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Finish What You Start—Or Not

One of the more common pieces of writing advice one sees is “finish what you start.” The idea, as I understand it, is that if a writer never learns to follow through on a project, they will never make it “in the business” (after all, how can one get anything published if there’s nothing complete to submit?).

And so, for nearly three years, I have slaved away at my WIP with varying degrees of dedication. Having decided to try my hand at fiction writing for the first time, I sketched out a short story or two (more character pieces than actual story, in retrospect) in October before jumping into the NaNoWriMo challenge in November. That was 2012.

As anyone could have predicted, the resulting draft was a hot mess. I won’t even bother to outline any of the details of how truly stinky it was, but suffice to say that even three years on, I cringe when I think back on it (let alone subject myself to rereading). But it was a draft! And a draft can always be revised, right?

I set to work, first with utter naïveté, and later with a slightly clearer picture of the task ahead. I took some classes, acquired some wonderful critique partners (CPs), and kept plugging away. Finish what you start.

The further along I got, the more my craft improved (I’m still pretty green as a storyteller—let’s not kid ourselves—but I can be taught). The more my craft improved, the more I recognized the flaws in my narrative (even though my CPs often had to point them out to me). The more flaws I found, the more chunks I cut out, rewrote, and pasted back into place with copious PlotSpackle™.

It’s been my goal to get a working manuscript ready for querying by the end of calendar 2015. Things like moving house and being primary caregiver for kids home from school for the summer have slowed down my progress, but I decided to ease my way back into a writing habit by using September as #MeNoRevMo (that’s “justMe Novel Revising Month”), in which the goal was to spend one hour each day on revising my WIP. Finish what you start.

The funny thing about actively working to improve your craft, though, is that sometimes lessons take you by surprise. I was privileged enough to be among the students of Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford for their first online version of their “Writing the Other” course (as mentioned in my previous post). Our final exercise, to be completed several weeks after the end of the course, involved submitting a piece of a WIP for critique by our classmates and instructors.

Talk about “tough love.”

My submission was (rightfully) panned. Nothing mean—or untrue—was said, but all the issues I’d been trying so valiantly to pretend weren’t a problem anymore got called out. The average person off the street might not notice issues with a pretty, new house (though they’d know whether or not they like it), but someone in the construction business will be able to tell immediately if its been shoddily built. Similarly, my PlotSpackle™ and paint weren’t fooling more accomplished writers.

I’ve been sitting with the feedback for a little while now, and after finally being able to distance myself enough from the work, I have seen the wisdom of the advice I was given: it may be time to set aside this particular WIP.

There is a lot that is dear to me in this story, but if I’m honest with myself, I’ve always known that its plot is a mess. Perhaps after I’ve taken some time to distance myself from it, I can come back and examine which of the underlying ideas are still sound—strip the story down to the studs. If there’s enough left on which to build a new structure, perhaps I’ll begin again, and try to create something that’s sturdy first, and make it pretty after.

In the meantime, it’s time not to finish what I started.

End-of-Year Whirlwind

Wow… Where did the last five weeks go?

When I last posted, I was reeling from the havoc having surgery had wreaked on my NaNoWriMo plans. Since then, I persevered and squeaked in a “win” under the wire (with four hours of editing left to do on the last day of the month, I completed them with about three-and-a-half hours to spare); written consistently for my other, almost three-year-old blog; and kept up (barely) with my family’s schedule of travel, health issues, and various extracurricular activities.

So what’s the state of my novel, you may ask? Thanks to the huge amount of work I put in during November, it’s getting much closer to the end of Round Two major revisions. No, I’m not going to make it by the end of the year like I told my Editor (oops). However, at our most recent meeting, my CPs told me that the third of my four subsections is working pretty well. There’s pacing! There’s clear motivation! There’s characterization! It was quite a rush to realize I was nearing the finish line on those chapters.

Of course, there’s still work to do. As we were leaving, one CP mentioned that the second subsection still had some more serious issues to resolve, so my Optimistic outlook was summarily downgraded back to Cautiously Optimistic. Looking over her notes, though, I don’t think there’s anything insurmountable there. In fact, the suggested changes are drastically less severe than the ones I’ve already made. I dare to hope that I’m making something akin to real progress.

Speaking of progress, those last, frantic hours of NaNoWriMo led to some conceptual breakthroughs for my finale. There’s an entire extra, interstitial chapter for me to write now, linking the end of that third subsection and the beginning of the fourth. Finding a balance between polishing what’s already there and creating new material has been a challenge, but I’ve approached it like much of the rest of the revision process: identify something that makes me want to work on it, and milk that for all it’s worth.

If I can ride this I’m-making-progress high through the end of the year, I might actually get this revision in the can by the end of January! Now I just need you readers to hold me accountable…

When the NaNo Challenge Backfires

Last year I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time. It was awesome. Seeing that stats chart every day, with the little line to beat in order to meet the challenge was exactly what my brain needed to thrive. I pushed myself, got off to a strong start, and never looked back. I stayed ahead of the curve the whole month, even when I had to take a few days off near the end due to a family health emergency.

Well, this year’s different. First, I’m doing hours of editing instead of words written. That wasn’t really an issue, though. I got off to another strong start, averaging nearly 2.5 hours per day (my equivalent of 2500 words) for the first six days or so. But getting ahead early just wasn’t enough.

Last week, I went in for surgery. It was a scheduled surgery, something I knew was coming, and shouldn’t involve an arduous recovery. It was still surgery. And it kept me from doing any novel editing for two days. I only got in a half an hour on the third day, none again on the fourth, and only an hour on the fifth. Needless to say, I’m now quite a way behind the curve.

This is where that little motivational progress line backfires. “I’m already so far behind; how will I ever catch up now?” my jerkbrain asks.

“Well, you’ll never even have a chance if you don’t sit down and do something,” practical brain replies.

They go at it back and forth, bringing in points about other things that need to be done around NaNoWriMo, too: grocery shopping, a book review, bill paying… I still don’t know which one of them is going to win by the end of the day.

For  now, though, they’re both losers. “Nap. Now!” bellows recuperation brain.

If you need me, I’ll be huddled under my down comforter.

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!