The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at Brainpickings.org)

The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.

Coherence

My 9000-word short story “Coherence” has been published in a new anthology from Dreamscape Press®. Nuclear Town U.S.A. is an anthology of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction now available at Amazon.com.

Nuclear Town USA - CoverThis short story is currently my longest, just slightly longer than many publishers’ maximum allowable word count, so I’m glad it found a home. “Coherence” is a story about a scientist who tries to prevent the apocalypse using time travel. Guess what, things don’t work out for him the way he expects. (#conflict)

Shortly after I finished writing the story I read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and I found it really strange because all these little, weirdly specific details from my story were in his story. Is it possible that all the books and movies I’ve seen that were inspired by Childhood’s End somehow implied those details to me through context?

How am I supposed to know?

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NaNoWriMo 2014

One year ago I attempted writing a novel in a month as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It motivated me because it was essentially a contest with myself. Well, it’s November again and NaNoWriMo 2014 has begun, but I am not writing another novel this year. This morning, I finished a long, grueling edit of last year’s novel Residuum. One more polish and I’ll send it out.

50,000 words in a month felt like a steep hill to climb. Writing while working a day job meant I had only a few hours every weekday to make my word count (much more on weekends). In this sense the contest offers great training for hopeful novelists; if you can’t make your word count consistently, you will not be the next Stephen King.

My new draft sits right around 90,000 words, which is about three hundred double-spaced pages. I generally find it easier to overwrite at first and then pare down, taking out all the non-essential bits. I aimed at 50,000 last November and ended a little over 60,000 words, but I was left with the tough task of adding to my novel.

I added to Residuum because it wasn’t finished. Many subplots or themes weren’t properly developed because I was rushing to meet the deadline, and since I wanted to make this novel as good as possible, I needed time to think about those peripheral issues and develop them in a thoughtful way that integrated seamlessly with what I had already written. So I took my time. I knew my second pass would seriously fill out my page-count, but I had no idea I’d be coming up with 50% additional material.

Something I didn’t realize when I began my novel is that many speculative fiction markets won’t even accept a 50,000-word book. 75,000 seems to be the agreed-upon minimum for genre fiction, and many prefer novels 85,000 words and up. I can only imagine the disappointment some must feel when they bust their asses to finish their 50,000 word masterpieces to realize many publishers and agents won’t even look at it.

NaNoWriMo inspires people to be creative, and for that I consider it a great project. Anything that motivates people to push their creative potential nudges our world in the right direction. For someone’s first attempt at a novel, I highly recommend it. Their motivational emails and forum discussions really do make one feel like a part of something exciting. But considering that one year later I’m still working on the same novel, I don’t feel I’m missing out this year. Maybe next year.

Dreamscape Press

I have only a brief update this week. A novel, a feature film script, and a handful of short stories have consumed most of my recent writing efforts. I’m encouraged since I learned that Dreamscape Press® will be featuring two of my short stories.

Dreamscape Press is a new publisher entering the speculative fiction market with a number of anthologies. I contributed two very different stories to 100 Worlds, and Nuclear Town USA. The former contains 100-word stories from 100 authors, the latter is apocalyptic science fiction.

My friend Michael Stasko, who made Iodine and co-wrote Things To Do and The Birder, will also be featured in 100 Worlds.

I’ll be sure to post here when these anthologies become available.

100-worlds_full3

Determine If You’re A Writer In 1 Easy Step

When people learn that I write, some try to engage me with stories, usually from their own lives, that they feel would make a good story. Some people have told me their life story would make a great movie. Naturally, a person’s subjective highs and lows seem very significant to that person, but I rarely carry the conversation any further. I like hearing stories, of course, but I tend to reserve my critical storytelling skills for other writers.

Because I’ve had my head wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of storytelling for a little while now, I assume that honestly discussing story with people will sound cold and mechanical. I ask, “What is the climax in the movie of your life?” and the person answers, “My kids.” I say, “Did having children resolve some central conflict that stood in the way of your motivations throughout your life? Was your life just a series of occasions, or was it a driven narrative wherein you tried to achieve your goals through a series of mounting conflicts?” By then the person is across the room with a stiff drink. (Even in Children Of Men, a dystopian tale where humanity has become infertile, the birth of a child is not the climax. I can think of one seriously awesome science fiction novel where a birth is the climax, but I can’t spoil it.).

I feel that a story is just a story until it engages the imagination with something meaningful and new, at which point story can become art. Most people don’t have lives that reflect anything remarkably new. Even horrible conflicts and disasters throughout life don’t guarantee that the movie of one’s life will be interesting. And few things make me yawn harder than a story about being hard-done-by.

Many people think they are full of good stories, and surely they do get interesting ideas, but ideas don’t make a person a writer. Plumbers get good ideas just like judges and filmmakers do. So what makes a writer? Fortunately there is an easy, one-step test to determine this.

A writer writes. Get out of the habit of trying to figure out what people and things ARE and focus on what they DO. If you do not write, and make a habit of it, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re not a writer. If you have amazing ideas that seem like they want to come out of you and take on a life of their own, you had better find an outlet for them—be it film, campfire stories, news articles, a useless blog, etc.—and work at it every day. I write every day and still rarely call myself a writer.

A carpenter has the vision for a table and knows the techniques to achieve it. He understands the form and function and can bring his vision into reality. His neighbour says, “You know what would be cool? A three-legged, cubist mosaic table with a hole in the middle.” The carpenter might ask, “Why would that be cool?” If the idea has merit, the carpenter, not the neighbour, will know it. He also will know how it should be put together, where to compromise vision for function, and when you can expect it finished.

Rewriting the Watched Pot

I made the NaNoWriMo deadline and wrote 50000 words in a month. I’m pretty happy with that feat. My novel Residuum is almost done. With a chapter and a half left to write, it sits at just under 200 pages. I definitely recommend the experience to anyone interested in writing because it forces your fingers to the keys.

A lot of writers will tell you that “writing is rewriting”. It’s not, really. Writing is writing. NaNoWriMo doesn’t allow you the time to rewrite. If you want to make that total, you have to plow through your work without looking back. Rewriting comes later. I plan to do some large-scale editing on my novel before submitting it to anyone.

The phrase “writing is rewriting” speaks to the fact that first drafts are rarely right. Ideas take time to develop and should be considered from a lot of angles, so the adage is implicitly telling us that we need to reread our stories, soak them in, and reconsider them from different perspectives.

In the throes of prose it’s tough to tell if your audience will pick up on everything, or if you’ve overwritten something. When a writer is typing away he or she often isn’t considering the prose from an abstract perspective. But a worthwhile novel should work as both concrete drama and abstract notion. This is why John Grisham novels don’t make sense to me. There is solid storytelling, master craftsmanship, but no substance. The stories don’t elevate me. Once I finish one of his books the only time I ever think of it again is as an example of well-wrought-but-meaningless literature.

But Grisham gets it done and makes a good living at it. He’s successful because he’s productive, and this is the value of NaNoWriMo to me. Writers write every day. And with a deadline like that, you have to write every day, word by word, until it’s done. You can see every day your novel gets that much closer to the goal.

It reminds me of the phrase “a watched pot never boils”. First of all, no pot ever boils; it’s the water that boils. Secondly, a watched pot will definitely boil if you watch it long enough (provided the conditions allow it). So the phrase is patently false. However, it is meaningful.

“A watched pot never boils” describes the plasticity of subjective time. The passage of time is directly related to the amount and quality of stimulation we experience. The stimulation of someone twisting a corkscrew through your leg is apt to make one minute seem like half an hour. When we watch a more or less stationary object, time can stretch out like taffy. When our minds are occupied, time seems to move faster. The adage implies that we have short attention spans.

People less anal than me don’t nitpick at the falsehood of age old phrases. I do it because it amuses me. Falsehood is a fact of life. False but meaningful phrases work because words are tools that can be used in creative ways. Fiction and poetry are the best examples of this. I hope people other than me will find my novel meaningful.

P.S. For a mind-expanding read on language and communication, check out The Structure of Magic, a two-volume set by John Grinder and Richard Bandler on neurolinguistic programming (NLP).

NaNoWriMo 2012 – Week 4

It’s the final push to make 50000 words. I’m not quite there, though by Friday night I will be. Yesterday I noticed an interesting thing: usually I’ve been writing every morning and a little bit in the evening, but as my work plans were a bit different yesterday I didn’t get a chance in the morning. By evening I felt anxious, even though I knew I would sit down to write. It’s strange how quickly the body adapts when you start doing something every single day. It was a physical craving, this anxiety, just like cigarette addiction.

Residuum sits at just over 45000 words, but Wednesday will be a light day on the word count because I’m going to a concert. Six Organs of Admittance is playing The Drake in Toronto and it should be the perfect thing to psyche me up for the finale of my book.

I recently purchased this 6 Organs album from Rotate This. It’s a 3LP set of old and unreleased 4-track recordings called RTZ. It was put out by Drag City, of course. They are the same label who recently supplied my Ty Segall, Movietone and Rangda LPs. I recommend them all, but if you’re looking for psychedelic folk – and why wouldn’t you be? – RTZ is mind-blowing.

Nov. 21 – 2124 words.

Nov. 22 – 1437 words.

Nov. 23 – 1438 words.

Nov. 24 – 1738 words.

Nov. 25 – 3799 words.

Nov. 26 – 1767 words.

Nov. 27 – 1006 words and counting – I’ve still got some steam left in me tonight.

NaNoWriMo 2012 – Week 2

My sci-fi novel Residuum is going well. I wrote every day this week, which is the key. The best thing about NaNoWriMo is that it shows day to day how easy it is to write a novel. You get to see the momentum in the climbing word count and it’s inspiring. As I’m fully in fiction mode, all I’m offering this week is a progress report with a little bonus at the end.

Nov. 7 – I wrote two full chapters for 3117 words. This was a bit much for a work day, but I was able to write on the train.

Nov. 8 -1834 words for the novel and a few hundred toward a draft of a review I’m working on.

Nov. 9 -1898 words.

Nov. 10 – I wrote 4000+ words in two chapters but didn’t finish until close to 2 A.M. It was my kind of weekend. It featured writing, reading (Neil Young’s Waving Heavy Peace), and listening to a lot of music. I took a break between chapters and watched Casino Royale. Decent movie, but it should have been 35 minutes shorter.

Nov. 11 – 2000+ words in what I expect will be the longest chapter in the first act.

Nov. 12 -1308 words all written in the evening while very tired in what I expect will be the shortest chapter in the first act.

Nov. 13 – That’s today. I wrote 1828 words today and almost all of it before work in the morning. I don’t know what was in my coffee, but it’s the fastest I’ve written so far. Then I put together this blog post.

I plan to do two chapters tomorrow, right on track to meet the deadline. I’m very glad to have the outline to work off of and I’m glad I spent the first five days hammering it out. My total word count now is 17507.

The bonus, should you choose to accept it, is a bit challenging. It’s a long drone I recorded years ago called Overmind. I’ve added it to the Music page. Be warned: this track is not for everyone. Anyone who gets through it gets a seat at the alien roundtable with me on December 21st, 2012, front row for the End of History.

Have a nice week.

 

NaNoWriMo 2012

My posts this month will be a little different. I’ve been looking to make time to write a novel and I recently stumbled on the NaNoWriMo site (National Novel Writing Month). The site and programs seem like a good idea. Not because the world needs more novels, but because an official site dedicated to the cause is motivating. It was only because of a Google+ alert that I even learned about the site, but it’s already inspired me to get started. I’m confident I’ll finish my novel by the end of the month.

The goal is 50 000 words by midnight November 30th. This is a pretty hefty word-count for thirty days. If you start on November 1st, you have to write 1600 words every day. Most of my blog posts are less than this and I only do them once a week. Because I outline my writing projects, I have only starting writing prose this morning, but have a six-thousand word outline to work from which will allow me to write more quickly and ensure I don’t make decisions on the fly that will derail the story as I write.

Residuum is a psychedelic sci-fi novel set in a dystopian future.

Check out their site, follow NaNoWriMo and myself on Twitter, and if you’re not participating, consider it for next year.

So Far:

Nov. 1 – I began serious outlining, roughing out major plot points and working my way up to the inciting incident.

Nov. 2 – Finished outlining the first act and the first two scenes of my second act, had some Scotch.

Nov. 3 – Outlined most of the second act and sat unthinking until my subconscious gave me a hint about the climax and how to interweave the multiple plot lines into a meaningful conclusion.

Nov. 4 – Finished the outline by roughing in the third-act scenes.

Nov. 5 – Got up early and revised the very beginning of the outline, trying to make sure appropriate seeds were planted in the beginning so the themes and character development bloom properly by the end of the book. Roughed out this blog post after work and continued with the outline revision.

Nov. 6 – Started writing prose this morning after missing the Go Train at Union. On my return trip I finished my first chapter (1387 words). Finished this blog post and watched some hilarious and frustrating American election coverage.

I now need to write about 2000 words per day to finish on time. I’ll be focused on fiction for November so I’ll be giving progress reports and hopefully posting more music to my Music page in the coming month.