The WORM Deconstructed (Part II)

Okay, Loyal Reader, welcome to Part 2 of my series Deconstructing the WORM. Last time (Part I) we talked about ideas and where us writers get them from using my latest novel, DEATH & DESIRE IN THE AGE OF WOMEN, as a case study. Now that we have a solid idea in place (and a reasonable explanation of how we got there), it’s time to move on to writing the sucker.

(Once again, I present, Alex McVey’s stunning cover)

A quick refresher on the ideas behind DEATH & DESIRE: A planet-sized WORM God thing enters our solar system and infects the women of Earth. The parasitic infection brings destruction as women telepathically enact a surprising, covert revolution. When all is said and done, Earth’s male population is decimated – a mere six million men survive the flash, bang, whimper of a war, and are incarcerated in prison camps across the globe. Once the New World Order is firmly in place, I put the focus on a family struggling against the new regime. I’ve got the setting, conflict, and characters swirling and transmorgifying in my imagination. Now I’m ready to write.

So then, how do I get started actually writing? This is the stage that separates career writers from those that think it would be fun to write a book. This is where a natural fire kicks in and consumes every thought that dares to flitter by, or you sit blank faced and stare at the blank page. I’m one of the lucky ones in that with all of my work thus far, I usually build enough information up in my head so that when I sit at my computer I just go at it. There’s no secret formula. My fingers start striking keys and the good ol’ brain spits out information at a crazy pace. I enter a trance like state that fuses the physiological with the physical. Keys clack away. Words fill the screen.

(Please pardon Mr. Hemingway’s French.)

Sometimes my first attempt yields a solid beginning. I’ll go back and edit, and edit, and edit, over the course of writing the novel, but that first raw, chunk of idea sticks. I pretty it up, and fill it out, but the original beginning remains mostly intact. Sometimes the beginning won’t survive. I won’t know it right off, but I’ll move on and keep writing, and then when I go back and reread stuff I might find a particular piece of writing that makes for a better intro. Sometimes the original beginning works better somewhere else in the story.

Here’s my original opening to DEATH & DESIRE IN THE AGE OF WOMEN…

The sun’s first rays punched through the rice paper blinds and assaulted Claudia Mendoza’s eyelids with twin shafts of bright light. She meant to pull the drapes shut before bed – the flimsy rice paper, for all of its exquisite beauty, did jack shit to keep the morning sun at bay. Her thin, pink eyelids didn’t do much better. She scrunched them and tried for a little more sleep, but there was no use in protesting, the alarm was due to go off any minute and she had to get up and get the kids ready for school.

Not too bad. We establish character right off. But, I prefer opening with a BANG! I love lyrical prose and get poetic (minus pretension I hope) when I can. The above opening still opens Unity (chapter one’s title), but I wanted a little more oomph, so I added a zero chapter called Spoil. It goes like this…

She dreamt of the worm. Again. And like always it thrashed through Claudia’s star filled dream-space, waving white and bulbous, ridged with pink, gill-like grooves, staring awful with the thousands upon thousands of tiny, red eyes lining its pale, leathery hide. Each wormy convulsion sent shockwaves of feeling, an explosion of electric sparks that cascaded over her nerve centers, ground her teeth, dilated her pupils, and sizzled her systems.

A bit more visceral, huh? It sets up the WORM right off and hopefully gets the reader interested.

All of this goes on for as long as it needs. I write, then reread, then edit, then move stuff around, and then get back to writing. Ideas shift. New ones supplant old ones. A story about a planet-sized WORM wreaking havoc on the sexes, becomes a story less about the WORM and more about a couple trying to reunite (against all odds). The WORM stuff, while still super important, becomes much more of a backdrop. My writing starts to favor human emotion over sci-fi set-ups. Themes begin to emerge (in this case: familial bonds, accepting change, loss, sorrow, moving on…). Tone starts to take shape (in this case: bleak). Many moving parts begin moving all at once.

The absolute key at this stage is to keep writing. I take a minute to shine stuff up as I go, but I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on any one section. My goal during this phase of the process is to write and write and write until a workable draft is complete – not a workable beginning, or a strong, workable middle, or a powerful, workable end, but a workable draft of the entire story. I get stuck here and there on a piece of writing  I hate. I beat myself up over it and curse my ability, but if kept going back for fine tuning, I’d never make it to the end, or worse (though nothing’s worse than not finishing) I’d lose my focus. Crucial components like theme would fall apart. I’d make tons more work for myself in the end. I am a firm believer in powering through that first draft at any cost. Finish. Get the narrative right. There’s plenty of time to go back and revise ugly sections once you’re finished with the book.

We all know writing a novel is hard work. You have to have the self discipline that most people can’t muster. You have to have drive, Loyal Reader. Success in this business (or any I guess) is all about being driven. Oh, and you have to love it! If it’s a chore, why bother? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but writing isn’t for everyone. You have to be in love with words. You have to be of the mind that not much feels better than typing the final words of an 80,000 word manuscript.

When writing the first draft of DEATH & DESIRE IN THE AGE OF WOMEN, I wrote for about two to three hours a day, Monday thru Friday. The moment school ended (in case you didn’t know, I’m a high school English teacher by day), I’d open the file and get right to work (again, you have to love it, you have to be able to teach unruly freshmen for six hours and then still want to get back to the book). Luckily for me, the final bell of the day rings at 2:30pm. I write until about 4:30pm. My classroom is the perfect environment. Sans kids, it’s whisper quiet. I have a nice, ergonomically correct swivel chair. My monitor is bright. The big stack of papers waiting to be graded actually helps (I’d rather write than grade).

The next day, I use my conference hour to edit the previous day’s work. If I can’t use the whole hour due to grading or other administrative type duties, I get what needs to be done and then work for as long as I can. Either way, I make sure to purposely leave off in the middle of something so when 2:30 rolls around it’s easier to dive back in.

By quitting time, I make sure I’ve written at least five single spaced pages (2500 to 3000 words). Sometimes it comes easy and finish early. Woot! Woot! Depending on my mood, I’ll either write and edit some more to stay ahead of the game, or I’ll play around on the Internet, or put my head down and take a nap until Michelle calls and tells me she’s ready to go (in case you didn’t know, my wife is also teacher and we happen to work at the same school – awesome, huh?). If for some reason I don’t finish the five single-spaced pages, I’ll force myself to finish at home (which rarely happens – I try not to work on novel stuff during the evening or on weekends – that’s my family time. I only start working nights and the occasional Saturday or Sunday when in the final stages. At this point my brain refuses to think about anything but plot threads and I’m useless to everyone around me until I’ve finished the damned thing. More on this later…).

The first draft of DEATH & DESIRE took me about five weeks to complete. Let’s see (doing math in my head…ouch), three hours a day, five days a week, for five weeks – that’s about seventy-five hours of work.

During this first draft phase, I mostly do the same thing I did to get started. I just sit down and get to typing. I try to make sure my internal planning is mapped out at least a few chapters ahead so I know what needs to be accomplished in each section (never aimlessly hack away – you’ll waste too much time going nowhere). Here’s where sticky notes get stuck to my computer monitor and scraps of paper begin pilling up on my desk. I start quasi-outlining – nothing too formal. You’ll find that little notes about character motivation, and bullet points listing chronological events, become indispensable.

(The first pic makes me smile. The second, a painting by Charles Burton Barber, makes me smile even wider)

Writing that first draft you NEED to keep the momentum going (write, write, write), you NEED a schedule that works for you and that you’re willing to stick to (if you want to be a professional, successful writer there’s no way around it), and you NEED to pull off all the behind the scenes magic that makes for compelling fiction. The notes I keep to move things along also serve to remind me that all action equals consequence and that things (no matter how random or seemingly small) that happen throughout the first half of the novel need to come full circle by the end. Building suspense – deciding what you want to stand out, and what you want to withhold, is a crucial element.

A tidy explanation of ‘suspense’ comes courtesy of my man, Alfred Hitchcock – he say’s, “Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!'” Be sure to keep this in mind when ratcheting up that tension.

Working with a first draft is all about setting up a bunch of jokes waiting for punchlines. That’s where my favorite part of the writing process comes in – revision. We’ll tackle that beast in Part 3.

I hope you found something helpful in my web of words.

See you tomorrow, Loyal Reader.


5 Responses to “The WORM Deconstructed (Part II)”

  1. did you know Sharon has that Barber picture hanging in her house? (-at least I’m pretty sure).
    Full circle

  2. I truly enjoy looking through on this website , it contains good articles .

  3. You have brought up a very great details , appreciate it for the post. “The great object is, that every man be armed. … Every one who is able may have a gun.” by Patrick Henry.

  4. I had no idea. I wonder if they stare at it in riveted suspense?

  5. […] There’s big stuff on the horizon. More on my WORM series (The WORM Deconstructed Part I, Part II). FINAL DESTINATION 5, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and CONAN are on my movie radar. Oh, and […]

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