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Winter Slog

Mother Nature hates me.

Every time I think I’m about to get some time to myself again, another “polar vortex” bears down on us and makes the local environment so deadly the school district (wisely) decides to cancel classes, and I have my kiddos at home. This wreaks havoc on my concentration.

And just as there is ramp-up time to get yourself in a groove after you’ve spent time perusing social media (or whatever other procrastination techniques you prefer), I’ve found I have ramp-up time on a larger, daily scale, as well. I’m still not back into a “school’s in session” frame of mind; I’ve not been there since mid-December.

Experienced writers often tell aspiring writers that the only rule is to write! Sit down every day and get on with it. That’s the only way to succeed. Well, at this rate, I’m doomed to failure. I simply have not been able to carve out a sufficient block of time to get into that key headspace more than once or twice a week—and very small blocks they are, at that!

Yet I take perverse comfort in posts such as Kameron Hurley’s recent treatise on persistence. Do I write daily? No. Am I making consistent progress on my manuscript? No. Do I keep coming back to it? Yes. So maybe it will take me untold years to get this thing up to snuff (ye gods & little fishes, I hope not…), but I will finish it. And then I’ll move onto something else. And that something else will be better. And so will the next thing, and the next, and the next.

So I’m off, back to the Word Mines. Because when it comes right down to it, there’s really no place I’d rather be.

Chapter Interstitial

Writing conditions have not improved much since my last post. It’s been very difficult to carve out any sort of workable block of time in which to sit down and get on with it. I’ve managed to get some older pieces revised (again) and passed on to my CPs for comments, though, so that’s a step in the right direction.

The big deal about moving past those chapters for the moment is that I’m now free to refocus on the climax of the story. My final three chapters, such as they are, need polish on the mechanics (kill all the weak verbs!), and some PlotSpackle™ and sanding to make them match the changes made in the rest of the manuscript to date. My major challenge, though, comes in that quiet spot in between.

You see, I’m in need of an additional chapter; too much has been left unsaid. When all the build-up comes to a head at the end of that last chunk my CPs are reviewing, the reader will hopefully be eager to flip the page and find out how my protagonist takes this new revelation and runs with it. Unfortunately, on the next page she’s already executing A Plan without the reader having been let in on everything she knows.

Obviously, I need to write “Chapter Interstitial.”

What makes the composition of this chapter such a challenge for me is that it’s being created in a manner totally new and alien to my normal modus operandi. Having created the original draft in true NaNoWriMo “pantser” tradition (that is, I didn’t plot it out ahead of time, but just wrote by the seat of my pants), and revised from existing text, only adding or subtracting scenes as discussion with my CPs indicated it was necessary, I feel completely unprepared to write an entire chapter that needs to include specific information and plot points. It’s rather unnerving.

So this week, I’ve not yet done much in the way of actual writing, but I’ve begun expanding my notes. I’ve listed what else the reader needs to witness before barreling into the following chapter, from character motivations to background details to the foundations of that Plan. I’ve even done a little arranging where I think each part should appear relative to the others. Pretty much everything I need is there now—I just need to write it.

If I keep telling myself that, it’ll happen, right?

Two Hundred Words

Yesterday, after more than two and a half weeks away, I finally sat down to work on revising my novel again. Focus was difficult, to say the least. I hopped up and down from my desk—and back and forth from task to task—so often it’s a minor miracle I didn’t get motion sickness.

Each time I tried to go back to the passage I was rewriting and tried to smear some PlotSpackle™ into that hole, it turned out I’d not put enough on my putty knife, and there was still a big divot to be filled. I’d walk away, dealing with some piddly chore or another, and come back again, trying desperately to make my atrophied brain perform.

After hours and hours of this behavior, I finally had a big enough lump of PlotSpackle™ in place to start sanding it smooth. As many new words as stayed got cut, and in the end, I had only added a little more than two hundred words to the piece. And I’ll tell you what: I will gladly take two hundred hard-fought words that may or may not ultimately end up in the Dumpster.

Those two hundred words tasted like victory.

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…

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.

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.