When An Old Project Surprises You

It’s never fun to shelve a project. To admit temporary defeat. To say “all this work I’ve done isn’t paying off in the immediate future, if ever.” But in order to keep improving our craft and using our time wisely, it is a necessary part of being a writer. But the fun part is picking up such an unfinished story a year or two later and saying “Wow. This is actually really good.

The project I speak of is The Shadow of Saturn, a dramatized memoir about my time as a NASA intern. I cranked out 50,000 words of it for NaNoWriMo 2012, rewrote most of those 50,000 words (see Thomas, I do sometimes stop in the middle of a draft and go back! :P), then shelved it indefinitely. I just wasn’t ‘feeling’ it anymore. I was feeling Paradisa more, so I started Paradisa and didn’t look back.

This book was my first attempt at writing after a three-year hiatus. I cringed at every word. I hated writing it because I felt so self-conscious about my style. Which is why I was so delighted to pick up that unfinished draft yesterday, flipping through it, unable to stop reading, constantly thinking “This is actually a decent start.”

I already have a full outline finished for this book, although it is way too long. One of the reasons I never finished it is because the outline puts it at about 150,000 words. That is longer than this novel has any right to be. So maybe I’ll futz with the outline some this week. After my Paradisa edits, of course :P But I’ll need something to work on during my next beta round so…perhaps this is a worthy side project.

As I read, I just kept thinking, “I want other people to read this book.” And because it’s a memoir, I need to get it all down before my memory starts waning. I’m already three years removed from the experience. I don’t want it to grow much longer.

Anyway, thought I’d chime in with a happy Monday post ;) You can see my scene counter has gone down slightly in the sidebar. Just 11 more to go. How was your weekend, Pressworld? And have you ever dusted off an old project with delight?

What Happens After This Draft? – My Revision Process

As I approach the end of my next Paradisa draft, I’m already thinking about the steps that will follow. “Spell check it and send it off to beta readers!” says the village fool. Actually, completing a draft is just the first step – a few other “semi-drafts” will follow, plus a heck of a lot of re-reading.

There are a few types of drafts that I operate in at separate times. That seems like it takes too long, but trying to accomplish all of these tasks at once is just too much to me – I would get stuck on the same page for weeks, picking it apart, when I should be writing the rest of the book. So, splitting it into multiple steps is a much more refined process.

1. The Rewrite. A rewrite is a draft that is formed from a new outline. This is absolutely the roughest draft to slug through, because it basically requires me to write a new book (or a third of one, at least.) Unlike many authors, I do not start with a completely new document, riffing from a completely new outline, utterly ignoring all words used in the previous draft. I do pull massive amounts of content – all I can pull, really – from my last attempt. But when you want Plot Point A to occur three chapters before it did in the last draft, and when you want to separate your characters into two all-new locations for the big mid-book fight scene, and when you want to totally restructure your ending…there’s a lot of new content to be whipped up. This is honestly why Draft Five has taken me 4+ months. I am not only rearranging and cannibalizing so much of the existing text, but I’m adding over 30,000 words of new scenes.

2. The Big Picture Revision. Once a rewrite is done (assuming it was needed in the first place – hopefully 5 will be the last real ‘rewrite’ I do, and that all future edits will be minor), I reread my draft on my tablet. Reading as an ebook gets me into the mental state of a reader. Contrarily, reading it as an editable computer document makes me too much of an editor. I do keep a notebook beside me though, documenting all character, plot, pacing, continuity, setting, and structural issues with the novel. Does each scene have a purpose? Does each scene end on a cliffhanger? Does each scene begin in a way that sets the reader into the scene? Does the novel have a good hook?

Now that I’m past my first beta round, I will also revisit my previous critiques during this stage. I will make sure that all valid concerns from my betas have been addressed in the rewrite. When I’m happy with my re-read, I will annotate my Word doc with comments pertaining to all these concerns.

3. The Seasoning. This is where I trudge through and address all the comments. Sometimes it means changing some dialogue in a scene. Sometimes it means deleting or swapping a scene. The most “writing” I’ll do at this stage is to add paragraphs clarifying intent and setting, or to build pacing.

After this, another reread. Steps 2 and 3 may need to be repeated, depending on how much I like the new version of the book.

4. The Style Revision. I have yet to do a style revision for any previous draft. Now, I feel that the book is ready for a line-by-line analysis, in which I make sure every word is used to its full potential and all lines are my own. Ditch the clichés, ditch the redundancy, ditch the awkward phrasing. My style is very functional and inelegant right now – I have yet to regain the naturally beautiful way I wrote as a teenager (which I swear is due to my lack of reading in recent years, but hey, I’m working on that part!) Until I can turn on good style at a whim, this is the gritty alternative.

5. The Copyedit. Just for grammatical and typographical errors. This is my final read through before other humans see the book.

So basically, five ‘drafts’ in one! I will probably start considering this Draft Six around step 3 though.

And while some may warn me of over editing, fear not – as I said, this is my very first time editing style at all, and that is where over editing rears its ugly potential. I don’t think one can go wrong by making the story a more enjoyable one. I’m kicking myself a bit for taking five drafts to get where the plot needs to be, but part of me knows those previous four trials were all necessary. It’s like a scavenger hunt – you can’t jump to the end until you’ve found all the clues.

I do hope to start Beta Round Two in the spring, but you can see I have a lot of work ahead ;) I feel like it’ll all be downhill once I finish the rewrite though. Ugh. Rewrites really are the hardest part.

What is your editing process like? Do you revise your novel in multiple ways at once or break it down into steps?

Do You Let People Read Early Drafts?

Short answer? I don’t. I used to, back when my fingers were on fire while writing fanfiction and I was on the phone with my best friend Alyssa most nights, reading bits and pieces of every chapter aloud. She begged me to read her anything as soon as it hit the page. It was good motivation, I’ll say that.

These days, I don’t have a writing cheerleader constantly over my shoulder (although most conversations with Alyssa still include, “ARE YOU DONE WITH THE NEXT DRAFT YET?!”) And for that, I’ve shrugged off the tendency to show people my early drafts – even going so far to forbid it.

The beta draft of Paradisa from last June was, in actuality, the fourth draft of the book. The first draft was unfit for human consumption. The second and third could potentially be digested by my closest friends or my mother. Only by the fourth draft did I feel like it was ready for a variety of eyes, and even then, I did not allow anyone with a writing/English degree to read it. I had to turn down two willing readers for this reason – my friend Ashlynn , who is an English teacher by profession,  along with my copyeditor uncle Wes. I’m sure I will pass it along to them when the book is more ready, but in draft four it wasn’t.

On one hand, I do not want anyone reading my work unless it is borderline publishable. I want them to be able to compare it to published works within reason, or at least be able to see the potential. On the other hand, I deeply desire collaboration and interpretation to guide me, and it’s important to show people my works in progress while they are still….you know…in progress. It’s much easier to weave in good feedback when I’m still drafting.

I know when my book falls in the slot between “obviously still a draft” and “still capable of being enjoyed” when I’m unhappy with it for reasons I can’t sense. In every draft, I can usually sense problems, and I remedy them in the subsequent draft. I send it to beta when I know it’s not publishable yet but there’s nothing glaring that I’m positive about fixing.

Is there someone you’re okay sending your WIP chapter-by-chapter as you write? Do you write good enough first drafts for betas to enjoy immediately? Or are you a perfectionist who demands every page be immaculate before another soul reads? I think we all vary on how long we wait before we send our work to betas, which is interesting to me. Perhaps it has something to do with how willing we are to take critique, how able we are at sensing critique for ourselves, and how adept we are at getting it all right the first time. I must say though, even with a big beautiful outline to guide my first draft, that it still ain’t good enough for a reader.

Word Hoarding – Why I Never Delete My Work

Confession – I don’t understand how writers delete their work. Before meeting some of you, I never considered this as a possibility. I mean, there’s a reason I have so many stories to give on Throwback Thursday!

Yet some writers say looking back will cripple their confidence or style, and the only way to improve is to ignore/delete that shoddy practice writing. I think every writer should do what’s best for them, but here are my reasons – good and bad – for why I am physically incapable of deletion.

Even a bestseller is still just practice. If my novel is published to mass acclaim, I’ll still probably hate it in ten years. I will look back and think “This is so bad. I am so much better now. I wish no one would read this ever again.” No matter how good you are now, you can always get better and you probably will get better. But that doesn’t mean what you’re doing now is necessarily bad and deserves to be trashed. Even professional artists – George Lucas, I’m looking at you – will never be 100% happy with their work. And that’s a pretty bad reason to set your whole writing portfolio on fire.

I’m a hoarder. It runs in the family. My aunt is a bona fide hoarder of junk, like the kind you see on Hoarders: Buried Alive. They say that hoarders collect things with special meaning – which can be manifested as “I have a fond memory of this” or even “I might use this some day. I cannot throw away something with use.” For me, I cannot throw away something I created, even if it’s bad to a level that brings me shame. Mostly because I think it might be useful some day, but also because I’d feel like I was killing a part of myself, my history. I can’t do it, Elsa. I can’t let it go.

It makes me a better editor. My failure to delete may seem like I can’t “kill my darlings.” Yes, I still have every iteration of Paradisa – even 30 pages of an EAAARLY draft from NaNo 2011. But there have been times in the Paradisa process where I’ve said “I’m going to put that scene from Draft One back in”, and was grateful that I still had the file. I think saving stuff actually makes me a better editor because I don’t have to hold back. I don’t have to worry about making massive changes because “Oh no, what if I want that back later!” I have complete freedom to change anything without the stress of it being permanent, which allows me to go crazy with a red pen.

I’m nostalgic. I hold onto movie ticket stubs. I’m that person. And I really enjoy flipping through writing I did as a child, seeing where my mind was during that time. Even in projects that have no potential to be retooled, like The Outcasts, I appreciate the authenticity of my YA voice in it. I wrote it when I was 12, after all. You don’t get much more authentic than that. I enjoy rediscovering the thoughts and voices I’ve projected through my life.

It might be useful some day. And then you’ve got stuff like Beyond Boundaries, which was quite obviously written by a child, but had an imaginative concept I may eventually revisit.

Or it might be worth something someday. Yeah, it’s a stretch, but I bet if Dickens had a childhood notebook full of old stories, it would sell for a gazillion dollars. I can aspire to that, can’t I?

I keep some perspective. Maybe I’m overconfident or ignorant, but I lack some insecurity that other writers have. Oh believe me, I have insecurity and plenty of moments of doubt. But so many writers get hung up on their insecurities to a level of, “Oh my GOD, look at all this passive voice, look at this bad dialogue, BURN IT!”  However, it really doesn’t bother me to see that I wrote something poorly. I can say “I’m way better now and I can see why this piece is totally unpublishable” but I can also say “huh, I wasn’t that bad for a teenager.” And with the more recent bad stuff, I can say “well, I would never show another human being this, but the ideas here aren’t bad. Or the jokes are witty. Or maybe I can use this character in another project.”

Not to mention, I promise that Stephen King still writes bad lines. Maybe even paragraphs. Maybe even…..whole books! We’re all gonna write crap, even when we know what we’re doing. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Good writing is mostly just due to good editing, and none of us have written anything that was 100% full on crap. There is always some kernel of positive that can be mined for later.

Most of all, I believe the reason some stories fail is because we’re simply not ready for them. We call them failures because we wrote them before we were lucid to the world, before we had a mastery of the craft, before we’d done our research on the topic. I don’t believe I should just toss these aside as irredeemable. I can always come back years later and say “it’s all clear to me now. I know exactly how to fix this.”

And sometimes it isn’t about skill. I have stories that I only could have written in the personal era I wrote them. The feelings and thoughts and perspective on the world I had at 17 allowed me to write Heaven For The Weather, which was met to really high acclaim in the fandom community. I couldn’t write that story today. I could probably write it better stylistically, but the mythos and themes of it could only be written by the mind I had then. When I was 18 I wrote another fic that explored a very specific theme of “loving someone who doesn’t know you love them, and who you can’t be with, but being happy about it.” There were only two months in my life that I nailed down that feeling and those were the months I wrote that story. That’s an emotion I probably would have forgotten about otherwise, but now it’s been immortalized.

I’m not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t delete your work. That’s for you to decide. But I don’t feel like I’m less of a determined, real writer for holding onto mine. And as you can tell from all the reasons above, I’ll probably never change!

Your Least Favorite Thing To Write

If you don’t like writing it, why would anyone want to read it? Well, as I said last week, not everything that’s good is easy. I think every writer has a certain “type” of scene that trips them up. We know that sex sells, but erotic scenes can be very difficult to put on the page. Some folks struggle with the ‘quiet moments’, because it can be hard to craft interesting fireside chats between characters. I’ve heard of people struggling through climatic scenes before. And even though action-packed adventures are fun to read, by God can they be hard to write.

That’s my hair-pulling weakness – action scenes. unfortunately, I imagine my books like summer blockbusters, so they’re full of sword fights atop train cars, courtyard battles, exploding stained glass windows, car chases…you name it. And I enjoy reading them later. If I’m a one-in-a-million author who has her work adapted for film someday, those sequences would be fantastic on the big screen. I can’t write quiet literary yarns about the human condition. That ain’t how I roll.

But writing action is excruciating. It takes weeks. Action means movement, so for at least a full chapter, my characters are in constant motion. All five of them. And that motion has to mean something. The action cannot be sword-fighty fluff that doesn’t result in plot. The end of every fight or car chase or battle has the change the story in some way. A major character has to die, the villain has to gain strides towards their nefarious goal, a MacGuffin needs to be stolen, a protagonist has to make a heartbreaking choice. Something.

So you can imagine why this is hard! At least with erotic scenes, you’re only handling two characters (well….most of the time!). And while love scenes sometimes change the story, they can also pass as quiet interludes or fanservice. They’re usually rather brief. But action scenes can only be appreciated when they have a strong point. To write a fanservice action scene, where the characters get themselves into trouble to no real endpoint, feels empty. It feels like a waste of time. In my stories, action arcs take up 1-3 chapters at a time. 10% of my book – and your book – cannot be fluff. The action IS the plot. It cannot be an aside.

What are your least favorite scenes to write? Action? Sex? Quiet conversations? Endings? Openings? Transitions? Let me know in the comments!

Don’t get it right, just get it written.

The title of today’s entry is one of my favorite quotes about writing (credited to James Thurber, author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”). It’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow if you’re trying to overcome ‘writer’s block.’

As a plotter, traditional writer’s block is virtually nonexistent for me. I almost never wonder what to write about next, or where the story should go. The road is already paved for me – I just have to walk it.

So, the only two things that ever prevent me from getting out words are 1) laziness and 2) lack of confidence.

The laziness is pretty easy to fix, although I’ve been perpetually tired and sickly the past couple weeks. I’ve still managed to push out at least a few sentences every day…and hey, if I keep doing that, I’ll eventually have a book, right? I can cure laziness with a nap, or listening to music to jazz myself up. Or I read some encouraging beta feedback, which gets me hyped to finish the next iteration of this book. Getting motivated is often a result of made-up deadlines that I don’t want to miss, or the simple thought of someone reading (and enjoying) the finished product.

Overcoming a lack of confidence is far more difficult. I repeat Thurber’s quote to myself like a mantra when my fingers stall. “Don’t get it right, just get it written. Black on white. Get black on white.”

It helps. I have  to repeat it to myself a lot, like every day I sludge through chapter seven, hating my voice, hating my lack of inspiration, hating the pointless dialogue and redundant movement expressions and utter lack of creative juices, and at a loss about this new segment of my story world I’m venturing into.  I know it’s just for this road block. I’m not burned out on the entire story, but this one piece is just like banging my head on the desk. And you may say “Michelle, if you hate writing this part so much, what makes you think anyone will want to read it? Isn’t that a sign that you should cut it?”

Not always. Truly, some of the best scenes are the hardest to write (more on that tomorrow. I abhor writing action, and it usually takes me weeks to do it, but action scenes are the most complimented part of my writing). Additionally, if I force out a crappy scene, it’ll be way easier to rewrite or edit that scene than to keep staring at a blank page waiting for magic to happen. And a lot of times, I go back and  think, “hey, this scene really isn’t that bad.” Writing it takes ten times more mental energy than normal, like I’m barely staying afloat…but I am staying afloat.

Mostly, writing new places in my book trips me up. In my outline, I express my plot at length, but I do no service to physical descriptions or mechanics of setting. In this fifth draft, I’m taking my characters to a location I’ve never taken them to before, and figuring out how to describe such a place is the number one culprit.

So perhaps I should meditate on it. And for next time, for the next book, in outlines soon to come, I will be sure to give new settings more attention. For now, I’m just trying to get it written, so later I can get it right.

Writing To Feel Accomplished

This week, I changed my sleep/work schedule to match Austin’s. We go to bed at 10 PM, wake up at 5:30 AM, work from 6:30-3:00. I enjoy getting out of work early, and while I’m used to staying up past midnight, 10 PM isn’t so bad.

But with this new schedule, I have to spend 3:30-5:30 pm writing instead of my usual 10 pm – midnight. This is jarring, as I’m most creative at night. And who wants to write when they just got home from work? On top of that, this week has been busy with social outings, so I haven’t accomplished much writing or revising at all. I feel so lazy, so behind. Behind what? A self-set deadline? I’m not self-publishing and I’m not starving, so do deadlines really matter?

Yes. To me they do. I’m a  type-A outliner organizer. I set deadlines and I intend to stick to them! At least loosely! I’m very future-minded and I get impatient for things to come. For that, I feel like I should always be pushing towards that future. Little steps, every day.

Last night, Austin and I attended his mother’s birthday party. Which was fun, great food, etc. But once 7:00 passed:

  • Me: I really ought to go home soon, or else I won’t accomplish anything today…
  • Austin’s Mom: You’re here with family! You accomplished a birthday party and dinner and cake! What else more is there to accomplish?

Finishing my revisions of chapter six, ideally.

Yes, I know it’s probably weird and wrong and maybe even rude to my friends and family, but I feel guilty about being social when it’s in lieu of 1) writing or 2) doing chores/running errands. Getting my oil changed is an accomplishment. Doing my laundry is an accomplishment. Writing a chapter is an accomplishment. These are not grandiose feats that deserve fanfare, but if I was to write down a “Things I Did Today” list, it would be entirely chores and art. And if that list is empty, I feel bad.

Believe me, I take plenty of breaks. I procrastinate. I nap. I sit around eating candy. I blog, ha! So I’m not a perfect machine that’s always getting stuff done. But I shouldn’t squander the few productive hours I do have. I mentally allot time for napping and tomfoolery, but when I say “alright. 9 PM – 10PM is when I write” and then I…don’t? Or can’t? Not cool.

So, it’ll take some getting used to. And some shut-in time where no one can drag me out of the house. But since I’m traveling to Texas for a wedding this weekend, it’ll be a few days before I can do that. Guess I’ll just have to write on the plane!

Writing vs. Having Written

“It’s not the destination,” they say. “It’s the journey.” I have never believed this, at least not for myself. I’ve never fancied road trips or Lord of the Rings or cruises to islands I don’t care about or any other stories/events/situations that depend on me enjoying the journey instead of the place I’m actually going. I live for the destination, for the end game, and I mean that both physically and metaphorically.

As writers, we should love writing, yeah? We should enjoy the process of tearing down worlds, breathing life into characters, creating something our own. I enjoy this well enough, probably more than most “journeys” I could name, but the real satisfaction comes from having written. I live for that sense of accomplishment, for seeing a 200 page stack of fiction bound on my desk.

I am not excited about the massive rewrite I’m working on. If I was excited, I wouldn’t be procrastinating on editing Chapter Six. But I’m super excited about the future finished version of this draft, and how fun it will be to share  with a new group of betas, and how I’ll be more confident in this draft versus previous ones.

I’m curious about your thoughts. Do you prefer the writing process, or do you live for the finished product?

On a personal note, my short story Goliath was rejected from its first anthology submission. I guess that’s a whole new journey I’m beginning, and I will definitely prefer the destination!

Writing and Beta Updates

This post is not going to be particularly profound or insightful. It’s just a drive-by statistics post of where I am in my writing and editing, and some thoughts on my two beta responses from this past weekend.

  • My final two betas completed Paradisa and submitted their thoughts. I’d say 80% of their thoughts fell into consensus with the other betas. I think another 10% was probably critique due to personal taste, and the remaining 10% were unique outlooks that made me take a second glance at my outline. So, pretty standard!
  • While 10% uniqueness seems small, I think 5-20% unique suggestions or outlook is a good target.  Otherwise, the collective feedback would be unmanageable. Having a pool of people with about 80% consensus is very ideal and reliable – for both good things (across-the-board compliments on my action scenes) and the bad (oh boy, did everyone hate Clara!). Sure, there’s some outliers (Clara was Mom’s favorite character 0_o?), but when I have five people telling me “this character sucks!” there is obviously an issue there.
  • For the most part, my betas have told me problem areas that I already knew about, but in pointing out their most noticeable hiccups with the book, I can prioritize which problems are the most serious. Going in, I thought my weak antagonists were the most seriously dreadful part. Turns out, most betas were not too bothered by that, but they were very bothered by some traits of the hero characters.  So rather than telling me how to write my book, I think this just gives me a set of priorities for how to attack revisions. *shrug*
  • I have also completed 2 chapters in Draft Five \o/ Hoping to be finished by September 5th. I’ve set myself a semi-realistic schedule. Then, I may spend the better part of September doing some style edits, because I think this is the version of the story that I’m finally going to keep.  And when I pass it off to strangers in the next beta round, I want my style to be sharper. The rain has sucked my energy, so I’m not as peppy about writing as I need to be, but hopefully it will come easier once I warm up those muscles.

How’s your writing coming, Pressworld?

Some Talk On Setting Descriptions…and Follow Friday @NannaWrites !

For today’s Follow Friday, I hope you check out a rising Danish writer named Nanna Andersen. Nanna posts book reviews and tips on writing. I also think she’s just started building her platform, so give her some love!

As for me, my Draft Five marathon begins today! Hopefully. I’m going to see Guardians of the Galaxy at 5, with dinner afterwards, so that should leave me a whole evening of writing. I have finished 19/21 chapters in my new outline, so that is nearly set. My final two betas are delivering feedback this weekend, which will be added into the new outline as best I can do.

But here’s a “writer topic” before I head off to the weekend – setting description. Dad called Mom a few days ago and they talked at length about my book (with rather different opinions, as you might imagine from following this saga). Dad insists that I need more setting descriptions in the book. Like, five-senses surround-sound half-a-page setting descriptions for almost every place the characters enter. Lord of The Rings level description.

My mother’s opinion, and mine, is that no one wants to read all that. Those are the paragraphs readers are most likely to skip – aka, paragraphs I do not want in my novel.

To Dad’s credit, setting descriptions are flimsy in my book. This is because I honestly haven’t decided what everything looks like yet. I should probably go into more detail about the made-up places in my world, for those are places that readers have never mentally, visually, or physically been. A reader may be able to fill in some blanks with their imagination, but I ought to paint a nice two-paragraph picture = A literal visual translation (is this a house? a courtyard? a city?) plus time of day, weather, inside/outside, damp/dry, and a general mood of scary/safe is a good bet for most settings.

However, I don’t find it necessary at ALL to describe, at length, settings that a person can imagine clearly without my help. Like the airport. We’ve all been in airports. We know what they look like, smell like, feel like. Even if you’ve never been in one, you’ve probably seen them in movies. I will not waste time describing the ugly carpet, blowing AC, sterile colors, and uncomfortable plastic seats. First of all, none of that matters to the plot. Second of all, the reader “gets it” without that needing to be said.

In general, I won’t spend more than 200 words on any setting description, even if we’re in a new place. Not only can setting descriptions be peppered through the scene instead of dumped in one swoop (“he walked over to an antique wardrobe, its teal paint weathered with age”), readers don’t need to know the shape of the crown molding, the number of tiles on the floor, or the parts-per-million carbon dioxide in the air. Do you think about those sorts of things when you enter a new space? Probably not.

So describe the settings to the length that they matter to the characters and story. Trust that your reader has some imagination, and that it’s actually quite fun to make up your own visual scene as a reader. Being spoonfed every detail is not only tedious, but it takes some of the fun out (for me, at least). It tells me that the author is a control freak and doesn’t want the reader to “share” the fictional dream as much as the author wants the reader to “obey” the dream. And I will probably admonish that author by closing the book.