To NaNo or Not to NaNo…

I’ve really been wanting to find a way to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Initially, I’d thought—extremely naïvely, in retrospect—that I could draft Book #2 this November. (It’s a sure sign you’re a n00b when  you think you can get from a NaNoWriMo draft to a query-ready manuscript in a couple of months.)

As NaNoWriMo 2013 has crept up on us, it’s become ever clearer to me that drafting a new book at this stage would be a fool’s errand. The one I have in mind is a sequel to my current work in progress; beginning it before this one’s done is risky at best, and disastrous at worst. No new NaNo draft this time!

Yet I got so much out of it last year, I really wanted to participate again. I thought perhaps I could find a way to count words of my revisions instead, but I don’t expect to completely rewrite everything I’ve got, and there’s no way I’ll be adding another 50k words to the current count.

Then it hit me: editing hours!

I don’t recall where I’d seen the idea, but I know it wasn’t my own. Since mature artists steal, I thought I was well within my rights to use it (even if I’m not a mature artist yet). So this year, I’m not going to measure the success of my NaNo month by whether or not I reach 50k words, but whether or not I reach 50 hours of editing.

Keeping track on the site will require a brief daily calculation, using the conversion rate of 1 hour editing time = 1000 words written. Each day I’ll have to add onto the previous total to get my running total for the month, rather than just reading a word count off my document, but I think it’ll be worth it. If I can actually dedicate that much time to the revisions which so desperately need to be done, I have a real chance of getting Round Two of major revisions done before December.

Now that’s an exciting prospect!

Achievement Unlocked: Plot Change #1

Engineer new plot direction #1: check!

When my CPs and I sat down a few weeks ago and had a long discussion about how to improve the plot from where it sat in my latest draft, there were a heckuva lot of new elements to incorporate. I was so energized (and overwhelmed!) by that conversation that I could hardly wait to get back to work. The overall story would be so much better after all these enhancements had been integrated into the novel!

Then Real Life got the better of me, as it is prone to do. Partway into my foray into the first plotting change, I got derailed by a combination of daily minutiae, big news in my fandom of choice, and the introduction of a new dog into our family. Suddenly fixing the transition from the first to second acts paled in comparison to getting bills paid on time, watching recovered episodes not seen in forty-five years, and snuggling with a ridiculously cute canine.

Finally I carved out time to get back to it. Now I had to be conscious of the new perspective from which I was writing, but for the most part, it was the change in direction I’d hashed out with my CPs at the heart of the revisions. It’s amazing how a relatively small change propagates throughout one’s manuscript. ~sigh~

But I’ve done it! I’ve made that first big change and polished up the beginning chapters of the novel to send back to my CPs for review. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ve done enough, and I can finally—finally—put Part the First behind me for Round Two of major revisions. Because I have just made it back into a groove.

I’m ready to write.

Should I “Write the Other”?

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struggling with an idea. Being completely new to the industry from the content-provider’s side of things, it’s only recently that I’ve paid any attention to SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, a professional organization for authors). I’ve been seeing a lot about the need for diversity in the genre (specifically, via the Twitter hashtag #DiversityinSFF), which got me thinking about my own work in progress (WIP).

As is stands, my WIP has a main character (MC) who is a straight, white, cisgendered, abled, educated, young American woman. In other words, she’s very much like me (with the possible exception of the “young” descriptor, since she’s 10-15 years my junior). So I’ve been wondering: does she have to be all of those things? Is there any reason not to change one or more of those descriptors?

More importantly, is there any reason to change one?

Because I am a brand, spankin’ new writer, working on my first-ever novel, it’s only natural—comfortable—that I would choose to write from the POV of someone very like myself. Writing is hard enough without throwing in something with which I have zero personal experience. “Write what you know,” and all that.

But as I analyzed the story I hope to tell with this character after my current WIP is done (or as “done” as it’s likely to get), it dawned on me that there is a fairly compelling reason to consider changing her ethnic background for the next book. Obviously, that means I’d need to change it now. Is it worth it?

I brought this conundrum to my CPs for advice. We talked about the pros and cons, and in the way I’m developing my particular “near Earth” world for the future of my character. We talked about the dangers of “getting it wrong” (which, let’s be honest, boil down to whether or not I do my research), and how it would serve the upcoming story if I did change my MC.

Oddly, it turned out changing my MC to someone with a different background from mine might actually enhance the tension in my current WIP, too. There’s nothing specifically that hinges on her being a POC—which makes sense, since that’s not how I first wrote her—but certain relationships and situations would, of necessity, affect her differently, coming from an alternate perspective.

My original intention was to challenge my own tendencies to write someone almost exactly like myself, try writing outside my comfort zone, and maybe help add a bit of diversity to the body of work in the genre. If I can do my MC justice as a woman of color, I really think this WIP will be richer for it.

I just hope I hope I don’t screw up.

Attack of the Procrastination Monster

I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything with my writing these last couple of weeks. First it was a slog through weak verbs as I tried to polish Chapter Five, and get it to match some of the changes made to Chapter Four after the last content feedback from my CPs. Then it was trying to shoehorn my existing plot into the fifteen-beat structure of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!

As everyone knows, nothing is ever static with a Work In Progress. Last week my CPs helped me analyze the current plot structure in my novel, to see where the beats do (or don’t) fall. It was a train wreck.

Okay… Not exactly a train wreck. There were many extremely useful things said—all in a very supportive, collaborative manner—and the brainstorming session provided me with a wealth of excellent ideas for improving the structure of the story. I’m more hopeful about the eventual shape of the whole thing than I’ve been in a very long time.

But other things seem to keep getting in the way! After our CP meeting, I managed to make a few revisions, but also had to catch up on some household chores and errands. Then the weekend was a wash, what with offspring eagerly using the other computer to drill themselves alternately on Spanish and typing (you try writing while little keys yell “Type on me!” over your shoulder). By Monday, I was inundated with further errands, tidying up the house so we could welcome a new dog into the family later this week, and rampant rumors of Big News about to break in my other blog’s fandom.

In other words, I’ve been a putz.

When I realized it had been nearly two weeks since I’d last posted here (an absolutely shameful amount of time to let lapse, in blogosphere timescales), the Procrastination Monster whispered, “You know, you really don’t have very much time to get into a groove before you have to pick your kids up at the bus stop anyway. You could just whip out a quick blog post. You can get back to your revisions fresh, tomorrow morning…”

Yes, thank you Procrastination Monster. I may just do that. And come tomorrow morning, I’m sure you’ll have another little gem for me. Maybe something like “time to go get your new dog!” Good thing I didn’t want to finish these revisions before the end of the year.

Oh, wait…

Argh! The Pressure!

It’s been a helluva week.

Things started out great on Monday. I got to meet my Editor in person, which was beyond awesome—we sat down over coffee and started chatting like old friends. In fact, I felt so comfortable talking with her that it was hard to believe we’d only ever interacted electronically, either via email or story edits.

Maybe that’s why having her expectations about when I might be able to deliver my novel looming over me feels so scary. Suddenly it’s not just family members looking pointedly at their watches and asking me when they can read what I’ve been working on for the last year. Now there’s an actual literary professional who is looking forward to reading and critiquing my book—yikes!

Other tasks insinuated their way onto my to-do list in front of novel revisions, though, and by the time Tuesday rolled around, I’d allowed the Fear of Editor to lapse into background noise. “I’ll get to it here in a little bit,” I kept telling myself.

Enter Twitter’s #MSWL hashtag.

Not only did I lose an inordinate amount of time that day (and a non-negligible amount since) trolling through the agent and editor posts of their “ManuScript Wish Lists” to see if anything remotely matched what I’m writing, but I spent a lot of emotional capital fretting, too. First there was the fretting that I’d seen so many tweets asking for MG/YA/NA manuscripts that it felt like no one wants anything for the adult/general audience to which I write. Obviously, that’s not true, but I’m sure other writers know exactly that feeling.

Then there were the occasions when I did find something that (almost) matched what I’ve got. At that point, I started tearing out my hair because I don’t have a completed manuscript to send out for a query. The sheer weight of revisions needed to make it ready for prime time is staggering. Needless to say, Tuesday left me a mess.

Wednesday was lost to family moving house.

And that brings us to today. Today I struggled with procrastination. (Say what? Writers never do that!) Aside from reading more books on improving one’s writing, I didn’t actually do any writing work until late afternoon, when I took my kids to an after school class. Sitting in the parents’ observation area, I struggled again with how to fit my plot into those pesky Cat-Saving beats.

The damn thing has no zip, no punch. When I whittle it down to those fifteen key elements, I’m left with square plot points trying to fit into round beats. I just can’t crack it.

On the up side, I’m making fabulous progress plotting out the next book beat-by-beat. I’ve even got some thematic and thesis/antithesis strands planned. Funny how much easier it is to create an engaging plot from the ground up than by massaging an existing one.

Too bad I’ve got so much massaging left to do.

Saving the Cat and Other Adventures

Thanks to a tweet by an author I follow, I was recently introduced to the screenwriting self-help book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Deciding that I could use all the help I can get, especially with plotting, I bought it and dove in. As I’ve read through it, I’ve been alternately elated and crushed by what Snyder has to say: elated because this will make Book 2 so much stronger from the get-go, crushed because it points out so many flaws in Book 1 (which I’m currently trying to revise).

Right now, I’m struggling most with Snyder’s list of fifteen key “beats” that every good film script (or, as I’m extrapolating it, novel manuscript) has. When I started dissecting Draft Zero (my NaNoWriMo draft) to figure out how my plot was structured, and how it needed to change, I split it instinctually into five sections:

  1. Introduction: Ramp Up to Problem
  2. Sinking Teeth In: Beginning to Grapple with the Problem
  3. Danger! Time: Problem Beats Heroine Down
  4. Regrouping: Time for a Training Montage
  5. Finale: “I Must Face the Peril!”

As I look over Snyder’s beats, I realize I’m on the same general wavelength. My sections align not-too-poorly with his list of beats:

  1. Opening Image
    • Theme Stated
    • Set-up
    • Catalyst
    • Debate
  2. Break into Two
    • B Story
    • Fun and Games
  3. Midpoint
    • Bad Guys Close In
    • All Is Lost
  4. Dark Night of the Soul
  5. Break Into Three
    • Finale
    • Final Image

Somewhere along the line, during all those years of reading, I seem to have internalized good story structure; some of the main elements of storytelling are there. But several others are missing. My timing still sucks, and the beats I’ve got aren’t strong enough. I’m in trouble.

I thought the last couple weeks—slogging through weak verbs with a machete—were rough. Something tells me they’ll be nothing compared to the upcoming ones. But I’m committed to seeing this thing through.

All right, Plot, look out! It’s time to go all Dr. Frankenstein on your pathetic hide!

A Monologue on Dialogue

One of the common writing problems I have (and I know I’m not alone) is the tendency to “tell” rather than “show” details in my story. I have found it almost painful at times to excise a few paragraphs of exposition for something more subtle yet visceral. It’s one of those things that I have to practice until I find it easier to do, and so far I’m not there.

It doesn’t help that I’m also not yet very good at identifying when I’m doing it. If someone reads an excerpt and says, “too much ‘telling’!” I have a hard time seeing what they mean unless they’ve dropped an anvil on my head with accompanying line edits to point out instances directly.

When I do find a passage, though, I have one favorite “secret weapon” in my arsenal to beat it into submission: dialogue.

I know some writers struggle with dialogue. I’m sure everyone can name at least one film they’ve seen where, despite the cast’s best efforts, the dialogue feels labored and unnatural. For heaven-only-knows-what reason, that has not been one of my challenges (that is, I’ve been told dialogue is one of my strengths).

So when I find I’ve been rambling on at length about action that involves someone besides just my protagonist (once it’s been pointed out to me), I go back and have them talk it over instead. My technique, if you can call it that, is simply a form of roleplaying; I imagine myself to be the character, and write the words that come to mind as if I were actually engaging in the conversation at hand.

Here’s a brief example (not from the actual novel—sorry). To begin, a chunk of exposition:

The two of them spent the afternoon engaged in one of their favorite pastimes: making a crown cake. They spilled some of the acorn meal, got covered in flour, and snitched chocolate from the pan before melting it. All in all, it was one of the most innocuously memorable days Mabel had spent with Gran since going off to college.

Now here’s what it looks like as dialogue:

“So what do you say. Shall we make a crown cake?” The twinkle in Gran’s eye held a spark of challenge.

“You’re on!”

Soon Mabel was grinding the acorns. “Is that enough—dammit!” She scrambled to catch the bowl she’d bobbled as she proffered it for Gran’s inspection before all the precious acorn meal was lost. Gran burst out laughing, and Mabel glared.

“Oh, don’t be such a grumpy gus, Ace. There’s plenty more acorns.”

Mabel sighed. “I know. I just thought I was done!”

“The fun’s in the process, and setbacks are inevitable.” Gran winked. “Don’t worry about it.”

Mabel grumbled darkly with mock fury as she set back to work. Glancing to make sure Gran wasn’t paying attention, she casually reached behind her to snitch a few chocolate chips out of the pot that sat on the stove, awaiting melting.

“Grab a couple for me,” Gran murmured without looking up from the other side of the table.

Mabel shook her head in wonder. “You’ve got eyes where you shouldn’t oughtta have ’em!”

Gran smiled enigmatically and held out a hand for her share.

Laughing, Mabel obliged. “I don’t think we’ve had this much fun together since I left for college.”

When Gran’s hug got flour all over her T-shirt, Mabel didn’t even mind.

While this passage isn’t the finest example of my dialogue, I hope it’s better than the expository paragraph above. At least I’d like to think it involves you, the reader, in the characters more, giving a better sense of their personalities, relationship, and moods. Doesn’t hurt my word count, either (though that’s obviously a fortuitous side effect, rather than a primary goal).

Now the trick is to remember to do that more in the first place.

Minor Breakthrough

Yesterday I emailed my CPs with an uncomfortable confession: I didn’t have anything new for them to read for our next meeting. Since their feedback on a full draft, I’ve been spinning my wheels in the revision mud; I just can’t get any traction on rearranging, cutting, and adding the necessary plot points. But today I had a minor breakthrough.

As mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been trying to cut off relatively bite-sized chunks of novel on which to focus; right now, it’s those troublesome opening chapters. My CPs have accurately pointed out that the action is quite slow to build, and suggested one plot thread that could be moved up as a way to counteract that problem. So, dutifully ripping the old plot structure to tatters, I started writing a new scene to introduce said thread three chapters earlier.

There was a spot that struck me as needing some low-grit PlotPaper™ to smooth it out, so naturally I began there. Excising lines that no longer fit, I began to weave in my new narrative. Eventually I got in a groove, and before I knew it I had over 1400 new words. I just had to find a way to make the scene fit seamlessly with what I already had, and I was golden.

That’s when inspiration hit. I’d sewn my new scene into the wrong part of the chapter!

Giddy with my discovery, I made another copy and started hacking the chapter apart again. The new scene went here, the pieces I’d been sad to take out went back in there… And now an issue I’d had in a completely different point in the novel—again, with the placement of a new scene relative to old material—melted away. Everything seemed to slot naturally into place.

I’m doing my best to ride the high of this tiny triumph. Heaven knows it’s not likely to last long. As soon as I show my changes to my CPs they’ll probably have insightful reasons I’ve not yet considered as to why this arrangement isn’t optimal, either. But when you’ve been slogging through the trenches of revisions and gaining no ground, any little advance is cause for celebration; I’m taking my victories where I can.

Time to reward myself with another pot of coffee!

Can’t See the Plot for the Revisions

I’ve had to remind myself not to get bogged down in minutia. (Do mechanics/style edits still count as minutia if the entire manuscript is riddled with them? I’m going with “yes.”)

Over the past week or two, I’ve been having a serious “forest for the trees” (or “plot for the revisions,” I suppose) experience with the current version of my novel. There is so much to be done to bring the manuscript up to snuff that I’ve been effectively paralyzed. Where do I start? Chapter One?

Sure; good plan. Let’s see here… Do I move this scene from Chapter Four to the beginning, add in a new scene, and cut my old opening scene, or do I cut a mid-chapter scene and replace it with that one from Ch. 4? Fine, I can try it both ways and see which works better. But then there’s all this excess exposition to eliminate, point of view slippage to overhaul, and tacky grammatical habits to fix. Harumph.

All right—how about another chapter? Great; except that the same issues abound, and it’s still a struggle to figure out which scenes should stay and which need to be cut, relocated, or edited to match changes elsewhere in the story. Each of the first four chapters (I’ve at least managed to focus myself that much) has a plethora of problems. Choosing where to start is daunting, to say the least.

This is where everything falls apart. I get so overwhelmed with the number and variety of revisions I need to make that even when I whittle it down to a small chunk of the novel—or even a single chapter—I can’t figure out where to start. The story-arc forest is getting lost amongst the vast number of edit-trees.

Only yesterday did I finally make my way to the top of one of those trees long enough to see out over the canopy. I’m working on a completely new scene that will move some of the action to an earlier point in the plot, and give my protagonist more agency. Since in previous versions, she’s reacted to events rather than making decisions that drive the plot, I’m hoping this change will both make her a more interesting character and get the reader more engaged in her journey.

The key, though, is that I’m writing again—I’ve caught sight of the forest. Maybe now I’ll finally be able to plunge back into my revisions with a decent sense of the new direction I want to take the plot. At the very least, I’ve made some changes that can distance me from the previous version. Maybe that’s all I need.

Back in the Saddle

Did I mention I need to work on my storytelling?

This week, for the first time since surgery, I had the chance to meet with my CPs again. I was both excited and overwhelmed by our session; as usual, I drew much-needed energy from our conversation, but it’s hard not to feel like I’m facing an insurmountable task. Why? Because, dear readers, they read a draft of the whole novel. If you’re a writer and you don’t think that’s a scary idea, then you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Realistically, they were quite gentle with me. I knew going into the exercise that the manuscript was deeply flawed in some respects. After all, that’s the point of having CPs—to show you where the shortcomings of your work are, and offer potential solutions. So the fact that they didn’t immediately hate the core ideas of the story was, in and of itself, a win.

But there’s still a helluva lot of work to be done. The beginning is way too slow. The ending is way too fast. Too much exposition (nice stuff, but it doesn’t draw the reader into the story). Not enough tension (one enticing plot thread is barely explored). In other words, it’s still a hot mess.

I went into our meeting knowing that (1) this is where my Round Two major rewrite would come in, (2) there were plotting and pacing problems with at least the last several chapters, and (3) I haven’t yet got a good grip on storytelling. Even when prepared, though, having so many flaws pointed out to you in gory detail is ego-bruising, at best. (At worst, it makes you—or at least me—want to bury the files somewhere deep on the hard drive, to be lost in the mists of time.)

It doesn’t matter how accurate or insightful or useful the feedback, when you’ve put so much of yourself into a piece, hearing that it needs changes—many, extensive changes, at that—can feel like someone just sliced you open from navel to throat. Perhaps I’m being overdramatic (it wouldn’t be the first time a writer had done that), but I’ve never been one of those people who can easily separate herself from her work.

All of this adds to my general ennui regarding my writing. Aside from being the latest installment in a series of “let’s keep that ego in check!” events, it’s thrown a wrench into my longer-term plans. There is so much to do to get this novel’s quality raised even as far as “un-awful” that I’m not going to have time for anything else for the foreseeable future. I’d hoped to use the next two months to plot out its sequel, since”pants-ing” my way through clearly hasn’t worked very well. Instead, it looks like I’ll be skipping NaNoWriMo this year.

Now to perform some First Aid on my ego and get back to Round Two…