Draft 2

This might be a strictly me thing, but there is no aspect I fear so much in all of writing – not even the blank page of a new book – then the beginning of revisions.

Once I finish any manuscript and get to the satisfactory “The End”, I let out an enormous sigh of accomplishment and relief. I did it. The marathon is over. I let myself rest on my laurels for a bit, give myself plenty of pats on the backs, couple more sighs, and allow myself the victory because I know the real work is only just getting started.

As I’m writing, I keep a running list of items that need to be updated, fixed, or changed for the next draft. I so cleverly call this my “THINGS TO FIX” list. It’s in caps so you know it’s important. This list is my new outline of what needs my immediate attention in the early revision stages. Thing is, I can’t even get to that list until I complete what I call Draft 2.

Now all writers have a second draft. Nobody gets it right the first time around. But I’m talking about Draft 2. Capital D. Plenty of writers can just dive back into the guts of his or her story and incorporate the changes outlined in their own THINGS TO FIX list, but not me. I need to go through the whole thing one time, tightening it up along the way, to give the whole book shape in my head. Only then can I go back and put the big changes into Draft 3.

Draft 2 is where all brackets get filled in, word choice is cleaned up, prose isn’t scrubbed so much as shaped. It’s what turns this giant pile of words into a story and it is exhausting. That’s where I confront my failures head on and try and turn them into something worth reading. Let me tell you, it’s a slog. It’s slow going doing all of that fine tuning, but for me it is completely necessary. I need to make the machine before I can go about fixing it.

I always go through the same stages too. The beginning of the manuscript is often the roughest which makes sense since it was the first part of the story written down. I was still finding character and voice and yet to hit my grove. So, naturally, I think my writing is garbage. Cleaning up all the clunky prose doesn’t help my self-esteem. Somewhere in the process, it gets better. Usually, this is when the story is starting to kick into gear. By the end, I’ve settled with the idea that it’s not all that bad. Not great. Maybe not even good. But not as scum-bucket terrible as I thought it was.

But now I have a story and that’s something I can fix. The next pass puts in the big elements. The pass after that cleans it up yet again. Each time I go through the manuscript, I polish it further and further until at some point I’m legitimately happy with it in its entirety. It transforms from a complete mess to something worth reading.

I’m not even close to that stage yet with my current manuscript. I’m maybe three fifths into it. A little slower than expected. I had other projects vying for my attention. But already, judging by what I’m generating day to day and looking at my THINGS TO FIX list, I know this one is going to be a doozy.

At some point I’m going to come out of the fog, blinking like I haven’t see the light of day in years, and be astonished there’s something good – or at least to me it is – in front of me. It takes a while to get there though, and often involves a lot of self-degradation. So celebrate those victories when you have them. But keep going. The light at the end of the tunnel is a finished book to be proud of.

I just have to get through Draft 2 first.

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The Finish Line

The holidays ruined my NaNoWriMo.

I’m only half joking.

Due to travel plans around Thanksgiving to see my wife’s half of the family and then my family coming into town the very next week meant I lost quite a few days being a productive member of my family and not a productive writer. Now, I could have squirreled away somewhere to crank out some words, but we were in Disney World for crying out loud and I couldn’t figure out how to sell to a couple of three year olds why Daddy would rather play on his computer than play with them in freaking Disney World.

I’m not going to hit that fifty-thousand word mark and that’s okay. I write year round, not just November. Sure the challenge of hitting a high word count is fun. So’s the camaraderie during that time period, but truth be told, that stuff happens day in, day out throughout the rest of the year too!

Honestly, the most fun I have with NaNo is inputting all that data and watching a bar graph. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the estimated day of completion get earlier and earlier. I don’t need a contest to do that. I can do that with Excel. Okay, so the graph might be an extra step, but I’ll manage.

My only real goal this November was to take a nice sized chunk out of my current manuscript and that’s just what I did. So, mission accomplished.

For those of you who’ve hit that fifty thousand word mark, way to go! I’m proud of you.

Writing isn’t a hobby for me or a contest, it’s a lifestyle, so I’m just going to keep on trucking. I won’t always want to write fifty thousand words a month, but I’d like to give it another shot. Maybe February. Sure, it’s short, but there’s nothing going on in February to pull my focus elsewhere.

I don’t rely on a writing app to track my progress, but for the purposes of the monthly data it’s pretty fun. So, if anyone knows of something similar to the NaNoWriMo input, please let me know in the comments. I’d appreciate it!

NaNoWriMo 2018

It’s November 12th, which means we’re in the thick of NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month. This is my third time participating? … engaging? … being a part of the event. If you’ve been reading my blog you know that it’s something I’ve both been looking forward to and dreading in equal measure.

For those of you who don’t know, the idea of the event is to write fifty thousand words during the month of November alone. For some, that’s no small feat. Other’s that’s just November. For me, I tend to write about a thousand words per day, so that’s a little up there for my daily word count. Things get especially dicey, thanks to Thanksgiving. I always lose days/words thanks to that bird and the vacation my family inevitably tends to take that week each year.

I’ve been seeing some critics of NaNoWriMo this year. People who question the validity of the challenge. Real writers write and don’t need a contest. That kind of thing. While I completely agree with them that you shouldn’t need an internet “holiday” to write your novel, nor should your novel only be fifty thousand words, but I like NaNo.

I’m sure it’s different things to different people, but to me it’s a challenge. It’s a way to test my writing mettle and see what I’m made of. It lets me feel like a professional writer for a month with deadlines hanging over my head and all the joy and anxiety that brings.

It’s also a community builder. I assume this is the primary reason most people like it too. Writing is a solitary activity. We often write alone, just you and the computer/notepad/whatever. Even co-writing things, you take turns. The most collaboration you can do is talk about the idea before or after, but still it always comes down to your implementation of the words on the blank page. My suspicion is that’s why we see so many people talking about writing. It’s one of the only ways to share your habit — this lovely hobby or profession — with other people in a meaningful way.

I never want to race through a novel in only 30 days or spit out words just to spit out words, but I like knowing that there are others out there in the struggle. Each pep talk, each motivating email, each mention of the event, really, is a nice reminder that I may be alone with my thoughts and my keyboard, but so are so many others. Will the content produced during November fill our shelves with decade’s worth of masterpieces? Hell no.

I’d honestly be shocked if just one thing written during NaNo was publishable, but that’s not the point. You need to write a million bad words before your first good one. Well, here’s a productive use of your time to get fifty thousand of them out of the way.

I’m using this year’s NaNo to carve a nice chunk out of my manuscript’s overall word count. I’ve been dabbling with some flash pieces as a change of pace to keep the ideas coming, but it’s a nice way of making some great headway towards the end of the book. Last year, I finished my manuscript halfway through November and sat around twiddling my thumbs. I don’t think that’ll be a problem this year.

So if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year like I am, don’t fret. Whatever your reasons for doing it, I think you’re awesome. Keep at it. Hit those daily goals. And happy writing!

Rubber band

I just got back from the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to attend, it’s largely a series of in-depth panels carried out over the course of a couple days. I like to think about it as more theory crafting as opposed to word crafting. It’s a great place for authors, fans, editors, and reviewers to all intermingle and talk about books and the industry we love. Oh, and the occasional agent shows up there too from time to time.

Anyway, I always come out fresh with ideas, brain going a mile a minute. In one panel we talked about monsters and another the role of ports in fantasy settings. So, there’s a pretty broad range there.

So many kernels of stories and characters tend to start bouncing around my brain after each one. I’ve actually written a number of short stories based on ideas from these panels and included many elements into manuscripts I’ve been working on at the time. This was my third WFC so I considered myself old guard by now.

As you can imagine in a convention about writing, tropes are often brought up from panel to panel. More importantly, the inversion of tropes and the tropes to avoid at all cost get brought up a lot. So while I’m buzzing with excitement, I’m also shaking with anxiety. For every idea I want to write, I feel like someone somewhere has some warning of what I should avoid if I go down that route. It becomes a balancing act of trying to do what I want, but then try and make it fresh, while also appealing to the publishing industry at large. So it’s like do what I want, but then don’t do what I want. That’s pretty much the crux of the whole industry, right?

Well, what I decided by the end was that I was worrying too much. Why limit myself at the idea stage already? I’m a career coach by day and I often get students coming to me who’ve cut themselves off from options for whatever reason, usually out of fear of failure. I always tell them to just apply and see what happens. Let the universe give you your choices and then figure out the best path. When those choices are limitless, of course its overwhelming. But say you’ve applied to 20 jobs and 3 of them get back to you for interviews, well then you’re potentially choosing between 1 and 3 as opposed to 1 and 20. That’s much more manageable. I really need to take my own advice.

So yes, there are tropes and characteristics I should avoid if I want my work to stand out, but ultimately, I want to write something I’m excited about. Yes, I want others to like it, but I’m my first reader. If I don’t like it, why would someone else?

I’m going to let those kernels percolate for a while. They’re definitely over the fire. I know my next book is in there somewhere. How about I just apply a little elbow grease to all of those ideas to see what works and then go back and figure out how to make it fresh?

Boy that sounds like a great idea. I wonder who thought of that. He sounds like a pretty smart guy.

A Balanced Diet

You can consume or create, but you can’t do both.

I think Kevin Smith is fond of saying that. I’m sure I could look it up, but it doesn’t make the statement any less true.

I’ve found that I get in rhythms where the work comes easy – well, easy enough sometimes, but it’s still work – and then I fall off the wagon where it’s pulling teeth every time. And for me, that’s usually due to outside distractions.

For instance, right now I’m waiting for some feedback and while I wait, I’ve become almost paralyzed. I don’t want to do any writing because I’m too excited and too eager to deal with the work I sent off for scrutiny.

Now, should I be working? YES! Is anything someone says about the other work going to affect my current work? NO!

And yet, I’ve become both incredibly distracted and self-indulgent. I’ve given myself permission more to put off writing like “I deserve this” and “it’s okay.” Everyone deserves a break and a reward, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve come to recognize that’s not what this is. It’s stalling. What I really want is to work on the stuff I sent out.

Every time I decided to put off writing for some video game time or a movie or whatever, I’m not actually doing myself any favors. I’m not recharging the batteries, I’m killing time in the hopes that today will be the day I get that email. But you know what? It hasn’t been that day yet, so why would it be today? It’ll get here when it gets here.

Focus. It’s kind of important.

That’s why I’ve been writing more about my big push to really dive deep into my latest project. I mean it, but it’s also a way to trick myself back into work.

While I’m consuming, I’m not creating. For me, consuming media is like eating candy. It’s delicious and tastes good at the time, but eat too much and I feel icky. Creating media is much more substantial. That’s my well-balanced meal with all the fixings and flavor.

Taking a break is fine, but be honest with yourself.

[title]

Not to bury the lead here but I think my favorite writing technique is using brackets.

[  ] Those guys.

Writing itself is freeing because we can put whatever we want on the page. But brackets are even more so because they not only hold whatever I can imagine, but often, whatever I can’t!

I use brackets as placeholders.

Every time I’m writing dialog and know a character should be moving right now but I just can’t quite figure it out? [body language].

Every time I write a reference to a tertiary character who I haven’t named yet? [guy’s name].

Every time I’m writing and just can’t quite think of the word? [word].

Brackets are the best! I don’t lose momentum by stopping and thinking about how to fill them. I throw on some brackets to the thought and then come back later – often the time-consuming crushing edit that is draft number two – and buff them all out. The added benefit is that brackets are so distinctive, you can even do a Find and Replace if you’re only using them sparingly or for something specific such as “[guy’s name]”.

Brackets aren’t just good for lazy writing. They’re crucial for worldbuilding especially for science fiction and fantasy.

For instance, in my current manuscript, I’ve decided that only the emperor has an army. Makes sense, okay. Now there are eight houses/clans all in favor that make up the bulk of the kingdom, though. They’ll have some kind of military presence too to fight over border disputes and interhouse issues. I can’t call them armies, but I need to call them something.

So I decided that since the peace in the kingdom is kind of only in name only, they’ll each have their own military of some kind. Eight houses need eight names, though. I have maybe one of them figured out right now. I really don’t want to stop and think about this entire military structure when I’m in the middle of a scene that has nothing to do with it so instead, I put [defense force] or [sergeant] in as placeholders.

I don’t know what the final versions are going to be, but I will definitely build them by the end. When I sat down to do all my worldbuilding and prewriting work, I came up with as much as I thought I needed, but obviously things tend to arise organically. So rather than derail the entire manuscript, brackets come in as Band Aids until I develop some crucial missing worldbuilding.

Why didn’t I do all of that up front you might ask? Short answer is to avoid worldbuilder’s disease otherwise I’d always be building a world and never writing one. Long answer is that I didn’t know I needed them at the time.

These are the kinds of things you’re going to have to deal with in the marathon slog that can be a manuscript. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was just finish it. Finish the project. It’s never right the first time anyway so why kill yourself now? All of that can be fixed in post.

1 – 1 = 2

“Can’t be too careful these days,” Bridges said, slipping the funds into his coat pocket.

“Can’t be too careful these days.” Bridges slipped the funds into his coat pocket.

See the difference?

Yes, the first one is more immediate. It’s a little more in the present than the second example.

Or is it? Without the “said” in the second example, only the “ed” in “slipped” puts this in the past. So tense-wise, both examples have something present and something past.  Other than flavor, what’s the real difference here?

Well, the second example is exactly one word shorter. How much can one less word really add?

Subtraction is addition, my friends. One less word a hundred times is a hundred less words overall. Do it a thousand times and you’ve trimmed off one percent of a 100,000 word manuscript. Believe me, it matters.

You want the excess fat to just fall away, revealing the meaty bones of your story. I’m seeing stuff like this time and again during my latest revision of an old manuscript. Content I thought was as lean as it could possibly be, with more advanced eyes, is getting hacked off left and right. Sometimes with a butcher’s knife. Sometimes with a scalpel. But in both cases, less is more.

A more focused, more streamlined, and more immersive reading experience.

Sometimes you’ve taken a work as far or as short as it can go. Maybe you really can’t cut anything else out because it’ll fall apart. That’s okay. Or maybe you like the longer phrase. That’s okay too, but be cognizant of what you’re doing.

What kind of book are you writing? Is the reader wanting to spend more time on the flavor of your prose or is it the narrative she’s after?

I used to want to preserve everything, but my new rule of thumb is if its not nailed down – meaning absolutely essential – it’s gone. I’ll throw something away, reread it, and then figure out I guess I needed to keep that sentence after all. Often times, though, if my gut says get rid of it, the story really can survive without it. On the chance that I’ve deprived the reader with some great sentence of exposition, well now I’ve offered her a chance to create something  herself to fill in the gaps which ends up bringing her more into the story anyway.

I’ve taken to labeling my drafts so if I need to come back for anything, thanks to the magic of “Control F” I can find where that spot was in the last version and pull out the bits I chopped away in my hasty housekeeping. That ability and knowledge that the changes aren’t actually permanent are pretty freeing.

Try it out.

Micro Goals

Writing a novel is hard work. No doubt about it. Even when the words come out in a massive rush of inspiration, you still have to edit and polish and do all that stuff that makes a book actually good. What was it Michael Creighton said? “Great books aren’t written. They’re re-written” … or something like that.

Another thing you’ll hear a lot is that writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to juggle so many things in your head to keep them all present in the story and then chug along with that word count to, you know, actually write the novel.

I’ve always tried to hit a thousand words a day with any project I’m working on. That fluctuates with things like NaNoWriMo or if I’m “in the zone” or want to be extra diligent or whatever. But I’ve started something new to help make hitting that daily word count interesting.

I’ve started posting pictures of my word count on Instagram. Sure they’re not the most visually appealing images, but I’m celebrating my micro goals here.

It’s often hard to gauge success. When do you get to be happy? When the book is started? When it’s finished? When you’re querying? When you’re agented? When it’s sold? When it’s published? All of the above?

It’s also easy to keep pushing the goalposts back too. The anticipation for the thing is usually better than the actual thing, so once you’ve gotten what you wanted or you’re close, there’s never really this big ding, ding, ding that goes off cueing instant satisfaction. It’s easy to keep moving the goal line and keep looking towards the horizon.

Don’t.

Be happy with everything you’ve accomplished. Whether it’s writing ten word today, or a thousand, or ten thousand, you’re doing something awesome. Acknowledge your success and celebrate them. If you don’t, who will?

Maybe Your Darlings Aren’t Dead

There comes a point with every manuscript I’ve done where I feel like I’ve reached as far as I can go with it. Basically, it’s as good as it’s gonna get. I see it as both an acknowledgement of limitations on my part and my acceptance to move forward. I’ve done a dozen drafts, I’ve queried agents, I’ve done everything under the sun and there’s still no forward momentum on the thing. I come up against the wall and make a choice: Keep working on it or take everything I’ve learned and invest it in a new project. Thanks to the law of Diminishing returns, I always choose the latter.

This brings me to my next point.

There are these aha moments in every writer’s career where something just clicks. It’s like an audible ding when suddenly something just makes so much sense it’s insane how you didn’t see it before.

To put this in context, I’ve been working on how to crack the short story structure lately. I won’t say I’m anywhere good at short stories yet. There’s a lot about them mechanics-wise that I just don’t know. I tend to write long form. So I’ve made more of an effort to see the differences in approach.

My main takeaway so far – which might seem obvious to your short story writers out there – is that the central conflict in short stories tends to be an internal one rather than an external one.

On top of that, I was recently watching a film critique on Disney’s Hercules. I know. Topical, right? But the reviewer was talking about the differences between what a hero wants versus what a hero needs in order to make a story work. I’ve seen this method a few times now, but maybe it was because I was finally looking inward, but something just clicked.

I suddenly knew what was wrong with my main protagonist in my previous novel, The Red Door. I love that book and I’ve been on the fence a while now if I want to self-publish it or just rewrite it one day so it’s on my mind from time to time, but this perfect storm of study gave me the answer to a fundamental flaw with the work that I wasn’t sure I even noticed the first time around.

My effort to go back to correct it requires a complete reread. It stems from a character motivation thing so there’s lots of little details that need massaging. Anyway, I figure I’ll also trim it down some more while I’m at it if possible. It clocked in at a hefty 134K words when I was querying and then I fought tooth and nail to get it down to 130K to meet an open novel submission. Keep in mind that I thought it was a lean as it could possibly get.

Imagine my surprise that not only am I fixing this subtle, yet colossal problem, but I’m trimming this baby down with a hedge trimmer. I’ve cut an easy 1400 words out of the first two chapters alone and the word count just keeps on dropping.

I’m astonished but it also made me realize something. I really had taken the novel as far as I could have at the time. Pass number 151 wouldn’t have been much different than pass number 37. There was only so much I could do with it at my current experience level. I needed to grow and evolve, and level up as a writer. I thought the last draft was as good as it was going to get, but I’ve never been happier to have been more wrong. I like this version so much better. I’ve made a bet with myself to see how much of it I can trim off by the end. I’m hoping for at least another 10K words – words that I thought were so indispensable before – to really get to the meat of the story.

Sometimes we get bogged down with worldbuilding or our own prose or even just or own limitations. Some works may live in the trunk forever as killed darlings, but maybe, just maybe some of them are worth resuscitating every now and again.

Worldbuilding at Work

I’ve recently come back to my idea about a mystery beneath the sea. The main reason I abandoned the concept is that the more I untangled the knot I’d given myself, the less I liked the answers. I was interested in the deep. The mystery. An alien environment. The claustrophobic dark.

But I ended up with a spaceship and UFO conspiracy theories. Don’t get me wrong. Both of those things are awesome, they’re just not what I wanted to write about.

So, I’ve come back.

The problem before is that I had to invent technology to make it work. So the further I got in explaining things, the deeper into science fiction it ended up. I like Sci-Fi. I wanted to write Sci-Fi. But there was a reason why I wanted my story to take place on our planet.

The more stuff I had to make up to explain what I wanted to tell, the further I got from the kind of realism I wanted to tell. If it got too techy, then the deep, dark ocean lost some of its charm. I wanted it to remain this alien landscape of its own. Yes, I know what I said above about being on OUR planet, but you know what I mean. These were some of the original drawing points.

Rather than invent a future, I looked the past.

I started with the image of a brass-helmeted deep sea diver. What is that world like? When were those in use?

A little investigating gave me a date range. I then set a date post WWI. This limits my technology but not the sense of wonder.

It’s like have you ever seen the movie The Shape of Water? So minor, minor spoiler, but the only explanation for the fishman is that he was found during some guy’s trip in the Amazon. Okay, similar time period to WWI and for some reason that explanation totally works in that context. The viewer knows no such creature existed in the Amazon then or now, but we allow it. There’s room for wonder and imagination. Now if a movie today tried to pull that off, we’d all be like “yeah right!” That’s because we know so much more of the world now.

In my head I call this “Indiana Jonesing” it. You make the story a little more dated and you can pretty much claim whatever you want. Artifact? Secret society? Fishman? Sure. Roll with it. We romanticize the past anyway, let’s fantasize it too.

Back to my point: Using the WWI backdrop gives me what I want. My diving imagery, technological limitations, and wiggle room to include some fantastic elements.

I don’t have a plot yet, but I’ve come up with a couple of characters. Someone’s got to do that diving. Maybe a grizzled frogman suffering PTSD from the war? How about a trauma surgeon too? Who knows? There’s so much material now to mine for content. It’s exciting to be working on it again.

I still don’t have a plot or many of the details, but it doesn’t matter. Those ideas will come.

The point is, this is an exercise anyone can do for story generation. All it takes is a single image or feeling. Start unpacking that image. Explore it. Mine it.

It can get overwhelming trying to come up with characters, a setting, and relevant plot details all at the same time. Oh, and it’s also probably impossible too. So don’t bother!

Find something you love and follow the threads once you start unravelling it. You’ll soon see that it’s not a sweater at all, but more of a spider web. Okay, I’m losing the metaphor here, but I think you see where I’m going with this.

The beauty of writing is that yes we put words on a page, but we need to tell stories to do that. Coming up with a new story is half the fun. I’ve got this one cooking now next to half a dozen others. Something will hatch and let me know when it’s finished (more mixed metaphors).

If not, I’ll just keep following those threads to a new one.