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.

NaNoWriMo, Day 1

So today is the first day of my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month.  This means that (a) I will likely have a lot to say about the process of speed-writing this month and following, and (b) by the time I do my word count for NaNo, my brain is like a small mound of jelly in the middle of a dance floor on a July afternoon, which is to say mooshy and helpless and likely to be abruptly and unexpectedly squidged.  Although apparently creative, still.

Given the state of my brain right now, I will give you a quick recap of what the first day of NaNoWriMo was like for me:

Go to grocery in hopes of stocking up enough food not to have to do another big shop for the rest of November.  Buy ridiculous amounts of food and realize while putting it away that you really ought to have taken care of the laundry and dishes over the weekend, but you didn’t, because you knew it was your last weekend before diving into being a feral writer for a month.

Say to hell with the dishes and laundry, write 700 words.  Agonize.  Second-guess.  Remember you aren’t supposed to do that in November.  Sit back down.  Realize you are stuck.  Write 300 words anyway.  Realize you’re really tired and you feel like you’ve used all your ideas for today.  Sit there for twenty minutes before remembering that coffee exists.  Drink coffee, eat something (don’t remember what), and decide to play guitar for a while instead.

Sit down and try to write.  Still not feeling it.  Go for a walk and drop the rent off on the way home.  Inadvertently start writing a song while walking, and have to write it down right away when you get home.  Take a shower.  Realize you need to figure out the chords to the song you made up on your walk, before you forget the tune.  Realize you’re avoiding your novel.  Find the chords anyway, and write them down.

Sit back down.  Whinge via text messages.  Drink the rest of the pot of coffee you made earlier.  Buckle down again and write the rest of your word count and beyond, ending up with a daily count of 2348 words.

Realize you’re starving and haven’t eaten in five hours (for me, that’s eternity in food terms).  Heat up potato from dinner three days ago.  Avoid looking at dishes in sink.  Update blog.

It felt good to push past where I thought I needed to stop for the day and find a second wind.  I really got on a roll again, which I didn’t expect.  I’m both excited and dubious about doing this every day for a month, but so far my usual tricks (taking breaks to get out and walk, or exercising some other form of creative process (guitar, in today’s case), etc.) are working well for me.

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 Week in the Life

It’s been a busy week for me, writing-wise.  I finished proofreading the final draft of my novel on Tuesday, which means that today or tomorrow I will be able to wrap up the final version altogether.  Just got a few finishing touches on three chapters, and then it’ll be on to writing my query letter for an agent!

My plan is to spend October (after I get my query letter done and my book sent out) prepping for my NaNoWriMo project.  The book is the first in a trilogy, so in addition to planning the story arc for all the major characters across all three books, I’ll be looking into putting together a series bible (more about that in another post, when I’ve gotten started making one!).  I spent yesterday tacking every visual element I’ve come up with in association with this book over the years I’ve had it rattling in my head.  I have character sketches, clothing designs, a map, a grid style outline, architectural sketches of specific settings (from specific vantage points, in some cases), and ink drawings of some types of creatures the series may or may not involve.  This is all on the wall next to my bed now, which I hope will mean I’ll lie there and stare at it at night and get good ideas from my subconscious as a reward.  Ha!

October, if it goes the way I want it to, should be spent in a frenzy of sketching, inking, and coloring cityscapes and architectural studies, reading up on and eating authentic Italian food (and drink), and searching out traditional Italian and Russian folk music for the purposes of a worktime playlist.  Ah, man, what a hard life.

One of my short story beginnings also piped up this week, with lots of ideas suddenly occurring to me that will finally give the story direction, purpose, and cohesiveness.  So maybe if I’m a good little writer and get my book sent off early enough, I can spend a couple days drafting this short story before I get my head totally into the NaNo novel.  I love that writing is its own reward – literally – for me.  I’m like, I get to write a short story if I send off my book before I need to start my other book!  Hurray!  And this actually works as motivation.

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?

——

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!

Drafts

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*

Structure

So you finish your first draft of a novel, and you’re ready to edit.  It needs more work than just proofreading – there are things you need to work in, move around, combine, cut, rethink, etc.  In other words, it’s time to look at the overall structure and see where everything should go for clarity, effect, and pacing to be the best they can be.

Sometimes it’s easy to see where something can be plugged in, but when it isn’t so obvious, it can be daunting, to say the least, to start rearranging your manuscript, changing the tone of scenes and dialogue to make it all fit together cleanly, unsure what the domino effect of all that effort will be.  And if it doesn’t work, you have to undo everything you’ve worked on for weeks or months, and start trying to tackle the problems again.

It’s really hard to hold the entire structure of a book in your head (even your own book), so I decided early on in the editing process of my current novel that I was going to try a different approach to rewriting on a novel-length scale.  I made a plot layout for the whole book.  For each chapter, I did this:

  • Chapter # / Title
  • Characters’ Goals & Motivations:
  • Chapter Summary
  • Questions Raised:
  • Points of Conflict:
  • Larger Plot Movement:
  • Notes & Suggestions:

Goals and motivations are whatever your character(s) in that chapter are striving for, whether that’s “defeat the evil overlord” or “have a positive conversation with his son” or whatever.  If you have multiple characters, answer for each of them.

The chapter summary is just a brief account of the events, like an episode guide.

Questions raised means anything that either the characters themselves are asking, or that the reader may be wondering during/after the chapter.  “Who is the evil emperor?” or “How did that cheerleader learn black magic?” or “Why did the zombie cross the road?”  Anything hinted, foreshadowed, unexplained, etc. that you mean to follow up on later.

Points of conflict should include inner conflict as well as external conflict.  It will really help you pinpoint character development over the storyline arc, as well as helping you pace the action and the lead-up to the climactic scenes of the book.  If a chapter seems to have no conflict, either (a) cut the chapter or (b) dig deeper for some inner conflict or character dynamic conflicts, and make sure the rewrite brings those to the forefront.  People don’t have to fight or even argue to be in conflict – they don’t even have to be upset with each other.  They just have to have some goal or need that’s at odds with one another.

Larger plot movement – what, in this chapter, pushed the story arc forward?  It’s fine to have a chapter here or there dedicated to subplot, or to deepen the characters, but if you find you have multiple chapters in a row that don’t move the story forward, it’s time to rewrite or rearrange.  Also, if you have a high ratio of chapters that don’t move the story forward, you probably want to re-think some of the material.  And yes, character development that affects the action in the larger story does count as plot movement!

Notes and suggestions is for anything you realize as you’re reading, like, “I never answered this question in the whole book!” or “Oops, 3 chapters in a row with no forward movement.”  “This chapter is kinda short, not much happens…might be a good place to plug in [this scene].”

I found that this really helped my focus with multiple elements of rewriting.  It really helped me pinpoint pacing problems, troubleshoot boring chapters, keep the characters’ interactions true even as the characters and their relationships changed and developed, and figure out where I had room to maneuver new material into the book.

I hope it can be likewise helpful to you.

How To Write A Novel While Working Full Time (Without Going Crazy)

…or at least, without going crazier than you were to begin with.

At the time I was writing my current novel, I had a full-time job with a “flexible” schedule (flexible, in this case, meaning, “You will never be able to maintain any kind of regular sleep schedule while you have this job.”)  I wrote the first and second drafts (65,000-ish words) with said full-time flexible schedule.  Most writers have to have so-called “real jobs” to pay the bills, and it can be really frustrating when you feel like earning money is holding you back from progressing with your art.  The Sara D method for getting around that is:

1.  Pick a storyline that has a lot of potential for fun, excitement, and escapism from real life.

2.  Come up with characters you ENJOY spending time with.  They don’t have to be nice people, but they should be fun for you, the writer, to spend time with.  You want them to be interesting enough for readers to want to spend time with them, right?

3.  Set a nice, low word-count goal for yourself.  My daily goal was 250 words, because even on an insanely hectic day, I could almost always get that much writing done.  Why a small goal?  Because (a) it feels good to get it done on busy days, (b) it feels even better to surpass it on days when you’ve got more time and/or are on a roll, and (c) if you’re so tuckered out that what you’ve written on a particular day completely stinks, it isn’t a huge setback to scrap 250 words and write a new 250 words in its place.

4.  Do your word count as often as you possibly can, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, and enjoy the escapism of spending time away from real life WHILE doing something productive.

5.  DO NOT EDIT WHILE WRITING YOUR FIRST DRAFT.  That’s what the second draft is for.  Get the story down first.  Clean it up and flesh it out later.  Your inner editor will inhibit your creativity if you unleash it on the rough draft.

At least, this is what worked for me, and I don’t THINK I’m any crazier than I was before I wrote this book.  I was already pretty far gone to begin with.  😉