August 2, 2012
Roxana Arama wrote this essay after an intense discussion about Timed Writing or Writing Practice grew up on our Louisa’s Writers Facebook page. Check out Roxana’s other Guest Writer pieces . She is working on a complex and ambitious fusion novel built on history and fantasy.
As promised, I typed up the reasons why writing practice works so well for me.
1. Writing with other people produces insights
At Louisa’s, we read what we write, and that makes a big difference in the way I write. The people I write with are my friends, and I’ve grown to like and respect them over the years. No one writing session will change people’s mind about my craft, so I’m not trying to impress anybody. But I’m trying to make the five minutes that the other people sit around the table and listen to me interesting for them. Whatever they’re listening to is a sliver of my work, a scene out of context, a piece of meta-writing. So I’m trying to make myself as clear as I can. Which means that, as I write, I keep an eye on my subplots, backstories, character motivations – any detail that I can add to make listening out of context easier. As I straddle all these worlds, my brain makes connections that it wouldn’t otherwise. That’s where the insights lie and that’s from where they spring forth, as far as I can tell. Thinking differently as I write makes for different writing.
On the other hand, listening to other people’s work out of context injects randomness in my thinking about my book. My brain is cooling down after the writing session, but it’s still in work mode. And it plays with whatever it hears. What if I do to my character what this other writer has done to hers? What if? What if?
2. Writing time is time set aside
When I’m driving to Louisa’s, I don’t listen to the radio. I think about what I’m going to write. By the time I arrive at the Eastlake stoplight, I’m living in the world in my head – good thing I know the way and I’m on auto-pilot. At the table, there’s nothing else in the world to do, but write. There’s no other option, the phone is on silent, and I’d better use that time to write. There’s a ritual to the writing practice: people taking their seats and finishing their pastries, the timer, “today I’m writing about.” The rules of the games are set, and I don’t have to think about what to do next. I know what to do next. I write, and I keep writing. That’s all I’m supposed to do until the timer beeps.
3. Writers around me are serious about their writing
Some days I come to Louisa’s and I doubt my work, my craft, my everything. But then I look around and there’s always somebody who’s very excited about his or her work. He finished a poem, she’s sending a manuscript to an agent, he’s going to try a new POV for his scene or going to write an article for a magazine. Whatever it is, there’s always someone who takes writing seriously at that moment. No doubts. No wavering. That’s when I feel deep respect for the writing profession and I remember what’s hard to remember when you’re low: how cool it is when you’re riding the wave. So I snap at attention as if the flag went up and I had to sing the anthem. And then I sit down, the time is set aside for writing, and there’s nothing else in the world to do but write.
4. Writers who know more about writing than I do
I go to Louisa’s to learn from people who are better professionals than I am. At this point, there are dozens of scenes in my book that ended up the way they are now because somebody gave me a suggestion, an idea, pointed me to a new approach, a new exercise. Made me think outside my frame of mind. Having an experienced writer tell me “this works” or “bring an intruder into this scene” pulls me along in my work. That’s progress I wouldn’t have made by myself, alone in my office.
There’s much more to writing practice at Louisa’s than that. There’s the feeling of camaraderie that I haven’t felt with people since college. There’s the exuberance at the end of the day when I leave the place with something I didn’t know I was capable of writing. There’s following dozens of great stories as they come into focus week after week, month after month. There’s having generous support as I try to shape myself into a professional writer. There’s the chocolate brownie and the peppermint tea. But above all, it’s the other writers who sit around the tables at 2:30 p.m. and turn a coffee shop in Seattle into a magic place.
See you Friday,
What do software code writers and novelists have in common? In this, Roxana’s second guest blog, she makes that connection.
The Wedding Bell © 2012 Roxana Arama
January 26, 2012
In my previous post on Bob and Jack’s blog (at the end of this writing), I wrote about the early stages of my novel The Wedding Bell. This post is about my journey as an apprentice toward the later stages of writing a novel.
Before turning to fiction writing, I was a full-time software developer with a bachelor of science in computers. Once I began writing, I renounced all my project-development training in order to be a real writer, one that lets the book reveal itself to her as she listens to those voices in her head. I knew what I wanted that book to be about, I had a laptop, so I began writing. I goaded every character and prop in my story to do the work I wanted it to do. I thought that I was letting the creative part of me blossom, when, in fact, I was writing myself into every scene, and plastering myself over every prop. I was listening to voices, but they were all me. And so I wandered for a few years, until I came to embrace the obvious: writing is a lot like object-oriented computer programming. Yes, I know how that sounds!
It took years for me to absorb the knowledge that became second nature when I was writing software. For the last year, I have been studying the books that Bob and Jack think essential for a writer: from structural anthropology to rhetoric, all discussed here on their blog. I renounced the pledge I had made in countless writing classes to just write the book and trust that it will sort itself out, eventually. Outlining ceased to be a dirty word. Spending time knowing each of my characters, their parents, the view from the window of their favorite room, the buckles on their shoes, was not optional anymore. Writing about writing, thinking about ritual and myth, became part of the routine. Just as in software, even though you know the story you want to tell, you can’t tell it until you design your classes of objects. And even when you know the entities that populate your world, their behavior when put together is not always predictable, as any developer who had chased a code defect for days can tell you.
During the last ten months, I developed my characters and anchored my objects and put them to work in dozens of scenes. At a recent writing practice, Jack told me that I have enough material to give the CUT-TO technique a try.
CUT-TO is a powerful tool that Bob and Jack borrowed from screenwriting. The writer imagines the book as a movie, and writes down a quick cut from one scene to the next, highlighting the objects in the scenes, the transformation of those objects between the scenes, and the hooks that transfer the suspense from one scene to another. The writer works on this exercise from memory, without any props to stir the story in the desired direction.
In computer programming, this technique is called pseudocode, an informal script of the high-level behavior of the algorithm.
After writing for months to the setting, and to the description of characters, and to the dialogue, and to the action, this cut-to exercise forced me to go big-picture again. All those objects and all those characters that had been around, though slightly misplaced, snapped at attention, lined up like beads on a necklace. I went home and wrote two more sessions that afternoon. When I was done, I had a bell-shaped inkwell sitting on a table next to a crystal bell, and I had black ink spilling on the floor like blood from a wound, and I had ink seeping into the lines of girl’s hand – and the palm of that hand looked like the scar on the main antagonist’s chest. Before my eyes, objects were morphing and people were changing in ways that I had not set them up to. It was though the voices had taken over, but this time they were not mine.
Here is the beginning of that writing practice session. I followed the format Jack used for the cut-to he wrote for his novel BLOOD (http://networkedblogs.com/taj6e).
CUT-TO for the beginning of ACT II
1. Act II opens in a scene called Crossing the Jagged Pass. Betrothed Princess Meda and King Duras’s wedding entourage cross the Jagged Pass. Duras tells Meda to leave a lock of hair as an offering to Mount Clopot. The earthquake happens when Meda is alone of the path. First Councilor Oroles comes to the rescue, not Duras. Plot track on the incompatibility between Meda and Duras. Objects (on their own plot tracks): blade, hair, blood, gates. Also: snow/white – tar/black cauldron. Hook to: the arrival scene.
2. Cut to: Meda arrives at the Castle of the Lakes. Prince Getas, Duras’s younger brother, falls in love with her. Objects: red trunk, short hair, cloak, fire, stairwell. Hook to: the wedding.
3. Cut to: Meda spends a week in the underground sacred chambers of the Temple of Concord in rituals of purification and integration into her new country and life. Objects: water, fire, white tunic, darkness, smoke. Hook to: the wedding
4. Cut to: Duras, Oroles, and Zyraxes the Wise (the old councilor and priest to Duras’s late father) watch over the sacrifice of a white ox for offerings to the gods. Zyraxes reads the entrails – all good. Objects: white skin/white clothes, blade, blood, white linen towel, silver. Hook to: the wedding.
5. Cut to: Duras arrives at the Temple in a white litter and walks alone through the garden among the statues of his ancestors. Objects: white cloak, stone tablet with the peace treaty, oak statues, ash urns. Hook to: the wedding.
6. Cut to: The high-priestess watches over the dressing and adorning of the bride. The metal is silver, not the most cherished in Meda’s home country. Objects: silver, white robes, hair, silver and sapphire crown. Hook to: the wedding.
7. Cut to: Meda and Duras get married under the marble statue of the Great Mother Goddess. Zyraxes, the high-priestess, Prince Getas, Oroles are all present. The cartographer interrupts the ceremony with a mournful prophecy that the union would not bring the peace Duras had hoped for. Meda is crowned Queen of Tarnia. Objects: red string to tie the wrists, red wine, white statue of the goddess, crown, blade, silver, white wedding robes, white ox’s skin, fat & bones. Hook to: the banquet.
[Roxana’s novel is under control and moving toward completion. We’ll let you know when the book is published. JR]
© Roxana Arama. All rights Reserved. March 19, 2011
THE WEDDING BELL is the working title of my second novel, a book I’m writing this time following the process outlined in THE WEEKEND NOVELIST series.
THE WEDDING BELL is a coming-of-age story set in an imaginary world that draws on the culture of the Dacians, the people who lived on the current Romanian territory before the Roman conquest. The novel is built with the language and plot elements of folktale, and tells the story of a girl who redefines the rules of the game within her patriarchal social order. Her name is Meda, and she is the Princess of the Mountains. On her sixteenth birthday, her father allows her to roam the palace, but warns her of a forbidden chamber.
This book started as a short story in April 2010 and has grown into a novel during the last six months. Once I settled on the novel form, I wrote character sketches and created my repository of locations, recurring objects, maps and politics for my three kingdoms. After I learned a great deal about the fictional world I was creating, I began work on my scene list.
The scene list is a tool for organizing locations, objects, point-of-view and chronology. But it’s more than that. As I worked on my list, I noticed plot tracks on objects, locations and ritual actions that I hadn’t been aware of when I first wrote the scenes, and I could look at the way my scenes hooked to each other following the arc of their subjects throughout the story. These insights have become the building blocks of the metaphorical reality that is my book. Within this framework, I’m free to experiment and discover, to build and tear down. I’m as thrilled writing this story as I hope others will be one day reading it.
So far, I’ve written or sketched 102 scenes, which cover the main plot and seven subplots. My main antagonist is Duras, the King of the Lakes. He owns Subplot 1. For the purpose of this blog entry, I selected from my list only the ACT I scenes that have Duras as a character, up to PLOT POINT 1. I also trimmed the scene information to a handful of categories: number, name, description, plot tracks and hooks. Of course, my scene list is still evolving as I go through my writing and rewriting.
Scene List for Subplot 1 / ACT I
SCENE 5: The Battle of a Fortnight, Backstory: Meda, the Princess of the Mountains, age 10, learns about the recent battle where Scorilo, the King of the Prairies, stabbed Duras, the King of the Lakes, and left him for dead. She identifies with 17-year old Duras and makes him the hero of her dreams.
Opens the plot tracks on SCAR and KNIFE. Hooks to SCENE 6 & SCENE 14.
SCENE 16: First Sighting: Out of her window, Meda, age 16, sees the Lakes riders arrive at the Palace of the Mountains. She cannot tell which one of them is the king.
Opens the plot track on DISGUISE. Hooks to SCENE 18.
SCENE 17: The Council: Duras and Cothelas, the King of the Mountains, meet behind closed doors. They agree to an alliance in order to deter Scorilo from future attacks. Cothelas wants the trade route with the Kingdom of the Prairies reopened.
Opens the plot track on MAPS. Hooks to SCENE 19.
SCENE 19: First Encounter: Meda meets Duras at the feast offered in his honor. She is disappointed.
Continues the plot track on GEMS. Hooks to SCENE 22.
SCENE 22 (part of PLOT POINT 1): The Wedding: Meda and Duras get married.
Multiple plot tracks and subplots intersect here. Hooks to SCENE 24.