from Alfred Bester (by way of Gene Wolfe):  “The book is the boss.” Meaning that every book, every story, teaches you how to write it as you go along.

That makes sense to me; so when I write, I try to listen to the book. The Honeythief wanted to be written outside, in the summertime, scratched out longhand in volumes of matching notebooks — and it enhances the effect. The method of composition both suits and informs the elevated, formal tone of the prose. I can’t really say which came first, and in the end it doesn’t matter. All I know is that cracking open another black-bound Moleskine, ritualistically numbering each page, ruling out my charts and tables — these things helped me to slip into the writer’s trance, so that when I sat down in the handmade Adirondack chair on my front porch, I was ready to go to that world and talk with those people.
Judy Obscure will be for a younger audience, more vernacular, more conversational in tone. And to my surprise, it wants to be said aloud — a whim told me to slip my little digital recorder into my pocket, and the pitch came to me in a rush as I walked the dog one night; I talked it as I walked it.

The Orphan Asylum books, I think, want to be banged out fast, straight to the keyboard, single-spaced, with big band swing on the stereo. (I suspect that given their druthers, they would really prefer to be typed, on an Underwood manual, and that I should be wearing a tie and smoking Luckies as I did it.)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013


This is tacked up on the bulletin board above my work desk, right at eye level, where I cannot help but see it every time I stop writing and glance up.

(Individual items gleaned from many sources, including the Pixar Writers’ Guide and essays by Gene Wolfe, Charlie Jane Anders, Lester Dent, Umberto Eco, and Michael Moorcock, among others.)