Some thoughts on symbolism

I’m spending the weekend at the Sirens conference in Washington state. The best part about such conferences tends to be meeting other book people – writers, editors, agents, fans, booksellers. The second best part is talking books with book people, because there are always people with a different angle on things to poke you into thinking harder about writing and the things one can do with it.

One of the topics that nearly always comes up when you get a bunch of serious non-writer book people and a bunch of intent writers and would-be writers together is that of symbolism and, by extension, process. I pair them because my experience has been that the discussion starts with someone asking “Do you decide on your symbolism before your start writing, or do things come up as you write and you make them symbols?”

Before I get to answering that, let me pause for a brief definition: for purposes of this post, symbolism refers to some sort of larger meaning that can be applied to things in a story. Under the right circumstances, anything in a story, from character death to goldfish can “mean something” – that is, it can represent something more than the obvious literal object or event itself.

Most of us have been trained by years of English Lit classes to look for symbolism in stories. Some English teachers appear to think that all stories are written in a kind of secret code deliberately invented by the author, which must be deciphered in order to properly enjoy the story.

This is nonsense, but it is particularly pernicious nonsense because in promoting this view of books and stories, these folks not only ruin the simple enjoyment of books for many students, but also often convince would-be writers that the only “right” way to write is to first sit down and invent that secret code that future graduate students and English teachers will have to teach their students to understand.

Coming up with suitably deep, significant, and interconnected symbolism becomes a burden…and if (as often happens) the story starts to veer from the planned symbolic underpinning, the would-be writer faces a decision crisis: should she force the story to follow the original (and now less satisfying) plan, or should she ditch the plan and the laboriously-worked-out symbolism, and let the story go where it wants? And if she lets the story go, will she have to come up with a new set of symbols?

Several things get forgotten in all this. First, every writer has a different process. That means that some writers will make up symbols in advance, some will latch on as the story grows, some will add them or poke up their significance during the rewrite, and some will ignore them altogether, letting the story or their subconscious handle that aspect.

Second, in order to come up with a suitably coherent, deep, etc. set of symbols in advance, a writer has to have some idea of what they want to say. While many writers will tell you that knowing what you want to say before you begin is a necessity, this is obviously not the case, or there would not be so many “blank page” writers whose preferred writing method is to sit down in front of a blank page/screen and surprise themselves. A writer who is at the extreme end of the seat-of-the-pants, make-it-up-as-you-go scale is unlikely to find much utility in making up symbols in advance, as it is quite possible that the symbolic items won’t end up in the story at all.

Third, even if you do make up a secret symbol code, there are going to be symbols in your story that you didn’t deliberately and consciously put there. Because in addition to whatever you do deliberately, there are going to be things that become symbolic because of the way they occur in the story that you didn’t notice. There are also going to be things that are symbolic to you personally, most of which you probably don’t consciously realize unless you have had years of therapy to uncover the fact that you have always associated the fishpond in your grandmother’s yard with her death from choking on a fishbone, so you always unconsciously use water as a symbol for death. There are things that people already think are symbolic of something, even if you decided that particular thing ought to mean something else in your story. Finally, there are going to be things that are personally symbolic to each of your readers, which you won’t know about and can’t control and which mess up your deliberate or unconscious symbols (like the reader for whom water is a symbol of life, or fish are a symbol of fertilizer).

The vast majority of the writers I know do not bother much about the symbolism of their stories. They let the symbolism, if any, grow out of the development of the story itself. There are a few who can figure out what they have done after the first draft is finished, and go back and tweak it during revision to make it stronger and more consistent.

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Research and Imagination

Years ago, I heard a story about — I think it was Lester Del Rey, but it may have been somebody else of that era of SF writers. He wanted to set a story in Africa, which he had never visited. So he researched it — watched documentaries, read National Geographic, read biographies and histories and memoirs of the place. And wrote the story.

Two years after it was published, a woman came up to him at a convention and said, “Sir, I grew up in Africa and it was so nice to finally see a story written by somebody who’d been there and who knows what it’s really like!” She proceeded to go on about the smells and the sunsets and the sound of the wind. And he could only smile, because he still hadn’t ever been to Africa.

I’ve thought about this story every so often for years. The obvious moral is that one doesn’t have to have been somewhere in order to write about it, as long as one does sufficiently careful research. Too often, that last part gets overlooked – I’ve seen more than one story set somewhere that the author all-too-obviously hadn’t bothered to find out about…or in a place that the author knew only from TV or movies. Is it really so hard to call up a map and look up where JFK International Airport is in relation to Brooklyn or Queens?

There are, certainly, some people for whom “research” necessarily means actually, physically walking around a particular place. For a writer who is strongly kinesthetic, it may be the only way they can get a sufficient feel for the setting to write about it. For most writers, though, reading enough about a place is more than enough to provide them with all the material they need to evoke it (and to be certain that they won’t make errors that will instantly betray their lack of familiarity to anyone who does know the particular place well).

But for me that incident about the story set in Africa isn’t just about researching places. In the past thirty years, I’ve seen a growing tendency to criticize people for writing about anything they haven’t personally experienced, from extremely personal things like having a disability or giving birth to more general experiences of social class or culture. Informed imagination is apparently not enough; the only legitimate credential for some people is actually having been there, done that, and if you haven’t, they think you shouldn’t write about it.

The minute one examines this theory at all logically, it falls apart. Science fiction writers cannot, at present, be required to have talked to aliens or been to Mars; fantasy writers cannot have personally ridden a dragon or unicorn or cast a spell. Writers of historical fiction cannot see a gladiatorial contest at the Coliseum in Rome or walk through the Forum in all its glory – the most they can manage is a visit to the present-day ruins, supplemented by, you guessed it, reading accounts written at the time and a liberal dose of imagination.

We don’t expect the writers of murder mysteries, thrillers, and horror novels to be murderers, spies, or serial killers. We don’t even expect them to be policemen or to have experience as secret agents, soldiers, or profilers. We do expect them to be storytellers, and to give us a reasonably plausible and believable portrait of whatever characters they put in their novels.

At least, that’s what some of us expect, and I think it’s a reasonable expectation. The trouble is that there are too many people around who talk about the power of the imagination, but who don’t really believe in it in their heart of hearts.

The corollary to “if you haven’t done it or been it, you can’t write about it well” is obviously “if you wrote about it well, you must have done it.” People are grudgingly willing to admit that one doesn’t have to have fallen into a duck pond or had a life insurance salesman freak out in the living room ten minutes before a dinner party in order to write a funny story about one, but the minute you write about something like abuse, harassment, a bad marriage, an alcoholic parent, or a character on drugs, an enormous wad of people will assume you couldn’t have done it out of your imagination; it has to have come out of your personal experience. (Murder mystery writers remain exempt, though writers of erotica are not. Evidently, nobody ever imagines or would ever write about any sexual practice, positive or negative, unless they’ve experienced it personally. It makes one wonder why writers of erotica are not more in demand socially.)

This is why you see disclaimers in the Afterwards of books that say things like “Although the characters in this book have a really rough time, I was never abused/a drug addict/an alcoholic in real life. I made it up.” And people still don’t believe it.

Making things up is our job. Imagining what it’s like to be the operator of a meth lab in rural Texas, or the star of a Bollywood movie, or a child being smuggled out of North Korea or South America is all part of the job, as much as figuring out how to evoke what it’s like to watch a sunset over the Sahara desert or haul a sledge across the Antarctic wilderness. Or what it’s like to be an elf, or the first person on Mars, or the last one on Earth.

Research gives the imagination material to work on. Personal experience is one kind of research, and as I said, it’s vital for some writers; it’s just not the only kind of research, nor is it vital for every sort of writer. Reading diaries and memoirs, watching documentaries, and studying textbooks are also research, and are just as valuable as experience to most writers (and more valuable to some who are really low-kinesthetic).

Material, however, is only half the equation. Imagination is what turns material into stories…and sometimes, it starts with the most unlikely material one could possibly think of. This is what those people who demand that writers have “been there, done that” don’t get. Possibly because they’re short on imagination themselves.

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Metaphorical maps

One of the fairly common writing metaphors draws a connection between writing a novel and taking a road trip. You see a lot of comments like “You don’t need to see the entire highway that leads from Chicago to Denver in order to drive to Denver; you only have to see as far as your headlights light up ahead of you” and “You don’t have to take Interstate 80 all the way from Chicago across Nebraska; you can get off and take back roads if you want.”

Generally, at some point in this metaphor, maps will come into it. Usually this is in regard to planning your metaphorical writing-road-tip or as a way of finding alternate routes when your plan breaks down because of road construction or a washed-out bridge or something. It’s used as an argument for everything from the wisdom of pre-planning your story to the idea that you don’t have to stick to the plan.

It is a good and useful metaphor, and I’ve used it many times myself. But a couple of weeks ago, I was looking at hydrology maps for Minnesota in an attempt to help my father figure out what river he wants to go kayaking on next time he comes to visit (he tried kayaking for the first time on a recent trip to Texas, and loved it) and it occurred to me that I could push the metaphor a whole lot farther than I ever had. So naturally, I am going to.

The first thing I thought about was what you can do with a basic road map. There are five basic things that a standard road map is good for: 1) figuring out where you are now; 2) figuring out where you are going in relation to where you are now; 3) figuring out how to get from 1 to 2; 4) finding an alternate route when the one you picked in #3 turns out to be blocked; and 5) spotting possible interesting side trips that you could take while you’re on your way from 1 to 2 (because if your route happens to take you right past the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge, you might want to stop and take a look at it while you’re in the area).

The writing-as-road-trip metaphor usually focuses on #3 and #4 – figuring out how to get from where you are to where you want to be, and finding alternate routes if your original one is impassable. This is fine as far as it goes – it is, after all, what most people usually use real maps for – but it leaves the people who have other uses for maps floundering.

Writing does not always work in a neat, linear, straightforward fashion. Every so often, it seems as if your characters fall through a hole in space and emerge somewhere entirely different, somewhere that has no resemblance to anything you thought was going to happen or anywhere you expected them to be. At this point, I often find it very useful to have a map – something that tells me the lay of the land overall, that I can use to figure out where the heck in the vastness of possible plot-twists my characters are.

Sometimes, they turn out to be just over the hill from my original plot, and it’s fairly easy to get them back on track. Other times, they’ve jumped over hundreds of miles, in an entirely different direction from the one I thought they were going, or even halfway into what I thought was going to be the sequel. The first step in figuring out what to do from there is to figure out where “there” is in relation to everything else. Only then can I start deciding on the next move: back toward the original main plotline? Off into the unknown? Some combination?

Maps are also useful as a way of evaluating my progress. For that, I need to know where I think I’m going; knowing that, I can keep an eye on how close I am. If I’m 60% of the way through my expected word count (whether that’s 30,000 words or 130,000 words) and only 25% of the way through the plot, I need to make some adjustments somewhere (probably in terms of switching to a destination that I can reach in the remaining number of words I have). And I really do need to check on this periodically, because if I wait until I’m 80% or 90% of the way through my expected word count, I’m probably going to have a lot of trouble picking an alternate destination and making appropriate adjustments, whereas if I discover it at 40% of the way through, I may be able to pick up the pace enough to get where I wanted to go without running too far over.

The side trips, though, are where I really get useful return on the time I spend making up my map (that is, working out some degree of writing plan and backstory in advance). I don’t need a lot of details or an in-depth rundown of every possible tourist trap within a hundred miles of my intended route, but a general idea that there’s some interesting backstory involving the guildmaster’s sister and the missing uncle or the librarian-mentor’s scandalous younger days allows me room to spot interesting possibilities when I’m in that neighborhood.

The first problem with all this is, of course, that the “map” one uses for planning one’s writing journey has to be made up by the writer. For some writers, this is problematic: either they’re the sort who finds making up a plan or road map to be too close to writing the story and being done (i.e., planning in too much detail kills every possibility of actually writing the story), or they have severely limited time and energy to put into writing and can’t bring themselves to put effort into drawing up a road map without some assurance that it will justify using valuable writing time doing it.

Which brings me to the second problem. The writing-as-road-trip metaphor is where all this looking at maps and plans generally starts, and so the kind of map people talk about is a road map. But there are lots of other kinds of maps, and they are useful for different things.

The hydrology map that I was examining for my father, for instance, doesn’t show roads or state boundaries; it just shows rivers and watersheds. As a map for planning a road trip, it’s not much use. As a map for spotting possible destinations that fit certain criteria, it’s just the thing. If I’d been looking for places to go mountain climbing or skiing, a map showing differences in elevation would be more useful than the road map or the hydrology map. And if I’m trying to decide what to plant in my garden, I need the planting zone map that will tell me what is hardy at my latitude.

From a writing standpoint, what this means is that there are a lot more possible ways to look at planning a story than just trying to sort out the plot. What kind of map or prewriting you need to do depends on what you need to know. A road map won’t help you figure out what to plant in the garden or which streams in your area are suitable for a beginning kayaker. A hydrology map won’t tell you where the odd, interesting museums are (though it may give you some idea which areas are prone to having bridges wash out). Possibly what you really need to know is not what the plot is or where it is going, but what sort of fashion statement each of your characters prefers to make and what colors look good or bad on each of them. Maybe you need a street map of the town center, or maybe you need a drawing of the fountain in the palace courtyard.

It doesn’t matter whether the thing you do leads you toward a plot outline or not. Whatever will make this story easier or more interesting for you to write is the sort of prewriting and planning you want to think about doing.

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Viewpoint switching, part 2

So, you have a story in which you have two characters in a scene, and each of them has information that you want your reader to know, and which you think (at least initially) that you can only let the reader know by being in that character’s viewpoint, which would mean switching viewpoint character in mid-scene. You don’t want to do this for various reasons mentioned in the previous post. What are your options?

The first, and simplest, is to decide that upon reflection, the reader really doesn’t need both bits of information right here, right now. You then write the scene in tight-third-person with your primary POV character as the viewpoint. This works far more often than you might think, for one simple reason: your readers do not actually need to know everything you know about why a scene is playing out the way it is, not right then, anyway. It works just fine for George and Bill to have an oddly tense conversation on page 30, and for the reader to find out on page 60 or 90 that at the time Bill had just come from the doctor’s office, where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In fact, it often works exceptionally well, because it means that if and when the reader re-reads the story, knowing that piece of information will make that scene play differently. This makes the story more re-readable, and also makes the writer look clever.

A somewhat trickier option is to find a way to convey the non-viewpoint-character’s thoughts and reactions without dipping into their head. Usually, this means using Bill’s body language and/or the POV character’s knowledge of Bill (or just George’s assumptions about what is going on in Bill’s head). A writer who wants the reader to know everything right now will probably be unhappy with this, because one cannot usually (for instance) convey that Bill has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer without Bill actually mentioning the fact. One can, however, mention that Bill looks a bit pale, or show that Bill is not really paying attention to George’s rant about the lousy fast food from the corner deli, or give other indications that Bill has something important on his mind. There are very few scenes that actually need the reader to know more than that in order to comprehend the scene well enough to go on with.

Probably the simplest alternative is to abandon the notion of tight-third-person and write your entire story in omniscient viewpoint. “Simple,” however, is not the same as “easy.” Omniscient is difficult for most writers to handle well. It is also out of fashion and not as well understood as it ought to be, which means that your will almost certainly still get plenty of annoying comments from readers, critics, editors, and agents about how you really shouldn’t head-hop. (A really amazing number of people mis-identify omniscient viewpoint as either head-hopping tight-third or else as multiple viewpoint. It is neither, but if you have any doubts about your own ability to correctly identify omniscient viewpoint, don’t try it.) In addition, the usual reason for wanting to do mid-scene viewpoint switching is that the writer wants to get across the emotions of both characters, and omniscient viewpoint is almost always more emotionally distancing than tight-third-person.

If you are writing multiple viewpoint and have already established both characters as viewpoint characters, you may be able to write the scene twice, once from each point of view. This really only works when there is a truly major discrepancy between the way the two characters understand what is happening, because you are making the reader wade through the exact same events twice, and unless each of them knows something really significant that affects the scene and the reader’s interpretation of their personalities, it is very likely to bore the reader silly. It isn’t enough to just let the reader know that Bill is really upset by what George is saying, but is carefully not showing it.

More often, in a multiple viewpoint story, it works if the writer can provide two not-quite-identical scenes: the one from George’s viewpoint, where we get the oddly uncomfortable conversation, and another one from Bill’s viewpoint an hour or two later, when Bill is pondering whether he should have told George about the diagnosis during that previous conversation and/or worrying about how to break the news now that that opportunity is gone.

The key to making any of these alternatives work, though, is to begin by figuring out exactly what it is that want the reader to know – the thing that makes your first reaction be “The only way I can tell the reader this is to show what the non-viewpoint is thinking/feeling.” Once you have that nailed down, you have to decide whether the reader actually needs to know that piece of information here and now, or whether hinting at it will be enough. (Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, hinting is not only enough for the scene, it is actually more effective than laying out the information, because it gives the reader something to wonder about and thus keeps them involved in the story.)

Sometimes, the thing you want to let the reader know is not something major, like “Bill has cancer” or “Sue is in love with George.” Instead, it’s something like “Sue is tall and has dark, curly hair” or “Bill is wearing cowboy boots, grubby jeans, and a Rolex watch.” The problem isn’t that the information involves the non-viewpoint-character’s innermost, unrevealed feelings or knowledge; it’s that the viewpoint character wouldn’t spend time thinking about what she looks like or what he’s wearing. (Or that thinking about it makes them sound unpleasantly self-obsessed.) The writer’s initial reaction is that it’ll be much easier to just switch to somebody else’s head and describe the viewpoint character that way.

This really doesn’t work very often. If you’re going to break viewpoint, you want to have a really good reason to do it, and there are oodles of other ways to work in descriptions of the POV character without breaking viewpoint. These range from having a non-viewpoint character comment on it (“A Rolex, Bill? Since when do you wear a Rolex to muck out the barn?”) to having the POV worry about whether he/she is making the right impression, to doing description-by-implication (“George was not a short man, but Sue towered over him. She sat down quickly, wishing she hadn’t worn heels.”)

If the information is a chunk of backstory, it is, once again, seldom necessary to actually explain it in the scene, even if that seems like the logical place for it. If George doesn’t know the backstory, it is easy enough to have him ask Sue a scene or two later “What’s up with Bill?” The reader can then find out when George does.

Ultimately, that’s the real key to revealing information in tight-third-person: the reader almost never needs to know something until the viewpoint character finds it out. So the writer doesn’t have to jump into Bill’s head to reveal the cancer diagnosis; they just need to write Bill as oddly distracted or tense or however he would behave if he’d just gotten that news, and the reader can find out a scene or a chapter or a section later, when Bill finally tells him.

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Mid-scene viewpoint switching

This week I got an email question about switching point of view within a scene. It’s one of the hardy perennial questions, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed it directly in this blog. First, an example:

Jennifer paced the room, wondering where George was. It’s three in the morning! He should have been back hours ago! Maybe she should –

There was a scratching noise, and Jennifer froze. The doorknob turned, and the door swung open to reveal a sheepish-looking George.

The minute he saw Jennifer’s worried face, George knew he was in trouble. God, all I want is to forget this night, he thought. I don’t need another fight. Hoping to head off an explosion, he said in his meekest and most apologetic voice, “I got lost.”

The first point is that this question only ever really comes up in regard to third person. If you’re writing in first person, it would obviously be intensely confusing to have “I” be Jennifer in the first two paragraphs and switch to George in the third, and the same is true for “you.”

Third person is more ambiguous. This makes it more flexible and allows for a greater range, but it also means that there aren’t nice clean lines between what you can and can’t do in various types of third person. In first person, it’s usually fairly easy to tell a letter from a diary, a memoir, stream-of-consciousness, or the more common riding-along-in-the-head variety of first person. In third person, tight-third-person shades into camera eye and omniscient very gradually, leaving large gray areas that aren’t quite one thing or the other.

This means that there are a lot more opinions about what is and isn’t “allowed” in various forms of third person. Some of this is because different people define the various forms slightly differently – in essence, they draw the line between “tight-third-person” and “camera eye” in a different place, or they break the continuum of third person down into more categories (filtered tight-third-person, unfiltered tight-third-person, limited omniscient, observer-in-the-corner, camera-on-the-shoulder…there are dozens of possibilities). There is even more confusion because different genres often have different conventions regarding what is acceptable and what is not. “Head-hopping” is, in many genres, considered a sign of bad writing. In Romance novels, however, it is far more acceptable – you do hear occasional complaints, but a look at what actually gets published will tell you that switching viewpoints within a scene is extremely common in that genre.

Furthermore, there are some types of third-person that aren’t well-suited to particular genres. The vast majority of murder-mystery novels I’ve read are written in first-person or tight-third-person; very few are in omniscient, because a truly omniscient viewpoint means that the narrator knew whodunnit and was just refusing to tell the reader, which is difficult to make work. Multiple-viewpoint mysteries are rare, but not as rare as omniscient, because if the writer chooses the viewpoint characters carefully, it doesn’t give the murderer away.

Not giving the murderer away is a major convention in murder mysteries. In thrillers, the central problem is not “who did it?” it’s “will they catch him?” (frequently “will they catch him in time?”); in these stories, multiple-viewpoint gets used a lot because part of the point is for the reader to know what the villain is doing and how far the heroes are from stopping him/her.

Which brings me back to mid-scene viewpoint switching, and the two basic Real Rules of Writing:

  1. You have to write.
  2. What you write has to work on the page.

Switching viewpoints in mid-scene is problematic because it is difficult to do smoothly in a tight-third-person scene without jarring the reader out of the story, confusing the reader, and/or breaking the reader’s identification with the main character. Note that “difficult to do” does not mean “impossible.” If you can make it work in your story, then you get to do it.

For most writers, however, mid-scene viewpoint switches (aka head-hopping) are not a good idea, for three reasons. The first is the one I cited just above: it’s extremely difficulty to make work smoothly. The second is that even head-hopping that works is a bit like exclamation points: the more often you use it, the less well it works and the more obvious and annoying it becomes. And the third is that, in my experience, at least 90% of the time the writer who wants to head-hop wants to do so because it looks like a quick and easy way of getting some important piece of information across to the reader that Character B knows, but Character A (who is the viewpoint) doesn’t know. Frequently, the important information has to do with Character B’s emotions or reaction to what is going on in the scene, but sometimes it has to do with some knowledge that B has and why B chooses not to mention it just now, even though it looks like a logical time to do so.

In other words, 90% of the time, the writer is trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the ability to dip into any character’s thoughts and feelings at any time, as in omniscient viewpoint, without sacrificing the identification and intimacy that comes with having a specific tight-third-person viewpoint. They don’t want to do the work of figuring out how to write an emotionally intense omniscient that will lead the reader to identify with their characters (very hard to do), nor do they want to do the work of figuring out a way to convey to the reader what B is feeling, how B is reacting, the fact that B is hiding something, etc. in a tight-third-person viewpoint when A is the viewpoint (also hard to do, especially the first couple of times).

Which means that 90% of the time, mid-scene viewpoint switching doesn’t work. It also means that the writer isn’t learning any of the techniques that do work in tight-third person, many of which will be far more useful in the long run. And since even the best and smoothest viewpoint-switching is a technique that only remains effective when it is used rarely, it is a really good idea for writers to know those other techniques. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more options you have.

Next time, I’m going to talk more specifically about some of those options.

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Scrivener and process

Scrivener is currently one of the best-known pieces of writing software out there. People who use it tend to love it and go all evangelical about it (as a number of commenters noted two posts ago). It occurred to me while reading all those comments that talking a bit about what it is, what it does, and how different people do and don’t find it useful might be interesting from a process standpoint, as compared to a use-this-tool standpoint.

Let’s start with this: I’ve tried to use Scrivener as my primary word processor, and after two years I gave up. Here is why:

Scrivener was designed, as near as I can tell, for writers who are fiddlers – the folks who think of a few lines of dialog that are just exactly how those two characters would discuss petunias, but who don’t currently have a scene in which the characters could or would talk about petunias. Or they’re in the middle of an action scene and suddenly realize something important about the angsty background of a character who isn’t even present. It’s for the writers who assemble their writing from pieces that move in and out of their drafts as the story changes and they get new and better ideas during the writing process, some of which turn out not to be better. And it’s for the writers who simply can’t stand the possibility that they’ll cut a line, a page, or a paragraph and then, weeks or months later, discover that they want it after all.

Scrivener is not my primary word processor because I don’t work this way. I don’t really like having my manuscript lying around in little pieces, no matter that they can be reassembled at the touch of a button. One of the joys of my first word processor was that I had a whole chapter available all at the same time, rather than five separate pieces of paper. I was delighted when storage capacity got large enough for me to have the whole manuscript available in one file. Scrivener, which has the bits-and-pieces model of writing built right into its interface and processes, is never going to be my first choice for writing.


But I do use Scrivener. I use it when I have a lot of notes and reference materials to organize. I really like being able to have my character notes and plot idea notes and the text of a fairy tale and various pertinent quotations and the text of my query letter and both drafts of the outline from the portion-and-outline, all available in the same place, indexed and easy to find. This turns out to be where I use the bits-and-pieces method: when I’m figuring out the characters, plot, background, backstory, and all the other ancillary material that I come up with as part of my novel-writing process.

I personally don’t fiddle with my drafts in a way that would make Scrivener a useful tool for writing them. I do fiddle with my before, during, and after notes in just that way. It’s possible that it would also be extremely useful as a revisions tool, for somebody, but I don’t think I have the patience to take my first draft to pieces just so I could check them all and then reassemble them.

For the current WIP, I started off in Scrivener. (I confess, at that point I was still trying to make it work for me as my main word processor.) I put in what I had: a log line, two versions of the text of the query letter, and a first crack at expanding the query into a proper submission-ready outline. Then I poked around online, and added several lists of possible character names from various sources. I made a list of roles: Mom, Dad, brother, Head Minion, Second Minion, Castle Steward, Evil Aunt, Wannabe Dark Lord. I copied the list to a different segment and started trying to match up roles with suitable names. I started another segment to capture worldbuilding ideas, and one for plot possibilities. I decided to chuck the existing outline, so I started a new section for the new-and-different outline.

I wrote a third, very messy outline intended for myself rather than for an editor, with lots of parenthetical comments (“Tour of castle? Anniversary photos!”) that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. I opened another section for the five or six characters who by this time had names, and started fleshing out their roles in the story – what their problems are, how they relate to the other characters and/or my plot, and what they think they want (all of which boils down, one way and another, into what all the subplots are and how they cross and interrelate). At that point, I thought Scrivener was great.

Then I started on Chapter One, and things pretty much fell apart. I made three different runs at writing Chapter One via the bits-and-pieces method, and none of them worked. Part of the problem, of course, had nothing to do with the bits and pieces; it had to do with the location I started in and the resulting character reactions. The thing was, writing it in Scrivener all split up into bits and pieces made it harder for me to see what the real problem was. It wasn’t until I switched to a different word processor and had the whole chapter in one place that I could see and fix what was wrong.

I like having all my notes and character lists and throwaway ideas organized, but I don’t want them right there when I’m writing. I don’t mind having them available – currently I keep my manuscript in one file in the manuscript-only word processor, and leave Scrivener open in the taskbar so I can refer to my notes easily if I need to. For some reason, that works for me, but having them all in the same program with my first draft doesn’t. A writer’s mind is a strange and not-altogether-logical place.

For people who do like to fiddle and who do like having their work pre-split-up into easily rearrangeable chunks, or who perhaps find looking at two paragraphs or a scene or a chapter less intimidating than looking at the entirety of their manuscript thus far, or who want all their notes and reference materials right there in the sidebar all the time while they’re writing, Scrivener is just the thing.

For the curious, my current word processor is yWriter. It’s a lot like Scrivener, and I’d really rather be using the plain vanilla word processor that was my workhorse for a good fifteen years, but it doesn’t run under Windows 7. What I like best about yWriter are the statistics, especially the little box in the taskbar at the bottom that tracks wordcount – total, this chapter, and what I’ve done so far today. (Monday was bad; I clocked -47 words on Monday…) Other than that, it has a lot of bells and whistles that I can and do ignore; the main thing is that it feels comfortable and it thinks the way I do, meaning that when I want to do something a little unusual that I know a word processor ought to be able to do but that I’m not quite sure how to do in this word processor, I can almost always find it easily without looking at the documentation. MSWord thinks like an alien – in MSWord, it takes me at least ten or twelve tries to find anything, even after I’ve looked at the documentation. Scrivener is somewhere in the middle; I’ve done enough with it to be pretty sure that I could make it work for me, but it would take a while and some adjusting. yWriter works for me right now.

As Alicia said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (OK, she said it a lot more elegantly than that.)

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Stress affects everybody’s writing, one way or another, sooner or later, because stress is part of life. How stress affects people’s writing varies from writer to writers. For some folks, writing is an escape, so the more stressed they are, the more they write (though this isn’t that common among published writers, probably because it’s too hard to balance on the knife-edge of stressed-enough-to-write-but-not-so-stressed-that-there-really-isn’t-time-to-write). Other folks hit a certain level of stress, and find that it’s using every bit of energy they have just to stay alive, and there’s no energy or brain cells left over for writing. (Which can add stress, if writing is one’s main occupation and source of income.) For others, it depends on the kind of stress – if it’s outside stuff like an intense day job or the sewer backing up, they can write straight through it without blinking, but if it’s anything personal or emotional, they might as well forget it. And of course there are the folks who get stressed if they go too long without writing, because it’s a safety valve.

Everybody gets overstressed at some point, and the result can be quite dramatic in terms of productivity (and if it isn’t, you frequently end up paying for it later). And all too often, we make it worse for ourselves. Over and over, I’ve watched otherwise rational professionals fall to pieces because they’re under stress and refuse to admit it or allow for it. Writers who have a major operation or illness and refuse to ask for either help or a deadline extension, and then work themselves right back into the emergency room. Writers who’ve had a string of minor catastrophes, and who beat themselves up for not writing. (Usually, these are the sort who could sail through any one minor catastrophe without pause; it’s dealing with five or six in quick succession that’s too much. So they look at everything one at a time: the car accident that took a week and dozens of phone calls to the insurance company to settle, and the kid who fell out of the tree and broke an arm, and the water pipe that leaked three inches of water into the living room, and the refrigerator pump that failed and unfroze everything inside, and the cat who had to be rushed to the vet in the middle of the night, and the scary letter from the IRS about last year’s taxes, and it doesn’t occur to them that when all that happens in the same week, you are allowed to not get any writing done). Writers who are taking care of a seriously ill family member, and think they should do that, have a day job, and still write full time.

Some of this happens, I think, because those of us who write for a living are so very, very aware of how easy it is to find excuses not to write…and how very dangerous it is to give in to that impulse. Everybody sneers at the wannabes who only ever talk about the great story they are going to write some day…and who’ve been talking about it, and not writing a single word, for the past ten or fifteen years. But part of the reason we sneer is that we know just how little it would take for use to slide back into “some day, sooner or later” land. It took a lot of work and discipline and determination to get to the point where writing happens and pages get produced on a regular basis, and we don’t want to have to climb that hill again.

But stuff happens, and if you don’t recognize it, admit it, and deal with it, you’ll very likely be much worse off in the long run. It’s a bit like writing, or exercise, or losing weight: other people can tell you that you need to do it, but you are the only one who can actually write the words, do the pushups, lose the weight, or manage your own stress.

There are a bazillion books out there on how to manage stress, and they all say the same things and they’re all right: exercise, eat right, take care of yourself, take a break, take a walk, meditate, talk to people about it, find ways to reduce the stress if possible (move, change jobs, get a massage, change the locks on the house or the phone number, quit listening to the news, etc.), see a professional if it gets to be too much. The one thing none of them advise is ignoring the fact that you are stressed and trying to carry on normally.

The trouble is that the things that are most effective for dealing with stress all work over the long run, and we’re a quick-fix society…and most people don’t start trying to deal with stress until they’re already in over their heads and sinking.

Also, you’re never going to get rid of all the stress in your life. It simply isn’t possible. Sometimes, you can get rid of a particular stressor permanently, sometimes, the only thing you can change is your attitude and the degree to which you take care of yourself. And one of the important ways of taking care of yourself is to not beat yourself up when you didn’t write as much as you think you should. Much as we all love doing it, writing is not always the most important thing in the world. Not compared to, say, getting your kid to the emergency room after that bicycle accident, or rebuilding the house and community that got smashed by the tornado. As one of my editors says when a writer gets too panicky, “Babies won’t die if you’re late getting your manuscript in.”

When you are under stress, you don’t think straight. It is useful, I find, to check in once in a while and actually listen to what you are telling yourself. If you’re frustrated and cross because you want to write and don’t have time, then writing may be part of your way of coping with stress, and it’s worth making time, even just a few minutes, to do it (along with eating right, sleeping, etc.). If, however, you’re fussing about the deadline and your general lack of productivity and how you can’t possibly be a Real Writer and It Is Your Job/Duty, You Cannot Waste Valuable Writing Time…stuff it. You don’t have to write when your Mom is in the hospital or your kid is running a temperature or you’re worried sick about layoffs or the roof just blew off in a tornado. You can if you want, but you don’t have to.

Also, sometimes when you’ve been under stress for a long time and take it off suddenly, there’s a sort of rebound reaction and everything kind of collapses for a while…which can take a lot longer than you think it ought to, especially if you were holding it together long past the normal burn-out point.

When my mother died after a two-year decline into Alzheimer’s, it took me nearly four years to get back to approaching-normal. I managed to get some writing done during that time, but not nearly as much as I usually do. It taught me that if you’ve keep trying to write during a crisis when you not only don’t feel like it, but really don’t want to and don’t think you can, then a) you probably should take a break, and b) you probably don’t have to worry that you’re one of those pseudo-writers who takes any and every excuse to not-write.

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The Right Tools

Writers have promoted their favorite writing tools – each of which is different – for as long as I’ve been in the business, and probably all the way back to when the writers working on clay tablets sneered at that new-fangled papyrus stuff imported from Egypt. To some extent, it’s purely a status thing. If the guys with the clay tablets can convince people that their way is “better,” then at the least, they get looked up to as “real” writers. At best, their work will sell better or be more admired or last longer, or they’ll have an easier time finding a patron who is impressed with (and willing to fund) their supposedly-more-authentic work.

These days, though, there’s more to it than that. There’s still plenty of snobbery on display, from the folks who swear that nobody could possibly write anything decent without using a fountain pen to those who swear by the latest high-tech writing software that integrates playlists and Pinterest photos to help inspire each chapter, while tracking word count, productivity, and readability levels and generating a storyboard for each viewpoint character. But there are two things that both sides of the argument seem to leave out.

The first is that people are known to have three different modes of receiving and processing information: visual, aural, and kinesthetic. Everybody uses all three modes to some extent, but usually one is primary. For most of us, that’s the visual one. Those computer programs are good at that; they let you see lots of text and integrate photos, or do diagrams and storyboards that help visualize the story in different ways.

Computers also have a lot to offer those who like the aural mode – there are speech-to-text programs (and text-to-speech, if you want a flat computer rendition of your prose), and lots of places that will help you organize a play list of music that “fits” whatever you happen to be writing. If you want something simpler, there are hand-held recorders that you can dictate to, then download and transcribe.

But computers aren’t that great for those who are strongly kinesthetic. Keyboards have moved to a lighter and lighter touch, in the interest of speeding up touch-typing; the carriage return is long gone, along with rolling paper into a typewriter. What’s left is pen and paper, which impart a lot more physicality to the act of writing than any other currently available method.

Most of the paper-and-pen writers I’ve run into don’t think about it this way, but…they wax rhapsodic about the feel of a fountain pen gliding across a sheet of heavy, watermarked paper. They debate the advantages of ball-points compared to roller balls, fountain pens versus dipping pens: is it better to be able to keep going without having to stop when you’re on a roll, or do you get better results when you’re forced to stop every so often to re-ink the pen?

It’s no surprise that different writers have different favorite methods of production. It’s also no surprise that you hear a subset of editors and writers complain that computers have made writing “too easy” – the ability to keep changing and rearranging things with little effort makes for poorer quality work, they claim.

Having done some time teaching writing classes, I can attest to the fact that there are students out there whose stories suffer from “workshop burn” – that is, they’ve been rewritten and revised so many times that they’re like silver plate that’s been polished down to the copper. However, I don’t think that this is an inevitable result of using a word processing program; after all, I had fifteen students in that class, and only one had a story that plainly exhibited workshop burn. I think this problem is a function of a particular type of personality – the people who do this would try to do it even if they were working with chisels and stone tablets. The computer certainly enables them to take things to an extreme, but that’s not really the computer’s fault.

What all this boils down to is that when somebody says they work better with pen in hand, or music playing, or total quiet, it is probably quite true…for them. Persuading them to do something different, just because that’s what works for you, is probably a bad idea (unless what they are doing is manifestly not working for them, in which case “try something else” is the obvious solution).

I should also point out that many of us use different tools at different points in the process. Some writers handwrite their first draft, then type it into their computer for revision. I compose at the computer, but I frequently use pen-and-paper to diagram my plots and character relationships. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Which brings me to the second thing that gets left out of the argument:

None of the tools of writing will do the writing for you. Not the computer, not the electric typewriter, not the Bic pen, not a quill dipped in ink, not a brush painting on papyrus or silk, not a chisel on a stone slab. All the tools can do is to make the process work a little better, a little more easily, for you.

And while I don’t know even one writer who wouldn’t be exceedingly glad to discover a way of making their personal writing process a little bit easier, there comes a point of diminishing returns. Or no return at all. If you are a strongly kinesthetic writer, you might find writing a bit more fun or productive if you switch from a computer to handwriting with pen and paper. Spending six months testing every brand of fountain pen on the market to find the one with the perfect touch is unlikely to be worth the effort, especially if you are using it as a Writing Avoidance Technique. (If it’s something you’re doing in your spare, non-writing time, for fun, go for it.)

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Ever since the invention of the assembly line, one of the fundamental assumptions of our culture has been that the most effective way of getting something done is to break the job down into small pieces or steps that get you from where you are to where you want to be. It’s a very effective approach for doing everything from making an omelet to assembling a car or a space station, from planning a wedding to learning to speak a foreign language.

To apply this approach to things that don’t have actual physical pieces that need to be put together, one has to begin by defining and describing the pieces. This can be tricky to do when you can’t see an actual widget in front of you. Nonetheless, the break-it-into-steps approach is basis of nearly every get-organized-and-accomplish-stuff system I have ever seen, from really high-level business models like Gant charts and critical-path models to magazine articles on how to arrange your kitchen.

The models that deal specifically with non-physical things like setting goals or managing business projects or learning a language differ in their details, but they implicitly agree on one thing: the importance of “edges.” By this they mean that when you define and describe the pieces that you are later going to assemble as part of your plan, they need to be clear and crisp and not overlap. It’s like drawing out the shapes of jigsaw puzzle pieces; if they don’t have nice, clean edges that interlock neatly, they won’t fit together later.

We do this with writing, the same as with everything else. English and literature classes teach us to analyze fiction into parts: character, setting, plot; theme, idea, atmosphere. Critique groups and writing blogs encourage it, because you have to break things down into pieces in order to figure out what’s wrong (and often, what to do about it).

The trouble is that the pieces of writing aren’t like the parts of a toaster. They aren’t made of metal or wood that stays in one specific shape and belongs in one specific place. They’re more like bits of wet clay: You can line them up in a row, and each bit is distinctly itself and clearly one particular shape and size, but as soon as you start putting them together, the edges disappear. They become one mass. Not only that, but if you pick up one of the bits and squeeze it or roll it between your fingers, the shape changes. It still has edges, but they’re in a different place.

This is extremely confusing for people who have been raised to break things down into pieces, on the assumption that this will help them put the pieces back together in the right places. With wet clay, there isn’t a “right place” for a particular bit of clay, and the bits of clay are pretty interchangeable because of the way you can reshape them. You have a shape that you are trying to create, and it needs a bit more mass on this side, but it doesn’t matter whether you grab one large bit or three small ones to bulk out that section.

And while some bits of writing can belong very clearly to one category or another, it is far more common for them to do several things at once. For example: “Martha had always hated the heavy bronze statuette of MacBeth’s three witches that stood on the corner of her grandmother’s mantelpiece.” That sentence tells the reader something about both Martha and the grandmother who owns the statuette; it also describes part of the setting (the statuette and the existence of the mantelpiece). So it has both characterization and setting. It could very well be related to theme, plot, or idea, depending on where the story goes (the statue is a murder weapon three chapters later; the witches are a recurring motif; the statuette is actually magical).

That sentence does not have the kinds of edges we’re used to. It’s possible to break it apart somewhat to provide them, but doing isn’t an improvement, to my thinking: “A heavy bronze statuette stood on the corner of the mantelpiece. It depicted the three witches from MacBeth. Martha had always hated that statuette. It belonged to her grandmother.” And even then, there’s really no way to separate the “setting and background description” part from the “plot relevant set-up for murder in Chapter 3” part.

In short, it is highly desirable for fiction to have muddled-together edges. To use another metaphor, writing fiction is like making a cake in this regard – it can be very useful to lay out all the ingredients in advance, all measured and methodical, but if you then dump the flour in a pan, set the two eggs on top, lay half a stick of butter next to the eggs, pour a cup of sugar on top of that, and then shove the pan in the oven without mixing, you aren’t going to get a very good cake.

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