Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Featured Author: John Straley


John Straley
I thought I would write about craft questions I have never taught or lectured on before. I’m going to keep my posts short and I hope to respond to questions that may come in over the month of July and enter into a dialogue with any of you who are reading these posts. 
I’m going to start before the beginning of the drafting process, before the beginning of the idea making, before the spacing out, or staring into the firelight stage. This is my favorite part of the creative process. This pre-beginning stage has become more and more important to me as I become more experienced and want to avoid costly, time sucking mistakes. It’s during this stage when I ask myself questions and decide a few things, which will determine how I’m going to spend my time in the months to come.
The first thing I try to imagine is this: How big a box am I going to need to mail the manuscript? Is it a brick of a book or is it a novella? This is something I need to sense even before I know anything else, I can usually tell from my energy level right from the get go… of course things can change and I’m open to that, but right now, what do I want, a big book or a slender one? I must decide.
What kind of story is this story I want to tell? Memoir? Mystery? Fiction? Nonfiction? I have been staggered by how far along people have gone in writing manuscripts without deciding whether their story is a novel or a memoir. I myself made this mistake with a first novel/ memoir that never saw completion. This is something that should be decided soon and definitively. Many things flow from this decision, many things that will make life much easier. I must decide how I will describe this book to my editor, or to my sister before I start to write it. I can always change my mind. But this is a decision that must be made. The thought that goes into a children’s pat-a-bunny book, or a young adult Alaskan plant identifying book, or a techno-thriller, or a lesbian vampire mystery, are all different kinds of thinking, don’t waste your time thinking of one when you really want to write another. 
Close on the heels of this decision: how much of my own experience is going to be mixed up in the telling of this story? Do I want to write something where there will have to be a lot of detailed research? Do I need to travel? Then I better travel.
Do I want to use what I've got already: then I make a list of places I've been recently or experiences that are vivid in my memory and mix those into my dream bag for consideration of the story. 
Similarly experience: I might need to research certain experiences. Use my own of course, but do I need to add to it for this particular book? Then I need to make a list of things I need to do.
The final question I ask myself is: what am I good at as a writer and what am I crappy at? How do I use what I’m good at to the best advantage in structuring a story (without making the story one dimensional) and how do I minimize what I am crappy at, while hopefully improving at it?
Okay. So far this blog post sounds like the narration from a Disney film. Maybe this will help: I wrote a book called The Big Both Ways. It is a crime story that followed a broken down logger named Slippery Wilson on an adventure up the inside passage in a dory, with an anarchist, her niece and a caged cockatiel. Before I even knew what it was about or what I wanted to do I asked myself these questions. Here is basically what I came up with: 
I knew I wanted to write a long book. All my other books had clocked in around 80,000 words, I had read a bunch of long books the winter before and loved them. I liked the time the authors got to spend with the characters. I loved the feeling I had as a reader getting to know the characters and the settings. When I finished reading these fat books I honestly felt I was losing some friends. I missed them. I wanted to try something like that. So. I wanted to ship it in a big box. My editor kept honing it down and down. But it started off fat. In my mind anyway. 
What kind of book was it? I called it “an Adventure Story” then later I called it “an Historical Crime Story”  but when my first publisher published it they called it a “mystery” because that’s where I was most commonly found. That’s my last known address and if you are looking for me that is where you would look. So fine. It’s a mystery. 
How much of my own experience went into it? How much research? I love research if I can afford it. At that time of my life I was freelancing. I spent a lot of time researching The Big Both Ways.  I brought a 40 foot boat up the Inside Passage. I read everything I could find on some of the characters I discovered. I wandered the old deserted cannery in Buttedale, which is a haunted movie set if there ever was one. I bought a rowing dory and did some rowing but not long distances. I spent hours talking with Bob DeArmond the famous and now departed historian who had rowed the trip himself in the thirties. I loved every bit of it. I had already done a great deal of research on the IWW and the radical labor movement, and I had tons of experience on small boats along the inside passage. 
Then: what was I good at and what did I suck at? I felt I was good at descriptive writing. I could capture a cold wet beach scene. Birds taking off from the water in a bay, whales rising from still water, these things I can capture and given a free rein, I could clog up hundreds of pages with that stuff. What I felt I sucked at was sustaining a narrative, keeping the tension moving for a long novel. Especially when they were rowing for some 600 miles, which is pretty Goddamn slow to begin with. 

So I had to have a hop-scotch plot line of multiple pursuers heading up the coast. I had to have an old steamship break down to let one of the pursuers have time to catch up and another one mangle her hand to slow her down, so that everyone got to Juneau on time for the historically accurate labor riot at the AJ Mine in Juneau. One last thing, I love journey stories. They have a long and glorious history. They are very old, also they are deeply rooted to geography which is naturally suited to my strengths (“birds and weather and shit” as one of my editors once said), so this too went into my decision to make a long journey a part of my decision to write a long book, that and reading Bob DeArmond’s Voyage in a Dory.

I like The Big Both Ways; that is I enjoyed how it turned out. It got good reviews all around but not much notice on the east coast. It had a troubled publishing history which is not very interesting, but it came out okay. I think the reason it did was partly because of the thinking that went into it before I started writing it. 

Next time we’ll talk about the 'staring into the fire' period of the beginning:  head scratching and list making. 

John Straley is a poet, novelist, and a private investigator. He has published eight novels and one book of poetry, and was Alaska's twelfth Writer Laureate. He and his wife Jan live in a bright green house near Old Sitka Rocks.

3 comments:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Nice post, John. I like your description of the pre-prewriting stage, a good way to plan things out before you get in too deep and waste time changing your mind later. I haven't read that book yet, need to go do that. :-)

Erin said...

Thanks, John. I'm looking forward to the next post already!

Sandra Kleven said...

I never thought of all that preparation. I have just jumped in and found the worst result of that approach is that I forget the story, on rewrite. I have no guide to what I have written, and to read it all just to learn again what the smaller intentions were is impossible (I do hold the main story in mind.) When involved in trying to catch up with myself by reading it again, I can't help editing - And heaven help me if I decide to change someone's name...I have to do search/replace. And I have usually placed each chapter in a separate file. Search replace times 30. Maybe, that's a mistake. So, the manuscript sits not done. I am writing poetry. Thanks, for helping me see that there is Prep Work. That would have helped. The November thing... write a novel in a month. it doesn't allow for much prep. Later! Sandy