What I’m Working On….

I’ve started work on a new novel – a second novel set in the Underworld established in my upcoming The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.  It isn’t a sequel, per se, since it’s a new set of characters and is (mostly) set in a different part of the Underworld, so I guess that makes it a spinoff…?  Whatever it is, I’m having fun writing it and getting back into the rhythm of writing just about every day.  Figuring up what’s left of the summer, if I write 5,000 words per week, I can have a 60,000 word rough draft by the beginning of Fall semester.  This week, I only got in 2,000 words, but the beginning is always hard – when you’re in the habit of editing more than writing, it’s hard to switch gears and stop thinking your ideas to death.  The rough draft process, for me, requires letting go of 90 percent of my impulses to control the story…usually my subconscious seems to have a much clearer idea of what to do than the rest of my brain gives it credit for.  I can clean up any places where it got sloppy later.

Given that I’ll be out of the country for a month (and extremely busy) this summer, I’m not sure how likely I am to end up with a complete rough draft before school starts again, but I’ll give it a shot!  If I can churn out 54,000 words in 30 days (NaNoWriMo 2010), I don’t see why I can’t do this.

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Lament for NaNo and How to Raise a Story Once it Hatches

It’s NaNoWriMo starting today – the marathon of National Novel Writing Month – and I can’t reasonably participate this year due to school.  I’m sad about that, in spite of the fact that last year, my first NaNo, I felt half-crazy by the end of November from trying to churn out 2000 words per day.  If I hadn’t gone back to college, the plan was that this year I’d write Book Two of the trilogy I drafted the first book of last NaNo, and next year I’d do Book Three.

As it is, I will go half-crazy by the end of November due to schoolwork combined with trying to make ends meet to pay my December rent and bills, so writing needs to be my pressure valve, not an additional stressor.  I am writing, here and there, in bits and pieces, as I mentioned a few posts back.  More, actually, than I was writing over the summer, when I was trying to figure everything out ahead of time instead of just writing what occurred to me and letting it take me on a tour to see if I wanted to buy the property and fix it up.

One of my favorite things about writing, I realized yesterday, is just finding a new voice, a tone that interests me.  I love when I start writing something and it starts to sound like someone else, when it starts to evoke a feeling and a style and images that aren’t stated outright, but are clearly present.  For me, that’s always been the point where I know I have a character I can work with, a setting I can stroll around in and watch the events of the plot unfold.  If I feel like I’m tuning into a frequency that’s channeled through me, instead of like I’m forcing words to act like blocks I can build into something, then I feel at home in a story.  I want to write more.  I want to go there when I’m sad, when I’m frustrated, when I’m lonely, when I need to unwind, and, yes, when I want to celebrate, too.

And I don’t know exactly what gets me there.  Partly, it’s just a matter of, as I said, giving the piece a chance.  Starting to put it to paper, allowing it to stretch and breathe and move around without trying to shape it too much.  Then starting to see potential, introducing new elements, or figuring out what causes and effects are playing around the moment.  Once you start finding threads of cause and effect, if the voice has kicked in, you’re gold.  You can play around and find what connects to what or whom, find infinite possibilities, and then start picking the best and most interesting ones to work with.

The worst mistake I think you can make on a rough draft that’s starting to have its fledgling voice, that’s starting to take off in this way, is to worry about the grammar.  Grammar is for later.  It is the killer of baby stories that can’t fly on their own yet.  Nobody likes things that kill baby animals.  If you find your inner grammarian slavering for a feast of sweet downy feathers of fledgling story, shush it and promise it that when that nest of darling possibilities grows up big and strong, it will make a much better meal.  Then lock your inner grammarian in its kennel and go back to work.  Let the voice be what it is, especially if you’re using first person or an intimate third person perspective.  How much grammar needs to be fixed and how much is acceptably artistic choice for setting a tone is not something you need to work out on the first draft.  In general, my advice for rough drafts is:  Don’t complicate it.  Don’t make anything harder on yourself than it needs to be.  Have FUN with your first draft.  Writing is fun.  Editing is work (sometimes fun, sometimes not), but writing is fun.

Middles and Endings

I’m thinking of devoting my Wednesday posts to topics on middles and ends.  It seems only fair, since my Friday posts are exercises – and exercises are generally for the purpose of getting started.  Beginnings get all the glory, with writing, and in some ways that makes sense.  After all, nobody will get to the middle or end of your book if you don’t have a stand-out opening.  Readers and agents judge you by your first few pages, your first few paragraphs, your first few sentences.  I, myself, as a browser of books, have often put a book back after reading the first line.

However, there’s nothing more disappointing in the world of readership than a book that starts great and goes steadily (or abruptly) downhill from there.  It’s frustrating, because the writer has gotten you invested in the story, convinced you to care about the characters, and lured you into taking the time and attention to find out What Happens Next, only to let you down.  I hate it when I’m invested enough in a book that I can’t just stop reading it, but wish I could just stop reading it.

Like most avid readers, I have a hefty stack of titles I want to get around to, and if you hook me into reading your work, I expect something back for my investment.  If I don’t get it, I’ll be disgusted with you as a writer, resent you for wasting my time, and I’ll never buy or recommend another of your books…ever.  This is not the reader response an author wants, obviously.

The beginning’s job is to catch the attention of the reader and make them want to find out about the plot and the people in your story.  Once you do that, you have an obligation to follow through with a middle that does its job well – being the story.  That’s the middle’s job.

All the elements of being the story (questions raised and answered, intrigue and tension built and relieved, complications arising and being overcome (or not), downfalls suffered, redemptions achieved) have to work together to advance your plot in a way that holds the reader’s attention.  It isn’t enough to have an interesting plot.  You have to have the storytelling skills to tell it in an interesting way.  I’ve read a few books, actually, that I loved in spite of a weak plot simply because they were told in a way that kept me turning the pages, thirsty for more, curious about the characters’ next moves.

Which leaves, of course, the end.  Last but not least, dear ending.  You are just as important as the beginning, except during the slush pile years.  The ending’s job, then, is to be the payoff.  Yes, it’s there to wrap things up, but just tying up your loose ends or saying Happily Ever After may not be enough.

True, there are some genres we expect a certain type of ending from – horror usually ends with a twist or a final scare, sometimes the gruesome death of a character who thought he/she had gotten away; romance is often the happily-ever-after scenario; a series will sometimes set up the conflict for the next novel; etc.

Specifics aside, however, I think what makes for a truly great ending is this:

  • A sense of how things have changed, especially in the characters’ internal landscapes.  A sense of how far things have come or how far things have gone.
  • A sort of Zen acknowledgement that things began in a status quo and that things will return to a status quo, even if the new status quo is entirely different from the old.
  • A payoff worthy of the journey, whether your book is a wild adventure or an introspective/interpersonal struggle.  A payoff that suits the story, too.  Don’t get melodramatic if the rest of the book was low-key and subtle.  Don’t have a drawn-out, ho-hum ending to a book full of explosions and gunslinging.  Don’t kill someone off arbitrarily just to end on a poignant note if the rest of your book was light-hearted.

Decisions, Decisions

I used to write blindly – no idea where a piece was going, what length I was shooting for, what type of story or book it was going to be, what the storyline actually was…nothing planned.  While the spontaneity had its perks, I rarely finished anything.  These days, I do free writes from time to time, writing whatever comes to mind, as a way to purge, as a brainstorming tool, to make connections and associations – in short, to get the advantages of spontaneity without the commitment to making it be a story.

And when I sit down to a project, I know what I want from it.  I don’t plan for every turn of events, don’t outline beyond a rough arc and a few spots of tricky or intricate turns, but I do have some idea of how I want things to end up, and a few of the places I want the story to go through along the way.  I also tend to decide, ahead of time, on what kind of story I want to be writing.  Not necessarily genre (my stuff tends to be weird amalgamations of bent genres fused together into its own thing), but I’ll have in mind, say, High Concept Zany Adventure, With Funny Bits In.  (That would be The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, by the way.)  Or Uplifting Post-Apocolyptic Story, With Rabbit.  (Short story in progress, as well.)

For me, setting a few ground rules actually opens up possibilities rather than limiting my ideas.  Having a direction, something to aim for, makes me look at the broad horizon of the storyline as a whole, rather than plugging along paragraph by paragraph, missing the forest for the trees, working only with what I have written rather than looking at what I can write next.

There are many times I find myself borrowing metaphors from the process of making visual art as a way to look at writing.  The worst part of starting any art project, for me, is the blank page.  Endless possibility is weirdly inhibiting.  Blocking off a few shapes helps you start looking at what you do know needs to go into the piece.

Having a little definition, really knowing what you want a piece to be, goes a long way – at least for me.  If I have a clear sense of what I’m aiming for, everything starts to flow.  I know what kind of things I want to have happen, what fits, what won’t, what I need to happen and how to make it work with the tone instead of against it, where some relief is needed if the story is getting to heavy or where some darkness is necessary if it’s getting too silly and off-the-wall.

So I will keep doing free writes when I’m stuck, need ideas, or am between projects, but I will also set some clear markers for myself when I sit down to really work on something…because that’s how I get things done.

Fancy Meals and Rewrites

My Wednesday posts have been about marketing for the past couple of months.  Since my own marketing is currently on hold while I punch up the first part of my book (the better to appeal to potential agents), “marketing” is, at the moment, equating to “rewriting” in my mind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about presentation – not in terms of query letters or synopsis writing this time – but in terms of sample material:  the first 50 pages of the book, and even more vitally, the first 5 pages.  Don’t get me wrong; my ego hasn’t failed me entirely.  I think the first 50 pages of my book is good material.  But from an objective point of view, if I didn’t know the rest of the book or what was coming next, I can see that it doesn’t look like the book it later becomes.  It looks like a different kind of book entirely, and if my query letter promised something that sparked an agent’s interest, and then the opening wasn’t what they expected based on my query, it makes sense that they’d turn the book down.

It’s sort of like how gourmet meals are “all about the presentation”.  If you’re going to serve an Italian main course, for example, then maybe a German appetizer isn’t going to give your clientele the right impression about what’s coming next.  Maybe if your thing is eclectic world fusion cuisine, you should present that from the very first dish, no matter how good that Spanish tapas dish might be as a starter course.

So it is with writing.  The flavor doesn’t have to be identical all the way through (how boring would that be, in a 5-course meal or in a novel?), but it should have some consistent elements right from the start.

Friday Exercise – First Lines

Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind.  Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one.  Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.

And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book.  I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement.  If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere!  I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.

How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start?  A big part of it is hints.  Foreshadowing.  Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand.  Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers.  And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write).  Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character.  Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t.  /Rant.

Anyway, on to the exercise:

Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening.  If possible, hint at more than one event!  If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint.  Some examples:

  • The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me.  (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
  • Being dead has its advantages.  (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
  • There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
  • “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID.  “I thought you were lying.”
  • She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.

Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.

The Grindstone

Marketing.  Bleh.  I’m so sick of doing it right now that I really really thought about skipping my post about it for today, or cheating and posting about something more fun.

As a compromise, this is a post sort of about marketing and sort of about rewriting.  In the past few weeks, I’ve started to realize that the opening of the novel I’ve been sending out is really not the best representation of the style, tone, type of story, or flavor of the book, and that it also puts forth most of the narrator’s bad side right off the bat, without giving a reader much to grab onto and like about her.  I’d never take away her flaws – they’re a good chunk of what drives her throughout the storyline, and aren’t necessarily flaws except when she lets them get out of hand.

Why didn’t I realize this before?  Well, I sort of did, but I wasn’t sure how big a problem it was.  As the rejection letters have come rolling in, I’ve started to think, Maybe it’s a Big Problem.  I’ve still got a sample out to an agent, so I won’t be impulsively rewriting anything until I hear back about that, but if I get a “no” from him, I think it’s time to sit down and look at how to get the most appropriate, enticing start to this book at the start of the book.

Currently, it’s chronological – it starts with the narrator’s death scene.  Now, I’m thinking I should start it after she’s already dead, raise questions about how she ended up that way and so forth as part of the hook, and catch the reader up as the plot moves along.  The good news is, I’ll probably be able to keep the material, just reorganized, and any dead weight (no pun intended) will be easily shed in the process (since I always felt like the first part of the book was a little more bloated than I wanted it to be, and yet the pacing in the first five chapters has always felt like a whirlwind).

So there.  The moral of this post is:  Be brutally honest with yourself about the first few chapters of your book.  Read it as if you don’t know what comes next.  And don’t judge it on whether or not you would buy it.  Judge it on whether or not you would sell it to make your living, based on the first five pages or so, when you have five hundred other queries to get through this week.  Because that’s the kind of person you have to impress.

Friday Exercise – Evidence of Others

Take a walk somewhere.  Anywhere.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  If you’re anywhere urban, suburban, or otherwise sometimes populated by other humans, look for one sign of another person having been there (who isn’t there now).  Graffiti.  A cross next to a bad turn on a country road.  A hand print on a toy store window.  Anything.  Brainstorm about this person – were they here alone, or with someone?  How were they feeling?  What was their purpose?  What is the rest of their life like?  Free write about it, or if a story just comes to you, start writing it.

If your walk is out in the woods, away from people, turn your attention to evidence of animals.  Prints, scraped bark, old nests from prior years, burrows.  See what’s around.  Write from the animal’s point of view, or if that’s not your cup of tea, think about what kind of character would pay attention to the details you’ve noticed.  A hunter?  A bird-watcher?  A conservation expert?  Someone from the past, who needs to pay attention to the environment around him/her in order to survive?

Interview

Send a character to a job interview.  You can start prior to the interview itself, with the character mentally preparing for it, or start with the actual exchange.

There’s a lot to be revealed here – why the character is switching jobs, what kind of job they have now and how they feel about it, what they’re striving for that this new job might offer (or may fail to offer), how the character feels about his/her life, how he/she deals with stress and his/her level of self-confidence, what his/her skills and qualifications are….  And that’s just the interviewee.

Your interviewer has a goal here too – what kind of person is he/she looking for, and why?  What will he/she like or dislike about another person?  What is a point of contention or a reason to pass judgement?  How does he/she feel about hiring someone new – maybe this person has never conducted an interview before, or maybe this is the millionth time in his/her career.  Maybe the vacant position belonged to a friend – or an enemy.

There are a million angles to approach this from, whole back stories the folks in this scene could bring to the table, and plenty of opportunity for conflict (both internal and external) to grow a story from.