Existential Terror and Self-Editing

Rewrites.  Yeah, I know I said Wednesdays were going to be about marketing, and lately they keep not being, but the first step to marketing something is to have something that agents and publishers will want to represent.  So…rewrites.

It’s like pulling out your own teeth – it’s painful, frustrating, and messy, you’re not sure if it’s really a good idea, and it seems like the process will never end.  Unlike pulling out your own teeth, though, rewriting generally produces good results.

It’s interesting to examine the evolution of a story after you’ve had some time away from it to gain perspective.  Sometimes it’s funny to see how things ended up coming together, sometimes it’s frustrating that you ended up working in the wrong direction for a while and now you have to correct your mistake.  I try to think of rewrites the way I think of personal regrets – the things I like about who I am now would not exist if I hadn’t had the experiences I’ve had or made the mistakes I’ve made…nor would my book have come to this point of potential if I hadn’t gone down a few wrong turns here and there with it, finding a few surprise solutions along the way.

I don’t think there are many writers who don’t have a pang or two when they realize drastic changes are needed to a manuscript they’re mostly very happy with.  It’s hard to really believe that something you’re mostly very happy with could need so much work.  For me, it’s initially disheartening, then I’m irritated with myself for not writing it “right” in the first place, and then there’s a phase of infantile whining about not wanting to do the hard work of fixing it.  I suppose it’s a sort of grieving process for the words that will be lost in the process.  After all, we work hard to put those words down in the first place, and hone them to some semblance of perfection in the next few drafts, and yanking them apart feels like letting chaos spill into our carefully crafted manuscript and risking complete destruction of the story.  Of course we’re resistant to major changes to our novels!  All these delicate threads woven together, and SNIP, and now they’re all loose, and what if they never connect right again????!  Existential terror!

So how do you stop freaking out and rewrite with gusto and unabashed ruthlessness toward your own words?  First, you have to have three things in place beforehand:

  1. Separate copies of every draft of your book.  You do NOT want to alter your previous documents for a new major rewrite.  You’ll cut stuff and then realize you need it, make changes and then realize you need to refer to information that’s no longer there, and generally confuse yourself.  Also, you won’t be able to go back to the previous version and start over if your rewrites go terribly awry, which can happen.  Having the old draft is both a comfort and a practicality.
  2. A notebook and various ways of color coding stuff.  Trust me.  Or, if you work at the computer exclusively, a file for notes to yourself in a program with highlighting and text color capabilities.
  3. Coffee.

The point at which I shift from existential terror to excitement about rewrites is when I can really see how the story can be better.  I don’t have to have all the answers, just a clear view of what’s holding it back and some ideas about how to help it shine.  I think it’s vital, too, going into big changes, to have a clear sense of what you want the book to be, especially what you originally wanted, above all, for this book, right from the beginning, that made you want to write it.  In fact, I even wrote myself a note before I started the second draft of The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, reminding myself what the heart and soul of the book was to me.  Many things have changed about the book…characters have come, gone, changed, etc.  Events have been cut, added, altered, moved around.  Tone has been tweaked.  Setting and concept have shifted or explained differently.  But the story is still what I wanted it to be all along – a crazy adventure with an un-self-pitying and funny protagonist determined to come back from the dead.

And it helps to see that, and know that no matter whether I cut or condense or reorganize, I can still keep the heart of the book in place, and that anything I change is just freeing the book up to be closer and closer to its full potential.  That is when I start to be excited about rewrites.

Oh, and I wrote this entry a while back about staying organized and maintaining structure during major rewrites.  This method has helped me more than I can express in words.

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The Little Rough Draft That Could

This week, I’ve finally buckled down and started serious work on rewriting the rough draft I finished in November.  In January, I reread it (the first time I’ve looked it over since I wrote it) and made about ten pages (front and back) of notes – too much exposition here, need clarification there, move this scene to here, more backstory for this person, cut that character out, etc.  Then I sidled uncomfortably away from it to avoid the part where you clutch your head in your hands and wonder how the hell you’re going to make it all work.

This week, I surprised my rough draft by confronting it outright.  It wasn’t expecting that, so my frontal assault went well.  We were honest and open with one another and the results were good – the rough draft is aware that it needs true change in its life, and it’s ready to face the challenges of transformation that it needs to go through in order to achieve its potential.  I have explained to it that it won’t do either of us any good for me to be gentle about it, that this is a time for straightforwardness and tough love.  The rough draft understands that, and claims to appreciate my good intentions, even when it hurts a little to hear the truth.

So now that we’re on the same page, (haha) I can finally get down to brass tacks.  At the beginning of a rewrite, I feel like there’s this huge, unmanageable nebula of STORY that is bigger than the sum of the words that make it up, and I’m overwhelmed at the prospect of shaping the STORY, not just the words.  It seems impossible to organize, and I worry about it for a few weeks without really accomplishing much.  Then, at some point (in this case, this past week), I just start working, and things begin to take shape and make sense – almost instinctually, connections coming together “all on their own”.

Maybe that two or three weeks of “Oh, crap, I don’t wanna do this!” are actually necessary, and maybe underneath the panic, my subconscious is working away on the story in an effort to soothe my terrified conscious writer-brain.

Regardless, once I get started, my method is firmly reliant on organization and note-making.  What I’m doing to get to draft two is:

  • Break the book up into chapters, since the rough was so rough I didn’t even try to make it coherent (50,000 words in one month will do that)
  • At the beginning of each chapter, make notes on what needs to be fixed about the material, unless the entire chapter needs to be moved to another part of the book – then, I note what material should be in the chapter and where the current material needs to be moved to
  • Include in the chapter by chapter notes any overarching themes/conflicts/ideas that need to be established by that point (such as, “By now, I need to have explained the Tiernan religion’s kin figures…might be a good spot here, when Cordell does [this].”)
  • Obey the notes.

Once you have a plan for every chapter, it doesn’t seem so horribly overwhelming to dig in and do the work.  It starts to feel exciting.  It starts to be easy, except where you run into snags, and even those start to feel like puzzles to enjoy solving (in spite of the swearing that occurs as you work on them).  It’s starting to feel exciting to me now, and although I know I will gripe and moan over this draft later, I also know that I’ll get it done and I’ll be glad I did it.

Metathesiophobia – The Fear of Making Changes

Monday is my day for writing about the actual process of writing and revising.  And today I’m going to use it to vent about my revision process, because I’m in the stage of rewriting where you just look at your notes with the same numb horror that grips you when you see a particularly nasty car accident, except that you also occasionally bang your head on your desk and moan.  (Fellow writers, please tell me you have these kinds of days, too…?  Otherwise I have to question my sanity, and I don’t really want to.)

My notes, at least, are very organized.  I read through my NaNo draft a couple weeks ago and made a detailed page-by-page rundown of any problems I found – from awkward dialogue to gaping plot holes – and finished up with a set of observations about overall issues with the book as a whole.  Then I went through the notes with four colors of highlighter – (1) needs research, (2) needs additional material, (3) dropped thread / follow up, and (4) needs clarity / flesh out.  Any problems not in those categories are pretty much too small for me to care about at this point.  My philosophy is:  Fix the big stuff first.  Usually you’ll fix a lot of smaller stuff without meaning to in the process.

So, in a way, I know what to do next – my research, cut and combine some characters, re-outline with my dropped plot points and new character set in mind, and do some writing exercises to acquaint myself better with some of the characters and their backgrounds.

What makes it overwhelming is the scope of the book.  With so many characters and such a vast amount of information I need to convey to the reader within the first 1/4 of the book, the necessity of pinning the events down while keeping the feel of the plot fluid for the reader, and a hella lot of complications, it’s a lot for one brain to keep track of.  It doesn’t help that my last book was a very focused first person POV, and now my writer muscles have to readjust to the different gravity of working in third person omniscient narration.

Woe is me.  But these are the times when a writer must buckle down and start the daunting task in spite of being overwhelmed by it.  If I need to, I will break out the colored pencils and DRAW the threads of the plotline as they move around each other and then converge and resolve.  Sometimes a brain does not want to think in words anymore, even when it is a writing brain.

Right now, anything that will get my head around this plot is my friend.

Full Speed Ahead

Here is what I’ve learned from three days of NaNoWriMo:

  • Do your word count no matter what.  Yesterday I wrote 400 of my 2000 words in a noisy laundromat with NFL news pulling at me from the TV and an old acquaintance popping over to chat intermittently.
  • If you’re not sure about a particular scene but you know what you’re going to do next, skip to the ‘next’.  Just put in a note for yourself like, “Scene where C and M are reunited.  M’s background discussed etc.” or whatever.
  • Keep notes on things you know you need to research, inconsistencies or things you want to change, places that felt awkward while you wrote them.  Keep notes on this stuff, but DON’T WORK ON IT YET.  Tweaking ain’t going to get your story out of your head and into a tangible form.
  • Reward yourself when you get your work done!  Good food, good company, and relaxation go a long way toward positive self-reinforcement.

Series Bible, Take 1

So I’m looking into this whole “series bible” thing – seemed like a good idea, since I’m about to delve into writing a trilogy.  It’s pretty self-explanatory.  A series bible is just an organized set of notes on who/what/where everything is in your books – a way to keep track of people and settings that you mention, even in passing.  So if you need that information later, you have an easy reference for it instead of having to scan back through your whole manuscript to find out what color some bit character’s eyes were. 

Honestly, I already have so many notes on this trilogy that putting together a series bible seems like a bit of a joke.  Still, I could benefit from some organization at this point, given how many versions I’ve started of this #$@% book over the years, then changed things around, then changed them back, then changed them to something entirely different, etc.

My plan for this series bible is along the lines of a binder with separate tabs for the major characters, one section for lesser and bit characters, and a section for the settings – maybe broken up into places around the main city where most of the story takes place, and all the other cities, towns, battlefields, etc. that the characters come and go through.  Personally, since I draw, I like to do sketches of my characters and the places they spend most of their time, as visual stimulation and to keep things clear and consistent.  I’ll probably put some of those into the bible, if not on my bedroom wall next to my outline.  Even if you’re not artistically inclined, you can collect photos from books or magazines, postcards, online sources, etc. and use those for your visuals.

This being a fantasy novel, I’ll also include my ridiculously extensive notes on how the different magic styles work (there are five of ’em in this book, but thankfully I know better than to info dump all of that into the story!) and maybe flesh out my notes about the two religions that are prominent in the storyline.

I’m sort of approaching the series bible concept as a scrapbooking type project, only without the fancy paper and little cutouts of birthday cakes and stuff.  Although fancy paper isn’t necessarily a bad idea, especially if it’s a pattern that would be common on clothes or wallpaper in the story setting….  Hm….!

Subplotting

Subplots are a tricky issue sometimes.  Without them, your plot can come off stale, impersonal, simplistic, and boring.  In fact, without subplot, there really can’t be any character development (unless the resolution of an internal conflict is your main plot).  Too many subplots, and you can spread yourself too thin, confuse the reader, get lost in tangents, and generally make a mess of things.

Paying attention to what works for me as a reader, I’ve decided that the best subplots are the ones which play off of the main storyline.  Preferably, a subplot not only stems from the main events of the book, but also, in return, affects the main storyline.  A sort of feedback loop of cause and effect, each building off of one another.  Get a few subplots like that going at once, and your story will practically write itself (and everyone will think you’re brilliant for pulling it off (not that I’ve experienced that part as a writer, just noticed as a reader which books I find brilliantly put together)).

George Elliot and Terry Pratchett (who probably never would’ve expected to be compared within the same sentence) are both masters of interweaving an overall plot with smaller storylines.

The last book I wrote was so narrowly focused (intentionally so) that in the rough draft, I left out all subplot, just making notes to myself of subplots that occurred to me.  Anything that didn’t hold together or any characters that weren’t coming across as full, rounded-out people, I worked through in the second draft by stirring in a few of those back burner ideas from my notes, and that’s how I knew what subplots were actually needed to carry the story off.

I won’t be so lucky with my NaNoWriMo novel in November.  It’s a huge storyline with multiple conflicts playing off one another and a cast of thousands–no, I exaggerate…only hundreds…er…well, dozens, anyway.  And all those characters have their own issues and their own parts to play, and things to overcome that will affect everybody else.  It’s rife with subplots and potential for more to pop up as I go along, and frankly, I’m a little intimidated by that.  But I’ll take a page out of my own book (haha, I make funny) and in the rough draft use only what I know I need, making extensive notes for things I’m not sure about.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Hah!  Wish me luck!!

Big Cast Novels

When you have a big cast of characters for a novel, you have a big set of challenges ahead of you.  The first of these is deciding who your main characters are.  This sounds like it should be obvious and easy to answer, but I know from first-hand experience that you, the writer, can be very, very wrong about which people your story needs, and which storyline actually works for the characters.

Sometimes you have to write a chunk of the book (or at least a few scenes) before you get a real feel for what/who works and what/who doesn’t.  My personal rule of thumb is, if a character just flows out effortlessly, that’s your main character, or at least one of your primaries.  If a character you plan on being a primary figure in the storyline is difficult, frustrating, or no fun to write, CUT THAT CHARACTER!

Let me tell you a fun little anecdote about my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel.  I came up with the initial concept about thirteen years ago.  Yes.  Thirteen years ago.  I started the book five times, got about ten chapters in, and realized it wasn’t coming together each time.  So I’d stop, work on other projects, and do some world-building for this novel on the side.  Whenever I’ve finished a short story or a draft of my other novel, I’d come back to this one.  I talked to some of my writer friends about it.  “Cut your main character,” was their advice.  Cut my main character???  But she’s the main character, right???!

This summer, between drafts of my Erica Flynn novel, I sat down and looked over my notes about my thirteen-year project.  And holy heck if I hadn’t modified the storyline to the point that my main character had become entirely unnecessary to the plot!  I’d been writing her out of the book for years, subconsciously.  I didn’t enjoy writing the scenes that focused on her, I didn’t like her much (although I admired some of her personal qualities), and I wasn’t inspired by her.  The characters I’d written the best material for were either secondary to her, or pitted against her.  These are now my main characters.  My original protagonist is gone, not even a bit part.

Go with your instincts.  Who do you enjoy writing about?  Either you enjoy writing those parts because they’re really good parts, or you’ll write them really well because you like writing them.  No matter which direction that cause and effect goes, you’re going to end up with better material.

Also, write up a list of all your characters, and write out each one’s “through line” for the book.  What changes about them – whether it’s internal or external?  The characters who change internally and externally are your strongest, automatically.  Those are your main character nominees now.  Tweak their through lines.  Make them stronger, more dramatic, more interwoven with the overall plot.  Play around with it!  Have fun!  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  Really – have fun with your writing.  You can be miserable later, when you’re revising.  Hah!  😉

A Word About World Building

For writers of speculative fiction, world building is a vital part of the process of writing.  When your story is set in a fictional time and place, you have to know your world thoroughly and in detail if you want readers to suspend their disbelief in the fantastical events you’re going to put before them.  Inconsistency, sloppy or scant texturing, and stale genre stereotypes are the bane of science fiction and fantasy writing (and reading).

How do you go about creating a whole other world?

Well, here’s how I do it.  I start with whatever originally sparked the idea for the story, of course.  What does that spark point require, contextually, from the time and place, in order to work?  Does technology need to be advanced for this to work, or does technology need to be severely limited?  If it’s limited, what has held it back?  Go from there.  Keep asking questions.  Keep answering them.  If you don’t know yet, make note of it and chip away at other things in the meantime.  If I get stuck, I’ll write a list of “10 Things I Know About [This Place]”.

Sometimes the setting is the spark, for me.  If that’s the case, I draw it out with questions and answers, find conflicts that such a society would face, pick what interests me and what types of characters would be interesting – who’s on the fringes of a culture like this, who’s intimately involved in these conflicts, who wants to help and why, who wants to take advantage of the underdogs’ weakness, etc. – and fill the story out from there.

How do you get ideas for the setting itself?

For the trilogy I’ll be working on this November for NaNoWriMo, I originally started by modeling the setting off of a real-world time and place that interests me – Renaissance Italy.  That isn’t to say I’ve stuck to accurate historical details by any means (the last I knew, Renaissance Italy was never invaded by a clan of pseudo-Russian elves) but it does mean that if I’m having trouble fleshing out details about the setting, I can refer to photos, art, architecture, cookbooks, history books, Italian folk music and folk tales – anything that can be internalized about the actual place and time and either used or modified to work with my fictional setting.  It’s research, but it’s fun research.  How could any research that led me to taste-test brandy-spiked coffee be a bad thing??

Aside from choosing a real-world basis as my starting point, other settings have come to me through toying with ideas about different societal constructs, projections of “what if” questions, working out the history and the future of my own invented world and seeing what types of cultures came together or broke apart before and after the events of the trilogy.  Even dreams, sometimes.  One of my favorite of my uncompleted short stories is set on another continent in the same world as the trilogy – a very isolated continent full of crazy-dangerous wild animals – and the whole setting and story came to me as a dream.  The architecture, the characters, the clothing, the socio-economics and political setup…I dreamed all of it.  Thank you, subconscious.  Thank you!

Should you include everything that you know about your setting in the story itself?

No.  Absolutely no.  I have a binder with maps, timelines, and notes about my setting that’s almost two inches thick.  Nobody needs to know all that crap except me.  And someday, if I ever have a die-hard uber-nerd cult following for my trilogy, maybe them.  But normal readers do not need the full extent of what you, as the writer, know about your world.  You need to know, in order to maintain consistency and keep the illusion that this place is real and that there is all of that stuff to know.  And you can never tell what will end up being pertinent to the book until you’re in the thick of it.  So know your world intimately, including what would be written in dry history textbooks in their schools, but don’t dump the history book in the reader’s lap.  Use your knowledge of the setting to enrich the story, but do it through implication, hints, details that enliven the story and the characters, dialogue and interaction, etc.  Make the story and the setting inseparable.

Making Connections

One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere.  The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.

I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use.  Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.

Why?  Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story.  It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.

The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style.  When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?”  Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with.  The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc.  It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.

Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy.  Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book.  As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources:  two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it.  Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them.  If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too.  Let’s hope, anyway – haha!

Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question.  A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?”  Go brainstorm.  It’s fun.  🙂

NaNoWriMo

This November will be my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month – and I’m very excited about it!  Other than last fall, I’ve been working full-time every November for the last several years, and this past year I was well into the process of revising the rough draft of my novel during NaNo – didn’t seem like a good idea to switch gears and start something new right then.

So this year, I get to do it, and I’m trying to think ahead and prepare for it so I can get the most out of it that I can.

If you don’t know about NaNoWriMo, the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and November 30th by writing 1500 words per day (at least!)  Correct me if I’m wrong about that word count, because I had trouble double-checking it on the NaNo website.  Of course, it’s going to be very rough, but that’s what I’ve been preachin’ about lately, right?  Write it down and THEN fix it.  NaNo has a strong online presence, too, and it’s a great way to connect with other writers and swap story talk.

I’m planning on writing the first book of a trilogy that I’ve been planning, plotting, fiddling with, rewriting, changing, doing research for, and generally screwing around with for the past 13 years.  I WANT this book to be written, dang it, and it’s time it was.  What better way to stop all the hemming and hawing and actually plunge into this story than NaNoWriMo?  That’s my plan, anyway.

In preparation for my month of glorious and frantic writing, here’s some stuff I want to do ahead of time:

  • get all my notes together and re-organize them, taking out all the discarded and altered ideas and putting those in a separate binder, so I’ll have a cohesive set of details to work from
  • finish my rough plotline for the various characters’ story arcs, leaving plenty of room for the story to change if need be
  • do more architectural drawings of the setting, to help keep my visuals consistent as I work on writing it
  • take care of as much mundane, real-world stuff ahead of time as possible to keep that month focused on writing
  • possibly do some writing exercises to draw out my ideas for the characters and the storyline – sort of a pre-emptive inspiration process
  • get some appropriate music together and make some work playlists for my writing time

Maybe it’s crazy to prep for something that’s all about keeping a sense of spontaneity, but hey, what Boy Scout doesn’t come prepared, right?

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On a side note, I have just returned from vacation, which is why I haven’t updated this week, and hopefully someday I’ll post more consistently on this blog!