WFMAD 2013

Last year I caught the tail end of WFMAD.  I didn’t know what it was, just that Laurie Halse Anderson was writing great inspirational posts each day.  They were wonderful to read, so yesterday, when WFMAD, Write Fifteen Minutes A Day, began again, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.  It took me a little while to get started, though, as I wasn’t sure I could find fifteen minutes to focus on writing new pages for my work in progress.  But I realized that for me, what I need to be doing is writing anything each day – blog posts, snippets about my trip that will help me capture each city’s unique sense of place, and character sketches.  It’s okay if the new words don’t go directly into the manuscript, as long as they keep me writing, keep me focused on making words (ideally good words, but I’ll take any words right now).  So I’m starting today, putting in my fifteen minutes even though I probably ought to be getting ready for bed.  It’s so little time; I can wedge it in.  All I need to do is commit.

Even though the month has already started, you can join in too.  Go here for Laurie Halse Anderson’s kick-off post, and check her blog daily for new posts on writing, finding time, and craft.  Each day she’s posting writing prompts to help you get going if you don’t have a project in mind, so there’s no excuse for not writing (she really makes it hard to find any excuse at all).  What are you waiting for?  Go on, get to your writing!

Short Story - First Draft Done!

The short story I was working on, secret project “LS”, is done.  Well, done as in the first draft is done, and it’s with two beta readers.  I should hear back from them at some point over the weekend.  I hope.  I’m very antsy about it.

A few notes on how I wrote it, and what I learned from the experience:

  • I used a checklist to track all the things that I needed to tell the reader.  It was a working list, and as I found things to add I added them.  I found this really, really helpful in planning scene-to-scene.
  • This is the first time that the final conflict clicked with me.  Now that doesn’t mean it didn’t need revisions, and doesn’t need more revisions, but it was as if all the parts clicked into place, the way they should when writing a scene.  I expect this was because I actually took a few days before I wrote it and made sure that the villain was the right villain, and that I knew how the confrontation would go down.  Well, I thought I did, anyway, but -
  • Each scene I planned in advance, and each scene came out at least a little differently than I’d planned.  Instead of trying to fix this, I went with it, and trusted the instinct.
  • Each day I started with revising what I’d written the previous day, then checking the list and assessing whether or not I was on track.  If I wasn’t, I took some time to do some planning to get back on track.  This ultimately meant that I wrote less, but what I ended up writing was of a higher quality, because I gave myself permission to get it right, and because if it wasn’t right, I gave myself permission to mull it over and fix it the next day, rather than pushing forward with the “I’ll fix it later” attitude.  The next day the writing still felt like soft clay, still moldable.  It also meant that I put less pressure on how much I had to get done each session, which made it easier to start.
  • Some days I didn’t write at all, I just revised, researched and planned.  But each day I worked at least a little on the story.

As this was a short story, the plotting was simplified, there were fewer characters to develop, and it was easier to keep all of the story elements in my mind.  But I think the lessons I learned from the process that I used will help me in my novel revisions and in writing my next first draft.  I’m still learning this craft, and I think the biggest learning curve is learning what works for me.  It’s learning how to work within my personal limitations to allow the story to make it to the page in its truest form.  And I’m finding that what works for me is slow and steady, as opposed to the quick and dirty first draft.  I’m surprised, but I’m just going to go with it.

Revision Doubts, or, Who is this Boy?

I wrote this on Monday, but I got so busy that I didn’t post it until now…

My critique partners and writing partners are awesome, in part because they’re so honest.  Last Tuesday two of my my writing friends helped me to take a look at one of my characters.  He’s a main character, and I’d written the entire book without a clear picture in my mind of what he wants, deep down.  I was hoping it would come out in the text, and be there for me in revisions, which I now think it has.  But, back to Tuesday.  I described this character, and my friends told me what they thought of my description.  He’s boring and stereotypical, one said.  He doesn’t sound real, he sounds like his whole personality is based on his supernatural genetics, and he sounds like a drop-out, the other said.  They asked me a lot of questions I couldn’t answer, and I gave them a lot of answers I wasn’t sure of.  Then I went home and moped.

The next day I sat down and started to write out another character sketch.  Who did I want this boy to be?  Who was he, really, under all the random crap I wrote in my MS?  What was his core?  Was it in the text?  I wrote everything I could think of about this boy, and then went back and read my original character sketch.  I was surprised as to how similar they were, but I still wasn’t happy with who he was.  So I went back and re-read the one scene that I was sure had his true voice in it, and then I mulled.  For days.

What I’ve realized today is that somehow in the last few days I switched from mulling over who this character is to procrastinating all work on the revision.  My thoughts went from “What does he really want?” to “Is he any good?  Is any of this story any good?” to worrying that I can’t write at all.  What if I’m a fraud, and can only write scenes, but can’t string together a whole narrative?  What if my book sucks?  What if all my books suck?

Um, not so productive.

This morning I reminded myself of two things.  First, even if my book sucks, it doesn’t mean that I suck, or that I’m a horrible writer.  I’ve been told enough times that my writing is good that I’ve got no business sitting around feeling sorry for myself.  Second, of course my book sucks.  It’s a first draft and like a lot of first drafts it’s got problems.  A lot of problems.  But there’s nothing there that can’t be fixed, and I have the tools to be able to fix it.  I just need to stop sulking over what I didn’t get right the first time.

So, it’s back to revision prep for me.  I’m reviewing my plot and subplots to make sure everything that needs to be in the book is in the book, and to see what I can cut.  And I’m reviewing all my characters to see how they’re coming across on the page.  As for this particular boy, he’s still illuding me.  He doesn’t want me to know his deepest darkest fears.  But I’m going to keep working until I figure him out.

When Bad Books are Good

I love finding books that speak to me. Books that allow me to lose myself in the story, that keep me up all night reading, and when I do go to bed I can’t stop thinking about the characters. Books where the writing reminds me to just how good it can get, where the words strung together are greater than the sum of their parts. I long for these books, whether I’m searching the racks at my local used bookstore or scanning my favorite blogs for the great new books about to come out. And I always do my research before I buy anything, because I really, really hate finding a flop.

And still, sometimes I’m disappointed. Sometimes, the book is so bad I want to throw it at the wall in frustration. I used to hate books like this. Books where the main character suddenly stops acting like herself, or the setting shifts and I don’t know how the characters got there. Or the times when I spend half the book rolling my eyes at the obviousness of the plot, when the characters can’t see it. You know those books, you’ve read them too.

A couple years ago I picked up a book that was a huge bestseller with great reviews. The cover was absolutely beautiful and while I know you can’t judge the story by the picture on the front, I just knew that this book would live up to its promise. Wow, was I wrong. The characters were as flat and stiff as cold pizza. The plot was convoluted at best. The setting was almost non-existent. And I was so frustrated I just wanted to fling the book out the window and into Puget Sound. But I didn’t. Instead, I sat down and started to write.

First I wrote down everything about the book I didn’t like. Then I went back over the list and wrote about why I didn’t like those aspects of the book. I saw that sometimes I didn’t know why I disliked something so much, and found myself going back to the text and re-reading sections just to piece together what went wrong. And then I started asking the most important question for myself as a writer – HOW did it all go wrong? We all know not to write cardboard characters, but now I was really digging in and looking at what was missing. What aspect of a certain character’s personality could be tweaked/expanded on/added to make that character come to life? It can be a bit hard to see sometimes. I kept working my way through the list and when I finished I’d learned some pretty big lessons for my own writing.

I now have a list of things to watch for when I revise my work. I’ve got the big, obvious stuff on that list, but I’ve also got a lot of little nuances to make sure I’m not missing the important subtleties that make a story come alive. So now when a book takes a turn into a proverbial ditch, I don’t toss it. I smile and take out my notebook.

Beginning at the End

A few weeks ago I wrote “The End” on a manuscript for the first time. It’s not the first novel that I’ve written, but it’s the first novel in which I’ve actually written the final scene. I usually know what the final scene is before I even begin to write the book; it’s what I’m writing to get to. So when I get to that point in the draft where I know everything else that happens, when I’ve written up to that last scene, if the book doesn’t actually feel done, I stop writing. I’ve been using that scene like a cupcake – it’s the reward I’ll earn when the book is really, truly done. With this latest manuscript, however, I really wanted to write that scene, even if I had to make myself do it. And I really did have to push myself into it. But when I finally did it, it was the most exhilarating feeling. Seeing the characters come all the way to the end, writing their final words and actions, made me feel so warm and fuzzy inside the I was grinning about it for days afterward.

Now that’s not to say the book is done. Far from it. I’ve taken a few weeks off from the MS with the intention of writing something else, but try as I might I can’t get this book out of my head. In the last few weeks I’ve gotten so many ideas for how to rework the story – places where I can go deeper into the characters, where I can push them further, and push the story further. With previous manuscripts where I didn’t write the final scene, I’ve felt undone, like I’m in a never-ending first draft. But by writing that last scene it’s as if I’ve given myself permission to rethink the entire book. I may have written “The End” but really I’m at a new beginning.

This past Tuesday I participated in SCBWI-WWA’s The Great Critique, where writers break out into small groups to give and receive feedback on the first five pages of their manuscripts. Each group is lead by a published author. The first five pages of this latest MS have been critiqued so many times that I didn’t think I’d hear anything new, but it turns out I got some really great suggestions. And so begins the next phase of my writing. To fix, to go deeper, and to make better.

Do you write “The End” or have a ritual that moves you out of draft mode and into revision mode?

And since I haven’t said it yet, welcome to my blog. :)