On Writing a Novel: Drafting until it’s Drafted

write1

Drafting — or as I described it in my post on planning and research — the horrible, rough, manic, shit-storm that makes beautiful novels possible.

Just as planning and research is accomplished in different forms depending on the specific writer’s process, drafting happens for each writer in a way only they can truly understand. It is a little bit magic, a lot determination, fueled by adrenaline and insanity and caffeine. While there are different processes and methods, there are some constants that most every writer adheres to, and those are what I will focus on in this post.

Write Tip #1: You can start at the beginning. You can start at the end. You can write the inciting incident because it is the seed idea and therefor all you can actually see. But one thing is certain…YOU MUST WRITE SOMETHING.

There is a safety in research and planning, an insulation around your idea and it’s fragile bones that makes opening a blank Word document and actually writing feel a little bit like throwing your precious into the middle of a tornado. It will be tossed around some — this is a reality you must accept. Your fear is not a reason to stay in the safe zone.

I have written some horrifically bad sentences in my first drafts. Bad enough that I cannot even believe I am showing one to you. Nevertheless, here is a line from the first draft of my novel Redhunt:

I step onto a landing that opens into the kitchen and it’s dark, lit only by the morning light through the window.

With revision that sentence was cut. The scene around it was also cut and forgotten until today. It served its purpose — its only purpose really — to facilitate the forward motion of drafting.

Write Tip #2: Keep writing forward. You can do some minor revision as you go along, reread the pages you ended with during your last writing session to jumpstart, but the key to finishing is to not look back for long.

You will realize there are problems in your manuscript as you are writing it. Every single writer, whether a first timer or seasoned pro, has inconsistencies in their first drafts. The purpose of a first draft is to get the story out of your head and onto the page (or screen). A common mistake in drafting is going back to read through what you’ve written. Thus begins the eternal edit loop that will kill your momentum and silence the creative voice inside your head.

Instead, reserve any major revisions until the end of the manuscript. This is what you should especially do if you have attempted to write a novel before but never completed the task. A writer who has a few manuscripts under their belt might be able to seamlessly jump from past pages to current, revising and drafting at the same time, but that takes a level of skill most of us won’t achieve for a very long time.

Write Tip #3: Find rewards for hitting word count goals, or scene goals, or plot point goals. Further, make sure to set a goal when drafting and find a way to keep yourself accountable.

If you follow me on Twitter you will know that I frequently update my feed with progress reports, failures, reward system announcements, and any other thing I can think to Tweet that will mark my progress.

I have used caramels and alcohol, an episode of a TV show that I am really into (Doctor Who, Veronica Mars, Game of Thrones episode largely featuring Jon Snow, etc.), pages in a novel I am currently reading and dying to get back to, as a reward for meeting my drafting goals.

Write Tip #4: Set a deadline to finish. I am a goal oriented person, which you can probably tell by the above tip. But having a deadline is less about a goal, and more about prioritizing your writing over watching TV, shittin’ around on the internet, or, yes, even reading.

No one is going to finish your book for you. Writing is you and your characters, their story, and nothing else. It is a dark room of silence. It is screaming into the void of your imagination. You can have a gaggle of cheerleaders at your back, but if you don’t sit your ass in that chair and turn thoughts into words on a page you will never have a book. If you cannot complete a draft, you cannot revise.

In order to be an author you will have to meet deadlines. Start now. Maybe you don’t make it, but don’t plan on failing. Don’t let yourself off the hook. The misery of beating yourself up about a deadline is the joy of finishing on time.

Write Tip #5: Finish it. Make is messy and wild and break every rule in the book. You can fix it later. You’ll slash sentences and circle paragraphs, writing in red ink WTF?, when you do your read through. Don’t stop until you have typed THE END.

 

 

 

 

What’s Up Wednesday : The Finished Draft Edition

AlienStarsWUWWhat’s Up Wednesday is a weekly meme geared toward readers and writers, allowing us to touch base with blog friends and let them know what’s up. Should you wish to join us, you will find the link widget at the bottom of Jaime or Erin’s blog.

What I’m Reading

* Crickets *

Today I jump back into my reading pile. While in the writing cave, the time I didn’t spend writing was spent brain dead. I have some special manuscripts to read, some books sitting on my nightstand and waiting on my computer, plus an ARC of my friend Lindsay Cummings forthcoming Middle Grade novel The Balance Keepers. This next week is all about the reading.

What I’m Writing

That manuscript that has been in progress since August 2013, well, it is no longer in progress, but completed.

I feel like this:

celebrateAnd this:

tired-puppy

And my hair looks like this:

insane

There are revisions ahead, as always, but I look forward to them. After a read through it’s off to CPs and onto titling and summarizing and stuffs. Right now, basking. The time for basking is here.

What Inspires Me

See above.

The same night I finished my manuscript, my CP Susan finished hers. We have given feedback to each other for about a year now, but these manuscripts are the first we’ve written and critiqued from the beginning. We have ridden the drafting raft together. We have talked each other off ledges. We have encouraged beautiful words and helped note problem passages. Finishing together…just feels right.

The incredible outpouring of excitement and love from friends, both within the writing community and outside it, when I announced I finished my draft.

Requests from CPs and writer friends that I SEND THE MANUSCRIPT NOW! You guys are the bees knees. For serious.

heart

What Else I’m Up To

My son ran a fever last night. His allergies are awful this time of year, every year. We can’t get ahead of them, it seems. My mom, who is a Master Gardener, got him some local Bee Pollen to help. Now to get him to take it everyday.

We spent the morning talking, and honestly, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do today anyway.

Sam: Mommy, I’m using my imagination.

Me: Love it!

Sam: Do you use your imagination?

Me: Yep, everyday.

Sam: What do you do with it?

Me: I create worlds, and characters, and write stories about those worlds and characters.

Sam: I want to create a world.

And for the next half hour we did just that.

Happy Wednesday everyone!

 

 

 

My Two Cents on Starting

Most days I think I’m a good mom, and an improving writer. I think I can cook, but I can mix drinks better. I think I am pretty, but only now that I’ve grown my hair out. These parameters keep me from being too wrapped up, too vain, or too emotionally stunted. I sharpen because I believe I am not perfect, nor am I a train wreck.

I recently read an article by author Julianna Baggott. Now, it should be said, that I have a girl crush on Julianna. Maybe I should call it a writing crush, since it stems from how deeply I identify with her voice. Her communication style. Her writerness. Whatever I call it, I heart her.

In the article, which you can read here, Julianna puts forth a method for writing your first novel. She calls it a loophole. It began for her as a way to trick herself into writing by pretending it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t about creating a masterpiece, it was about getting fifty pages done and out. She suggests writing is about wanting to turn the page, for the writer and the reader.

This rang very true for me. I have discussed before that this is my first novel, the MANUSCRIPT I am revising now but not forever. Before writing the manuscript, I had mostly worked in the medium of screen-or-stage playwriting. I had attempted, after completing a feature length screenplay and then not knowing what the hell to do with it, a novelization of my screenplay. Ultimately, I was burnt out on that story and needed something new.

When I sat down at my computer sixteen months ago with a voice in my head, I didn’t know what I was doing. There was no plan. There wasn’t even a concept. There was an inkling. A whisper.

I don’t consider myself a naive person. I live in Brooklyn and haven’t died yet, for goodness sake. But about this I was. I believed I could do it. And why not? It was just a novel. Geez. I had written a screenplay, so a novel couldn’t be much harder.

Had I read anything about writing a novel before I started, done any preparation at all, I would have failed. I would have psyched myself out. I’m such a fool I flippantly professed to anyone who would listen that I would finish in a year.

I just wrote. I kept writing when I wasn’t sure where I was going. I kept writing when I was angry at my characters. I kept writing when words flowed like cold honey. I just flipped the switch inside me and wrote.  As Julianna said in her article, I kept turning the pages. 

I finished the first draft about six months after I began. It was 70,000 words and a lot of it was shit. Some of it was brilliant. Some of it was acceptable. 30% of it was garbage I wouldn’t wipe dog poop off my shoe with.

I’m being hyperbolic, but you get it.

So, the advice I would add to Julianna’s (who knows way more about this than I do) is this: Be naive. You can’t lose if you put blind faith in yourself. You all know I hate losing, so if I’m saying this…

Believing you can’t fail may seem like you’re setting yourself up for crushing disappointment, but it’s a wonderful place to begin. Self-doubt and the knowledge that you will never be good enough comes later, when your beta readers rip your heart out, or the rejections from countless agents come flying to your inbox.

Begin naive, you can’t fail.

To Prologue or Not? (And other thoughts.)

Sometimes my brain, my plot, and the route to a decision, look like this.

During this last revision process I began to think a lot more about the techniques of storytelling I was employing in my manuscript. In the first draft — which I completed in May 2012— there was no prologue, however there was a brief and vivid flashback which ran rather long. I had this idea that if I did a prologue I would be taking the easy way out, doing something I was seeing in a lot of YA fiction I was reading. I wanted to find a new way to give this aspect of the story to the reader.

In my second draft — which I completed in late July — I wrote a brief prologue. I was never satisfied with it, but it felt necessary. I felt trapped by this convention, a feeling I really hate. For that draft though, there were other, more pressing issues to address.

Come around to the third revision — which I completed in the first weeks of October — and I found myself at a crossroads. Something about the prologue (I couldn’t tell you, maybe the tone?) felt wrong. I couldn’t help it. It read well, it operated as a prologue should operate, but I found myself dissatisfied.

In the midst of this dilemma, I was also trying to steer the novel away from comparison to a certain massive trilogy many of us love and read. The reason for this was twofold: 1) The comparison was being drawn because of setting, and 2) No one needs to try to live up to that. One of my readers helped me understand, in her very brilliant teenage way, just what was doing this in the early pages of the manuscript. Thankfully, I was happy to listen to her critique. (An aside, finding really awesome readers is maybe the most important thing about revising efficiently.)

Solving my prologue issue as well as the unwanted comparison problem turned out to have one and the same solution. I reworked the lay-out of the book and added a world-building scene to set the tone I was looking to set. Now, will there always be comparison’s we don’t want from readers and critics and people who read what other readers and critics say? Yes. Will I ever be utterly satisfied with every decision I make as a writer? Not likely. Can I accept both of those things? With a healthy dose of petulance, maybe, and a full glass of wine, maybe more.

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

— Stephen King, On Writing

In the end, I hope future readers will manage to see beyond the imperfections that are unavoidable, to the great stuff inside. I believe in my story, my characters, and the world in which they reside. I have done my best to convey that. Now I have to wait to see if I’m right.

The Choices We Make as Writers

from stickynotethinkers.com

I’m grappling right now with choice. I find choices relatively easy in my everyday life. To me, a decision is never the final say on something, so it doesn’t scare me. But when you are writing for a character, making choices can be a little bit more difficult. Most of my major rewrites have involved choices I made that were lazy. I can be a little lazy.

Occasionally. Let’s not get crazy, mostly I’m obsessive and manic. This can be good for a writer. In the first draft of my manuscript I wrote the entire inciting incident without my protagonist seeing it. She was told about it after the fact. I did this for a few reasons.

  1. I was new to writing action and felt a little intimidated by it.
  2. I didn’t really want go there. It was a lot more pleasant to hear someone else’s account rather than put her — or myself — through it.
  3. I didn’t know her that well.
  4. I had fears it would be a jumbled mess.
  5. Lazy ass.

Now, when I had done all that writing (6,000 words give or take, from the inciting incident to what followed) I began to feel uneasy. I knew that this was not good enough. I knew that I was being a coward, but the thought of cutting all of that and doing it over made me ill and need more coffee. Eventually I gave up. I cut, I rewrote, and it is one of my favorite passages in the entire book. It is emotional and nerve-racking and dark. It also prepared me for future massive cuts (the largest being the last 20,000 words almost completely) and taught me how to be a better writer.

That was a choice I made for the audience, and for me as a writer, it wasn’t for my protagonist. There is a choice I’ve made for her, a decision she actually comes to in the end of the book, that I’m not sure I can live with. It’s a bad choice. It’s murderous and selfish and kind of outside her character. It’s also exciting and willful, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. It’s something I’m grappling with right now. What do I do? I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m also feeling rather lazy.

Why lazy? Why do I keep referring to myself as “lazy”? Because I had felt done, at least, done from the perspective of a writer who’s never been published feels done. Then I made the royally stupid to choice to write a synopsis of my novel (something you need for your agent) and it brought to light this potential flaw. Maybe I’m not lazy, I’m just obsessed. Maybe I should take up knitting or start to exercise, maybe that will distract me?

(*I’m just throwing those out as two options. Two, very boring options.)

As a writer we are forced to make choices as our characters. We are forced to get inside their minds and root around for truth. It makes us feel ugly things sometimes. It makes us shock ourselves. We also have to choose when enough is enough, or when there’s more.

Manuscript One

I will readily admit that I can be a little bit obsessive. Often, this will translate itself into a tenacity and ferocity in the things that I have my mind on. I am a deeply devoted friend, mother, and wife, which can mean anything from worrying about my son’s sleep habits to giving unsolicited advice. This can be nice or enraging.

Last Tuesday evening (as some of you may know from Facebook) I finished my manuscript. I was gleeful. The excitement of having it all out of me and in my computer created wings in my soul. I had a bird inside. I made sure it was backed up and then promptly danced around the apartment with Sam. We looked like this:

Then I realized there was still so much work to be done that my head was maybe going to explode from the pressure. Okay, okay, you can do this. YOU. CAN. DO. THIS. I then looked like this:

My husband’s enthusiasm was not so easily dampened. He began to typeset my manuscript to make it more fun to read. The result was a couple days where I learned the basics of typesetting. (This is fun when there is no pressure, and annoying when InDesign fraks up.) Thursday morning, Sam and I took a leisurely walk through the neighborhood to a copy center on 7th Avenue. This was a fun trip for both of us because the copy center also sold toys. SCORE.

The copy man gave me a discount. He was surprised by the page volume and I guess felt bad for me. Sam wanted dinosaurs. I got a project folder for the manuscript. When the pages were printed and sat in front of me on the counter I felt that rush again. Nerves and excitement, adrenaline and nausea. Now physically in my hands, on paper, looking like a book, I knew a few things even more clearly than before. I knew I would finish the work because the hardest part was already done. The part of pressing through the creating.

I have a full story. No, it’s far from perfect, but it will go through many more stages before it reaches (or doesn’t reach, because there will always be flaws in anything created by human hands) perfection. This too, is OK.

I have been ensconced in editing since Thursday. I’m a little over halfway through the manuscript. I’m cutting words like nobody’s business. There are a few pages — *see below — where I thought, WTF?!? Those pages will become almost unrecognizable. Eventually the words will be right, and then the obsession will turn into something else.

A Writers List of Ways Not To Write

Some things I like to do when I’m trying to remember how to write a sentence are, at random:

  • Run through the ABC’s, then try to do it backwards. This never works. I would fail a sobriety test were this actually part of the criteria.
  • Get up, get something to drink, sit down. Get up, get a snack (usually a bagel), sit down. Drink my drink while I stare at the letters on my keyboard that have turned into hieroglyphics. Go to the bathroom because I have drank my drink and now everything that was in my bladder seems to be trying to make room for everything I just drank.
  • Check Facebook. Like a whole bunch of friends status updates. Be unable to update my own status because I can’t remember how to write a sentence. Get annoyed that I don’t have more friends to stalk.
  • Disturb the dog.
  • Turn on the TV and then wish we had cable.
  • Check Zulily to make sure there is nothing I missed when I checked it this morning/remind myself why I don’t need anymore clothes/shoes/stuff for Sam.
  • Text someone. This can be difficult because I am using only symbols.
  • Check on Samuel, who is sleeping if I am writing at home, and wish he would wake up so I could blame him for my inability to get anything accomplished. I don’t blame him to his face, to his face I give milk and fruit snacks.
  • Try to read and then get annoyed that whoever I am reading was able to finish all their sentences. Feel guilty for wanting to beat them over the head with their published book. Promise myself when I have a book published it will annoy some other writer and hopefully motivate them to push past writers block.
  • Think about Anne Lamont and her infinite writing wisdom. Remind myself that most of what I would be writing right now if I could would probably be shit.
  • Sometimes I read a passage from a YA book I like, like this one:

             “I also become a little fixated on his eyelashes, which ordinarily you don’t notice much because they’re so blonde. But up close, in the sunlight slanting in from the window, they’re a light golden color and so long I don’t see how they keep from getting all tangled up when he blinks.”

(*If you know where that’s from then we should chat about how awesome we are.)

  • That usually reminds me that I am also writing something I love, and I can put the words together, even if I have to try a hundred times to get it right.
  • Then I begin to type, and sometimes I lose my grasp on reality, I forget the world exists, or that writers block ever happens to me at all.

The Value of a Job Well Done

Something I think about a lot as a writer (mom, twenty-something, wife, Sci-Fi fan, etc.) is how much pressure we put on ourselves to produce something valuable, and just what we allow to quantify value in our lives. When I was younger, I was mostly content with just thinking my writing was good, but not great, and assuming that no one would ever want to put their money behind my words. When I was younger, I had felt that time was a lot more infinite and that achieving ones goals was better left to truly ambitious women—like Nobel Laureates, or Oprah.

When I was in my early twenties I began working on my first ever full-length project. I say “full-length”, because it wasn’t a short story, novella, or poem. It was a screenplay, one I was fairly certain no one would ever put to film, but it was nonetheless a project I deemed worthy of countless hours of my life. My screenplay was the first time I just wrote a story because I loved it. I loved the heroine. I loved her battle and her drive. I loved the secondary characters and the sleepy, eerie gloom of the imaginary town where they all lived.

She was my first ever voice in my head that I couldn’t silence, and it was riveting. As time passed though, from the initial first draft to the fourth or fifth rewrite, I began to wonder what it was all for. Why had I put pieces of me into this work, pined for it, dreamed about it, only to just have a screenplay on my computer that no one would ever see made into a film? Part of the problem was I didn’t quite know what to do with it once it was finished, and part of the problem was I never really felt finished. There was always a better way to word a scene, a more compelling image. There was always edits.

I continued to work on my screenplay after our move to New York, until finally — one night while sitting in my old nursing chair that was serving as the best seat in the house while we waited for our couch — I looked up at my husband and friend with a smile.

“It’s done.” I said, hitting save again for good measureAnd it really was. Those characters existed somewhere in a fully-formed state. They were going on with the lives that I created for them. They were happy. This was a wonderful feeling, but also a deeply confusing time. I had been with them for so long that being away felt like a break-up, and even more, that screenplay’s unfinished state had protected me from having to create something new.

In the end, I still look at my time with that project as deeply valuable, even if no one ever takes it from my hands into the next stage. The value of it isn’t monetary, it’s so much more because it’s a finished work, even if there are still flaws. Every piece of writing is that way, even great works. The value in something you create is more about what it does for you as it’s author. Sure making money would be nice (*amazing*), and having your work read or seen is even more rewarding (*terrifying*) but that is not what makes being a writer (or any title for that matter) worthwhile.

I spend many hours in my day wandering Brooklyn with my son and dog, and even more hours trying to convince him to put shoes on, clean up cars, eat his broccoli, whatever. I spend this time not because I am being paid to, but because his life and his world are valuable to me. The reward is in the process of doing and in the fact that you can do it well if you remember that.

Valued.