Feb 26, 2015

Narrative Genesis and Imagination

This Saturday evening, I'll be giving a new craft lecture, "Narrative Genesis and Imagination" at Interlochen Center for the Arts at 5pm in The Writing House. A handful of The Writing Life readers out there actually live nearby, so perhaps we'll meet! For friends and readers from afar, I thought I'd share a snippet of my intentions for this presentation on my blog.

When I talk about "narrative genesis," my intention is to point your attention to the place where story begins. That "place," however, is largely ephemeral and deeply person. Why write a craft lecture about that? Furthermore, doesn't talking about it, kill it?

Yes and no. As a teacher, I consider it my duty to bring awareness to my creative process and share what I learn with others. It makes me a better teacher, because if I can name what's working (and what's not working) for myself, in the very least I can articulate that to others who might see a parallel. And at the very best--which I encounter more often than not--it can spark conversation between artists that inspires, informs, and leaves each participant involved feeling a little more sure about where their work comes from and how to nurture it so that it keeps on coming.

When I talk about "imagination" in the context of "narrative genesis," what I'm interested in is the millisecond occurrence between that first birth of story and that next, imaginative leap. This is where things start to get really intangible. But if we can articulate the sensation, the series of events, or the balancing factors in our lives that precipitate and encourage that leap, we might be able to replicate it. Again and again. Not "replicate" in terms of copy, but replicate in terms of generate.

In short, the more we nurture the foundation of narrative genesis and imagination, the stronger, deeper, and more consistent our output as artists can be. That doesn't mean everything that comes out will be glorious, but it does mean that--to a certain extent--we never have to worry about not knowing what to write. Ever. Again. We have trust in our process. We can dance around where it starts. We can even, sometimes, seduce the process into action on the spot and let narrative unfold from the confidence we've gained through practice and insight.

Feb 24, 2015

Revising the Novel: Thoughts on Agendas

Last week, I had a breakthrough. Not on the page. Not yet...

But in my mind.

It hardly seems worth writing about now, but I'm dedicated to trying to articulate and share my process. It helps me find my way. Writing a novel can feel so disorienting. If we know we're not alone and that disorientation is normal, that can't hurt. It might even help.

To that end, I want to briefly discuss "agendas." We've all heard the notion that those early sparks of creative output can't be personally, egotistically, politically, or harmfully motivated if they're going to burst into true, literary form at some point down the page. What I mean by that is, we can't just sit down and say, "Now I want to write something that proves my belief that all people who eat fast food are lazy." That's not the stuff of good writing, no matter how many cartwheels your sentences can do.

Even though I believe this, I managed to approach Chapter 4 of my novel, through all 4 revisions, with an agenda. I grew intent on using a scene between the Captain and my protagonist, the Second Lieutenant, to show the reader that something fishy was going on with regard to how U.S. dollar bills were being spent in Afghanistan. This agenda was problematic for two reasons. First, although I have a personal investment in exploring that particular truth (and it is true--U.S. dollars have been funding Taliban efforts against our own troops), I don't know that exposing it would advance my novel in any way that had significance on my protagonist. Besides, even if I could work it in, would it "matter" in a relatable way to the reader? I don't know.

The other reason my agenda for Chapter 4 grew problematic has to do with point of view. I'm writing in limited 3rd POV, hugging the shoulders of my protagonist. The conversation between the Captain and my protagonist is revealed as if seen through Nathan's eyes. Given that limitation, there's no way I could rightfully get the message across clearly, without violating point of view. I did certainly try, though--I drafted scenes where the Captain drops hints, I drafted scenes where the Captain and Second Lieutenant observe things in their surroundings that are symbolic of the U.S. money situation, and I even tried a story-within-a-story that was allegorical. None of it was hitting. It might have been revised and finessed, it might have had surgery at the line level, and parts of it might even have been well-written. But in the context of the novel as a whole, time and time again, Chapter 4 was not working.

By free-writing about my character Nathan's desires, I was able to see once and for all that my agenda for Chapter 4 simply did not belong. I was ready to toss the whole idea in the can, when an idea came to me: Who would know about how the American money was moving? Who would have a compelling, character-revealing reason to get involved with such action? What would make the most sense for readers to see in relation to this truth? All answers pointed to the same thing: The Taliban commander in my novel, who appears only as a side character in a few scenes, needs to have his own chapter written in limited 3rd POV. This chapter will reveal what I want to reveal, appeasing my agenda (if you will), but it will do so in a way that matters to the novel, matters to the character, and feels fitting and appropriately-timed to the reader. It will also take the pressure off some of my other characters for a few pages, something that I think can be a very powerful narrative tool--especially when dealing with situations that have mounting tension.

Feb 16, 2015

Revising the Novel: Thoughts on Characterization

After stalling for about a month, trying to come at painstaking chapters from various different mental states and stages of creativity, I've come to the realization that--while I can (and have been) forcing my way through the final third of the novel in its fourth revision, my heart isnt' in it because I know things about my characters that can no longer be ignored. Their changes aren't manifesting clearly enough in the final third, and in order to do what I want to do there, I need to fix what comes before.

I've always charged ahead. Always said I wouldn't obsess and nit-pick to the point of stalling. But working my best angles and trying everything I knew how to do yielded less-than-impressive results in January and February. I wrote about it in my journal. I talked it out with another writer. I pondered and pondered. I even moped. Finally, I accepted that to forgo these revisions of the final third of the novel is not to fail, rather, it's to free myself from writing that I understand will not be true to character anyway.

With that in mind, I sat down in my reading chair, took out my trusty paper and pen, and reviewed some of my favorite quotes from Jeff Vandermeer's astonishing book, Wonderbook. I felt immediately empowered. The work that came in the next few hours was very slow, very meticulous. If someone had been watching me, they might have thought I was simply staring off into space, scribbling just a few lines every ten minutes or so. But there's a reason for this tempo--and it has to do with characterization. 

With each line of dialogue, each reaction to setting, each chosen scene--we're characterizing our characters whether we want to or not. Each choice must be exactly right for that character at that time. Each sentence must reflect the proper worldview, and of course, that worldview must evolve and change as the emotional beats of a novel build to a breaking point. Given this, I journaled about the following questions:

  • How does Nathan (my protagonist) express his desires?
  • How does Nathan feel when those desires are thwarted?
  • What makes Nathan feel relief or happiness?
  • What were Nathan's defining moments as a young man? As a soldier?
  • What is Nathan's greatest fear?
  • What circumstances surrounded the beginning of Nathan's relationship with Tenley? When was the high point of that relationship? When did this relationship experience its first moment of real risk?
  • What setbacks does Nathan face with regard to his desires?
  • What does Nathan have to lose and why?
  • How far will Nathan ignore the truth of his situation before something gives?
  • Is there anyone in the novel who knows something private/secretive about Nathan and can wield that power over him?
  • At its core, what is this novel most essentially about?
I found that, with some careful thinking, I was able to answer each and every one of these questions. Most importantly, I believed in those answers. When I came across an answer I didn't believe (or didn't think had manifest in the novel yet), I asked myself why. Then I asked myself how I could fix that, or whether that answer was really the one I should be aiming for in the first place. Finally, I came to the answer to my last question, which I call "the essential sentence":

This novel is about a man's desire to be understood, despite the fact that he can do everything right and still be wrong.

Exhaling for what felt like the firs time in months, I re-read my notes. In my hand I held two scribbled pages of the key to my character. I felt like I knew him, at least a little bit better. This was all the permission I needed to return to the work again, refreshed. I got up from the chair, printed Chapter One, and sat back down. Revision is never best on the computer. The mind and hand, the heart and ethereal, need space to breathe. I read out loud. I repeated sentences. I made notes, changes, additions, subtractions. I crossed things out. Rewrote them. Read things out loud again. In a few hours, I had revised 7 pages, the entirety of my opening chapter. 

Slow and steady...I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...