Writing exercise 🖋️

An exercise set by my writing workshop leader. Incorporate this paragraph from a published novel into a 500-word story, while sticking with the writing style/voice as much as you can.

The first paragraph is taken from Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath (which I’ve never read); the rest is mine.


When he first came back to New York, and that would be twenty years ago now, my brother Jack was in a kind of stupor, for it was shortly after the death of his daughter Peg. What can you say about the death of a child? She was sixteen when it happened and the impact on all of us, Jack of course in particular, was devastating.

Continue reading “Writing exercise 🖋️”

(Apropos of writing a post on Bullet journalling…)

The sum total of my life can be measured in the volume of notes I’ve made over the years. I’ve generated reams and reams of notes about every aspect of life, both in analogue and digital form. All of it is ephemera: important in the moment, inconsequential in the long run.

This isn’t counting my novels in various states of completion, the “meta” notes and outlines surrounding those novels, my world-building encyclopaedias, and a decade of private hand-written journals.

The digital ephemera alone makes a memoir. It’s a totalizing record of my personal life. Someone can look through all of this, and know me so intimately. I’m glad none of this is online or accessible to anyone else.

There’s a scripture in the Bible that goes:

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written.

Book of John, chapter 21, verse 25

Boy I get it now. Jesus isn’t the only one doing that many things. The written records of my life are filling books already. And I’m still in my prime years.

The world cannot contain the fullness of a single human life.

Storycraft learnt from recent novels read. 🖋️

(1)
From Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: the gradual character revelation. Bardugo dribbles character development and revelations out across the entire novel. When one character trait is fully revealed, the same scene hints at a new character trait. And when that is revealed, a new one is hinted at. This continues for all the POV characters, well past the novel’s halfway mark; even into the climax and denouement are new character traits being revealed. This slow, “nested” revelations of character are the hooks that keep the reader engaged and engrossed, wanting to discover something new.

So I’ve been reviewing the character arcs in my novel. How can I stretch out the details and revelations of a character arc over time? Make a note of each scene where character development takes place, and structure the reveals/facts to reveal one thing but hint at the next.


(2)
From The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly: how to introduce memorable characters and embed them in the reader’s mind from the first few words. Hambly is brilliant at writing vivid, memorable character introductions. The characters’ personalities shine through powerfully within the first sentence of their introductions. They’re unforgettable from the get-go… what’s more, their personalities continue to be strong and vivid as the story progresses.

I want to learn this sort of kick-ass character introductions. Does it involve developing 1-2 quirks for each character, and then amping them to the Nth degree? I’m still reading this novel, plenty of chance to study how Hambly does it.


(3)
From Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon: project management for a creative endeavour, especially Kleon’s advice on maintaining analogue vs. digital workspaces. This dichotomy is extremely powerful for segregating different sets of information, and more importantly: the mental gear-switch required to operate in those disparate sets.

I used to keep both the manuscript and the revision meta in the digital space. I’m typically well-organized, but for a long time couldn’t figure out why my creative projects always ended up in organizational chaos. Creativity can’t be fully tamed into a structure — I’ve made peace with that — but this chaos was actually crippling my productivity and causing much discouragement. Then I started handwriting novel drafts last year, and had an epiphany about coupling mental processes to physical ones.

Now, my novel manuscript is in the digital workspace, while the the notes that guide the revision process (the “meta”) is in the analogue workspace. Doing the project vs. analyzing the project’s progress involve different mental processes. Hooking the mental gear-switch to the physical, visceral movement between analogue and digital workspaces is incredibly powerful. Now that I’m physically recording the meta with pen-and-paper, I’m way more organized, and no longer struggle with switching mental gears.

I think I write about as many words in the meta as I do in the novel manuscript, if not more. But now it’s helping, not hindering. Just have to make sure that it doesn’t metastasize and overwhelm the creativity.


(4)
From recent, inconstant attempts to post handwritten quotes from my current novel, A Dirge for the Amphiptere: Dear God, my handwriting is atrocious. And the photos aren’t even straight. So woeful! Time to practise penmanship again!


Part One of A Dirge for the Amphiptere is finished. 30 days to revise 17,000 words. It’s light-years better than the previous draft. And I’ve learnt so much about editing and the craft of weaving the myriad strands of character, plot, setting, and voice altogether into a coherent story. Lessons on how to not reveal character backstory too quickly, but drip-feed it instead. How to saturate the storytelling with setting/world-building — and just when you think you’ve soaked it properly, just how much more that you can still do. How hard it is to create idioms and proverbs from scratch that reflect the gestalt of an entire culture. And much more.

Part Two is next. It’s three times as long as Part One. I’m sitting at the opening chapter, seeing at myriad ways I can change it to make everything — character development, world-building — richer. Didn’t someone say that editing was a bottomless well? Where you can keep fishing in, at the expense of finishing a novel and moving on the write new ones?

Must keep going. I’m not going to meet my February deadline for finishing the full revision. Shooting for end March. Camp NaNoWriMo is in April, and I want to begin something new by then.

🖋️ I finished writing my second novella, in time for NaNoWriMo.

I wrote my first novella, Strange Music, in July 2014, during NaNoWriMo‘s off-season event called Camp NaNoWriMo. That first draft was about 23,000 words and took 28 days to write. (The edited and completed version is now about 26,000 words.)

A couple mid-October weekends ago, I finished writing my second novella, A Dirge for the Amphiptere. The original draft was written in July 2016, also for a Camp NaNoWriMo. It took three years to finish, and its current state is approximately 60,000 words.

Why was it harder to write the second novella compared to the first novella? I once asked J. Daniel Sawyer, the host of the Everyday Novelist, my favourite writing podcast, for help. He replied in an episode: it’s stage fright. You have to let your subconscious mind drive your creativity. Which means you have to get out of your own way.

I listened politely but was a bit skeptical. So I set about proving Dan wrong. It took three years to learn that he was ultimately right.

The head game truly is everything. When I wrote Strange Music, I didn’t know anything; I had no clue how to and how not to write a novel, so I just went and did it. It was challenging, but there was a certain ignorance-is-bliss kind of flow to the writing. When I started Dirge a year after finishing Strange Music, I was no longer ignorant. I had some experience of what it takes to write a novel, and this knowledge kept me from finishing it — and all the other stories I wrote for NaNo but never finished.

Long story short, after writing and rewriting various versions of Dirge over the years (in between writing drafts of other stories), I set myself the goal to reach The End by the end of 2018. The story was getting stale and about to die on the vine if it wasn’t done. I tried throughout the year, and got 2/3rds and ~40,000 words through the plot to just before the climactic scene. But by the time I hit October, I was in despair and ready to put it to bed.

What saved my story from certain death was a group of people: my writing workshop. The workshop leader (himself a published author and freelance editor) gave me a deadline to present the finished work, and the other members (all amateur writers) were unanimously supportive. So… I put some measures in place, and went and wrote the rest of the story in the span of 10 days and 42 pages (~13k words).

I was shocked how easy it was to write the remainder of the story. Where did all the past angst and despair come from? But I’d always known the answer. I knew, deep down, that Dan’s advice was right, that I was just getting the way of my own creative mind by trying to build a scaffolding around the story. But my head refused to believe that. It took the school of hard knocks and three years of dickering around in circles to beat the conceit out of me, and reveal what I had to do to get out of my own way. In retrospect, it seems like such a novice mistake. But without the experience of desperation and having to be pulled out of my hole by my writing workshop, I wouldn’t have known what measures to put in place to help me beat the head game. So I’m consoling myself that those years weren’t wasted.

Writing is actually quite easy. It’s the head game that causes 90% of writer’s block and plot troubles, and makes or breaks a writing career. And if I don’t learn how to beat the head game, I will never progress and my stories will die. I think I’ve made progress in finding a solution.

~~~

NaNoWriMo has begun. I’m tired of unfinished manuscripts. This year my goal is to finish a full manuscript, even if I go overtime past November. And I’m determined to apply my experience into growing trees. No more of building houses!

I used these strategies to finish Dirge, which I’ll repeat for NaNo:

  • Write by hand. This will be the first year of handwriting a NaNo. I’m less tempted to edit when I have scrawly handwriting to wade through and not enough page space to insert edits. I averaged 300 words per page with Dirge, and it wasn’t too hard on the hands. So 6 pages a day should be enough to hit the daily NaNo wordcount. And if I put my mind to it, that can be knocked over in 2-3 hours.
  • Resist all reflex to plot/outline before the story is finished. This is my head game and how the Inner Editor manifests: wanting to plot and do character development and all this fun auxiliary stuff, instead of writing the infernal thing. The urge is even stronger when I hit a roadblock in the storytelling. The novella Dirge was strangled by all the plotting and char dev I did in my attempts to unstick myself, which only created more story complications, mental noise, and ultimately, a sense of despair and defeat. So, no more of that during NaNo. Not even make margin notes/reminders as I write. That can come later. Now the story needs to just get out.

I’m looking forward to this. I’ve always loved NaNo, especially since it encourages writing at a pace that leaves your conscious inner editor behind. Writing into the dark is nerve-wrecking, but it’s also exciting. At the end, I hope to have gotten further in my adventures in a writing career, and, for once, have a fully-grown tree to show for it.