O! For a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. — William Shakespeare
Is it muse? Or skill? I’ll take either, please.
Last week I wrote another flash memoir but have had to set it aside. I’ve edited and crunched it down to its core and while it says what I intended, it reads high, dry and flat as a Central Asian steppe. No, I take that back. A Central Asian steppe is a wondrous thing of beauty and mystery. My flash memoir is not. Sigh.
There is more to communication than tightly edited words—no matter how clever. Emotional tone is key and, for that piece at least, the key has gone missing.
In writing it I discovered the core idea, so I now know what tone I want. But I’m too close to it to inject the correct tone after the fact.
What to do? I’ll walk away for a while. It might be better to start from scratch having the idea and mood in mind from the beginning, then see what happens to the words.
Such a mysterious process–these little marks in front of our eyes transmit meaning beyond facts. They can affect our emotions, sometimes just by their arrangement.
How do we learn this? How does the objective ordering of words result in such variation of impression?
I imagined I’d complete the second draft of my novel by the end of June. Nope. Not even close. The picture above shows three colors of tabs noting areas needing factual or language research or just plain missing text. This image shows only 60 pages of manuscript.
This next photo is more recent and shows the markup of about 70 pages. Each color has a purpose—beyond research and pending text, most track the unfolding of information, backstory, or characters’ progressive thought. The intent is to weave a thousand threads—gradually building without repeating.
I need one more go-through of this section and I’ll likely move on. I think that will put me at around 40%.
I must complete this draft in 2020 or I will despair. The goal is to make sure all of the story/information is complete but resist word-crafting. The next draft will first be read for story, then I will start smoothing and refining.
As noted in a prior post—Worry About Words—my greatest anxiety about creative writing is at the nitty-gritty word crafting level. I feel confident enough where non-fiction is concerned. But stringing together words that evoke time, place, action and emotion terrifies me. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea.
I’ve reviewed many editing resources: books, articles, videos, etc., so, I think I understand the principles of ruthless self-editing. If anything, I risk taking the word-crunching too far—cutting so close to the bone that there’s nothing left for the broth. Most beginning fiction writers over-write. I’ve been told that I under-write. I’m content to lean towards minimalism, but I do want to leave the reader satisfied, not rushed through to a dry and exhausting end.
I recently stumbled upon a podcast about the value of poetry for fiction writers. The speaker happened to be an expert on Haiku—that minimalist Japanese genre that we all amused ourselves with in grade school. Intrigued, I ordered a couple of books—collections of the Haiku masters—and dove in. It required some refocusing of my brain but once I made my way, I found myself squealing with pleasure at these spare treasures.
How can you not love this stuff?
A bee staggers out of the peony.
Awake at night— the sound of the water jar cracking in the cold.
Or, one of my favorites:
Fleas, lice, a horse peeing near my pillow.
That last one makes me LOL.
But seriously, the drilled-down immediacy of these tiny moments is exquisite and fun—like little STOP signs saying, Take notice! of everything.
Then quits he the field, the rain-floods ebbing round him: He goes like a race-horse covered with cloths, no faster, And makes for a winding gully; and now he ambles, And now he puts forth the utmost of speed, unsparing: His fore-feet cleave the shrub-sown sands of Dahna As players for stakes who rummage amidst a sand-heap He crosses the plain, alone, in his morning glory, As bright as the blade of sword that is newly polished.
That’s just a taste. There’s so much more. But I’m holding back the best because I’m may put some of it in my characters’ mouths.
Squeezed onto a hard bunk, high up the compartment wall, she settled into the night journey. She would not see the countryside slip past the black window below. But she was alone, on a train, and headed to a far-off city that only three years earlier had been forbidden.
On Christmas Day, 1989, after crackers and pudding, she had gaped with others at the TV screen – BBC images of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, bullet-ridden.
Now she lay in the dark, the ceiling so close her breath circled back to her face; aware of the other women in the cabin – crinkling paper, digging about in baggage, whispering in an unknown tongue. The piercing whistle. The ka-chunk, ka-chink, ka-chunk, ka-chink. The shush. Shush. Shush. The steady rocking of the bunk – so began the long night.
She did not sleep but lay in adrenalin fueled alertness, absorbing every metal-on-metal screech, every curve in the track, the way her center of gravity shifted on the vinyl and pressed against the compartment wall.
Through the mesmerizing rhythm a new sound broke. Stomping, clapping, fiddling. Young men’s voices singing patriotic folk songs built to a crescendo as the train reached a station; the celebration fading into the distance as it moved further east.
Throughout the night the same pattern: mid-night celebrations, rising and falling, as new recruits set off to join the army in a changed world.
Our train won’t make it from Mombasa to Nairobi in time to greet some important visitor at the airport. How could a guy who’s lived in Africa for five years keep getting this wrong?
What does he do? Come to my compartment before light and tell me we need to get off. I slide out of the dark upper bunk, hoping I won’t disturb the other passengers.
Get off where? Where are we? Not sure? Just need to get off? Oh, walking to Nairobi will be faster? Hush, hush. You’ll wake the sleepers.
He’s spoken to the conductor. There’s a village coming up. They’ll stop the train so we can get off.
He grabs my bags. I follow down the narrow corridor stumbling side to side through broken florescent light. What else to do?
We drop into a sleepy village; earth and huts amber in the rising sun. People stare. They’re drawing water, washing, building fires for breakfast. A Korean guy and a white girl with packs are traipsing through their world at dawn.
We reach the main road. Dead straight and empty – both directions. Just scrub, asphalt and sky. In the middle of Kenya. But we’re late. So, I guess walking makes sense.
When the western horizon becomes a large, dark sedan, he sticks out his thumb.
We climb in. Two men. I’m thinking – we’ll never be heard from again.
Turns out, they are headed for Uganda. Returning home from a business trip. Will be going right through Nairobi.
Since my main writing projects are historical novels, I’ve been longing to explore another form – something at the opposite end of the spectrum. Work that I could finish short of decades! And, needing no research. Wouldn’t that be grand?
Flash memoir is about as opposite as I can get. And gives me the chance to record personal experiences—no interlibrary loans!
So, I’m using my travel adventures to toy with words at a level I can’t yet apply to my fiction. (Those endeavors aren’t ready for close word-crafting).
I’m experimenting with tone, voice, rhythm, point of view, etc.
Starting with a series based on train rides – I’m just throwing them out there – wondering how they feel to anyone outside of my own head.
The post that follows will be my first effort. Further flash memoir posts will be linked to this one as explanation.
I’m supposed to be editing my novel for story. (This is only the second draft.) But I can’t help tinkering with the words and it’s causing me a great deal of anxiety. It seems that I need another 30 years of practice before I can hope to have sentences that are either lyrical or, at least, expressive and the proper tone for the piece – words that flow with the same rhythm and feeling as their intended meaning. To improve, I’m trying to deconstruct the flowing words of others. They say you should copy passages you love – and thereby absorb skills via osmosis. I still need to do this. Maybe it will help. In the meantime I see patterns of sentence construction that I use over and over in my attempts at fiction.
This is a code need to crack. It’s one I understand logically but I can’t seem to break through with my own writing.
Scenic artists are often tasked to apply visual or physical textures randomly – so that they appeared natural, not manmade. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to keep from falling into a repeated pattern.
Property insurance adjusters can usually tell when wind or hail damage has been faked on a roof because the “damage” shows an evenly spaced pattern when looking at the entire field. Nature doesn’t do that. But humans fall into it no matter how hard we resist.
Back to words – this bent for repetition is embedded in my writing. I’m using the same syntax in nearly every sentence whether long or short. I have ProWritingAid software and the Sentence analysis shows I could do with more variation. So, this is my next step with words – copy words I love and do some structural analysis of my own.
I do believe fine writing can be learned. But I sometimes question why I would abandon 50 years of visual art experience in order to write. After all that painting, I could still do with another lifetime to conquer it.
How do I get up to speed with this new skill fast enough to create my stories before I die?
Two years from my last post – a sensible time for an update!
Yes, I’m still here. In fact, I am still pursuing that same 3:30 a.m. rising time mentioned in my last post. 3:45 a.m. seems to be my sweet spot. I’d like to make it earlier. I have other responsibilities which begin at 5:30 a.m.
Last year the Day Job consumed me – 77 hours/week for months on end. Meanwhile, my aging parents need increased assistance. Even so, many days I got up and at it before dawn. In July I made a change to my Day Job which means a lot less money but – sanity!
But, the big news is:
I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY FIRST NOVEL!
(Yes! I’m shouting!)
That happened sometime in September. Odd thing was, there was no parting of the clouds. No heavenly choir. I simply came to a stop and thought – right, I believe that’s all I’m going to do here. Time to start back at the beginning. Then it dawned: End of First Draft.
So, that’s what that is like. Huh.
Since then I’ve been clarifying character backstories and nailing down research details – all with the aim of starting back at page 1 on January 1st, 2019.
Early October had me leaving Atlanta with the clothes on my back to reach Jacksonville in time to evacuate my parents from what was supposed to be a Cat 4 hurricane grinding up the coast. Two hours south of Atlanta I received a call asking me to be a Team Lead for a different company – a gig that would put working me in Jacksonville for a while at least. So, I said yes. After a crazy evacuation, I began that assignment, only to have it finish two weeks later. However, by then, I’d had another offer for a long-term opportunity that would allow me to sleep in my own bed for the foreseeable future. I took it.
Then we launched into the endless holidays. All the three and four-day weekends filled with either a backlog of chores not done while I was constantly away or holiday preparations at my house and my parents’. This was the first holiday season for them in their “new” house and the first for me at mine for several years.
All good stuff but meant none of my “free time” got me any further on my writing projects.
I was so long-term exhausted after months of running full-tilt and then the 12 hour/7 day Team Lead phase that I was falling asleep at 7 p.m. – which meant I was waking up around 3 a.m. Once mind and body had recovered, I realized that, with my new job and new life at home, getting up to write at 3:30 a.m was really my only option AND completely DOABLE!
And so, that’s exactly what I have been doing. It’s still nothing like enough time. And my weekends continue to fill up and not provide the larger chunks of time that I need to make this all happen. However, it’s a lot better than nothing and I keep thinking if we can get beyond the extras (backlog of tasks and holiday stuff) I might finally GET an additional 3-4 hour session on Saturdays, and/or Sundays.
Striving for authentic language is all very well when you are writing historical fiction that takes place in an English-speaking context – even going as far back as Shakespearean times.
But, what if you are writing about a time from which we have very few written sources, the ones available are in four or five languages, and each of those would require a PhD to be readable?
Written resources for my story’s exact period are few – there was too much upheaval for scribes to be writing it all down. I am thus limited to extant documents from the prior century, a few in my target century, and the rest written one hundred or more years on. And, they have to be available in English translation – because my pre-Quranic Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, Latin and Greek are a bit rusty.
The other difficulty is: people don’t always speak the way they write. Does anyone really think the Elizabethans spoke in iambic pentameter? Formal Roman speeches probably did reflect written rhetoric because both were highly valued and intertwined skills. But, did they speak that way to their children? What about the speech of commoners? Soldiers? How do we know? We mostly don’t know.
(I once had a critique group member insist that people during my time period would not have used nicknames in dialogue. REALLY??? — Sorry, that’s still a sore spot.)
However, any good translation attempts to capture the style and syntax of the original. Since a direct translation of my period’s speech is impossible, and would be unreadable, my fiction efforts will focus on capturing hints of the cultural hierarchy in language, and some sense of rhetorical style, vocabulary, expressions and worldview. I will have to trust that my translated resources retain something of the original flavor.
But what I really want to know is: what English term do we use for “gunwale” when writing about pre-gunpowder times? Seriously, I can’t find a good substitute. I’ve seen other pre-gun era books use the term. If those writers even considered it, they probably decided to use “gunwale” rather than have to repeat over and over “that topmost strake of the boat”. I have found “saxboard” but no good etymology for the word – and would my readers know what it means? It sounds northern to me. I’m sure there was a term for the topmost strake in Aramaic, but, whatever it was, it would be meaningless to me and there seems to be no good English substitute.