You have to know what you’re working for. You have to fix it firmly in your mind so when doubt looks you in the eye and asks “why?” you can have an answer ready. This is why. This.
It can be publication. You’re allowed to want something big. But I have to tell you the larger you make your goal, the harder you will have to hold on to it, because years could go by, years, and all you have is that one dream to keep you warm.
If I had to suggest something, I’d make it this: the writing. Make the joy of creation your goal and your reward and the doubt won’t be able to touch you. Write and you’ll find it. Write and you’ll never grow cold.
A few things happen when I finish a book. First, the champagne. Second, a day or so of rest. And then, on the third day, I start writing again.
I’m exhausted by this stage. My brain is alphabet soup, in no way fit for novel writing. But at the same time, I can’t not write. It’s a madness, writing. But the madness of not writing is worse.
There is a balance to be found between the need for rest and the need to write. And for me that balance lies in my “between books”. These are books written in an entirely different style than the book I’ve just completed. They’re often in a different tense or from an interesting viewpoint. They’re fun, uncomplicated things, and I sink into them like a hot bubble bath on a rainy night.
I know some writers who would be horrified by this concept. Words, to them, are sacred things. They’re precious, and shouldn’t be squandered. But to me these stories are absolutely necessary, and besides, there are no wasted words.
Perhaps I’ll never show these books (or portions of books as I don’t always reach the end before the next book calls) to my agent, perhaps I’ll never revise, shine them up to a publishable state, but they’re still teaching me something. Even as my brain rests, losing itself in a story it will never be troubled to fix, I’m gaining new skills.
And sometimes these books do become something. Sometimes I’ll steal a plot line, a character. One day maybe one of my between books will prove so enticing I’ll want to push through to the end and spend months polishing it up. But for now? They’re just for me.
I hold this same attitude about my non-writing life as well. Not all projects come to a satisfying conclusions. Not every endeavour works out. But they’re still important. They’ve still taught me something: about life, about hard work, about the person I want to be. I use them in stories, the emotions that come with failure and heartbreak, the people I meet. And I become stronger, disappointment by disappointment, unfinished tale by unfinished tale.
No wasted words. No wasted experiences. Just a long process of becoming. Just cycles of productivity and rest. Just a life fully lived.
I’ve always loved taking those personality tests you find in magazines and on the internet. I don’t know what it is, exactly. I just have this deep longing to understand who I am and what makes me tick, because more often than not it’s a mystery even to me. The personality test I’ve found most accurate is the Myers-Briggs test, which sorts you into one of 16 “types” (like Hogwarts houses! But more specific.) I’m an INFJ which means, among other things, that I’m extremely hard on myself. I expect perfection every time, and when I fall short I don’t always handle it very well.
For example, last weekend I read through the first ten chapters of one of the manuscripts I’m working on, making notes as I went. I started off quite cheerful: “Oh, that’s a nice phrase. That metaphor could be a little sharper, but it’s certainly on its way.” But as I read further, and the red ink grew thicker, my mood began to change. Gone were the constructive comments. In their place were single word insults in red pen: “Sucks,” “Bad,” and “NO.”
I couldn’t make myself finish reading, I was that discouraged. I thought I was writing something good! What was this pile of rubbish in front of me? None of it was worth keeping. I’d have to start again.
But then my kind, patient husband found me and offered to talk it through. “What’s this?” he said, pointing to a note on the first page.
“Yeah, well, I liked that one line, but the rest of it is crap.”
“What about here? You haven’t made any notes here. Doesn’t that mean you like it?”
“Maybe,” I grumbled.
“Is it possible these chapters aren’t entirely terrible?” he asked, gently. “Maybe there are some things in there you might want to keep?”
I looked at the pages, at all that red ink. Yes, there were a lot of changes I wanted to make. But was he right? Was it possible to change things without throwing the whole lot out?
It came as a bit of a revelation to me. For the last five years, I’ve drafted exactly the same way: Draft, read through, start over. I couldn’t remember ever actually editing a piece without starting from scratch. I let that red pen, all those critical voices, demoralize me to the point that I could barely read my own writing. Maybe there was another way.
Here’s the thing about personality tests. They’re like showroom cars — the base model. Once you get that baby out of the store, you can do all sorts of things to it. You can slap a new paint of coat on it. You can add a spoiler or mag wheels. You can put seat covers on and cover the bumper in stickers or hang fluffy dice on the rearview mirror. A Suzuki will still be a Suzuki, but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same as all the other Suzukis out there, or even that its the same as when it rolled off the truck.
Knowing your own weaknesses is important, because it’s the first step towards change. Here are the changes I decided to make after that conversation with my husband:
1. No more red pens. I’ve found a lovely green one I’m going to use instead.
2. No more throwing drafts out without a very good reason.
3. As I read and make comments, I’m going to have a highlighter beside me so I can highlight the parts I do like. No more focusing on the problems. I want to focus more on all the things worth keeping.
So far, it’s helped a lot.
Tell me, friends: Are you a perfectionist? If so, how do you work through your perfectionist tendencies? What strategies do you have to manage the negative voices?
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
I reached the end of a project last weekend, and one of my rewards was finally picking up a few video games I’ve been saving for myself. It’s something I love but don’t have a lot of time for. There are always things that come higher on the priorities list, such as writing, reading, health and caring for a rambunctious Labrador. Because my time is limited, I’ve found I have little patience for a slow opening. If I can’t figure out the controls right away or have to wade through 30 minutes of boring in order to get to the good stuff, I won’t play on.
I have a feeling the same is true for your average reader. We’re all time poor, and any activity that requires a certain amount of solitude and focus can be hard to schedule in. For most people, reading means knocking other things off the list, such as socializing or exercising or showers. People only allocate a finite amount of time to reading, and this means writers have only a finite amount of space to hook their readers. Maybe a paragraph. Maybe a page. Or (if you’re lucky) all the way to the end of the first chapter.
One thing my favorite video games do well is hook me in right away and keep me playing. It’s not an easy task. The first “chapter” of the video game is a tutorial that teaches you how to play and gives you all the skills you need to get through the rest of the game. It’s important, but unless it’s handled well, it can also be incredibly boring. We want the real story to begin!
Novels face the same challenges. The first chapter of a book pulls a lot of weight. It sets up the world, introduces the characters, establishes a tone and a voice, and gives the reader a strong idea of what they’ll be facing throughout the rest of the story. All this, and it still needs to hook the reader. Only the most patient reader will struggle through a boring beginning to get to the good stuff, just as only the most dedicated gamer will make it through a weak tutorial to play the entire game.
Because I can’t do anything without comparing it to my own craft, I’ve come up with a few ideas on what successful and unsuccessful video game tutorials can teach us about writing the perfect first chapter:
Introduction of rules and mechanics:
The central purpose of a game tutorial is to introduce the rules and mechanics of the game, or at the very least, this first section of the game. A gamer (especially the casual kind) is just as likely to get frustrated by being unable to understand the game controls as by a slow beginning. The same is true for a first chapter.
A few decisions you have to make upfront:
– Who is speaking (first person or third)?
– Are they telling a story that has already happened (past tense) or are they telling the story as it happens (present tense)?
– When is the story set (historical/future/present day)?
– Where is the story set? This should be clear right upfront.
– Genre: If you are writing a fantasy, there should be at least a hint of magic in the first chapter. If you’re writing a thriller, there should be tension. If you’re writing a mystery, there should be an unanswered question.
The goal here is twofold: clarity and brevity. Get in and get out without the reader ever knowing you were there.
Character is just as important in a video game as it is a novel, and the best tutorials set this up right away. In Alan Wake we discover in the first scene that Alan is a writer who is tortured by nightmares about his characters seeking revenge for their untimely deaths. In Uncharted 2, we begin with Nathan Drake injured on a train hanging off the side of a snowy mountain. It is clear from the outset that he is an adventurer come on hard times.
Who is your character? What would best express this, right up front? The Scorpio Races, which is about a girl who enters a deadly horse race against carnivorous water horses, begins with Puck saddling up her pony and racing her brother to the beach. Puck is defined by her love for her horse, and that is where we find her at the beginning of the story.
A microcosm of the story at large:
I touched on this when I mentioned genre above, but I think it deserves a little more attention. A good first chapter, like a good game tutorial, is an introduction to the larger story. We should know immediately what kind of game or book we are about to experience. Alan Wake and Uncharted do this really well, but not all game tutorials are created alike.
An example of a game that does this badly is Heavy Rain, an otherwise brilliant game. The tutorial stars with the main character waking up. He goes to the bathroom. Shaves and brushes his teeth. Wanders around the house for a bit. His wife comes home and he takes out some plates. This goes on for awhile.
What kind of game do you think this is going to be? Certainly not the film noir thriller it turns out to be. The very next scene shows the main character losing his son in a crowded place and it introduces a lot of the tension that was missing from the tutorial. This is how the game should have started.
The same is true for your novel. Begin as you mean to go on. If you’re writing an action story, begin with action. If you’re writing a character piece, begin with voice. If you’re writing magical realism, the world needs to feel a little bit strange right from the first chapter. Your first chapter is your ambassador for the story. Let it be a good representative for the rest of the novel.
This is where tutorials and first chapters rise and fall. Sure, the purpose of the tutorial is teaching you how to play the game, but the more this feels like a learning experience, the less interested the gamer will be. The best games hide their tutorials in story. Take Uncharted 2, which is the game I’m currently replaying, so it’s freshest in my mind. Nathan Drake wakes injured on a train hanging off the edge of a cliff. Right away, the character is thrust into action. He needs to climb back up the side of that train and shoot a bunch of bad guys on the the mountain before he can get his bearings and figure out what’s going on.
A good first chapter teaches you about the story by putting you in it. You should feel like you’re right there with the character, dodging explosions or racing a horse or finding a dead body on the side of the road. Of course, not all stories are thrillers. Anna and the French Kiss begins with Anna arrival at her new French boarding school and meeting the people who will change her life over the course of the next year. Harry Potter begins when strange things start happening in Harry’s town, and to Harry himself. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, if I remember correctly, begins when the pants in question are first purchased and their magical properties discovered.
You’re shoving a whole lot of things into the reader’s head right away, but they shouldn’t be aware that this is happening. All they should be aware of is story and character and how much fun they’re having.
So, go forth! Write brilliant beginnings! Keep me up to 3am because I just can’t put your story down.
Begin as you mean to go on. (And play video games).
When I was a baby writer, I taught myself to ignore words like muse, writer’s block, inspiration. These words were unhelpful to me, because what all baby writers need to learn is to finish things. What I was learning in fits and starts was how to do the work. That was my mantra for years, and necessarily so: Just do the work, Beth. Do the work.
But work alone doesn’t a good writer make.
I tweeted something the other day that seemed to resonate with a few people, and it’s something I’ve been re-learning lately:
Because now I’ve learned the hard bit, the work, the finishing of things, I need to put my energy back into those more mystical aspects of writing. Inspiration, intuition, ideas.
Intuition is an interesting one. I haven’t heard a lot about it in the writing world, but it’s something I’m coming to rely on the longer I do this. Part of it is that after four years of cramming my head full of grammar rules, industry trends, critiques and advice, I’m having to work to hear my own creative voice again.
I’ll give you an example. I’ve had a really hard time finding the beginning of my story. I’ve written probably a dozen versions of the first few chapters, and I’ve discarded them all. The version I sent out to agents was passable and critique-partner approved, but passable just doesn’t cut it in such a competitive industry. Every agent I spoke to in that time gave me feedback on my manuscript and most of it was focused on the beginning.
After signing with Joan, I jumped back into revisions once again, but despite all that feedback, I still couldn’t get it right. More discarded words, more fruitless attempts. I ended up going to my husband and moaning for about half an hour before he said something to me that cut right to the heart of my problem: You have too many voices in your head. Forget what everyone else is saying. Write the beginning you want to write.
So I did. I had a collection of maybe six possible opening lines, all of which would lead me in different directions. I considered each of them, examining how they made me feel, listening to my intuition as it lead me to the line that best represented my character and her world. I didn’t expect to land on the line I eventually chose. But it feels right. And after weeks of struggling, suddenly I’m powering through.
Everyone gives the same advice: Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. But the thing is, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes just do the work is terrible advice. It doesn’t give you room to listen to your own voice, your intuition. It leaves no room for finding inspiration. Sometimes what you need most is quiet and ears to listen.
Work and inspiration. I’m becoming better at making room for both.