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.

Word — er, Sentence Structure — uh, Choice?

I am profoundly shocked everyday at how one word can change an entire sentence. One word misused, overused, or poorly placed can throw off a piece of prose faster than an entire bad sentence. This is because a sentence poorly written will usually get scrapped, but a bad word can be overlooked draft after draft after draft. Sometimes this occurs not when a word shouldn’t be there, but when it very much should. Like a sentence not quite finished. For instance—

The wind shifted with new breath, but I couldn’t see anyone.

Ok, that is a fine sentence, nothing wrong on the surface, but something about it just doesn’t sit right. So try it this way.

The wind shifted with new breath, but still I saw no one.

Better — maybe still not perfect, but an improvement nonetheless. Now, this attention to word detail isn’t something I come to naturally. Until I began the arduous task of drafting and rewriting my first novel, I was more of a broad strokes type of writer. I believed in the power of inspiration. I was also a screenwriter, which requires less combing. Strokes of genius occur, ( No mater what Stephenie Meyer says, The Twilight Saga could have cut about 250,000 words, or a whole book) but they still need to be fine tuned.

From Small House Pottery.

Writing is a craft, it requires diligence, not luck. It is something you work at, and then you scream about, and then you grab a bottle of dark liquor and lament over, and then you grow a pair and get back to work.Writing is a job, not a vacation. If you are blessed enough to turn your job of writing into an actual job, then I imagine the ball game changes again. But, no matter what, a wrong word can be why someone stops reading. And no one can afford that.

Resting like a Writer Should

I wrote a couple weeks ago about how I was filling my time in between this draft and the inevitable rewrites to follow. I expected it to be gruesome. Rest can be a phantom to the mind of a writer. Thinking like a writer is pretty hard to turn off. It bubbles within your subconscious even when you are trying to just watch The Avengers and eat some Sour Patch Kids. The brain of a writer is constantly searching, and it will keep you in a wandering bliss of never-ending rewrites if you let it.

Right before I took my break I was certain that the story was good enough to take the next step, but time away proved me wrong. I received some feedback from an early reader friend. She loved it, but she felt it could be improved. My first reaction was sort of adolescent. I felt like firing back with, Well, I rubber your glue, or some sort of nonsense like that. Instead, I took a breath and reread her comments again. This time I remembered that she was a good reader, and she was also being really gentle. She didn’t tear it apart (as an editor would) she just thought there were kinks.

I took more of a break. I decided that I needed to wait to act. I needed to stew a bit in my dissatisfaction. Every writer wants immediate, glowing reviews. We want our readers to pitch their response at us with such fervor we bend over backwards. They may, or some may, and those who do will be the ones who come to your book signings and follow your blog just to bask in the words of the one who created for them characters they wanted to live with. My friend found a character like that in my story, and this was the greatest compliment she could have given me.

I waited. Watched some more movies and tried to read some more books. Reading was hard. Reading just made me want to write. I am pretty susceptible to the power of suggestion. Someone talks about cheese, my mouth-waters for brie. Someone mentions coffee, I suddenly feel sleepy. I read beautiful writing, I need to put some words together. It’s a viscous and inconvenient truth. So I tried another movie. Another superhero movie. Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring the brother of the guy who plays Gale. The way beefier, kind of shockingly studly brother of the sort of boring guy who plays Gale. Why Thor? It was on Netflix streaming and I’m on a kick from The Avengers. Stop judging me.

Thor was the answer. (Maybe because for two hours I wasn’t thinking about holes in plot or prose, but was drooling over a pretty, pretty boy.) I don’t know why, but something clicked, and once it did, I knew I could start writing again. But I am not yet rewriting. This work will not be seen (or not in this form anyway), but it is work that I have needed to do and never seen a way to begin. It is work that changes how I see things. This work also makes a few sections of the book complete scrap.

Taking a break means letting your mind just be free. Stop writing in your head when your on the subway. Stop relating everything you experience to the plot of your book. Stop looking for answers in other writers work. Stop pretending to listen to your friends when really diagraming their sentences in your head. All these things are the crutches of a writer, and we lean on them to get through the time when we aren’t actually tapping out words. But sometimes, flopping on the couch with a glass of wine in the afternoon and watching a movie is the medicine your overworked writing brain needs. This advice goes for mothers, and students, and working professionals who live on their cell phones. Shit clears when you let it. Stop worrying you’ll lose it if you check out for a few days. Chances are, you may actually find it.

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.