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.

 

Now What?

Well, the publisher who contacted me said the acquisitions board would meet in late February/early March.

We’re coming to the end of March with no further word from the publisher, so I have to assume they decided not to publish my manuscript.

A dream-crushing experience once again.  How should I, as an author, respond?

I checked their website.  They’re open for submissions once again.  I sent another manuscript.

Stand up.  Dust yourself off.  Get back in the game.

If you’re a lousy writer…

…what do you do?

A young woman recently posted on a Facebook page for self-published authors how painful it was for her to read the cruel reviews of her book on Amazon.  I read through the comments, and our fellow authors tried very hard to explain to her why the book was tanking.  They were amazingly kind and diplomatic about it.  Several went through the trouble of reading an excerpt and then offering a critique.

The young lady had apparently been through some traumatic experiences and wanted to share her fight with the world.  Her intentions were good.  She hoped reading her story would help someone in a similar situation.

The problem was, she couldn’t write her way out of the proverbial paper bag.  Her spelling was awful, and she didn’t seem to know the basic rules of grammar.  The spellcheck and grammar check functions on her computer were either ignored or disabled.  Her thoughts, according to other writers, were scattered and rambling.  The manuscript read like a very rough first draft.

They all gave what amounted to the same pieces of advice.  She had to pull the book.  She needed a professional editor.  She needed to revise, revise, revise.

To that I added that she should take a refresher course in basic grammar.  Yes, I said it nicely and encouraged her to continue to hone her craft.

I don’t know if she has it in her to become a good writer.  It isn’t enough to have a compelling tale to tell–you have to know how to tell it.

Look, we’re writers and we want to be published.  There’s no shame in that.  The shame lies in manuscripts that are clicked into existence before they’ve been properly bled over.

So, what’s a lousy writer to do?  Well, if you aren’t willing to do the work, stop.  You aren’t a writer.  You’re a wannabe with romantic notions about walnut-paneled offices, tweed jackets, and brandy snifters.  This is real life, not a Hallmark movie.  Get a grip.

Read.  Familiarize yourself with words and how other writers string them like lovely pearls across the page.

Reeducate.  Take a grammar course at your local adult education center or on-line.  All that sentence structure stuff Sister Margaret Mary tried to pound into your skull really does matter.

Read about writing.  I was having trouble getting started because I was trying to write straight through from beginning to end and knew nothing about plotting a story.  I found it helpful to read a couple of books about writing in my genre and figured out where I was going wrong.  But be careful not to let reading about writing take the place of actual writing.  That’s an easy trap to fall into.

Revise your manuscript again and again until you’re satisfied with it, and then give it to an impartial reader for a critique.  Writing groups are excellent for this purpose.

There is a certain wonderful drudgery to writing.  It’s exhausting.  It’s exhilarating.  It’s the most intense love/hate relationship you’ll ever have.  There are days you give up and swear you’ll never go back to it.  But a few days or weeks later, the Muse returns with flowers and chocolates and apologizes for being such a jerk, and off you go.

Finish the sentence for me:  Any job worth doing is worth doing __________.

 

Images vs. Descriptions

I just read this quote about writing character descriptions:

“Learning someone’s age, eye color, or height, in inches or centimeters, is not compelling, which is why we don’t consider drivers’ licenses literature.”  Harley Jane Kozak in Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson.

Likewise, our character descriptions shouldn’t sound like a crime victim describing their attacker to a police sketch artist.

In Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (available on Amazon and Kindle), the main character (a boy of about 9 or 10 years old) offers his descriptions of people and situations this way:

“Roger, the class bully.  Ran the playground at Chandler Elementary like a shark in a fishbowl.  Even picked on the little guys in kindergarten.  A bad egg.”

Or, speaking of his teacher, Mrs. Obermeyer:

I clapped the erasers together right next to Mrs. Obermeyer’s desk.  She started to sneeze–squeaky little sneezes that squeezed their way out of a nose that matched her size 12 feet.

We know Winthrop is smaller than the other kids in his class when his friend, Dash, rescues him from Roger.  And we learn that Dash is a strong, confident girl.

“Let him go, Roger!”  It was Dash, and boy, was her nose out of joint.

“You gonna let a girl fight your battles, Risk?”

“A kid my size can’t be too picky, Roger.  Thanks for saving my neck, Dash.”

What does the school playground look like just before the bell rings?

The playground was covered with kids–like ants on a dropped lollipop.

You get the idea.  These are images we’re creating, not mug shots.  And maybe that’s what we should keep in mind.  The old adage that we should show, not tell, can be tough to apply.  We don’t want to give the reader a point by point description that doesn’t serve the plot.  A classic example I’ve noted in the past (see “It’s That Time of Year Again” from 2014) is Washington Irving’s rich description of Ichabod Crane, which not only tells us a lot about his physical appearance but serves to make the Headless Horseman chase scene that much more vivid.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an atmospheric piece that was written at a time when stories were told at a more leisurely pace, and Irving’s little gem is a wonderful example that broke our modern rules for description and  was spot on in having done so.

So, in painting your word picture, broad brush strokes are OK and coloring within the lines isn’t always necessary.

Wreck in Progress

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Yes, I’m coining a new phrase.  WIP now stands for “wreck in progress”.

I pulled out the file for a story I put aside last summer.  Its appalling state of confusion prompted me to label it a WIP.

Still, my distance from the project gave me some perspective on what can stay and what needs to be put down as mercifully as possible.

This will involve rum. Lots of it.

Tasteful Butchery Well Done

Different writers seem to favor different parts of the writing process.  For some, it’s the brainstorming of ideas.  For others, it’s getting that first draft down.  A lot of writers, though, seem to shrink from the editing/rewriting part of the process.

As I continue my writing journey, I find myself having the most fun when editing or rewriting.  At that stage, I feel like the initial pressure to produce something is gone and the creative give and take with the manuscript can begin.

When I’m short on writing time, as I have been for the past several months while hubby is laid off, I keep the writing bug alive by reading books and blogs about writing.  In fact, I start each workday by reading through the blogs I follow and hitting a few of the freshly pressed for the day.  Right now, I’m reading Writers on Writing.  It’s a collection of  New York Times essays written by famous writers.  I’ll admit, there’s an awful lot of self-indulgent crap in there, but something I read this morning struck me as brilliant.  Author Paul West had this to say:

“I stay up long enough, usually, to correct what I’ve written, and on occasion to carve it up, then go to bed with that elated shiver of tasteful butchery well done.”

Tasteful butchery well done.  The whole book was worth that one quote.

I can chalk up my struggles with the WIP to stress and being overworked for months; but even in the midst of the turmoil, I’ve managed to give the story some structure.  I love the search for and discovery of ideas, the playful dialogue, and getting the first draft down, even though it’s tough right now.  But the part where I get to sit on my porch with a typed draft in front of me, red pen in hand, and smooth out the rough patches–that’s when I feel most like a writer.

Don’t be afraid of or dread rewriting and editing.  Savor it.  This is where we go beyond being overgrown kids with wild imaginations.  This is where we become writers.

Tasteful butchers, all.