I have a whole post planned about busyness, about what it’s been like these past months to balance work and study and writing, but this week was full of Thanksgiving prep and pie-eating and I’ve run out of time. Because something cool is coming and it starts in just a few days.
I’ve loved watching all my friends participate in NaNoWriMo this month, and while strict word count goals have never really been my thing, I’ve been a little sad at having to watch from the sidelines. At least until I finish my degree, November is going to be a month of exams and assignments for me. December, on the other hand, offers a little more time and a lot more Christmas cookies. And so, this year, I’m doing my own month-long writing event. I’m calling it DRAFTCEMBER!
Here’s the deal. I like working with a little less structure than NaNo allows, so I won’t have a word count goal. If I make 20,000 words, GREAT! If I make 50k, AWESOME! But I do need motivation, so I’ve come up with a series of reward platforms.
So what counts toward word count? Anything. I think I know which story I’m going to work on, but that could change. I might work on two stories, or three. Blog posts count as well. Anything that is creative and makes me smile.
I love these words by Ray Bradbury, and I think they’re a good representation of the true spirit of Draftcember:
“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun–you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself, You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is–excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms, without such vigors he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health!” — Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing.
Would you like to join me? Please do! Create your own reward list and your own rules. Post about it or don’t. But together let’s make December the most fun and productive month of the year, bursting with zest, gusto and Christmas cookies. Be big! Be bold! And write your heart out, my Draftcember warriors!
In my post about things I learned from the Sea Story, I mentioned the importance of love: loving your story and loving the act of writing itself. I’m a butt-in-chair writer. I don’t believe in just waiting for inspiration, because inspiration has never gotten me much further than a pretty line or an interesting character — it takes work to make a novel. But the Sea Story taught me something important about love and I thought it deserved its own post.
I’m not a huge fan of revising. I understand its importance, and I throw myself into it wholeheartedly with every novel, but for me, a revision will never compare to the messy, beautiful process of getting a story down the first time. I’ve compared drafting to riding downhill before, and the metaphor still works. First drafts are exhilarating, breathless and free, while subsequent drafts are like riding on the flat: long, tiring and often boring.
I’ve always known this about myself, but what I didn’t know was that weariness I feel when I’m revising can creep into the draft itself. I can, entirely by accident, revise away the best parts of my story. Knowing this, I’ve started assembling techniques to combat revision fatigue, and just in case you are experiencing something similar, I thought I’d share:
Too Many Cooks
A few months ago, McDonalds Australia ran a crowd-sourcing campaign to create a new burger. People all over the country voted for their favorite burger toppings, and for a limited time the resulting burger was sold in stores. I tried it. It was perfectly fine. Turns out, most of Australia loves your standard burger: beef patty, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, and cheese.
The problem wasn’t that the burger wasn’t good, it was that there was nothing all that unique about it. It didn’t stand out in any way.
Sometimes, we fall into the trap of crowd-sourcing our novels. I don’t mean in the drafting stage, where it’s just you and your story. I mean in the way we get and receive critiques. Critiques are important — my critique partners are the most valuable weapons in my arsenal — but there is a point where too many voices start to crowd out your own.
What makes your novel special isn’t having a character everyone loves, or plot that’s completely inoffensive. It’s you. You are the special ingredient. Don’t revise yourself out of the story.
Before you ask for a critique, it’s important to have a very clear grasp on what you love about this story. Know what you want to keep, what you’re going to fight for, and what makes the manuscript unique, so when you start getting those critiques back you know when to bend and when to stand by your choices.
But it’s not only critiques you need to protect the story from… it’s yourself. Lately I’ve been noticing an insidious trend in my own drafts: changes I’ve made because I think someone might object to them. No one has actually said anything negative about the abrasiveness of a character in this scene, or the way this character cries or lets her anger get the best of her, but I imagine someone one day will, and I take it out. The result is… bland. When you fail to trust yourself and your own choices, when you let all those other voices in, you can accidentally revise the spice out of your story.
Know what you love about your story, and hold it tightly. Don’t let anyone take it away from you, not even yourself.
Take Breaks… Long Ones
I’m terrible at this. Even when I do manage to take a break from my manuscript, while waiting on critiques or leaving a draft to settle, I still spend every waking moment thinking about it. With the Sea Story in particular, I love it so much I’m afraid to let it go, and that’s been detrimental to my own revising process. In the whole year and a half since I started drafting, through 500,000 words of discarded drafts, I don’t remember a single occasion when I felt like I had fresh eyes to see the story.
A strategy I’ve started using lately, with great success, is dual-weilding novels. I never thought I could work on two novels at once, but so far it’s working great! The way I handle it is, I’ve set extremely tough daily and weekly word count goals for my WIP. The only time I’m allowed to even brainstorm the revision on my second novel is when I’ve met those goals. Most days I run out of time. But in those stolen moments, in the midst of the heady rush of a first draft, I’ve found my enthusiasm for the story I’m revising again. Maybe it’s the excitement of an illicit relationship, maybe its the enjoyment of my first draft bleeding over into my other story, but I’ve found the love again. Just as importantly, I’m having fun.
Another thing I’ve tried is having a theme song for my novel, a song that reminds me of everything I love about the story: the atmosphere, the tension, the drive of my MC. I can’t listen to it too often, because I tend to burn out on songs. After awhile they start to lose their impact. But when I do, I feel it: that spark that started it all.
You could also try moving to a different location. I love working in coffee shops — the right kind, with good coffee, quiet music, just the right number of customers, and staff who don’t bother you too often. But even just working at my kitchen table rather than at my desk can spark something for me and get the words rolling.
Sometimes what I need is space — physical space. Going for a walk and clearing my head always seems to bring that sense of freshness back to my spirit and onto the page. Cleaning my desk and adding small touches of beauty to my workspace helps as well.
Lastly, I’ve become a Pinterest convert. I didn’t really get it at first, but it’s become instrumental for helping me remember what I love about a story. Spending a few minutes before I sit down to write lingering over a story’s Pinterest page and searching for new images to capture my story can be just what I need to get the ball rolling. Somehow, switching over to a visual medium just sparks something for me. For my WIP, I’ve even started doodling in a notebook, drawing scenes and images that recur in the story. Try it — it might help!
So. Maybe you’re one of those gifted folks who love revision, or maybe you’re like me and think nothing can compare to a first draft — either way, I hope you’ve found something here to help you hold onto the love and make the revision process just that little bit smoother.
For most people, writing is a narrow, rocky path littered with obstacles. Occasionally you’ll pass another writer on your way and you’ll nod to each other before continuing on. Sometimes you’ll find a stream along the side of the path and you’ll fill your water bottle and maybe lay down for awhile. Some people never get up again. And every now and then you’ll pass a marker that tells you exactly h0w far you’ve come — though not how far you have to go.
These markers are important. They’re the little boost we need to get over the next hill. They show we’re still moving forward, even if the landscape never changes. They tell us that we’ve achieved something — and we have! Not everybody gets this far. You could have given up a long time ago. Half your friends are still back there by that stream. We’re going places. We should acknowledge that.
One of the ways I acknowledge my own little markers is by writing a blog post at the end of every book, listing the things I’ve learned from the experience. I actually used to write these posts at the end of every draft — back then it felt like there was so much to learn, so much ground to gain, and I leaped from marker to marker with energy and gusto. Now, the markers are a little further apart. The things I’m learning are amorphous and harder to put into words. But I think it’s important, still, to pause and take a little Instagram snap of where I am and what I’ve learned.
None of these are dos and don’ts. They’re not rules to follow. They’re just things I’ll be aware of next time when making decisions about a character or a story, things that might make my life easier to avoid. Or, if I decide to include them, things to use with care and intention.
What the Sea Story has taught me:
1. The trouble with outsider characters
I’ve always written outsider characters, characters that are either new to their world, or on the outskirts of it. We all understand what that’s like, to feel like we don’t belong, to be the new person, to be alone in the world. It’s relatable. But while writing the sea story I realized for the first time how difficult it can be to construct a story with an outsider main character.
Dialogue is a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It achieves so many things at once: it reveals character, it creates conflict and suspense, it reveals information, and it advances the plot. Outsider characters have less opportunity to interact with other characters in a meaningful way, and you can fall into the trap of having scene after scene of your character just thinking about things. Give your characters friends, siblings, parents, enemies. Dialogue is where conflict happens; it’s the lifeblood of your story.
The other difficult with outsider characters is worldbuilding. If a character knows about her world, she can convey it to the reader, but if she’s new to it, every bit of information must be fed to her (and us) by other characters. If she’s also an outsider in the social sense, this creates additional difficulties.
Outsider characters are important and all these things can be overcome, but next time I will know exactly what I’m getting into before I decide to write this kind of story.
2. The weight of back-story
Imagine your novel in its first chapters is an infant. Still young, not quite able to hold its own head up yet. What you’re hoping as you go along is for that infant to grow, to learn to walk, and to become its own person. Now, imagine your back-story has a physical weight. It’s a metal chain that you loop around your story. In small amounts it can be beautiful — an adornment, a necklace — but too much begins to weigh your story down.
An adult can carry great chains across her back and it might even make her stronger. But even the smallest chain can be too much for an infant. A story will never learn to walk or talk or cover great ground when its first chapters are burdened with back-story.
I knew all this going in to the Sea Story, at least intellectually. But without realizing it, I created a story that was completely reliant on its back-story. The back-story was built into its bones — all forward movement was based upon events from the past. My poor first chapters struggled under the weight of it.
Back-story is not a bad thing in and of itself. But if you’re creating a story that relies upon its back-story, rather than using it as decoration, you will need to be especially creative in your execution. My advice? Make your back-story your front-story. Maggie Stiefvater often begins her story at that one important moment in the past that determines all that is to come. Julie Murphy, Jandy Nelson and Gayle Forman have all used unconventional story structures in order to incorporate events of the past into their manuscripts.
(*If you have any other examples of unconventional story structures in YA, please send them my way!)
Back-story is a hurdle, but when used well it can be beautiful.
3. The trouble with first person narratives
I love first person narration. All three of my novels are first person. But when you’re writing a story with a complex world and events happening in multiple locations, a single, first person narrator has its limitations. Your character either needs to be in the heart of the action at all times or have someone else tell them what’s going on — which can lack the drama of seeing it for themselves.
Another difficulty with first person narration is suspense. Alfred Hitchcock, master of the genre, once gave the illustration of two people sitting at a table while a bomb ticks away underneath. If the viewer is unaware of the bomb (as in a first person narrative), then the eventual explosion is surprising but not suspenseful. If the viewer is aware, if they saw the bomb planted there and they know it will explode at a certain time, they become involved in the narrative and long to warn the characters. This is suspense.
“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” — Hitchcock
It’s all about what kind of story you’re trying to tell. This was the first time I even noticed these limitations, and I made first person work for me regardless, but with my WIP I’m giving third person a try. I have a larger kind of story I want to write and I’m looking forward to exploring it from a wider lens.
Sometimes, when writing feels like work, when you’re weary and stressed, it shows in the writing.
Sometimes, when writing is a joy, when you’re writing with the exuberance of pure creation, it shows in the writing.
For me, with this story, it was important to maintain the “mind on fire” spirit of writing. When I didn’t feel that, when an entire draft felt like work, that was a huge clue that something wasn’t right. And readers could tell.
I read this great piece by Hilari Bell the other day about embracing failure, because it means you’ve tried something and learned from the experience. Go read it; it’s a good one.
These are the ways I tried and failed while writing the sea story. These are the lessons I learned.
Next time I will fail better.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
A month ago I finished my novel. This is a happy thing, I know it is. The feeling of being done, finally, finally done, is just lightness and air and every good and joyous thing. I went out to celebrate with my husband and, unexpectedly, we were joined by pretty much everyone else we know. I took a few deep breaths and I smiled and then I steeled myself for what was to come.
I try to prepare, to think ahead. I start planning my next book as early as possible, months before I expect to need it. But the problem is, the book I plan has never, ever been the one that I end up writing next. No matter how many plugs I construct, they just don’t fit the hole that emerges when I finish a manuscript.
I think partially it’s my mind’s way of forcing me to take downtime. I have to take a break between books. I don’t have a choice. But I hate that time, I can’t stand it, because no matter how many books I read or walks I take or cookies I bake, the anxiety always comes.
Writing is my therapy — I realized that a long time ago. I started writing when I was a kid in part because it forced my brain to slow down and focus, rather than running in endless, exhausting circles. My mind is like one of those dogs in a too-small yard. Boredom frustrates it. Inactivity sends it wild. It paces the same old, worn paths until the grass is all worn away and all that’s left is dirt and an overwhelming, unnameable terror.
When I’m writing, though, I feel normal. I feel like anyone else. I don’t lie awake at night, paralyzed by everything could possibly go wrong in my life. I don’t spend the drives to and from work running through every embarrassing thing I’ve ever said and imagining crashing on the side of the road just to make the thoughts stop. I don’t spend hours thinking about all the ways I could die or have my loved ones taken from me.
But when I’m not writing, all those things come back.
I know what to expect, my husband knows what to expect, and we mitigate the damage as much as possible. It gets easier every time, because I know what’s coming, and I recognize it when it does. It helps to know that I’ve gone through it before, and always come out the other side. Here’s a maxim I learned when I was a teenager, suffering through my first ever bout of depression: tomorrow will be different. Maybe better, maybe worse, but never exactly the same. How I’m feeling right now won’t last forever.
It wasn’t too bad this time. Or at least it could have been much worse. Because everything that could have gone wrong did, all at once.
First, my Labrador, Mika, injured her hip. This meant I was without a running buddy for the first time in two years. I was too miserable to try running on my own. I was too afraid to go into the bush without her. Two of my major coping mechanisms — running and nature — were taken from me at the worst possible time.
Then, Robin Williams died. I didn’t realize it would hit me so hard. Celebrities have died before, lots of them, and the sadness has always been momentary and light. I guess it was the way that he died, as well as the timing. It brought up a lot of things for me. I started thinking, if Robin Williams, a man who made his living from laughter, couldn’t make it, then how could I? I guess I wasn’t the only one, because Beyond Blue, an Australian helpline for people with anxiety and depression, received 50% more calls after the news broke.
I got sick, my hours were reduced at work, and then the rain started. Weeks of it. It’s still going — it feels like it’s never going to stop. Even sunshine was taken from me.
But I’ve weathered the storm. I grasped at every good thing I could find. I searched for beauty in every ordinary moment. I went out for coffee a lot (yay coffee!) and I went for walks when the sun came out and I hugged my husband and puppy as often as I could. I tried to be kind to myself, recognizing that the bad moments would pass and I’d write again when I was ready. I wasn’t always good at these things, but I did my best.
And on Monday I took my puppy on her first pain-free walk and then I sat down at my laptop and started tapping at the keys. The flow was slow — just a dribble, but it was something. Then yesterday, I did a session of yoga, Vinyasa-ing until I couldn’t feel my arms anymore, and wrote 500 words. 500 beautiful, wonderful, happy words. I’d hug them, but I don’t want to scare them away.
Today the rain is back and some of the old fears are creeping up on me, but I’m going to sit down at the laptop regardless. Maybe the words will come or maybe they won’t, but every season passes. The good ones and the bad. Tomorrow will be different.
I met a man in the woods the other day. A stranger. I was wary, but I had my dog with me, and he had a dog, too — a lovely German short-haired pointer named Billy. Besides, the patch of bush we were walking through wasn’t that large. Just a narrow corridor of trees squished between a freeway and a long tract of houses. Large enough that I couldn’t see cars or houses when I walked through its center, but small enough I couldn’t get lost.
Or so I thought.
The man told me there was more to the bush than I’d seen. He described a creek and a dam and a field where horses once grazed. He told me about a tunnel under the freeway that led to forest as far as you could see, a trail that wound all the way down to the lake.
I didn’t believe him, not at first. But then he showed me. While he told me stories about this neighborhood that only recently became mine, he showed me a creek where my dog could swim, a field where she could run, and bush that spanned much further than either of our legs could carry us. It was a whole world, hidden within the one I thought I knew.
A few days later, I went back on my own. Mika and I, we explored this new world. We smelled wildflowers, ran through the trees, splashed through creeks and muddy puddles. Again and again, we went back. We’d found magic and we weren’t about to let it go.
Lately, I’ve been turning over a new story idea in my mind. It started with a question: How can a creative person change the world? I don’t have all the answers yet, but I think this is part of it: Art is the offered hand that leads you into the woods… and back out of it.
The artist ventures into the world and reports on what she sees. Come, she says, look, see. She shows us the places we think we know, the trails we’ve always walked, and then pushes us to look deeper. Did you notice? she asks. There, right there. Have you ever seen that before? It’s her great task: to show us a world greater than the one we’ve seen, the strange in the familiar, the magic in the mundane.
There’s more to it, though. Good art, lasting art, does more than show us new paths to wander. When we put down the book, leave the gallery or cinema, when find our way back to our old, familiar lives, art leaves us changed. We can’t look at the world in the same way anymore.
When I stepped out of the woods that day, I wasn’t the same girl I was when I first ventured in. I don’t walk the same paths anymore, and I don’t only walk the ones the stranger showed me. My world is growing, my capacity for joy and peace and wonder expanding every time I step into the trees.
That’s the crux of it, I think. Art has repercussions past the initial experience. If a creative person wants to change the world, they need to create art that changes people.
How? I don’t know. All I can do is keep venturing into the world and bring back what I see. Maybe I’ll help someone see things a little differently. Or maybe, just maybe, someone might read my stories and find themselves changed. I can’t imagine any greater privilege, or any greater responsibility, than that.