Friday, September 26, 2014

Approaches to Writing #2: Starting Small

When I've been asked over the years for advice on how to become a better photographer, I've always suggested a straightforward method that can easily be practiced by anyone who's in earnest.  There's no secret to it.  One need simply shoot one roll of film a day for a month.  (On a digital camera, of course, the equivalent of one roll is 36 exposures.)  If one then makes a contact sheet after each day's session and carefully studies the photographs thus obtained before shooting the following day's roll, there will almost certainly be a noticeable improvement in the quality of the photos at the end of the 30-day period.  This is not a very difficult assignment and easily within the grasp of anyone who sincerely seeks to better his or her work.

The same is true of creative writing.  The most important thing is to do a small amount of writing every day and then carefully read over what one has written to see where improvements can be made before beginning again the next day.  The key here is the phrase "every day."  It's essential that one keep at it.  It's a mistake to believe one need sit down in front of a computer keyboard and churn out a 300 page novel in a single straight session.  Though Jack Kerouac may famously have typed On the Road in this manner on a single roll of mimeograph paper, most of those attempting to emulate his feat will only experience discouragement and give up long before reaching the end.

In an otherwise unhelpful writing guide, I once came across a basic piece of arithmetic: if one writes three pages per day, one will have completed a 270 page novel at the end of three months.  This is the rule I try to follow in my own work.  I put aside at least two hours each day, preferably at the same time in the afternoon, in which to write three pages as best I can.  After all, two hours a day is not a particularly burdensome commitment for anyone aspiring to become a professional or even an amateur writer.  And if I can complete more than three pages in the allotted time, so much the better.

What's required here is really self-discipline.  Unless one lives as a monk - and that's rather difficult to do in New York City - there will be days so hectic that it's difficult to find two hours to spare.  But it's essential that this be done.  The self-imposed assignment should be viewed as a part-time job that an employee need show up for every day and there perform his work as conscientiously as possible.  As one goes along, he will find that there are days in which he is inspired to continue working once the two hours after elapsed.  While this should be encouraged to a certain extent, at the same time one should be wary of burning oneself out by pushing beyond reasonable limits.

Needless to say, the 270 pages one is left with at the end of the three months will not constitute a final product.  There will be any amount of revisions and edits still needed before the work is completed and ready for publication.  Still, a 270 page manuscript should in most cases be sufficient for a first draft.  To me, the most difficult part of writing a novel is telling a story interesting and detailed enough that it can be sustained over the length of several hundred pages without losing the reader's interest.  Once this has been accomplished, the hardest part of the battle is over.

In summary, the more one works at given task the better one becomes at doing it.  Or, as the tired cliché puts it, practice makes perfect.  Becoming a better writer or a better photographer can seem a nebulous and difficult goal, but if one completes the work involved in small increments, there is much less chance of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Another New Novel

I spent the summer months working on the first draft of another new novel.  This one is entitled Lucid.and deals with the phenomenon of "lucid dreaming" in which an individual is aware even while still asleep that he/she is dreaming and is thus able to gain control over the content of the dream and to direct its course.  In other words, the sleeping individual is actually awake within the dream itself.

I got the idea for all this from an article in a free daily newspaper through which I was skimming while eating my lunch one day this past spring.  The article was only a four-paragraph excerpt from a longer Reuters report but it was enough to get my imagination working.  What most appealed to me about the concept was the freedom it provided to me in telling a story.  Obviously, since dreams are expressions of the unconscious mind they do not have to "make sense" in the rational order that a writer recounting events would normally need to follow.  By the same token, there's no need for dreams to follow the laws of physics.  A character, while in a dream state, can therefore move freely through time and space without the need for an author to provide the tiresome textbook explanations that would be required if he were instead writing a science fiction novel.  In writing of dreams, lucid or otherwise, an author can give free rein to his imagination and indulge in fantasy to whatever extent he chooses.

In telling the story, I started off slowly by describing the parameters of the experiment in which the protagonist takes part in a deliberately dry and academic manner.  Even when the first anomalies are encountered, these are so ambiguous that they could really be only figments of the protagonist's imagination.  It is only as the novel progresses that the fantastic elements come to the fore and leave the everyday world behind.

The freedom I enjoyed in telling the story made this book highly enjoyable to write.  Hopefully, when I publish it sometime next year readers will have just as much fun following the characters through dream worlds where anything is possible.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Approaches to Writing #1: Finding an Idea

A little over two years ago, after years of procrastination, I finally began a serious attempt to become a novelist.  At the time, I had no idea where to start and found it rough going.  My progress was at best sporadic.  But I persevered and in January 2014 registered my first novel with the US Copyright Office.  I was unhappy with the work, though, and decided to withhold it from publication.  (I've already described the reasons for this decision in an earlier post.)  Instead, I immediately began working on a new novel and finished a first draft several months later.  Hopefully, I'll be self-publishing that new work, New York Sonata, as an ebook later this year.  Along the way, I've developed certain approaches to writing that have helped speed my workflow and make a difficult process a bit easier.  In this and coming posts I'm planning to describe these techniques in the hope that they may be of use to other fiction writers who are also just starting out.

My first consideration was to find an acceptable idea on which to base a full length novel.  This is not nearly so difficult a task as it might first appear.  There are actually viable ideas all around us just waiting to be discovered.  Every time we sign on to the web or pick up a newspaper, we are bombarded by stories and articles, many of them offbeat, that are perfect for adaptation into a work of fiction.  All that's necessary is to read an article that we personally find intriguing and then simply consider its implications.  If the story in question truly captures our imagination, we will almost always start thinking along the lines of "What if..."

For example, I got the idea for the novel Lucid, on which I'm now working, from reading a filler piece in one of those free New York dailies that are given away every morning on street corners.  The article itself only quoted the first four paragraphs of a much longer Reuters report on a science experiment that attempted to induce lucid dreaming by running an electric current through a subject's brain while he/she slept.  There wasn't a great deal of detail provided, but what was there was enough to start me thinking.  I began to wonder what the implications of such a procedure might entail and was soon picturing a similar experiment that in my imagination led to unforeseen results.  It was these unexpected consequences that became the subject matter of my novel.

Not all such ideas can be developed into a novel because some are simply too thin to support a story several hundred pages in length.  The trick is to find one whose implications are great enough that it can successfully be expanded into a novel.  Of course, it is not always necessary to think in terms of full length works.  An idea that is not strong enough to support a novel can always be developed into a short story.  A good example would be Nightfall by the renowned science fiction author Isaac Asimov.  This is a classic use of the "What if..." scenario.  In this case, Asimov explores the potential consequences that would follow if a population that had never before known total darkness (because the planet on which that population exists has several suns in its sky) were to experience nightfall for the first time.  The result was one of the classic science fiction stories of all time.  When, though, the author (together with Robert Silverberg) later attempted to expand his 1941 story into a novel with the same title, it was not nearly as good as the short story from which it was drawn.  That was because there wasn't enough material in the original idea, however imaginative, to support a work of greater length.

What's really needed then to develop the idea for a novel is first and foremost simply time to think, or perhaps more accurately, time to daydream.  An author has to let the idea for his work incubate in his imagination before ever writing the first paragraph.  Every story has implications of which the author may at first be unaware.  It is only after he has allowed his mind, consciously or unconsciously, to consider the possibilities that he will have a complete story to set down.  This is not to say, though, that the writer must have every detail worked out in advance before beginning to tell the story.  I have often found that as I am writing there will come to me additional details and incidents that need to be incorporated into the plot.  It's very important then that an author be openminded enough to adapt the story he is telling to new developments as they occur to him.  Otherwise he will be stuck with a story that, no matter how faithful to his original conception, fails to come alive and ends up being no more than an academic exercise.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Summer's Over - Back to Work

Now that summer has ended I'll once again be posting here - hopefully more often than in the past - as I prepare to publish my fist novel, New York Sonata.

It's difficult for a novelist to blog frequently about his work.  Writing is obviously a solitary pastime - there's not not a great deal to report as one sits in front of a monitor choosing the words that best tell a story.  There are other aspects of writing a novel, however, that can be described more fully.  These deal primarily with the mechanics of actually publishing an ebook online.  My intention is to initially offer my work on Amazon though, to be honest, I am not at the moment totally sure of all that is involved in doing so.  As I go through the process for the first time, I will be detailing the problems I encounter along the way and will be sharing any useful information that I happen to come across.  Once the work has actually been published, I will track the sales figures here as well as any other items of note.

In addition, I will be describing in future posts the approaches I myself have found most useful in the writing process.  When I first started working on this project, I found the concept of starting a novel from scratch to be rather daunting.  As I proceeded, I developed several strategies that allowed me to better order my workflow and to give greater coherence to the story under construction.  If any of these can be of use to other first time novelists, that will be gratifying in itself.

Finally, once the novel has been published, I will be looking into ways to best publicize it.  The sheer volume of available titles on Amazon makes it likely that even a work of quality will be overlooked if one is unable to draw attention to it.  Most authors, myself included, are simply not able to afford the cost of a publicist or marketing guru and must do the groundwork themselves.  I'll be looking into websites, such as Goodreads, that offer forums to writers and will be searching for any other means available, online or off, to help get the word out.

As far as my photography is concerned, I do not plan to actively pursue it while working on my writing.  Nevertheless, if I should become aware of any news that is of interest, particularly concerning analog photography, I will make note of it here.  I will also publish examples of my work in the unlikely event I happen to do any shoots in the coming months.

On a personal note, the summer months were a most productive time for me.  Rather than simply going on vacation, I took advantage of the fine weather here in NYC to complete the first draft of a new novel entitled Lucid.  I'm quite proud of the fact that in less than three months, I was able to write out an entire full-length story.  Once I finish work on the final draft of New York Sonata, I'll return to this new novel and prepare this work for publication as well.