Tag Archives: novels

How I write (part two)

Picking up where I left off, I’m clean, exercised, and I have an unedited draft of a novel. By novel, I mean a document somewhere between 100,000 to 124,000 words (yes, one was that long), made of mostly connected story. Next comes the the process called either revision or unbearable suffering, depending on how I’m feeling about my writing.

That piece right there, the bit about how I’m feeling, that is the crux of things for me. The truth is that I enjoying revising, or drafting, or most any other part of writing, as long as I’ve got my head in the right place. There other truths too, though, things like the fact that it’s easier to keep the Infernal Editor at bay when I’m in the flow of drafting, and that when I start to think critically the head games begin.

Who is the Infernal Editor? She’s the one that tells you that you’ve failed in some catastrophic way, the bit of your mind that tries to shred your writing to bits. I suspect that most writers have vulnerable points, places that despair can seep in all too easily. For me, it’s while revising.

What do I do? I hang on to my support people with both hands. When it starts to feel like it’s just me and a giant pile of words that looks suspiciously like…debris, I go looking for help. Have you ever watched a horse race? More specifically, have you ever watched the horses going out to the starting gate? They’re ponied along by a rider on another horse, a calm horse that doesn’t freak out at the antics of their highstrung companion. Support people can be that for a writer, the steady presence that gets them to the starting gate to do their thing.

Okay, I prepare my support, and I sit down and read. I read the whole story, often in hard copy, though I have no printer currently, so Wren is stuck in pixels. I cross out lots of things, and I write little questions, and I make lots of faces at really bad prose. I get a sense of the overall shape, and how things move along. Sometimes I discover things I like more than I thought I would. Other times I feel like it’s all a irredeemable mess, and I cry on people’s shoulders.

Then, I go through chapter by chapter. I cut and reword and buff things up. I take out really boring bits of action that are more or less stage directions inserted to remind me what’s happening, and I replace them with somewhat less boring bits. Sometimes it goes quickly. Sometimes I spend a day or so stuck on one line. I try to think of it as working on a puzzle, and that helps. When I finish a chapter, I read it aloud to myself. If it seems to work, I pass it on to my first reader.

And so it goes. At some point I reach the end, and I read it again, and I have other people read it, and then I read it one more time, also aloud. With each pass, I change less and less. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I make huge changes, but as I’ve gotten more adept at figuring out what I’m doing, those huge changes tend to come earlier in the process.

The most important piece to these final passes is to not overdo things. I find it far too easy to edit the voice out of a piece if I spend too much time on it. That’s been one of the best lessons writing short stories has taught me, and I’m working on carrying it over to the novels. At some point I’ll write more about short stories, but this is long enough for now.

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How I write (part one)

As a follow-up to my pizza-induced insistence that everyone must find their own way to write, I thought I’d share my process. This is how writing a novel goes for me (I’ll talk about short stories in a different post).

I start with a character. Sometimes more than one, but at least one who’s been on my mind for a while. I generally have an end. Hopefully, a few ideas about things that happen on the way to the end.

I take what I have, I open a fresh document on the computer, and I begin to write. The first five to ten pages, those are just warmup material. I’ve yet to start any story, of any length, exactly where it needs to start.

Once I get past the warmup, then I begin to have a sense of where things are going. It’s a bit like slowly being drawn into a river’s current. I’m swirling in the eddies, my destination is impossibly far away, but I can feel the pull of the water starting to give me direction.

I write. I write and write, and when things go well, I think about what I’ll be working on the next day as I fall asleep at night, and I wake up excited to start. It helps if I write consistently. Too much time off and I drift back to the shore, and it’s hard to get moving again.

I write too much. Technically it’s too much. In truth, it all feels necessary at the time. I write scenes about hanging out by the river, about sitting inside on rainy days and reading books in bed. I write long sections about sitting by the ocean as the waves pound. These scenes do nothing for the plot, but they’re my way of connecting with the characters.

Those characters… sometimes they start out clear, but usually they start out like the stones you find on a dirt trail–rough, dull, nondescript. By the end, if I’ve done my job right, if all those extra scenes have helped, then they feel like river rocks to me, those stones washed so smooth that your hand just aches to hold them.

It’s not the most expedient way to write, and if I were trying to write something with a specific (and close) deadline, I’d be more likely to outline and keep everything neat and tidy. For where I am now as a writer, it works just fine. Eventually I reach the end, and I celebrate with something big, like taking a shower, or going for a walk.

Then…well, I’ll save that for the next post.


A question of length

Most of the time when I sit down to write, I know whether I’m working on a short story or a novel. They simply feel different. Some feel full of ideas and want to be long, and some don’t.

Occasionally I’m wrong. Occasionally I end up with a story that just doesn’t take off the way it should, and I run through my list of reasons, and none of them quite fit, except, as always, the idea that I’m a complete hack and can’t write my way out of a paper bag. For some reason that one always fits.

Anyway, none of the reasons fit, and I decide the story doesn’t work as a story, and I put it away. Then something happens. I’ll be driving home and a line in a song will hit me, or I’ll be thinking about gardens, or moose, or the Badlands, and all of the sudden I’ll realize the story doesn’t work because I’m trying to make it the wrong length.

(Alternately, I’ll be writing a blog post and will realize that every single paragraph has three sentences in it, and it will disturb me to no end, and I’ll forget my point entirely…)

I have a story I started in the winter. The idea came to me last year, and it had to do with this poem, which was in a poetry book I had as a kid. I wanted Bess as the highwayman, with her long black hair and her fury at the world.

But it didn’t work. Something was missing. Why was Bess so angry? I didn’t know, so I set it aside. I didn’t think of it again until I was talking with a friend about OWS and the appalling distribution of wealth in the U.S. Suddenly I knew exactly where her anger came from.

Better, but still not right. I could get to a certain point and go no further. Once again, Bess went on the back burner.

Then yesterday, while watching Trouble the Water (about New Orleans and Katrina, and so important to see), I realized what was wrong. Bess’s story was never meant to be short. There were too many elements to fit in. I’d been squashing the characters in an effort to keep the length down.

It’s a relief of sorts, because I hate to dump ideas. It’s also frustrating, because I have more than enough on my plate when it comes to novels. I’ll just have to add it to the list.


An introduction

You are sixteen.

You’re different from the others in your neighborhood. Your family keeps to itself. You spend nine months of the year at a boarding school by the ocean, one not listed in any school directory. You don’t go there because you choose to, you go there because it’s what you do, what your parents did, what everyone like you does.

Because you are Aware.

Being Aware isn’t something you’ve chosen. It’s just part of you, like the color of your hair, the color of your eyes, the shape of your nose. The way you can see anger, or fear, or desire, as color, as texture, can watch them spread from one person to the next. To you.

The only place that’s safe, the only place that’s quiet, is the Estate. It’s school, it’s home, it’s the safe haven for the Aware. The only thing it asks for in return is your future, your mind, your body, all given to help preserve your endangered people.

The rules of the Estate keep you safe. They keep all the Aware safe, protecting those elegant fragile minds from the emotional debris of an overcrowded world. From the inside, in this safe place, you’ve no reason to question the rules.

But you’re not quite on the inside. You’ve been keeping a secret. Every mind around you gives off a pulse, a smell, a trail of pleasure and pain that you can follow. You shouldn’t know these things. Only Trackers do. And everyone knows what happens to girls with Tracker traits. At the end of a path through the woods waits a building with a chain link fence around it. Within its walls live the women born with and destroyed by skills only men should have.

The Estate keeps them safe too.

Sometimes life can change within a day, an hour, a minute. The way it does when you learn that other Aware exist, far from the reaches of the Estate. That your talent won’t destroy you, but not being allowed to use it will.

You are sixteen. You have a choice. Stay with The Estate. Fulfill your obligations. Hide who you are. Or betray everything you know, and be free.

You are Wren.


The waiting

The moon is beautiful tonight. It hangs just beyond the trees in the backyard, and I can watch it through the windows by my desk. Around the full moon everything changes here. The cats run back and forth through the house late at night, and the children sleep fitfully, and I…well, I dream of puppies.

But that’s another story entirely.

I’ve had two days now of no writing. It shows. I’m unable to relax when I don’t write. I pace, mentally, if not physically. My mind is with my characters, and I make them pace as well. We all languish, trapped in the equivalent of a break room in my head, a space with dingy walls, smelling of stale smoke and sweat, everyone sniping at one another.

There’s also this thing about writing novels, about the way they build and build until suddenly they have incredible forward momentum. To pause in the midst feels a bit like asking an avalanche to wait politely while you finish cooking dinner. Only in this case, you’re the only one disturbed by the avalanche. No one else understands why you’re jumpy and upset.

It will wait. It must wait. Tonight the moonlight will reflect off the snow and light the bedroom, and the cats will yowl and tussle, and the kids will talk in their sleep, and I will dream, not of puppies, but of a rocky coast and the cold ocean water and a girl swimming out into the dark.


Updates

When I said I’d have good news soon, I forgot to qualify “soon” in terms of publishing time. The news is still there, and I’ll share it as soon as is reasonable. Promise.

In the meantime? Cracked 70K on Wren. It’s taken a little bit of time to get back into it, but that’s only to be expected after a year or so vacation from it. The good news is that the year off let me grow as a writer. The bad news is that this draft will require that much more editing to make the two halves fit together. That’s okay. I’m happy to look at it as part of my writerly education.

Once I finish a draft of Wren, I can plot out the necessary changes to the remaining books of the series. The second book was originally the first (in fact the second book was written as a standalone–I never saw it as part of a series until long after I’d written it), but somewhere along the way I realized that I’d started in the wrong place. “Somewhere” in this case meaning two and a half books into a (then) three book series, and “wrong place” meaning a whole book too late.

The really great news though is that it’s finally all in place. Character arcs, story arcs over individual novels, over the entire series, all major plot events, with the exception of one or two things that I’m waiting to the end to sort out–I’ve got them all. I started this project in 2009, and my goal is to reach the end by the close of 2012. I think it may actually happen.

And then? I’ll be free to work on a standalone novel that’s been waiting patiently for a long time. Woohoo!


Little Bird

I’ve been working on Wren’s Book this weekend. Wren came from The Lost, showing up first as a minor character, a spy whose most noteworthy characteristic was that I changed her name every time I revised the story. Somewhere along the way, I decided I needed to know more about her, about why she’d risked her life to save the people she saved. No problem. I did what I usually do, and started a short story. I have a handful of these, most of them little more than character sketches. They live in a file on my computer, and I read them from time to time when I’m bored.

The trouble with Wren, however, is that her story turned out to be something more than I expected. Characters sometimes do that, have a hidden life far more complex than expected. I decided to ignore her, and continued writing the second book in The Lost series. She showed up again, this time toting a bit more story. Now she’d grown beyond being a scared teenage spy with a mercurial name who existed as something of a plot prop. She’d become a woman commanding a great deal of respect from her peers, a woman who once again saves someone in an unexpected way.

Fine. I could accept that there was more to her than I thought. I finished the draft of that book and continued on to the final book of the series. Halfway through? There was Wren again, and this time she was front and center, the key to a rather complex emotional piece of the story.

Wren gets her own book now. I started and stopped it several times, struggling, until I realized the problem was not in the story, but in how I kept thinking it should be told. I had to put aside my assumptions in order to be able to move forward. It’s finally flowing now. At this point, with about 2/3 written, I’m starting to feel pretty good about where it’s going. I hope to have the draft finished within a month.

I’m having fun.