Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Lessons Learned

The past month has been one of ups and downs and going in circles. After a terrific, exuberant start, I quickly found myself mired in uncertainty. I made a series of valiant efforts, but in the end there were too many unresolved questions in spite of having found "all" the answers I needed to write my way through Act III. The result is that the work stands very nearly where it was a month ago, in terms of pages written, but now I really DO have a very firm and solid grasp of the plot issues. My thoughts about it are written out in detailed note form, with an "expanded table of contents" to back me up, and several lists of useful information that show how things fit together. I've thoroughly explored several options and made the difficult decisions.

What have learned from my work on the JASPER novel?

First, I have noticed that I have allowed too many distractions to keep me from being as productive as I need to be. Summers are always my least productive time anyway. At least this year I did not stop writing altogether and declare myself on another of my "Creative Breaks". I kept working, and I did accomplish something. However, realizing the need to be more productive, I have already negotiated with those affected and will be setting aside more time to focus on my writing without causing undue consternation or finding my writing time interrupted.

Second, I have appreciated the need to prepare for writing before writing. The past couple of years I focused on a great deal of preparation (note-taking, research, outlining, revising, re-thinking, re-revising, etc.) prior to writing the first draft, and then revising all my notes again before embarking on subsequent drafts. I wrote 60,000 words in notes before I wrote one manuscript page of my first completed novel two years ago. That investment has paid off wonderfully, allowing me to complete drafts for the first time, after many years of struggling to finish manuscripts only to get bogged down and lost in the middle. However, after two years of extensive preparation, I felt constrained, and longed for a sense of open and unfettered creativity while writing.

Therefore, I did very little to prepare myself for the current JASPER novel. I thought up a basic idea then sat down and started writing. All that structure and discipline paid off as I found myself racing through the JASPER story and producing quality results, thanks to having internalized the underlying three-act structure. I was on a roll with it, until I got the Nano bug last year and interrupted the story at the mid-point to write a new novel (JACK & JILL). When I finally got back to JASPER, it was a different experience. I had lost that focus and passion, and have had to write it through hard work. It's doable, and I'm still producing very engaging material, but it's more work and harder work than it was before. I should never have interrupted this successful ongoing project just to do Nano, although I am happy that I now have another wonderful story to get back to once I finish JASPER.

Taking all this into account, I'd say I've learned that while this chance to write without constraint has been stimulating, I still need to plan my stories in advance because it does save time later. The tie-ups over the past few months have really all come down to lack of planning. I'll find ways to give myself unfettered writing experiences, but when it comes to a novel, it's best to be prepared.

Third, the specific planning issues with the JASPER novel, stuff I've dealt with as I prepare to write Act III, are as follows:
  • Identifying the antagonist. I had two options, and a third option which involves the two possible antagonists working together. I had one version fixed in my mind at the outset, then while writing I sensed a better (i.e., more complex) story if I made some alterations. I ended up leaving the story open as I wrote it so that I could end the story with any of the possible outcomes. Now I need to go back in and tie things down for the version I've finally selected. I should have kept one main focus. A story hinges on exactly who the "bad guy" is, and it's not something to toy around with while writing!

  • Identifying the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses. This is also an essential ingredient and one you must clearly define at the outset because you need to include scenes which show these things, and which move the protagonist from weakness to strength in order to face the final confrontation. Again, I had a sense of it, I had thought about it, had written some brief comments about it in the little planning that I did before starting the manuscript, but over time I realized a deeper need, and how to tie things in better to the exact nature of the final confrontation. In part, our understanding of our story evolves over time and we can't help but revise and refine, but also I feel I could have looked deeper and sought out a better understanding of this at the outset.

  • Fleshing out the back-story and "greater story". I generated enough of the world and back-story to start writing, but throughout the time I've worked on JASPER I've contemplated additional twists and complications that can surround this present story, how it can be set in its world against a background of greater intrigue. This is because I want to write more than one JASPER story, and use that material to drive a series of novels set in this world. I don't think it's necessary to know everything up front, especially when those details don't even appear in the present novel, but I do think it helps to have some sense of the greater story that the current story is part of. The more refined that information, the easier it is to work with. I now feel a stronger connection between those ideas and the way this story will end. In light of that development, I feel it would have been better to spend extra time reflecting up front on how I might envision the series developing.
Fourth, I've noticed a pattern that requires attention. Previously, my greatest struggle lay in simply completing an entire draft. I used to get lost in Act II, unable to bridge the middle of the story. I put a lot of effort into planning before writing and managed to overcome that difficulty. Now, I can complete a story with confidence. However, my new greatest struggle seems to lie in keeping the story together when I'm 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through. In each of the four stories I've worked on in the past couple of years, this seems to be the area of the story where I face the greatest challenges. I think every writer does experience a rough spot at about this point. It is fed partly by fatigue, the need to catch a second wind to bring us in to the end point. However, I notice my stories tend to unravel, my ideas go in too many directions, and the simple becomes complex, allowing the complex to become even more complex. I need to prepare for this next time by establishing a sharp focus and using it to guide me through this portion of the draft. I don't want to change my stories every time simply because I'm now 2/3 or 3/4 through. I want to plan well enough and stay the course, so that things get easier, rather than harder, the more material I have down in writing. Maybe the rethinking at this point is unavoidable, but if I can prepare for this stage of the writing process, maybe I can minimize the interruptions and maintain the forward momentum.

Finally, another thing I've learned the past few months while looking over JASPER and my earlier completed drafts, is that I've made tremendous progress in the span of just four novels. While none has yet reached completion in the sense of a finished, polished final manuscript, they have all been written from start to finish and have all been edited at least somewhat, or extensively, including rewriting portions or the entire drafts. I've done a lot of work in the past couple of years, to be sure. My writing is now much richer, much more focused, much better paced. I'm still "just learning" and expect substantial progress over the next four novels, but the prose I am ending up with now is clearly much stronger than it was two years ago, and now at a point where I would be happy to share it with others. The point of this is not to pat myself on the back, but to take to heart the notion that I am making real and measurable progress. That, more than anything, encourages me to continue and work harder than ever.

To conclude this posting, I will now attempt to write Act III of the JASPER story using the notes made over the past month. I estimate another 15,000 words to finish the story. I'll set a goal of September 30th to achieve this. I may or may not meet that deadline, but as long as I make substantial progress within this time -- progress not in planning yet again, but in churning out useful manuscript pages -- then I'll be content. Once the draft is complete, I'll go back immediately to revise earlier portions to agree with the new plot details, and then will edit, edit, edit, to get that polished manuscript as quickly as possible. The JASPER story is entertaining, engaging, interesting -- one I would be happy to send out. I'd like to do that within this calendar year if possible.

Best wishes to other writers for their planning, re-planning, writing, and re-writing,


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