“The selfsame name, but one of better nature.” – On evaluation, discovery, and improvement

I opined about this a bit on Twitter earlier today, and it remained on my mind enough that I want to expand on it a bit here.

I go through a process, periodically, of evaluating myself. I call it “having a Come-to-Proserpina moment” — although it might even better be called a come-to-Ma’at moment, because it’s about weighing and evaluating how my actions speak for me. To focus those thoughts, I try to answer these questions:

  1. What adjectives do I want to use to describe myself?
  2. What adjectives would I like other people to use to describe me?
  3. Do my actions currently lead to those qualities?
  4. How do I need to change or redirect my actions to lead to those qualities?

It’s about being the person I want to be. How close am I to that goal, to that image I’d like to have of myself?

maat-sarcophagus.jpgThe evaluation is not an easy thing to do. Or, perhaps, not an easy thing to do well and honestly. An unscrupulous person, with little self-awareness, could easily say, “Yes, of course; what I do fits exactly the kind of person I want to be, and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t see me clearly”. Doing it well and helpfully, though, means taking your own ego to task. It means not assuming that your actions are correct just because you’re the one taking them. You have to be a little brutal and quite relentless. Your brain tries to squirm out of it, tries to shape excuses out of reasons. It’s like editing, a little, in a way — you have to pin down what isn’t working and be ruthless about it. And in doing so, you learn to cut away what isn’t helpful, what detracts from your strengths, and how to reshape the rest to better reflect the story you want to tell.

Every time I do this, I emerge stronger, more whole, more like that ideal version of myself. However discomfiting the process, the result is so empowering. It means that I can then feel more confident about my assessments and actions being correct — not just because I’ve made them, but because I’ve really questioned myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It’s important to ask those questions, even if the answer is yes, because that gives me a grounding and a sort of renewed dedication to myself. If I can say, honestly, that yes, my actions reflect the sort of person I want to be, then I can feel assured in going forth unafraid of what anyone else might say in spite or jealousy.

It’s not about not having flaws. The gods know I have those. Sometimes they’re inextricably linked to my virtues — my temper comes from the same place as my passion, for example. My stubbornness and my loyalty have similar roots. I will never eradicate the one without sacrificing the other, and I determined years ago that I was not willing to grey myself out in that way. But it does mean that I need to act in a way that supports my virtues more than my vices. It also certainly doesn’t mean I never backslide, never fail to live up to my ideals of myself. That’s why it’s important to keep evaluating.

I call it come-to-Proserpina or come-to-Ma’at because it’s a process of thinking of what those ladies would say of me, were I called to stand before them now. How do my actions represent me? What do they say that my tongue might not? If my heart were to be weighed against Ma’at’s feather, how would it balance?

In contemplating this for myself recently, I’ve realized that my main female protagonist is ending up doing this in her life. I didn’t set out with that intention, but that’s sort of what multiple rounds of edits are coming around to. She looks at her life, realizes it isn’t what her heart wants, and realizes that, if she wants things to change, she has to be the agent of that change. She can’t wait for the world to re-arrange itself for her.

Attention to Detail, or, Cass is an obsessive freak

So I’m almost done with this round of revisions. I’m at the point where I’m doing the penultimate read-through, which will hopefully make sure I catch any continuity errors created by my changes thus far and that I fill in any major omissions from the points raised by the editorial letter. Then the final read-through before sending things back to Sarah will be on hard copy, which is the best way for me to catch the tiny typo-like things. (Or places where I “pull a Cass” — leaving a sentence unfinished because I got distracted partway through writing it).

This round has involved a lot of filling in the edges of my worldbuilding. Sarah had a lot of questions about the world of Aven, about the political and religious systems, the economy, social classes, etc. The social history, really, the demographics and dynamics at play. These are things that I have swirling about in my head when I’m writing, but I hadn’t really pinned them down in specifics yet — because I hadn’t had to in the same way I’d had to be specific about, say, geography. It’s the sort of stuff I love — and the sort of stuff I actually sort of fear writing down, because too much of it can turn an otherwise sensible chapter into an encyclopedia entry. (I say this as someone who read the encyclopedia for fun as a child, so it doesn’t always occur to me that other people might not find that sort of chapter interesting. It’s something I have to check myself on — or be checked on by others).

But sometimes I just plain need that encyclopedia entry, at least for my own head. In order to find the places where I can drop a casual reference, hint at a larger world, I need to take it out of the blurry background noise of my brain and shape it into something concrete. And frequently, I find I need to do that sort of brainstorming by hand.

Thing is, once I get started, it’s a little hard to stop. Sometimes, that means I end up with notebooks stuffed with lists and diagrams. Sometimes, it means I end up with a 13X300 spreadsheet detailing every single magically-gifted citizen of a fictional incarnation of the city of Rome.

Just, y’know. Hypothetically.

So, as a quick update and a teaser, I thought I’d share what a few of those world-building documents have looked like over the past couple of weeks. Plus, a chance for y’all to see just how bad my handwriting is.

#AmEditing – Some more!

I am thoroughly delighted to have a second editorial letter in my hot little hands, chock-full of things for me to attack in the manuscript.

No, I really mean that. This letter is fantastic. The first one was great, but much more open-ended. Sarah and I were still getting to know each other, and she didn’t yet know what my style of taking notes is. This time, a lot of the notes are a lot more specific – but without being directorial. I have a lot of suggestions, a lot of either-ors, a lot of open possibilities. As soon as I read the letter through, I was excited to dive back into the manuscript.

See, the last time, I had to spend about a month just re-familiarizing myself with the story. I’d not looked at it while we were on sub, and things got fuzzy. Yes, even with something I’d spent so much time with — in some ways, that was the problem. This thing’s been through a lot of drafts and revisions, so some of the trouble was remembering, “Huh. Did that scene stay or did it go?” Or even just, “When does that happen? Before or after that other thing?”

This time, though, it’s only been a couple of weeks since I finished the edits. And I didn’t put it fully away in that time — I’ve been brainstorming titles, starting to adjust my outline for Book 2, continuing to mull over characters and plotlines, all of which means that I’ve still had my head in the story. So when I have specific notes — bring X out in this character, address Y in the worldbuilding — I have a much stronger and immediate sense of where to go to attack them.

How do I keep track of all of that? Well, here’s a screenshot — with pertinent narrative blurred out — of what Scrivener looks like for me right now.

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This is another big hurrah for Scrivener — it makes keeping all of this straight so easy. So what you’ve got on the right hand side are the editorial notes. The bits I’ve highlighted in green are the specific points of attack — more the nitty-gritty than the big picture of Sarah’s thoughts. The orange highlighted bits, also in all caps, are my notes to myself. A lot of them say things like, “Yes, I should definitely find a place for that.” Others are more specific ideas triggered by Sarah’s suggestions — how to implement the spark she’s set.

So then I can move over to the left, to the binder and the corkboard, and I can start tagging different chapters and scenes with the different kinds of attention they need. I tend to attack one chunk of notes at a time — so, in this case, based on my notes, I’ll resolve as much related to my main protagonist, the lovely Vitellia Latona, as I can first, then I’ll move on to the secondary characters — her sisters, her father, the antagonists, and so forth. A lot of the world-building stuff can get folded in to that (because it should all be character- and story-based, not info-dumping), so I’ll be able to check some things off the list as I go, but then at the end, I’ll make more passes to see what I haven’t worked in yet.

I’ll also be taking some time to revisit my research and to consult my thaumaturgical adviser. Sarah’s brought up some considerations regarding law and society, and I need to re-immerse myself in some of the Roman reality before I can decide exactly how I’m twisting it for the Aventan AU. Then, my dearest friend has a nigh-unparalleled brain for magical matters, so when I hit a sticky point in defining the rules of my own system, I tend to bounce ideas back and forth with him until I can get it sorted out. Nothing in writing happens in isolation, and whether I get the assist from a book, a website, or a treasured friend’s voice, it all helps me to think about my world more critically and creatively.

I’ve set myself the goal of getting this set of revisions done by the start of March — not least because March and April get stupid-busy for me at the day job, and also because February, as a month, tends to depress me, so I’m looking forward to having this to energize me through grey and dreary days. It’s so exciting to have the opportunity to make this story stronger under thoughtful guidance!

From Moodling to Manuscript: The Revision Process

I’m starting 2016 off strong! I’ve just completed and sent off the first round of revisions under official DAW Editorial guidance (as opposed to Connor’s editorial-agent guidance). Those edits are the reason I haven’t been blogging here much through the fall — I could never quite justify to myself writing a blog post when I knew I needed to be working on the novel!

If you follow a lot of writers on social media, you’ve probably seen them discussing revisions, most of which tend to boil down to the following sentiment:

Samwriting

Personally, I actually enjoy revising, as I’ve discussed before. It’s like a puzzle. But it can be frustrating, in part because it’s sometimes harder to track progress. It’s often charted in hours, as word count alone doesn’t really matter. You can think of it in terms of pages or chapters revised, but then you get to a point where something you change at one point means a change to four other chapters, so now those go from “done” to “undone”… and that can make progress feel a bit murky.

So! I thought I might share a little light on the process. Of course every writer’s revision experience is going to be different, but this is what mine looked like:

  1. Phone call with The Editor: A giddy thing! Much like my first phone call with my agent Connor, much of this conversation was just about the book in general — what the things were that had appealed to her about it (like me and Connor, she has a background in classics!), the characters and the world, things she had questions about, things she’d like to see expanded or explicated a bit better. One of the big things we discussed was about narrowing down the focus a bit.
  2. Editorial letter: I’m convinced at least part of the purpose of the letter is that editors know debut authors are too giddy upon that first call to retain many details later on. Sarah’s letter to me touched on all the major topics we’d covered in the call (at least to the best of my dizzied recollection), but went into a lot more detail, particularly when it came to the character notes she wanted me to try and emphasize. Some things were smaller aspects of my major characters — fleshing out threats and desires, finding places where a single line or paragraph might add valuable information — and some were about larger things for smaller characters — giving motivation enough to make villains and supporting cast alike fully-realized humans in their own right. There were also notes on pacing, which actually spurred my largest edits.
  3. Re-read the manuscript: I actually hadn’t touched Aven in quite some time, since we were out on sub for ten months before it sold. I did the first read-through in PDF, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to start changing things as I went. I just needed to re-familiarize myself with the story as it stood! I’m so glad I took this time, because it reminded me just how much I love these characters — and how excited I am for other people to get to meet them.
  4. Re-read again, making margin notes: I moved back to Scrivener for this. The Inspector feature is brilliant for things like this. I used the notecard to summarize what was already there, and then the notes section to jot down ideas on what could be moved, added, deleted, or changed in order to get the editorial notes working for me.
  5. Moodle: “So you see, imagination needs moodling, – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” – Brenda Ueland. I subscribe to the profitability of moodling, bu it’s also a thing to be careful of, because I also subscribe to another quote: ““Planning to write is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Researching to write, outlining to write….none of this is writing. Writing is writing.” – Robert Jolles. I find car rides an ideal time for moodling. It’s not time I could spend doing much else besides being in my brain. I’ve found many plot points and turns of phrase while winding my way around Afton Mountain.
  6. Major changes: The front quarter of the book needed more reconstruction than the rest of it — rather like knocking down a wall to create an open-concept in one part of a house, but only needing to spruce up the paint and add a little new furniture in the rest. I tackled the biggest challenges first. This sometimes meant having to keep more than one editorial note in my head at a time, but it also meant that I wasn’t wasting time writing things that I would just end up undoing later on.
  7. More moodling: This was the stage, honestly, that took the most time. After I finished the main restructuring, I needed time to sort out a solid plan on how to attack the rest. I did a lot of opening up the Scrivener document, looking at scenes and the editorial letter side-by-side, and just thinking. Sometimes I would take a single note and scroll through, looking for ideal points to address it. Other times I’d wallow in a single chapter. I was, slowly, formulating a plan of attack.
  8. Going in deep: And once I’ve got that plan, I can work swiftly. I dove back in, armed both with my Inspector commentary and some handwritten notes, and worked through start-to-finish. Well, nearly start-to-finish. There’s still often a lot of back and forth as I need to work through consistency errors, avoid repetitions, etc.
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  9. Final read-through in hard copy: I always do this before sending a full manuscript off for anyone else to read, to reduce potential embarrassments. It also helps me make sure I haven’t missed any opportunities to take a note — I had the print-out of the notes with me as I did this read-through. Mostly, though, these were down to line edits. There were only a few places where I wanted to add a line or a paragraph; the rest was adjusting typos and finding small inserts and deletions. My habit is to mark the corner of each page that I alter, to make it easier to go through during the next step…
  10. Assimilate changes into manuscript: Back to the Scrivener doc! Merging all of my handwritten line edits back into the main manuscript doesn’t actually take all that long, I found. This is also where I do a search-and-replace of some of my most pernicious filler words. (Everyone has them; mine are “rather” and “somewhat”).
  11. Send it off!: Export, create a separate document with the tracked changes (a bit of a trick in of itself when you’re coming out of Scrivener into a .docx, but I’ve figured out how to do it in Word 2013!), glancce to make sure no formatting’s gone wonky, and then — off it went, to Sarah and Connor!

So! That’s been my process since mid-September. And now… I wait! There’ll be much more to do, I’m sure, once Sarah’s had at the fresh meat. 😉

Reflections on Revisions

So remember those revisions that I started way back in June? Last week, I finally finished them. This draft took longer than some earlier revisions had, because it involved a lot more restructuring — that “Come to Proserpina” moment did its job and forced me to really rethink a lot of the shape of the book. I had to spend a couple of months moodling — looking at my outlines, shifting scenes around, deciding that wasn’t going to work, making false starts, hitting snarls, trying again. I think the right word for the process is “detangling”. I had a lot to smooth out, particularly after I’d made the initial cuts.

Samwriting

Yeah, it went pretty much like this.

Only in the past month or so did I really start producing new material at a good generative rate. I’m estimating that I scrapped something like 70,000 words, maybe more, from the last version of the manuscript — and then added about 63,000 new ones back in. And that’s not counting the minor changes I had to make to nearly every scene to reflect the adjusted timeline and other little ripples. In a lot of ways, this revision felt like writing most of an entirely new book — and yet that wasn’t what I was doing. The characters and the world are the same; I just had to find a different angle on them.

Someone over the weekend asked me if I like this version of the book better than the last draft. It’s a weird answer to find. I’m in love with this book as it stands now. I was in love with the earlier version, too. I was in love with last year’s draft, or I wouldn’t have inflicted it upon agents. They’re just all differently shaped beasts. As the book now stands, it’s shaped much more like a fantasy novel than it used to be — and that’s good, since we have to sell it in that genre. It has more rapidly shifting highs and lows, more exciting incidents, particularly earlier in the novel, and more intense “high-stakes” moments. The magic is also a lot more front-and-center than it used to be, and that was fun to play with, because I love dabbling with thaumaturgical theory. The earlier drafts were written much more like historical novels — and I liked that about them. I like the idea of treating the magic in this book as just another component of the world, and otherwise going about as though this is straight historical fiction, with the somewhat slower pace and deeper introspection that that genre embraces. But that runs against the grain of the industry as it currently stands, and part of being a working writer is knowing how to maneuver within the system without sacrificing your story, vision, and creativity. For me, it meant not losing the important character moments (something that historical novels display so well) amid the more energetic plotline (critical to moving a fantasy novel along). I think I’ve hit that sweet spot now in a way I hadn’t before.

I did lose some material that I really adored. One major chunk took out close to 20,000 words in a single, devastating blow. It was a major event in the earlier draft, but with the changes I made to the timeline and the plot, it became entirely irrelevant. As I’ve said before, though, I almost never actually “kill my darlings”. I just defer them. I’m sure I can use at least some of that material in the second book. That’s definitely the case for another big scene that I cut, an emotional confrontation between two characters — it no longer fit with the flow of events here, but it’ll definitely make its way into the next book. Other things may not even stay in this story, but might get revived for a later project.

Revisions like this are a lot of work. Since the end of August, I think I’ve spent as many hours on this as I have at my day job. The “I can’t; I have rehearsal” mantra of my youth became “I can’t; I have revisions.” I spent two entire weekends glued to my chair (which made me viscerally aware that I need a writing chair that isn’t straight-backed and made of hard, uncushioned wood), not leaving the house, mainlining black tea and Diet Dr Pepper with nature documentaries running unobtrusively in the background. I’m super-pleased with the results of all of this focused grinding — but I am also, I confess, a little relieved that now I get to step back from the story while my agent and beta readers have at it.

The Things You Must Not Do (Or: You Can’t Please Everyone, So You Got to Please Yourself)

I generally don’t mind editing. In fact I often quite like the challenge of it, but there are times when revisions can make me a little panicky. And it gets worse if, in the process of scrolling through Tumblr and Twitter, it suddenly feels like I’m seeing an inundation of posts and articles titled things like, “10 Things a Writer Should Never Ever Do” or “How to Write a Marketable Book” or “Common Mistakes That Will Torpedo Your Chances”. They seem to crop up so much more when I’m revising than the rest of the time, as though the gods of the dashboard know when I’m most vulnerable to their whisperings.SomersetMaugham

It’s the don’ts, more than the musts, that tend to burrow into my head and make themselves parasitic little nests there — perhaps because it seems so hard to guarantee success, yet tremendously simple to guarantee failure. So when I read these things, I can find myself in a horrible, self-loathing twist.

Because I did the thing. I used an adverb. Or a thought-verb. Or I used said too many times. Or I used an emotive synonym instead of said. I glossed over some point of backstory rather than showing a character feeling it viscerally. I used too many words. I didn’t use enough words. (Just kidding, that last one is almost never my problem). And if I did the thing, doesn’t it mean I’m not good enough? That I still have too much left to learn, and not enough time in which to learn it? That my manuscript is too deeply flawed for any publisher to consider?

And then I remember:

Every good writer, every writer I admire, has Done The Thing at some point in time. Whatever the Thing is that they Must Not Do, they’ve done it. Maybe it got caught and expunged in editing. Maybe it didn’t. Certainly there are plenty of books in print, bestsellers, even, that contain at least a few instances of Things You Must Not Do. Sometimes done well and to a pointed purpose, but sometimes just… there.

All writers have tics, too. Everyone’s got something they ought to CTRL+F for — favorite vocabulary words, an over-reliance on prepositional phrases or helping verbs, descriptive habits. Some of my worst ones are harder to catch because they tend to be rhetorical, not vocabulary-based. But if you’re aware of it, you can hunt it down, and hopefully you’ve also got a good support team to help you when you’ve missed them. Whatever the flaws my writing might have, they are neither unique nor unforgivable, and I have an agent who believes in my manuscript and that I have the skills it’ll take for success.

And — writers get better throughout their careers. I can look at all of my favorite authors and know that that’s true. Pratchett, Gaiman, Rowling, Quinn, Carriger, Lackey, Valente, P&C — I can compare early work to late and see how they change. Hell, there are ways in which Stone of Your Choice and Deathly Hallows barely feel like they were written by the same author, Rowling grew so much over those years. I think there’s a scary mindset these days that, if you’re not perfect out of the gate, you’re absolutely screwed. The industry sort of encourages that sort of thinking, because, while publishing has long been a commercial and thus competitive enterprise, it seems to have intensified in that regard in the past decade or so. Be 100% captivating, amazing, and flawless, or you will never get a second chance.

It isn’t about following every rule — not least because a number of them contradict. Like the Pirate Code, they’re more like guidelines. Be aware of them. Follow them when you can. Break them when you must. My job isn’t to please everyone on the internet, nor to adhere to every arbitrary rule they set down. My job is to tell the best story I can in the best way I can.

That is what I have to remember.

Once more unto the revisions…

Time to re-attack the manuscript, armed with a shiny new outline and a compressed timeframe. The goal this go-around is to heighten the danger and sense of threat that the characters are in and to give the plot more driving energy. To that end, I’m changing the end goal a bit to something more… obvious? I’m not sure that’s the right way to put it, but it’s a simpler mark to hit. Less esoteric. Less ambiguous. And doing that is allowing me to streamline the challenges the characters will face along the way.

The first thing I’ve done is just to hack out the chapters that are quite clearly not going to survive into the next incarnation of the manuscript. Most of these are things rendered irrelevant or redundant by the changes I’ve made to the outline, or because I’ve compressed the timeframe from about 16 months into about 6.

books089 (wyns_icons)Starting Word Count: 139,808 (admittedly on the chunky side, though not truly egregious considering the genre)

Word Count after the Cut: 110,065

Nearly 30k gone in a mere half an hour’s work! There will be more to cut out, of course — this was just the blunt amputation of entire chapters. Next I’ll be going in with a scalpel to trim out partial chapters and smaller moments that won’t work now and to adjust all the continuity issues. But, there will also be quite a bit of new material to add in. So we’ll see where the new draft ends up, numbers-wise. If it’s a bit more slender than the last draft, that certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing.

I am going to have to have a few of what Connor and I are calling “Come to Proserpina” moments about some bits of the plot and some scenes that I really love. During the amputation process, I definitely saw smaller things that’re going to have to go. I just have to remember — taking it out of this draft doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. If I have to get rid of a conversation I really love, I can still find a way to put in something elsewhere that gets at the same emotions and the same connections between characters. If I have to kill off a set piece that’s fun but not really plot-advancing, maybe I can bring it back in another books. I’ve never liked the phrase “kill your darlings” — that’s always seemed rather melodramatic and self-important, and though I know we writers, as a breed, are prone to such things (myself not least among them — I’m an actress, too, after all), it’s never just seemed accurate. It’s not killing them. It’s more like putting toys back on the shelf that I don’t need right now — but they’ll be there, waiting for me, later, to be used or re-shaped or re-imagined.

Binge Writing

This week, the New York Times published “Impatience Has its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster“, an article discussing the trend towards releasing book sequels faster and faster, three within a year or even all at the same time, to encourage “binge reading”. It’s a response to the way Netflix encourages binge watching.

A lot of people have been scrambling to frame this as a good thing, but I’m far from convinced. From a reader’s perspective, it is perhaps good, in that “instant gratification” sort of way — but, as a reader, I worry tremendously that it will mean sacrificing quality in favor of quantity. People are holding up GRRM as an example of what happens when there’s not enough pressure on a writer to get a story completed. I don’t think he proves their point as well as they’d like, though. A Dance with Dragons may have taken him six years to write, but then they seem to have skimped on the editing. I understand the impulse — people had been waiting so long, they wanted to turn it from pen to profit as soon as possible. I got it the day it came out, and the first edition had at least five typos, not to mention that it just plain seems to have needed at least one more round of revisions, to scrape out some of the unnecessary repetitions and extraneous bits. Neither a fast nor a slow process guarantee you a good book — only good writing and good editing will do that.

I also know plenty of readers who “binge read” already. Just not in the same fashion. When I first started reading Julia Quinn’s romance novels, it was two books into her Bridgerton series. There were six more yet to come. I didn’t mind waiting for those — but in the meantime, I had her entire backlist to tear through. And then I started looking at the authors she liked, and the ones who liked her — Lisa Kleypas, Suzanne Enoch, Kat Martin — and then I got to tear through their backlogs. I’ve done the same thing with fantasy authors, with historical fiction, with thrillers. That’s part of the joy of exploration, and I worry about discouraging that.

And, I worry about what this sort of release schedule will do to a series’s ability to build a fandom. Part of the great joy of being in the Harry Potter fandom while the books were still being released was the waiting. It gave everything time to percolate — time to re-read and find new hints, time to speculate, time to introduce the series to new readers, time to adjust to new canon once it did come out. I feel like, if everything comes out so quick, new series won’t have that chance to grow. Many may just find themselves as flashes in the pan, hot for a brief time, then quickly fading and forgotten. And how sad that would be.

As a writer, it concerns me even more than as a reader. One commenter on the article’s breakdown on Jezebel characterized it as pretending to encourage binge reading, when really it’s encouraging binge writing. I think that’s precisely the right way to put it. Another expressed suspicions that this is more to cater to the movie industry than to readership, which is certainly not out of the realm of likelihood. Whoever’s benefit it’s for, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the writer’s.

Now, if an author really can turn out good work that quickly, and have it revised and edited and properly prepared for publication that quickly, then so much the better. But not everyone can. I would argue that most can’t. Many of those authors who do have multiple books appear in a year have a team of ghost writers assisting them, from my understanding. I’ve been reading romance novels long enough to have seen that, when authors who’ve been on a book every 12-18 months suddenly start pushing to every 6, the quality suffers. I’ve actually really enjoyed watching Gail Carriger’s career the past few years, because she’s outright admitted when projects need more work, when trying to put out multiple books in a year has been damaging the quality of her work. I like that she’s pushed back against the pressure.

More concerning still, this model would do a lot, I suspect, to push out those writers who cannot yet write full-time — ie, most writers. Under these expectations, your option is either to have a full trilogy finished before you start querying and then be able to devote the time to revising it as a whole as your agent and editor deem necessary — or else to sell the first book and know you’ll be able to finish the other two within a year. If you’re working a full-time job (or more) as well to pay the bills, that’s less likely.

I’ve learned that, under optimal circumstances, I can write 3000-4000 words a day. I don’t get optimal circumstances very often. Optimal means that I’m on vacation from my other two jobs, free of all other obligations. But even if I had the liberty and leisure to do that six days a week, even if I could turn out the minimum word count in a month or two, the book would still need further attention. Not all of those words would be good. Not all of them would be serve the story. The book would still need rounds of revision. Even if you’re quick at that — as I believe I am — it still just takes time, going back and forth, re-reading what’s there, making the changes. And I would still need to research at some point, and to read — because a writer has to read, to be a good writer. And all of that takes time.

Books take time. Books should take time. That’s my thought on the matter.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” — Terry Pratchett

In the past ten days, I have created a villain, orchestrated a sex scene, and killed half a dozen people who didn’t exist in the first place. I’ve been editing, and I think can count the number of chapters left un-tampered with on one hand. Something like seventeen chapters saw substantial alterations, two of those were re-written entirely, and most of the others got continuity tweaks.

As it seems, January and February are “Now What?” months over at NaNoWriMo. As I just finished my third round of revisions for Aven since signing with Connor back in October, I’ve been following the conversation pretty closely, since it’s relevant to my current headspace. There’s been a lot of great advice, both from the pros and from the community. There’s also been a fair bit of, well, whining — from people who think revision is too hard or too depressing. From people who find accepting criticism to be stressful. And from people who have realized that being melodramatic on the internet, particularly about artistic endeavors, is a good way to get attention. (An unkind assessment of the population of the web, I know, but not, I think, an inaccurate one).

And in some ways, I get that. It is hard work, and in a lot of ways it’s the exact antithesis of what gets people through November, especially those who are new to writing, or new to writing such long projects that they might actually want a future for. Now is not the time to throw everything at the wall. Now is the time to hone in, to admit that a lot of what you flung earlier isn’t working for you, to scrape that stuff away without mercy, and to figure out, with precise vision and control, what you need to add in its place. And misery does love company, so I thoroughly see how this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle when Nano openly asks people to talk about their experiences.

My opinion of editing? I find it fun. It’s like a puzzle game — you have to figure out what doesn’t fit, and what new piece might fill in the gap. Maybe something just needs to be twisted another way, or turned upside down. If you move something, it might create a gap elsewhere, and then you have to figure out what to do about that. It’s definitely intellectual exercise, and the workout can be exhausting. It can sometimes melt your brains and make you a little crazed, especially when you plunge in deep and don’t come up for air for hours on end. But then it feels so good to know when you’ve nailed it! So some days, it’s a little like this:

XenaIwin

I just happened to run across the Pratchett quote in my subject line today, and I quite like it. The first draft is where you find the characters and get a sense of the shape of things, but it won’t have the sharp definition or the right energy. Aven began life during Nano 2011. I think there might be a couple of scenes that are sort of intact from that first draft. A lot of material got shuffled off and will hopefully appear in a later book. A lot of material got extracted completely. Maybe it will come back, maybe it won’t. But it doesn’t stop existing just because I had to take it out of the working draft. It doesn’t get unwritten just because I do that — because I don’t delete anything. I make copies and shove the old material into different files, so that, should I ever want to revisit it, I can. But even if those fragments never come back to life, either in this or a future project, that’s okay, too. I still had the joy of writing them. And they still helped shape the novel into what it is today. If I hadn’t written those words, I couldn’t have gotten to this point.

I can look back and know that I’ve always been this sort of writer. I find new things through continuing to play with the story. Back when it was all OC Star Wars fanfic all the time, I wrote and re-wrote some key scenes over and over again, across months and years of living in that story. My problem tends to be more that, if left to my own devices, I’m never satisfied. I’ll keep fussing and tweaking forever. I always feel like there’s something else I could say, something more, some new angle worth exploring. (Neil Gaiman, according to his blog, sometimes has a similar problem, which makes me feel better about it).

And that’s a lot of why I feel like the best part of having an agent so far — beyond just, y’know, having one — is having someone to help focus and direct my edits. I’m fortunate that Connor is an editorial agent — not all of them are, and not all writers want their agents to be editorial, but this was clearly the kind of relationship I had to be able to have with an agent. His eagerness to work with me and to develop the product from something good into something great has been magnificent. It’s wonderful to have friends and family members who are willing to read what you write, but even if they are willing to be constructively critical, they don’t have the insider knowledge of the publishing industry. They can’t tell me how certain popular series have changed the expectation for the genre. They don’t know how the trends are ebbing and flowing. And, frankly, they tend to not be great with the kind of revising help I need the most — they’ll either just think everything’s great because I wrote it, or their advice will be so super-specific as to not be helpful, more line edits than conceptual. Working through it with a professional in the industry gives me much better ways to focus that energy that drives me to pick and twiddle and micro-adjust. It gives me things I can really lock my jaw around and shake the life out of — which is great, because it’s so much more satisfying than those vague micro-adjustments I’m otherwise prone to. It’s like how you feel better after eating a really great meal than you do after snacking indiscriminately all day.

All of which is to say that, as I stated on Twitter last week, I’ve been enjoying a lot of deep and artful thoughts about sex and murder.

On Perseverance

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 11, but as a teenager, I went through a period of time where I also wanted to be an actress. I’d always liked performing — I’d been in church pageants and school shows since the age of four, I’d fallen in love with Shakespeare at eleven, and in high school, I was getting a taste of “the real thing” (insomuch as that exists in a high school drama club). But when I was 15, my mother sat me down and said, “Honey. You’re a good actress. You’re never going to be a great actress.”

Now, at the time, I of course handled this with exactly as much grace, serenity, and wisdom as any hormonal, melodramatic fifteen-year-old would. In the years since, however, I’ve recognized what my mother was getting at, and I’ve come to thoroughly appreciate it. What she meant was that, given the choice between two pipe-dream-style careers which hinge as much on hard work, perseverance, and the ability to take a blow as they do on inspiration and talent, I needed to focus on the one that I was tough enough to endure. And she was right. I never cared about acting enough to do the things you have to do to make it as an actor. And I didn’t care in the right sorts of ways. While I liked being on-stage, liked memorizing lines and playing with characters, I could never get as much into the different techniques and methods behind that madness. I would not have done well in a conservatory. Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think my ego could have taken the rejections, and even if I’d met with some kind of moderate success, the cycles of tension would probably not have been good for me. Actors always have to have an eye out for the next job, and I don’t know that I could have stuck with it enough to deal with those conditions.

For writing, though — for writing I could face all of that.

I care enough about writing to have spent I don’t even know how many hours improving my skills over the years. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. I don’t know that writing is ever something you truly master, but I’m sure I’ve spent those hours and well beyond by now. As a teenager and college student, I filled dozens of five-subject notebooks (Mead 5 Star only, I was very specific in my preferences). I still have them all, living in a box under my desk, ready to pop out and embarrass me someday (or perhaps not. I remain perversely proud of my eighth-grade Star Wars fanfiction). I got into text-based roleplaying because it flexed similar muscles. I wrote and wrote and wrote because I loved it.

The hardest point, I think, was after grad school. I’d fallen out of the habit of writing fiction, because so much of my energy had to go into academic writing while I was pursuing my degree — and then my job after school used those same skills. Making time to write creatively was hard, but finding the energy was even harder. I began to understand how people can come home after an 8-hour workday and just zone out in front of the TV until it’s time for bed. But I pushed through it. I made myself write a little each day, even if it was just 100 words, whether fanfic or original, even if they made no sense. Even if they sucked. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration to strike — because inspiration is a lazy little tart who generally needs a good kick up the backside to get going.

Gradually, that built up. Gradually, I was able to push myself back to writing more each day. In 2011, I won Nanowrimo for the first time in years — and that story was the earliest incarnation of Aven. And then I kept going. I used to marvel at Stephen King writing two to three thousand words a day, six days a week, wondering how it was possible. But sometime in the last year and a half, I realized that, on days when I didn’t have to do anything else, 3000 words was a breeze. (In fact, when I’m at the beach — my most relaxed environment — I can bang out three or four thousand words and still have time for a lie-in, sunbathing, a bath, and a nice dinner with the family). So I did that. I finished a draft. I edited it. I pitched it in-person to a couple of agents at a convention. Based on their feedback, I edited some more, and some more, and some more.

And then, the querying. My ego, which is an admittedly tender thing and would have been pummeled in rounds of auditions, found it could miraculously sustain itself through the querying process. Maybe it’s because the rejection feels less personal this way — the agents never see you, of course. I was able to summon the requisite dispassion to acknowledge that, no, not every project is for everyone, but I was able to keep the optimism that, yes, someday, someone was going to want to fight for this project as hard as I did. That doesn’t mean there were never moments of crisis, never moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing. There were plenty of them, in fact. Those “what if I’m just not good enough?” thoughts creep in even when you’re trying your damnedest to keep up the optimism. But I was able to fight through those, and, after almost a year of polite form letters and more than a few dead silences, it paid off.

Now, having cleared that hurdle at last, the path is requiring a different sort of toughness. Editing is a difficult beast, and for the first time, someone else’s opinions and experience have to matter, too. Which is brilliant. Having someone else whose ideas can provoke me into making my manuscript even better is fantastic. It’s honing a different skill set — focusing the somewhat haphazard creative energy that typically contributes to my writing process. That focus helps me get a lot done in a short amount of time. I had a “day off” on Monday, and I spent at least eleven hours of it working. Some of that was editing old material, some of it was creating new material, some of it was poring through reference books, and some of it was just plain staring at the Scrivener corkboard until I figured out how I needed to re-arrange the puzzle pieces. And it was a good day. It felt like a good day. I went to bed exhausted, but I felt so positive about that.

So the point of all of this is that my mother was right. It’s not enough to have talent or desire. You have to choose the path that you care enough about to fight for. Trying to make it as an actress would have been a tremendously frustrating path for me to take, and one that probably would not satisfy me nearly as well even if I did meet with some moderate level of success. Trying to make it as a writer, though, has only pushed me to be better. It’s only made me want it more. I’ve grown a little bit of a thicker skin, I’ve learned to bounce back, and I’ve developed a real sense of duty about what I’m doing. I am not a dilettante, and this is not a pipe dream any longer. This is what I work at, what I’m willing to pour countless hours of my life and brainpower into.

And, as it turns out, I do still get to act sometimes. 😉