After a long hiatus while working on other things, I’ve finally reached a place in my schedule where I can focus on a novel again. I’m not exactly starting from scratch: I have a 3000-word chapter that was thoroughly critiqued by some writer friends a couple of years ago and a fairly solid idea of where to go next. I went on a research trip to an important location a couple of months ago and took along the video camera to film the locale. I know the main character quite well, because I’ve written about him before, though only one short story featuring him has been published, and that in a fairly obscure anthology.
This isn’t my first time at the rodeo. I’ve written four or five novels already, one of which I worked on extensively with my agent over a period of about two years. That was a learning experience, even if the manuscript ultimately didn’t attract any publishers. However, I’m going to approach this book a little differently from my previous efforts. One of the biggest changes is the tool: instead of using the old tried-and-true Word, I’ve decided to shift to Scrivener. I’ve had the program on my computer for a long time, but until now I haven’t taken the time to explore its features. Now, after watching a few tutorials, I’m hooked.
It’s just a tool, little different from a pen and paper in the end, but it has a few attractive features. The one that caught my attention in the first place was the fact that it’s more than a word processor—it’s a workspace. Once you’re inside the program, you don’t have to leave it to pick up your research files or other related documents. You can attach them to the workspace so they’re all in one place. You can open up a pdf or an image or even a video and overlay it with what you’re working on. You don’t have to rummage around on your hard drive to find the document. Even if you’re really organized, that can take some doing. Here’s a screenshot of my workspace, which is in its infancy:
The “Binder” on the left is your project. Everything under “Manuscript” is the work in progress. But there are also sections for character sketches and place descriptions, plus the Research folder, which in my project currently contains the video from my trip and an image.
Note the main area of the window, which resembles a cork board. In Scrivener, you write in scenes which are collected together into chapters and, ultimately, the entire manuscript. This cork board display makes it easy to move scenes around until you find the optimal order. My cards above are currently blank except for a caption, but once I get to work they will contain short descriptions of what happens. You can also have Scrivener automatically create a synopsis of the scene, though I haven’t tested that feature yet to see how effective it is.
When you get down to the writing, you click on your scene and type. You don’t worry about formatting—only content. Formatting is the last thing you do, when you assemble the manuscript for output in one of a myriad of supported document types. Just type. Write. Put down words.
You can split the screen (horizontally or vertically) and open the document twice so that you can refer to text earlier or later in the scene without constantly scrolling back and forth, which can be quite helpful. Or you can open a second document in the split screen for reference. Got a web page that you keep referring back to? Simply drag the URL into the reference area and the whole page will be imported into your workspace. Or export it as a pdf and add the pdf version to the reference area, which ever works best for you.
Do you use real people—actors or actresses, for example—as models for some of your characters? I’ve been known to do that in the past, creating folders of images I culled online. In Scrivener you can create a pinboard to which you add these images randomly, along with whatever notes you want to insert. Have you ever seen one of those boards on TV created by a character who is obsessing over something? Messy affairs with strings connecting items from different parts of the board, everything haphazard to a casual viewer, but which has an internal logic to the creator? You can do that in Scrivener.
Stuck coming up with a character name? Scrivener has a built-in name generator with a ton of options, including specifying whether you want a common or rare name or a name in a different language.
Another nice feature is the fact that you can go into full-screen mode, which really keeps your head in the game. Once you have everything you need set up, all your research and images and related documents, you can blank out the rest of your screen and tune out such distractions as email, Facebook and Twitter.
For me, this latter aspect is one of the most intriguing. My writing time is limited, so I want to make the most of it. The software is intuitive and you can get going quickly without doing much more than watching a 5-minute intro video. Then it’s game on. Avoiding distractions, not having to search for research documents, being able to overlay images when I want to describe something…everything about Scrivener is designed to make it easier to get the job done without venturing into the Internet during your writing session, where all manner of traps and lures await to distract you from the manuscript.
Check back next month. If all goes well, I should have an update on my experience with this new (to me) program, which is available for both Mac and Windows users.
I’ve been trying my damndest to clear off my desk so I can devote my attention to a novel I’ve been aching to write for months—nay years. The problem is that I keep getting sucked back into all these little projects that keep me from turning my attention to the book. This relates back to a post I made here over four years ago, called Of course I will.
One problem is that it’s such an honor to be asked to do things sometimes that it’s almost impossible to say no. Other times, cool opportunities come along and I actually volunteer to write something. Over the course of the past couple of months, both of these things have happened. Plus I had to do revisions for a new edition of a forthcoming book and proof the new pages. Then I got sent to Japan for a business trip for a week. And I had a new book come out, which meant that I had to pay attention to reviews, do interviews and watch sales ranks and all the other things that happen when a book is published.
Mind you, these are all good problems to have. I’m not complaining. And, yet, I really want to work on that novel. I went on a research trip with my wife several weeks ago and came back with an hour of video to use as a reference as I write. I have one full chapter already written that dates back at least two years. The chapter has been extensively critiqued, but it’s going to get a major overhaul because I discovered finally what the book is going to be about. I think. I won’t really know that until I start working on it again.
I was going to start on March 1. Then it was going to be April 1. Now it’s looking more like May 1 is the big day. May Day. Maybe that’s appropriate. Between now and the end of April, I’m going to write one more essay (beyond this one), finish up one more short story (well, okay, maybe two), get all the fallow stories I have back into circulation, and review three books (okay, maybe four). That’s it. If an interesting set of story guidelines come my way, I’m going to close my eyes and pretend I didn’t see them. If someone invites me to submit to an anthology, I’ll dig around in my archives to see if I have anything that might fit. Otherwise, I’m going to say sorry. At least, I think I will. I hope I will.
It really is hard to say no.
Come to think of it, I have another invitation to write an essay outstanding. Did I say yes already? I’m not quite sure—I didn’t exactly say no, though.
How many days are left in April? Maybe I can squeeze it in…
If only there were more hours in the day. More days in the week. More weeks in the month…
I have a new book coming out in just over two weeks. This has to be the strangest point in a book’s lifespan. I’ve seen finished copies, but it’s not available to anyone else yet. I put the manuscript to bed nearly a year ago, and I revisited it a few times in the interim, first with the copyeditor’s report and then again to proofread it. I’ve seen the cover art. I’ve seen the proofs and the real McCoy. There have even been a couple of reviews published already. I’m working with the publicist in anticipation of the book’s release. I’m generating reviews from bloggers and I’m participating in interviews that will come out around publication day.
But the book’s not out yet.
From my perspective, it’s a fait accompli. I’ve moved on to other things, and yet I have to think of it from the perspective of everyone else, for whom it’s brand new. I sympathize with actors who go on promotional tours in support of a newly released film. They may have made another movie or two since they last had anything to do with the one they’re promoting. But for their prospective audience, it’s brand spanking new.
I’m actively promoting the book and using every excuse to tweet about it or update my message board or make a post on Facebook. I’ve been sending out announcements to every writing group to which I belong, and my publicist will be hitting local media (and associational media—don’t forget your alumni news or the hometown paper where you grew up even if you haven’t lived there in decades) with press releases. I’ll be going to Comicpalooza in Houston in May, where there’s going to be a session made up of the book’s prime audience, and to World Horror in June, where I’ll take part in the mass signing and pimp my book when I’m introduced at my panel session.
For most of us, this is probably an uncomfortable phase. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but now we’re putting ourselves out there and saying “look at me” in loud (but hopefully polite and respectful) voices. Turning the spotlights on ourselves and our work while nervously awaiting the reactions of others. All the while trying to focus on that new shiny thing that has attracted our attention.
Strange days indeed.
I have a Facebook account, a Twitter account, a message board and a personal blog that is mirrored to LiveJournal. I used to be on MySpace, but I deleted that account after MySpace became geared mostly toward musicians. I signed up with LinkedIn a while back, but I soon observed that my only activity on the site was approving (or not) link requests from other people. I’m not actively looking for professional contacts—at least not in the LinkedIn context—so I deleted that account, too.
I have not yet explored Pinterest or Tumblr. I think I have a sense of what Pinterest is all about, but I have no idea what Tumblr’s advantages are. Maybe someday I’ll look at it, but not now. I have enough social media to suck up my “spare” time, thank you very much.
One of the reasons I like Twitter so much is that it is unidirectional. Someone can follow me, but I don’t have to follow them back, and vice versa. That way, I can create a stream that consists solely of people that I’m interested in hearing about. At present, I have roughly eight times more followers than people I follow. There’s also more possibilities for interacting directly with people who are normally out of reach. I’ve had television and news reporters answer questions that I’ve directed their way. Ditto with writers, musicians and film celebrities. Last week, Ian Rankin, one of my favorite crime novelists, was ruminating about getting ready to write his next book. I was curious about how much he knew about the story before he started writing, so I asked—and received a response a few minutes later. I also hear most news first on Twitter, although you have to be careful about false reports and the unreliability of breaking news.
I also maintain a personal message board and a blog that I update 2-3 times per week. The message board allows fans of my work to interact directly with me, and it doesn’t require much upkeep. The blog is really a personal journal that I choose to share with whoever is interested. It’s mostly about my daily writing, forthcoming publications, television shows, movies, what I’m currently reading. Since I don’t keep a diary—and I have a terrible memory for when things happened—it’s a way of recording things for posterity. I’ve used it any number of times to figure out when I did something. If anyone else finds my ramblings amusing or interesting, so much the better.
Why am I writing about social media on a blog about writing? Because social media is a free tool available to authors to spread the word about their work. Used correctly, it can allow you to build a community of people who want to hear from you and might even spread the word to others. Used incorrectly, it can enable you to piss people off (either because your posting behavior is considered spammy or you express unpopular opinions) and it can also suck up valuable writing time.
I spend far too much time on Facebook, scrolling through pages of updates of my news feed. I admit it. Twitter is a quicker fix. Even first thing in the morning, I can be caught up on everything on my Twitter feed in a few minutes, while I can easily spend fifteen minutes or more catching up on Facebook. I like seeing what family and friends (real or virtual) are up to. Facebook often leads me off on tangents, such as to putatively funny videos.
The biggest problem is that I have a very limited number of waking minutes each day. If I spend 30 minutes on Facebook, that’s 30 minutes I don’t have to write, or conduct other writing-related business (research, story submission, etc.).
In all my social media interactions, I rarely get involved in political or philosophical discussions or debates. Those, too, take up a lot of time. The most visible indication of my political and philosophical leanings comes from the tweets I choose to retweet, usually without comment. I don’t feel the need to convert people to my way of thinking. Most of the times when I’m tempted to respond to issue-driven discussions, I delete what I’ve written before hitting Send. I chide myself: why bother? Life’s too short. I could be writing, or reading.
At the core, for writers, using social media is about building a platform, a term marketing people at publishers like to use. What kind of audience have I built that I can address directly? If I post something, is it a tree falling in the woods, or are there consumers who will hear what I have to say and, perhaps, act on it? I know that sounds very me-centric, but the reality for writers is that the onus for promoting their work rests heavily on their shoulders unless they’re in the upper echelons.
So, use your social media wisely. Some people find it advantageous to separate themselves into two parts: the person and the writer. Have real friends as a person and followers as a writer. Find the right balance between promotion and over-promotion. Find your online voice, which in my experience shouldn’t be too far from your real voice. Perhaps a subset of your real voice.
Most importantly, keep in mind that social media only work to your advantage if you actually have work to promote, which means that you have to log off and write.
Two days ago, it was announced that Dan Brown’s next novel will be coming out in May. Immediately the wailing and the gnashing of teeth started. Is there another author, besides perhaps Stephanie Meyer, whose mere name incites such vitriol?
I’m going to stick my neck out here: I’ll buy Inferno, and I’ll read it. I might even enjoy it. I thought the uproar over The Da Vinci Code (hereafter: DVC) was unwarranted, even though I think Angels & Demons is a better book. DVC sold a gajillion copies, mostly on the strength of the controversy surrounding the plot. Brown might not have seen it coming, but if he did, kudos to him for finding a way to put his name on the map. DVC was his fourth book, not his first. He didn’t burst onto the scene with it. As they say, he paid his dues.
Dan Brown will never win a literary prize for his writing. However, he isn’t a horrible writer. He managed to sell his first few novels based on their individual strengths, and the first two are nothing like his Langdon novels. I enjoy his books in the same way that I like those by Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Stieg Larsson and John Grisham. None of these authors have what you might call literary chops. Their skill at characterization is limited, and their phrasing can be clunky. However, they write entertaining, thrilling books. I always came away from a Michael Crichton book feeling like I’d learned something, both about the subject matter and about the craft of telling a suspenseful story. Cussler’s books are pulp adventures with stock characters who never change from one novel to the next and totally unbelievable scenarios, but they were fun.
No one, I believe, sets out to write poorly. Some writers are more adept than others, and some have strengths in certain areas and weaknesses in others. I think that if DVC had been a blip in the pan, if it had hit the top ten list for a week or two and then faded away, people wouldn’t get so up in arms when Brown’s next book was announced. The fact that it was a bestseller for many months and earned the guy a king’s ransom in royalties is unpalatable to some, mostly because of his obvious shortcomings as a writer. But, good God, Fifty Shades of whatever blocked off the top of the bestseller list for weeks, simply because the books contain tawdry and titillating scenes in novels that come from a major publisher. Brown’s books take readers to places they might never otherwise experience (Paris, Zurich, Rome) and shine a light on the work of artists (Bernini, Dante, Da Vinci), even if some liberties are taken. More importantly, they make readers want to know what happens next.
As writers, we’re all doing the best that we can. Many are getting better as the years go by. To be sure, there are writers who end up “phoning it in” later in their careers, either metaphorically (Robert B. Parker’s last few novels feel somewhat perfunctory) or literally (Hey, buddy, I have an idea for a new book — how about you write it and I put my name on the cover?), but I think that Dan Brown sits down at his word processor and does his level best to come up with a compelling and gripping plot each time. He may be mining similar ground in his Langdon novels, and perhaps even hoping to stir up similar kinds of controversy, but I don’t remember too many people getting up in arms about his book based on a far-reaching conspiracy within the Vatican. It was an entertaining thriller in a genre that has been around for a long time, and I expect Inferno will be much the same. Nothing wrong with that.
When we last spoke, I was working on the copy-edited manuscript of my forthcoming book, The Dark Tower Companion, which will be published in April, less than four months away. My, how the time does fly. When I was writing it, it seemed like publication day was in the distant future.
The copy-editing process took place using the track changes and comments functions of Word. Thus far, I have only printed out the entire book once, and that was shortly after I sent it in to my editor the first time.
This week I received the page proofs, which look like this:
For the first time, I get a sense of what the finished book will look like. Page proofs are printed on only one side, so this stack is twice as large as the finished book, but it’s a ream of paper, and there are marks around the page that indicate the final trim size. Each line is numbered for easy reference. The layout and design are complete. For the first time, I see how the maps I drew will appear in the book, what the section headers will look like, and all the little adornments (see the bird beneath the book’s title above?) the designer has added to the book.
I have until January 3 to report back to my editor, though I will probably finish well before then. The cover letter contains a series of instructions. Don’t try to write between the lines—all comments and corrections are to go in the margins. I only need to send back the pages where I have corrections. Be sure to make a copy before sending back the report in case it gets lost.
And there’s this stern warning: This is not the time to rewrite your text. That ship has sailed, in other words. Small corrections are okay, but if my requested changes end up costing more than 10% of the original design and layout, those costs will be passed on to me.
That was a lesson I took to heart early on, though I didn’t have any direct experience with the potential repercussions. When I was addressing final editorial comments on my short story “Unknown Soldier” for All Hallows, the editor pointed out a passage that she thought was clunky. I agreed, but to de-clunk it was going to require adding a number of words. I tried to take a shortcut, but the editor hated my change even more than the original! I explained: I was trying to keep from messing up the layout. I think the editor was surprised by that. She expressed her appreciation, but gave her blessing to a wordier fix for the problem.
On the other hand, I attended an appearance by crime writer John Lescroart a few years ago. He was in town for a signing, but one of his biggest fans had managed to snag him for a more intimate appearance for the local writers guild. He had a new book coming out and mentioned during his talk that he had received the printed galleys for the novel and decided to entirely rewrite the opening chapter. I can’t even imagine what his editor’s response was to that!
My job for the next couple of weeks is simple and painstaking: to go over a book that I have been working on for over a year and look at it with fresh eyes. I need to make sure that the process of incorporating the copy-editor’s changes and my stets and deles over those, didn’t end up causing missing or extra words, for example. I have to look for previously missed problems, formatting errors, ungainly layout issues and everything else. This is called the “first pass” of proofing, but it’s the main one. There will be the bound galleys at some point, but by then almost everything should be fixed.
That stack of paper above and me are going to be close companions between now and the end of the year.
For the past week or so, I’ve been working with the copy-edited manuscript of my forthcoming book, The Dark Tower Companion (NAL, April 2013). I’ve often said that turning in a manuscript to your publisher is like sending your kid off to college. It will be back, usually bearing dirty laundry.
The copy-editor’s report is usually the second trip home. In most cases, the writer first has to deal with the acquisition editor’s report, wherein he or she asks for structural changes to the book. I had a fair amount to do on that front with my first book, The Road to the Dark Tower. Less with The Stephen King Illustrated Companion. Much to my surprise, my editor requested no changes with this new book, so I must be learning.
over more than six months since I last looked at the manuscript, so I was able to review the copyedits with a fresh mind. The process has changed substantially in the eight years since The Road to the Dark Tower. Back in 2003, after revising the text based on the acquisition editor’s requests, a hardcopy version of the manuscript was generated and from that point forward everything was done on those pages. It came back from the copy-editor accompanied by a style sheet listing the overall decisions that had been made concerning italicization, punctuation (whether or not the serial comma would be used, for example), and all the non-standard words that needed review for consistency. The printed MS had insertions, deletions and comments scrawled in the margins. My job, then, was to accept all those changes with which I was in agreement. To use “stet” and “dele,” words that usually only show up in crossword puzzles. To over-ride some changes and explain why, using a different colored ink. Ultimately the proofreader would have her crack at it, adding another hue to the rainbow. Down the road, some brave soul would have to sort through this bowl of fruit loops and come up with a near-final copy of the text.
This time, I received the manuscript and style sheet by e-mail and the whole process was accomplished using Word’s “track changes” feature. Certain kinds of changes were locked out. I couldn’t simply undo a copy-editor’s insertion, for example. I had to delete the insertion, which left a history of the change and counter-change.
The style sheet ran to nearly a dozen pages, mostly because the book features a lot of strange names and words. House style included always using ‘s for possessives (even for names ending in “s”), no serial comma, no hyphen for “-like” words of fewer than three syllables unless attached to a proper noun (dragonlike but Mississippi-like). Numbers less than one hundred were to be spelled out, as well as large round numbers.
One of the global changes caused me to question my knowledge of grammar. Every time I wrote “over” (as in “it had been over six years since…”), it was replaced with “more than” (see example above). Apparently this is a stylistic quirk rather than a grammatical rule. There’s nothing wrong with using “over” (though William Safire held a strong opinion on the matter). It’s simply that newspapers decided “more than” was preferred.
I favor the Oxford (or serial) comma, so there were a lot of deletions in the manuscript. I was hard pressed to find a single page (out of the 680 total pages) that didn’t have one of those vertical red lines in the margin that indicated a change in the text. Some of the copy-editor’s changes were for formatting. Italics, paragraph styles, heading alignments, etc. The manuscript more closely resembled the final product than was possible when working from a printed MS.
There were over 500 comments in the margins. Many of them simply said “ok?” connected to a change. For most of those, I responded with a simple ✔. Others pointed out differences in the way certain words were typed. Should it be “Speaking Ring,” “speaking ring,” or “speaking-ring,” for example. Sometimes words from the original text in King’s novels were used differently from book to book (“Oracle” in The Gunslinger but “oracle” later in the series, for example). I had to come up with my own set of house style rules to address inconsistencies like that and respond to the copy-editor’s queries.
I have the utmost respect for copy-editors. Their attention to detail is awe inspiring. Imagine having to go through a 180,000 word manuscript and making sure that “Denby’s Discount Drugs” is used throughout (instead of “Denby’s Discount Drugstore” or “Denby’s Pharmacy”). Word’s search function is helpful, but if you want to make sure every occurrence of a word is spelled the same, search won’t help you find misspellings. It’s a daunting job, and requires attention to detail that borders on obsessive. The copy-editors I’ve worked with (including this one) are so good at their jobs that I feel a sense of triumph when, upon reviewing the MS, I find something that they missed.
By the time I was done, the manuscript was littered with the copy-editor’s red marks, my blue insertions and deletions, the copy-editor’s purple comment bubbles in the margins (to which I often added my responses) and my blue comment bubbles in cases where I over-rode certain general changes. It still looks a fright, but I know that with the click of a button it can all be sorted out. I’m not sure if the proofreader will do an “accept all changes” before beginning his or her work. I probably would; otherwise, it’s hard to pick up on accidentally deleted spaces between words, for example. All I know is that, before very long, the manuscript will be back in my inbox and it’ll be time to dig out the laundry detergent again.
In genre fiction, many stories don’t end happily ever after.
Some stories don’t end at all.
A couple of weeks ago, while cleaning up the mess of papers on the pull-out shelf on my desk, I discovered the submission guidelines for an anthology that had slipped my mind. The deadline was only a week hence, so I tossed the sheet of paper into the recycle bin and shrugged.
The next morning, while I was mowing the lawn—one of those activities that sets the mind free to ruminate on this, that and the other—a scenario began to develop in my head. I saw someone fleeing a city to escape a scourge. His flight wasn’t random: he was drawn ineluctably toward the rural region where he had grown up. I could see that much clearly.
After I finished my chores, I went inside, snatched the guidelines from the bin, put them on the sideboard, opened Word and started to write. I managed about 1500 words that afternoon, which is a decent achievement for any day. The words came easily as I measured out the man’s progress through the near-desolate countryside. However, in the back of my mind, I knew that, while I was putting this guy through the hoops of forward motion, there wasn’t much energy in the story. There was a little suspense and conflict from time to time, tense moments, but I had no idea what was going to happen when he reached his destination. It’s not a great place to break off when working on a story: at a point with little real momentum.
The next day, a mere five days before the deadline for submissions, I went to work with a sense of dread. I still didn’t know what was going to happen when he got “home,” so I spent the session rewriting what I’d put down the day before. That’s one of my favorite stalling tactics. I’m getting work done, I can tell myself; however, especially with a deadline looming, this wasn’t the kind of work I should be doing. The story felt leaden.
In the wee small hours before the alarm went off the following morning, my mind went to work. What it developed didn’t exactly push the story forward. Instead it gave me a different take on the tale. One that I liked a lot. It was going to be a challenge to pull it off (it was one of those situations where you have to hide a key piece of information from the reader without making it seem like you’re cheating), but I felt up to it. I scrapped everything I’d already written (and, let me tell you, that isn’t an easy thing to do) and started afresh.
It was harder work, because I had to pick my words especially carefully, but I got nearly 1000 words down that morning, and another 5-600 words the following day.
If you’ve been keeping track, then you can see how quickly the deadline was zooming at me. Panic set in.
And the story died.
Despite my enthusiasm for the new approach, the story still felt leaden and aimless. I even had an idea of how it would end, but I didn’t think I could do it justice in the small amount of time remaining. So I threw the guidelines back in the recycle bin and surrendered.
I had already given up on the anthology once, I told myself, so no big deal. And yet it felt like a kind of failure. The story’s still there, waiting to be told, and maybe I’ll go back to it some day, but for the time being this particular once upon a time had no happily (or unhappily) ever ending.
What do we know about characters in books we read? Unless they are viewpoint characters, we know only what they look like, what they do and what they say. Their characters are the sums of their actions and statements.
I just finished reading Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries written by Robert Goldsborough. After Stout died, Goldsborough wrote a Wolfe novel for his mother. Ultimately it was published with the approval of the estate and he went on to write several more. After a twenty year break, he returned to the famous detective with an “origin story.”
I’m tempted to say that the Nero Wolfe novels are formulaic, but what I mean to say is that the characters are, for the most part, defined by a limited set of attributes. The secondary characters—Wolfe’s house staff, the detectives who help investigate cases, and the cops who scoop up the culprits that Wolfe hands them—are paper-thin. Somewhere between one and two dimensions. One cop stutters when agitated. Another chomps cigars that he throws at trash bins but always misses. One detective has a big nose, another is good at mundane jobs, and a third is a lady’s man who aspires to replace Archie Goodwin as Wolfe’s #2.
Nero Wolfe himself, though he is the nominal focus of the series, is basically the sum of a bunch of well-known foibles. His description is so locked-in that he appears OCD. He always sleeps in yellow pajamas. He breakfasts alone. He spends four hours a day tending to his orchids—and always the same four hours. He never leaves the house. He drinks beer and keeps the bottle caps in his desk drawer as a way of monitoring his consumption. He weighs 1/7 of a ton. Once all the facts are brought to him by his detectives, he retreats into his prodigious mind. While he cogitates, his lips purse in and out and it would take a bomb blast to disturb him. He doesn’t suffer fools, not even gladly. One reason Goldsborough was so successful at continuing where Stout left off was that most of the characters were absolutely defined. Goldsborough knew the rules. If Wolfe left the house, there had to be a good reason. If he wasn’t in the hothouse between 9 and 11 a.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m., something was amiss. All he had to do was craft a good mystery, provide the clues and let Wolfe be gruff and figure things out.
The real challenge comes with the first person narrator, Archie Goodwin, because he’s the loose cannon. Though he has certain well-defined traits (he’s a bit of a lady’s man, he often drinks milk, he’s a smart-ass, etc.), he’s the most three-dimensional of all of Stout’s characters. We spend our time inside his head, and we see Wolfe and the others only from his perspective. Capturing his whimsical, fresh, breezy persona is the essence to creating a successful Nero Wolfe novel. All the other parts that make up the book come from a cookie cutter. Fail with Archie, though, and no matter how clever the mystery, the book will fail, too.
The new book presents a different challenge. While Wolfe is already set in stone, as are most of the other secondary characters, Archie is fresh from the farm, so to speak. He’s only 19, looking to make his way in New York after leaving Ohio. He isn’t a detective, he doesn’t know Wolfe (or New York, for that matter). To create his character, Goldsborough has to extrapolate backwards to conjure up the young man who would evolve into the well-known and well-loved character. Some of his traits are consistent with what we know, but he’s not yet fully formed. That gives some license, but he has to be recognizable. It’s a fascinating exercise and Goldsborough pulls it off.
There aren’t many series where the characters are so rigidly and minimally designed. Though we know very little about Saul Panzer, when I close my eyes, I can picture him. The same goes for Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. What the author doesn’t supply, the reader fills in. It can be instructive to read series like this to understand how authors build characters. How much they choose to say—or how little. We do learn some things about Nero Wolfe’s past over the course of the series, but for the most part he’s an enigma. It isn’t necessary to understand more about him. He’s a precision tool, and he serves his function. He’s Archie’s sounding board and his foil. In some circumstances, he’s a mentor and in others he’s a nemesis. Because of him, we learn more about Archie, and Archie is who he is in great part because of Wolfe.
No punch line here. Just more random musings that occurred to me when I thought about the mystical art of writing.
A lot of what happens at the keyboard is a mystery. We sit down at the computer, open the document, figure out where we were, and continue on from that point. How does that work, exactly? We don’t think: next, he’s going to do this, and the room looks like that, and then he’s going to say something. It spills through us. Much of the work is done at a subliminal level that’s never been described to my satisfaction. No wonder some of us refer to it as channeling.
Granted, this is all first draft stuff. A lot goes on later to improve upon what we’ve written. To remove the stream of consciousness stuff that had to come out of our heads to release the next bit of prose. To fine tune the descriptions, the dialog, the order in which things are told on a word-by-word / sentence-by-sentence / paragraph-by-paragraph basis. That is less subliminal. At least for me.
Sometimes an opening sentence, paragraph or scene will occur to me long before I’m ready to start a new piece of fiction. That’s the point I’m at right now with a new story. I see that opening scene clearly. I have a pretty good idea of what the action means for the main character on a metaphoric level, but I have no idea what’s going to happen after he does what he does in the first paragraph. Or how the others around him are going to react to his actions.
I’ve been thinking about this scene for a couple of weeks now. It came to me out of the blue. I wasn’t pondering something to write. I can’t associate the epiphany with anything concrete. Sometimes I can say: I came up with this story idea because I heard X or I saw Y. This time, I have no earthly idea where the idea came from. But it’s been sticking with me, which is a good thing. Then I saw a way to tie it into a themed anthology that I’ve been hoping to write something for. It makes some sense, given the underlying metaphor. I’m not trying to force the story into the theme of the anthology, but there’s something “organic” going on that is leading me in that direction. It’s a case of an isolated idea needing something else to cross the gap in the spark plugs to fire the creative engine. One idea is seldom enough for a story. I need at least two, and they usually have to be at variance with each other. The connection between them isn’t always obvious. Oil and vinegar.
Before I open the new Word document, I often write and rewrite that envisioned opening scene in my mind. I do this while I’m doing other things. Primarily when I’m taking a shower or when I’m going to sleep or just waking up. It’s more than a vision of the scene. I create real sentences and assemble them into paragraphs. By the time I feel ready to start the story (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I know where it’s going or how it will end), the first thing I have to do is to “transcribe” the mental sentences. This should be easy, but they often become elusive when I try to convert them from neural flashes to pixels on the monitor. They slip and slide. They may have seemed perfect in my head, but they turn to smoke when I try to grab them. I fumble around, and what comes out seems like a pale imitation of what I thought I had in my head. For all I know, it’s an exact record of what was in my head, but it never seems quite as good.
There’s an interesting blog entry in The New York Times called Where Do Sentences Come From? by Verlyn Klinkenborg, in which he talks about how he gets students to become creative using mental exercises in writing. He says, ”A sentence you don’t write down is a sentence you feel free to change. Inscribe it, and you’re chained to it for life. That, at least, is how many writers act. A written sentence possesses a crippling inertia.” I don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory, but his description of mental writing is a good one.
If only I could find a way to tap into my brain and have a program auto-transcribe the allegedly perfected prose I come up with. Is there an app for that?