Back When I Could Draw….

Once upon a time, around 1999-2003 or so, I used to be able to draw. I’m out of the habit now, although I still occasionally do an art project. But I’m scanning in some of my old drawings so I’ll have digital copies of them, which is a bit of a trip down memory lane. The two drawings included in this post were done toward the beginning (the tree frog) and end (the hawk) of my first semester of art class at Corydon High School, back in 1999. I have many good memories of learning to shade without scribbling in that class, most of them with a soundtrack of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with many good conversations with my friends and with our awesome art teacher.

Something I learned in that class about drawing, I’ve also learned to apply to my writing: if you try to put a drawing together by drawing and shading each part perfectly, you’ll end up with a distorted (if well-shaded) image, essentially impossible to fix (short of erasing the whole thing and starting over). The same applies to writing a book – at least, in my experience. If you painstakingly perfect every scene as you go, you might end up with beautiful sentences or passages, but the pacing is terrible and the plot is too thin in places and too overdone in others. And you can’t just pull it apart and stick it back together so easily, because moving those lovely sentences into a different context usually takes all the power out of them. Having learned this the hard way, I compare my writing strategy these days to the process of drawing:

002 First, you sketch the outline. The outline is rough, vague, and leaves out the details and the shapes the shading is going to fill in. Then you write your rough draft, which is like the first pass at shading a drawing – get your contrast set up where you need it by filling in your darkest darks and marking off where your lightest lights will be, making sure all your proportions (pacing) are right. The second draft is blending – smooth it out, shade in your grey areas, and get rid of the pencil marks left over from your sketch. And in your third draft, you perfect your details, clean up, and bring out anything that needs sharper focus or more definition.

So that is how my art teacher from 16 years ago taught me both how to draw and how to write novels. Further proof, as if we needed it, that one kind of creativity informs another.

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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.

What Day is This? Saturday? Tuesday? Wednesday.

Having successfully completed another semester of school, and not having posted anything on my blog in that entire semester, on this first day of my summer break, it seems like a good idea to update.

My writing life has felt very much on hold for the past four months, but when I think about it, I did make some progress.  I got 5 rejections from agents for my Erica Flynn novel (3 of those in the same day, which is a first for me).  I converted my 50,000-word rough draft from NaNoWriMo 2010  into a reasonable working outline.

Now that I have all summer free (well, free aside from my job and my assistance in the archaeology lab on campus) my brain is turning to questions about new project options.  Should I finish outlining the unwritten 2/3 of the events of my NaNo 2010 project?  Should I draft something new?  And if I draft something new, which of my new ideas should I work on – or how can I combine all of them into one cohesive novel?  Should I outline first, and then write a draft of a new book?  Or should I wing it, NaNo style, but spread it out over 3 months instead of just one?

It popped into my head this morning that it would be sort of fun to do a complete outline of a book every day for a week, no holds barred on going over the top with the plot or being silly about it.  As a rule, I get a lot more out of nonsense than I do over-planning and being too serious with my work.  It might be a good way to loosen up and shake some inspiration loose!  Maybe I’ll do one tomorrow and my next post will be about how it turns out.

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.

A History of Writing, Part II

Last fall, I wrote a post about the beginnings of my writing life, https://saradeurell.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/a-history-of-writing/, in which I said that someday I’d write a Part II about my adolescent writing projects.  So here it is.

I finished a 100-page book when I was about ten (it was a pretty trite fantasy about a unicorn slaying a dragon, and the only good thing to come out of it was a weasel of a character who played both sides against one another through the whole story).  Wrote a badly-researched ghost novel of about 120 pages, finishing when I was 12.  Then I went through a phase of writing completely ridiculous horror stories (probably because that’s what I was reading).

And then, at 14, I decided I wanted to be A Very Serious Writer.  I wanted to write sweeping, epic, heartbreaking novels that teachers would someday force their high school students to read.  So I started planning and building a world for the most complicated fantasy novel ever conceived of in the history of mankind.  (Incidentally, I tried to write that same novel again during NaNoWriMo last year, and it’s still too complicated for me to get my head around.)  I was 17 when I admitted to myself that I just wasn’t ready to write anything that BIG and decided to try my hand at a literary novel with only a few major characters instead.

My main hangups as a teenage writer were that (a) I spent too long trying to write a perfect first draft and skewed the focus of the plot as a result and (b) I took everything far too seriously.  I didn’t want to be funny, and I didn’t want to be fun.  I wanted to be profound – which is a problem if you’re only 17 and don’t have enough life experience to be profound, and also usually makes your writing (or at least your narrator) sound pretentious, which is, ironically, one of my own pet peeves with what I read.

I finished the rough draft after a grueling 4-year wrestling match against a main character who dragged his heels every step of the way, reread it, and realized with horror that “flawless” was exactly what my book wasn’t.  I wrote exclusively poetry and short stories for years afterward.

It wasn’t until I started working on The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn that I hit my stride and my modus operandi as a writer.  Everything clicked with the writing of that book.  Self-discipline, setting goals for myself and surpassing them, knocking out a draft in a reasonable amount of time, taking time to get perspective between rewrites, and rewriting ruthlessly…all that came with the process of writing Erica Flynn.

The moral of the post, I guess, is that writing is something you can really only learn by doing it.  And you aren’t wasting time by making mistakes, even if an entire manuscript is just one big tangle of mistakes.  Like anything in life, it’s only a waste if you don’t learn from it, if you ignore the lessons available to you within an experience, if you keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.  Keep trying new things.  Keep experimenting.  Try new methods.  Branch out.  Keep trying.

And don’t take yourself or your writing so seriously that it isn’t any FUN!  It’s a rare reader that dislikes fun, but there are plenty of readers looking for it.

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.

Middles

Let’s talk about middles.  The middles of stories or novels, which I think is the most difficult part of any plot.

For me, I think part of the difficulty lies in having too many options.  There are too many directions to take things!  Too many choices about when this happens or what causes that or whether to add new characters or stick to just who I started with.  Another problem I face when moving the plot past the beginning and into the middle is, I get attached to the setup.  If I start a book or a story, chances are I’ve started out writing about a place, a person, a condition or emotion, and/or a situation I find interesting and want to explore.  Moving into the middle means shifting away from that, and often, I don’t want to at first – especially if it changes the tone.

I’ve learned that that attachment can be a benefit, as well as an obstacle, because it’s often a good instinct waving its arms at me and saying, “Hey!!  Don’t make this shift too abrupt for the reader!  Your pacing is going to SUCK if you don’t give ’em something to help them transition here along with the characters!”  Now, when I get the pangs of “I don’t wanna move on to the next part!” from my whiny little internal voice, I think, Hmmm.  What can I do to make this change feel smoother and more natural?  Why does it feel too abrupt?  What’s missing? and instead of a bang-head-on-keyboard session, I get to have a brainstorming session instead.  Much healthier for the forehead.

The “too many choices” problem, I don’t have a solution for yet – just keep writing and see what happens, or think out the possibilities logically and narrow them down until they’re at least manageable, if not carved in stone.  If your decisions for the plot don’t work, it’ll become apparent soon enough…and rewrites are going to be necessary no matter what you do.  I console myself by reading the notes of Dostoevsky (one of my writing heroes), who had some of the worst initial ideas for the endings of his books that I’ve ever encountered, and yet the end results of his labors are beautifully written, heart wrenching and heartwarming, and brilliant (although his final endings are still shaky sometimes, I admit (sorry, Dostoevsky)).  So my consolation to myself is knowing that if a writer that fantastic had plenty of bad ideas, it can’t be so bad to have bad ideas.

I guess the moral of this post is, write the middle even if you’re intimidated about it, figure out why you’re intimidated about it if you need to, and rewrite it if it doesn’t work out.  That’s all you can really do, unless you want to give up.  And you’re not a quitter, right?  RIGHT???  Good.  I thought not.

Reflections on NaNoWriMo 2010

I have mixed reactions to my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short, NaNo for shorter).  For those who are unfamiliar with it, the idea is to write 50,000 words or more in 30 days or fewer.  Generally, it’s advised to write at least 1667 words per day (which will get you to the 50,000 goal if you stick to it every day in November).

My preparations for NaNo were woefully inadequate for helping me get through the month’s word count.  I know there are some writers who wing it in November and do just fine, but, although I shy away from a strict outline process in favor of spontaneity, I have a lot of trouble holding the middle of a novel together during my first stab at it.  Without a clear sense of how things get from point A to point C, my brain goes into a death spiral of doubt, confusion, obstinacy, and just plain childish frustration.  Normally, I can take a step back and spend a few days working out the big picture before I have to force the story on toward a conclusion, giving me a chance to regroup, as it were, and find the logic of the next few steps – like looking at the whole chessboard before you make your move.

In the frenzy of NaNo, there was no way I was going to have the leisure to take such a tactical approach – the whole point, as I understand it, of NaNo is to push yourself and trust the process to produce its own results in the long haul of the month.  So, I pushed myself and watched to see what would happen.  I don’t feel I’ll know exactly how much or how little I got out of the NaNo approach until I start my rewrites (not anytime in the next two weeks, at least, I’ll tell you!) but I will list some of the pros and cons as I see them now, in the immediate aftermath:

  • + I have an entire rough draft of a novel that didn’t exist a month ago
  • – I have a great deal of housework, shopping, and errands to catch up on after neglecting all other aspects of my life for a month
  • + I discovered some character vulnerabilities and inner conflicts that I never would have thought of if I’d sat around trying to come up with them, but in desperation to find something to churn out words about, I essentially stream-of-consciousnessed them into existence
  • + I found unplanned and unexpected characters and subplots that will contribute a great deal to the main storyline, which if I hadn’t been in a hurry to get a word count out, I would’ve refused to add in out of fear of further complicating an already complicated novel
  • – I felt mostly like a crazy person through the better part of last month
  • – This is the worst rough draft I’ve ever written.  It’s not cohesive in the least, has almost no middle, and isn’t even in any kind of order.  I think I could’ve done a much better job on it if I’d had more time to think it out
  • + I have the basics of the entire plot laid out, and I feel like the middle will be much easier to fill in now that I know exactly how the book ends (I wrote the final scene on my last day of NaNo)
  • + I feel like a superhero for having accomplished this insane feat!

Looking over those, I think the pros far outweigh the cons, although I doubt I would’ve said that a week ago, in the throes of whiny inner-artiste agony and despair and with almost no food in the house because there wasn’t time to shop and do my word count.

All in all, it was worth a month of feeling sideways, living cooped up in my own head, being out of touch with almost everyone in the world, and never really being able to relax.  Yes, it was hard work, and yes, I felt stressed out and at times seriously questioned my sanity and adulthood because of how crappy I felt being stuck at home all the time.  But one month of suffering is well worth having a great starting point for a novel I’ve wanted to write for the past twelve years.  Not to mention the ego boost of finishing.  Ha!

Looking Ahead

I’m curious to see how awful the editing process will be after I get the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo novel finished.  Writing an entire draft in a single month sounded crazy to me at first, but (at least with a pre-plotted concept) it’s going surprisingly well for me.  If the second draft rewrites are Hell on Earth, maybe this won’t become a regular practise for me, but if I find that the rewriting is no worse than usual, this is going to become my novel-writing method from now on!

Granted, all I do other than write and work right now is sleep and eat (not at the same time, thankfully (yet)) but one month out of the year is well worth it if I come out of that month with a novel to show for it.

I’m not sure what the point of all of this is, since normally my posts center around some kind of observation on the process itself, a method that has worked for me, or a brainstorming method.  Troubleshooting, as it were, for the writing and editing processes.  I’ll try to keep that up, but most of my mental energy right now is going straight to the pages of my book, so the blog may suffer in November.

So, I’m sorry for the brain-dead post, but that’s all I’ve got right now.  I’m zapped!