Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Beethoven or Mozart—what kind of writer are you?

When I was in graduate school in the early eighties, I became fascinated by the idea of “writing process,” which is the approach you take toward your writing.

In a writing theory class I read a paper by a professor of rhetoric, Lillian Bridwell (now Bridwell-Bowles), who posited that there are two types of writers: Beethovian and Mozartean.

Ludwig von Beethoven                                              Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

beethoven_large                                W_a_mozart

The Beethovians, like Beethoven himself, write very rough drafts and spend a lot of time revising. The Mozarteans produce a nearly perfect first draft the first time they write—similar to the way the great composer worked. The theory is that the Mozarteans are PLANNERS, who do most of their revising in their heads before they put anything on paper. The Beethovians need to go through all those planning steps on paper—writing as they go to DISCOVER what they have.

Anyone who has read my posts on my own writing process (e.g., Thurber’s Mud) will see that I am a Beethovian writer. A good friend of mine, a very successful children’s novelist, is the opposite: a nearly pure Mozartean. He doesn’t even revise his manuscripts—just checks them for typos.

These writing types lie on a spectrum, of course: Nobody is 100% either type. Some current theorists think your type may be inborn, and that it is apparently indicative of other cognitive processes. When I began work on the third novel in the Pandora’s series, I thought I’d be able to do it in a linear fashion, especially since I already had around 100 pages written.

Nope. Not a chance. The deeper I get into the novel, the more I think of things that should go earlier—or later—and things that I need to research. As I explained in last week’s post I’m already doing major edits on the electronic version, and the small tablet I was using for notes has evolved into three separate tablets, each filled with scribbles and post-its.

Bridwell’s early research showed that it is more difficult for a Beethovian to write on a computer than for a Mozartean. This is because we Beethovians need to take our time, and also take space, spreading things out to look at the work holistically.

Neither writing process is right, or better than the other. They both just are. Which are you? I will probably have more to say on this topic in future posts.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

43. Now the Work Begins….

Okay, I have finished inputting all the previously-written material, as I posted about last week. I have around 30,000 words and exactly 99 pages. Since the threequel will need to be approximately the same length as the first two books in the series, 90-100,000 words, that means I have around 1/3 the material that I need.

Here are the pages I’ve been inputting all these weeks. I drew blue lines across pages that had already been put into the computer.

PP ms rough pages 8-19-2012 2-37-52 PM 2832x2434

I am going to try to write about five new pages a day, which means I will have a complete rough draft in forty days.

Except, who am I kidding? I know myself, and I know I will never write that much that quickly. But I’ll try to write at least something new each day, and meanwhile will look at the other material that will need to be folded into what I have now. This will be an intense combination of original writing and revision, all at the same time.

As for the material I just finished inputting, there were numerous places where I needed to expand or make other changes. Mostly I didn’t do that, but instead indicated what would need to be done later. I put those things in brackets, as a reminder to myself. This is a good technique for any writer during the creation of a first or second draft. It is often easier to write the difficult but necessary bits later, after you’ve let it marinate in your unconscious for a while. For example, here’s part of a scene from page 96:

Evvy had expected something of this sort. Even so, it took all her will to keep from running, from calling out to Baby for help. This was, after all, part of her plan, which she hoped would soon bring her face to face with Katha.
The men roughly grasped her arms, then stood beside her, holding so tightly she nearly cried out.
[details of surroundings]
“Take her to be prepared,” the headman said.

As indicated, I’ll have to include here more details of where she is, what it looks, sounds, and smells like. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

42. Writing the Second Sequel

Writing the third book in the Pandora’s series--the “threequel,” as I call it-- is turning out to be a very strange experience. I’ve posted about how I wrote the first draft of Pandora’s Genes straight from my subconscious; and in contrast, how I carefully plotted out the young adult books I did for a series. This is different. I started this novel, which I’m calling PANDORA’S PROMISE, many years ago without any very clear idea of where it was going, except that it began as a direct follow-up to the first book’s sequel, Pandora’s Children.


I began writing as I advise in my post on how to keep going when you’re stuck, by writing a minimum of one sentence a night. As often happens when using this method, that one sentence often became two, three, or even a page or more. I wrote these sentences and pages over several months, and when I finished I had quite a pile of papers, which remained in my filing cabinet till a few weeks ago. When I decided to write the threequel, I pulled those pages out and started reading, but soon gave up. There was  so much material that I realized it would be easier to just start inputting, making changes as I went.

In the meantime, since I first wrote those pages, I had also made a start on two other science fiction novels, both of which had very strong ideas that I could not forget. Both were post-holocaust young adult novels. One took place in a traditional post-nuclear-disaster world (as opposed to the Pandora’s World, in which the disaster is recombinant DNA run amok); the other  was set in an unspecified future, blasted world.I never finished either of these books.

Once I started writing Pandora’s Promise in earnest, a couple of funny things happened. First, I very early on discovered that the societal ideas from BOTH the unfinished novels fit perfectly into my threequel. I believe my subconscious had been working on these ideas all these years, and perhaps it had given me the ideas in the first place for the Pandora’s world.

Second, I was astonished to find out that I had a lot more material than I recall having written. I am nearly through inputting the pages and I already have more than 25,000 words and nearly 100 pages. Typing these pages has been fascinating, because there is so much action and excitement, most of which I don’t remember at all.

I haven’t even started looking at the material from the two unfinished novels.
There is a lot of hard work ahead. I’ll need to go through all the already-written material to see what can be used in Pandora’s Promise, and will of course need to make many, many changes in the material that is now in my computer. I’ll probably need to re-read both Pandora’s books, to make sure I don’t put something in the threequel that directly contradicts the things I’ve already presented in the first two books.

But I’m looking forward to this work. Overall, I’m  very pleased with Pandora’s Promise so far. I find myself getting excited as I write and as I think about it. I have not felt this way in a very long time.

Note: I may not continue to write this blog every week as I get deeper into the threequel. If anyone reading this feels strongly that they would like me to continue weekly,  please email me or leave a message here. If you have any questions you’d like me to answer, let me know.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

41. The key to creating three-dimensional secondary characters

In previous posts I talked about several ways to flesh out your main characters, such as basing them on real-life people and fine-tuning your characters’ motivation. But what about secondary characters? For me, the main key to animating less-important characters is visual.


Cut out pictures. This sounds like something you would do in grade school, but it can be helpful in writing a novel, especially one with many characters. Flipping through magazine ads may give you a hint. Once you see a photo that screams: “That’s Celeste!” it may also be easier to grasp her personality.

Think of famous actors who might play the character and then write for that actor. A colleague who has written a successful mystery confided that she was able to write an important secondary character only when she visualized a specific actress in the role. Once she had done that, she could also “hear” the voice, and the character became real to her.

Give your character a quirk. In Pandora’s Genes and its sequel, Pandora’s Children, several generals in the Principal’s army play a role in the story. To keep them straight in my mind, and also to help readers keep them straight, I gave each general a trait that was noted most times they appeared. For example, Ralf is elderly and has a stutter; Marcus dresses like a dandy and spends excessive time on personal grooming; while Eric, who in my mind looks like Hugh Jackman, is hot-headed and impulsive.

It is important to keep the quirks from taking over, or you can end up with a character who is nothing but a collection of tics.

Let the character’s appearance do double duty. The evil drug dealer in The Ptorrigan Lode is described as having a “patchwork face,” which I explain early on is the result of radiation burns. This gives us an idea of how he looks—and also how he has lived his life.

In another example, readers tell me that Ivory, the teenager who befriends Peej and Annie in Going to See Grassy Ella, is a very memorable character. I knew that I wanted her to be very different from the two sisters, and also to have an innocence about her. Ivory became real to me when I began to visualize her as a former student in one of my Freshman English classes, a very bright girl who dressed in what she thought was the height of punk fashion: ripped black clothing, hair dyed blue on one side, the other side of her head shaved; and multiiple piercings on her ear, nose, cheeks, and lips.

Next week I will answer some questions readers have sent or asked in these posts. Please feel free to ask anything you’d like to know, either about my books or about writing. Post a comment here, or email me through the link to my website.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

40. Finding a great opening line

Last week we talked about WHERE to begin a novel. Now let’s take a look at HOW.

In the beginning of your novel ideally you should introduce your main character, illustrate his or her central problem, and do so in a way that grips potential readers.

Here’s a great first line from the Kafka classic Metamorphosis that does all those things at once:


As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

This line also establishes the mood of the story—claustrophobic, dreamlike, and horrifying.

Here is a more mundane example from my young adult novel Going to See Grassy Ella. I had determined that my actual story begins when Peej and Annie, the heroines, decide to run off to New York City so Peej, who has cancer, can visit a faith healer. The first chapter shows them making that decision, along with the necessary background information. To draw the reader in, I decided to make an immediate reference to the most exciting (and comic) part of the novel:

This is the true story of how my sister and I got kidnaped and broke up an international drug ring,” Annie tells us, adding, as a segue: “But it didn’t start out like that.

Many novels begin with a  provocative sentence that raises immediate questions. I began Pandora’s Genes: He knew they had been expecting him. This raises the questions, “Who is HE?” “Who are THEY?” “WHY are they expecting him?”

Take a look at the classic opening to Catch-22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

This opening accomplishes quite a lot: it introduces the main character, sets up a number of questions readers want answered, and establishes the comic voice that Joseph Heller uses throughout the novel.

Here are more ideas to keep in mind for the beginning of your novel:

Know your genre. Mysteries, romances, and sci-fi each have their own conventions. The opening of a mystery often focuses on a crime; romances usually begin by introducing the lovers; and science fiction often throws the reader into the midst of a strange and provocative world.  From George Orwell’s 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.

Ask yourself, would *I* want to keep reading? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.

Don’t start with a prologue, except possibly for a sequel in a series. Readers tend to skip prologues—because they are looking for the action.

Use flashbacks rarely and sparingly, if at all. Again, readers will often skip them. I once read a student novel that started a flashback on the first page that went on for four chapters. By the time the story snapped back to the present, I was completely lost.

Don’t start out with a character sketch. That was how authors often began their novels in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but today’s readers don’t have the patience for it. Instead, drop in information as needed throughout the book, and SHOW us who your character is through her actions and words.