Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Entry Points and Introductions

As I'm working on Cloak and Shadow and on the as-of-yet-untitled novel of the massacre at the consistory, I'm struggling with whether the beginnings of them are any good, or if I need to start somewhere, or somehow, else.

Although these will probably be later novels in the series, I can't really assume that every reader who picks them will have read the previous novels. So I've got to make sure that new readers are brought up to speed quickly, without boring long-term readers to tears.

In Cloak and Shadow, I introduce Jan-Pawel and Paige both through meetings with their respective bosses, sending them on their diplomatic missions. The third is of the refugee priest being threatened both by one of the local auxiliary bishops and by agents from the dictatorship that took over his home country. Now that I'm looking back at it, the interviews both seem to be bland -- yet they convey necessary information, introducing the characters and establishing their diplomatic credentials.

In the novel of the massacre at the consistory, I'm starting with a top-level political strategy discussion, yet I'm still not sure if that's the best way to start this novel either. Yet I'm not sure what kind of "we've got a conspiracy here" scene would work best without producing a false start.

You know, the sort of novel that begins with a slam-bam action scene, and then it ends and the characters in it don't show up again for ages, as you drag through how things got into such a fix. It's pretty close to a bait and switch, to my mind.

Of course it may all be just more of the walking-through-fog phenomenon. Once I have the whole thing written, I'll be able to look back and see how everything fits together. Maybe I won't even be using the original opening scene as the beginning. Maybe it'll become a later chapter, or disappear altogether.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Ideas and Time

Why is it that, whenever your idea hamster is really getting going and you think you're finally going to have some time to actually write, it all goes away?

Things are really coming together on Cloak and Shadow right now, and I'm starting to see the interconnections I need in order to write it. And after I finished the last big load of articles and wasn't finding any new assignments on H-net, I thought I was going to have some actual writing time.

Fat chance. Today I get an e-mail from an editor I've worked for before, telling me she needs help with a bunch of articles that other people wussed out on. And we need the money, so I can't really tell her no. So I'm going to be frantically pounding out these articles for the next month, and there goes all my writing time.

We'll see if I ever get any writing time, or if it always ends up vanishing as the next non-fiction project makes its appearance.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Fog and Confidence

I often compare the process of writing a novel to walking through fog, with the confidence that, even if I can't see all the way to the horizon, I can always see far enough to keep writing. One of the things this means for me is that I can feel confident to plunge into writing when I know relatively little about the world in which the novel in question is set.

For instance, as I start writing Cloak and Shadow, I still know relatively little about a whole lot of key things. I haven't sat down and worked out the staff of each of the embassies that are important in the novel, or the chancery of the archdiocese of Raus-ceil-quein, or the court of Queen Catriel. I still don't know about the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement) congregation where Paige McFarland will be worshipping, other than they're refugees, rather than Salquari. Yet I feel confident that I will start seeing them as I get close enough to actually need to write about them.

Of course there are dangers in plunging ahead, but there are also dangers in meticulously planning every single thing. On one hand, one can go in the wrong direction without realizing it, and end up having to do major rewrites, simply because an element appears midway through that becomes so important that one must go back and lay in the necessary foreshadowing so that it doesn't pop up from nowhere. On the other hand, one can become so obsessed with working everything out in detail before hand that one never gets to writing the first page of actual story.

Monday, January 09, 2006

False Starts

Today while I was standing in line at the post office, I got out my trusty old Palm VIIx and started writing a scene in one of the novels I'm working on. I got about a paragraph done by the time I got up to the clerk. But almost as soon as I got out of the post office and headed back to the car, I had an intense feeling that I'd begun that scene the wrong way, and was going to have to toss it out and start over.

It's not an uncommon experience. If you start a scene even a little slightly off, it's possible to end up in a completely wrong direction.

At least in this case, I didn't do as badly as one scene I started in the first draft of The Steel Breeds True, when I picked the wrong POV. I got almost three pages in it before I realized that I needed a completely different point of view. The only way I was able to rewrite that one was to print out the first version, then open a completely new file and, using the old version as a guide to the events, write the scene from the proper POV.

This one's just a matter of a faulty assumption. Fix that one, and I should be back on track very quickly. Of course that assumes that I'll actually have the time to do the writing any time soon.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Missing Person Found

I'd been rather frustrated in the writing of Cloak and Shadow because I could tell I was missing someone, but had no real sense of who this person could be.

And then yesterday, while I was listening to an old Steely Dan song, it finally hit me. First I got the name (although I'm spelling her name Paige rather than Page), and then biographical details came pouring in. Now I think I can finally get this novel going again -- assuming I ever get some writing time between all these non-fiction articles I have to churn out to keep the income flowing.

Yet another perfect example of the walking-through-fog phenomenon.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Back to the Beginning

I should be working on a set of articles that are due January 16, but I haven't been able to get back into it and get going again on it. Frustrated with my inability to find a new entry point into the project, I got some of the Ixilon materials out again.

However, I do think I finally found the proper entry point to the whole sequence that deals with Eigun Eiderveyen and Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski. It's the story of the boy-king of the swamps, Rene XIV, and how his wicked uncle Sebastien thrust him into exile on the yonder side of a worldgate in order to usurp the Cypress Throne. However, the world into which he was thrown is our own, and there young Rene found allies of a most surprising sort.

I've written the prolog, in which Sebastien sets forth his plans, and a few sentences of the first chapter. I'd really like to push ahead on this novel, but at the same time I know that Ihave a moral obligation to get to work on the article project, since I've signed a contract promising that I'd get them written and turned in on time. And it doesn't help that the pay is really lousy on these articles, so there's not really that much to help motivate me in the face of a thorough lack of inspiration on how to turn these assignments into finished articles.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Walking Through Fog

I often compare writing the first draft of a novel to walking in heavy fog. When I begin, I can't see my way through to the end yet. But I can see just far enough to write the first chapter. As I write it, I begin to see where the second chapter will go, and the one after it. Sometimes the fog clears for a space so that I begin seeing how several chapters at once should fit together. However quickly or slowly it clears, it almost always pulls back fast enough to stay ahead of where I'm actually writing. If I suddenly run into it and lose my way, I've generally done the writing equivalent of overdriving one's headlights, and the best thing to do at that point is to slow down or to set the project aside altogether and work on something else for a while. When the project in question is ready to write again, it'll let me know.

Recently I ran into just that sort of problem with Cloak and Shadow, the story of Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski's first assignment as an actual Head of Mission. I was running into a feeling that something, or perhaps someone, was missing. However, I didn't have any idea what should go into those holes, or even exactly how big those holes were.

I've learned through bitter experience that trying to force things is apt to wrench the story out of shape. However, by setting it aside for a while and concentrating instead on some other parts of the chronology, I was able to gain insights on that novel. Now I'm starting to get a clearer idea of just who all I'm missing, and even beginning to see some of them.

Now to try to pull these threads together into some kind of coherent whole, and make sure that they don't go unravelling all over the place the way I had happen with Wyrm Rampant back in 2001. (That's one I've still never been able to get back to and sort out, although one of these days I really want to. It just doens't help that it is going to be a huge novel, big enough that I really don't know if any publisher is going to want to take the risk involved in publishing it from an unknown author).

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Myth that Refuses to Die

Recently there has been considerable consternation about a television program on the old story of "Pope Joan," that is, a woman of the early Medieval period who supposedly masqueraded as a man in order to pursue her hunger for learning and ended up becoming so famous for her erudition that she was made a cardinal and ultimately elected pope, only to have her true gender revealed when she gave birth to a baby while on her way to her coronation. Supposedly she was then torn limb from limb by the outraged crowd and the embarassed Roman Curia covered the whole incident up, but her memory survived in the custom of all papal processions carefully avoiding the street upon which she met her doom.

There is not one shred of historical evidence for this story, yet it refuses to go away no matter how many times it's debunked. Part of it is pure ugly anti-Catholic glee at the Church heirarchy being made to look foolish, and in modern times feminist hopes that the exclusive masculine priesthood could eventually change, but because of the sheer persistance of the story in the face of fact there seems to be something more basic to human psychology at work here.

First, there is the element of the fear of infiltration, of the outsider sneaking into the inner circle. For those of us who remember the Cold War, the constant fear of Communist infiltration of American institutions was a constant feature of that era. Even today, one of the fears of the War on Terror is of American converts to radical Islamic fundamentalism becoming a sort of fifth column, indistinguishable from us save by their beliefs. But it's more basic than any particular conflict -- part of social cohesion is a clear understanding of who is a member of the group and who is an outsider, and thus the infiltrator threatens to destroy that distinction of us vs. them.

Second, there is the sense of delight at the underling outwitting authority, even if only for a time. Even as we fear the disruption of the social order, we don't want to let it become too rigid or too sure of itself, lest it become a tyranny. From this comes our love for figures such as Robin Hood who break the formal rules of society in order to serve a higher justice. It is also at the root of Trickster figures, who may outwit every power divine and mortal in one story, yet is outwitted and humiliated by a child in the next story. We want to be reassured that authority will be reined in if it should become overweeningly arrogant, yet we also want to be reassured that those who overturn authority will meet their own comeuppance in turn.

I'm not advocating the use or modern retelling of this particular story, since its historical use has generally been such as to be highly offensive to Catholics, and thus even a well-intentioned retelling will be colored by history. But understanding why the particular motif has proved so enduring can help us as writers tap into these sorts of basic narratives.