Friday, February 13, 2015

Plotting...

Okay, so on Sunday, February 8th, 2015, The Wizard of Santa Monica was not complete. However, I was one chapter away from finishing it and the chapter in question was mostly done. Monday passed and on Tuesday I again charged. I didn't finish it, only managed to nibble on the last chapter and add to other chapters. Wednesday came and once again, I faced The Wizard of Santa Monica. I realized then that the work I had done on the last chapter was fair and redid some of it. So, Thursday, today (it's technically Friday, but I'm still awake), I fought the wizard again.

It took me all day to rework the chapter material and add to other chapters. Finally, The Wizard of Santa Monica is complete. That was a challenging story to tackle.

In total, the novella came to about 33,000 words. It has been with me since 2009 and maybe earlier; I finished a number of drafts before it became part of The Wizards in 2013. That led to the problematic draft I wasn't been able to finish until today.

So, why was it so difficult to finish?

The plot.

I could not nail down the plot.

Yes, I want to discuss the elements of fiction again. Now, when I said plot just now there are a number of ideas that usually come to mind. I say a number because, as I said a long, long time ago, writers cannot decide on a definitive list of elements in fiction! Sure, there are the usual suspects like setting and character, but for the most part, every writer has their own list.

And even when the elements are the same on a list, the way they are interpreted are not. Take for instance these two definitions of premise (an element of fiction not usually included in most lists):


1) This premise is the underlying idea of your story--the foundation that supports your entire plot. (from Writer's Digest.com).


2) A story premise, along with its tool, the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure. (from writermag.com)



Similar definitions, right? The difference is in the examples they give. Look at these:


1) For instance, the premise of The Three Little Pigs is “Foolishness leads to death, and wisdom leads to happiness.” (It”s not three little pigs get scared by a wolf and make bad building decisions.) (from writer's digest.com)


2) When a fish-out-of-water, big-city cop moves to a small, coastal town dependent on tourism, he must team with an oceanographer and a crusty sailor to convince the doubting, money-grubbing townsfolk to close their beaches because a giant, man-eating shark is lurking just offshore, until the shark strikes, forcing the townsfolk to allow the cop and his buddies to take on the shark mano-a-mano. (from writermag.com)


*Writer mag gives the premise of the movie "Jaws." I will call that paragraph a premise since it is closer to my preference of the meaning of the word premise.

Those examples are sooo different from one another! They represent opposite ideas, even though the definitions of premise they gave are similar. What this says is that writers view the elements of fiction differently based on their preferences.

What I will say about plot reflects my preferences on the subject.


***

Here are a few definitions of plot as a fiction element:


1) Plot –- the major events that move the action in a narrative. It is the sequence of major events in a story, usually in a cause-effect relation. (from csulb.edu)


2) Plot refers to the series of events that give a story its meaning and effect. (from bedfordstmartins.com)


3) All fiction is based on conflict and this conflict is presented in a structured format called PLOT. There are a number of different elements to a plot. They include: Exposition, foreshadowing, inciting force, conflict, etc. etc. etc. (from nps.gov)


4) Plot is what happens in a work of fiction, and the order that it happens in. (from creative-writing-now.com)


All the definitions deal with events described in a story. There is also some concern with the order in which these events appear in the story. Some definitions even mention other ideas, like conflict and a cause-effect relationship between the events.

And if you're a visual writer, there is Freytag's triangle which is a graphical representation of a plot (by most definitions). Freytag or Freitag, it really doesn't matter.


Look at that thing! It's adorable. Some graphical representations show a hump, a curve, like a roller coaster ride. I liken this type of writing to a sex act because, let's face it, after the male climaxes it's all over. It is no accident I'm comparing this to a male sexual experience; Gustav Freitag was a male novelist and this type of plotting depends on building tension until there is a release at the climax (all sexual talk).

*Side Note: Imagine what a plot would look like if writers used the female sexual experience instead! 

Here is the exact same structure but drawn in a circle (attributed to Joseph Campbell):



You can see the similarities.

Most genre fiction books use the triangle plot diagram. It is often said that genre books are plot heavy, but if you look at the diagram, what that means is that genre books use a very noticeable plot strategy. Each event in the plot leads towards that climax; action heavy books will have major sequences at the climax--including the showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist.

Not all books are written like this. And yes, I know, I know, your Creative Writing teacher said all books build towards some kind of climax (even if it's a small one). I'm never sure what they mean by that.

However, it is a serviceable tool for simple novels. Complex novels (like War and Peace) use other strategies.

What I find in the stories that fall under the "Literary" category are revelations that develop the main character(s), not climaxes in action. The reason is that this type of story tries to retain a level of realism that makes it (in appearances) closer to life.

If I had to plot someone's life, it would look like this:



The beginning would be the birth of the person and the end point would be that person's death. The arrow points to a high point in that person's life. Maybe it was their marriage or a new job. What is the cliche? Life is full of ups and downs?

Plotting in fiction attempts to mimic what this graph shows. It artificially looks at particular points in a fictional person's life, the ones that contribute to the overall effect the writer desires. It is not a "singular effect," like Poe said was a characteristic of short stories, but it is a desired effect.

*Side Note: that is actually the graph of an irregular heartbeat, which I thought would make an excellent graphical representation of a person's life*

***

A rough premise of The Wizard of Santa Monica is: Danny Nash is a homeless thief who lives in his beat up Firebird and dreams of becoming like Robin Hood. When he saves the life of another homeless man, he nearly loses his. Unbeknownst to him, the man he saves is a self-proclaimed wizard who takes him to a lonesome mansion to heal. There, Danny meets Esmeralda, Karen and the man who saved him, Quique. Together, they tell him the tragic history of the group of children that once lived there, learned there; these were boys and girls who called their power magic and themselves wizards.

I used Wuthering Heights as inspiration for the structure of the novel. If you don't know, in Wuthering Heights, a number of characters tell another character stories from the past. The narrative switches from Third Person to First Person (when a character shares his/her recollections).

There is an overarching plot to Wuthering Heights: Lockwood rents a place in the moors owned by Heathcliff, doesn't like it, goes back to London for a while, comes back to the moors for a bit and then returns back to London. It is such a mundane plot that it's amazing that it coats one of my favorite love stories. The sub-plot is more important and deals with the history of Heathcliff in the moors and his failed love for Catherine Earnshaw.

It is not uncommon for a novel to have a number of plots. Sometimes, like in Wuthering Heights, there is a main plot and an overarching plot. For this reason, it is difficult for me to see how a novel is supposed to build to a point called a climax, when each plot is its own separate entity.

In The Wizard of Santa Monica, the premise changed often as I wrote and rewrote it over the years, but the overarching plot always dealt with the homeless man, Danny Nash, and the sub-plot dealt with the wizard children.

I see now that it was problematic for me to keep changing the premise. Once you change a premise, it more or less throws your plot into chaos.

An earlier premise of The Wizard of Santa Monica was: Danny Nash is a homeless thief who lives in his beat up Firebird and dreams of becoming like Robin Hood. When he saves the life of another homeless man, he nearly loses his. Unbeknownst to him, the man he saves is a self-proclaimed wizard who uses his power to heal him. The wizard leaves and Danny becomes obsessed with finding him again. He embarks on a journey across Southern California's homeless communities, always one step behind the wizard. The only evidence of the wizard's presence are the number of stories he tells those he comes across; they tell the tragic story of a group of children under the care of a man named Wendell the Great, who could wield unimaginable power they called magic.

Another obstacle came  from the overall plot of The Wizards, which is the entire collection of wizard short stories/novellas. The Wizard of Santa Monica is only one story in The Wizards.

It helps me now to talk about this.

***

And what's next for me, you ask? I am looking to start the LAX story as early as next week. I'm giving up my Valentine's day fun (no love parties for me!). Even now, I'm going over the material I have for it.

I'm very excited to finally be here.


LC / LA




Monday, February 2, 2015

New Year, old enemies...

Towards the end of December, I got a visit from an old enemy: Blepharitis. The flareup was so sudden that it confused me and left me with a very irritated left eye. It had been so long since I had problems with my eyes that I at first thought it was pink eye.

Yuk!

Luckily, I had taken a week off from both my jobs, so I only lost my time, not work time to recover... My doctors at the VA remembered this old bastard of an enemy from my records and gave me what I needed to clear it up (for now).

Let me tell you, I learned a great deal about taking time off at the beginning of the year. First, it is never a good idea, unless you like to travel in cold weather. January has cold weather anywhere you go in the United States. Aside from Los Angeles, there isn't much available in terms of a good time, unless you like to do stuff in the snow. It's not for me. Snow brings back memories of people I would rather remain in the shadows of my subconscious. And it's cold.

Besides, there was a ton of baggage I had to clean up (literally).

I'm going to try the vacation thing again in August of this year. This time, I will improve my methods.

***

The Wizard of Santa Monica continues to frustrate me. Goddamn, I could have written five other short stories in the time it's taken me to work that one through. But this week (the first week of February) is it. Thursday, Friday and Saturday I'm nailing this thing shut!

And then, at last, I begin the LAX story, which I've renamed. To do that I'm going to become a shut-in, just work and writing. No women. No drinking. No women. All the drama that women brought me last year is still fresh in my mind (Josephine, Josephine, Josephine, Josephine...). No women. No Asian women! None!

If I find the will-power to resist my lecherous urges, I think I can finish a draft of the LAX story by the end of March. It's not a difficult one--when compared to The Wizards and The Elohim Trilogy.





LC / LA

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Silkworm, a review

Reading Robert Galbraith's (J.K. Rowling's) The Silkworm made me think about writing and publishing. It isn't that the material is thoughtful--the narrator is very distant. It makes you wonder if the author shared the views expressed. Here is a quote from The Silkworm:

"With the invention of the Internet, any subliterate cretin can be Michiko Kakutani."

In case you don't know (I didn't), Michiko Kakutani is an award-winning book reviewer. What the quote is saying is that with the advent of the internet, people with blogs (cough! like me) and people who like to comment in those comment-boxes, can add their two cents about any book. The choice of "subliterate cretin" in the quote turns it into a very nasty critique of you and I.

Ouch! Zing!

Here is the thing though. If that quote had come from a John Steinbeck book, then I would know the author was taking a shot at me, since Steinbeck wasn't shy about criticizing the society/culture he was a part of (see The Grapes of Wrath).

But the quote came from a Galbraith-Rowling book... And in this age, that means the author may or may not have meant it. What's more, those words would be meaningless if Robert Galbraith didn't double as ultra-famous J.K. Rowling.

Don't believe me? Consider the following statement from a newspaper review, which discusses the enormous amount of one-liners in Galbraith's book that deal with the state of the British publishing industry.

NY Times reviewer: Do these observations (about publishing) take on more weight when we know that the writer is a superstar female author rather than a semi-obscure male one? I think they do. 

Or in other words, what's important is that a famous person wrote that, not the comment itself.

Really?



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OVERVIEW:

Author: Robert Galbraith
Genre: Mystery

Premise: Cormoran Strike must solve the disappearance of author Owen Quine.

WHAT DIDN'T WORK FOR ME:

Oh, where to begin... For the sake of brevity, I will go over the biggest issues I had with this book.

Robin

Is Cormoran Strike's sidekick a four year old? In this book, Robin comes off as waaaaay too needy. She wants Strike's approval and attention so much that it becomes annoying from the first few pages. Another thing is that Robin's relationship is too clearly going to go to hell in the future; there is no question about this, which will then lead to a type of relationship with Strike.

The relationship she has with her fiance is also problematic. The guy is an arrogant douche. How have they been together for as long as they have been in the story?


The Plot

Old Cormoran gets a visit from Mrs. Quine during which she convinces him to help her find her missing husband--a has-been writer on the brink of publishing a "controversial" manuscript for a new novel called Bombyx Mori. I liked the idea of a book within a book, but... Bombyx Mori is the kind of book where a fictional character neatly substitutes for a person in real life aaaaaaand, revelations are made about the personalities/lives of said persons. It's symbolic.

Okay. That a deviant would want to kill a writer to keep him from making damaging revelations to the public makes no sense at all. I mean, with a book that is as symbolic as Dante's "Divine Comedy," why would anyone bother? This is the information age. We kill each other over more important things, like the color of one's sneakers. Hell, if The Silkworm were set during Dante's time, it might have made sense as a motive.

So, that Cormoran would entertain the notion doesn't make him look very bright. I could not get around this, nor any of the lawyering up that the potential killers (publishing industry types) did when they found out about Owen Quine's manuscript.

That brings me to a big plot hole in the novel. There is this scene where publishing industry types are talking to lawyers to prepare themselves for the libel suit they plan on launching against the publishing house that puts Bombyx Mori in bookstores; they have read the manuscript and see its evil. Supposedly, Quine's manuscript is harmful enough to sue to keep it hidden. Yet, later it is revealed that the controversial information in Bombyx Mori is readily available to anyone looking for it.

So, why were the publishing industry types angry enough to sue? What was the fuss? It doesn't make sense. Would Lady Gaga sue a writer if they had a character in their novel who was just like her in every way, but then it was revealed that this character was secretly a man? The rumor of Lady Gaga being a man has made its rounds through the internet.

The paranoia over Bombyx Mori is unjustified. Maybe, if Owen Quine had been working on a memoir where he tells all about the people he knows...then, that would have justified the character reactions in The Silkworm.

I won't reveal what the ultimate reason for murdering Owen Quine is, but it left me with more questions than I cared to have after finishing a book. Consider this: If you're trying to murder someone, would you put them in a sling and slowly lower them into a pool filled with sharks? Sounds fun, but in this world, you would have to buy the sharks, the sling, use someone's pool, etc. That's just too elaborate and increases your chances of getting away with it--which is what most killers want to do.

The killer in The Silkworm goes all out, leaving me to wonder why a simple bullet to the head wouldn't have done the job?

As it is, the plot is just goofy.

Its Philosophy

The Silkworm makes a number of comments about the publishing industry...but it says nothing about it. The book has no philosophy; it just strings together commentary about it.

That quote I showed at the beginning of this post about readers with blogs reviewing books, well that isn't exactly a new sentiment. That's been a common thought since the onset of the web log. And that goes for the other thoughts in Galbraith's book, my favorite being about the number of writers today: "We need [more] readers...fewer writers."

The comments aren't even comments at all; they're things that its characters say.

What's the difference?

I mentioned Steinbeck because the narrator of The Grapes of Wrath makes critical statements about aspects of the current society. In The Silkworm, the characters make the critical statements, which amounts to not making statements at all. This is because a writer must remain true to a character's personality. You couldn't write about Nazi Germany without some of the Nazi characters making negative comments against Jews. This doesn't mean the author hates Jews. It just means the characterization requires this.

The overall effect of The Silkworm is confusing. What's the fun of all this commentary if it's regurgitated from the internet?



WHAT WORKED FOR ME:


Cormoran Strike is still pretty cool.





OVERALL:

I'm going to re-read the Harry Potter books. My memory cannot recall this many disappointments in those books. The Silkworm goes right up there with The Cuckoo's Calling, a place far lower than the lowest of the Harry Potter books. I will leave it at that.






LC/LA