The Little Story That Could

Never Give Up

It’s actually not a “little” story at all. In fact, according to an article I read years ago, at over 153,000 words, my novel would be considered by some to be a super novel.

I’m talking about my yet-to-be-titled NaNoWriMo 2016 novel, which I just finished minutes ago.

I’ve been waiting to make the “I finished!” announcement for a while. I thought that I would finish on my spring break, which was over two weeks ago. And I did spend two days in a row typing over 10,000 words, which got me a lot closer to finishing, but as I’ve learned with my novels, they never cooperate. They’re like children, each of them different, each with its own set of challenges. Good lord was this one unruly. It’s the longest of my NaNoWriMo books, and it’s taken the longest to write. I thought, at the outset, that it might be more of a novella, that I might not have enough story to fill out NaNoWriMo’s 50,000-word minimum. Ha!

I’ve adopted a motto from one of my favorite movies, Galaxy Quest: “Never give up, never surrender!” I know that NaNoWriMo considers WriMos winners if they successfully write 50,000 words from scratch during the month of November, but when I first undertook the challenge in 2013, I decided that I was done with leaving manuscripts incomplete. Even if the book will never see the light of day, I have to at least finish it, give it the chance to someday be edited into shape.

So that’s what I’ve done four times now. It’s a personal goal, but one in which I take pride. Years ago, when I was enrolled in a fiction workshop in college, one of our assignments was to write a piece of short fiction and have it critiqued by our classmates. The second part of this assignment, upon which our final grades were dependent, was to then take the critiques of our classmates and edit our stories. Some critiques were worthless, some priceless. But the assumption was that none of us walked in with perfectly crafted pieces; there’s always room for improvement. One day, nearing the end of the semester, I overheard one of these classmates pouring out his woes to our professor, how he “just wasn’t feeling it.” Yeah, I’ve had manuscripts like that. There’re lots of them, sitting in files that I haven’t touched in years. But when someone assigns me a task—especially for a college class!—I do my best to complete it. I couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy, saying that he couldn’t do what was required, yet he still expected a pass.

Whenever I feel like giving up on a story, I think of him and what a lousy excuse he made, and I realize that I’m not going to do something lame like that, even if I’m only myself letting down. I didn’t spend months on this to just give up. I haven’t put off editing other pieces that desperately need attention for nothing. I fought writer’s block and wrote… maybe not like a boss, but like someone who takes writing seriously. It’s not about producing something perfect. It’s not even about following an outline to fruition (conflict introduced—check! love interest refuted—check!). It’s about giving the story the chance to have its say—especially if it ends nothing like what I expected at the start.

I finished, and now I have the satisfaction of another novel under my belt. I haven’t let myself down. Breathe, edit, repeat.

 

The Book Birth Plan

 

Keep Calm and Write On

If you read my last post, it was all about birthing a book. And since NaNoWriMo loometh, it’s time to talk about book birth plans.

Oh, she means outlines, you might think.

But no, in fact, I don’t.

Outlines are key for writing non-fiction manuscripts, in which the author needs to present information in an organized format, but fiction is a whole different animal.

In my novel-writing experience, outlines kill creativity. I’ve written a couple novels that stuck right to the outlines I prepared for them. I would write a scene, then have to look and see what to write next. I didn’t write anything without consulting the outline first because I was afraid of messing up what I wanted to happen later in the plot, but the result was that they read like someone dragging the novels along against their wills. Those novels are now collecting virtual dust because I haven’t touched them in years.

There is a time to tidy up your mess of a novel, and it’s the next stage: editing. When writing, it’s good to have bullet points, things that you know need to happen over the course of the story, but I am here to say that some of the scenes I thought were the most important at the start of a book ended up on the cutting room floor.

If you’re querying and have to provide an outline, you should create it from a book you’ve already written, not the other way around. But that’s not to say that I think books—especially serial novels—should be written without any direction whatsoever. This is where the book birth plan comes in.

If you’ve ever had a baby and tried to have a birth plan, you’re probably laughing. From experience, I can tell you that birth plans are often tossed out with the bath water (just not with the baby). It’s more about comforting the soon-to-be parents by letting them think they have control than actually checking off every box on the list.

So if you’re gearing up to start your novel on November first, what would your “birth plan” look like? How will you know you’re ready to tackle this huge task?

I have a file for “notes” for every one of my NaNoWriMo novels. For my first, I didn’t even decide to participate until late October, so there was no time to plan at all. I had a few scenes in my head and just let the story flow with a vague idea of what I wanted to happen. Once I started writing, I wrote notes, like a quick reference guide, so I wouldn’t have to scroll through the entire document to remember something like a character’s birthday.

The next two years, I had notes already written before I started, so I had a general idea of where the books were going, but like having a baby, they certainly didn’t cooperate with all my expectations. The one thing I wish I’d done with the third book in particular was to decide on how to begin the thing. That little hiccup had me stuck in front of a blank document for a long time.

So write notes, by all means, like how to start your book (who’s narrating? where does it happen? etc.). You can scrap that scene or put it somewhere else later, but at least it will get you rolling.

If you’re dying to write a scene but know you can’t until November, jot down the parts you don’t want to forget: “Brenda runs into her ex at the store”; “Josh’s future plans change when he doesn’t make it onto the football team.” Your character(s) may have a complicated family tree, or you may have a timeline that jumps all over the place. Write these down if you’re afraid you’ll forget, but don’t stay married to them! Therein lies the trap. Read over your “plan” before you start typing on November first, but then set it aside, and write whatever wants to be written. You may discover that your story has some surprises that you never imagined—and that wouldn’t be realized if you stuck to a rigid plan.

This year, I know how I’m going to start the book and certain events that I want to happen, but this one is more about the characters than the plot. And there is every possibility that these characters will be difficult. Actually, I kind of hope that they are. Since I won’t actually be having a baby, it should be fun to see how far this story deviates from the “plan.”

Why Not Sign Up for Camp NaNoWriMo?

Fiction Fix Typewriter

For those who may be learning about Camp NaNoWriMo for the first time, it’s offered twice a year – the months of April and July – as a kind of warm up for the biggie, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in November.

Last year, I finished editing my previous NaNoWriMo novel at the end of June and signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo in July to work on an old, unfinished manuscript. This past April, I signed up again to work on a different novel that I’d started in December.

So why am I writing this when it’s almost halfway through July? To be honest, I almost gave up on the idea of participating this time. No, I haven’t finished the novel I worked on in April (although I did achieve the word count goal I set for myself). What happened is that I came up against a writer’s roadblock that I’ve written about numerous times: the mid-novel slump.

There is little more frustrating for a writer than knowing how your novel will end but then getting lost on the way. It reminds me of the family vacation we recently took, in which my GPS simply wouldn’t believe that our destination was on Sugarloaf Road. It was glad to take us to an empty field on Sugarloaf Mountain Road. While it’s a little misadventure we can laugh about now (and others who have been mislead by GPS can commiserate), at the time, it was aggravating because we knew where we wanted to be, just not how to get there.

Of course, with my novel, I can’t blame GPS. I was cruising along just fine and decided on the perfect twist to give my story more tension. The only problem was that I wrote myself into a hole in which I couldn’t write myself out.

Not knowing what else to do, I committed a big no-no: I went back to the beginning and started editing. Although it’s cost me a lot of time, I’m glad that I did. I’d written quite a few things that I’d forgotten, so I took notes along the way. I also trimmed a lot of extraneous words. And as I went, I realized what I would have to do when I got to that problematic scene that had effectively stopped my forward momentum: I would have to cut it.

There’s still tension, just not nearly as much. Although my scene isn’t the shocker that I originally planned, it’s no longer stalling the manuscript. It meant cutting 20 pages out that I spent days writing, but sometimes that’s what you have to do. I’m just glad that I’m moving forward again.

So now that I know what I’m doing, even though it’s 13 days in, I’m signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo. I am giving myself a low word count goal (12,000 words) because I hope that’s all it takes to finish this novel. Knowing my propensity for verboseness, it’ll likely be longer, but that’s okay. It’s often the scenic route that is most memorable.

 

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!

Done!

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

Ready to Write (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever had a goal that seems to hover just out of reach? I’m talking about those last five pounds that you can’t shed, that last $1000 of debt that hangs over your head, that last month of pregnancy when everyone assumes you should’ve had the baby, yet you feel like it’s never going to happen.

I’ve been through all of those and more, but that’s not what I’m talking about this time. Nope, I’m talking about a writing goal.

That’s right, it’s the end of NaNoWriMo for Sarah!

If you happen to know what NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is, you’re likely thinking, Aren’t you a couple months late, Sarah?

Yeah, yeah. I know that NaNoWriMo was officially over when the clock struck midnight, marking the end of November and the beginning of December. And I’d already “won,” which means that I wrote a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. (Actually, I wrote just over 61K.) But that didn’t mean I was done telling the story.

Last year, I also didn’t “finish” in November. I was certainly on a roll, writing 80,000 words in 30 days, but it took me 10 days into February to finish the first draft. I never slowed down the whole time; there was just so much story to tell.

This year’s NaNo was the sequel to last year’s. For months, I looked forward to continuing the story, but when it came to November, I struggled. I had the initial outpouring, which lasted for several thousand words, but after that, it was as if my muse had gone on vacation and at precisely the worst time.

So I “won” because I won’t sign up for something and then give up. But it was hard. I felt like the majority of what I wrote was just crap that would end up on the cutting room floor. I knew that if this were just any old novel, I would let it sit on the back burner and wait for my inspiration to return. I’m the queen of unfinished novels; I have more half-done manuscripts than I care to think about, and although I hate to admit it, I know that many of them will remain incomplete.

The difference with NaNoWriMo is that, after working so hard to get 50,000 words out, it seems like such a waste to just let the manuscript sit, unfinished. Even though it took two-plus extra months last year, I finished, and I think it’s the best novel I’ve ever written. And since this year’s novel was the sequel, I had to keep going.

Since it was such a tough book to write, I figured it would wrap up quickly and likely well under 100,000 words. Then I could sit back for a month, let it percolate a little, then return and make it worth reading after a hefty revision. To my surprise, a number of brainwaves hijacked my story when I thought I should be long done. The muse was back, although a month late. I continued writing and could see the end, but I couldn’t seem to reach it.

This past week, I had a couple 3000-word nights. My word count raced past 100,000 and didn’t look back. But still, I wasn’t done. I’d already told myself that I would absolutely finish this week. January is the month I had set aside to finish editing 2013’s novel and start querying agents, and here it is the 24th. I couldn’t let the 2014 novel hang over my head any longer. (Plus, I needed something to blog about.)

So last night, after the kids got to bed, I sat down and did some serious writing – 7000 words, to be exact. I’d joked with my husband that it would likely be a 2:00 A.M. bedtime. In reality, it was after 3:30. But I finished! I am worn out but feel so accomplished. I finally caught up to my goal, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it yet.

Now I get a month off from that book. And at the end of that month, I’ll go back and do a lot of cringing and cutting, and hopefully I’ll end up with a manuscript that’s at least 20,000 words shorter and worth sharing.

And in the meantime… I need a nap.

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.