Archive for the 'Writing technique' Category

Abrupt Edge Diary - 19

This is the eighteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

18.  What’s going on in Abrupt Edge

I promised to write a synopsis of the novel to this juncture in the manuscript. These are the threads of narrative that interweave to make Abrupt Edge:

  • The story of Jacob Gleason, a decent guy tending toward nerd, adrift, unfulfilled, looking for someplace to make his mark.
  • The story of Isaac and Asenath Wayman, cousins and exiles from a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint enclave who now run Abrupt Edge, a “sex spa,” out in the middle of a Nevada high desert nowhere.
  • The enmity between Isaac Wayman and his brother, Abraham, leader of an offshoot FLDS enclave called Glory, over a mountain spur from Abrupt Edge. This enmity leads to an armed conflict that is dubbed The Glory War.
  • The love story between Jacob and Gloria Bennett, a one time prostitute working in Abrupt Edge’s brothel, Carne Viva, but now Isaac Wayman’s personal, private executive secretary.

Jacob Gleason dreams of being an author.  He’s three years out of college, cranking out short stories, sending them out and collecting rejection slips.  Beginning to doubt his choice of vocations, he googles “writing jobs” and comes up with an enticing post that ultimately leads him to Abrupt Edge.  On the way, like a knight in an Arthurian tale, he’s tested, offered alternative choices, tempted, but in the end persists and arrives in the north of (imaginary) Mulee County, Nevada, to discover that what he thought was a job ghosting an autobiography is really a job memorializing a war between two madmen and their followers.

It doesn’t seem real, the place is truly Shangri La, and the notion of reporting on this Shangri La shooting it out with another one around the mountain seems about as remote as his being asked to write an episode of Saving Grace.

Besides, Isaac Wayman’s assigned his secretary to be Jacob’s mentor while he’s learning his way around Abrupt Edge.  She is articulate and smart, beautiful but approachable, a woman that sets off bells and other alarums in his soul.

Slowly but surely, he learns how this war with Glory may come about.  It seems Abraham Wayman’s own daughter, Marian, has run away to Abrupt Edge and is even now being groomed to become one of the functionaries at Carne Viva.  Jacob can’t believe Isaac won’t send her back.  It’s inevitable her father will seek a way, however violent, to get her back.

Meanwhile, Jacob has his first interview with a client, a young man named Justin DeFord, whose rich uncle thinks the Abrupt Edge experience will do his nephew good.  Justin, however, is not getting with the program:  he’s having moral qualms.  And his moral qualms resonate with Jacob.  They talk into the night and agree to meet for breakfast, but at breakfast there is no Justin.  He’s disappeared, and the best bet is, he’s been kidnapped by Gloryites, to be swapped for Marian.

That’s where I am right now.  There’s more than one way I can go with from here, alternative endings, all consistent with the character’s inclinations, and I’ll discuss those in the next posting.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 18

This is the seventeenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

17.  Oh frabjous day, calloo calay

I have found my way out of the forest and I can see the trees once more.  It might as well have been writer’s block (see my previous post) because for two weeks I’ve been recycling through Part V of my novel-in-progress, not making much progress at all.

I boxed in college.  Yes, besides feather merchants and bongs, Berkeley had featherweights and boxers of other weights and I was one.  I wasn’t bad as a boxer, I was not so good as a competitor.  Put three judges around the ring and a referee in the center, I got stage fright, which, come to think of it, is an analog to writer’s block.  When those guys weren’t around I could hold my own with light-heavies and middleweights (I was a junior welterweight).  And lest you think that sparring is a patty cake exercise, the only time I was ever knocked out was sparring with my lightweight teammate, one weight division lower.  Leo Gaspardone’s left hook was dynamite at lightening speed and could have taken out a heavyweight if it landed on the button.

In boxing you learn lots of things:  footwork, punching technique, how to use the ring, reading your opponent, defense, combining punches and so on.  You must learn to integrate all those actions—and then forget all of them, and like the Zen archer, just let it happen.

Same thing in writing novels.  You have to learn how to create a story, how to create a character, pacing, dialog, the right amount of  pertinent detail, how to imbue your words with a level of emotion that transcends the emotional freight of individual words, and, most importantly, how to “kill your little darlings.” You have to know what’s enough.  Like boxing, you must integrate these skills—then you have to let go and let the words come out.

For reasons I don’t totally understand and have no great desire to analyze to death, I’ve been concentrating, for the past two weeks, on footwork and forgetting proper punching technique and use of the ring.  Which has made my punches lack power while Abrupt Edge has been bobbing and weaving and otherwise dominating me.

Part of it was trying too hard, which was draining mental energy, which reduced concentration, which in turn made me have to go back again and again to read and absorb what I’ve written in the past month or so.

I finally took a few days off and regenerated my juices and then tore through reading the last several chapters and went on to produce the thirty-fourth chapter of the novel, which is not bad if I may say so.

Next post I’ll do a 500 word synopsis of the story to this point and ask anyone who actually is reading this to speculate with me about which way to end the tale.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 16

This is the fifteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

15.  Verisimilitude

In its list of synonyms for the word, truth, the American Heritage Dictionary gives this distinction to the synonym, verisimilitude:  “Verisimilitude is the quality of having the appearance of truth or reality” and adds this example as to its use:  “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative (W.S. Gilbert).

I would not wish to have minced  words with Sir William, and I hope that none of my work ever causes him to harrumph in his grave, muttering “bald and unconvincing narrative.”

In his highly regarded How Fiction Works, James Wood doesn’t index the word, verisimilitude, but he has a lot to say about truth and realism, pointing out that you can have one without the other.  Thus, Kafka’s Metamorphosis may be considered more truthful than, say, the average police procedural crime novel (my comparison, not Wood’s, although he ascribes “harrowing truthfulness” to Kafka’s novel while any of us would admit, a man turning into a giant beetle is not terribly realistic).

Verisimilitude comes with a certain kind of novel.  For all of the charged words Faulkner uses in Sanctuary, there is still his incredible ear for dialect, his imagery of light and dark, highbrow and lowbrow, chifforobes and ‘coon hounds.  A Gregor Samsa could no more turn into a giant beetle in a Faulkner novel than a Czech bureaucrat in a Kafka novel would launch a jawful of tobacco juice towards a spittoon.

Yet in certain kinds of highly imaginary fiction, ideas you could never know except as the author tells them to you are mixed with minute details such as, in Ulysses, the sizzle of Poldy Bloom’s pork kidneys sauteing or the crinkle of the wrapping paper around the soap in his jacket pocket.  In a sense, stream of consciousness works as a narrative vehicle because verisimilitude buoys up the stream of words coming at you out of the characters’ minds.  It isn’t real, of course, no one thinks like that, and words certainly don’t come out of anyone’s mind at you.

I try to not let verisimilitude be my bête noire, but, if you’re writing about an imaginary brothel in an imaginary community in the middle of nowhere, you don’t want a reader saying, “No way!  You can’t pour concrete in hundred and twenty degree weather,” or, “Hey, I happen to know for a fact that a fully laden C-141 needs 8000 feet of runway to take off.”

Con Sellers, the person who taught me the most about writing fiction, wrote character-driven novels.  He said he was never sure what was going to happen next in his works, because it was the confrontations of his characters that caused things to happen.  He advocated creating character charts for all of the more than walk-on characters*.  That tends to take care of certain kinds of verisimilitude:  if it’s highly symbolic that Joe was born the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, he can’t turn twenty-five the day World War II ends.

I don’t remember Con talking about plot outlines or even chronologies, but I find myself edging towards both.  What date did Jacob Gleason leave Ashland for Abrupt Edge?  It’s important, because he walks around in the desert for a while and he might perish from either hypothermia or hyperthermia, depending on the date.  How many persons live in Abrupt Edge?  How did the first airstrip get built?

Next post I’ll go into a few examples of how I wrestled with some questions like this, and divulge a few details from my character charts.

Update: Since I wrote this post I’ve picked up Richard Price’s novel, Lush Life. If you want an example of verisimilitude-nay, the very quintessence of it, read Lush Life.  It’s cops and victims and punky hoods, loonies and lovers, aspiring actors and perspiring detectives, Lower East Side gentrified and ungentrified, history, psychology, sociology-and it’s almost too much.  Whiskers grow, sweat trickles, barf spews, hands grope, knees buckle.  One of Price’s blurbers says he writes better dialog than anyone.  I stick with Elmore Leonard, but I have to admit, Price’s dialog sounds like real conversation between real persons, in cadence, in vocabulary, in syntax—in other words, the essence of verisimilitude.


* I have an adaptation of Con’s generic character chart which I would Email to you if you put your Email address in a comment.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 14

This is the fourteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

13.  Cobbling together the pieces

I wrote five chapters-thirty-eight pages-of setting up the demise of Abrupt Edge, using the Mulee County Sheriff as the main witness for the reader.  It was shorter than the original Part I by about half, but it seems a complete piece and I’m leaving it that way.

Next I’ve taken the Version 2 Part I and made it the Version 3 Part II, the difference being this:  I’m concentrating on getting naïve, untested Jacob Gleason to Abrupt Edge with a foreshadowing of the moral dilemma his being there will cause.  Without planning it that way, I’ve dipped into Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, giving young Jacob portents of struggle, temptations and obstacles and he makes his way from comfortable, secure Ashland, Oregon, to isolated, dangerous Abrupt Edge.

This is mainly a matter of picking out the chapters in Version 2 Part 1 that deal only with Jacob and rewriting them with the knowledge of what’s gone on in the chapters about the Glory War coming to light through the eyes of the sheriff.

I’ve run into one difficulty, and that’s the chapter where Gloria, who is becoming Jacob’s muse, gives him a thumbnail sketch of Isaac Wayman’s journey to Abrupt Edge.  If I leave that out, I really have to change to narrative; if I leave it in, shall I further foreshorten the thumbnail sketch, leave it with the same amount of detail, or actually expand it?

Probably leaving it out is the wiser course.  A really short thumbnail is going to sound like a synopsis.  Both leaving the thumbnail as is and expanding the amount of detail in effect gets into the next part of the novel, which is to be the origins of the rift between Isaac and Abraham Wayman and the immediate consequences of it.

I need to think about this.  I may need to experiment.  We shall see.