Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Magna Carta

Chris Baty, in his novel writing instruction book, "No Plot? No Problem!" discusses creating a “Magna Carta” of novel writing. A list that can act as a guide during Nanowrimo. While we are outside of Nanowrimo at the moment, I realize that I have never made a Magna Carta for myself.

To start, I went through a list of my favourite novels and looked for themes and commonalities. My shortened list looks like this:

And I pull out the following:

  • This is largely science-fiction/fantasy list
  • There is a theme of children/students and learning
  • 3rd person omniscient narration
  • Good endings (believable and non-obvious) or large reveals, sometimes, the entire novel is written around the ending
  • The writing style is sophisticated without being flowery or over the top
  • There is a show, don't tell focus as well as implying without saying things directly
  • It feels like the author has through about every detail and developed a complete history/backstory, which gives the novel depth. The author doesn't need to go into all the details however.
  • The characters are multi-faceted, three dimensional and have clear and sometimes conflicting motivations. They typically learn something about their place in the universe or make the hero's journey (“Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell)
  • Most are one-off novels without sequels or series OR can be read in isolation
  • Many have no clear heroes of villains, but merely people on opposite sides
This sounds like a list that anyone would have with any good novel. In a way, all I really want is good story, good writing skills, good characters etc...

I realize that in a way, a list like this could potentially lock me in a box. However, I always keep in mind that some of my favorite novels can break any of the rules at any time and still succeed. It's "whatever works" in my ways and I have to keep that in mind. Still, a reminder of what I like while I'm writing is a good idea and I have it here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing sentences - the basics

When I look at most of my favorite novels,they are written in third person. I prefer third person narratives, and I am more critical of novels written in first person. SO, I write all my recent novels in third person. It's a little slower to write, but I consider the end results better.

When I write third person, I end up in a trap of saying, "He looked at the car approaching... He got inside. He buckled his seat belt... etc.. etc..." and every once in a while, when I realize that I have "He" at the beginning of every sentence, I put the person's name in instead, "Henry looked at the car approaching. He got inside etc...", or try some other clumsy way of getting away from it, even though, mostly, it's description of the main character doing things, which is a normal part of narrative.

So, I checked my bookshelf for old favorites and found "Seventh Son" by Orson Scott Card and "Hyperion" by Dan Simmon. I checked to see how they start each sentence.

Orson Scott Card:

"Little Peggy was very careful with the eggs. She rooted her hand ... She... After all, ... Even when ... She just... All this while ... Mama said.. Every day ... Every one ... I got to ... Then little Peggy ... I want ... Most animals ..."

Dan Simmons:

"The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony...A thunderstorm..
Bruise-black clouds.. Lightning rippled ... Closer to ... The Consul ...
The fatline ...The Consul ... Thunder...From ... Somewhere ..."

I consider both Orson Scott Card and Dan Simmons to be masters of style. When they are on (and they are in these novels), it's a beautiful thing. In both of these novels, the sentences have a pattern, a cadence. I don't know if the authors intended them, but it feels like they made a specific revision for beat.

As obvious as it is, I haven't really looked to my favorite novels for style tips, although I've written it down after my last three Nanos with the intent of re-writing one of my novels.

This blog is my push. Writing in public and telling everyone my intent will probably help. It can't hurt. This is the year.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It always starts with Nano

Chris Baty's National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) , founded in 1999, now has about 200,000 participants in 2010.

That's a lot of words being pumped out each year. While there are naysayers, there is little bad to say about an activity that gets people out of their mundane lives, off their asses and writing something. I don't believe that a finished first draft HAS to be a masterpiece for Nano to be worthwhile.

I learn a lot each time I sit down to do Nano or SoCNoC. The biggest point is that writing requires one to sit down and write. You have to put in the hours or nothing will get done. It is that simple, yet many, many young writers believe it is otherwise. A round of Nanowrimo will get you over that mindset and get you putting in the hours writing.

I know it's been said before. I know it will be said again, but that is the only bit of noveling that absolutely must be said. Everything else happens after that step, so it is absolutely required first and foremost for anything else (like finishing a publishable first draft, to getting it published and getting it read and critiqued and on the New York Times bestseller list etc...).