The hype cycle (aka. the process)

Hello. It’s 2019. Is it passe to say Happy New Year?

It’s been radio silence here for the past four weeks because…drum roll…I’ve been writing! As in actual words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes and things that could possibly even be called CHAPTERS. Every time I manage to get words on a page it really does feel miraculous.

Today I was listening to the latest episode of the podcast Zig Zag. It’s about The Hype Cycle which is a graph created by tech analyst Jackie Fenn a quarter century ago. This graph was meant to describe new technology (ie. bitcoin, Twitter, push notifications) but it’s been borrowed by other fields and its basics are a helpful way to think of the writing process.

Image via Gartner

Image via Gartner

The Hype Cycle has five phases:

1. initial spark of innovation
2. peak of expectation
3. trough of disillusionment
4. slope of enlightenment
5. plateau of productivity

Every story begins with the first idea. It might not even be a very big idea but that match gets lit and it sets off a bonfire and you get so jazzed about writing this amazing thing.

That sets off phase two which is when you’re deep in the writing zone, churning out pages and pages and completely engaged with your project. It’s such a happy time, possibly the happiest time! At some point though you tumble into phase three, the pit of hell and despair. I have been thinking about the trough of disillusionment a lot because I know it is looming on my horizon but also because I’ve been evaluating manuscripts for other writers this month and I am always conscious of the need to balance critique and praise. My job is to question areas where I feel the draft is weak and offer suggestions for possible improvements. The risk is - especially with writers who I don’t know well or at all - that my comments will throw them into the trough and they won’t try to climb out.

Here’s the thing: the trough is a necessary part of the process. It’s like driving through the isthmus between St. John’s and Terra Nova National Park. Sometimes that damn isthmus is a death trap and the fog is low and there’s a horrible blizzard and you’re driving with zero visibility. But there’s literally no other way to get to the Park. You just have to white knuckle through it. The trough is the same. There’s no way to get to a better draft without seeing the flaws and feeling bad about them.

The trick is to keep calm and carry on. Don’t give up. And don’t deceive yourself into thinking the flaws aren’t there. Accept the flaws. Start trying to fix them. That’s phase four, the gradual work of revision and correction. And onward to the plateau of productivity. That initial hopeful burst doesn’t really come back. For one thing, after some time, the idea is no longer novel. But what you get instead in these last two stages is gradual improvement. Little by little. Until the end.

Sometimes you have to cycle through phases two and three several times while working on a single project. Dr. Math and I have this running joke in our house. He comes home from a day of research and I ask: “How was it?” If it’s been a good day he says: “I solved this lemma. I’m a genius!” But inevitably, the following day he’ll come home with a hang dog, downtrodden expression and tell me the breakthrough he made yesterday ended up only being a partial solution. Or he’s now discovered some other loose thread. Scientific research and fiction writing, if plotted on graphs would look much like the same rollercoaster. See the ride through to the end. That’s what I’m saying.

The 99 per cent

Or: why talent is overrated. 

Sometimes we talk about stories like this: the story is an entity with its own consciousness. The story arrives, via a muse. The story reveals itself as it is being written. Writers are mere scribes.

This airy-fairy, woo-woo, magical thinking is a whole lot of nonsense. Writing isn't magic. It's good old-fashioned hard work. It is sitting your butt in the chair every single day and forcing yourself to do the work. Because trust me about this, if you don’t keep the pump primed, it will not yield a drop.

Sure, there are moments that feel sublime but the movie montage of how a book is made would look really mundane. Writing is a nose stuck in a refugee law text book. It is hours trawling the internet for photos of jail cells and then more hours trying to find the correct combination of words to evoke said jail cells. It is reading over something you thought was insightful and poetic the day before only to discover it has morphed into toxic waste. It is revising a chapter for the tenth time. It is writing the same sentence five different ways and then reading each option out loud. It is chucking months of work and going back to square one. It is persistence and effort with a healthy dose of self-hatred. And most of the time it is also working despite deep uncertainty. Not knowing if the story is any good. Or else, knowing it is not good but hoping it might eventually get better.

Where the work  happens

Sometimes, because we are often asked and it is difficult to properly describe how stories are invented, we writers revert to supernatural explanations. Harry Potter famously appeared to JK Rowling in a train car. I believe this anecdote because that is how many of my characters have rocked up too. I’ll be tossing and turning with insomnia when a little girl appears out of thin air.

This is called inspiration (1%). Then comes the perspiration (99%). Now I have to make decisions. What’s this little girl’s name, age, and future vocation? Is she introverted or extroverted, a pessimist or optimist? Decisions mean constraints and constraints are important because good writing is precise. You can’t be specific when you are writing about a character if you haven’t nailed down the details. But then the real questions are: What does this character want more than anything? Who far will she go to get it? And for that, I free write pages and pages and pages, most of which will never leave my notebook. From all this random riffing emerges a picture of who the character is and from there the plot evolves.

It does everyone a disservice to suggest there’s a fairy who selectively whispers sweet nothings into the ears of a chosen few. Talent is real and it sure is helpful but it’s highly overrated and not the key ingredient. If you want to be a writer, write. Do the work. I repeat: talent is not necessary. Work is necessary. That’s the 99%.

"Where are the quotation marks?"

Why are there no quotation marks in your book? This is one of the most common questions I get from readers. It's a good one. It was one my editors challenged me to answer as well (because good editors hold you to account for every. single. thing.).

Quotation marks dictate. They tell the reader: "this is who is speaking and here are the exact words they used in this exact order." Sometimes as a writer this is exactly what I want to do: tell the reader something. In The Boat People I did not want to tell the reader very much. There are many places in the book where I purposely left room for ambiguity. After all, this is what the book is about: the slipperiness of truth. Are stories true? Who gets to tell them? Or as Meg and Brianne might ask: What is truth, even?

There are many points in the book too where I wanted to blur the lines between direct and indirect dialogue, between thoughts in a character's head and the words they say out loud. I wanted the reader to decide for themselves. Direct dialogue, like quotation marks, signal truth and accuracy. This is what the character said, these words in this order. But indirect dialogue is different. It is a kind of summation, the gist of what was said, as perceived by the listener.

In the scene Back to Hell, Grace listens to Hema give her testimony, mediated by the interpreter, and wonders: How much of this story is real? How much is hers? Is the interpreter doing his job faithfully? In this scene, and many others, I wanted the reader to be unsettled and uncertain, just as Grace is. Think about Mahindan, sitting there in hearings, not understanding a word of English, feeling bewildered by the legal proceedings in this strange new land. By making things uncertain, a little difficult even, I hope to put the reader in his shoes.

Don't lose the plot

A few weeks ago I submitted my very final revisions on The Boat People to my Doubleday editor (praise hands, please). Although I sent off the final manuscript waaaaaaay back in April, there have been rounds and rounds of copy edits (I've lost count of how many), first on the Canadian side and more recently south of the border. I'm incredibly grateful for these reviews and the meticulous copy editors with their magnifying glasses because quite frankly there were MISTAKES. So many typos and instances of poor spelling and factual inaccuracies and poor grammar and on and on and on.... Good thing there are editors to catch the ball when I drop it.

Cartoon by the talented  Gemma Correll  ( via Instagram )

Cartoon by the talented Gemma Correll (via Instagram)

But now. Now. Now, I'm eager to disappear into a new project. When I began The Boat People I dove in without any kind of outline. And that was a mistake I paid for much, much later, when just as I was trying to sell the book, it became apparent how many potholes were baked into the plot. Yikes.

Some writers swear off outlines and others swear by them. I can see the arguments on both sides. Having a detailed a plan and then sticking to it doggedly can strangle creativity. But equally, following your nose without even the faintest hint of a map can be perilous too. Trust me, you don't want to be writing the synopsis - four drafts and two years in - only to discover major structural problems. Note to self, I thought back in late 2015: Start with an outline. Write the synopsis before the novel.

Mind you, this is only my second novel. So what do I know? Not much. But this time around things will be different. Fellow Port Authority writer Morgan told me about a site which outlines the "Snowflake Method" for novel design. Fair warning: It's also an advertisement for software. But you can ignore the software ads if you like and just focus on this post that breaks down how to write a summary (which is different from a synopsis) and how to flesh that short overview out into a more detailed outline.

To be honest, I skipped a lot of the opening blah-blah-blah and went straight to "The Ten Steps of Design." This is the meat of the method. What was particularly helpful for me (as someone who knows nada about playwriting) was to envision the story in three acts and really meditate on epiphany, desire, and conflict, the three key ingredients that captivate readers.

I stopped at the end of step 7. Step eight is about selling a book proposal and step nine gets into more detailed outlining of individual scenes...which is where I draw the line, at the moment, on planning.

What I'd like to do is set up my outline, work on my characters, and then go back to Robert Olen Butler's method of imagining scenes. I'm hoping - this is the goal anyway - to strike a balance between pre-planning and intuition. We'll see how that goes...

Required reading

Recently, while chatting with a couple of fellow writers, I was reminded once again about a gaping hole in my education: Bird by Bird by Anne Lammot, which every self respecting creative swears by.  (Note to self: read that book!)

In my study, a corner of shelf space is devoted to these types of how-to manuals, books I read with a red pen and highlighter in hand. These are my life savers, the guides I return to whenever I'm floundering.

Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway - the closest thing to a creative writing text book you can get and fully worth the price tag.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler - immensely helpful when I was first starting to work on The Boat People. Butler advocates a system of imagining individual scenes, jotting them down on cue cards, then once you have sufficient cards, organizing them into an outline. And then putting pen to paper to write a first draft. I fell down on the outline part but being able to take each scene as they came, one at a time, really made the prospect of writing a first draft less overwhelming.

Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster - short and sweet, illuminating for readers as well as writers.

How Fiction Works by James Wood - teaches you how to take apart literature as you would a clock so you can understand what works, what doesn't, and most importantly why. Wood taught me how to read like a writer, critically and carefully.

 

Toast is never toast

I've written about dialogue but what about the stage business? Action in a scene - a character moving through a space, physically interacting with other characters - serves several functions. It enlivens the narrative while grounding it in a fictional reality. And it paints a picture, allowing the reader to visualize the story. I'm a fan of interweaving stage business with dialogue, sometimes even using it to replace dialogue tags (he said/ she said). For example, consider:

I don't know, John said. It was there this morning.
vs.
I don't know. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

This example came from fellow Port Authority writer, Jamie, who smartly pointed out that the toast only deserves to be in the scene if it serves a greater purpose. It's not enough for the toast to highlight the speakers.

Now consider this:

Where's the cheque book? Nora asked, searching the junk drawer.
Dunno. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

Better right?

I'd probably take it a little further, show John swiping a pat of butter off the block, describe the dry scrape of knife on toast. Nora, meanwhile, pulls out scissors and rubber bands and junk mail and pens. John dips his knife into the jam and spreads a thick glob of strawberry over the greasy toast. Nora slams the junk drawer shut, yanks another one open.

This is a lot of unnecessary detail and most of it would be cut back in revisions but do you smell what I'm cooking? The toast now tells us who is speaking, suggests something about motivation, and gives insight into character. It furthers the action. The toast provides subtext - something unsaid to read between the lines. The toast is multi-tasking.

 

Butter Tea at Starbucks

I'm something of a method writer. In the sense that I will do all kinds of weird things to get into a character's head as I'm writing. Like act out movements to block a scene. Or spend the weekend drinking mojitos in order to get the description of the taste just right. When I was writing the story Butter Tea at Starbucks, I thought about drinking butter tea. I even looked up a recipe but then wimped out at the last minute.

There's no real point to this anecdote, to be honest. The only reason I'm writing this post is to say that The New Quarterly has posted the story on their site and you can read it now for free.

Underwater writing

Three years ago I took a master class with Sarah Selecky, a writer whose short fiction I've admired for years. The class was tiny. Five of us students plus Sarah around her kitchen table every Monday night for five weeks. I learned a lot in that month - how to critique other people's work, for example, and by extension how to think critically about my own. But the most important skill Sarah taught me was underwater writing.

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Submerge yourself fully in the scene. Smell, taste, hear, see, and feel every detail. Are you there? Are you squirming? Is it hard work? Good. Now write from that place; write from within the scene. Don't write about the scene. Don't write in circles around the scene. Don't hover above. Write from inside. 

Don’t be deceived by well crafted sentences that write around an experience. Write the experience. Don’t write about it. Write from within it.
— Sarah Selecky

How do you know if you're doing it properly? Watch for the red flags. Abstractions are red flags. Don't say Romeo and Juliet are in love. What does love mean? How does it manifest for these characters? Show us the specific emotions and actions.

Efficient language is another red flag (ditto: cliches). Words like happy, angry, and impatient have become a kind of short hand, so shopworn as to be skimmable. Don't tell us a character is sad. Show us the rapid blinking of the watery eyes. Let us feel the slump of the shoulders. Conjure melancholy without using that word.

The word "something" is another flag. Like efficient language and abstractions it is a first draft placeholder. But in the revisions, you must articulate what the something is.

Don't trust the word suddenly. Cross it out. Make the action feel sudden.

Once you get the hang of it, cliched and lazy writing are easy to spot. A more pernicious problem is beautiful language. "Don't be deceived by well crafted sentences that write AROUND an experience," Sarah told us. "Write the experience. Don't write ABOUT it. Write from WITHIN it."

This is the toughest part of writing. Articulating every emotion and action, that's slow going, gruelling work. It's the real reason writers are tortured and turn to hard liquor. Writing is drowning.