The Craft: Research, How Much Is Too Much?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

I’m trying to get the balance right between research and writing. One thing I don’t want to do when writing fiction is research too much.sketch

The other day, I read an interview with Tom Stoppard, the playwright. I haven’t been able to track down the exact one again. But the important point was: can one over-research before sitting down to write a story? Is there  a point where you should be begin writing before you know too much about a given topic? In the final analysis, Tom says yes, you shouldn’t wait to become a total expert, but dive in.

Now, I’ve written my fair share of stories in historical settings. And the question is: where do you stop? I don’t know the exact answer, but I do know you can overdo the research. You have to go into a work still a bit ignorant about it. You must choose the difficult middle path.

Over-research or over-plot your story/book and you risk making it stale. You’ll sit down to write and have nothing to say, it’s almost like you’ve written yourself out. Written the idea out. On the other hand, research too little, plot too little and you could soon lose yourself in a trackless forest of options and alternatives. There’s nothing to guide you back to the kernel of the story. And your world’s details are flawed or inaccurate.

So, when do you put the research down and begin in earnest? As always, there’s no hard and fast rule, you just have to make a gut decision. Right now, I think of it like a sketch of the human body. You want to have the skeleton and its position complete in your mind, but you don’t need all the organs in place or the skin. You just need a basic idea of how the thing will look on the page. That’s not to be dismissive of research or world-building, but you have to know when it’s time to stop and begin to write.

Everyone will have their limit for this, my only point is there is a danger in doing too much research, too much plotting, too much thinking. Your research and plotting has to be a foundation. The story itself is the building. When the foundation looks good, you have to start putting the walls in place. And in a writing a story, the writer is the only one who can make that call. It’s your world, writer, you have to build it.

Good luck and see you next time,

DJ

No Reading Fiction While Working!

Here’s something I picked up while reading a quick, great interview with Paul Auster, the American writer. It seems Auster will NOT read fiction when he’s writing fiction:0115-BKS-ByTheBook-blog_Auster

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid when writing?

No fiction while working on a novel — only after I’m done and before I’ve started something new — but poetry, history and biographies are acceptable, along with books to help me research various things related to the book I’m writing…

Now, you all know I’m always looking for ways to lift my writing game. I’ve thought this way for a long time. I’ve always been reticent to read other folks’ stuff while writing my own stuff in the fear that it might subconsciously affect my writing style. And sometimes the style of a writer is so strong—think Poe or Cormac McCarthy—that you can’t imagine it not affecting your writing. (That McCarthy—what a  style, too!)

So, going forward, I’m going to follow Auster’s advice on this one: no more reading fiction while I’m on a writing project. I’m going to save that for the time between projects. The only exception of course, which would be rare, would be for reading fiction as research for my piece. That will be exceptionally rare. And, as Auster notes, history, biography, non-fiction are still OK.

Bam, another small tweak to my writing process and a good one. I’d be curious to know if any of you writers out there have recently tweaked your writing process to help you focus/perform better. Let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below. Thanks! 

See you next time,

DJ

The Craft: How to Make Your Characters Like Metamorphic Rock

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction...]

[Spoiler alert: This post contains plots details from Hamlet and Moby Dick.]

I hope you forgive this very extended metaphor…

I wonder if my fellow writers out there have ever considered how their characters are (or ought to be) like metamorphic rock? Hmmm…I don’t see many hands going up or nods of agreement out there, so let me explain. NY-Central-Park-Rock-7333

It  turns out that there are not three forms of rock like we learned in school: the igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. We were lied to…sort of. In reality, there are just two types: rocks made from magma (igneous) and rocks made from falling sediment (sedimentary). Now, both of these can be turned into metamorphic rock, but they both start as igneous or sedimentary and become metamorphic rock.

But how do these metamorphic rocks come about? By the application of heat and PRESSURE.

Metamorphic rocks arise from the transformation of existing rock types, in a process called metamorphism, which means “change in form”. The original rock (protolith) is subjected to heat (temperatures greater than 150 to 200 °C) and pressure, causing profound physical and/or chemical change.

Ok…So what the heck does ANY OF THIS have to do with characters in fiction??? Well, here it is: compelling characters always change (almost always). And they change because they are brought under PRESSURE. So, if you have a great character, don’t just put them up on the shelf or in a monastery free from temptation and trial. Bring them down from the shelf, thrust them out into the world, into the marketplace, onto the field of battle. And THEN see how they do. Do they remain the same? Or do they evolve, change, metamorphosize (spell checker says this is not a verb in English???? Is that right?) because of the pressure? And if they do…Voila! You have two of the three elements of your story: character and plot. You just need to add a setting.

So remember: take that beloved character, that untested protolith, apply pressure/heat and see what they change into. These days, I don’t pre-write a main character for a story (protagonist) without wondering how he/she will change. How he/she will be different at the END of a story than they were at the START.

PS…What about those great characters who DON’T change? Those Hamlets and Ahabs of yore?  It’s interesting that both are transformed ultimately by death. That being said, they come under extreme pressure and don’t change, but become hardened in their ways, more what they are. Even they change—to a degree. At least the pressure is applied, even if it comes to naught. It’s their standing in the way of this pressure which makes them great, albeit tragic, characters.

Alright, see you next time. In the meantime, don’t forget to apply to some pressure to your most beloved characters.

See you,

DJ

The Writing of the Fiction

Guys, getting into the writing…of the fiction…this week. So, I’ve got to post and run.

I thought I would like to talk about events at large, and I started this writing day fully intending to do that, but it just melted inside me…and was gone. I almost threw down the book I was going to quote from. It just no longer worked and I had no motivation to write about it.  

But in fiction writing, it’s whole different story. I’m reading, absorbing, researching, submitting, writing. All good stuff, but it means not much time left to blog. I hope to have more substantive posts in the future. Until then, I’m working and doing this fiction writing stuff.

Now back, to that writing/submitting stuff. 

giphy Ren

See you guys next time,

DJ

Still Writing, Still Dreaming

All, I’m going to take a little break from updates on my writing. I will still be here and writing, but will take a step back from updating you EVERY BIT OF THE WAY on my works in progress. But, rest assured, I’m going to continue writing fiction. In order to do THAT, I’m going to have to continue to make these posts short and telegraphic. And maybe focus on larger issues in writing and life…but, you know, in a concise way.

So to recap, here’s a quick review of where things stand:

1. I’ve submitted a number of works and will submit more. (You can find out more on my Works in Progress page). These pieces include Pacha-Mama, The Number Thief and others.

2. I’m writing this weekend. (And hopefully not looking like poor Tom here.)

mrw-im-still-writing-a-paper-the-morning-its-due-169598

That’s all I’ve got. Nothing more to say. I’ll catch you  guys next time, hopefully with something a bit more substantive. Until then.

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,

DJ

Where My Writing Is Going in 2017

It’s a little late for resolutions, but I wanted to post this before 2017 gets too far away from us. writing headphones

First, let me say I’m pretty pleased with where my writing is at. So, these are more like adjustments than “resolutions.” Overall, I’m keeping disciplined and writing “what I know and love.” So, all’s pretty good. But I was noodling on what to change and these three things came up. So, here are my writing resolutions for 2017.

1. No More Novellas
Well, well, well. Here’s the deal: I love writing novellas. I’ve never been comfortable writing short stories: I always feel things are just starting to get good when I get to about 5,000-7,500 words—the upper limit for a short piece. So, I always feel like I have to stop just when things are getting going. It’s very, very frustrating.

On the other hand, novellas are fine, but they have one big problem. BIG  PROBLEM. No one wants to publish them. Well, I can’t say no one. But I can say there are far, far fewer markets for novellas than short stories or novels. And it’s really tough finding just the right market for just the right stories. (If you think I’m wrong about this, please reply in the comment section, I’d love to learn about more novella markets).

So, this year I’m going to concentrate on NOT writing novellas. I’m going to go short/long this year. NO MORE NOVELLAS.

2. Listen to My Music While I Write
Back in the day, I used to write with music on. I mean I would ALWAYS write with my music playing in my apartment. Nowadays, I write at a café and  listen to whatever they’re playing. And this can be distracting or annoying, especially when the music doesn’t fit the  mood of the scene you’re writing. I think it can also overpower your brain if it’s too loud or too complex. For some reason free-form jazz seems to be quite distracting for me—and  that’s a fairly common genre for cafes to play.

So, I’m going to try something different this year. I’m going to buy some headphones and plug those in. Then, I can select the music I need to write by. This usually means instrumental music or something sung in a language I don’t know. I’m interested to see if this will help or hurt productivity. But hey, this  is part of the experimentation I talked about, the tweaks you need to make to see if they help or hurt your writing.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

3. Go to One Con
I have messed up this one  again and  again. It feels  I haven’t gone to a Con in ages. I need to change that now. So, here’s my commitment to go to ONE Con this year. I think I should be able to do one.

I’m looking for a mid-size Con with a good writing track. You know, one with lots of workshops and seminars on writing. Maybe with some filking on the side. I’m thinking about going to BaltiCon in May, but haven’t decided yet. I’ll keep you posted.


So, that’s it. Three easy pieces. Going to start making this happen right now. See you out there, fellow writers. And best luck to all of you in 2017!!!! Let’s do this!

,DJ

A Look Back at My Year in Writing—2016

2016 was a pretty good year for my fiction writing. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. This post follows an annual tradition: it’s the one time in the year where I look back at what I said I wanted to do way back at the start of the year and see how I did. It will also look at other things I accomplished. So, here we go.


1. I Didn’t Go to Any Cons.Pushkin Writing
This was bit of a fumble. I wanted  to go to two Cons (you know, those assemblages where fans and creatives get together and talk), but I didn’t even make it to one! Well, it was a crazy year. I moved to a new place, work was hectic—and oh yeah!—there was  all that fiction writing to do. So, this didn’t happen. I will definitely try to make up for it—penance, penance—in 2017.

2. Blog Changes
I did get the blog headed where I wanted it to go. The posts are regular, but short and telegraphic when they need to be. I’ve also blogged a little bit about subjects that aren’t writing- or art-related. So, little steps. Little, good steps.

3. I Wrote What I Wanted
Hell yeah. This was probably my biggest breakthrough this year. Early last year, I just thought, “To hell with it, I’m going to write what I want to write.” And I’m glad to report I have. Regardless of marketability or clear genres or even common sense—I just dove in. I wrote those stories which were “burning in my belly” like Halberstam said. I finished a South American gothic horror fantasy, wrote a comedic play with a medieval setting and started a piece of flash fiction for crying out loud. Me! Flash fiction! A style which I swore I would never write in. But an idea came to me in the airport, I fired up my laptop and in 30 minutes later it was done.

And I brought it all back home with a story featuring the protagonist of The Ghul of Yazd—Yusuf ibn-Yaqzan. They’re all very different pieces, but they have a common thread. They’re EXACTLY the pieces I wanted to be writing when I took them up. And that has made all the difference.

4. I Saw my First “Literary” Fiction Piece Get Published
This year was the third time I had a piece of mine get published traditionally (i.e. by a third party publisher/magazine). Well, that felt good. And any year when you get something (anything) published is a good year. It also marks the first time I had a work published anywhere which had NO supernatural  elements. It was “literary fiction,” you could say. Anyway, it was exciting to see it in print.

5. I Wrote my First Play
This was also the first year in which I dipped my toe in a very, very difficult new style: I wrote a play. I still think it has flaws, but I was  able to keep it together, write five acts and have some consistency in plot, character, setting, etc. I’ve been shopping it around, but must admit I’m finding it rough going since I have to learn a whole new way of putting forward the piece. No emails sent to distant lands without a second thought. (And I get a lingering sense that I may not be enough of an extrovert to be a good playwright. All that dealing with playhouses and working through the script with total strangers—ugh!). But I wrote what I wanted and—damn it!—It was fun!

6. I Felt My Writing Improve
Now, it can be hard to judge your own stuff. I realize that. We always think our own works are the best. It’s a human weakness. But I do feel that the preparation, the thinking behind them and the outcome of my works improved this year. I would definitely say—to get a bit down in the weeds—that my plotting improved. I have struggled with that aspect MIGHTILY in the past. It’s very difficult to do the right amount of planning. Plan too little and the story fly off the rails. Plan too much and you risk not allowing your characters to breath and  live—and the whole project comes off as flat and sterile. I’m finally starting to zero in on a happy medium where I plan just enough to keep the whole thing moving and alive, but within the proper constraints. It was gratifying to see that change in my pieces this year.


So, all in all, it was a pretty good year in fiction writing. I will see you guys in a couple of weeks, where I’ll post a bit about my plans for 2017. I’m looking forward to another year of writing fiction.

Back to the Writing

…And I’m back. Just wanted to do a little something before the old blog gets too rickety. Well, I’ve had some good cider, completed a massive road trip from the East coast out to New Mexico (with a pit stop in Memphis!) and now I’m back. barton-fink-6

….And I’m feeling a bit like Barton Fink  in this scene. A bit worn and stretched thin. After all, we’re entering one of the busiest times of the year.

But here’s the good thing: I’m off this weekend to write. I’ll be working on the 3rd draft of my new story, “The Number Thief.” I’ve been reading through the printouts of the manuscript and the story looks solid: tight plotting, compelling characters (in the two leads, at least) and some great moments along the way. So, it looks like I should have a third draft done in no time…Then it’s onto finalizing it and starting to submit the piece.

Other than that, I have a few other works done and I’m submitting those. No word yet on whether the editors like them, but I’m out there playing the game of submission and rejection.

Alright, that’s all for now. Life—and writing—call. See you next time.

,Darius

The Craft: How to Find Your Writing Routine

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

You’ve got to do what works for you. No less true in writing, than in life. And to do something well, you must do it consistently. And that’s where routine cHaruki-Murakami-007omes in.

I’m a big believer in routine, especially when it comes to writing fiction. For me, each writing day is the same: I get up,  hit the gym, grab lunch. Then, it’s time for a late coffee and some light reading. Right about then, I’m ready to dive into the writing. I write until about 5-6 p.m. and I’m done. It’s not a long day, but it’s a tiring one and lot of energy is spent in that one afternoon.

Now, that routine wouldn’t work for everyone. And my routine has changed over the years. I used to write in the morning, at home, but now I write in the afternoon at a café. Even my routine has evolved over time. So, what will work for you, if you’re trying to write fiction? It’s hard to say. But I do know you’ll have to experiment and find what works for you. And once you find it, you’ll probably be best sticking to it.

Let’s take two successful fiction writers as examples of how different writing routines can be. First, there’s Haruki Murakami. A pretty famous guy. What does he do? Here it is:

Murakami rises at 4am on most mornings, writes until noon, spends the afternoon training for marathons and browsing through old record stores and turns in, with his wife, at 9pm.

Pretty boring, right? But as he says, it’s a routine that works for him.

“It’s just routine,” he says and laughs loudly. “It’s kind of boring. It’s a routine. But the routine is so important.”

Well, that routine has gotten him through several long novels, including the 1,000-page plus 1Q84. So, will what he does work for everyone? No.

Let’s take another successful writer: Kei Miller. Miller’s routine is almost the opposite of Murakami’s. In fact, it’s not really a routine at all.

There are too many distractions. I succumb to them all. And I would like to tell you that my distractions are noble–rereading the classics, diligent research. But they are not. I am distracted by bad TV shows from the US, by the top stories in the Jamaican newspapers, by Candy Crush (God did I just admit that?), by the entirety of the internet…

Sound familiar? Despite all that, somehow, a pattern does emerge.

Writing periods, when they come to me, do not come neatly. They stretch across days, from 10 at night to five in the morning, me going to sleep only when I see the sky brightening and suddenly in my head is the warning voice of an old Caribbean woman: “Don’t make tomorrow catch you looking into yesterday!” I go to sleep then, but it is a restless sleep, and I wake up just a few hours later to write again…

And what does he produce as a result? Nine books in 10 years, as well as articles and essays and reviews and blogs and lectures. An output perhaps more staggering than Murakami’s.

So, what’s the point of all this? You have to find your own routine or pattern. And then stick to it. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Sometimes, I add or subtract little things from my writing routine: will things change if I don’t workout? If I listen to music instead? You must try earnestly and forthrightly to find what works for you. Write down how many words you wrote on a certain day and see if it was more than yesterday and analyze what you did differently. Did you produce more? Maybe there was a change in your routine that contributed to that higher word count…

There’s lots of ways to become more productive, but routine is probably the best. And nobody can give that routine to you. Not me, not your significant other, not your writing sensei. You just have to go out there and start doing it. That’s the only way there’s ever been.

Good Luck,

Darius

Today, I Write

Well today I was going to write a nice, fat blog post. It ain’t gonna happen. X

I have a story burning a hole through me. And I have one chapter left. So, with only x hours to write today, I’m gonna spend that x the best way I know how: by writing fiction. So today, I write.

I will see you guys in a couple of weeks with a bigger post.

And if you’re a writer, I hope you’ll join me in writing today. Always remember: what separates writers from the rest is that writers write. 

Until Next Time,

Darius