Update on My Novel: Month 6

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OCTOBER STATS
Days Writing: 20
New Words: 2,671
New Chapters: 1

Total Word-count: 16,533
Total Chapters: 5

Last month I finished correcting my outline, which finally allows me to focus on advancing my first draft. As such, I am going to start these monthly updates with some statistics. I will report how many words and chapters I have added to the draft, and then what the totals for the entire draft are.

Writing 2,671 is quite low for me, I average about 475 words per day. The reason I only wrote that many was because I decided it would help switch back into my draft-writing context by reading through and polishing all four chapters of my previous work. I ended up making some extensive rewrites of those passages, which word-count I did not take the time to record. This process definitely did help me get back into the draft-writing mindset, and those 2,671 words came out pretty smoothly during the last week of the month.

There seem to be two philosophies for how one should write their novel. One is to write everything out from start to finish, and only then go back to the beginning and smooth the entire thing over. The other approach is to draft as you go, writing one chapter, smoothing it out, and only continuing to the next chapter when the first one feels right. There are pros and cons to each, but I’ve decided to take the latter approach. It will slow me down for finishing this first draft, but it will hopefully result in that draft being closer to a publishable quality.

My goal for October was to write for 22 days, I ended up with 20. Not quite on the mark, but not terrible. In November my family is taking a vacation, and so my writing will be a bit limited. I am going to shoot for 19 days in all, though I might only hit 18. I’m hoping to add about 7,500 words in that time. Come back on December 1st to see how it all turns out.

Update on My Novel: Month 5

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On September my goal was to work on my blog every weekday for a half hour, which would result in 20 days throughout the month. I’m pleased to report that for the first time I hit my goal exactly!

My other goal was to finish all of the outlines that I was refactoring, so that moving forward I could focus solely on the first draft of my story. I’m pleased to report that I hit that goal as well! It took 18 of the 20 days to do, but for October I am all clear to just draft. The other two days were spent rereading that draft so that I could back into the feel of it.

I do realize that taking a month just to finish an outline might sound like quite a lot. Though what I call an “outline” is probably a great deal more exhaustive than what most people think of. This outline weighs in at just over 36,000 words, and provides a very clear direction for every scene of the story!

It feels really good to have reached this point. Refactoring is important, but it feels a lot like running-in-place. A lot of energy goes in, but the word-count of your draft doesn’t go up at all. It feels a lot better when day-by-day you see the numbers moving closer to a full-fledged novel.

If I had one piece of advice from all of this it would be to avoid changing gears when writing as much as possible. I went from outlining, to drafting, back to outlining, and then back to drafting again. And at each switch there was an amount of dead time where I had to ask myself “now what was I doing here again?” Especially with something like a novel where maintaining a consistent tone is so important, leaving and coming back again needs to be kept to an absolute minimal!

I’ve always loved the month of October. The Autumn season has such a ponderous magic in the air, it seems to exhale deep story. I’m very excited to work away during this season, and look forward to giving you my next update on November 1st. My goal is to write for at least 22 days during the month. That’s every weekday except one, which I will be on vacation for. I’m not going to make any goal for how many words to write, but I will keep track of how many I do. See you then!

Update on My Novel: Month 4

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For August I said I wanted to work on the blog each day, but at the very least wanted to reach 20 days. When all was said and done, I finished the month with 19. It really hurt to get so close but not quite make it. More positively, though, for the last two-and-a-half weeks I faithfully did my writing on every single weekday.

As I’ve thought things over, trying to work on my story during the weekend just doesn’t work for me. Perhaps it does for some people, but for me it doesn’t. Moving forward I accept that I will only be working on this Monday-Friday and not on holidays. That means for the month of September a “perfect” work-month would be 20 days, and that is going to be my commitment.

Before describing what I accomplished during August, I need to explain a little bit of how I craft a story. I personally like to use three levels of detail for my outlines. The first is just an extremely brief set of bullet points, one for each major arc of the story. It reads a lot like an elevator pitch.

When I have that first layer feeling just right, then I move on to the second. For that I expand each of those arcs and now detail all of their subcomponents. So in the first layer I might say the explorers make a camp out in the wild and test different crops to see which one the island can produce best. In the second layer I add that during this period Clara grows more bold, at least until she breaks her mother’s brooch and becomes weighed down with guilt…etc.

In the third layer I am detailing out all of the individual scenes that will happen. I explain who will be present, what their motivations in that moment are, and what the resolutions will be. After the third layer is complete all that remains is to start writing the actual drafts of the story.

I like this approach, but one issue with having three separate layers is keeping them in sync. Last month I shared how I had remolded the middle of my story after discovering significant structure changes that it needed. That remolding was done on the third, most detailed level, which changed it so drastically that then I could not find how to attach it back to the final act as described by layers 1 and 2.

After struggling for a little bit, I realized that for August’s work I just needed to take this structural overhaul down to layer 1, and rework the ending at that simplest level of detail. Then I percolated those changes up to layer 2, and brought it to completion as well. In August I got both of those done, and also started updating the final act of the third layer. My hope for September is to finish that update, and finally get back to the first draft of my story. I’ll let you know how it turned out one month from now!

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

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On Thursday I posted the first section of a story which was written in homage of Shane Carruth’s work. Shane is the writer/director/producer/star/composer for two films called Primer and Upstream Color. They are two of the most original stories that I know of, and each pushes the boundaries of imagination in exciting ways.

He has also written a script for a third film called A Topiary, but that one failed to receive funding years ago and will likely never come to fruition. The description of it, though, was that a group of boys would discover a strange machine that allowed them to piece-by-piece begin building mechanical creatures. The formation of these would be based upon a few fundamental rules which would compound and escalate to alarming degrees, eventually resulting in epic battles between the boys and the giant machines they wielded.

This work sounded incredibly exciting to me, particularly due to how Carruth’s previously released films each showed how skilled he was at stacking small and simple concepts into something beautifully complex, like a mosaic. His work follows a very strict pseudo-science, and he authentically captures the delight of methodically combining simple laws to discover new ones.

I basically wanted to take the exact same approach for how I wrote Instructions Not Included. So what I did was reduce the description of A Topiary to the simplest form I could. “A boy discovers a device that allows him to form new creations.” Then I gave it a very simple direction to follow, inspired by the experiences evoked in Carruth’s stories. “The euphoria of discovering new combinations and inventing new things.” And with that I started to write.

Now my own plot does not hit the same beats as any of Carruth’s work, and it does not take place in the same narrative universe. I do not copy the same mechanics he has invented nor the discoveries related to them. I do not even imitate his writing style. In this way Instructions Not Included is inspired by his work, but it is not a recreation of it.

This is one way of writing a work so that it has been influenced by another. In all, I would say there are three clear distinctions of how old work is used to influence a new one.

  1. Using the Essence of a Story
  2. Using the Style of a Story
  3. Using the Plot of a Story

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

 

Using the Essence)

As I’ve suggested, this approach simply involves looking at what it is that makes a story interesting, and then trying to inject that same interest into a story of your own. Usually these are core concepts that you can capture in a single sentence.

For example we can lift “the Hero’s Journey” as one of the core essences behind Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and many, many others. The stories of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot each provide the same essence of “brilliant mystery deduction” yet each is distinctly different in their own right. 1984 and Animal Farm are both “cautionary dystopian tales,” though again quite different in style and overall plot.

Now you may have noticed that this idea of “core essences” just seems to be another way of saying genres. And that is because each of the ones I’ve mentioned so far are old and well-populated, so that they have been cataloged into genre terms. But newer titles that fit into a smaller niche still have an essence, even if they do not have a named genre yet. For example, a few years after Harry Potter came out there followed a number of magical adventures involving teenagers, and there wasn’t a name to refer to them by. They shared an essence, but that was all, until the term “teen fiction” was coined.

 

Using the Style)

But perhaps you don’t just want to just be inspired by the same things that inspired your favorite author. Perhaps you want to write a story that they might have, if they had been given a chance to do so. Imaging, for example, if an artist decided to paint cell phones in the style of Picasso. As Picasso died in 1973 he never got a chance to tackle that subject, and maybe he wouldn’t have interested in them even if he had. Even so, one could wonder how he might have rendered them and try to create the image themselves.

Imitating the style of another author is difficult to do. When Brandon Sanderson took over the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr) the general consensus was that they felt quite different. Style is derived from life experiences and the author’s own individuality. Thus you may put on an act of being like another person, but it is hard to actually think, feel, and be that person. It’s probably impossible.

But that’s not to say that no authors have been successful in imitating a style. One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to provide England with a mythology that it was lacking. The Greeks had Zeus and Heracles, the Egyptians had the sun god Ra, the Indians had Rama, the Prince of Fire. Tolkien wanted to gift to Britain its own deep legacy, and so determined to write his work in a mythological style. He would use larger than life settings, slow drama, and core themes of good triumphing over evil. The result is one of the most authentic modern works of mythology to this day. It really feels like it came from an ancient age, though it actually released the same year as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!

 

Using the Plot)

I’ve abbreviated this section as making use of another author’s plot, but you could also say to use their characters, world, or creatures. There are not many authors that have tried to create a modern mythos in the way that Tolkien did, but there are many that have tried to invent new stories within the world of Middle Earth, or borrowed from his personifications of elves and dwarfs, or used the idea of destroying an object of immense power.

The thing is that most of these stories leave a lot to be desired, because they actually capture very little of Tolkien’s essence, and they produce very little of their own. I’m not saying that all fan-fiction is bad, just that there is a lot of bad fan-fiction.

More interesting is when an author takes the plot of another work, but then deliberately alters its original essence or replaces it with something entirely new. Ulysses really doesn’t read much like The Odyssey, though they share so many of the same plot points. And while Ulysses lacks that Ancient Grecian flavor, that absence is more than made up for by its being having such a rich James-Joyce-style instead. The Lion King might on paper sound like a recreation of Hamlet, but it really feels much more like a tribal African legend than a medieval drama.

 

Across all three of these forms of imitation there is one consistent principle. In each case the new work is still immensely original. Though you might pay homage to another author, you really want that influence to amount to little more than a footnote on your otherwise totally originally tale. Otherwise you start to stray into the realm of plagiarism instead.

I like to think that I have been firmly in the balance of original work with Instructions Not Included, and I’m very excited to get on with that story. Come back Thursday to see where it is going next!