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.
Over the last year and a half or so, my life turned into the real estate equivalent of a soap opera.
In March 2014, we put our house on the market, and “sold” it (had a purchase agreement in place) by early June. Closing was set for 01 August. A week before closing, our buyers told us they wouldn’t be able to close on time due to circumstances beyond their control (financial snafu).
So we waited for it to get sorted out until we got sick of it (and we lost the house that we were going to buy and move into), then put it back on the market. A second buyer eventually emerged, but canceled within a week. We said, “screw it” and pulled the property from the market.
Fast forward to March 2015. The house goes back on the market on a Wednesday; by Thursday night we have a signed purchase agreement. Within another couple of weeks we’ve made an offer on a new house for ourselves, and the paperwork is signed there, too. Everything goes smoothly this time, and over Memorial Day (last Monday of May) weekend, we move out of the old place and into the new.
Keep in mind that (a) we’d effectively been living out of boxes since mid-July 2014 and (b) it will take us many more months yet to finish unpacking. Needless to say, I’ve not exactly been in a prime writing headspace. So yes, it’s been more than fourteen months since my last blog post here. Apologies.
In those fourteen months, though, I’ve not been entirely lax. I’ve taken a couple of online classes at The Loft Literary Center and with the brilliant writers K. Tempest Bradford and Nisi Shawl. The latter, “Writing the Other” (WtO; based on the text of the same name by Shawl and Cynthia Ward), is being offered again this fall. I highly recommend it to all writers. If nothing else, it will introduce you to a cadre of like-minded writers who can serve as sounding boards and resources in their own right.
As for the status of my work in progress, the going is still slow, but thanks to the constant support and feedback from my critique partners—as well as new input from my WtO classmates—it is taking ever better shape. In January, it was my goal to have my ms ready for querying by the end of 2015, but that’s looking more and more like too tall an order. Time will tell.
So real estate really screwed up both my regular writing schedule and my blogging here. I would like to think I’m “over the hump” and can natter on about my writing journey here more regularly again now. With my kids’ school starting up in a couple more weeks, hopefully writing will slide back into my schedule more naturally all around.
I’ll keep you posted!
A writer new to the industry hears a lot of rules and guidelines, do’s and don’t’s about how to craft a novel. None of these are hard and fast, though one is encouraged to understand why the same “rules” crop up again and again before going off willy-nilly to break them. There needs to be a compelling reason to ignore all that advice.
I think one of my CPs just gave me a compelling reason.
Since its inception, my current novel has contained flashbacks. In and of themselves, flashbacks aren’t considered a no-no, though some readers have a distinct aversion to them. Because I wanted to sprinkle specific information into my story without starting the thing years beforehand, or slipping it awkwardly into dialog, I took the (quasi-)calculated risk of utilizing flashbacks.
However—and this is especially true of the first one, which currently appears extremely early in the narrative—they can have a jarring effect on the reader. So how do I include that information without pulling my reader out of the story? The answer may just be another of those novelling taboos: the dreaded prologue.
The objection to prologues, as I understand it, is that they often indicate the writer has simply started their story in the wrong place. Why start your story twice (once at the prologue, once at Chapter One)? This argument has always made sense to me, and I regret to admit I’d always felt rather smug that I hadn’t fallen into the prologue trap.
Now, though, I’m seriously considering going there. The inciting incident for my story actually happens weeks before the meat of the plot begins. Putting that catalyst to adventure right up front in a prologue instead of waiting to revisit it in a flashback several chapters in makes perfect sense now that it’s been suggested. I think doing so will create a stronger whole.
I just hope some agent or editor somewhere thinks so some day, too.
I’ve been quiet here lately. I’d like to say it’s because I’m so busy writing awesome things, but that would be a partial truth at best. That nasty little “Real Life” thing keeps getting in the way of my more esoteric pursuits, like updating this blog, so while I have been working on my novel, it’s more accurate to say I’ve been absent because real estate concerns have been eating my brain.
Enough of that, though—I’ve reached a new, exciting, scary point in my process! All of my chapters have been revised and reviewed by my CPs, and revisions based on their feedback have been made. Now I’ve submitted the entire last chunk of the novel to them for review as a whole, and once they’ve had a chance to read and comment and I’ve made revisions based on that feedback, I’ll hand the entire manuscript back to them to read as a single unit. It’s a thrilling place to be, though still scary to think I may have missed something important along the way. The biggest change from my perspective, though, is that I don’t have anything else to work on in this story while I await comments. What do I do with myself now?
Every writer knows the obvious answer: go work on the next thing. I’m just not sure what my “next thing” is.
I could work on a new short story. I saw another writing contest/call for submissions recently that looked cool, but would require me to create an entirely new story. New stories are good—except that I kind of suck at devising storylines. I can find story seeds pretty easily, but I have difficulty molding them into feasible plots.
Which leads me to my other option: plotting out my next novel. This route feels more likely to bear fruit, yet is incredibly daunting. I’m still polishing my first novel; I know full well how important a logical, engaging plot is. I’ve also never been good at writing outlines; I tend to think of ideas for actual text and dive into writing before I have a road map. Obviously, there are pros and cons to that method, but given my experience this time through, I really want a clear sense of where I’m going before I set off on this journey.
So here I sit with my Save the Cat! beat sheet and my list of stages along the Hero’s Journey, trying desperately to solidify what plot points are already flitting about my head and bring others into being to create a cohesive whole. Given that brainstorming doesn’t lead to words on the page, the part of me that monitors whether or not I’m working has been jangling its alarms—a state of affairs not conducive to clear thought. It’s a struggle to recalibrate my Procrasto-Meter™ and get on with things.
I’m sure I’m not the only writer facing this challenge, but enticing one’s muses into action feels like a lonely road. I just need to buckle down and walk it. So wish me luck—I’ll need it.
No, I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth; it just feels like it.
I have learned that I am absolutely a creature of habit when it comes to my writing. I need large blocks of time during which to focus, even if I don’t spend the whole span directly working on whatever’s on my plate that day. So when “circumstances beyond my control” (CBMCs) interfere, I can kiss my productivity goodbye.
Recently, for example, I took some time off to go to a convention. It was great fun, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. However, the fact that I’m an introvert meant that spending five days away from home among crowds of people, adding near-daily posts to my other blog expended all my energies (creative and otherwise) without the opportunity to recharge.
Then I came home to a sick kid. Before she even got back to school, we had (very welcome) company. By the time things got back to a more normal schedule this week, then, I was a bit of a mess.
But then I could return to my habits. I recharged. I relaxed. And I made progress.
At the end of last year, I made a plan about where I wanted my revisions to be by the end of this month. I’m nowhere near that mark, thanks a multitude of CBMCs these last two months. But I’m moving ahead again—the end of this Round of Revisions is in sight.
My new, interstitial chapter was remarkably well received by my CPs, given this is the first time the chapter’s been workshopped, and the following chapter is even closer to ready. I finally feel like I’m getting traction again for the first time this year. So keep your fingers crossed for me; a single month of normalcy could get me nearly there.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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…