All posts by Brad Whittington

Shaking It Up: Part 8

This week I spent a few sessions on the deck with John Truby. Or, more specifically, his book The Anatomy of Story.

Truby has his own approach to story structure, but for me the true value of his book is the process, not the structure.

I have a problem. I always want to jump right into the story and start writing. It’s like signing up to run a marathon when you barely have enough juice to run a 440.

A novel requires a full cast of characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, allies, opponents, fake allies, fake opponents. A good novel explores the interactions between all the characters, what Truby calls the character web. If you really want to write a rich, powerful novel, you need to understand all these characters, their motivation, their weakness, need, desire, key values, and how they interact within a character and between characters.

Truby saves me from myself. He forces me to understand the full depth and power of the story itself. He forces me to treat the characters as real people, not just pieces to move around on the board to advance the plot.

Basically, he forces me to do the heavy lifting before I start writing.

Why is that important? It saves a ton of time and frustration caused by writing scenes and chapters that I have to throw away. Chapters that don’t feel authentic or that go nowhere.

This is not a formula. It’s not paint-by-numbers. It’s the exact opposite. It’s a process that allows you to create a unique story that isn’t like any other story.

I spent a few hours out on the deck reading Chapters 1 and 2. I uncovered a lot of good things for me to know or research before I start writing.

Chapter 2: Ten steps to develop premise

Step 1: Write something that could change your life

Wish list

  • Classic whodunit plot
  • Unlikely hero
  • Ghost from the past (Brillo?)
  • Talisman from the past (Randall knife?)
  • Rock thrower, or is that too much?
  • Recurring homeless character, annoying, who Jack rescues from a culvert in a flood

Premise: An antisocial homeless veteran takes on powerful enemies to solve the murder of a childhood friend.

Step 2: Look for what’s possible

  • What if the villain is involved in Code Next, wanting to develop multi-family dwellings in Shoal Creek?
  • What if the villain is in league with city officials who will be at risk if the truth comes out?
  • What if Jack has already been in a few scrapes with the law? Perhaps an outstanding case against him with a pending court date?
  • What if Jack has some allies that he calls only when all is lost? A judge? A judge who has ruled against him in the past? A high-ranking military officer?

Step 3: Identify the story challenges and problems

  • Keep the plot from getting too intricate
  • Educate the reader on Riki’s backstory without violating POV
  • Portray the homeless life without falling into the ditches of trivializing, moralizing, sermonizing, and all the other izings
  • Establish Jack as a zen-like dude who has insulated himself from human involvement, a non-interventionist, without being a jerk
  • Construct a consistent personal philosophy initially built on a traumatic childhood event and developed through life experience
  • Research the conflict, if any, between a zen-adjacent world view and Jack imposing his moral sense on another by actively seeking justice. Is this a challenge for Jack, something he has to work through? Or is he already there?
  • Perhaps the turning point is stepping out of his insular world to intervene on behalf of a close friend from his past

Step 4: Find the designing principle

Designing principle: Use the classic David vs Goliath story to show how a reclusive vagabond overcomes his nature to solve the murder of a childhood friend by exposing the crimes of the monied elite.

Step 5: Determine your best character in the idea

Best Character: Jack

Step 6: Get a sense of the central conflict

Central Conflict: Jack takes on the powerful to expose the murderer

Step 7: Get a sense of the single cause-and-effect pathway

Single Cause/Effect Pathway: A murder disguised as a suicide draws a reclusive homeless man out of his self-imposed isolation to expose the murder.

Step 8: Determine the hero’s possible character change

Definitions

W = weakness (psychological and moral)
A = struggle to accomplish the basic action in the middle of the story
C = changed person

Hero’s Character Change: W x A = C

Application

Weakness = non-interventionist, the world is what is, we don’t change it, we live in it

Action = decides to bring a murderer to justice

Change = becomes an agent of change to intervene in what is to make it what should be

Step 9: Figure out the hero’s possible moral choice

Moral Choice: take a side instead of accepting what is

Step 10: Gauge the audience appeal

Audience Appeal: Universal. Humans have an innate sense of right and wrong

-o-

What about your story? Have you thought it through? Have you identified cool things that could make it more interesting or problems you must overcome to make it compelling?

See you next week. Keep on writing.

Shaking It Up: Part 7

The last scene of the story calls back to the opening scene of the novel. I couldn’t resist the symmetry. I also reveal the boy’s name for the first time. I didn’t want to name him at all, just leave him as an archetype, but verisimilitude won out. There isn’t a father on the planet that won’t call out his son’s name in this circumstance.

I prefer to do the whole novel without naming the protagonist, just have him as an entity set apart from his world, involved only as required to keep body and spirit connected. But that’s a heavy lift for the writer and a heavier ask for the readers, especially for commercial fiction. So far I’ve settled on Jack. We shall see if it survives to publication.

The Icebox: Session 4, on the deck

Dictation recording (45 min)

First draft manuscript

Shaking It Up: Part 6

Back on the deck, late at night as you can tell from the insect symphony. I sometimes write fiction in the daylight, but typically I start writing after it’s completely dark outside. The advantage? Zero interruptions. I typically shut down between midnight and two, but many times I have written right through to dawn, and Let me tell you, the noise of all those birds waking up makes it hard to concentrate.

I hear all kinds of things, cars, trucks, or motorcycles zooming through the neighborhood, insects, of course, frogs, dogs barking, the occasional wandering nocturnal mammal, and the most chilling of all, the yelping of a pack of coyotes after a kill.

The Icebox: Session 3, on the deck

Dictation recording (23 min)

First draft manuscript

Shaking It Up: Part 5

Back when I was a captive instead of a freelancer, I wrote wherever I had to. Usually on the deck, but also in coffee shops, airplanes, hotel rooms. The fixed requirements were Wi-Fi and access to power. The upside to dictating your first draft is that you can do it anywhere. In this case, I did this 15 minutes of dictation while driving. The trip seemed like it happened in just a few minutes.

The Icebox: Session 2, driving

Dictation recording (15 min)

Third draft manuscript

Shaking It Up: Part 4

At the end of the second dictation session, I realized the fatal flaws in my workaround. First, you can’t disguise a novel as a bunch of short stories, and second, I needed to know way more about my protagonist. I abandoned the detective story and decided to focus on his origin story by writing a real short story.

I focused on two attributes of his character: claustrophobia and a zen-like philosophy.

I worked out a basic plot that had only 3 scenes: the bike trip to the dump to shoot cans with his BB gun, an encounter with some high school kids, and what followed. Then I followed my new process, dictating the first draft over four recording sessions.

In this case, I’m showing you the third draft manuscript, so it’s somewhat polished. I ran this draft through my critique group, who gave me excellent ideas for making it significantly better that I never would have thought of on my own. Sometime this year (I hope) I’ll get around to rewriting it. Also, I submitted it to 4 literary magazines and got 4 rejections.

-o-

The Icebox: Session 1, on the deck

Dictation recording (32 min)

Third draft manuscript

Shaking it up: Part 3

In the further adventures of throwing away the process to shake things up, here is the second session of dictating the first draft of the detective novel. Evidently I solved the wall-staring issue by stopping the recording to stare at the wall.

The manuscript is not just a transcription, but an edit that synthesizes the ideas from the recording plus slight changes to smooth out the writing.

The best way to experience the draft is to bring up the manuscript and listen to the recordings as you read along so you can see how it changed from dictation to first draft.

Detective Novel: Session 2

Dictation recording 1 (7 min)

Dictation recording 2 (8 min)

Dictation recording 3 (3 min)

First draft manuscript

And then I hit the wall. But that’s a story for next week.

Shaking it up: Part 2

SPOILER ALERT
This blog series is a chronicle, in real time, of the act of developing a story and writing a novel. Consequently, it will contain spoilers. If you want to come to the finished novel with a clean slate, you should read it first (when it finally gets published) and then come back to see how the sausage is made.

-o-

After The Reluctant Saint came out, I pondered my next writing project. A coterie of fans have been clamoring for a sequel, and that is high on my list. Of course, somebody always wants another Fred book.

But I wanted to try something completely different. A bonafide whodunit. A few of my novels have some elements of a whodunit, especially Muffin Man and Endless Vacation, but I wanted to do an actual, legit, hit it right down the middle detective book.

There was just one snag: every detective must have his thing. His quirk.

  • Holmes is the seemingly cold-blooded thinking machine. He has the pipe, the violin, the disguises. even a seven-percent solution of cocaine.
  • Poirot has the little grey cells, the finicky obsession with style and personal appearance, and the visceral, almost manic obsession with justice.
  • Wolfe has his orchids and agoraphobia.
  • Morse has his Jaguar, opera, and Masonic conspiracy theories
  • Bosch has his Vietnam vet tunnel rat thing, his love of jazz, and poor impulse control.

I spent months coming up with a thing. And that thing was: my detective is homeless.

After considerable brainstorming with my comrades, I settled on a guy who is homeless not because he is down on his luck, but by choice, a man who has rejected the system and chooses to live off the grid.

And this is the point where I broke from my usual habit of working through things at the keyboard, or at the very least, with a lab book and a pen. Instead, I went out on the deck with a scotch and a cigar and a digital recorder, hit record, and asked my detective to tell me about himself. For the next 15 minutes, I channeled my detective, writing down everything I/he said.

I was astounded at what came out, and it gave me a starting point for weeks of research. I read The Art of Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I read Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets by Lars Eighner. I subscribed to the Steve1989MREInfo YouTube channel, listening to hours of reviews of vintage and current MREs. (I’m still subscribed 4 years later.) I called a guy I know who was homeless for several years and who now works with the very organization that helped him get off the streets.

Then I ran smack dab into reality. I bought my current house to renovate the 900 sq ft workshop into a one-bedroom apartment for my mother. However, to make that happen, I had to re-purpose the time I spend writing fiction toward getting new clients for the day job. My New Year’s resolution was to not write another novel until the apartment was finished.

But I couldn’t let the detective novel go. After several months, like a good Pharisee, I found a loophole. I had vowed to not write another novel, but I didn’t say anything about short stories. I would write a series of short stories that I could later stitch together into a novel.

Because the channeling session worked out so well, I decided to dictate my first draft.

To understand the shocking nature of this turn of events, consider that my first draft process involves long periods of staring at the wall, followed by a few frantic minutes of wildly typing before returning to wall staring.

As you may surmise, a process that features long periods of silence isn’t compatible with talking into a recorder. But I chose to double down on shaking things up.

-o-

Because this blog series is an exercise in complete transparency of process, I present to you the first session recording, followed by the first draft edit, which is four paragraphs. I recommend you compare the recording to the the manuscript as you listen.

Detective Novel: Session 1

Dictation recording (4 min)

First draft manuscript

Shaking It Up: Part 1

Or How I Threw Away the Formula and Started Over from Scratch. Sort of.

-o-

NOTE: If you got here from the Monday Morning Memo, welcome.

Also, if you want to do the Writing Wednesday status report, check out the Brad Whittington page on Facebook for the Wednesday posts.

https://www.facebook.com/Brad-Whittington-176548485716058/

-o-

For a writer, there are two ways to approach fiction:

  1. Write to a market.
  2. Write for yourself.

One of these choices gives you better odds of making a living from writing. Three guesses which one. *

Assuming you’re not some kind of literary genius who has no need to resort to picking one or the other, writing in a popular genre gives you the best chance to make a living writing fiction. Romance, suspense, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, glittering vampires, etc. That’s called writing to a market.

Or you can just write for yourself. For the joy of it.

From the beginning, I chose option #2 and stayed the course for nine novels. On purpose. As it does with many things in life, it all comes down to the why. Why you write determines what you write.

I didn’t come to writing to pay the bills. I already had a day job. I came to writing to tell a story.

I piddled around with writing from early years, junior high at least. In high school, I started my own underground newspaper. I produced two issues, turned the crank myself for the 50 or so copies I printed on the church’s Gestetner mimeograph machine, similar to the one in this video. I was also the editor of the college newspaper for a year, largely on the strength of my “journalism experience” and the fact that nobody else wanted the job. Well, one other guy did, but he just wanted to run the paper as his own propaganda machine.

I wrote a lot of essays and editorials and such. I toyed with fiction, writing half of a short story in high school and a complete short story in college. But a huge barrier barrier prevented me from spreading my wings. I was lazy.

Writing fiction with a typewriter is labor intensive, especially the edits. In 1981, for my freelance consulting work I got a computer with Word Perfect and my last excuse faded. I jumped in with all four feet. I wrote a lot of crap, but I also read a lot of books on writing and slowly improved my craft.

Twenty years later Welcome to Fred got published by accident and I kept going. I enjoyed myself and it paid okay, but it didn’t cover the mortgage. Especially in Honolulu.

In 2016, after writing whatever I felt like, my ninth novel, The Reluctant Saint, was released, I decided to try something new.

I decided to go for option #1. I set out on an experiment to write a novel in the dead center of a viable market, the whodunit.

The question on the table: Can I write a novel I’m proud of putting my name on while meeting all the expectations of a certain type of reader? The jury is still out.

I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no! He’s abandoning all his faithful readers in a big money grab!” Set your mind at rest. This leopard can’t change his wardrobe this late in the game.

I’m aiming for something closer to Muffin Man than Welcome to Fred, but with more attention to the puzzle. The market is crowded. I don’t expect the money to be significantly different.

And I’m still sticking with option #2. Since 2006 my day job has been freelance writing, gun for hire to the highest bidder, and it pays the bills. In fact, if all goes well, a Dummies book about Artificial Intelligence will show up on the shelves later this year. It won’t have my name on it, but I wrote the sucker.

But when it comes to fiction, I still write for myself. And for the other misfits in my tribe.

However, as far as the writing process goes, everything about this project is different. As a rule, other than an occasional pull quote or a comment about how things are going, I don’t talk about my novels as I write them. So why break form now?

Many of you are writers, some aspiring, some accomplished. Writing is hard work even in the best of times. Perhaps particularly in the best of times when life is plentiful, and a multitude of distractions compete for our attention.

The truth is that all writers struggle, from the aspiring neophyte to the multi-published author. The blank page assails us all, taunting us, daring us to take the chance, to put it all on the page and stand by it.

For this project, I’m throwing out my process, all the little tricks and shortcuts I’ve used for the past 40 years, and starting fresh. New genre, new process. It’s daunting, scary. I have no idea if I can do it.

And I’m going to document my steps, my creative choices, so you can see how the sausage is made. By exposing my own struggles and inadequacies, my hope is that you will be encouraged to pick up the pen, or keyboard, and keep slogging forward on your project.

Ready? Let’s go.

* I am using Truby’s book (more on this later) for the pre-production phase of the writing project, as I have done for my last six novels. I started at the beginning and toward the end of Chapter Two I came across this excellent advice.

“You should always write first for yourself; write what you care about. But you shouldn’t write only for yourself. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to fall into the trap of either-or thinking: either I write what I care about, or I write what will sell. This is a false distinction, born of the old romantic notion of writing in a garret and suffering for your art.”

Which, now that I think about it, is exactly what I decided to do for this novel, despite my grand pronouncement at the beginning.

Also, you might consider giving Truby’s book a shot. It will come in handy when I start working through the development of the story.

Life, Jazz, and Cameras

“Life is a lot like jazz. It’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin

And jazz is best experienced live in a small club packed with true believers.

Then amazing, astounding things happen. Feats of prodigious skill and imagination. Allusions that make you laugh.  Soulful passages that pull a sigh out of you. Whispered melodies that move you to tears. All magnified by the energy of live music, the voyeuristic intimacy  of artists engaged in musical conversation, the realization that this thing unfolding before you in this sanctuary has never happened before and will never happen again.

For a brief moment you wonder how you can capture the lightning and immediately realize it’s like trapping a firefly in a jar. To try to own it is to kill it.

Instead, if you’re wise, you let it own you. You ride the roller coaster, face turned to the sky, hands raised to the heavens. And afterward, when you unbuckle the seat belt and climb out onto the platform, simultaneously exhilarated and enervated, you smile with gratitude.

If you’ve never held a ticket for this roller coaster, come down to Austin on a Tuesday and I’ll sponsor you into this select fraternity. Festivities begin at 10 p.m. Prepare to hang for a few hours in the swirling maelstrom of the mystery of humanity and discover a different plane of spirituality wrapped up in the mathematics of chaos. Or just dig the amazing skill of three musicians at the top of their game.

I’m talking about Ephraim Owens, high priest of soulful jazz, Red Young, the Einstein of the Hammond B3, and Brannen Temple, percussive genius, all mixing it up in a way that will confound anything you may have experienced up to now.

If you want to take a different trip into life, come a few hours earlier to encounter James McMurtry. Not jazz, but an equally captivating and transcendent journey.

The point is that live jazz is a microcosm of life—best lived moment by moment and somehow diminished when encased in vinyl or cellophane or silicon.

The best of life is lived in the moment and savored in memory.

So what is it about a camera, because that is what we’re talking about, as you will discover, that calls to a man, urging him to forgo living the experience for the process of documenting the experience?

I can’t speak for my father, who immersed himself in the discipline, but I know that life conspired to mold me into an observer rather than a participant. In addition to my nature, my peripatetic existence as a preacher’s kid (much like that of a military kid in this regard) aborted my feeble attempts at bonding with my peers. And when I finally achieved geographical stasis in my teen years, my academic leanings and lack of interest in hunting, fishing, or sports created a vast gulf between me and the denizens of the small East Texas town where I landed. And the preacher’s kid thing didn’t help either.

Playing the role of the observer. It is my besetting sin and the role I have spent a lifetime both embracing and attempting to surmount.

When you walk into a room, do you immediately gravitate to the center of the action or drift to the periphery and watch? If you embrace the latter, then I welcome you as a fellow citizen of that high desert. I have learned to play the court jester, but nature and nurture have formed me for an observer and chronicler of life as she is lived. Long before I sat down to write novels, I set out to capture the world from the back side of a lens.

Perhaps Dad had similar motivations. Or maybe he just liked cameras.

There’s this thing about my dad. He was born in Port Arthur, in the same town as Janis Joplin but twelve years before and a whole world away.

Space doesn’t permit me to establish the Southern Gothic setting of his derivation, but as the youngest in a family of two girls and four boys, he emerged as a polymath, six semester hours short of a doctorate, one of six people in North America who could read Sumerian cuneiform. His voracious curiosity couldn’t be constrained. It ranged from astronomy and cosmology to  theology, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, agronomy, and who knows what else,

So it is no surprise that he was captivated by the potential of the camera and embraced it and all its technical accouterments. I wish I could ask him what drew him to the back side of the lens, but I squandered that chance, living life and making my own way in the world.

Late in life I have come to the realization that of the many things we shared, photography looms large, even though we never discussed it. Perhaps if we had also shared a love of jazz, we might have found ourselves one night marinating in the primeval soup of that expression of life and could have ventured into a discussion of photography, and then I could tell you what drew him to the practice of recording life as an observer.

All I can say for sure is that it is something we shared separately. As was his nature, he embraced the technical side of it. As is my nature, I embraced the story of it.

And therein lies the story.

*If you want a sense of the man, check out the foreword to Living with Fred, and then click on the Richard Whittington link to see who showed up for his funeral. The most telling anecdote is the one from  my cousin Beau Vincent. Over a decade later I cannot read it without misting up. I may be a crusty old reptile, but even crocodiles shed tears.