The halfway point of Camp

It’s the fifteenth of April, halfway through the April 2013 edition of Camp NaNoWriMo. At present, I am at 25,788 words with a goal of 50,000 for the end of the month.

At present, I have written a small number of one-shot short stories, each being about 3k long, as well as part of a manuscript for something longer, which will hopefully amount to novelette/novella length.

I’ve taken a few days off, firstly because I ran out of short stories to draft and had to come with a brief outline for the manuscript I’m working on right now, and presently because of an attempt to fix my sleep schedule. Still, I have yet to fall behind by an entire day.

We’ll see how the rest of this goes.


Camp NaNoWriMo and the present state of the Gumption

For the Gumption challenge, the present state of things is as follows:

I have a number of short stories/possible novelettes I’ll be writing for Camp NaNoWriMo, which I hope to edit throughout the month of May in order to have them ready when June comes.

I’m not 100% certain of how successful I’ll be in this endeavour, but I’m certainly wanting to find out.

As for their genres, they’ll be mostly sci-fi/fantasy stuff… though circumstances will tell if I’ll end up throwing some horror in there as well.


Sacking and recycling drafts

Ideas are usually the first step to making anything, with writing being a good example. When one wants to write something, one grabs an idea, develops an idea into an outline, uses the outline as the basis for their draft, and then either begins to experience some satisfaction with their work or thinks that the idea tricked them and grow to absolutely hate what they have produced.

The latter is more probable to happen to writers than the former.

So, what does a writer do when they learn that the thing they have just created is an abomination, a testament to their own incompetence and that they would rather swallow each of its pages twice over before ever letting it see the light of day? Generally, it’s either throwing it back into the pits of oblivion (via the command prompt’s delete function if one is feeling extra regretful) or scrapping and recycling it.

Recycling usually involves either the reconstruction of whatever idea that writer was working on into a new and fresh form, or an extrapolation of some of its aspects to use in a different piece of fiction, such as a series of events, a setting, or a character.

One could argue that recycling a manuscript one thinks is being discarded is somewhat inevitable to a degree, since even if the product which one has come to despise so much has been obliterated, the idea it sprouted from can remain in its original form. Regardless of what happens, some elements could always be reused in another manuscript, even if they’re only names or half-finished witty lines. Would it be really sensible to deliberately avoid using anything from that manuscript in future projects, however?

Some time might pass before one decides that one particular idea is hopeless, though. There may be multiple rewrites, lengthening, shortening, redesigns, reimaginations, until eventually something is considered satisfactory enough to leave alone or take to another level or deemed irredeemable and destroyed.

Personally, I believe it has something to do with the writer’s perspective and how it relates to the manuscript’s subject matter and/or essence. Someone who is about to begin work on a book of short stories that are exclusively sci-fi and fantasy might experience some frustration at having to work on finishing a troublesome and unsatisfactory piece of speculative fiction before they can do so, for example.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that if you hate everything you write, then congratulations, because you’re a writer.


Subtlety

I might have recently mentioned that I am currently indulging in a reading of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables, which, although according to my kindle app I am only 53% done with, I have come to regard as one of the best works of literature I’ve ever perused.

One reason I have grown to like it so much is because it excels at being subtle and trusting in the intelligence and observation of the reader.  Subtlety, I believe, is one of the strongest properties a written work can have, partly because of it being self-demonstrating: To use subtlety is to show that you trust your reader to be able to figure out something based on the information they possess without it being spelled out to them.

Take, for instance, Chapter 14 of Book 8 of Volume 3 of Les Mis, entitled “In Which a Police Agent Bestows Two Fistfuls on a Lawyer”; in this fragment of the story, Marius goes to meet a police inspector who, the reader is likely to realise as soon as it is mentioned he is an inspector, or at the very least when the first detail of his description is given, is Inspector Javert. This fact, however, is not stated anywhere until the end of the chapter, once the characters’ conversation has already concluded. In the same vein, the reader is only too likely to realise, as soon as they are mentioned, that the “Jondrettes” lodging next to Marius are in fact the Thénardiers from earlier in the story.

Now, as much as I like this particular style of storytelling, I feel that it has become a bit underused, since I cannot really recall any other piece of literature I’ve read recently to have had such an effect on me (note that I speak of works whose subtlety is self-contained, and stuff such as references to mythology or other external stories are not included). Perhaps this is because it is more difficult to pull off than most people would expect, or perhaps it’s simply that people don’t plan to include it in their stories when they are first being crafted? Whatever the reason, I certainly hope more people get around to noticing this tool of storytelling.

Of course, this is not just restricted to literature. Some examples of this can also be found in film and television, where it is apparently more prone to be combined with misdirection, treating the idea of subtlety as a trope; getting the people to believe something without outright stating it, then revealing that it was false all along. In that sense, I believe it could be said that subtlety also forms a pivotal part of plot twists and surprises, although in that sense it has also shaped itself into a different kind of trope.

Knowing that, how do you believe subtlety could best be used to subvert people’s expectations and bring about the unexpected? Has there been any example of subtlety in anything you’ve read recently that has managed to stick out in your mind? In any case, I do hope you can bring yourself to possess a more thorough understanding of this concept, if not an application for it within your work.


Quality justifying quantity

At present, I am indulging in a reading of Les Misérables (a free kindle ebook edition), which is (in?)famous for being phenomenally long. A quick calculation shows that this particular English translation has around 600,000 words in it. Now, I’m not particularly crazy about narrative pieces which stand out for their length above other attributes, since there are many cases in which that turns out to be for more wrong reasons than not (as you might know, half of the truly infamous [unabridged] Moby-Dick consists of nothing but exclamations, accolades and descriptions of the whaling trade, the seas, the creatures that inhabit them, and other things that have basically no impact whatsoever on the plot).

That said, there can definitely be volumes that stretch outwardly in a rather conspicuous manner and still manage to be very good– Les Mis is one of them. I have yet to fully see any of the theatre or film adaptation (I’ve made the habit of keeping a song list from the musical handy and looking up songs that cover parts I am 100% sure I have already read. It’s rather fun), but from what I’ve seen, there are people who are fans of the musical yet refuse to check out the novel. I can’t say I understand this.

Now, granted, the very first part of the novel (Book 1 of Vol.1, which stretches out for about 13 chapters) is about nothing other than the life of M. Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, and what an amazingly good and charitable person he is, with practically none of what happens having any impact on the rest of the plot other than providing him with ample character development. It might get a bit jarring for a more casual reader, but I have a genuine challenge that I’d like to issue out to anyone who claims to have an issue like this: Read the unabridged version of Moby-Dick all the way through, cover to cover, then after you’ve done that, I dare you to tell me that the section of Les Misérables titled “Book I: A Just Man” is truly boring.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that, while a certain degree of objectivity is imperative if you’re trying to write an interesting book, if you have the skill to keep that up, or at least to make it so that your descriptions and digressions are still interesting and pertinent, you can certainly pull off writing something monumentally long.

For another bit of contrast, I’d like to cite a couple more of some of the longest books I’ve read. One of them is Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, which stretches on for about 600 pages with a plot whose being able to fit the definition of plot is debatable, but the narrative style the author provides is so engaging and compelling that you can’t help but to keep on reading. Another particularly lengthy book is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which has a similar length and consists mostly of why you really should plan ahead when you make any sort of framing device. It also has a bit of a history lesson about the conflict between Vlad the Impaler and Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, something that is much more interesting than the rather loose “plot” that is going on, which serves as little more than a vehicle to expose these history lessons and bits of folklore. Does it justify being that long?

That’s a legitimate question.


Gumption progress report?

It is.

I finally resumed work on that particular piece of writing and managed to cough up a complete outline. Hopefully, some actual rewriting will begin taking place this week.

Is there anything else to say? I suppose not, so consider this my possibly shortest post yet. Ciao.


The balance between reality and fiction

I don’t know about you, but I have a personal policy never to set any of my stories in the real world (or at least nowhere that could be found on a map) if I can help it. Perhaps it’s my own alienation from the world at large that inspires me to do it, but I just feel that I risk alienating the reader if I start to talk about a place that they’re not familiar with and/or do not identify with in the slightest. I mean, that’s obviously also a risk with fictional settings, but at least everyone goes in with more or less the same level of familiarity (unless you flub the effort by including comparisons to real-world elements many people would not be familiar with, have one or more characters come from the real world, etc.), and it’s the writer’s job to make sure that everyone understands all that is necessary to tell the story in an effective way and hopefully immerse the reader into the universe they’ve created.

As I have said, there are some times when the author of a piece of fiction sets it in the real world, but does it in such a way that the reader does not feel left out of the loop without having to peruse an abundance of footnotes. That’s always admirable, but unless it deals with certain aspects of humanity or nature or human nature that are underaddressed even today, I much rather prefer keeping it as fictional as possible.

Are settings the only elements of fiction that can have this restriction? Of course not. If it exists in the real world and you’re willing to assume I already know about it, you can alienate me with it. Ideologies, societies, doctrines, and many other abstract elements can be lifted from the real world as well as a location, and unless handled well, that might bring narrative disaster about.

In my opinion, one of the most effective ways you can go about including something like this short of dropping an anvil would be via those wonderful inventions known as allegories. If you tell a story that has a deeper meaning to it that’s never spelled out over the course of the text, that seems like a fantastic way to get a message across without messing up the flow of the story. Like many things, this can also go wrong, and you may end up creating something that students of language and literature will be puzzling over for centuries (something I also try to avoid), but if you believe you have enough skill to get a message across subtly without making it obtuse, then it seems like the best option.

As for you, where are you willing to draw the limits between where reality ends and your stories become completely fictional? If you feel there is something you have on your mind relevant to the topic at hand that merits saying, the comment box is just down there.