Thursday, October 27, 2016

On Taking the Time to Pause

I'm writing a historical piece.

A rather long novel. It's almost endless. I worry that I will not be able to finish it or keep up the tension. That is a fear of mine. That I don't have enough MEAT in my sandwich. You know the feeling, you go to a deli, order a hero sandwich and get tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, cheese, and TWO slices of meat. When you bite into that sandwich you shout out that that deli was a deadbeat deli. They cheated you out of a decent sandwich. You can imagine the feeling.

That's what I think about when I write a story. Am I a good deli owner and fill my sandwiches chock-a-block full of MEAT. The best meat money can buy. When my readers bite into my sandwiches, I want them to turn to the person next to them, chewing around a mouthful of food, and grin saying, "beefy!"

Yeah, I want to knock my readers out!

The truth is if you don't want to fill your stories with tension, suspense, passion, danger, murder, confusion, BANG, then...why are you writing? But that's a given. Every writer knows this, and this is not a blog for writers that know how to write already. I like to write a blog for writers who write and know the basics. I'd rather that more knowledgeable writers share their experiences with other knowledgeable writers. We all find out things that we never knew...just by writing. And sometimes it's great to share such experiences with other writers. Kind of like seeing the flying saucer in the woods. The first thing you do after the experience is turn to the person next to you and ask, "did you see that too?"

That's the thing about being a writer. Or an author. It's all about sharing experiences. So I am excited today to share an experience that I'm undergoing in the writing of this massive novel. Firstly, let me give you a little overview of my writing environment.

As I go along, I find that I need tools...REAL TOOLS! Databases. TONS of databases, simply because as I go along, I need to cull from history. I need a database for that. I need to draw upon historical characters and their histories. I need a database for that. Locations in history. I need a database for that. Events that occurred in history. I need a database for that. Fictional characters, their backstories. Plotlines.

I think you get the idea. There is just so much information that is flying around that it has to be caught, digested, understood as necessary or not, disposed of if it does not add to your story, added if it does. This goes with events, characters, fictional arcs along the historical arcs. Everything.

What does this do? This makes for a lot of research. But put that aside. I'm assuming that you've done that. You're an expert in the field that you want to write about already. You know all that you want to do and all that you need to know. Put that aside. I want to write about the mechanics of writing. What did I experience? What did I learn?

I plot my writing into 'scenes' and then when I'm ready, I line them up and blast right through them. Yes. I burn in a white hot crucible of prose. Boil the words until they are molten in my skull and then pour them out into the mold of my making. It's like extrusion. It just 'comes out'. However, I notice that when I'm typing away at the keyboard, I create characters, locations, events all sorts of things that at the end of the day, or week, I need to refer to. Invariably, that means that I have to go back over reams of paperwork (or screen-work) and search for these characters, locations, events, whatever and  use that information to continue on. Such as, "did Albert get the tattoo of a ship or an anchor in WWII when he was fighting in Europe? Which one did I give him?"

Or was a character from Bulgaria, or Lithuania? Or did she get married in Lyons or Frankfurt? Did he go to college for two years or three? The details can be small or large, but they need to be remembered or you'll fail in continuity. Bald individuals will have long hair. Short people will grow tall. Timid people will become bold. This happens when your number of characters start to move into the twenties or more, and the years do the same. So how do you combat this? Databases.

I use as my primary weapon, Scrivener, which has a powerful suite of databases that does the bulk of the work. Amazingly, it's strong enough to do the entire job. But I need different representations of things and being human, it's hard to refer to one place for everything. We don't store our work tools in our sock drawer, do we? Important papers in the refrigerator? A place for everything, and everything in its place, my father used to say.

So, I use other databases for specific information in certain areas. I use Evernote or some things. I use Microsoft Visio for plotting. I use Microsoft Word for other things. I use Aeon Timeline 2...well, just to keep all of the events in order. This way I don't have pregnant women carry babies for more than nine months...stuff like that. Believe it or not, I even have an old fashion card file and index cards to sort critical information that I need to have at my fingertips, updating it constantly. But to be effective, I've found out something else.

I had to change my writing style. This is the experience that I would like to share. When I write I blaze a trail across the landscape, much like the Road Runner when he bends highways and rips up road signs in his wake. But at the end of a writing session, I find that I have to go back and pick out pieces of critical information in my work to put into databases. This bit of description in a character list. That portion of events in my timeline. This bit of backstory in Evernote or Word. Even that bit of detail in my card file.

To keep from this drudgery and actually very imprecise data collection, I had to learn to pause. Yes, I could no longer race along the story line like a bat out of Hell, but instead, I learned to stop when I wrote some critical piece of prose that I was certain I'd need to recall. Sometimes the gems were so crystal and beautiful, I would stop immediately, and like a man running down the street and passing something valuable underfoot, I would screech to a halt to pick it up, or file it in a database. This way I miss nothing, I input everything and my novel is stronger for it. I find that I no longer have to take long, time-consuming pauses stopping at the end of a chapter and before starting another chapter, search through the previous one for some description or details of an event so that I can continue on. All I have to do is go to the correct database, check it's index, get the details, and off I go again.

The pauses sometimes occur in inconvenient times, like when I'm on a roll, pouring text like white lightning and have to break my 'flow' to cut and paste data into a database. Or scribble it by hand. I've learned to pause. Not because I want to, but because I've come to realize that I waste more time going backward page by page through a chapter looking for a paragraph, or worse, a sentence, than I do if I stop for five minutes to add data to somewhere it can be quickly retrieved later. It's just plain less time consuming. Overall, I move faster, cover more ground and do so with amazing accuracy. And when it comes to how close you want to follow the details in historical fiction, accuracy counts.

Pausing makes perfect. Or well, as perfect as you'd like. Trust me, it works better to break your flow at times than to halt your writing for hours as you pour through what you've already written with a fine toothed comb because the details are too voluminous to pull from memory. When writing historical fiction, let's face it, it's not all about how well you know history, but how well you can follow the minutiae of scores of lives as they pass through history.

Pausing is a muscle that goes stronger as it's worked. You get better as it as you go along. Like the starship Enterprise, you learn to pop from sub-light to warp speed with the push of a button without harming your writing style because you'll learn a new writing style. It'll become as easy as breathing and your databases will become large and powerful. All sorts of information at your fingertips. Whenever you stop and need it, you'll find it and move back to warp speed effortlessly.

This is my experience when writing this story, which, it appears will turn into another of editing because of its size alone. But one thing for a fact is that I do not need to stop and wonder what bit of data is needed to move on because I know I'll have it.

Have you written a large enough novel that you need databases to keep track of information? What do you use? Have you learned to pause? Did you ever have to?