Summer 2015 Writing

So far, summer 2015 has been one of the best summers in recent memory. My husband and I aren’t big summer vacation people. In fact, other than weekend trips to visit his parents, we haven’t taken a big summer vacation since our honeymoon 11 years ago.

When we decided to spend two weeks in the Pacific Northwest, I thought we were crazy. We’re not the type of people to just leave for two weeks. But aside from taking our hot Florida weather with us to Washington State, it was a great time away from home with our family.

During the first half of our trip, I was a little anti-social. (Let’s be honest, I’m anti-social anyway, but this time it was because I had a deadline to meet.) I spent most of my down time polishing my NaNoWriMo 2014 novel for submission to CreateSpace. As a NaNo winner, I was eligible to claim two free copies of my book, but I had to have it submitted and approved before midnight EDT on June 30th. On the west coast, that meant I had to be done by 9:00 P.M., and I was nervous about pushing it that late. Last year, I had my novel submitted in plenty of time, but CreateSpace’s approval process took almost 24 hours, and by then, it was too late to get two free copies.

This year, my goal was to submit my manuscript on June 28th. I didn’t achieve that goal, but that’s because I decided to submit more than just the 2014 novel. Since it was the sequel of my 2013 novel, I included both novels in the same volume. The 2013 novel has gone through significant revisions since last year, and my beta readers for the sequel will need to read the new version of the first novel in order for the story to make sense. So I finished editing and formatting both books, then submitted them on the evening of the 29th.

When CreateSpace sent me the book preview, it was with a note that they couldn’t publish it because there were three blank pages in the middle. After hours of frustration (because my copy didn’t have three blank pages), I figured out a way to eliminate the blank pages on their end. I submitted the new version after one in the morning, went to sleep, and woke up to see that it was perfect – except for the headers. Since there are two novels in one volume, I thought it would be helpful to have the titles listed in the headers, but after making the change that eliminated the three pages, apparently the second header was deleted. Oh well. I went with it rather than risk fixing the problem, only for it to go past the deadline. These are just beta copies, after all, and I finally got my two free copies.

NaNoWriMo 2013 2014

It was an immediate relief to have that project behind me. I spent a few days filling my free time with reading. But then it happened – the itch to write again. After giving my creative juices a few days to percolate, I started looking through my unfinished manuscripts for something I could sink my teeth into.

Then I found it – a book that I started writing years ago and that I come back to every once in a while. I’ve written a scene here, a scene there. It’s not even a skeleton of a book yet, but it’s something. I read through everything I had – about 60 pages in a Word document – and decided I wanted to dig in and really get something done with this story.

I was surprised with how easy it was to sit down and just write. It’s a great feeing – one that I’ve only been able to capture during National Novel Writing Month the past couple years. There’s a reason that I have so many unfinished manuscripts, and it’s that I’ll start with a lot of inspiration, and then my Muse will just abandon me. It’s wonderful to have the motivation back.

So wonderful that, after several days of writing and having no inclination to stop, I decided I might as well sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo. I have friends who sometimes participate in Camp NaNoWriMo in April or July, but I never wanted to do it before. I’m always too busy editing and revising. But this year, while I wait for my beta readers to give me their critiques, I want to be productive. There’s nothing better than writing because I want to – and having the time to do it. I might as well enjoy it because I’ll be working full-time in November and don’t know if I’ll be able to make the 50,000 word minimum.

For anyone else who’s interested, Camp NaNoWriMo allows you to set your own goal (I think the minimum is 10,000 words). My manuscript was already at 20,000 when I started, so I set my goal for 35,000 by the end of July. As of today, I only have 10,000 words to go, and I think I have enough momentum to maybe even finish this book.

Happy writing!

How Do You Know What to Cut?

Last year I asked a number of beta readers to read my 120,000-word NaNoWriMo 2013 novel. After receiving an excellent critique from one of these beta readers, I shared with him how annoyed I was that I was somehow supposed to cut my word count in half. “What would you cut?” he asked. He understood that the novel had issues that needed to be fixed, but he didn’t think length was one of them. He couldn’t fathom how I could drastically cut yet keep the same story.

But I’ve done it. (Well, I haven’t cut it in half, but I’ve cut over 40,000 words.) When he recently offered to read the edited version of my novel, the question changed to, “How do you know what to cut?” My friend is simply curious and fascinated about the writing process, but many writers want to know the same thing. Lost, they wonder if they can cut and still keep the integrity of their stories.

It comes down to more than just correcting typos. Typos I can fix all day, and in fact, I was the queen of clean copies back before I took my first fiction workshop. Clean copies that weren’t all that great to read, as it turns out.

After my first story was critiqued, I discovered that I wasn’t the prodigy I’d always imagined myself to be. I assumed, at first, that people just didn’t get what I was trying to say. It was their problem. It was humbling to realize that they didn’t get me because my stories were a mess.

The credit goes to Ari, who led those fiction workshops. Much of how I write and edit today goes all the way back to those seven semester-long workshops that I took from 2002 to 2005.

Reading others’ stories and discussing them brought to light so many issues that are common among many writers, not to mention learning a lot of tough lessons when my own stories were critiqued. Ari has all kinds of pet peeves, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve written a sentence that starts, “As he went to the fridge” or “As she tied her shoes.” That particular type of sentence drove Ari nuts, and I guess it’s because it shows up so often. The point isn’t to avoid that one kind of sentence but to be intentional. Don’t fall into the trap of using the same sentence structure over and over again. You’ll find yourself on the slippery slope to lazy, sloppy writing.

Showing instead of telling was another biggie. (You can read more about that here.) I used to be the type of writer who had to describe the layout of every room and the outfit of every character. Was this necessary? Nope. That’s not to say that all descriptions are bad, but what you write must add to the story.

For instance, Harry Potter’s lightning scar, green eyes, and trademark glasses form a quick mental picture, and the scar and eyes have their own stories. But is it important to know what brand of jeans or what color shirt he wears? Do we need to know every single item he keeps on top of his dresser? Only the ones that may come up later. Why? Chekov explains it so well: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Eragon and its sequels are popular young adult novels that run to excess when it comes to descriptions and scenes that don’t move the story forward. Each book could easily be cut by tens of thousands of words. Some descriptions are helpful. We’re dealing with a fantasy world, after all. But too much bogs down the text, gives it a plodding pace. I enjoy these books, but I know I have to invest a lot of time when I want to read them. Not because they’re thick books but because there’s a lot of unneeded padding packed into those pages.

You may have heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings” (attributed to just about every well-known writer, and it’s because they all know it’s true). Does this mean that I need to cut every word, every line, every scene that I’m proud of? Well, not quite. But what it does mean is that writers often get attached to bits of prose that ought not be included in the manuscripts where they currently reside.

Ugh. But I worked so hard on that scene. The words flow beautifully. If there’s one thing I won’t cut, it’s that line…

I’ve been there and cut that. My trick to save myself from writer’s remorse is to save all major revisions as separate documents. Then I don’t feel quite as bad about nixing a line or scene when I know I can go back and paste it in again. Which I’ve done.

It takes a certain willingness to cut any- and everything that is not essential to the story. It takes a thick skin when you realize what you cut the first time wasn’t enough (even if it was a lot), and you have to go back and perform major surgery again. It also takes a certain editorial know-how, which may mean that you’ll either have to hire an editor or babysit your favorite reader’s kids for the next five years. Even if you’re a proficient editor, I highly recommend beta readers. (Just be ready to read their stories, too. It’s only fair.)

As Stephen King recommends in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, temporal distance also helps. Take a month off; then come back to a manuscript with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised at the number of throw away scenes that seemed brilliant at the time but are really just filler – and conversely, the number of excellent scenes you’re surprised you actually wrote. (And while we’re talking about On Writing, which I highly recommend you get, King also gives an excellent example of a block of text before, during, and after editing, so you can see the actual process.)

You may notice, after coming back to your story after a break, that you don’t like your opening chapter. You don’t even need that first scene, in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe it belongs much later. Be open to not just cutting words out of sentences, but restructuring completely. We’re not just talking a face lift or a nose job. We’re talking vivisection. It’s going to be messy, and it’s not going to look like the story you started with, but as I reassure everyone who’s read my beta novel and liked it, I haven’t changed the content, unless I improved it.

Last, please read your text aloud. I know it’s difficult if you have a full house and little privacy, but you really need to do this. You will be surprised how good something sounds in your head but how terrible it sounds when spoken. You’ll notice where you start to bore yourself. Or if you read aloud to another person, you’ll see where you lose your audience.

In all of these ways, you can transform a story, for instance, that opens with a girl thinking about how scared she is and how much she misses her old life (and why) to a story that puts the thing she fears on her doorstep and makes her take action.

Step One: Write Without Barriers; Step Two: Cut, Cut, Cut!

The Editing Pen

The Editing Pen

Last week I mentioned that this week’s topic would be about “the last time you could write about whatever you wanted and not care a bit what anyone else thought about it.”

Now, unless you keep a diary that’s locked and hidden somewhere very secure – or, I suppose, if you do the same with a manuscript that you never plan to see the light of day – it is nearly impossible to write without worrying about anyone else’s opinion. I have to admit, it was a bit of a trick question.

Of course, I have attended workshops with so-called writers who were arrogant enough to think that they could write whatever and however they wanted, and any criticism from their fellow workshoppers was not worth heeding. Which made me wonder why these people signed up to begin with. To bestow their writerly beneficence on other, less gifted souls? Or to receive lots of praise and pats on the back?

As you can likely imagine, these writers got a rude awakening when they found out that their prose, in fact, was not a gift from God to the rest of us. And they had a very difficult time ever taking the well-meant critiques and applying them to the manuscripts that they thought were already perfect.

Most writers (or those of us who are realistic about our chances of publishing and actually being read) know that we have to quit thinking about ourselves at some point and consider the readers. Of course, these audiences are varied. Some may be very narrow, others broad, even all-encompassing. And though we may hate the idea of “selling out” or writing to be marketable, the fact is that if you write a young adult novel with a 60-year-old narrator – and a cast full of geriatrics with not an adolescent in sight – you likely won’t have many young adult readers. Sure, write that book if it floats your boat, but don’t expect it to find a publisher.

Now, there are always rule breakers, many of them quite famous. Elmore Leonard’s number one rule for good writing is to never open a book with the weather. So what did he do in his novel, Get Shorty? He opened with the weather (read that opening and others here.)

There are writers who break the rules because they know what they’re doing, and people applaud them for having the guts to do it – and do it well. There are others who don’t know the rules or ignore them, thinking that rules are for those unfortunate writers who don’t have “it” – you know, that mysterious something that puts some writers on bestseller lists.

These others – the ones who think that the golden prose that flows from their fingertips should never be sullied by an editor’s red pen – hamper themselves by not moving (or not moving very far, anyway) beyond the first draft. And if you read my post last November about first drafts, you know that they’re necessary, of course, in the writing process, but there is a reason they’re called “first” – you’re supposed to move on to a second and a third and however many it takes to get the job done right.

When I wrote my first drafts post, I was a little over a week into NaNoWriMo. (And if you don’t know what that is, read all about it at www.nanowrimo.org – and then participate this November!) During November, I wrote over 80,000 words and edited very little, except for those few times when I needed to go back and re-read something, and I caught an error.

I continued writing through December and January and into the first part of February, when I finally wrapped up my novel – at about 148,000 words. I knew it was on the wordy side. With a first draft, you write without barriers; it’s just you and the manuscript. I liken it to writing an email that you never plan to send. If you want to let someone know a piece of your mind, compose an email full of all the vitriol it will hold, but instead of sending it, sleep on it, and you will often find that your original email doesn’t need to be sent at all or can be toned down. The same goes for manuscripts. Much of what authors include in a first draft is backstory or info-dumping that is more for the author’s benefit than any use to the readers. When you start to edit, save your first draft in case you need to go and use some of that info later, but likely, a good portion of it will get cut.

In my first draft, my first person narrator contributed all kinds of thoughts and snarky asides that do not belong in the final version. Since the style is largely conversational, I let quite a bit of it pass, even after a couple rounds of edits. I did cut almost 20,000 words, after all, so I felt like my novel was ready to move to the next stage and be dispersed to some beta readers.

Then, last weekend, I had an unexpected opportunity. Writer’s Digest was offering what they called a bootcamp with a literary agency, focusing on the first 10 pages of a novel. All I had to do was really polish those first 10 pages and get some professional advice on how to make them even better.

When I posted my excuse of a blog last week, I had just sent off the final, revised-again 10 pages to the agent I was working with, and I felt like I had been somewhat mentally flogged. Her first assessment had been short, with one positive: I had a good handle on the language. The negatives: too much dialogue, too long (I had given her the word count for the whole novel), and too much telling instead of showing.

Well, crap, I thought. My beta readers haven’t give me any complaints like that (yet). They helped me with pacing and big content issues, but then again, they weren’t pulling a magnifying glass out on the first 10 pages only. My beta readers went in knowing that they were going to finish the book. While I can tell agents all day long that they’ll like it if they just read to the end, they know that prospective readers will likely only read a page or a paragraph or even just the opening line before they decide to buy the book – or not.

I won’t say the agent’s comments were a blow, but they were a wake up call. After getting clarification on the negatives, I saw my book through new eyes – someone’s else’s – and realized that there is a lot more work to be done. And since I love a challenge, I’m having a fun time editing – again.

So to address my own topic that I presented last week and again at the beginning of this post, the last time I wrote something without caring about what anyone else thinks was when I wrote that first draft – and every time I write a first draft. What a relief to get it all off my chest (or out of my head, as the case may be).

And, yes, I need to be true to myself and write the book that I want to write, but sometimes the book that wants to be written needs me to move out of the way a little. I need to quit thinking about what an impact the end of Part One will make and weigh every word up to that point. Maybe some (or a few thousand) of those words need to go.

And to paraphrase another agent who was so right (although it’s hard advice to swallow): sometimes that line you keep coming back to – you know, your favorite – is the line that you absolutely must cut.

Another Project Bites the Dust

 

The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

Getting ready for NaNoWriMo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This past week was the big deadline: after June 30th, the CreateSpace coupon code for two free copies of my NaNoWriMo novel would expire. As a perfectionist, I found it difficult to call my novel good enough. But then I realized that not only had a written a novel – from scratch – in just a few months, but I had also fully revised it a couple times. That’s a record for me – and quite an accomplishment, considering I’m so picky.

Now, if you’re reading this and wondering, What in the world is she talking about? What is NaNoWriMo?, I will tell you. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) comes around every November. Why November? I don’t know. You can read more at nanowrimo.org. All I know is that it’s awesome. And it’s also for crazy people. Like me. Even some really successful novelists participate in NaNoWriMo. Like Sara Gruen, who wrote Water for Elephants, and Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.

While brainstorming my last blog of October – the one in which I would list all the reasons why my sorry butt wouldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, yet again – I had an idea of novel-sized proportions. So I figured, What the heck? I just had a couple days to wait, so I held off until November first, then started writing like… what did I say earlier? Oh yeah – a crazy person.

A novel, as defined by NaNoWriMo, is 50,000 words. I wrote over 80,000 in November, so I “won,” but I wasn’t finished with the book. I kept at it until I finally finished in early February. Then I sat back and let it rest for a month – something Stephen King recommends (maybe I read it in On Writing – can’t remember).

When the month-long waiting period was over, it was time to start editing. I usually enjoy editing just as much as writing. Sometimes it’s the joy of discovering a detail I forgot I wrote. Sometimes I realize I really screwed something up, and I feel liked I’ve accomplished something after I fix it. And I always, always try to cut extraneous words and make the manuscript as clean as possible.

Now, I know this will sound gross, but the first draft is kind of like diarrhea of the pen (or keyboard, whatever). Many – way too many – writers leave their first drafts pretty much alone, so consider how awful it is for editors to read diarrhea-on-the-page. One of the goals of NaNoWriMo is to just plow straight through, so there’s going to be lots of crap. It’s necessary if you’re going to write so much in such a short time. But if you want to have a chance of the success that Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern, and authors like them have enjoyed, you have to return to that original draft and pull out your ax. After all the useless words are cut, you pull out your chisel and try to make the story as close to its intended shape as possible.

One great goal to help achieve this is another that Stephen King recommends (which I read in the same place as “wait  a month”): he says to cut the manuscript by 10%. I have tried this with other novels and short stories – always to no avail. If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m wordy. I mean, I almost always break the blogs-should-only-be-500-words rule. And I had new scenes that I wanted to add to my book. How in the world would I cut a 148,000-word book down to a little over 133,000? (A double-spaced page in a word processing program has 250 to 300 words, so that’s like cutting 50 to 60 pages.)

My mom's amazing cover art.

My mom’s amazing cover art.

But I did. And for once in my writing life, I surpassed my goal. A couple days before the deadline, I trimmed it to just over 129,000. I even managed to design a cover. I got the basic outline done, told my mom (who is an amazing artist) what I really wanted, and then she waved her magic wand, and BOOM! Cover, done. It’s wonderful having a talented mom.

I sell my children’s book through CreateSpace (shameless plug – buy it here!), so I knew I needed to submit my story one day early to make it through the reviewing process. Hero is an illustrated book, so I had to submit it as a PDF. Like a dummy, I assumed my novel needed to be a PDF, as well. It was only after I submitted it that I saw they would also accept .doc or .docx.

Sure enough, the morning of the 30th, I saw that they had rejected the PDF – it cut off all my pages numbers. So I resubmitted it as a .doc, then waited. And waited. I went to sleep and set my alarm to wake me a few minutes before midnight, so I could still order my copies before my coupon code expired. But at midnight, July first, my book still wasn’t approved.

Grr. By the time I woke up the next morning, the book was approved. Isn’t that how it always goes? Part of me felt like giving up and continuing to edit my book to supposed perfection. But I’m enough of a realist to know that that will never happen. The whole reason I even considered sending it to CreateSpace to begin with was because of the two free copies, but I was already planning on buying a few more. They’re not expensive, and I wanted to have something nice to give my beta readers. So I went ahead and ordered them anyway.

My books should arrive early next week. I am both excited and nervous. If you had told me this time last year that I would have a sudden brainwave and write an entire novel in just over three months – and edit it and print it for its first critique-ers within eight months – I would have thought you were nuts. I had no idea that I would love NaNoWriMo. Even though I had to write ridiculous amounts every day, it wasn’t a chore. Maybe it’s just that serendipitous magic of the right story coming to me at the right time. As is my goal every time I write fiction, I created the story that I wanted to read. My only hope that my beta readers agree and won’t give a unanimous, What was she thinking? This is terrible!

Either way, my third big project of this year is done. I’m currently living in a bit of a fiction-writing vacuum. Yes, I still have plenty to do. But at night, when the kids are in bed and I’d usually be revising, I sit around and think, What do I do now? It’s hard to adjust back to a normal life, whatever that is.

There is, however, one consolation. I know that when my beta readers get done – even if their comments are miraculously positive – I’ll have my work cut out for me again. And I look forward to that day.