Sunday, October 19, 2014

Approaches to Writing #3: Organizing Your Work

In an earlier post, I mentioned in passing Jack Kerouac's remarkable feat in typing the entire first draft of On The Road onto a single roll of mimeograph paper.  The irony is that no matter how "cool" such a trick may have appeared during the 1950's Beat era, it can only seem to us today hopelessly antiquated.  The obvious advantage twenty-first century novelists have over their predecessors is the ability to write and edit their works with the help of word processing software.  What's often overlooked, though, is the computer's ability to assist the writer in organizing his work.  No longer is it necessary to sift through reams of paper in search of a passage written months before and now misplaced.

Anyone who's ever used a computer (and who hasn't?) soon realizes that files and directories are no more than folders within folders.  As long as these are properly labeled, they can be easily cataloged and retrieved.  The trick is to set them up in a logical fashion before writing even a single word of the text.

The first thing I do is to create a folder for the entire novel and label it with that piece's working title.  It's not necessary to agonize over the title, though, as it can easily be changed at any time using the "Rename" feature.

Having done this, I then create several other folders within the first.  One will be entitled "Cover" and will contain the artwork and layout for the the book's cover when it is eventually published.  I use my own photography for this task and find it helpful to work on this aspect while at the same time writing the text.  (I intend to discuss the mechanics of designing a cover in a future post.)  Again, it's not necessary to fret unduly over the cover before one has even begun writing the work.  If a third party is to do the cover design, it's not needed at all.  The point is to have things set up so that they are readily available when one reaches the stage where they're needed.

Another folder I create within the first is entitled "Research."  While a novel does not require the exhaustive research needed for a scholarly textbook, it is still imperative to have one's facts straight.  This is especially true if a writer is setting parts of the story in an actual location, such as a NYC restaurant, or referencing within the novel real life events that have been reported in the media.  Into the Research folder I cut & paste news items, Wikipedia articles, descriptions given on travel websites, etc.  I never have so many that I have to trouble myself putting them in any sort of order.  I do, however, make sure to keep headlines in bold large-point type so I can locate them easily.

The third folder I create within the first I label "First Draft."  It is here I put the actual writing.  Before beginning, though, I start within this new folder a file entitled "Chapter Summary."  This is a standard Word table consisting of rows and columns.  I use one row for each chapter.  In a column on the far left, I put the date on which I began work on that particular chapter and which I also use as the file name; in the middle column, I write a brief summary (one or two sentences) describing what occurs in that section; in the column on the far right, I put the number of pages in each chapter.  I also include in the Summary a list of characters so that I can remember what name I've assigned to each.

It's only after all this has been done that I actually commence writing the first chapter.  I find that when I start out I usually have five or six "scenes" already imagined, and I devote one chapter to each.  Once these have been written out, it's fairly easy to come up with ideas for additional chapters.  I go on this way until the entire novel has been completed.  

It's important to create a new folder for each draft.  That way none of the chapters in the First Draft folder are overwritten.  I can always go back to them if I'm unhappy with the revisions I've made in the following draft. 

While all this is admittedly very basic, taking the time to organize one's writing day by day can save a tremendous amount of time once the editing process has begun.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: What We See When We Read

The attraction a book entitled What We See When We Read holds for any writer is immediately obvious.  If one understands exactly how a reader pictures characters and action while perusing a novel, one can then consciously write in a manner that gives the reader the clearest picture possible of what one is attempting to put down on paper.  It was with this thought in mind that I originally purchased the book.  I had not expected what I would actually be getting.

First, this is one of the best designed books I've ever encountered and is well worth acquiring for that reason alone.  This comes as no surprise as the author, Peter Mendelsund, is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and perhaps the preeminent book cover designer active today.  If you've ever browsed through the recent releases at Barnes & Noble, you've almost certainly seen samples of his work.  He has, in fact, published another book, entitled simply Cover, that amply demonstrates his accomplishments in this field.  In WWSWWR he has created a veritable multimedia exhibit in support of his hypothesis that the act of reading is in essence nonlinear.  Filled with illustrations and outrageous typography, it fairly seduces the reader as it forces him to consider what is actually involved in the act of reading a book, an activity whose mechanics most take for granted since they've (hopefully) been doing it all their lives.  In furtherance of this end, the book is filled with any number of examples and pithy quotes (who doesn't love Wittgenstein?) that cannot but help stimulate the reader's imagination.  Instead of laying out a traditional argument, Mendelsund presents the reader with a gestalt in which to immerse himself.

I do have a couple of issues with the book though.

First, I do not believe the author fully takes into account the role which the writer plays in determining what the reader sees.  It only makes sense that the more clearly a writer is able to picture action and character in his own mind, the more easily the reader himself will be able to see those as he makes his way through that writer's book.  This faculty for imaginative visualization, independent of any writing ability, must necessarily vary from one author to the next.  Did Tolstoy have a clear picture of Anna Karenina in front of him when composing his novel, or did he vaguely see in his mind's eye only a pair of slender hands?  

Secondly, the author makes any number of assertions throughout WWSWWR but nowhere explains their bases.  For example, Mendelsund writes on page 347:
"I am a visual person (so I am told).  I am a book designer, and my livelihood depends not only on my visual acuity in general, but on my ability to recognize the visual cues and prompts in texts.  But when it comes to imagining characters, daffodils, lighthouses, or fog: I am as blind as the next person."
To me, this contention is counterintuitive.  If reading is truly a nonlinear - and, to an extent, nonverbal - experience, then a visual artist should have the capacity to read a book in a different manner than, say, a lawyer.  One would think he would bring to the text at hand a greater level of visual acuity than others and thus be able to more easily imagine character and action.  If Mendelsund holds to the contrary, on what does he base his conclusions?  As Leonardo once wrote: "The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions."  Not that I am expecting a scholarly argument replete with footnotes, but I do think the reader is entitled to know how the author arrived at the position he holds.  This is not to suggest that Mendelsund is incorrect in what he states, merely that he fails to properly substantiate his arguments.

In the end, I would recommend purchasing WWSWWR not as an aid to writing fiction but as a provocative and fun work that forces the reader to reexamine the act of reading itself and the extent to which he involves himself in it.  The book is far more interesting for its philosophical musings than it is useful for any practical application.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Final Draft of New York Sonata

I'm now in the process of writing the final draft of my novel New York Sonata.  As I had posted in June, I finished the first draft at the beginning of summer but then deliberately put it aside to give myself greater objectivity at such time as I reread it.  What's been most surprising to me as I've gone through the manuscript a second time is how little has changed in my conception of the story.  When working on an earlier novel, which I have since decided to leave unpublished, I found there were major revisions needed at every turn.  Here the main plot elements have remained stable and little has been required on my part other than adding detail to certain scenes in order to give them greater coherence.  The story itself has stayed pretty much as I first envisioned it.

After I've completed this final draft all that will really remain to be done will be to connect the chapters in a single document and then prepare from that a pdf to be submitted for copyright.  Happily, I'm still on schedule to publish the work as an ebook in early November.