While I haven’t yet started the hopefully-final draft of my current novel, I’ve learned a heck of a lot in the process of writing this book.  The last novel I finished (six years ago) is a big wad of mistakes tangled around some good ideas, and it’s beyond me still how to extract the good stuff from the mess.  So when I started the first draft of my new book – The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn – I took a very different approach.

In the past, I’ve agonized over rough drafts, trying to make them as close to final drafts as is humanly possible, the idea being to eliminate as much of the rewrite process as I could.  Truth to tell, that’s worked great with short stories, but a novel is a whole different animal.  The trouble with trying to write a perfect first draft is, it takes forever, and the content is not always as pertinent to the story as you thought it was at the time.  You get too focused on the details, and lose sight of the big story.  The details are much easier to go back in your rewrites and fix, though – mess up the big story, and you may never figure out how to untangle the good from the bad.

In addition to writing, I also dabble in graphite drawing.  One thing I learned from drawing is, if you get the whole picture sketched out and make sure that everything is proportionate and that the composition is strong, then when you add the shading, you’ll end up with an excellent picture.  If you start filling in shading before you’ve finished your outline, however, you’ll usually notice (eventually) that your perspective, proportion, and/or composition is off, and trust me, you will never get the picture to look right if you’ve already started the shading on a badly-done sketch.

So when I started my rough draft of The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I applied what I learned from visual art to written art – I thought of the first draft as a sketch.  I did it quickly and stayed loose with it, making adjustments but not getting too attached to any one line, removed what didn’t work and didn’t fill in all the empty space (subplot) until I’d finished the main storyline.

My first round of rewrites was heavy work, but, for me, it’s much easier to add material than to cut it.  I had lots of ideas for subplots, and tons of notes about the secondary characters and their backgrounds that I didn’t know whether to include in the manuscript or not during my whirlwind first draft.  When I sat down to work on the second draft, I looked over what I had and made notes about what was needed, what felt like it was missing, where the characters came off flat, etc. and coordinated that information with what I had made notes about.  All I had to do was expand on ideas that had already occurred to me, figure out where it made sense within the story and how it would affect the larger plot, and shape the story accordingly with the new material.  Almost everything “missing” was accounted for in my notes, and although it was hard to come up with the stuff that wasn’t accounted for, it was muuuuch easier than cutting out the “extra” notes that I’d made for things that really wouldn’t have worked.

The third draft, which I just finished last week (weeee!), I had some beta readers’ feedback to work from.  The majority of the rewrites on that round were for clarity, consistency, maintaining the readers’ suspension of disbelief, pacing, and improving scenes that weren’t working or weren’t working well enough.  There were still a couple areas of major expansion, but for the most part, it was troubleshooting.  I imagine the next draft will be no expansion and all troubleshooting (though that may be wishful thinking – haha!) but I’ll have to hear what my theta readers (is that a term?) have to say about that!  *grin*

Unsticking Stuck Scenes

I know things are really “clicking” with a project when my ideas converge so that the scene I’m writing (or rewriting) does multiple jobs.  Notes I’ve scribbled to myself about needing to fit this idea in or that line of dialogue (and I’ve been agonizing over where the heck I can fit it in), problems with pacing, a character having it too easy when I need the stakes high for them, etc. suddenly snap together in my brain to make everything work.  It’s an awesome feeling when it happens.

How does it come about, when it does, and how does a writer make it happen, when it doesn’t?  Usually, if I’m stuck or have writer’s block about a certain scene, it’s because there’s something that hasn’t clicked into place yet.  The basic elements are there, but something is missing, and I can’t always put my finger on it.

Some things that I’ve found helpful for getting myself unstuck and making my brain epiphanize faster:

  • Keep detailed notes on what you know you need to work into the story, and about problem areas that just aren’t working (even if you aren’t sure WHAT doesn’t work yet).  So often, looking over my notes about this kind of thing will suddenly spark a solution that knocks out three or four problems at once.
  • If you can’t put your finger on exactly why a scene isn’t working, start with the characters.  How is the storyline affecting them at this exact point in the narrative?  How are the characters affecting each other?  Are they feeling just one emotion, or are there mixed feelings about what’s going on?  People have a lot going on, psychologically, and the most obvious actions and dialogue are not always the most realistic, the most accurate for character consistency, or the most useful for the story.  The more in-depth you know your characters, the easier it is to tap into secondary or conflicting emotions to get what you need out of them.
  • Take a little time away from the story.  If you’ve been staring at the screen trying to puzzle it out for three hours and still don’t know what to do with it, take a break!  Let your subconscious mull it over while you relax, do something fun, do some chores, whatever.  It’s sneaky, and gets your subconscious to do the work for you.  I’m often surprised when, in the middle of playing a video game, I’m suddenly hit with the solution to everything that’s been wrong with my story for the past week.
  • Change the tension level.  Either make things waaaay worse for your characters, ramp up the obstacles they’re facing, etc., or give ’em an unexpected ray of hope, moment of calm, or unlooked-for ally.  I like to do this in a separate file so that I don’t have to worry whether it works or not–if it doesn’t, I can just go back to my original scene and try something else to fix it!

Cut It, But Don’t Toss It

A harsh reality of being a writer is that, sometimes, you have to cut characters, scenes, descriptions, and sometimes great swaths of those words you spent hours getting out of your head and into your story.  It’s especially hard if you LIKE the material you’re cutting out, but if the story is stronger for it, it’s gotta be done.

Yesterday, I was talking with some other writers about the editing process, and in particular about what happens to the material I remove from my stories.  I never get rid of the material I cut, unless it’s just a sentence or a rephrase.  Years and years ago, my mother, who is an author herself, told me (in relation to writing), “Never throw anything away.”  I didn’t understand the full importance of that advice until I’d made the mistake a few times over of deleting something and then realizing I was going to need it, after all.

Other reasons not to throw away cut material:  You never know when you may be able to use it in a different story altogether, such as the beautiful description it broke your heart to remove, but later realize would fit perfectly in your next book’s setting.  Or the character you longed to keep in that short story you wrote last year, but he/she just didn’t fit – and now you’ve thought of a perfect storyline for him/her to have a story of his/her own.  You may be able to turn a cut scene into its own short story.  You may end up combining the things you cut from one project into a whole new project.  Bottom line:  you’ve already done the work for this stuff, and you never know when you might want it for something.  Call it a pack-rat mentality or call it stocking up for hard times, whichever you want, but so often I’ve sighed with relief when I realized I still had this or that scene saved to my “parts” file.  It doesn’t hurt to have a few extra Word docs lying around, but that panic-stricken, “AAAAAAAAARGH!!!  I’ve lost that scene forever, and now I need it back!!!” is something I’d prefer to avoid whenever possible.

As to how to keep your “parts” organized….  For short stories, I have one collective file for the pieces I cut.  All my short stories are saved as separate files in one folder together, along with a file called “spare parts”.  Anytime I hack a section out of a short story I’m working on, I open up the spare parts file, cut and paste from the story file to the parts file, save, close “spare parts”, and keep writing.  With novels, I have a folder for the novel, within which are the files for the book itself (with revision numbers, since there will be multiple drafts, and I DO keep back copies of old drafts, in case I don’t like the direction my editing has taken things), and a file called “[working title] parts.doc”.   That way, I don’t get any of my parts files confused.

And yes, I even keep scenes that I really, really hate, and hope will never see the light of day.  So if, in years and years, I’m ever clenching at my chest, wheezing for breath, and trying desperately to delete things from my computer, you will know that I’m trying to get rid of those really bad parts of my writing so that posterity will never see it – LOL!

The Obligatory “Outline” Discussion

One of the topics that’s bandied about most often among writers is outlining.  Should you do it or not, how detailed do you get with it if you do, how far should you let things stray from your original outline (if at all), is outlining the death of a story from the outset…?  Many a debate is had about outlining at writer’s workshops.

So what’s my take on it?  Do it, if it helps.  If it impedes you, don’t.  Personally, I tend not to write an outline, but I do make copious notes for myself on things I want to include in the storyline.  Sometimes it ends up looking a lot like an outline, because I try to keep it in a rough chronological order.

Generally, how I decide whether to outline or not is based entirely on whether or not I can hold all the vital plot information in my head while I’m writing.  If I can’t, I’ll stop and make reminder notes to myself, or put the book itself aside for a few days to write an outline.

The down side to having an outline is, sometimes you feel obligated to follow it to the letter, and get yourself bogged down into writer’s block.  The down side to NOT having an outline is, sometimes you write yourself into a corner–and can’t untangle the story without completely dismantling it and starting over.  Either way, the trick is to balance flexibility with clear direction.  You’ve got to be going somewhere with your story, even if you don’t know quite where until you’re done writing it.  On the other hand, you can’t make something work if it just doesn’t fit with the actual, fleshed-out story.  It may look great in the outline, but when you’re working with your characters, you may realize that they aren’t responding quite the way you expected.  That means that either (a) you need to go with what your characters are telling you or (b) you need to tweak the circumstances or add another layer to the events that WILL get your characters to react the way you need them to.  How do you know which one of those is the right solution?  Easy.  Whichever makes the story and the characters stronger and more interesting.

Now, for someone who doesn’t usually outline, it’s kind of hard for me to do it when I need to.  My husband (also a writer) passed on a method of his own to me a couple of years ago (and he’ll be very pleased to know he’s made his first “appearance” on this blog), which I’ve found very helpful.  It’s easiest done on the computer, where you can rearrange things easily and without having to use an eraser.  I use Word for it, because I can use bullet-points to organize everything.

If you have a definite beginning, middle, and end in mind, write those down as three separate points.  Anything you know for sure you want to have happen, put in semi-chronologically between those points.  Then expand on each of those points or break them down into individual events or scenes.  I’ll use, for my example, the guy from my post about One Damn Thing After Another–the guy who saved his dog from being eaten by zombies.

So let’s say that’s part of a novel.  The overall story is that this guy and his dog have to survive an outbreak of zombie football player attacks in a small Midwestern town, and you’ve decided that the source of this particular set of zombies is a spurned cheerleader who’s an expert in black magic, which she’s used to bring all these football players back from the dead.  You have an overarching plot, there.  In the most general terms, then, you have:  Beginning – main character and dog living in small town.  Middle – angry cheerleader uses black magic to raise zombies from dead, main character and dog fight off zombies.  End – main character and dog survive.

Okay, so if you know anything about your characters, that’s the first way to expand things.  Is this the main guy’s hometown?  If not, why did he move there?  Why does he live alone with his dog?  Is he divorced, not married yet, reclusive, or just happy to be a bachelor with his best pal the dog as his only responsibility?  Does he know the football players or the cheerleader?  (It’s better if he does.  In fact, I might make him the coach of the football team or something.  Get him really involved!)  Why’s the cheerleader so pissed?  And how the $&#* does she know black magic???  This is stuff you’d answer in “plot points” in between your beginning and middle.  Once you answer that stuff, I’d bet anything that more ideas for things to have happen will occur to you.  Now the middle will be easier, because you’ve got things set up and the characters are probably clearer in your mind.  You can flesh out the middle of the outline, or start working on the beginning and see what direction your characters go with your setup.  Either way, your characters should be directing the action once you’ve set things up for them.  And the end?  Well, of course, we said the main guy and his dog survive.  Whether they survive and are traumatized for life, survive and live happily ever after (vowing never to trust cheerleaders again), survive and the man marries the cheerleader’s cute algebra teacher who worked out where the zombies were coming from and saved man and dog from certain death, etc., will all come down to how you fleshed out the middle of the story.  And if you knew from the start that you wanted, say, the ending with the algebra teacher, then you’d have planned the middle accordingly.  Sometimes working backward is an excellent plotting strategy.

I like using this style of outlining, because it’s as much brainstorming as organizing–and I love brainstorming.  You also don’t have to fill in every blank, which leaves a feeling of flexibility to the process of the actual writing.  There, Luchian, you have your debut on my blog, and you have my thanks for your plotting methods, O Plotting Wizard.