O Pioneers!

You know who had it rough?


I mean, traveling through strange lands without so much as a highway rest stop; building their own houses out of sticks, mud, and whatever forest parts they could chop to fit; having to live with their entire families in one or two rooms, with no escape from the children – that sounds horrible.

We say, “I’m going out for a beer.” They could only say, “I’m going out to be attacked by a bear.”

But this is a writing-themed blog, so in literary terms, you know who had it rough?


I’m speaking of all the literary pioneers who wrote books before the age of the word processor. It’s a wonder books were written at all. Up to about the Mark Twain era, they didn’t even have typewriters, and even typewriters seem like some sort of torture device to the modern writer.

Munitions workers count typewriters to be shipped to Europe and dropped from bombers over Nazi Germany.

If I had to write a novel with a pen, it would be the length of a post-it note. That’s when my hand starts cramping. I suppose I could write one post-it note’s worth per day. I can fit about six words on the standard post-it; upwards of three of them are legible.

I guess the literary pioneers had tougher hands than I do. But it’s not just the physical aspect that amazes me. How do you cut and paste on notebook paper? Yeah, you can cross out a word and write a new one overtop, but what happens when you’ve got to move paragraphs around? What happens when you made a continuity mistake five chapters ago and you’ve got to rework all that plot? I think I’d rather build a house out of sticks and mud.

Here’s another thing to think about. Back in the day, many novels appeared as serials in journals. I don’t know the details of this process, but I have a suspicion they wrote the chapters as they went. That is to say, chapters 1-5 were already printed and read while chapter 6 was being written. Imagine writing a novel where you can’t go back and fix the stuff that doesn’t work anymore with the direction you want it to take. You’d have to have a pretty clever mind to make it all mesh without the Delete button.

I’ve been known to have some fun critiquing classic fiction – you know, picking on people who are too dead to defend themselves, because that’s the way I roll.  Beneath those playful jabs is a reverence that inspired me to read all those classics. Can they be wordy and meandering? Yes. For all that, they are still amazing accomplishments. Give me only a pen, paper, and some friends with typesetting equipment and maybe I would become accomplished enough to get mauled by a bear.

I’m not saying my reverence for the literary pioneers will stop me from poking fun at them, but my sarcasm is forged from love. Just ask my kids.




Why you shouldn’t write a novel series backward

For starters, you probably shouldn’t write a single novel backward. Novels are kind of long for that sort of jiggery-pokery. Short stories are fine. I’m all for writing them backward. They are small enough to see from all angles in your mind. A novel series is like a train of trailers hitched behind a truck – tricky to drive backward.

I’ve documented how I got in the awkward spot of writing a series backward, or at least from the inside out, in previous posts. Here’s the back story for those who missed them.

I had a novel that was too long, so I decided to divide it into two books. This seemed like a good idea for a while, until it became clear that my two books would have to be three.  The third book would need to consist of a bulk of new storytelling in between the other two. At the time of my last update, I had finished drafts of the two outside books and was staring at the daunting prospect of building a bridge book that would fit together with the books on either end.

The whole story:    Update1    Update2    Update3

Now that I’ve got the support beams in place, to the tune of about 130 pages of new middle, I’m staring at the prospect (and you may have guessed this if you read the previous updates) of splitting the middle book in two, giving me a total of four books.

This is not what I wanted, and it’s possible that I may be able to hold it to three, but with each passing chapter, four becomes more likely. After 130 pages, I still have lots of ground to cover. If I could do it in another 130, that would wrap things up in three books. I begin to doubt I can.

Make sure the bridge is finished before you drive your series backward over it.

Why is four books bad? In a perfect world, it’s not. But in a perfect world, I would be writing these books in order. In a perfect world, I might even have the resources of a publishing company behind me.

From the writing standpoint, four books is no problem. As I progress, my confidence in my ability to tie four books together into a viable series grows. I can tell the story.

The headache comes after the writing. Taking a single novel from manuscript to book is a difficult task for an independent author. By the time I am done with all my patchwork writing, I could have four books to shepherd through that journey. Because I am not writing them chronologically, they must all be written before any one of them is finished.

Arranging for editing, covers, layout, etc. of four books in quick succession is crazy daunting. True, I would have to eventually do all that, even if I wrote them in order, but in that case the production pieces would be more staggered, with writing time in between.

I know it amounts to the same thing in the end, but it looks like a huge wall to get beyond, rather than four separate, manageable walls.

Nevertheless, I’m the one who put this train into reverse gear, so I ‘m the one who has to bear down and figure out how to keep it on the tracks.

Leave you writer’s block in the box it came in

I have two blogs, and lately I’ve been slacking off on both of them. I haven’t had the inspiration for topics at the same pace I had before. Is this writer’s block?

Writer’s block is a common theme among bloggers running low on steam. I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of good bloggers come and go. Were they all overcome by writer’s block?

I don’t truly know what writer’s block is. I guess nobody does. It seems to be a catchall phrase for those moments when you just don’t have enough idea to wrap a meaningful layer of words around.

I don’t know about writer’s block, but I have certainly suffered from blog fatigue. Both my blogs are targeted to specific subject areas. This blog contains three types of features: fiction, essays about writing, and my own skewed perspectives on pieces of classic literature. That’s not a very broad subject area. It can take some time to come up with new ideas within those guidelines.

In the early days, they would put all the bloggers in one big box and make them write their way out of it. Conditions have improved since then.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have subjects I could easily knock out 500 words on. They just might not be appropriate subjects for my niche blogs. I could write plenty of pages on my unfortunate habit of getting stuck behind a pastel colored Prius on my drive to work. I think up lots of colorful phrases as I am forced to drive 15 mph below the speed limit in my frustrated attempts to be a prompt employee. I could probably even create my own Trapped in Prius Hell blog, with a special tab dedicated to the handful of truly noble Prius owners who are saving the world without making the rest of humanity late for their appointments. Yeah, I know a few of these rare gems.

Alas, even this would play itself out over time, and I would have to expand the scope to include overcautious Subaru drivers or be tormented by the steady decay of writer’s block. Incidentally, my 2007 Hyundai was not built for safety and will probably explode into a fireball at the slightest bumper tap, so don’t make me slam on the brakes unless you want all your clever bumper stickers singed.

Maybe writer’s block should be called writer’s box. It’s not that you’re blocked from writing; you’re just trying to write inside the wrong box. I’ve been making good progress on my novel series, but when I climb into the blogging box, it’s slow going. Instead of banging my head against the sides of the box, I climb out of the box and go play novelist for a while.

Sure, I’d like to get back to blogging as frequently as I used to, but if my imagination wants to tend toward novels right now, I’m going to make hay while that sun shines. It’s not so important that I take a break from one medium. What’s more important is I don’t go on hiatus from writing altogether.

Stuck in the middle with 2

I can’t prove it, but my hunch is most people who write a novel series start with book #1, then progress to book #2, book#3, etc. This seems like a sensible way to manage such a project. As I gaze longingly at this sensible method from afar, I can only blame myself for coming at this task ass-backward.

As I mentioned here, I had a long novel I decided to split into two. Here, I documented how the two books propagated themselves into three books. So what now? Four? No. I hope not – not yet anyway.

The good news is that drafts of books #1 and #3 are complete. This took a lot of rewriting, a good deal of new writing, and much careful rearranging. It is an accomplishment and I feel good about it.

Having stretched #1 to the left and #3 to the right, I turned to the middle to see what material was left to form the core of #2. I was shocked to find a total of 30 pages left to work with.

A 30-page manuscript is not a large base to build a novel upon, but that’s not even the daunting part. The paucity of pages is merely a symbol of the bigger issue. I’ve got a miles and miles of ground to cover between #1 and #3. Chronologically, I’ve got a couple of decades to pass. That’s a chore, but not the most difficult one. The task that makes me suck in deep breaths is the chasm I need to bridge in character development. There’s a long road of change between book #1 and book #3.

“See that little gap over there? I’d like you to fit book #2 in there nice and snug.”

Since books #1 and #3 already exist, books #2 is both a sequel and a prequel. It seems to me there are more constraints to writing a prequel than to writing a sequel. You can’t just take the story threads and run with them. They have to come out lined up with a future already in existence. When a story is both prequel and sequel, the threads have to line up at both ends.

Let’s say my characters need to begin book#3 at point Z. If #2 were a simple prequel, I could start them out at the most convenient point Y. But because #2 is also a sequel, I have to start them where they left book#1, point X. I have to show how the characters got from X to Y before they can embark for Z.

They have the better part of 20 years to make the legs of this journey which is more than enough time. The true question is how many scenes it will take. Every new scene eats up more pages, and the whole impetus of this operation was to avoid producing books that suffocate under their own weight.

Which leads us back to the obvious solution: a fourth book. That just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it will seem more right later on, but for now I’m set on wrestling with book#2 as a single entity. Is that daunting? Yes. Is it impossible? No. Will I pull it off? Stay tuned . . .