Thursday, January 24, 2008

Novel GPS

When my nephew came to visit us this past weekend, he drove up in his new Chevy doolie dually*, which among other things has one of those talking GPS devices that tell you where you are, where things are, when to turn, alternate routes around traffic jams and so forth. My guy loved it, and my kids thought it was the coolest thing ever.

The GPS didn't do much for me. I imagine it's very helpful to people who are on the road a lot in strange places, and to be honest my nephew never got lost once while he was up here. But what it really reminded me of that nerve-wracking time during my teen driving years with my dad riding shotgun in the car and barking out directions at me (Tom is somewhere in L.A. laughing right now because I taught him to drive and did the same thing to him during his rookie year behind the wheel.)

Technology is definitely cool, but you know, I still prefer reading maps and learning landmarks and making my own way through the world. I even like getting lost on occasion, because finding my way back to where I'm going is a little adventure.

We often refer to writing as a journey, and the story as a vehicle, so that got me thinking about what guides us when we're behind the novel wheel. At first the internal editor tries to stomp on the brakes every three sentences, but once you tell that bitch to shut up and make her sit in the back seat, you can work your way through the pages without any U-turns.

Every book is new territory for a writer, even when you're revisiting old, familiar friends. It doesn't matter how many times you've made the trip, it's different every time. Whenever I start a novel, a small part of me wonders if I can make it through to the end without getting sidetracked, road-blocked or lost. Arriving at the end of the trip is still always a nice, gratifying surprise.

I don't think I have a muse or a guide or a nag riding shotgun, but I get feelings while I'm writing that affect how I write. The most obvious one is what regulates my pacing -- it's not a voice that says Come on, come on, you're taking forever or Whoa, go any faster and you'll blow out their optic nerves, but it's almost like that. The flow of the words onto the page doesn't feel right, and I become aware that I'm crawling or teleporting my way through the prose.

Other novel GPS blips for me are problems with description, dialogue, action and character interaction. As I'm writing I can feel the scene turning bland and colorless or gaudy and loud, silent or noisy, motionless or confusing, or filled with stick or wallpaper people. Rather than backtrack, I'll insert notes to myself for the editing phase, i.e.: [more color here] [trim down conversation] [too much introspection/Phillipe] [get rid of hovering waiter] and move on.

Maybe someday they'll invent a novel GPS we can stick on our computers that tell us all these things to help us improve the quality of our stories while we're in the process of writing them. Until then we'll have to be content with finding our own way, making our own maps, learning the landmarks and even getting lost a little now and then. Sure, we may not get there as fast or as smoothly, but we won't have to give up that unexpected, pleasant feeling of accomplishment when we arrive.

Have any of you a story or novel GPS that keeps you on track? What does yours tell you?

*A very big pickup truck with two sets of two tires in the back. Great for hauling things like boats, ATVs, trailers, etc. (thanks to Rob in Denver for the correct spelling.)

10 comments:

  1. I was hatched with a rather dodgy sense of spatial sense and direction, so the GPS is a lifesaver.

    We used one in LA, but it was prone to pissily reminding us we'd not followed its directions.

    I'd be a mess on a starship. Utterly, completely unable to navigate.

    My only "novel" gps is a voice in the back of my head that says "i dunno, mate. This seems like the wrong direction."

    Instinct.

    I'm better at navigating exterior spaces, but um, the Dalhousie Life Science Centre is the thing of nightmares inside and out. Its like escher-esque architecture.

    people will often stop to help the lost and bewildered there.

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  2. At first the internal editor tries to stomp on the brakes every three sentences, but once you tell that bitch to shut up and make her sit in the back seat, you can work your way through the pages without any U-turns.

    I have no problem at all driving without a GPS in the car (hate hate hate them) but I really really need to learn how to do this. My internal editor slow everything WAY down...

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  3. Great post.

    (Not to be the grammar police, but the pickup type is spelled "dually.")

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  4. . Whenever I start a novel, a small part of me wonders if I can make it through to the end without getting sidetracked, road-blocked or lost.

    uh.... you mean we aren't supposed to get sidetracked? I always get sidetracked.

    One thing that's actually helped me stay focused was the 70 days of sweat that Alison and Co cooked up. I got invited to join on the last round, and I've noticed a lot more productivity because it actually makes me focus on the book and not the other junk that comes with me a writer. Junk = promo, killing time online, etc,etc,etc

    Have any of you a story or novel GPS that keeps you on track? What does yours tell you?

    To get off the net and get to work... *G*

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  5. Vocal GPS is a great idea. Kind of. Now for them to come up with the kind that scrolls the directions on the windshield (either holographically or not) so that the deaf can use it, too.

    The handheld GPS receivers that scroll the directions are kind of awkward to use while driving, ya know.

    As for novel GPS - I just write. I'm trying to train my internal GPS indicator but so far it doesn't really work until I start editing for some reason. Apparently when I tell the internal editor to shut up, the GPS goes along with it.

    (This post brought to you by the word "cobwu" - almost sounds like some kind of corn karate or something?)

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  6. I think a lot of writing is learning to listen to your own GPS. Mine tells me I've started in the wrong place, or my character's goals and motivations are too similar or insufficient, it goes on and on. Best not to ignore that voice, or you'll have to do a whole lot of backtracking!

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  7. My GPS is the little voice that says...oooh that stinks, you better rework that...wait a minute, that's my damn internal editor again...

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  8. My internal navigator (old school here, I learned how to ride a map very very young) tells me when I've started the journey. I can ramble on and chat and just get going on the trip but she always shows me when I hit my groove. That is usually where the story actually starts.

    Don't get me wrong, I plot, but most of the time I ramble a bit on my intro pages. I need that internal guidance to show me where the long haul kicks in. 90 miles until the next check-in, you know?

    I also know when I've stalled it's b/c of a pacing problem. So I backtrack, reconsult the map (my storyboard) and try a new route.

    It's refreshing. LOL.

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  9. My characters are my GPS system. If I can't write it's because I made a mistake with a character. Most likely something to do with the plot.

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  10. I still prefer reading maps and learning landmarks and making my own way through the world. I even like getting lost on occasion, because finding my way back to where I'm going is a little adventure.

    I love maps, so I totally agree with this sentiment. And I love to drive, even if I don't know where I'm going (except in a city, of course, where traffic makes me wish I could thwap everyone in front of and beside me on the back of the head). Good times.

    As for my internal GPS, I usually know I'm in trouble when it goes completely silent. When it refuses to tell me the right direction or even where I went wrong in the first place, I am S.O.L. At that point, it's best to step away from the laptop and take a walk or watch a movie. When I come back to it, I usually have a better idea what the unit was trying to tell me.

    Sometimes.

    And I definitely have a muse. He's a jerk, too. Big ol' WWE-type who punches me in the back of the head with an idea instead of whispers it in my ear and then stands at my shoulder and hollers in my ear...until he suddenly abandons me to lay some smack down on some other poor sod.

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