Simplicity and Story

Apple’s interactive design method is akin to a technique known to psychologists studying problem solving as “generate and test.” To solve a problem, all the possible solutions are generated and then tested to see if they offer a solution. It’s a form of trial and error, but not as random; it’s guided and purposeful. . . . The process is essentially the same as techniques used in a lot of creative endeavors, from writing to creating music. A writer will often start by banging out a rough draft, spilling out words and ideas with little thought for structure or cohesion, and then go back and edit his work, sometimes multiple times. “Trying to simply and refine is enormously challenging,” [Jony] Ive said.” Leander Kahney, Inside Steve’s Brain

This is not a post about Apple computers, nor an apologetic promoting Apple computers. Rather, it is to highlight a focus on simplicity which leads to a more coherent and stronger story. A story that works.

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Story Craft and Harmony

“What is the rhythm of a writer’s day? First, you enter your imagined world.  As characters speak and act, you write.  What’s the next thing you do?  You step out of your fantasy and read what you’ve written.  And what do you do as you read? You analyze.  ‘Is it good?  Does it work? Why not? Should I cut? Add? Reorder?”  You write, you read; create, critique; impulse, logic; right brain, left brain; re-imagine, rewrite.  And the quality of your rewriting, the possibility of perfection, depends on a command of the craft that guides you to correct imperfection.  An artist is never at the mercy of the whims of impulse; he willfully exercises his craft to create harmonies of instinct and idea.”

Robert McKee, Story

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Revision and Resistance

I began revising my first draft of my novel in September 2017.  It’s now the last day of June 2018 and I am still working on the second Act (messy middle, middle build, etc).  This is not the timetable I envisioned.  In my enthusiasm of post-first-draft completion, I believed I could complete not one, but two, three, maybe even four revisions by the end of the year.  That did not happen.  Not by a long shot.

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He takes her hand in his own

He takes her hand in his own

So tiny and so small

“What do you wish for, darlin’?” he asks

She smiles and tells him them all

She runs ahead in bright joy

All laughter and delight

“What do you wish for, daddy?” she asks

He smiles and says, “I love you”

She takes his hand in her own

All gentleness and strength

“Silly daddy, that’s no wish at all”

He smiles, “It is, love, it is.”

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Becoming a Writer

Is it even worth it?

That’s what I’m asking myself as I slog through the revision of the first draft of my first novel.

Shouldn’t I just quit and start working on something else?

I know the answer is no.  And I know why.  I believe in this book.  It is important.  I have something important and meaningful to say.  I am dedicated to goodness, truth and beauty.  And I want this to be as good, as true, and as beautiful as I know how to make it.  It can never be perfect.  There will be a time to lay it aside and move on.  I will have done as well as I can, and it will be time to take all the things I have learned, and any of the skills I have gained and improved, and use them on a new project.  Now is not that time to leave it behind.

But I want to quit.  I have an essay to write concerning my thoughts on literary theory, what makes good art in writing, about which I’ve scribbled some notes and gathered some research.  I have a short story I have plotted and for which I have set the scene and the characters.  These call my attention.  I want to lay aside my second draft and pursue these other laudable endeavors.

But it’s not time.  Not now.  If I quit now it will be even worse than the four times I quit on the first draft.  Yes, I’ve achieved my personal goal of writing a book.  It’s true that very few first books are worthy of publishing.  It’s also true that one can waste a lot of time and energy on a project that will never be published because the author is not yet arrived at that level of competence.  Yes, competence comes by writing more, and that need not be on the same project.  But it’s not time to quit now.  Because as much as I despair of ever completing the second draft, as much as I know there are at least two more revisions to do on this work, I still believe in it.  It is still important.  It is something I am compelled to say, to the best of my ability.

I had planned to be finished with all the revisions by the end of December.  It’s drawing close to the middle of February.  I am still revising Act I.  Act II is about half the book.  Act III is still hazy.  I’ve reached the foothills.  I cannot yet see the summit.  I know I’m way behind.  I’m impatient to move on.

Here am I, getting kicked in the teeth daily by Resistance.  Struggling to write something everyday, and when writing, struggling, straining to get 500 words per day shoved though the revision grinder.  Although I’ve been consistent this week, I did not write yesterday.  One day lost.  Today?  I’m writing a blogpost, hoping to get things to flow for the novel and a scene that scares me.   And the time I’d set aside for writing is almost over.  I’ll have to somehow force myself to do it later this evening, dog tired, and not feeling well.

But this I believe in, as well.  This aggravation, toil, labor, fear, doubt.  I can spend another three months, six months, working these revisions, and all of it might come to nothing.  Did I mention despair?  Yes.  Even that.  I believe in it, because dues must be paid.  Because this is how a writer learns his craft.  Because this is what writing is—this wrestling with theme, metaphor, plot, character, setting, and a host of other things, trying somehow, someway, to get it all to cohere in a story that works, that moves, that communicates, that transfigures.

I believe in the story.  I believe in the writing.  I believe in it all.  This is writing.  And I am a writer.

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Message and Milieu: The Unfolding of a Vocation

Over this Thanksgiving holiday, struggling with the aftermath of a double root canal, a massive head cold, and writer’s block, I trawled through old files of stories and found myself captured by two others I had written—one about eighteen years ago, and one about seven years ago (and still unfinished).  As I reflected on these different works, I slowly discerned their relationship with the novel I’m revising.

Each was written in a different genre.  The story from eighteen years ago, about 4000 words, was written during a time when I was in a “Flannery O’Connor phase” of short-story writing, attempting to capture the breaking-in of grace to the life of a character written with exaggerated lines.  More than a decade later, I revisited the sword-and-sorcery genre I had enjoyed writing as a teenager, and began the 3800-word unfinished draft.  Then there is my current novel which I suppose would be classified as something of a paranormal thriller.

At first glance, it would not seem that these three narratives, written at different times, in different locations, and under different story conventions, had anything in common, other than the author.  But as I reflected on their differences, it occurred to me that there is a common milieu to them after all.

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Early and Late Joys

I’ve written before of my first moment in which I was consciously aware of my desire to be a published author.  I was in first grade, riding in the back seat of our family’s dark green ’71 Pontiac station wagon.  I had my Big Chief tablet in my lap, a big pencil in hand, and I was writing about adobe houses of the Pueblo and Hopi Native Americans. I asked my mother, as she was driving, if I could submit a handwritten manuscript to a publisher and would they publish it (translated from however I might have said it as a first grader).  My mother answered, “Yes,” doubtless the way most parents, driving with children in the back seat, answer questions: sound that ends in an interrogative tone, met with a tossed out response with a fifty-fifty chance of being the right answer.  But that was all I needed.

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