Making Progress & Finding the Groove

The novel is coming along.  Slowly.  I find myself being pulled back to the beginning by the need to edit what’s been written so far.  The things that need to be fixed are becoming obnoxious in their insistence.

When I write picture books or young reader chapter books, I never truly write a first draft all the way through before starting to revise.  My drafts are done in layers.  I write the draft until my inner editor starts to pace inside my head, and then I go back to the beginning and revise what I’ve done before continuing with the rest of the story.  It’s my process, I guess.

I wasn’t sure that process would work when writing my first novel.  I’ve been pretty focused on getting the basic story down before I allow myself to edit, but I don’t think that’s going to work.  I need to do the second wave of the so-far first draft before I go much further.

On a positive note, I was writing a scene involving a ghost and actually creeped myself out to the point that I had to look over my shoulder.  I’m not trying for slasher movie scary or Stephen King scary–I’m aiming for creepy.  My main character, however, is in need of some softening.  She’s a tough broad but not very likeable.  She’s too much like me.  That will never do.  Most readers won’t connect with her in her current state.  My supporting cast, however, is shaping up nicely.  I like them.  They’re very human.  Their dialogue feels natural.  They’re trying to do the right thing, but they’re scared.

When writing for children, I’m definitely a planner because the plots are simple.  Since starting my first novel, I find myself to be neither a pantser nor a planner but that in-between creature called a plantser.  I wrote a very basic plot outline that functions as a map, but every bit of the story that fills in that rough outline has been created at the cold keyboard, save the occasional idea jotted down when I was doing something else.  I’ve had some great writing sessions when I’ve slipped into that state of self hypnosis where I’m inside the world of my characters.  The scenes that were fuzzy at the beginning are becoming more focused and three-dimensional as I write.  I suppose that’s why I feel like I need to clean up what I’ve written so far.  Some of it is too vague or clumsy.

The opening scene, which lays the groundwork for the problem my main character faces later, certainly needs to be beefed up a bit.  In that scene, two characters are sent out to find a dead man and make sure he’s buried.  I can see them better now.  I can see the house in the clearing.  My characters are afraid, and now I know they have reason to be.

Developing a story in this way takes time and thought.  The story as I first envisioned it has already changed quite a bit, and for the better.  This is the wonderful part of writing, taking the time to savor each scene and put flesh on my characters’ bones.  There’s no need to rush to publication.  There is joy and satisfaction in the work to be done.  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to forego that just to beat some imaginary publishing clock.

I hope the New Year finds all of you freshly in love not only with writing but with writing well.

How’d NaNoWriMo Go?

I’ve just completed my first NaNoWriMo, which was also my first attempt at writing a novel.  Regulars here know I write picture books and chapter books for early readers.  I never thought I would attempt a novel; but sometime over the last year, an idea for a novel popped into my head and refused to go away.  Having jotted down a few notes and a very rough outline, I decided to take the chilly November plunge this year.  My goal was never the 50K word count.  I’m accustomed to writing in a much shorter form and knew my first draft would come along slowly.  My goal was to carve out a couple of hours from my busy day to devote to writing the novel.  I’m more of a morning person, so that meant getting up at 5 am instead of 5:30 am and cutting out morning TV and/or social media.  I managed to keep my morning devotions in place and not skip my workout, arriving at my desk at 8:30 am.  That gave me about an hour-and-a-half to write before beginning the day job.  As it so happens, several of the doctors I transcribe for have just decided to switch to Dragon rather than having a human being transcribe their gibberish, so my work hours have recently been scaled back.

Unfortunately, NaNoWriMo coincided with a long-planned partly DIY kitchen renovation that couldn’t be put off.  This put a serious dent in my schedule.  All told, I managed to write about 10K words.  I’m pleased, however, with what I have so far.  It’s a solid beginning.

What I found with NaNoWriMo was the motivation I needed to finally start the novel.  It was fun knowing there were other writers out there who were doing the same thing.  I don’t regret giving it a try this year.

However… 

Before the month even had a chance to begin, I received an email from NaNoWriMo offering “NaNoWriMo 2019 Winner” t-shirts for sale, before any of us had posted our first word count.

Participation trophies for everyone!

I realize NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit trying to raise money, but I wish they had just sold “NaNoWriMo 2019 Participant” t-shirts instead.  Allowing anyone and everyone to declare themselves a winner right out of the gate was embarrassing.

I left the official NaNoWriMo Facebook page shortly after the month began because I couldn’t believe the garbage I was seeing.  One writer boasted about how she was going to finish her novel in November and publish it on December 1st.  I cautioned against that and encouraged her to take time to revise and edit.  Then came the flying monkeys, one of which gave me the “Better three hours early than one minute late,” line.  Really?  So, you think that what you’re writing is so earth-shattering that society will crumble if people can’t get their hands on your half-baked novel right away?

I read somewhere that agents and publishers hate December because that’s when all the NaNoWriMo gems hit their inboxes–unpublishable tripe that desperately needed several trips through the editorial sieve.

A pet peeve of mine, and one I’ve discussed here in the past, is the amount of self-published garbage clogging the internet.  The books with thin plots and 2-D characters, full of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors.  One of the dangers of self-publishing is that we don’t have the benefit of an agent or editor to help us recognize and smooth out the rough spots.  We’re on our own.  Unfortunately, an awful lot of people don’t take that responsibility seriously.  It’s a terrible stain on the self-publishing community and will continue to prevent us from being taken seriously.  If you hit the magical 50K mark and hit “send” today, you aren’t a serious writer and you have no respect for the craft.  What you are is an egotistical wannabe who likes to call himself/herself an author but who doesn’t want to do the required grunt work to produce a good story.

Then there was post after post asking for help with everything from plot lines to character names.  Someone suggested rolling dice.  Another suggested tarot cards.  How about sitting quietly and giving you novel more thought?  Several people were in a panic because NaNoWriMo was about to begin and they didn’t yet have a story idea. I’ll let you in on a little secret.  If you don’t have an idea for a novel, it’s okay to skip NaNoWriMo.  For far too many people, NaNoWriMo appears to be just another competition.  A social media gimmick.  All you have to do is write 50K words to win.  Whether or not those words are any good seems to be of no consequence at all.

Writing as an art form, a craft, and a profession is suffering.  Even the traditional publishing world isn’t immune to the mediocrity infecting the literary world (did you see the picture book about the dinosaur who pooped Christmas? Yeah.).  As writers, real writers, we need to do better.  We need to stop patting the posers on the head and telling them their collective s**t doesn’t stink.  It stinks to high heaven.

I think the whole 50K word thing needs to be tossed in the circular file.  It’s a terrible idea.  What should matter most during NaNoWriMo is that writers show up regularly and put words to paper that move the plot along.  Anyone can type words.  I can hold down a single key to up my word cooooooooooooooooooouuuuuuuunnnnnnttttt.  That’s not writing.  It’s word vomit.  Now, if you hit 50K usable words and intend to spend the next few months revising and rewriting, bravo!  You have enough self respect and respect for the craft to call yourself a writer.

What could be a community of writers spurring one another on to achieve real writing goals is, for far too many people, a sprint toward a meaningless finish line.  Anyone can write badly.  A real writer, a true artist, will take that first draft and work on it until it shines.  That takes time and patience.  It means postponing the gratification of calling yourself a published author.  It means you have to work hard to earn the title.  What you wrote during NaNoWriMo isn’t good enough for publication, not yet.  Put the manuscript away for a few days.  Then, with a red pen in your hand, take the manuscript out and read it aloud.  Does it still sound wonderful?  I doubt it.  If you think it’s good to go, send it to a few beta readers–not your best friend or your mother.  Send it to someone who reads a lot and ask them what they think.  Another pair of eyes is going to find glaring problems you missed because you’re too close to the project.

You will have to revise and rewrite, perhaps many times.  You owe that to the craft and to your readers.  There are no shortcuts to good writing.  There are no 30-day sprints to publication.  Used as a writing tool, NaNoWriMo has great potential.  Used as a means to induce premature manuscript labor, it’s a travesty.