Saturday, October 11, 2008

What Else Is New...

Well, being the completely unprepared person I am and not being able to think longer than a few minutes ahead...I completely forgot that I am leaving first thing this morning to head to Saskatchewan for our (Canada's) Thanksgiving long weekend. We are leaving in minutes and as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror a few seconds ago, brushing my hair and packing my last minute items, I suddenly remembered...THE BLOG!!!!

We are off to visit my husband's family who live on a 260 acre farm in the heart of Regina, Saskatchewan. And though I would like to say they have Internet access the truth is....they don't. So accept my apologies this go around and next week I'll answer the first draft question in detail (along with the new topic).

Happy Thanksgiving to all those Canadians out there who are going to be enjoying turkey and mashed potatoes with all the fixings this Monday. Gobble Gobble!!!!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Chaos and Conversations and Crazed Cartography


Chaos theory, overheard conversations, and mad map-makers. That pretty much sums up my first drafts.

When I first started writing, back in the halcyon days of 'deadline? what deadline?' I did not have a method to my madness. I wrote when I felt like, what I felt like, sometimes in stream-of-conciousness mode, sometimes in I-shall-now-contemplate-comma-placement-for-the-next-two-hours mode.

I'm still a little like that. There is a random, back and forth quality to the way I write my first drafts that - while I cannot in good conscience recommend this technique to anyone else - seems to work for me.

Of course, on the cusp of having my first published novel hit the bookstore shelves, and having just turned in the finished 'first' draft of book two, I've learned to be much more disciplined about the amount of time I spend writing at least. Which is a good thing.

Also, for the last two books - because they were contracted before they were written - I have had to follow a synopsis. Which has been interesting. The synopsis for me, is both incredibly useful and utterly baffling. It certainly is no guarantee that the project will be easier or even that I'll really know where it's actually going or how it'll get there. But it does tell me that the project exists. Somewhere.

It's like this: sure - I've got a road map right from the start of my journey... but I still have to figure out which direction 'north' is. Without a compass. At night. With heavy cloud cover. And there's the possibility that my map might be out of date. Or drawn by some lunatic in an asylum somewhere who passed himself off as a cartographer before they caught him and locked him up... heh. I digress.

Actually, I've found it very interesting reading the posts of my fellow Girls so far this week. I've found myself nodding along with just about every one and saying, 'yup. yup. I do that. and that. and sometiemes that...' because my process (for lack of a better word) is not something that I can actually quantify most of the time. Sometimes I will write down the bones of a scene and come back later to flesh it out, sometimes I will get a scene down first-time perfect and not change a single word of it. Sometimes I will write in a linear fashion, sometimes - er - not so much.

But the two things I have discovered that I do manage with a deal of consistency are this: I will always find myself 'eavesdropping' on the conversations taking place between my characters and I will simply transcribe what they're saying. Later I will go back and write the scene, itself, in which these conversations took place, but it's always really important for me to get the flow of dialogue as if it's something I'm just listening in on.

The other thing is this: once I'm deep enough into a story, I will inevitably start scrolling randomly through the text as a means of avoiding getting down to any actual work. And I've always found that, at some point, I will invariably stumble upon clues I have subconciously left myself - a word or phrase or a detail - that will clarify and quantify and, as if by magic, suddenly make everything make sense. The a-ha! moment. It's my version of chaos-theory, in a way; something tiny and seemingly insignificant has happened miles away from where I think the story is heading and, all of a sudden, I'm going back and back and back through the text, retracing the roads I've already driven down, implementing all the changes that this one little overlooked detail demands.

Then I pull out the map, realize I might have been reading it upside down for the last hundred miles, but understand where the lunatic cartographer was telling me to go all along.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Five Pages at a Time

A novel usually begins in my mind as one scene or one image that I have to get down on paper. With The September Sisters, I saw a scene of two sisters fighting in a pool over an inner tube – something I’d repressed from my own childhood, but came back to me one night after I was watching a news program about missing children. Then it occurred to me to think about what might happen after that scene, if one of the sisters were to disappear.

I wrote the pool scene first, and it ended up becoming part of the first chapter of The September Sisters. In the months (and years) to come, I would revise the book, many, many, many times, but the pool scene always remained perfectly in tact.

However, getting to a first draft from an image has always been a little bit of a struggle for me. I usually have some idea of where I might like the story to go or where I might want the characters to end up, but I’m not especially good with outlines and plot points. I can’t figure out what I want to happen to my characters until I really start to delve into them.

In fact, I’ve had a lot of character ideas and images that have turned into nothing more than a few fruitless pages. But after I wrote my pool scene, I wanted to figure out a way to turn it into a complete novel. I came to the conclusion that I needed to think of writing as a job, and like any “real” job, I needed goals and responsibilities and deadlines.

So I came up with something very uncreative and very job-like for how to write a first draft: make myself a writing schedule. I pick a deadline for the draft to be finished (either real or self-imposed). Then I make a calendar for myself, breaking down how much I reasonably think I can write each day – usually around five pages each weekday. I write the schedule down on a sheet of paper and put it next to my computer.

And that’s how I try to think of the first draft, as five pages at a time, a task which does not seem so overwhelming. When I get to my computer each day, I think, ok, I have to get five pages down, and then I’ll be done working for the day. This seems a lot less menacing than thinking, I have to write this entire 200 and something page novel. Ahh!!! When I finish each day’s “requirement” I cross it off, which gives me some sense of accomplishment.

Sounds easy, huh? Well, not exactly. In the in between time, I also have to do a lot of thinking. Thinking about who my characters are and what they want and what should happen to them – a process which is oftentimes harder and more time consuming for me than writing it down.

When I’m working on a first draft, I find myself thinking about my characters all the time. This means I end up acting a little spacey, burning food, and having dreams about fictional people. I even tend to have revelations in the shower, oddly enough. (Or maybe not so odd, considering, it is one of the few quiet kid-free times and places of my day.) It is not uncommon for me to run to my office to write down an idea before I dry my hair. (Which means I have lots of bad hair days when I’m in first draft mode!)

But if I keep plowing through the thinking and the writing every day, within two or three months I have. . . something.

Not necessarily something good, or permanent, but it’s there, and I can work with it. In fact, my first draft is often messy, full of plot holes, out of order, and filled with highlighted notes in brackets that say things like [Insert scene showing x here] or [add description later]. But that’s why it’s called a first draft – and for me, getting it all down is half the battle.

The other half, of course, is making it work. But more on that next month when we blog about revisions!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Keep typing, keep typing!

First drafts make me ill. Literally. I think the amount of mental anguish I develop over fretting over them is second only to the amount of worry I exert over what my teenage boys are doing (or not doing) on the weekends.

My first drafts take on a jumbled, erratic stream of consciousness form rather than a story any half-literate person could ever decipher. With my first novel, I remember closing my eyes and letting my fingers speed over the keyboard hoping to just get any words down on the screen. I never ever stopped to correct my grammar and I certainly never stopped to develop a character or plot her arc. All of that came later. Much later. And only then did writing become my pleasure.

Behold the revisions! That’s where the fun started for me. Once I started the revisions, and there were many, my writing started to make sense - take shape. Even as I write this blog entry, I have a new first draft. I always have to go back and edit every single thing I write. The Novel Girls blog is no exception.

While writing the first draft of Whistlin’ Dixie In A Nor’ester, I remember longing to talk to another writer and ask the question, “Am I doing this right? It seems wrong.” Now, after getting to know other writers I can finally answer my own question. “Yes, I am. There’s no right or wrong way. It’s just the way it works for me.” Others do it differently, but like Maureen, I’m just happy to get words on paper and outline a basic plot.

I’m just beginning my second novel, those old familiar sickly feelings are returning and my new manuscript has no shape or form. But this time around I’m ready and prepared to tackle that rocky road that leads to a real novel and I know I have what it takes to buff down the bumps and warts that are now all over my WIP. I know it won’t be easy but this time next year, it will be so worth it!

I Know There's a Gem in There Somewhere...

Happy Tuesday everyone!

I, for one, am mainlining caffeine right now since I was up late doing revisions on my latest WIP, a YA book. So, it’s quite fitting that this week’s topic is “First Drafts.” The past several days, it’s become very apparent to me just how BAD my first drafts are. I’m not just talking awkward-sentence-grammatical-mistakes bad. No, I’m talking hanging-subplots-switching-characters-names-halfway-through bad. There are also lots of notes like: “Find way to acquire treasure,” and “Insert funny joke here.”

There are two main reasons why my first drafts are so laughable. The first is because it takes me awhile to “feel” my main character. So, the first 20 pages or so are usually filled with uneven voice and conflicting personal details. Then…something magical happens and I “know” her. So, by the time I’m done, the first twenty pages are truly cringe-worthy and nausea-inducing.

The second reason is that I’m not really an “outliner” type of writer at all. So, I usually have some big plot revelation halfway through that I need to weave in during revisions.

I really envy the people whose first draft is pretty darn close to their final draft. But I know I’d never finish a book if I did that. For me, the mental victory of just finishing (even if it sounds like a second-grader wrote it with a pretty purple crayon on some yellow construction paper) sustains me through the revision process. And the revision process is where I really see the story emerge, when the characters gain quirks through their struggles and where the emotional arcs come sharply into focus and begin to make sense.

So, I’m going to share a little secret I learned this week…

Come in close…


I think I actually like revising my books. Like, almost as much as writing.

Freaky, huh?

So, if your first draft makes you want to bang your head against your laptop, don’t fear. I’ve come to view writing as sort of excavating a diamond—your first draft is when you pull it out of the ground (or wherever diamonds come from). The revisions are where you clean it off and make it shine.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's The End Result That Matters, Not The Process You Take!

Every writer's writing process is different. I've probably said that statement hundreds of times by now, but that doesn't make it less true. I have a lot of writer friends, and we talk about our individual processes quite a bit. Some of my friends are "puzzle writers," and they write their first drafts in chunks, out of order, and then put all the scenes together later. Some of them are "linear writers," like me, but they can write the entire first draft without editing one word until they're done. Others are a bit of both. Others write the ending before the beginning.

The thing is, the only process that is right is the one that works for you. And even that might differ from book to book. My process for writing first drafts makes some of my writer friends cringe. But it works for me, so it's right for me. What's that process?

Once all my pre-writing stuff is dealt with (characterization, plotting (minimal for me), etc.), I begin to write. My first three chapters are really where I begin to understand my story and my characters. These chapters sometimes flow out easily. Other times, they're like pulling teeth, and I rewrite them, rearrange them, start over and over, until I have what I think is pretty close to what will remain at the end. This isn't always the case though! For example, with A Taste of Magic, I completely rewrote chapter one and half of chapter two when the book was complete--before I ever submitted it anywhere.

But normally, I can get really close with those first three. Then, I move on to the next three--editing as I go. I know lots of writers advise against editing as you write, but for me, I have to. It's part of my process. As I write, I edit, other things become clear to me, and then I can move on. So my basic process is: Write, Edit, Write, Edit, until I have three chapters done. Then I back up to the beginning of those three chapters and read clean through, making any additional edits or notes for me to pay attention to as I continue to write.

Then I move on to the next three chapters, and I do it again. And then again. Until finally, I finish the book. At some point, usually around the 50 percent mark, I read from the very beginning again, to make sure I'm still on track. I need to do this, so I can sense how the story is flowing at that it moving too fast? Too slow? Have I left anything integral out that needs to be added? And because I'm not a huge pre-plotter, this also helps me think about the chapters that will come next.

The negative aspect of writing a first draft this way is sometimes I get caught up in one chapter, one scene, that isn't right--but I'm not sure why, so I play with it a lot until I figure it out and can move on. Sometimes, this holds me up for longer than I'd like and causes a bunch of stress. But I've tried (Oh, I've Tried) to not do this. Again, though, this is my process, and rather than fight with it, I've finally learned to just go with it.

The positive aspect of my process is when I do finish that first draft, it's fairly clean. Oh, it's not perfect, but usually, any other edits I make are fairly light. In fact, usually I just go through the book one more time at this point, paying attention to the notes I've left myself as I wrote--making sure that all questions are answered and threads are closed. Sometimes I find a better way to write something, so I take the time to do that.

Then, after that read through, if I'm basically happy with what I have, I make use of the "Find" command in MS Word. I have words, phrases, and other things I tend to use a lot, so I look for those, change what I can, and move on. For example, when I'm in pure writing mode, I tend to use character names a lot in dialogue, such as, "No, Alice. That's not what I mean." So this is where I skim those names out, only leaving the ones that are necessary for clarification.

Once I finish with the "Find/Replace" portion of my process, I read through the manuscript one more time. Does everything flow? Am I happy with my turning points? Am I too repetitive anywhere? Can I tighten anything? Then, after that read through, and any changes I make, I do a spell/grammar check and consider the manuscript done. Well--done until I receive revisions back from my agent or editor.

That's it. That's my process! It's not perfect, but it works for me. So even though the first draft (meaning from page one to the very end) might take me longer than other writers who can write clean through, when I am done, it's takes me far less time to get it into submission shape.

My only word of warning if you decide to try my process out is to be sure you are able to edit and then MOVE ON. It doesn't matter how great three chapters are if the rest of the book never gets written.

And one of the greatest feelings ever is finishing a book. Looking at all of those pages, knowing you wrote them, and being proud of the story you've told. It's awesome! So--find the process that works best for you and stick with it.