Sunday, February 27

A first novel: Impatience

I am growing impatient with this draft. When I began writing, I had estimated this first sketch of a plot and character to run somewhere around eighty pages, certainly no more than one hundred. This week I broke sixty pages. It'll be at least another two weeks of writing, somewhere around another fifteen pages, before the characters leave their tribal homelands for Nairobi. I've been expecting the Nairobi portion of the novel to be the longest, something like half of the entire work. Assuming these estimates are any more accurate than those I made at the onset, this original draft will run near one-hundred-and-fifty pages, and I won't complete it until the end of April. That's a lot and a long time.

On the one hand, this is cool. The novel's long. That's legitimate and respectable.

On the other hand, what I'm writing right now is garbage. There are no details. There is barely more dialogue. It's characters doing things in the minimum number of words, so they can hurry on to the next thing.

This was the idea. Write quick and write dirty now, and write it better later. So far it has worked. I'm glad I've done it. I haven't gotten myself hung up on names and eye color and all those other little minor points.

But I find myself lately wishing that what I was writing now was better. It'd be nice to have more fully developed characters who spoke to each other not through paraphrase. It'd be nice to take some time to imagine what these characters and the landscape look like.

For now I am quashing the wish. I believe it's better to know where it's all heading before I start putting an effort into these details that might later be invalidated by the novel going in entirely unexpected directions. This week I sublimated the wish by writing a few stories for The Inlander's contest. Maybe working on and completing other short works in the interim will keep me happy until I can bring a greater attention to the novel. Maybe you would like to see some new fiction from me. We'll see.

Single-spaced pages with one-inch margins? Sixty.
Words? Forty-four thousand and one-hundred-and-five.
Named characters? Thirty-one.

Thursday, February 24

Peeling beets

Turns out Demetra really enjoys beets. She really enjoyed the beet curry with green peas I made last fall, and I admit that the borscht a few Sundays back was excellent. Myself, I'm ambivalent. They're another ingredient with which to experiment. They stain my hands and everything else purple.

They are also beautiful. I was quartering beets for dinner. Every sweep of the peeler revealed rings like those of a tree, and the rings followed the angle of peel. It was like the sheen of oil on a puddle in the parking lot. It was like gazing into the swirling mists of a fortune teller's crystal ball.

And tonight I will braise that beauty and eat it with a horseradish sauce.

Kenyan TV

When our first volunteer to the Nakuru center arrived in Kenya, Demetra and I were sent to pick him up from the airport. Part of this was to simplify the process for him. It would be easier to spot us in the crowd at Jomo Kenyatta International than another African. Part of this was that Demetra and I really needed a break from the kids. In any case, during the drive back to the center, the volunteer kind of stared out the window in amazement. He explained that he hadn't expected Nairobi to look like this. He was prepared for mud huts, not paved roads and steel and concrete buildings.

The point is Kenya is developed. It's not wealthy, but it's developed and only becoming more so. Its three major television stations (NTV, KTN, Citizen TV) even upload daily reports to YouTube. It's a chance to hear some Kenyan accents and see the land, if you are so inclined and so bored.

Here are a selection of choice reports on the Pokot: "Samburu and Pokot Peace Initiative," "The Turkana-Pokot Conflict," "West Pokot Early Marriages," "Pastoralists Killed in Pokot," "Pokot Disarmament." Super.

Tuesday, February 22

Flash fiction contest

The Inlander is sponsoring another flash fiction contest. Write a story in one hundred and one words or fewer. Submit it before March 10. Perhaps be published. Perhaps be invited to compete in a flash fiction tournament in Spokane. It's fun, and it was the first place I was published outside of Gonzaga publications after leaving Minnesota. Also, it's an opportunity to link to the stories I wrote for the first tournament. They're good if you have a minute or two.

"Miracle by the nanosecond"
"That One Guy"

Sunday, February 20

A first novel: Timeline

It worked. Writing out last week all those things that should and could happen while the characters remained in the bush and forming those things into a timeline helped. The first day of writing was still a struggle, but then it all just slid into place. I wasn't sitting and wondering what should come next or what the scenes needed to lead to. I only had to check the timeline. I can only hope that this easy writing continues for the next week or two until the characters move on to Nairobi.

Like I wrote, the timeline works. I'm not going to stand some principle of the ideal writing process. So long as timelines help me coast through any and all ruts, I will continue to write and use them. Still, I cannot help but to wonder whether they will lead to the best possible story. A friend told me this week that when Umberto Eco wrote fiction he first imagined the setting and characters. When he finally understood them in their entirety, a process that could take two years, he began to craft the plot. Then he began to write. I respect that. I admire that. I could never do that. I don't have the patience to wait two years before I begin writing.

Characters are central to the best literature. Plot should be driven by the characters, their motivations, their goals and their relationships. My tool, my timeline is an artifact of plot. It is a list of the things that happen. That does not necessarily mean that the characters become plot-moving tools. I still try to base these future turns on what I know of the characters, but that changes as I write. I write quickly and inconsistently. For a few days I may emphasize a character's cowardice or another's viciousness. A few days later I try something else with them, make the one a schemer and the other a struggling goatherd.

I like to think that my style of writing is more a process of discovery than Eco's. When he begins to write, he is putting in motion fully-formed characters. When I write, I am still learning about my characters. There is a lot of room for change, and I will be doing some heavy rewriting as I try to bring into line my different conceptions of the characters through the novel, but we will see in the end who has chosen the better course.

This sounds an awful lot like I'm comparing myself to Eco. So be it. Confidence and motivation and whatnot.

Single-spaced pages with one-inch margins? Fifty-three.
Words? Thirty-nine thousand and fifty-seven.
Named characters? Twenty-eight.

Sunday, February 13

A first novel: Challenges

There were some struggles in writing my five thousand words in the last week of January, as discussed here. I stand by that week as the most difficult to write, but this coming week could pose a significant challenge to that title, for whatever its worth. The challenges are different. In January it was a problem of inspiration. This week it is a challenge of technique and craft.

The progression of the story has been pretty simple so far. Something happens, and the characters respond to it. There is cause, and there is effect. While I have not adhered to Aristotle's unity of time, only about six weeks have passed in the pages. That is not very much. Though not every minute of every day is explored, you know what the characters are doing. They always have an immediate goal or destination driving them, but things are changing. Now they have spent some three weeks in their tribal homelands. They have overcome the earliest and most significant obstacles to life there and are beginning to settle into it. Things must slow down as the characters find their rhythms. There are another two years to fill before they leave. Things still happen and theere is still cause and effect, but it is distant. The relation between events is neither immediate nor clear.

I don't know how to write that. I don't know how to set a timeline in motion and then slip in, picking and presenting the noteworthy moments. My short stories are tight and unified in time. There is no summary of years or even months because the story is in a day, a morning, a single conversation. I've never tried anything like this before.

For the time being, I wrote out a list of the things that need to happen for the story to move forward. I wrote a second list of things that could happen and opportunities for characters to distinguish themselves. Not that all this helps me the act of writing these things, but it does provide some framework and guidance. We'll see how it goes.

Single-spaced pages with one-inch margins? Forty-seven.
Words? Thirty-four thousand and eighty-three.
Named characters? Twenty-eight.

Friday, February 11

"Haiti and the truth about NGOs"

Edward Stourton conducts a necessary investigation of the aid industry in this BBC Radio 4 documentary. There is something very wrong when billions of dollars in aid and thousands of NGOs leave somewhere around a million people still in tents in refugee camps and can neither stop an outbreak of cholera nor begin large-scale reconstruction in Haiti a year after the earthquake that killed over a quarter million people. Stourton leaves little hope when he presents the choice as between small NGOs led by incompetents who struggle to coordinate their efforts with others and large NGOs led by the corrupt who are dependent on national governments for the bulk of their funding, but the points he raises are good ones. It's worth a listen.

Monday, February 7

A first novel: Research

This novel begins in Nakuru during a riot. It spends two years in the bush before moving to Nairobi's slums. I like to think that I know some things about Kenya after spending nine months there, but I admit that of these things, of some importance to my novel, I do not know so much. I was not in Nakuru during the riots, and I only spent maybe two weeks total in the bush and another two weeks total in Nairobi, none of that time in the slums.

I have yet not done any research to change this, which, I guess, is understandable. This is, after all, only a very early draft. I don't want to be captured in the details national history and tribal quirks and force them in. I want words and characters and events on paper that I can respond to and develop into something better with time.

Less understandable, perhaps, is that I do not intend on doing any research at any point. I feel that I know enough of the details to make it real. The rest I will make up. The Nairobi slum will be fictional. The bush tribe will not because I would rely way too much on my experiences with the one tribe I know to create it, and it would be nothing more than the clearest imitation with only a few names and letters changed around.

Otherwise it's just about a family, staying alive and making your way in the world. How much can any amount of research help that? The rest is window dressing.

Single-spaced pages with one-inch margins? Forty.
Words? Twenty-nine thousand and thirty-four.
Named characters? Twenty-eight.