Ben Crowder

Blog: #process

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Lately I’ve felt a bit stuck with the minimalist religious art. Ideas aren’t coming as easily as they used to. Over the last month or so I’ve iterated on a lot of mockups that haven’t gone anywhere, and while that’s normal, usually there are more ideas that make it through.

I’ll keep plugging away at it, though — I feel reasonably confident that there are still many gospel concepts and stories that would work in this format. (And many more that wouldn’t. Some things seem impossible to abstract away into simple shapes.)

I have now passed 50,000 words on the novel, making this the longest piece I’ve ever written, period. It’s a good feeling. A few unsorted related thoughts:

One of the things I’ve reminded myself of over and over again is that no book is perfect. All novels have imperfections. This realization has been tremendously liberating.

Somewhere along the way I realized that (in my view) I’ll probably learn more from writing multiple novels than I would from toiling a lot longer on a single novel. My goal is to write something that is good enough, then move on to the next book so I can improve more rapidly. (Polishing one book for a long time can obviously create spectacular results. I guess what I’m saying is I’m impatient.)

At this point I’m figuring out how to pull threads together for the ending. The ending! I’ve never gotten this far before. It feels easier — so much downhill momentum, with the bulk of the book at my back — but also harder, since I’ve only ended short things before, and there are many more threads to work with. I’ve reread the first part of the book to remember what I wrote long ago, though, and that’s helping with getting the story to pay off its earlier promises.

There’s a China Miéville quote I came across a few months back (I need to find it again), basically saying that he only worldbuilds what’s in the story itself. I’m beginning to suspect that may be the kind of writer I am. Or at least the kind I am right now. I like the act of worldbuilding — and it’s a great source of ideas for the story — but I don’t think I’m patient enough to do it in any great detail before I start writing. (Sensing a theme here.)

Also: this novel-writing thing is insanely hard, but man is it fun.

I’m about a third of the way through the first draft of a novel. As it happens, this is the furthest I’ve ever gotten with one — ignoring the misbegotten monstrosity that spawned from my 2007 NaNoWriMo — and I think I’ve finally at long last found a process that works for me. (Famous last words!)

It’s this: write, one scene at a time. After writing the scene, review it to make sure it actually has some kind of conflict or tension, and that it moves the story forward and is sufficiently interesting. Also continue to think often about the story as a whole, and periodically read the book from the beginning, so that things don’t go off the rails. After finishing each scene, add it to an outline to make high-level review easier. (This is all inspired by Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark and Steven James’s Story Trumps Structure.)

So far, it’s working. I have a loose deadline of mid-July for finishing the first draft, which means writing around 1,100 words a day. I’ve written 80 pages so far and am aiming for roughly 240 pages total. (My current vision of myself as a novelist, by the way, is primarily writing short standalones rather than long books or series.)

Organic writing like this is familiar, in that it’s what I’ve always done for stories and poetry, but at novel length it’s mildly terrifying. I have vague ideas about where the novel is going but it keeps surprising me so who knows. Truth be told, while I’m having a lot of fun with this writing method, I also frequently find myself wishing I were an outliner. Having a roadmap for this book would be really, really nice. Maybe someday, for future books. In the meantime, though, this method is producing results. If all goes well, sometime this fall I should have a finished, polished novel.

A quick update: I was stuck for a while on the Dagh story, but I’ve started spending my lunch hour working on it, and it’s coming together nicely. I should have a complete first draft done soon. (I’ve got 7,000 words on it so far.)

I’ve spent the last few months avoiding the heck out of writing the novel (Edge of Magic). The plot changed several times — completely changed, that is — and then I abandoned it and started on a short story which I then also abandoned.

The good news, however, is that I’ve written a thousand words a day every day solid since the beginning of December. The habit is securely in place.

Tonight I realized that for some reason, when I’m working on a story I can’t do other projects at the same time (art, typesetting, coding, etc.). Whether it’s because I use those other projects as avoidance or something else, I don’t know. But during a writing project — at least the planning stage, not sure yet whether it applies to the drafting stage — I need to put all my other projects on the back burner. That gives me enough mental space to let the story grow.

The plan right now: finish the aforementioned short story (featuring Dagh and María Bonita — I don’t have a title yet), then decide which novel I’m actually going to write, outline it, and write it as fast as I can, to get it done before self-doubt slashes my tires.

One problem with the novel, by the way, was that Makrannan’s character was never very clear or interesting to me. He never came alive to me. Thus his part of the book was always weak, even after several re-outlinings. With this current story, however, Dagh and María Bonita feel much more alive to me, and it’s making all the difference. (And hopefully that will make the story much more worth reading than my earlier stories.)

Goal: finish the first draft of the Dagh story by May 21, and release the edited story on my site by May 31.

Back on December 3, I made a goal to write a thousand words of fiction a day, every day (skipping Sundays). I made up a chart with sixteen weeks on it, ending March 19, printed it out, and taped it on the headboard of our bed.

And that chart is now full. I’ve written exactly 100,000 words since December 3 (I wrote a little extra each day), which is crazy considering that I used to be unable to get myself to write at all. I don’t know what actually made the change, but I’m writing every day and it’s great.

Today I tried doing my daily writing via phone dictation, and it went surprisingly well. I had to correct a fair amount of mistranscribed words, but there weren’t as many as I had expected. And I think it might have actually been faster than typing on my phone (considering that I often have to fix autocorrected text when I’m typing).

I’ll say, though, that I’m not at all used to writing things by speaking out loud. Very different. I suspect it may grow on me, though.

I’ve been working on a piece called “To Fulfil All Righteousness,” on the baptism of Christ. My initial attempt ended up a little too representational:

to-fulfil-all-righteousness-02.jpg

I decided to reframe the painting, ditch the windows of heaven (simpler is better here), and redo the dove shape. Here’s the current sketch, which I’ll paint soon:

to-fulfil-all-righteousness-04.png

(Using Kyle Webster’s Pencil 4H Photoshop brush, from the Ultimate Megapack.)

A thought on writing novels

As I’m now starting to get more serious about writing novels, I recently made a list of the next few books I want to write after the one I’m working on, and I ran into an unexpected side effect: knowing what the next few items in the queue are has somehow made writing a novel feel far more doable. It’s now a task that has an ending, rather than being something with no end in sight.

Sidenote: I’m not sure how much I’ll talk here about the novel in progress, at least not until I finish a full draft, but I do plan to talk about tools and process. (For example, I’ll write more about this later, but I’m using Vim with a Git repo and a post-commit hook that generates a print-ready proof PDF of the full book via TeX whenever I commit.)