Ben Crowder

Blog: #writing

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From a Ted Chiang interview:

For me, it is about identifying the things that you find interesting that no one else finds interesting. That’s one way to view your job as a writer: It’s to tell stories that no one else is going to tell unless you do. I feel like there are a lot of stories that we read that anyone could have told. There are books that you read, or movies or TV you watch, and you feel almost anyone could have written them.

There’s also a good Annie Dillard quote that’s mentioned in the interview:

You (writers) have been sent here to give voice to your own astonishment.

I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but it seems to be a decent goal, I think. Write what only you can write. And I would broaden that to: Make what only you can make. I’m trying to figure out what that means for me, both for writing and for everything else.

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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.

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Two months ago I posted about the novel I’m currently working on and mentioned how smoothly it was going with my shiny new writing process.

The next day, said process stopped working.

Irrationally, some part of me believed my blog post was what botched it, which in hindsight is ridiculous. If a process is so fragile it crumbles when described, I submit that there are probably larger issues to deal with. (In my case, the method wasn’t actually broken at all. More on that momentarily.)

Then I came across my friend Liz’s writing blog the other day and remembered how much I like reading blogs about writing fiction. To join in on the fun, then, I’ll be casting aside my half-formed superstitions (good riddance!) and writing more about writing on here.

And now for a totally-not-superstitious-anymore update on the novel, which has no title yet:

My process wasn’t broken after all. I got stuck, yes, but some rough brainstorming and outlining got me out of it soon enough, and the alternation of discovery writing and outlining has kept me going since then.

This stream of words I’m calling a first draft is currently 167 pages long (!), and I’m only about 8,000 words away from this being the longest thing I’ve ever written. (Back in 2007 I technically finished NaNoWriMo with a book called Out of Time, but that wretched thing was an utter disaster of a story, so let’s just forget it ever happened.)

As for the original plan to finish this first draft by mid-July…[checks notes]…that’s not going to happen. But I expect to hopefully/maybe/probably finish in a month or so, at my current rate of 1,000 words per weekday. No idea yet how long revising will take, but I’m still hopeful that I’ll have a finished book sometime in the fall.

My aim with this draft is just to get the story down; polishing the prose will come in a later pass. This is often discouraging, though, when I read great books with sparkling, vibrant prose and then turn back to the pallid, dead-fish words I’m wringing out of my hands. But I will persist. (Cf. that Guy Gavriel Key quote I posted last week.)

As of today, I’m starting on chapter 17. I have no outline (yet) and no idea where the story goes after the scene I wrote yesterday. It’s a big ball of terrifying and delightful fun. Back into the fray…

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This quote from Guy Gavriel Kay (from a 2014 article in The Guardian) has been comforting and inspiring to me in my own creative work:

I learned a lot about false starts in writing. I mean that in a really serious way. His [Tolkien’s] false starts. You learn that the great works have disastrous botched chapters, that the great writers recognise that they didn’t work. So I was looking at drafts of The Lord of the Rings and rough starts for The Silmarillion and came to realise they don’t spring full-blown, utterly, completely formed in brilliance. They get there with writing and rewriting and drudgery and mistakes, and eventually if you put in the hours and the patience, something good might happen. That was a very, very early lesson for me, looking at the Tolkien materials. That it’s not instantly magnificent. That it’s laboriously so, but it gets there. That was a huge, huge, still important lesson.

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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.

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Brief update: still alive, doing fine, just staying home with my wife and kids in the hope of helping stop the spread (and ideally not getting COVID-19 either — one of our kids has a heart condition which makes this scarier for us than it would otherwise be).

I haven’t really worked on any art lately (not in the right headspace for it lately), but I have gotten back into writing, and that’s going well. Hoping to have some new fiction to post before too long. And new art, too.

Stay home and stay healthy, y’all.

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New poem (a sonnet): The sight of you.

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New poem: Bernadette.

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Posted EPUBs for On Fighallow Street and Box Man.

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Box Man

And another new story: Box Man. It’s also fantasy and is around 50 pages long.

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