Crisis of Confidence

Lately I’ve been suffering from a lack of confidence in my story, and thus in myself as a writer, and it came about not because of any criticism or anything similar that came my way. It came about because of a writing contest, a contest I did not even enter!

How can not entering a contest cause me to lose confidence, you may ask? After all, this was (still is, in fact) a contest that specifically does allow unfinished works, so it would seem like a perfect fit for me, yes?

Alas, as with most contests of this nature, the entry requires a synopsis. Nothing particularly unusual about that, and every writer eventually needs to come to grips with producing the scary synopsis. However, typically for contests, this synopsis is limited to a single page, double-spaced, in 12-point type, with 1″ margins all around. Oh, and the first line really should be a heading stating “Synopsis,” so that’s one less line to work with. That means the synopsis is pretty much limited to somewhere between two-hundred and two-hundred-fity words, which is not a lot.

The typical five-page synopsis written for an agent or editor’s consideration has an opening statement about theme and genre, a closing statement about character arcs, and in between summarizes all the major plot points that impact and influence the main characters.

That’s impossible to do for a novel-length work in two-hundred-fifty words.

So, a one-page contest synopsis should instead focus on theme and how the character’s growth and conclusion illustrate that theme, and that’s about it.

Trust me, while it might be just one-fifth as many words, it is five times harder to write! And to give you an idea of what two-hundred-fifty words looks like, we’re at about three-hundred right here.

Still, this is a very good exercise for any writer to go through, and it should not be impossible. Indeed, it should be mandatory!

But describing how a character’s growth and plot arc illustrates the novel’s theme is difficult to do when you don’t actually yet know how the story ends, or even perhaps what theme you are illustrating, because you’re making the story up as you go, by the seat of your pants, in an episodic nature because you publish each scene online as you write it.

After spending an entire day struggling mightily, and ultimately in vain, with this one-page synopsis, I came to the conclusion that my story has deep structural flaws, because I’m currently unable to figure out how the main character’s plot progression drives, or is driven by, the theme! I’m not even sure if the story has a theme. Surely a contest loser.

I brooded on this for most of this past week, and a couple days ago came very close to stopping all further development of The Silence of Ancient Light and starting over on an entirely new story, one that would not be pantsed, but instead properly and traditionally plotted. Which, interestingly, is what I was trying to do two years ago when I started SoAL as an exercise to distract me from my analysis paralysis of developing a plot.

The good news? After two years of this distraction, I still really do want to go back to that original project. I still think it has fantastic potential, and I now have some better ideas for how to work out the plot roadblocks I had encountered. That project, by the way, was tentatively titled A Drive of Light and Shadow, but I will probably change that (but I love the title, so I’m keeping it, even if it ends up stuck on a different story).

The other good news? After two years, I still think The Silence of Ancient Light has promise, and I still like the story — even if it is devoid of any theme and the main character is flat and without growth. I know some of you are enjoying it, because you have told me so and I trust you when you do, but I also know that not very many people have read it, so the sample size is not large.

So no, I am not discontinuing SoAL, I will continue to churn out (or drizzle out, more likely) episodes for you, and I will try to figure out my own angst along the way. Perhaps I can pass some of that to Anna in the story to amp up the tension, although it’s not as if she doesn’t have enough on her plate to keep her angsty already!

Crisis averted. Though I have decided, for the health of my own stress levels, to pass on the contest this time around.

🚀

For SoAL readers curious about that original story from two years ago, there’s an oblique reference in a casual comment Anna makes to Laxmi in the 2nd scene. Yes, that’s right, these stories take place in the same universe. Can you spot it?

🚀

And for those curious about the contest I almost entered, it’s the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Unpublished contest. The deadline for entries is in about a week, so technically it’s still not too late! But no, I’m not ready, so you go right ahead.


header image credit: user:Free-Photos / Pixabay under Pixabay License

Telescope (WIP)

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)

🚀

The ship was not huge in the telescope view, but her shape stood out clearly. Anna could see the double ring structure of the Alcubierre drive, one ring forward and one aft, both tethered to the central fuselage much like the orbital ring was to the planet. She could almost, but not quite, make out the blister of the observatory on the nose of the ship, and the bay windows of the cockpit just above. She could see the hangar doors from which she had launched the shuttle, open wide in the belly of the larger ship, awaiting the return of the smaller craft, a return which now would never come. That shuttle lay smashed and abandoned in the lagoon of a forbidden island.

A sense of loss and of longing came over Anna, and her vision blurred a little. She wiped the moisture from her eyes, upset at her own emotional reaction when she knew she needed to remain laser-focused on survival, dedicated to the task of getting her crew and herself back to that starship, more than forty-one thousand kilometers away, no matter how close the telescope made her seem.

Read more at

Telescope

(2,000 words; 8 min reading time)


🚀

Did I say last week that this chapter was a little slower? Well, it’s not slower anymore. We’re going to end the chapter on a cliffhanger, one that makes it obvious that the tension is about to ramp right back up again as we head into Chapter 7. Of course, you’ll have to go read the scene to see what I mean!

Seriously, it will take just 8 minutes of your Sunday afternoon. Go read it!

Are you done yet? Because I want to discuss what you just read! What do you think the ending of the scene signifies?

You may have noticed a few devices I’ve been using all along to ratchet up the narrative tension. Almost from the beginning, there has been a time lock, a deadline by which Anna and her crew need to figure out their own rescue, and in this scene I gently remind the reader that this deadline is approaching. Many stories use either a time lock or an option lock to introduce tension, but in SoAL I’ve opted to do both. As the scenes progress, our heroes have their choices gradually narrowed down to fewer and fewer options, and there are plenty of hints that later there will be fewer options still. Remember how many space suits they have with them? Hmm, yeah, future problem brewing there.

If you were Anna, what would you do next?


header image credit: user:Free-Photos / pixabay.com under Pixabay License

NanoWrimo 2019

It has been five years since I last participated in NanoWrimo.

Nanowhat? you ask. NanoWrimo (sometimes capitalized as NaNoWriMo, but I find all that pressing of the Shift key tiring), or National Novel Writing Month, is an annual affair that occurs every November, in which tens (hundreds?) of thousands of writers (published or not, famous or not, serious or just having fun or… not) attempt to write 50,000 new words in 30 days.

1,667 words per day. Every day.

That may not seem like a lot, and for a day here and there, it’s not. But this is every single day. If you have a full-time day job, this can be a bit daunting. If you have kids to manage, this can be daunting. If you have a social life… yeah, you might have to put that aside for a month. Also, it’s November, which in the United States is a major holiday month, in which many people travel to spend a long weekend celebrating with family.

1,667 words, each and every day of that holiday weekend, while your family celebrates around you.

What do you win if you reach the goal? Bragging rights. Some downloadable “stickers” that you can put on your blog or your social media profiles. And sometimes decent discounts for writing-related software, but that’s it. It’s not about the prizes, it’s about challenging yourself. It’s also not really a competition, at least not against other participants, because there is no limit on how many people can win. Everyone who reaches the goal is a winner.

Really, everyone who tries, who writes more in November than they normally do, and who keeps on writing, is a winner, whether they reach 50,000 words or not.

The traditional goal for NanoWrimo is to work on a new novel. Plotting is allowed in advance, but no words can be written prior to November 1st. However, the organizers have recognized that there are rebels out there who use NanoWrimo in their own way, to achieve their own ends. Some people continue work on an existing work-in-progress. Some people write multiple short stories instead of one novel. Some work on revisions and 2nd drafts. The only real caveat, the only hard-and-fast rule, is that only words newly written between November 1st and November 30th can count toward the 50,000-word goal.

I am a rebel.

As those of you following along know, I have been working on The Silence of Ancient Light for nearly a year and a half now, and in all that time I am just now approaching 50,000 words for my first draft. Turtle writing, indeed! I briefly planned to put that aside and work on two new short stories for NanoWrimo this year, but I have shelved that plan. Instead, I will continue working on SoAL, using the challenge to inspire myself to perhaps write a bit faster, a bit more prolifically, than I usually do.

Will I reach 50,000 words? As a total WIP word count, yes, but as new words just in November, almost certainly not. I already know I’m just not going to be able to do that every day.

I “won” in 2013, and let me tell you it was a lot of work. I can also tell you, however, that it sure felt good, afterwards, even if I never did anything with the story I wrote that year.

2013-Winner-Facebook-Cover
Yes, I “won” in 2013

I also participated in 2012, although I did not “win” that year. Nevertheless, I was pretty happy with the words I wrote — perhaps someday I will post them here.

This year, my only goal is to make steady progress on my existing work — a rebel goal! — and perhaps also to inspire and be inspired by others who also participate.

Are you doing Nano this year? Let’s be buddies! Find me there at:

https://nanowrimo.org/participants/matt-fraser

Happy writing!

A Tense Point of View

Do you prefer reading first-person or third-person narratives? Does it make a difference when the story is in a particular genre? Does the narrative point of view give the story a different feel for you?

I know I don’t need to detail for you what I mean here, but just in case:

  • First-person: I dashed into the alleyway, gun drawn, and confronted the assassin.
  • Third-person: He dashed into the alleyway, gun drawn, and confronted the assassin.

First-Person PoV

For a long time the general advice to novelists was to stick with third-person narration, and past tense only, please. First-person narration was for autobiographies and hard-boiled detective stories only, though I think you could find a number of examples in 19th- and early 20th-century literature (think H.G. Wells, for instance). However, a common narrative form of the age was to have a first-person narrator who was not in fact the main character of the story, or even very important to the story. This may seem strange to us today, but it allowed the author to slip into the role of fireside storyteller, relating events of some character he or she had met (if only in his or her imagination).

W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge, was written in this manner: the author himself is the narrator, but is only barely tangential to the story of Larry Darrell and his friends. Writing in this manner gives the story a hint of “This is something that really happened,” while nevertheless remaining entirely fictional. On the other hand, it would seem to have the drawback of not allowing the storyteller (and thus the reader) to be present when the action occurs far away. In Maugham’s novel, Darrell travels to India and spends years searching for the meaning of life, yet we as the readers only learn of it when he returns to Europe and relates his tale to his friends — one of whom is the author/narrator. Perhaps Maugham didn’t want to emphasize the mysticism of Darrell’s eastern travels, instead keeping the focus on personal relationships more familiar to a western audience, but it was a disappointment for me to not be there when Larry sits on a mountaintop meditating.

Past advice notwithstanding, many great novels — and not just detective stories — are written in first-person. Such a style can make the action much more personal, as we are definitely inside the head of the narrator-protagonist. It can also allow for an unreliable narrator, a main character who relates events to us as they perceive them, or perhaps even as they wish to be perceived, and only later in the novel do we find out that the story’s “inner reality” is different.

But first-person narration also has its drawbacks. Classically, it restricts the author to telling the story from only a single point of view, though in modern times this “rule” has been broken quite successfully (see My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult for an example). It also classically has been taken as an indicator that the narrator survives to the end of the story, in order to be able to tell the tale, but again — spoiler alert! — see Picoult’s afore-mentioned tale.

Third-Person Deep PoV

It is possible to obtain that same “inside the protagonist’s head” feel with third-person narrative, using a technique usually called Deep Point of View (or Deep PoV). For example:

He raised the heavy gun, shakily pointing it at the assassin, who loomed large in the alley. The assassin laughed.

vs

He raised the gun — how did it get so heavy? — and pointed it at the assassin. The man was huge! To make matters worse, the assassin merely laughed at his feeble effort.

Deep PoV attempts to have the reader identify with the character as much as first-person narration does, but still retain some of the detachment of third-person.

Second-Person PoV

What about second-person narration? Is there such a thing? Indeed there is! Though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it with past tense, so:

You dash into the alleyway, gun drawn, and confront the assassin.

As a writer, you will likely be told, over and over, never to write this way, that such a book will never sell.

Jay McInerney laughed all the way to bank after his debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City went bestseller. Yep, all second-person. Same for N.K. Jemison with her Hugo-award-winning novel, The Fifth Season. For a science fiction example, see Charles Stross and Halting State, plus its sequel, Rule 34.

Second-person narration is very hard to pull off, however. If not done exceptionally well, its very strangeness can be off-putting.

Past vs Present Tense

Having now mentioned tense, let’s dive into that. Again, traditionally, stories have been told in past tense — He dashed into the alleyway — giving it that feel of an oral tradition, related by elders around the campfire, of mythic deeds by mythic heroes of an ancient age. But in the past few decades, present tense novels have come into vogue. Granted, such writing has existed for some time: Ulysses by James Joyce, published in 1918, employs present-tense narration. Going back even farther, Charles Dickens used present tense for his 1852 serial, The Bleak House.

Still, throughout most of the 20th century, most novels were written in past tense. Lately, however, that seems to be changing. While still true — I think, as I don’t have a statistic on this handy — that while most novels today are in past tense, clearly an increasing number of them are coming out in present tense. This certainly seems prevalent with YA novels — The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Divergent (Veronica Roth) — but is definitely not restricted to that genre. The second-person novels I mentioned earlier, for instance, are also present-tense novels. The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins), The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey), and, yes, infamously, Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James), are also present-tense novels. The list is quite long, really.

You will probably notice that many of these are also first-person narration. Certainly this isn’t universally true, but it feels more natural — to me, anyway — to couple present tense with first-person.

Future Tense and Stranger Things

What about future tense?

I admit, I’m not aware of any examples of novels written in future tense, and I have a hard time imagining flowing prose in such a style, at least in English.

He will dash into the alleyway, gun drawn…

Sounds more like a prophecy than a story.

Of course, we could go crazy with future perfect (He will have dashed…), future perfect progressive (He will have been dashing…), and so on, but you can see how cumbersome this quickly gets. Perfect, progressive, and perfect progressive modifiers can be applied to past and present tense as well, of course, but in all cases this starts to add a lot of words to describe an action.

Putting It All Together

So that was a long ramble, but why do I bring this up? If you’ve been following my work-in-progress, The Silence of Ancient Light, you’ll note that I’ve been writing (oh, there’s past perfect progressive!) in third-person past tense. However, you’ll also note that there is, so far, only one point-of-view character, Anna Laukkonnen. I think in the early scenes I managed to achieve some deep PoV with Anna, but as I look back on the later scenes, I sense that I’ve drifted a bit from this, which is something I’ll need to correct in the next draft.

But, if the story is entirely from Anna’s point of view, would it make more sense to change it to first-person narrative? I admit, I’m currently undecided on this point. I have written other stories in first-person, and I’ve generally found it to be a comfortable style for me. I am striving for that deep personal perspective, and for me that’s perhaps a little easier in first-person, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

As a reader, I enjoy books in both first- and third-person — and yes, I enjoyed The Fifth Season in second-person as well, though with Halting State I admit it took me a while to get used to it. So, I don’t have a strong preference one way or the other, but instead want to use the style that best lends itself to the tale I have to tell.

The vast majority of my writing has been traditional past tense, as well, but recently I’ve tried my hand at some present-tense writing, and I’ve found it can set a certain mood to a story that is sometimes appropriate, though not always. I’m not against it, though I’m not sure it’s what I want for Silence.

What do you think? What is your preference? What do you think would work best for Anna and Silence? If you’re a writer, what feels most natural to you?


header image credit: Stefan Keller (user:kellepics / pixabay.com) under Pixabay License

Drafting For Two

A little over a year ago, I spent the Christmas holiday with my wife Carole in Bend, Oregon, to ski the famous cross-country tracks of Mt Bachelor and environs, taste the famous microbrews of the Bend Ale Trail, and lay down some serious drafts, writing retreat style, for my novel.

Bend had a notoriously low snow year, so we accomplished only a little skiing. We did, however, collect some growlers from a handful of wonderful brewpubs.

Growlers
© Matt Fraser, 2019

And I spent hours staring at my laptop, completely blocked.

It wasn’t a problem of the words not flowing, though I’ve faced that at times, too. I simply couldn’t figure out the plot. I had an idea, summed up in a couple of sentences, but could not figure out the sequence of events that would tell the story. I had devised a few character sketches, I knew roughly who my protagonist was, knew a bit more about my antagonist, and had a wonderful concept for a contagonist impact character. I even had the broad strokes of how to bring the first act to a close, and what sort of crisis would precipitate the third act climax, though the details remained fuzzy.

I just had no idea for what should happen in between.

Carole had a perfect description for my state: analysis paralysis. I was so focused on getting every plot point just right that I was letting perfect become the enemy of the good. I sipped drafts from the collected brews of the Deschutes valley, but found no further inspiration there. And then Carole said something fateful.

“Why don’t you stop worrying about the plot and just write? It worked for you in NanoWrimo, so why not now?”

2013-Winner-Facebook-Cover
Yes, I “won” in 2013

So I did just that, albeit not with this project. I set my unfinished plot outline aside, and simply began writing, without any plot worked out in advance, based upon a simple image I held in my mind, an image of alien ruins, signs of an advanced civilization, long abandoned. I saw space stations, falling apart in orbit around a darkened planet, and the arrival of human explorers to investigate.

The result of that stream of consciousness experiment is still unfolding, as The Silence of Ancient Light, and some of you have been reading along as I post my first draft scenes on these pages. That was another part of the experiment, to post scenes as I went, thus “forcing” myself to keep going.

I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve posted scenes, only to realize one or two scenes later that I got a technical detail wrong, some point of astrophysics or orbital mechanics that just wouldn’t work. I’ve thought of better ways to handle events for already posted scenes, and then struggled with whether to keep writing in a manner consistent with what’s already been posted, or to write as if the earlier scenes had been different. Of course, that would make the narrative confusing for anyone trying to read through, but it is a first draft, after all.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is that I’ve concluded I had my characters go down a path I didn’t want them to tread several scenes earlier, and I’ve written myself into a corner. Now what do I do? Do I keep writing the story as it has been unfolding, even though it isn’t really where I wanted it to go? Do I go back for a “do-over” and rewrite everything from that point forward? And if so, do I create a new fork in the thread of the story, leaving the originals as they are as signposts for my folly?

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve slowed down on my output for the draft, and this crisis of my own making is the major reason.

Along the way, I’ve had concepts and ideas for other novels come to mind, as they do, and even been tempted when the writing on Silence slowed down to break off and explore one of them. The writing community over on Twitter (great group!) was practically unanimous in their advice not to do that, to make notes on the concept, but keep going on the current draft, finish what I’ve started. And so I’ve been doing just that.

Yet a new conundrum has arisen.

Remember the original story idea, the one I was trying and failing to carefully plot during that winter retreat to the land of ales and trails a year ago? The one I put aside to work on Silence instead?

I think I’ve solved my plot blockage.

There is still a lot of work to do before I begin drafting the prose, but I have a very high-level outline for 60 scenes spread across 20 chapters (those numbers may and probably will change). With a few more days (or weeks, more likely) of work, I should have an outline detailed enough to be called a treatment, a plan for simply “writing down the bones,” scene by scene, chapter by chapter.

And this, after all, was my original project, which I set aside to work on Silence. So, should I now set aside Silence to return to it?

No, I don’t think so, and I don’t think you think so, either.

So how successful can I be, working on two projects at the same time? That depends. Silence was always intended to be a way to break the logjam, to spur creativity and to keep writing, to keep up the practice. If, along the way, it turned into something decent, that would be a bonus. I do think there’s something decent in there, even if it’s gone a little bit off the rails, so I’m nowhere near wanting to abandon it. It deserves better than that.

At the same time, I’m ready to breathe new life into my more “serious” project. (It has a working title, but I’m holding that in reserve for the moment; for now, we’ll call it Shadow.) Yet there is a difference in the stages of creation for Shadow vs Silence. I’m plotting Shadow, whereas I’m drafting Silence. Shadow has a careful structure to it; Silence is by design more free-form.

I can see myself going back and forth between the two. When I’m stuck with something in Shadow, I’ll return to stream of consciousness writing with Silence. When I write myself into another corner in Silence, I’ll wrap up the next subplot in Shadow.

I’m undecided whether I will post scene drafts from Shadow in the same way that I have for Silence. One negative side-effect of doing so has been finding myself writing for the effect of the next post, instead of writing for the effect of the narrative whole, thus giving the unfolding story a bit of a Perils of Pauline serial feel to it. When the work is complete, I don’t want the reader to feel as if she is reading a series of shorts; I want her to enjoy it holistically, to be unable to put it down until reaching the very end.

Nevertheless, I may still do so, but I make no promises. Meanwhile, though, you can still expect to see scenes from Silence appear in these pages.

Some of you likely have strong thoughts about this approach. Feel free to critique me in the comments! Seriously, I want to hear from you.

Until the next cliffhanger…

512px-Perilsofpauline
used under Public Domain

header image credit: user:JAKO5D / pixabay.com under Pixabay License