Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Wednesday, 27 June 2001

My story is at 3910 words. There are only two scenes left to write, I think, but I'm not going to get them done tonight. There's still a big chunk of work to do. The hero is infatuated, but I need to give him some more evidence that his feelings are reciprocated, or he'll come off as a psycho stalker, which is not what I'm going for. The next bit calls for a light touch, which seems to be beyond me at this hour.

My story was crap when I went to bed last night and it was still crap when I got up this morning. Then I went for a run. I was just two minutes into the run when I realized what was going on. It wasn't crap! It was good! I didn't even have to change anything--my subconscious had put in all the stuff I needed already! I turned around and ran back to my room and started writing.

I got enough sleep last night, which I'm sure is part of the reason I figured out what to do.

Lots of writers seem to perceive their own work as crap at least part of the time while they're working on it. In fact, I seem to do less of that than most people. But here there's a lot of time pressure, so I have to work on a story even when it's all crap if I'm going to have anything to hand in. I'm struggling a bit with that.

Clarion West has a ward against the crap fairy (who comes into your room while you sleep and takes your flawless prose and leaves crap behind). We could use that here.

But enough about crap.

Time has begun to accelerate. The first week we seemed to be packing several days worth of activity into each day. That seems less true now. The end is approaching at an ever-increasing pace and I find myself wondering what it will be like to try to resume my normal life.

Early on I was a little unhappy that Clarion didn't provide a better situation for building good writing habits. There was so much work to do and so many other activities, that it was really hard find any time to write at all. Add to that the uncertain schedule, with class sometimes finishing by noon and other times running until 4:00, it was just impossible to establish a regular schedule.

But now I see a certain evil genius in that. We don't get to create a schedule at Clarion--but what would be the point of that anyway? It would almost certainly not be a schedule we could continue at home. What we get, though, is the experience that you can devote your entire day to writing and still not have any time to write. It is demonstrated in an irrefutable way that only by doing whatever it takes to build writing time into the day will we ever be able to get any writing done.

I came here with knowledge in my head that a regular schedule was a good thing. I will leave with desperation in my soul for a regular time to write. Like I said: evil genius.

Corie suggested that we go to the gym. I'm averaging about one workout per week, which is not enough, but is a lot better than nothing. The workout today was good. After that I saw Corie heading down to the laundry room. I had enough clothes to go another day without doing the laundry, but then I remembered that tomorrow Pat will be doing her reading, so it won't be a good day. So, I grabbed my clothes and came down to do laundry as well. I'm writing most of this journal entry in the laundry room.

Pat talked about plot and story today. Most of it was stuff that I'd heard before, but it made more sense this time. For example, she provided a list of things that you can do to provide tension (such as: a "ticking clock" or any deadline, physical danger to your characters, or conflict with the reader, such as knowledge that lets the reader know a particular choice is the wrong one but the character doesn't). I'd gotten such lists of things before and tried to use them, without success. But those devices only work when there's already some problem or dilemma for the character. They are tension enhancers, not tension producers. The "ticking clock" only works if it's attached to a bomb. You can have all the ticking clocks you want, but if you don't have a bomb, all you've got is a clock shop.

How is it that something so obvious has taken me years to learn?

Pat said that her pre-Clarion stories lacked tension. She described them as having interesting people, sitting in coffee shops, drinking coffee, talking about interesting stuff.... It sounds just like the sort of thing I was writing for years. My stories had neat science-fictional gizmos that made people's lives better. My stories would be about how neat some guy's life was because he had these neat gizmos. My characters may still get a few neat things, but they have problems to solve or needs to satisfy or conflicts to deal with.

One other thing Pat talked about was "closing off escape routes" for your characters. A lot of stories only work if the character is too stupid to just get on the bus and leave town. But characters who are that stupid are rarely interesting. Pat said that Kate Wilhelm told her, "If your character wants to leave town, steal his bus fare."

Pat talked about the structure of her story "Rachel in Love." She described the internal structure of the kernel of the story as being the "True Confessions" structure: sin, suffer, repent. But she put a lot more around it. The sin/suffer/repent love story wasn't enough by itself, so she added an element of physical and emotional danger, and then added an ending that tied off more threads of the story to let the reader know that things were going to be mostly okay. She went through all those things scene by scene and explained: this scene was to let us know that the danger was real, this other scene was to close off an escape route, etc. It was very interesting.

I did all my reading, but only half my critiquing. The two remaining stories both require more thought before I can say anything useful.

Pat Murphy has raised the bar a bit with her critiques. She does a masterful job of breaking the story down into scenes and suggesting better arrangements. One of the stories I haven't critiqued yet might benefit from such an analysis, so I have to do that before I can do my critique.


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