Category Archives: The Novel

Go Set A Watchman  Catastrophe

Really? Really?

There’s been a lot of hand wringing going on in the media – last night on PBS, today on CNN – about the effect that the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman is going to have on her classic (and only other novel), To Kill A Mockingbird.

“Will this change the way Mockingbird is viewed?” they are asking, with the same anguish as if they had just seen The Phantom Menace or the second and third Matrix movies. “Will this change what it means to us? Will it keep its impact on us?”

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanPeople, this is a novel. And an unedited draft at that. Before the wheels of publication began to turn, Lee was offered the chance to have the novel edited and she declined. Today, that’s only afforded to massively bestselling authors like Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Jean Auel, whom editors are either too afraid or too busy to edit — okay, maybe that’s not such a big deal right now.

To catch you up if you haven’t been following the story. Once upon a time, a young Nelle Harper Lee wrote a novel called Go Set A Watchman about a young woman looking back on her relationship with her lawyer father. It made the rounds and one interested editor – or maybe it was an agent – suggested the story would be better if it was narrated by the protagonist at the age she was at the time the events in book took place, as opposed to looking back after a decade or so. She did some rewrites and the book we know as To Kill A Mockingbird was born.

And something likely happened to the story line along the way. The perception of the relationship passed from a knowing one, from the view of a young woman who was a newly minted adult. It became more idealistic, a view from a little girl who worshiped her Daddy.

Meantime, the first draft of the book disappeared, thought lost by the author, who was busy not writing other novels. Until it was recently discovered and put into motion as a real book, to much excitement… until folks found out what it was about.

Apparently Watchman shows a view of Attacus Finch as a separatist and possibly even a racist – perhaps a less idealistic view of a man as seen through the eyes of a now-adult daughter. This the cause of all that angst in the literati – like the release is going to undo all of the advances in civil rights and race relations that have been made since Mockingbird was released. Welcome back, lynching and Jim Crow laws! Like the first book was single-handedly responsible for all of that to begin with.

Is there nothing else going on in the world right now worth losing sleep over? Is it a slow news week?

Or am I the only one who understands the concept of a first draft?

Just in case I am – here’s the answer to this non-story:

No.

Go Set A Watchman will not change To Kill A Mockingbird. Mockingbird will be the same book, the beloved classic it deserves to be.

If you don’t believe me, photocopy a random page of the book, put it in envelope, and check it after Watchman comes out. I’ll bet a large amount of cash or chocolate pudding that none of the words will have changed. Or better yet, open up that favorite novel of yours that was made into a wretched, forgettable waste of a movie and read a random chapter. It hasn’t changed. Just like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wasn’t changed by Tom Sawyer Abroad or Tom Sawyer, Detective, two cash-in novels written by Mark Twain, both of which were written in the voice of Huck Finn.

And as far as I know, Lee isn’t pulling a George Lucas and issuing a revised director’s cut of Mockingbird where, among other things, the rabid dog shoots at Attacus first.

If Harper Lee made any mistake in issuing Watchman, perhaps it was in leaving the names of the first draft intact, not understanding the attachment we’ve developed over the years to the version that was published. It would have been an easy thing, once the book was put into a word processor, to do a global search and replace to change the names from the revered ones to something a little more generic. Nobody would have been the wiser.

Yeah. As if something like that would ever become a best-seller.

Why I Don’t Do NaNoWriMo

Well, tomorrow it begins. All over the nation, nay, the world, word processors will fire up as literary aspirants everywhere prepare to do battle with themselves during NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – the solitaire sporting event in which folks try to complete a 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November.

And every year before NaNoWriMo begins, someone drops me a line and says I ought to give it a try, usually implying that I would kick butt and take names at something like this. While I appreciate the confidence in my abilities, I’ve never had the urge to participate in the month-long write-a-thon. Maybe because I’ve done so many of my own – I tend to write the ends of my novels in one marathon burst, the record being 80 manuscript pages in one day at the end of The Company Man.

How’s about would I recommend it to someone wanting to write a novel of their own? My stance there is a little different. If you’re already thinking about it, if your mind is already made up, go for it. It has a lot of value as a motivator because it wields some really big weapons: a deadline, a community of people involved in the same trial, accountability (if you have a blog and put their progress widget on your blog), peer pressure (if you tell your friends what you’re doing – which technically you could do without NaNoWriMo). There is something to be said for doing what you can to cross the finish line.

On the other hand, I do have some concerns with what the program does in terms of writer’s habits. Those are just as important – a writer needs great work habits to sustain their careers if they’re serious about it. The publishing world doesn’t need a bunch of novelists who can only work 30 days a year. They’re looking for people who produce with regularity.

And that’s the thing. NaNoWriMo is largely a motivator that doesn’t, in my view, deal with a lot of the other aspects of writing that are important if you’re looking for a career beyond November. By focusing on getting the words on the page, it slights the actual work that goes into writing a book.

Here are some other reasons why I don’t participate, some practical, some not:

  1. It’s for Young Turks, not me. I’ve considered myself a writer for 29 years now, so I’m old and set in my literary ways (although my methods of writing do continue to evolve). This fancy stuff is for the new kids. NaNoWriMo is the loud, fast, and angry version of novel writing. It’s kind of like the year is 1977. I’m Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the new kids doing NaNoWriMo are the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
  2. It’s a Cheat. Really. You’re not writing a novel in 30 days. You’re doing the work of putting the story on paper in 30 days. By tomorrow you’re supposed to have done the work of outlining the book and working out the character arcs, all of that (unless you’re going to Jack Kerouac it and start writing without an idea). And then there’s all the work required on the back end – something called revisions. NaNoWriMo focuses on the romantic part of writing a book – the author alone in a room, struggling with a blank page.
  3. It’s Not the Way I Work. When I write a book, I usually know the opening scene and the ending of the book. I start with little else other than a sense of what the story is about, and I let the characters talk to me, developing the outline as I go. I take a more leisurely writing pace, about 1000 words a day as things develop. As a result, there’s an average of 100 “writing days” in one of my books, with many “non-writing days” in between spent making notes (hint: all of those are actually writing days).
  4. The Prep Required Would Make Me Not Want to Write the Novel. For me, part of the fun and magic of writing a novel is watching the plot fall together with all of the attendant unexpectedness that writers typically talk about. It’s about the creative journey. If I have to outline completely first, the mystery is gone because I know how the story unfolds. And I’ve never finished any story that I’ve completely outlined first.
  5. Their Format Does Not Fit the Kind of Novels I Write. Officially, the novel starts at 40,000 words. The typical novel sold on the shelves today, the kind most editors look for, is 100,000 words. NaNoWriMo runs 50,000. It’s a healthy length – probably the length of Shane or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or some of those early Nicholas Sparks books. You can hit that length writing about 8 pages a day (depending on your font and type size). That’s close enough to my current writing pace that I could probably stretch it. But to get to the length of the typical Joe Clifford Faust novel, I’d have to write 16 pages a day. Um, don’t think so.
  6. I Already Know I Can Write a Novel. NaNoWriMO strikes me as a writer’s journey (well, in this case more of a forced march) for the novice to discover if “I have it in me” to write a novel. I already know I have it in me. I just started what will be my 13th (written) novel. (Yeah, that means that there are some that never made it to publication.)
  7. NaNoWriMo May Shoehorn You Into Things You Don’t Want To Do Later. I feel that part of the journey in writing a first novel is the all-important one of Discovering How You Work. You can read all the advice books by writers you want and try out their Guaranteed Methods of writing, but the only right method of writing a novel is the one that works for you. How are you going to stretch out and discover that if you’re grinding your fingers into bloody stubs during a 30 day marathon? I feel that NaNoWriMo shoehorns writers into the same kind of writer’s journey. It also shoehorns them into one way of writing – loud and fast.
  8. It’s a Brutal Schedule That Could Discourage As Much As It Helps. Like I said, I’m a marathon runner, not a sprinter. I know lots of people that NaNoWriMo has left in the dust. Some learned from their failure, some didn’t.
  9. If You Really Want To Be A Writer It Doesn’t Matter. If you’re determined to be a novelist, NaNoWriMo might give you a jump start – but in the long run you’ll find that it’s one of those tools that you use once or twice and end up leaving behind, because you will have discovered yourself as a writer.

Want to find out if you can write a book in 30 days? Be my guest! If I were young and unpublished and hadn’t written a novel yet, I would be all over this. But keep in mind that there’s a reason why most authors only do one book a year.

However, if you think you have a novel in you, you have the other 11 months of the year to work on it, too. If crossing the finish line is your goal, go for it. But if you have something in mind that’s more long term, you might want to stretch out, experiment, and find a more comfortable way of writing.

So that’s my NSHO. If you want to do it, don’t let me stop you. But it would be good of you not to ask me to read the results. After all, I’m busy slowpoking through one of my own projects. Besides, you might want to consider a revision first… more of that unglamorous part of writing…

It’s All Right To Feel A Little Fear

So I have hooked and crooked my way into ownership of a new computer, one that isn’t a collection of interconnected old parts cobbled together into a semblance of semi-functionality. Because of that, I now have a number of projects going.

First, I am starting to scan my novels into HTML format (thanks to some Iris soft/hardware) to format for the Kindle. I bought old copies of all of them from Amazon’s shops, and am in the process of cutting the pages apart with an X-acto knife and feeding them through my nifty little scanner.

Second, I am in the process of formatting my three VBS plays for publication through Lulu.com and for the Kindle. The big hangup here seems to be the name of the imprint I will use for my self-publishing efforts. I’m trying to some up with something with a slight Biblical reference, but nothing to give the impression that it’s strictly a religious imprint since the Kindle versions of my SF novels will be under the same imprint, along with cd’s or mp3’s of my music, if I ever get around to recording them. But nobody likes what I’ve come up with so far. Oh,well.

Third, I’m in the process of working out a new design of the website to coincide with the launch of all this previously mentioned stuff.

Finally, I’m editing the book code-named …and that’s the end of the news because, well, with a little work it’ll be ready to hit the markets. It deserves better than to sit in the metaphorical closet under the metaphorical bowling shoes.

Funny thing about and/news. After I got my Kindle in February, I decided to read the manuscript again in preparation for editing it. Thing is, I wanted to read it in such a way that I wouldn’t start marking it up, as is my instinct. Then I got a brilliant idea. I emailed it to my Kindle and read it there.

That experience was remarkable. It had the psychological impact – for me, anyway – of reading the book in a final form. I was able to actually step back and read it as a story, like it was coming out of a published book. At one point in my reading, I decided to try having the Kindle’s Text to Speech feature read parts of the book to me during my commute. And heavens to Betsy, what a rush that was. You’d have thought that I was listening to an official audio book narrated by James Earl Jones himself.

Then something else happened. I started to feel a little scared and a lot sad. Because for the first time, as I was reading one of my own pieces of writing, I could tell it was good. Really good. And then it hit me: what if I never write anything else this good again?.

That’s something I’m having to work through.

Currently, I’m about two-thirds of the way through taking a red pen to the manuscript. Then I will be going to the computer to put in the changes and rewrite from scratch some of the scenes that need work. Looking again at what I did, even with red pen in hand, that wistfulness and fear is coming back.

But I’ve decided to try and channel it.

I think and/news is good. And instead of being scared of it, I should let it make me feel confident that I can go on to another similarly epic project – not necessarily epic in pages, but epic in scope, perhaps. I’m thinking that perhaps soon will be a good time to start my UFO novel. Oddly enough, that book is going to be a study of human nature, and there’s going to be a lot of emotional depth to it. There’s emotional depth to and/news, so I’m thinking that perhaps it was a kind of dress rehearsal for writing the UFO book.

Instead of letting that fear and wistfulness intimidate me, I’m going to try and channel it into something good. So I’m looking at it as a kind of stagefright, the kind that always grips me on opening night. The feeling that, if I didn’t get it, I would worry about how lame my performance would be. Call it that jumpiness that a race horse gets before the gate opens, although my own personal thoroughbredness is questionable.

That’s where things stand today. I’m coming back onto the main road after the detour, the map is a little out of date, but I still pretty much know the way. Let’s see how far I can get before stopping to ask for directions.

Size Matters

In a conversation via some comments on this post, Weirdwriter asked me if I wrote many short stories before diving into the novel form.

Um, not exactly.

I know there’s this conventional wisdom that you start small and work your way up to the big stuff, right? In fact, every creative writing class I ever took in my early years was structured just that way – some simple word play exercises, then you started writing poetry, and, inevitably, the climax of the class would be… the short story. It’s like you have to start small and then build those muscles up before moving on to something bigger.

But that might not necessarily be the easiest way to do it.

For example, I just gave a writing tip to one of the interns at the ad agency where I work. She was working on writing 30- and 60-second versions of the same commercial for a client, and I said, “Write the 60 first, then cut it down to make the 30.”

Why? Because it’s easier to write a 60-second spot than it is to write one only 30 seconds long. You get better story value, and more time to tell your client’s story (yeah, I know, big conglomorate-owned radio stations are pushing 30’s as the new 60, but there’s a complicated math lesson behind it that I won’t go into right now1).

I know this belies all of our notions of bigger is better, but bigger is also harder, but that’s the way it works with writing. Bigger is easier because the smaller you get, the more important each word becomes. It has to bear a greater weight, a greater burden, and must be sufficiently powerful to contribute in the most efficient way possible.

Therefore, at one end of the spectrum you have the novel, which allows you to stretch out with words, with story, with subplots and characters and place and theme. It’s a leisurely walk in the park. Wordwise, then, a novel is easier to write than a play, which is easier than a short story, which is easier than poetry, which I suppose is easier to write than something like a tombstone epitaph. And note that by the time you get down to writing poems, you’re the watchmaker, sweating over every word with a pair of tweezers and a jeweler’s loupe, praying that what you’re assembling will keep time and have the desired impact.

It does seem kind of backwards. But that’s the way it’s taught because in most of the rest of the world, that’s the way it works. If I’m going to build a mansion for myself, I’m going to start with something like a dog house first to make sure I can get the angles cut right.

I suppose if we educated people, this whole notion would change. I can just hear it being said in classrooms across the nation – “All right, students, get out your pens and a stack of notebooks. We’re going to start our novels today! And if you’re lucky, by the end of the school year, we’ll have worked our way up to limericks!”

No, I don’t think so.

I think another reason for this concentration on the short works is because at one time, there was a huge market for that kind of stuff. Once upon a time, selling short stories was an excellent way to get your name out there – a literary apprenticeship of sorts. And once your reputation started to grow, then you cracked your knuckles and sat down at the old Underwood and typed “Chapter One.”

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. There’s not much mass market short fiction out there anymore, with the exception of the Science Fiction genre, where agents still prowl the pages of Asimov’s and Fantasy and Science Fiction looking for new talent. But I didn’t go that route, so when A Death of Honor was published, some critics noted that the author Joe Clifford Faust seemed to have come out of nowhere. That was kind of a cool thing to have said about me.

Coming back at last to Weirdwriter’s question, as for the actual sequencing of my writer’s apprenticeship, it went something like this: Over the course of my early schooling, I wrote the required number of short stories for whatever class I happened to be in at the time. But when I started writing projects on my own, they were always novels. It was as if I had some kind of internal instinct for concocting the kind of story that took place on a big stage.

When I was in high school, I wrote a play during study hall. And one short story, for my creative writing teacher. It was so ghastly that the next year she changed the parameters of what could be acceptably turned in. Made a couple of false starts on projects that were novels.

In college I got wicked turned on to the possibilities of the short story form by a high school literature class where we read everything from Faulkner to Barthelme. Did one short story for a class and a bunch for myself. I wrote another play. I finished it when I had mononucleosis, and looking for something else to do, started yet another novel. Got fifty pages into it and quit.

The next year I started yet another novel. Four-and-a-half years later, it would finish under the title Desperate Measures, although it would be a while (after some serious editing) before it actually got published.

Out of school and married, I took writing seriously. I found a publisher for the play I’d written in college. I found my way into the small press community and discovered I could turn out Stephen King-like urban creepshow short stories and sell them to horror zines for copies, and sometimes, a small check for five or ten bucks. Between stories I wrote a novel called Amendment XXXI, and when Shelley Shapiro at Del Rey asked for another title, it became A Death of Honor and I was off and running.

As you can see, I didn’t serve the traditional literary apprenticeship of writing short fiction. Short fiction was always secondary to my interest in writing longer works. At this point in my career, the number of novels I have published outnumbers the short fiction – and the total number of novel manuscripts I have is probably pretty close to the number of short fictions I have written. And I haven’t written a short story in a long time – the mid-1990’s was the last time I was sufficiently motivated (and inspired) to write one.

So, did I write a lot of short fiction before I started in on novels? No. Are they important to writers? Only in the sense that it’s something you can start and finish in a relatively short time – which means relatively fast feedback on your writing. Should a lack of short story experience stop you from writing a novel? No – but remember, you’re not exactly looking at instant gratification with the novel form – another advantage of shorter stuff.

Of course, endorsing the novel form like this opens all other kinds of worm cans – like learning how to edit yourself, and the sad state of a publishing industry that has become too nervous to make writers like Stephen King and Tom Clancy edit themselves into manageable manuscript lengths, and how you know what to cut and when, not to mention the courage it takes to go back to that finished novel manuscript and start hacking it to bits.

I’d go there now, but then this post would run long. Yeah, it’s that easy.

Listening: Marillion, Incommunicado (Clutching at Straws)


1 Okay, you talked me into it. Spots that are :30’s generally sell for 60 – 75% the price of a :60. So let’s say you charge a base rate of $100 for a 60. What would you rather get out of that sixty-second bit of dead air – $100 or $120 – $150? Take some time to think it over if you need it.

Dark Secrets of the Writer’s Heart

Does anyone else out there in the writing racket do this – when I get an idea for a new project that I think shows a lot of promise, I want to run out and buy a new pen and a new notebook or pad of paper and start writing immediately. Usually I calm down and a cooler head prevails – but on the other hand, I do have a lot of pens and notebooks floating around in my personal orbit.

I’m also going to confess a couple of related secrets. I have at least one novel I’m supposedly working on that I haven’t told you about. I’ve got it in my Palm and was supposed to be writing paragraphs in it here and there in stolen moments, and I was going to market it Not Under My Own Name and (gasp!) Not Through My Agent, just to see what would happen. Unfortunately, the nature of the project I picked seems to be so laden with detail that the Palm is not a good venue for it. What I need to be writing this way is a loose, rollicking literary-type novel that will only have one draft – but more on that in a moment.

Part of this behavior of mine is that I’m fascinated by the whole anonymity thing – like Thomas Pynchon, and until recently, Jandek – both of whom worked in a vacuum of publicity and no public appearances (and while Jandek has been performing live for two or three years now, he still remains an enigma).

I’m also fascinated by the genre of literary novels of the sort propagated by Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, the rollicking novel where anything goes whether it works or not, with a voice that gives you the impression it rolled directly out of the typewriter into the press, with no rewriting or intermediate drafts (I know that’s not the case with Vonnegut). So that’s one of the other things I’ve long wanted to try – writing a psychedelic kind of novel without much regard to structure or anything else, and send it off without revising it to see what happens (Not Under My Own Name and Not Through My Agent, of course). With my luck, I’d have an unintentional hit, and I’d have a lot of explaining to do with my agent.

Both of these add up to a long-held urge urges to write a sub rosa novel, not even telling my wife what I was doing.

Never managed to get anything to take off, though. There were always more pressing writing projects, never enough time.

Now I’m thinking about starting a secret writing project, but telling all of you about it (and considering the way my StatCounter and Bloglines numbers look, there aren’t all that many of you out there, anyway, so it’s practically – dare I say virtually? – a secret).

Here’s what happened.

I didn’t get to work on the play last night. Wednesdays are my Momsitting night so my wife and daughter can get to Church (I go to the Men’s Bible Study on Monday nights), and my mother was not having a good night. But I did have a very productive shower this morning, and realized that I sent the antagonist out onto a winter street dressed in nothing but his boxers. So I made a note in the manuscript (coincidentally, it was right at the point where I left off writing – or maybe it wasn’t a coincidence).

I also thought about what I wanted to do to And That’s the End of the News, electing to do major surgery on it, completely changing the motivating factor between K and her dead boyfriend from something icky to something much more dramatic. Also thought about whether I should edit that or finish the first draft of Deadline once I get the third draft of the play over to the Community Theater.

Then my mind drifted to a future post I want to do about how to avoid a visit from the Karma Police. I started thinking about one of the events from my past that I wanted to mention: how, when I was first married, I worked in a place that was permeated with evil. I mean, we’re all sinners, but at least I was trying to be good. Nobody else was. I was fired from this place, and within a year something bad happened to everyone else who still worked there.

Then I thought, I ought to have that happen in a novel.

Then I thought, that could be the theme of an entire novel; a guy comes in and is treated badly by a company with a corrupt corporate culture, and suddenly things begin going horribly, badly wrong for all of the miscreants.

WHITE MOMENT!

Suddenly, a bunch of loose ends that I wanted to use converged onto this single notion and it became an idea:

  • The notion that one person walks into a new place and becomes, knowingly or un-, an agent of change,

  • the notion of telling a story in first person but not through the POV of the main character,
  • the notion of using an unreliable narrator to tell the story (maybe – the jury is still out on this one fitting in)
  • the chance to approach a novel as one that will be written in anonymity (well, relatively speaking, anyway…),
  • the chance to explore the idea of karma in a novel (I don’t believe in it, but the concept is fascinating, and it’s a handy bit of shorthand to use in explaining circumstance),
  • the chance to write a story about some of my experiences in corporate America,
  • the chance to tell a story in a looser, more rollicking style, as described above (but I’ll push it through several drafts, I promise),
  • the chance to tell a story with lots of allusions to Biblical events and/or pop culture that may or may not be symbolic,
  • the chance to write another “fun” novel like the Pembroke Hall books,
  • the chance to write in such a way as to show the power of writing only one page a day,
  • the chance to do something a little more useful with my lunch hours besides checking up on my blogroll or having my head handed to me during network games of Medal of Honor,
  • and of course, the chance to work on a secret project. Except all of you now now about it.

Scarily, all of this dumped itself into my head in the space of just a couple of minutes. After that one white moment, all of these pent up notions and bits from my writer’s wish list came rolling into my head like a dam had broken. My head instantly filled with pages and pages of notes that I have yet to write down (no doubt since I haven’t gone to the store to buy a new pen and notebook yet).

Now for those of you who are shaking your head and going, “Ah, Faust, not again, you poor, pathetic soul, you can’t just write a novel because some ideas fell into your lap,” I say, “Why not?” I’ve started novels with much less – one such notion, about an out-of-control law enforcement agency, became some scratchings on a yellow pad during a meeting, and those scratchings became the first chapter of The Mushroom Shift.

Besides, in a way, I hate it when this happens. It makes me feel like I have some form of creative ADD. On the other hand, this one comes in on the heels of something that I’ve always wanted for this blog but never quite gotten to do because of my long backlog of ideas. That is, to blog about a creative project from the time I get the idea until the time the last page of the final draft rolls out of the printer (and, perhaps even, ends up on the rack of the local book store).

So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll try and calm down about this whole thing and see if it’ll leave me alone for a while. I’m still zinging from the white moment right now. I’ll try to analytically look at the whole idea and try to see whether or not this will be another of my literary dead ends, or would be another really cool thing that I could do, both on the writing and on the blogging front (I can just see it – a secret notation on each post that gives the day’s progress, the translation of which is known only to regular readers – it’s better than saving up boxtops for a decoder ring!).

Okay. So a cooler head is going to prevail.

I hope.

Listening:
taking all the pieces in the situation
hoping we can work it out
with fate on your side, luck and some pride
you are on the right line
it’ll be a sure sign
1
(via iTunes shuffle play)

1 Oh no… it’s a sign!

The Fudge Factor, or,”How Much Can I Get Away With Before My Audience Deserts Me?”

An interesting exchange of e-mails with my old college buddy Scoob has given me fodder for not one but two posts. This is the first, and the second will straggle in at some point in the future.

Scoob started the ball rolling when he sent me this link to a blog wherein a physicist nitpicks the goings-on in a new TV series called Jericho.

Now even though I now have cable, I hadn’t heard of Jericho. In fact, I can only name one new show to come out this season, Standoff, and only because it comes on after House. But it did, at first, sound like something I would have been interested in – the idea of a small, isolated community surviving a nuclear war echoes the classic novel Alas, Babylon, so at least the idea had some promise.

Well, it’s a good thing that I didn’t hear about the show and start watching it, based on the physicist’s review. It sounds to me like the writing suffers from either a blatant ignorance of, or a casual disregard for, the realities of science. Now I suppose that one could attribute lines like “Hydrogen bombs set the atmosphere on fire” to writers who don’t want to stop and explain things to audience members who would be put off by such a thing… but if you’re playing the Alas, Babylon card, you’ve got to realize that you’re going to draw some people to the show who are going to quickly spot the zipper running up the back of your monster’s suit. Well, you should realize it, anyway. Apparently, they didn’t.

Which prompts the question, “How much fudging of the facts can a writer get away with before losing readers, or worse yet, credibility?”

First, let’s keep in mind that there are always going to be people who nitpick little details. And you’re never going to get all of them right. You might think that you know all there is to know about Onion Rings, based on your 20 years of experience as a flack for the American Association for the Cultural Advancement of the Onion Ring, but someone is out there waiting to point out that you made the critical mistake of putting cumin powder in the batter, and no self-respecting maker of Onion Rings would ever, ever do that. So let’s put that aspect aside and forget about it, along with that highly annoying analogy.

As with most of my answers, I don’t think there’s anything that’s black and white. And, as with most of my answers, I offer a set of guidelines that might help you think this kind of thing through.

1) It depends on how big or important your fudge is. God might be in the details, but if you leave a gaping hole as a result of your fudge, it is going to be noticed. Like in the movie U-571, which would have you believe that the German Enigma Code was broken because we Americans disguised one of our subs as a U-Boat and used it to go and hijack a real U-Boat, which had an Enigma machine on it. This conveniently overlooks the many hard centuries of man-hours that British intelligence took to unravel how the system worked (although, to be fair, as a sop to any Brits in the audience, there was a credit at the end of the film giving them credit for helping crack the code).*

That is called ignoring the facts so you can have a plot. It is B-A-D. Not to mention S-T-U-P-I-D.

On the other side of the coin, in the play that I hope to start editing this evening, I have an extended courtroom scene, and I left out one detail: a bailiff. Every bit of logic says I should have one, because emotions at a child custody hearing would naturally run high, and it is a good thing to have a stocky gentleman with a badge to be handy to pry people apart.

But I left out any mention of a Bailiff completely. Frankly, I did it to expedite the scene, which I knew was going to be long going in, and one more character to juggle wasn’t going to shorten things any. Besides, I had an eye on my audience – I want this play to be picked up and performed by community theater groups around the country, and in some cases a play’s viability is determined by the number of male characters (men are traditionally in short supply when it comes to community theater).

(Okay, yeah, we could have a female bailiff, but I already have three characters who could be played by a woman or a man, complete with unisex names, so give me a break.)

My philosophy was this: 1) if the director really would sleep better at night, s/he could put one in him/er self; 2) for the audience I am after, it’s a small but forgivable indiscretion, annoying perhaps only attorneys, who are probably going to be annoyed by things other than this anyway, and; 3) the only thing I’m losing is suspense, because a bailiff would represent the possibility of a fistfight breaking out, and frankly, this isn’t that kind of a play. It’s kind of like Chekov’s admonition (the playwright, not the guy on the U.S.S. Enterprise who seems to do nothing but raise the shields and get beaten up) – “If you describe a gun hanging on the mantle, it better come into use during the play.” Or words to that effect.

So is what I am doing a gamble? Yeah, but a small one – like calling in with a queen and an off-suit number card. Is it B-A-D? Is it S-T-U-P-I-D? Not in my B-O-O-K. But your mileage may vary. Think about it and tell me what you think once you’ve seen the play.

2) It depends on your audience. Maybe the creators of Jericho never heard of Alas, Babylon, but a little homework would have told them that this kind of show was going to attract some people for whom science was an occupation, a hobby, or in the case of fandom, a way of life. And that these folks would be rather vocal in pointing out the rather gaping holes in the fabric of the story.

One of my favorite films is How to Murder Your Wife. The climactic scene of this battle of the sexes comedy takes place in a courtroom, and after a beleagured Jack Lemmon pleads his case, the Judge looks over at the conveniently all-male jury and asks for their verdict. They all reply at once, without going off to deliberate. It’s a funny moment, even though it makes the Fudge-O-Meter go off the scale. But you know what? Even though I think “this would never happen in real life” every time I see this scene, I still love it. Because, as the audience, I am expecting a comic battle of the sexes film. I’m a lot more lax on the rules than I would be were I to see the same indiscretion in, say, a John Grisham novel.

My favorite example of this being done badly is in a film I have never seen – the infamous NBC mini-series Noah’s Ark. Apparently, the film begins with a credit saying that some liberties have been taken with the story. Okay, I can understand that. The story of Noah takes up three chapters in Genesis, and to stretch the story out to 160 minutes, you’ve got to make up some dialogue and extrapolate some action based on what it would take to spend 100 years building a huge boat while your neighbors complained about the noise (extrapolated) and laughed at you (Biblical). Hopefully, all of this fudging would draw from what you know of the time and culture, and from the Bible itself.

(Foreshadowing moment: Hollywood writer knowing something about the Bible. Heh.)

Well, the liberties didn’t stop with additional dialogue. The film apparently begins with Noah rescuing Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Scratching your head because you don’t remember that from Sunday School? Of course you are. See, the writers forgot, or chose to ignore, or most likely simply didn’t know that Noah was the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Lot — who was actually rescued by Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Abraham.

Then there were other liberties – like the ark having to flee from ocean-borne pirates (!) and hooking up with a sailing man whose vessel was a floating haberdashery shop, and… I can’t go on.

The lesson here is: You’re writing a Biblical epic. Think maybe that might draw an audience of persons interested in seeing it because they’ve read that particular book quite a bit? Think maybe they’d expect the story to stay within the bounds of what they consider to be the facts? Think maybe they’d notice – and quite possibly raise their voices – if some of the facts were completely out of whack?. Well, the benefit of hindsight gives us what Hollywood’s answer was, and it ends in the words, “…and give me another hit of that Columbian while your at it.”

(For a look at a what may be the best Bible adaptation ever, check out Joseph, which extrapolates wisely, tells the story completely, and fudges only in the timing of one of Joseph’s speeches at the film’s end – but it makes for a great moment, and I understand completely why the writer did it that way.)

3) It depends on why you’re fudging. The mention of the Joseph fudge brings this up. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, part of his speech is taken from one that was actually given after their father, Jacob, died. As I said, this little bit of rearranging puts a cap on the story without having to drag the film out for another half an hour as we wait for Jacob to die and the brothers to worry about their fate in Egypt.

Sometimes you fudge because of audience expectations. When a rough cut of Star Wars was previewed at a Science Fiction convention, a representative for the film was on hand afterwards for a Q and A session. According to the legend, he opened the session with these words; “Before any of you says anything, yes, we know that there’s no sound in space. Are there any other questions?”

This tells me that George Lucas knew of that particular fact of science, and ignored it for the sake of making a more exciting film. He also knew it was something he could get away with.

(The only film I can think of that has a soundless explosion was 2001: A Space Odyssey – but if there was ever a film that should have had silent explosions, it was Alien – just because of it’s now-famous tag line: “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”)

So to sum up this point, ask yourself why you are fudging. Your answer will give you an instant assessment of the balance of risks versus reward:

  1. It’s just a little fudge that will allow me to have greater dramatic impact at an opportune moment in the story,

  2. This is a time-honored fudge that, in our cultural lexicon, is seen more as tradition than error,
  3. My story’s a bit unwieldy, and by bending the rules a bit, I can make a more efficient machine out of it,
  4. I’m really in a hurry to get this done, I don’t have the time or gumption to really fact-check this,
  5. Nobody in flyover America will notice, and the important people I know won’t care,
  6. Listen, this is my story, and I can’t really be bothered with the facts,
  7. Hey, don’t bogart the Columbian, I’m getting a buzz kill here!

To fudge this whole thing to a conclusion, when it comes to the literary cheating, sometimes you have to knuckle down and do the right thing, even if you think it’s going to kill you. It’ll discipline you into doing the story right and making it more airtight, and better for the effort. Besides, research won’t kill you. You might even learn something.

Thus, I rest my case. And yes, that’s in a courtroom that has a bailiff.

Listening:
it took ten years to realize
why the angel stopped crying
when you sail on down the lane
your happy smile, your funny name

(via iTunes shuffle play)

* This is also only fair because the British once made a film about how an intrepid RAF pilot was the first human to use an airplane to break the sound barrier – conveniently ignoring that whole Chuck Yeager/”The Right Stuff” thing.**

** I’m not fudging – the first time a human broke the sound barrier was in ancient times, probably when an Egyptian taskmaster cracked a whip across the backs of some slaves.

PS: For those of you writing space travel epics, here’s a great article that will keep your fudge factor low.

The Chapter Chapter

Yesterday an e-mail came from a friend who is making her way through writing her first novel. She told me that while checking up on her chapter lengths, she found the following numbers:

Chapter 1 – 5200
Chapter 2 – 3600
Chapter 3 – 3600
Chapter 4 – 1870
Chapter 5 – 2200

She said she was torn between splitting chapter one in half or combining chapters 4 and 5. The former is what she chose to do, putting in the change at a natural scene break in the first chapter, giving her chapters of 2600, 2600, 3600, 3600, 1870, and 2200 words.

Then she asked me how I determine where to break chapters.

Since I work primarily in plot-driven works, I use what I guess could be called the dramatic arc method of determining the chapter break. That is, the break comes at a high point in the story, perhaps right before a climax of some kind. This has the happy effect of making readers want to continue reading, to start the next chapter even though in purely physical terms they have come to a good place to stop.

And it works. I have had people tell me that they stayed up all night finishing one of my books, or that they were late to work because they wanted to read just one more chapter, and that led to another chapter, then another, and another…

(Hint: if you want to stop reading one of my books, you’d better slide the bookmark in at the middle of a chapter. If you wait for the break, odds are long that I’m not going to give you the chance to put it down.)

Now my friend is writing a mystery, more of a procedural novel, so the idea of trying to end each chapter on some kind of a cliffhanger obviously isn’t going to work (it also wouldn’t settle well for, say, a romance, where the body count is substantially lower than a typical JCF novel). That still doesn’t mean she can’t stop her chapters at some kind of dramatic turning point in the story, whether it’s somebody getting off of a bus in a strange town or the end of a day that has been wearying and brutal. Not every chapter has to end on something momentous, but it should serve in some way as the lead-in to what is to come next.

This brings up a couple of other questions about chapters. Like, How long is a proper chapter? Should they all be the same length? What kind of order should you impose on a chapter?

The answer to the first is, a chapter is long enough to accomplish what you need to accomplish in that chapter. The way I write, which is longwinded, I frequently end up with more chapters than I originally planned.

Since I write so much by the seat of my pants, if I have a note like Ch. 9 – Walter goes to the convenience store to buy some beer and cheese, I may decide, while describing Walter’s walk, that something interesting happens to him on the walk. This stretches the chapter out to the point where he gets to the convenience store at what turns out to be the end of Chapter 9, meaning that 10 deals with his purchase.

Now I could just make chapter 9 one long chapter and take Walter all the way through the trip to the store, but if the chapter turns out to be really long, it might throw a monkey wrench into the pacing of the book. And if the mission to buy cheese is not the climax of the book, it probably shouldn’t be dragged out in an extraordinarily long chapter.

Being creatures of order, we tend to want to parcel our lives up into uniform pieces. This comes in handy when you’re writing chapters because making them a consistent length (mine tend to run 3-5000 words each) keeps control of the pacing of the book and puts a dramatic order on things, such as not over emphasizing the whole beer and cheese thing.

So that’s an argument for keeping chapters the same length. Only I didn’t follow that when I wrote the Angel’s Luck trilogy. I had mostly medium-sized and short chapters in those three books, and I can still quote a chapter from Precious Cargo from memory: In stasis, Peter Chiba slept without dreams.

So what’s the deal with having a one sentence long chapter?

It’s a trick I learned from Kurt Busiek when writing for the ill-fated Open Space project from Marvel Comics. KB taught me that the bigger the comics panel, the more it slowed time down, with time speeding up proportionately as the panels became smaller and smaller (Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns takes this to a masterful extreme by using what seems like dozens of panels on a page to represent TV screens, rocketing the reader at an awful pace toward an act of terrorism).

So… wouldn’t it stand to reason that a shorter chapter might move the pace of the book faster as well? It certainly worked for the trilogy, where I was jump cutting between groups of people doing their thing inside of extended action sequences. Now, I suppose I could have made the chapters long and just used scene breaks to pace the action – Tom Clancy is a master at doing just that – but it seemed to work better for me to break them as chapters while slamming the reader back and forth between teams of hard-boiled mercenaries. Which method was right? Either one.

Are there other ways of imposing order on chapters? Certainly. And these imposers might just help you in timing your dramatic arcs if you’re having a problem fitting them where they need to be.

For example, as I got deeper into writing A Death of Honor, an interesting order imposed itself on the chapters. I didn’t realize it at first, but after 5 or 6 chapters, it occurred to me that the book would work incredibly well if each one was half a day in the protagonist’s life. So I gave you chapters titled “Friday Night,” “Saturday Morning,” “Saturday Night,” and so on.

A benefit of this kind of imposed order is that it can help you build suspense (if you’re writing a suspense kind of novel) by reminding your readers of an impending deadline.

For example, let’s say your book opens with a woman getting a phone call from kidnappers saying that she has 36 hours to fork over ransom money or her beloved poodle will be horribly killed. Instead of paying money she can’t raise, she draws on her experience as a telephone solicitor to track the scum down and get her dog back. Why not structure it so each chapter takes place in the space of one hour as the woman frantically works her way closer to the villains? Further, if each of your chapters comes in at 3,000 words and you throw in a chapter-length 37th hour for winding down, that gives you a manuscript that will run 111,000 words – not a bad length for a thriller of that sort.

So that’s the bird’s eye lowdown on chapters. Like everything else in writing, the rules are steadfastly XYZ unless those rules don’t serve your book. While each novel we write is essentially a first novel since we haven’t written it yet (H/T: Lawrence Block), what makes a first first novel so grueling is that these are the things you need to work out for the first time. Chances are, if you act in the best interests of moving the story ahead, you’ll be fine.

It’s a scary thought. But the rewards can be so worth it.

Listening:
Just a simple storyteller
Troubadour on call whenever
The gods moved his heart to speech
He was something of a hero
To the conscience of the people
To the children on the beach

(via iTunes shuffle play)