Ars Gratia Artis

A novelist is an artist in words and sees the world through his own experiences.–real, imagined, or virtual, happening to others. As with any art, the artist pleases himself first, letting the creative juices flow and producing an original story complete and comprehensible in his mind. A thing of beauty.

An editor analyzes this work from the viewpoint of a reader, much as an art or music critic beholds a painting or listens to a symphony. What pleases the artist may not find an audience with the public. Occasionally, the artist goes on to establish himself and finds his own audience, but almost always, some corrections are made, in technique, content, or presentation.

How does she satisfy the expectations of the reader but retain her creativity? I believe it is an iterative process between what she wants to say and how she says it. If the sole purpose of the novel is entertainment, she might believe that how she says it is paramount, as in writing humor. But no one wants to hear the same jokes over and over.

As he rewrites and edits, his message, story, and presentation will be clearer, until he arrives at the closest he can achieve toward his Picasso or Beethoven. It won’t guarantee a best seller, especially in this era of e-books and sensationalist literature, but the author will be able to go on knowing he has a grasp of the realities of writing creatively.

After the First Draft

You’ve finished the first draft of your manuscript. One hundred thousand words carefully constructed over the last twelve months. Now, what happens?

It’s probably a good idea to set it aside for a while. There’s no rule I know of for how long. When you come back to it, read it through. Odds are, you’ll stil love it, but you’ll notice places where it slows down, gets off track, or isn’t interesting. Ask yourself, why?

I usually overdo descriptions of food and location in the first draft. It’s fun when I’m writing and discovering, but it often doesn’t add to the plot or characterization. Is your piece heavy on narrative, endless dialogue with nothing going on? Just make notes. You’ll come back to it. What about filter words like: to hear, to think, to touch, to wonder, and a dozen more? Words that pull the reader out of the character’s actions–that tell instead of showing.

As you get into the first edit and revision, you’ll discover much about writing you didn’t know before. How do you show character emotions? Discover not what you would think or do, but how your character would respond.. Know your characters not as words on a page but as living, thinking entities–speaking not for you but for themselves.

Now, dig into the structure and form of each sentence–varying length and words, finding the lyrics and making sure each statement is clear. Do the paragraphs have form–beginning, middle, and end–even if the paragraph is only a sentence? Do your scenes have style, a clear point of view, time frame, location, and relevance to plot and character arcs.

Are your chapters complete within themselves? Do they make sense in that they start with certain conditions and they end with well defined new conditions that move the plot along. Is the story a story? Does it have a theme in that it has a definite purpose that fulfills your objective–humor, moral, adventure, intrigue–whatever you intended? Is it a page turner?

Only after you’ve answered all these requirements, plus a decent grammar check, are you ready to hand it over to beta readers.

Completing the story

Just as a shaggy dog joke isn’t funny if the teller forgets the punchline, a novel isn’t complete if it doesn’t finish the main story. This requires knowing what is the story.

Three people walk into a bar is not a story and sets few expectations. A Rabbi, a Priest, and a Monk walk into a bar isn’t a story but it sets certain expectations. The first sentence of my novel, Angel of Mortality: “All her life, Dr. Raisa Ilyushkin loved tiny things that performed great miracles.” is also the last line. Somewhere in the 85,000 words between the opening and closing something must occur that elucidates the meaning behind that statement.

The novel includes monsters, plagues, marriage, and global politics but what completes the story is that the protagonist, Raisa Ilyushkin sees the same message in a different light. Tiny things and great miracles take on a new meaning to Raisa and to the reader. Like Raisa, we form an attachment to these tiny things, intelligent nanobots that make up continent-spanning robots–the great miracle.

Meanwhile, Raisa evolves from a hermit-like lab rat to an outgoing global leader, beloved for her understanding and compassion. To finish the story, I must satisfy the reader that Raisa’s evolution is complete and the tiny things have indeed completed a great miracle.

Starting a Frame Novella

A frame story is exactly what it sounds like, a tale or series of tales bounded by an encompassing story. I am choosing to write Julie’s Story as a framed narrative for several reasons:
(1) Julie is the narrator and the subject. By telling her story in bits and pieces from the distancing perspective of death, she can move from the present to the past in an experiential manner.
(2) By acting as the framing narrator, she can communicate with Bonnie, the woman she has possessed, in a conversational tone.
(3) By framing Julie’s story within the mystery of the present (What happened to her daughter?) I can create suspense.

This is the opening section:


Cody’s on the terrace. Older, handsome, grey at the temples, wearing a sports coat, and two-hundred-dollar shirt. “So,” he says, “you’re Bonnie and want to know what happened to Julie’s baby?”

I scream. “I’m Julie! What happened to our daughter?”

He laughs, a Mephistophelean howl. “Julie’s dead, and our daughter? She’s probably a whore.”

Evil spirits surround him. “You sold her and have adoption papers. Your lawyer told me.”

The demons stop swirling. “So, you’ve come back.” He approaches. “Why didn’t Marilyn tell you?”

As if you care. “She died of a brain hemorrhage.”

He was looking at Bonnie’s body. “I can offer you bourbon, Coke. We can look at photographs.”

I follow down to a cellar, made into a gentleman’s lounge. “Make mine a Cuba libre. Old times’ sake.”

“Myer’s Original Dark Rum.” He holds up the bottle. “Kept it here just for you.” He adds the Coke, lime, and ice and hands it to me. He makes himself a Chivas and soda, leaves, and comes back with a photo album. “Open it. It’s our youth.”

Me and Rosie playing with a beach ball on Daytona sand. 1984, thirteen, nothing mattered. We tied on bikinis, played, and found a mark―a meal, drinks, and a bed. Two girls at a bargain price with no pimps, no drugs, no overhead.

My fake ID said I was Lisa Hamilton, eighteen, a student at Ohio State. No y’all, or yessir, say hi instead of hey. No one gave a shit.]

Julie’s Story

As you can see, there are three unidentified characters within the narrative–Marilyn, Bonnie, and Rosie–indicating there is a second frame within the frame. What went on in the immediate past as compared with what occurred in the distant past, so the story begins at the seventy-five percent mark–the beginning of the end.

I’m making it a novella because I don’t believe the story will require more than thirty-five thousand words. Framing a story is a new challenge for me. I haven’t finished outlining it yet, so that’s the next step.

The Moment of Truth

Open any novel to the middle and read the content. Somehow, at this point, the protagonist has a revelation. Through the first half of the story, our hero has worked her fanny off chasing a false goal. Things didn’t pan out the way she expected but suddenly it hits her–there’s something she has to do, something she’s needed to do all along but has only seen vaguely.

Now, she must get to work, not chasing will-o’-the-wisps, but getting to the core of the issue. In my work in progress (WIP), Raisa has been in a reactive mode ever since the plague in Mombasa. She blamed Ai-mei, then al-Shabaab, and then the Transnational Crime Syndicate, but now the International Court of Justice has summoned her to account and she feels guilty.

Actually, no one is blaming her, but now she realizes she has been fighting back and not fighting forward–retreating instead of advancing. Armed with knowledge of who is the true enemy and the will to use her knowledge to defeat Nikolai Kabulov’s scheme to destroy civilization, she can develop a superior organism that can destroy any nanobot plague and advance civilization to a new future.

How does it all end? There’s a bright side and a dark side to everything. With a baby on the way, Raisa wants to make sure her daughter lives in a better world than that into which she was born.

Multiple Points of View

In my previous four novels, I stayed with the recommended four point of view characters: protagonist, antagonist, love interest, and confidant. In my current work in progress (WIP), The Kabulov Conspiracy (TKC), I found it necessary to add point-of-view characters who spend a short period of time on stage (since they die in the scene) but serve a profound purpose in the novel.

Readers don’t want to witness carnage without purpose, but in TKC, people will die by the billions and it is necessary to ensure the reader is empathetic to their demise. In several scenes, I introduce a sympathetic character–a cleaning lady in a soccer stadium, a dock worker in Mombasa, a child in the Philippines, and others who contract the plague Kabulov is spreading and die, but who put a face and a personality to the event.

As each minor character comes on the scene, I try and show how interconnected we are, one to another, throughout the world. While the plague and its solution take place on a monumental scale, there are still individuals involved as its victims, not just row upon row of faceless names. Following the life story for each of them would make the novel much too long, but a brief glance at who they were and what they were doing gives us a realistic perspective.

I’ll try and make it work.

Performance Arts

We refer to arts such as dance, music, and theater as performance arts, but writing, painting, musical composition, and other art forms are also performance arts even though not performed directly in front of an audience. The solitary performance of the writer begins with the concept and ends with publication of the novel, short story, or article. Like other arts, once the author finishes the opus, it completes the exhibition. The result may exist in material form, just as a dance performance may be on videotape, but the performance is over.

I liked what I heard the famous ballet dancer, Svetlana Zakharova say, that the best performances are during preparation, back in the studio where the dancer feels freer to make bold moves without fear of an occasional stumble. How many times in writing have I written something much more lyrical or expressive than what I include in the novel because it doesn’t fit the finished work. The rare times when one can capture those passages in a way that fits the overall composition is when one feels a sense of accomplishment.

Even if our first novel, or second, or third…or sixth novel is not what we wish it might have been, we must continue to the next performance. This time, we may not stumble or muff that high note.

“Final” drafts

The word final often doesn’t apply to writing. When you finish that first draft and type

–THE END–

as a writer, you know it isn’t the last time you’ll be there. After putting your manuscript away for a while, you’ll begin rewrite. The first rewrite is agonizing as you discover the loose ends, blind alleys, and the blandness of it all, lacking emotion and sensuality. In cleaning it up, you discover a  new story, filled with deeper characters, intricate plot twists, and scenes you missed in writing the first draft. Once again, you type:

–THE END–

But, it’s not, is it? In that rewrite, something emerged, a deeper meaning for your story, that elusive greater message, the theme. A simple story about a scientist who invents a device that can kill billions becomes  a journey. Now is the time to climb into the souls of your characters–where they live, how they think, what they feel. The rainbow of your story becomes  clear and the theme, character, plot, and description all follow the same path–starting at the horizon and ending at the pot of gold. You type:

–THE END–

and send it to an editor. When it comes back, you ask yourself how many red pens that woman must own and return to the keyboard. Eventually, you will publish something, but for you. it will never be the final draft as the characters continue to live with you for the rest of your life.

Inside your characters

I’m one of those writers who lets my character do the acting. Quite often, I’m not sure what particular character will do and am often surprised by their actions. When I’m describing the who, what, where, when, and why, the scene is quickly boring. I must get inside the body and mind of the character and let him or her see, feel, and respond to the situation. If I can lose my ego and become the character, the scene flows well and is authentic. This isn’t always easy to do.

Of course the character is my invention, so she will have my thoughts as the genesis of her will, but as a story progresses, she personifies her role and becomes an actor on the stage, with unique patterns of behavior and judgement. As an example, Take Ai-mei, the villain’s accomplice in The Ruby Spider Conspiracy. She believes fervently that all the world’s troubles result from overpopulation and the only solution is to kill off ninety percent of the people on earth. Crazy, you say. Not to her.

Ai-mei has only a few POV appearances in the book, but when she is on-stage,  I must enter the mind of this woman and identify with her concerns and prejudices. I see the people she has seen suffering and struggling, living in overcrowded slums, unable to get enough food, medical attention, or education. I’m angry at a world that allows this and keeps bringing more children into this veil of tears.

Damir, on the other hand is not concerned with any of this. he smuggled weapons to both sides of many conflicts and was eventually caught. He retained his freedom by going to work for international security firms that smuggle weapons to nations favored by the United Nations. He lives dangerously, but has been infatuated with Raisa from the time he first met her. His main goal in the story is to marry Raisa.

Raisa, the antagonist, is driven by guilt. She created the tool that allows manufacturing the nanobot plagues that kill billions. When used as weapons, these nanobot cultures  are capable of

Premise

At the core of any story is the premise, what the story is about. Often this is a moral statement. For the Ruby Spider Conspiracy, it consists of seven elements that I combine into four clauses, creating a simple statement that is the flesh of the entire story. I then reduce it to one sentence that summarizes the story, similar to a tagline.

  1. It identifies how your story starts: Raisa develops a deadly plague under contract to what she believes is a legitimate institution. Her carelessness allows an evil cabal (the Ruby Spider) to steal it for the purpose of reducing human overpopulation.
  2. What does the main character do about it? Having seen the results of the plague in Mombasa, Raisa sets out to develop a mechanism to fight the plague.
  3. What climactic event forces the main character to increase her efforts? The next two attacks take place worldwide and kill almost four billion people, seriously threatening the underpinnings of civilization.
  4. How does the main main character respond to complete her objective? Raisa finds herself at the center of the world crisis and directs an international council to end the Ruby Spider’s threat.

Combining these clauses into a statement, I have:

Raisa develops a deadly plague under contract to what she believes is a legitimate institution. Her carelessness allows an evil cabal (the Ruby Spider) to steal it for the purpose of reducing human overpopulation. Having seen the results of the plague in Mombasa, Raisa sets out to develop a mechanism to fight the plague.The next two attacks take place worldwide and kill almost four billion people, seriously threatening the underpinnings of civilization. Raisa finds herself at the center of the world crisis and directs an international council to end the Ruby Spider’s threat

Summarized as:

When a biochemist allows the release of a deadly plague, she must destroy an evil cabal to prevent them from using it to destroy civilization.