Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Can Keith Jarrett and Maurice Ravel Teach Us about Writing Craft? from James W. Ziskin

Since I traded with Catriona last week—she had Laura Jensen Walker as a guest blogger—I’m answering last week’s question.

Do you think about craft while you are writing? (how to construct good characters, settings, plot) Or do you just let her rip and worry about that “later?”

My writing process has evolved greatly over the course of the past few decades. Yes, that’s right. Decades. Before I sold my first Ellie Stone book, Styx & Stone, I had years to re-write, polish, tear up, and otherwise improve it. There was no deadline, and I was learning.

Likewise, my second book was already written when I signed the contract for it. At that time, I had nothing but a blank page for book 3, Stone Cold Dead. I opened a file and typed “Write really good novel here.” That was it. But I did have some time—about a year—before the next book was due to the publisher. Writing Stone Cold Dead, I became a plotter. Outlining your entire book before starting to write it helps produce a cleaner first draft. In my case, I had fewer plot holes and logic gaps to fix. Was this a better way to work? Maybe so. Stone Cold Dead was a finalist for the 2016 Anthony, Lefty, and Barry awards. Not bad. I thought I’d continue to write books that way.

But by the time I reached my seventh Ellie Stone mystery, Turn to Stone (January 2020), something had changed. I found myself writing the entire thing by the seat of my pants. That hadn’t been my intention; it just happened that way. And it meant revising the gaping holes, plot mistakes, and inconsistencies in the first draft. I had to do these fixes on the back end instead of the front. Tiny little errors hid in every corner of the story. And when you change a detail, date, or name in a book, dozens of unexpected problem arise. It’s the Butterfly Effect. It breaks connections you may not be thinking about it and changes the universe.

Here’s an example from my work in progress, Monsoon Chase. I realized I’d skipped a day in my calculations for July 1975. Simple correction, right? I changed that date, as well as all the dates that followed accordingly. All was well with the world. Except that, by changing the dates, I’d inadvertently moved the deaths of Haile Selassie and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (PM of Bangladesh at the time) to the wrong days. As my main character/narrator is a journalist, he had to mention these two important deaths. But that’s not all. Ruffian, the champion Thoroughbred, broke down in her match race with Foolish Pleasure and was destroyed the following day, July 7, 1975. But, because of my miscalculation, I had my hero reading about her death in the newspaper on the morning of July 7, in Bombay, India. That was before midnight on the 6th on the East Coast of the United States. With the time difference, Ruffian was still alive and in surgery.

These may seem like minor errors, but they can destroy a reader’s confidence in your research. Alas, these broken connections happen all too often when you change elements of the plot.

And, of course, I did not plot out Monsoon Chase. I pants’d it despite my best intentions not to do so. No real outline at all. It all came to me as I wrote. My theory—and sheepish defense—is that perhaps pantsing has a liberating effect on creativity. 

Consider Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. By pure happenstance, it also took place in 1975. The long and short of it was that, by mistake, there was no acceptable piano in place for the concert at the Cologne Opera House. Just an old upright in bad shape. The pedals didn’t work properly and the sound was awful. It would never do. Jarrett refused to play, but, as it was too late to get a replacement instrument and the concert was scheduled to be recorded, he relented. Improvising workarounds and compromises on the fly to disguise/overcome the piano’s shortcomings, 
Jarrett produced what is considered his greatest performanceThe miraculous Köln Concert became the best-selling solo-piano jazz album in history. Check out the full story hereöln_Concert

Maybe pantsing is something like that. Maybe the inconvenience it thrusts upon writers somehow stimulates their creativity and produces high quality work.

And, so, I’ve come to realize that both methods—plotting and pantsing—work. And I also realize that a discussion of my current writing M.O. lends itself quite well to this week’s topic.

I wrote the first draft of Monsoon Chase in big hurry. 115,000 words in just over two months. And since then, I’ve put in two months of revisions. I’ve finished the seventh pass and am about to embark on the eighth. Here are some of the questions of craft that I left for later while writing the first draft.

1. FLESHING OUT. This goes for characters, plot, and description. Think, for a moment, that writing a first draft is the like the progression of Ravel’s Boléro. It starts out simply enough. A soft snare drum and some gentle plucking of strings. Then a

flute begins the melody. As the piece progresses, the melody is handed off to other instruments—clarinet, bassoon, horns, etc.—and more orchestra sections join in, giving the music body and weight and complexity. By the end, it’s full. And loud. Fortissimo. I like to think that a first draft of my work needs beefing up in certain areas—like Ravel’s Boléro—even as it needs trimming and tightening elsewhere. I want to improve the overall impression of my narrative. Make it more than, say, a simple melody played on a piano with one finger. Fleshing out a manuscript is, in this sense, akin to orchestration. I want to blend in harmonies, bass, syncopation, counterpoint, refrains, and codas, etc. to complement the simplicity of the melody. To make the story, characters, and world seem complete.

2. I mentioned trimming and tightening. Those are steps I definitely leave until after I’ve finished the first draft. Just as you don’t clean up a baby’s throw-up in medias res—helpful hint, wait until the baby has finished spewing—I don’t clean up my text until I’ve finished vomiting it into the first draft. (Sorry for the imagery.)

3. I also have a growing list of checks I leave for revision stages, many performed several times before I’m through. These include the following: 

    A. The JUST check. While I believe many writers insist too heavily on eliminating the word “just” from their manuscripts, I agree that it can be overused. Remember, however, that “just” is a versatile word. 

    i. It can be an adjective. “He was a just man.” There is no reason ever to delete this usage of “just,” as it is correct and proper and is not overused. 

    ii. “Just” often appears in common, extremely useful idioms such as “just so,” “just right,” “just as easily,” “just like that,” and “just friends.” I doubt I would remove these from a manuscript, unless I felt the text was too flabby or long. But certainly not because they are extraneous. If you remove “just” from these idioms, the meaning changes. After all, “Mary and I are friends” does not convey the same meaning as “Mary and I are just friends.” 

    iii. But then we come to “just” as an adverb. This is where the overuse can occur. Often you can replace this “just” with “only” or “merely.” Or “exactly” and “precisely,” depending on which sense of “just” is being used. Or we might be able to eliminate it altogether without materially changing the meaning.

In my work in progress, I searched for all instances of “just” (whole words only), and I found 195. I went through them one by one and got that number down to eighty-seven. I deleted some, rewrote sentences to avoid the usage in other cases, and changed them to “only,” merely,” or “exactly.”

But beware an overly dogmatic approach to weeding out “just.” I did a search for the word “only” when I’d finished my “just” check, and guess what. There were 164 occurrences...

    B. ADVERB check. Anyone can find themselves overusing adverbs in their prose. It’s a good idea to search them out and decide if they’re necessary. Remember that adverbs exist to modify verbs. They can clarify, intensify, and add nuance to them. They also modify adjectives. Useful things, adverbs. But, like salt, too much of a good thing can ruin the dish. Search for adverbs and decide their fate. Strong verbs are great. Adverbs CAN water down verbs. Or be JUST What the verbs need. Be judicious.

C. SEEM/APPEAR/LOOK check. Since I write a first-person narrator, I have to be careful about these verbs. My narrator cannot always say with certainty what another character is feeling. He—In the case of Monsoon Chase—and she—in the case of Ellie Stone—can only observe and describe. So they might say “John seemed put off by my question” instead of “John was put off.” Maybe he wasn’t. He just looked that way.

This is not an issue with a third-person omniscient narrator, but with my first-person, these verbs tend to pile up. I try to cull them at this stage.

    D. ANACHRONISM check. I write historical novels, so I have to worry about time. Before the pandemic, I traveled a lot. I used to find myself writing on airplanes, where I didn’t have internet access and couldn’t always check historical details. So I marked my questions for verification later. Today, this is less of an issue, but I still leave plenty of words, facts, and arcana for later confirmation. While writing the first draft, these things can usually wait.

Of course there are many other problems I look for and correct over the course of my revisions, but these were not necessarily things I “left” for later. I believe writers always find better ideas as they continue to work on a story or a book. And some errors only reveal themselves with time. 

A book takes a lot of time and effort and patience to write. Decide whether you want to do the lion’s share of that work at the beginning of the process or at the end. Or if you want to use some kind of hybrid strategy. The fact is, if you put in the work diligently enough—no matter which order you do it—you can produce a fine book.


Susan C Shea said...

Good advice on every part of the process.

Nancy Cole Silverman said...

I love the reference to Ravel’s Bolero! Music, particularly jazz is always on somewhere while I write. Pants or plot, I find I do a blend of both. Congratulations on the new work. I look forward to reading it.