General

#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!

General

Where World-Building Starts

Kate Elliott is writing an excellent series of World-Building Wednesdays, and today’s post, The Flowering of an Image, focuses on the germination of a world — what kernel it is that turns into a place in which stories can live.

Elliott says that her world-building most often begins with an image which then spurs the characters and the story. The two things then grow together, the world informing the characters and plot as much as the characters and plot define the world. That symbiosis is something I discover in my own writing as well. Something I decide about the world will trigger an event, and some need the characters have will make me flesh out a bit of the world.

189-Tintagel Island
Tintagel Island, Cornwall (2006) – Which I visited on account of it being the place where King Arthur’s story started, according to legend

Sometimes, though, I can fall a bit into a world-building pit. It’s not so much in the need to outline or write out an encyclopedia — though in some cases I’d happily do so — but I end up exploring the world by letting characters wander through it. Interesting to me, but not something that really advances the narrative. Part of editing is finding ways to inject the details of the world into the action. I do keep lists, though, of important facts. For Aven it’s been a lot of geographical concerns — what do different provinces produce, what sort of people live on which of the Seven Hills, and so forth — and a lot about the magic. I also have some historical notes about where my AU diverges from the reality of Roman history.

For me, though, the story tends to begin not with an image, but with a statement — sometimes of narrative, but far more often, of dialogue or introspection. An image will often follow, but I tend to hear a character’s voice before I clearly see them or the world around them. The words they want to use, the cadence, the rhetoric, those are the things that start to spin a character for me.

So, I thought it might be fun to trawl through a few of my projects — both those still in-progress, those set aside and perhaps to be revived someday — and see if I could find and identify those starting phrases. Wonderfully, I managed to unearth a document of scraps that I started back in 2009. Some of those scraps turned into larger stories. Some have been finished, and some haven’t — and one of them is on is way to publication! But it provided me with some good examples of what seeds I start with:

  • “Oh, you are such a poor liar. You haven’t the talent for it, so you may as well not try. Come now.” She pouted, quite prettily. “I’m your sister. Who can you tell, if not me?”
  • “I could no more leave this city than leave you, Mari,” he said. “To do one would be to do the other, and to do either…” He shook his head. “Unthinkable.”
  • “How many times did you fling yourself into danger without a second goddamn thought?”
  • “He does love me,” she commented, more to herself than to Kara.
    “In his way,” Kara supplied.
    “Not even that,” Arhena said, twisting a few golden strands around her finger. “I think he really does. He’s just… not one to show it in the usual fashion.”
  • “That girl’s kept her heart locked up a good long while now. I think it might finally be ready for some fresh air.”
  • “And you, Highness, are the daughter of a desert witch masquerading as a princess. But I’ve never held that against you.”
  • It wasn’t, after all, a nice thing to hear about yourself, to know that you’d gone from a well-mannered, perfectly-coiffed debutante to being little better than a mad dog in want of a leash.
  • ‘That’s the trouble with putting down roots,’ she thought. Her fingers itched as she stepped over towards where the mare was tethered and unwound the reins from the fence. ‘They do make it harder to fly…’

I’m realizing, looking at all of those, how many of them are moments of great passion — so many of my stories, no matter the genre, do feature a romance between two strong, stubborn people — or how many of them are the lead heroine wrestling with herself in some way.

There are worse places, I think, to start a story.

General

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. 😉

General

Critical Hit: What Writers Can Learn from RPGs

IMG_2974Last year, I got back into dice gaming. I’d played a very little as a teenager — it was pretty hard to be a geek in the late 90s without getting roped into at least one table session — but most of my RPG experience was text-based, during the heyday of LiveJournal (yes, I’m that old) or in AOL chatrooms (yes, I’m also that old). I’m not allowed to play MMOs, because I know myself, and my life would quickly become The Guild. But a friend and coworker pitched the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game to me, and it sounded so super-exciting that I decided to give it a whirl. I’m so very glad I did. We’ve been playing for over a year now, through several plot arcs and all sorts of ridiculous escapades. It’s my Monday night escape. I often complain that I have three careers and no social life, but this? This is a real hobby, and it can be just pure joy and relaxation for me, a time to play and to enjoy hanging out with some awesome people.

And yet, I still can’t leave my working brain behind entirely. The game is so narrative that of course I end up thinking about storytelling.

Last December, Jim Hines took over Chuck Wendig’s blog to talk about turning your D&D campaign into a terrible novel (and it’s a good giggle of a post). I have no doubt that there are people who really do this, though, and who then proceed to query agents and editors, all starry-eyed innocence, failing to understand that what made a good game does not necessarily make a good novel. I also think, though, that while straight-up transcribing your sessions is a seriously bad idea, there are still lessons that a writer can take away from RPGs.

The trick is to think like the game-master, not like a player.

Keep ’em on their toes: This relates to the “but then” rule I’ve talked about before. And honestly, it’s something I can have trouble with, pacing-wise. Never let the characters get too comfortable, and never let them go too long without an exciting incident of some kind. Give characters the chance to develop through action, not through pontification. Throw unexpected obstacles into the mix. If they make a solid plan to achieve their goals, change the given circumstances so that they can’t follow through as expected. In our game, I don’t think our plans ever stay the same for more than a few minutes at a time. The same should be true for characters in novels.

CQCEd-4WoAAEUAeLet your characters surprise you: Our group is not the standard hack-and-slash coalition of fighters. We are… creative problem-solvers, is probably the best way to put it, and we’ll try just about anything before having to resort to violence. This occasionally leads to some truly bizarre sequences of events. As an example, early on in our campaign, one of the characters just straight-up decided to steal a plesiosaur-type creature and try to escape on it. This was not something our GM had anticipated. Another character once tried slowing down our opponents by setting off the foam-based fire suppression system on them (it worked). This was also not something our GM had anticipated. We once ended up at a dance party with abolitionist senators. The GM had definitely not anticipated having to tell us to “roll for dance moves”. The reason he’s a good GM is because he can let us do crazy things and then steer everything back on track — and that’s the job of a good writer, too.

Let them make bad choices. Bad choices are interesting. Bad choices lead to conflict, chaos, mayhem, struggles, strife. Recently, while in the middle of close-quarters combat, one of our party members decided to set off an explosive quarrel in the middle of the room. Not only did it spectacularly fail to do significant damage to our opponents, it damn near killed two of us. But it made things interesting — the party members still conscious suddenly had a much bigger problem on their hands, as they had to protect and extricate the wounded while still dealing with the attackers. The same thing goes for writing fiction — if a character charges in where she should, ignores the little voice in her head warning her away from danger, trusts someone he shouldn’t, then we get to see not only the conflict that creates but also how the characters deal with the subsequent fallout. Does she mistrust her judgment in the future? Does he have to make amends with someone? What does she learn? What ground does he have to make up? Bad choices can up the ante in exciting ways.

If grinding is boring for you, it’s boring for everyone: Your mileage may vary by genre on this one, as more military-focused books will spend more time in the blood, and so might different sorts of RPG groups. For me, though — and this comes from a background on the stage as much as anything else — a fight has to be a means to an end. It has to tell its own story and it has to advance something. A good GM balances the action sequences with plot development, because just churning through repetitive action after repetitive action can get real dull real fast. And the same goes with writing. You can only slam so many fight sequences together before the reader gets fatigue, and the reader also needs to care about the outcome of the fight. What’s resting on it? Who’s in danger and why do we want them to survive? What skill is the hero calling upon, and is she good enough with it to come out on top?

Have a diverse cast. I’m the only human character in our current group, which is pretty great. We’ve also got three female organics, one male organic, and one male-identifying droid. And our GM is great about making sure that the NPCs we encounter are evenly balanced — whether they’re Imperial officers, mechanics, senators, thugs, guards, food vendors, whatever — they’re a variety of species and genders. The universe is a wide and wonderful place, and storytellers owe it to themselves and their readers to showcase that.

Have a balanced cast. Our group features an abnormally agile big-game-hunting droid, an impulsive and mildly neurotic bodyguard, a debt-laden trader with a nearly palpable sense of self-preservation, a mechanic whose primary motivation is friendship, and an exiled politician who lives by wits and charm (yours truly). It’s a seriously weird group to have thrown together — but that’s awesome. Our skill sets complement each others’ really well. Not all books have to worry about ensemble casts, but for those that do, making sure the characters . Some of that can be done through archetypes — making sure you have enough different folk to serve different needs — but it’s about balancing personalities, too. Not every character can be the gruff and world-weary type, and not every character can be the effervescent optimist. It’s way more interesting to read about those types bouncing off of each other. The NPCs we encounter, engineered by the GM, reflect that as well. Some of our allies get along much better with some party members than others; some of our enemies are rubbed the wrong way more by some than others. We also encounter situations that play to our varying abilities — you can’t fight your way out of every situation, and you can’t talk or charm your way out of every situation, either. Keeping that balance keeps the story interesting for us players — and doing the same thing in a book will help appeal to a variety of readers.

CPduoBGUYAAJtTAMake XP matter. We’ve been playing our game for a long time. We have an absurd number of experience points, and we’ve all used them a little differently — some have piled them into improving our dice pools for certain skills, some have acquired additional talent trees and special abilities, and some have kept a balance between those two choices. But the better we get, the more the GM has to keep in mind regarding the challenges we encounter. It can’t be too easy for us. He has to work harder to give us situations we can’t squirrel out of too quickly — because the point isn’t to “win” by besting the NPCs, it’s to invest ourselves in a good story! In fiction, the stakes have to get higher as the story goes on. A character should have the opportunity to grow, learn new things, get better — but then the villains and challenges have to get harder, to match. If the hero gets better at a skill, then there has to be a twist the next time he encounters a challenge calling upon it. You can’t face impossible odds at the beginning, and the final conflict can’t be a foregone conclusion.

Enjoy it. Like I said at the top, I commit time each week to the game because it’s fun, and I know our GM dedicates a lot more time to planning and scheming for us for the same reason. Building worlds, scripting situations, carving out the time, that’s all a lot of work, but we’re all in it because we like doing it. Writing’s hard work, and that’s the damn truth. But it should also be something you love, even when it’s tough. If you’re not having fun with the words, with the characters, with the situations, then what will there be for the reader to fall in love with?

So! How about y’all? Any other roleplayer-writers out there with thoughts on how the two types of narrative can speak to each other?

General

One yes at a time: in which our heroine becomes, officially, a novelist

And now, some words that I have been waiting to say since I was eleven years old:

I am going to be a published novelist.

I have a book deal.

the Deal

Actually, I have a three-book deal. Aven has been sold to DAW Books and will be appearing on shelves in 2017.

I cannot give enough thanks and praise to my agent Connor, who took a chance on this project two years ago, shepherded me through several rounds of edits, and spent pretty much all of 2015 pushing it on sub. It’s been wonderful working with him on every stage so far, and I can’t wait for the next phase. ❤

I’m also thrilled to be working now with Sarah Guan, my editor at DAW. My spare moments have already been filled with tackling the first round of notes she’s given me so that I can polish Aven up into a tighter, leaner, brighter-burning book.

It’s been a few weeks since I found out, and honestly, I’m still having trouble believing it sometimes — but seeing that notice from Publishers Marketplace sure helps! When I got the call from Connor, he had to repeat himself three times before my fuzzed brain was able to comprehend what he was saying. It’s true what they say about that call — for someone who’s dreamed of this and worked for this for so long, it’s a life-changing moment, but something so big and so hoped-for turns out to actually be a little hard to wrap your head around.

I also want to say this by way of encouragement to other writers: Aven started life in 2011 as a Nano project. It was a way of rededicating myself to fiction writing after grad school and the first year of my day job had taken me utterly away from it in favor of academic writing. But I pinned myself down and committed to the project. I wrote, I revised, I did that some more. When I thought I had something good, I took a chance and pitched to a couple of agents at a con in 2012 — and then realised I still had a lot of work to do. I revised for another five months. I spent 10 months querying before Connor took me on in October of 2013. And then I revised some more. And then we went on sub. And then we decided to revise some more. And then it went on sub again. We had some disappointments along the road, and I’d been — as readers of this blog will know — working on some other projects so that I’d have something else ready if Aven had to go on the shelf. I’d been preparing myself for that; I had resigned myself to the probability, so I can quite honestly say that this success came when I absolutely least expected it.

My point in this is: Yeah, it’s easy to get discouraged when you see how easy success seems for other writers. Of course, it never is, for anyone, but it can certainly look like that on social media — the writer who gets an offer from the first agent they query, the project that gets snapped up by a major publisher after being on sub for a week. When you’re in whatever trenches you’re in — drafting, revising, querying, subbing — it can seem impossible that you’ll ever get to share in that joy that others are celebrating.

But all it takes is one “yes”. Well. One yes at a time. A series of one yeses. One agent to say yes. One editor to say yes to the agent. One publisher to say yes to their editor.

The most important one, though? Is the very first yes — when you decide you’ve got a story to tell and dedicate yourself to telling it.

General

Paleontology of Plotting, Part 2

A confession: I am not very good at drafts.

writerevisewriteagainI never have been — not when it came to essays for school and not when it comes to fiction. It’s partly because I don’t write sequentially. I tend to write the start, the end, and a couple of major points in the middle, then play connect-the-dots. That lends itself to a lot of adjustment-on-the-go. Part of why I like Nano months so much is that it cuts down on that — but, at the same time, just going for the word count can also mean generating scenes that don’t end up fitting into the overall narrative.

And believe me, I know the drawbacks to working this way. It’s easy to get caught in a loop, and there certainly does come a point where you have to decide the thing is complete so you can step back, read it all the way through, and evaluate more holistically. But for my personal process, a certain amount of re-writing as I go is how I excavate — how I tell myself the story.

This is where I’m at on one of my projects right now. Probably 75% of the way through a first draft, I’ve realized there are some elements that aren’t useful. Common wisdom would say to leave them be for now, until I’ve finished the full draft, but so far that hasn’t been working for me. (Plus, not ditching the bits that aren’t working prevents me from having an accurate conception of my overall word count). I’m at connect-the-dots point anyway, where I’m finding the little things that need to chain the major scenes together, so for the way my brain works, it’s just as easy to trim and adjust while I’m in the middle of that process. Trying to work around the things I know I want to get rid of or change would mean a lot of wasted energy.

To continue my paleontology metaphor, in this case it’s a bit like there were a bunch of other bones tangled up with the frame I’ve been trying to unearth. Some characters have proved extraneous and need to be cut or else merged into others. Some scenes were total false starts. I’m not trying to fix all the nitty-gritty details right now — I’m not trying to do a full revision in the middle of still writing by any means — but clearing away the debris will help me to better shape the components that actually need to be there as I push through to getting a complete manuscript done.

General

The blood going to it: On Depressed Creativity

I use to write like this. It was 10 months ago. I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. I’ve had slumps before. Everybody does, but this is different. I’m sorry, we don’t know each other but there aren’t that many people I can talk to about it. I don’t understand what’s happening. There’s no blood going to it. I’ve never had to locate it before. I don’t even know where to look.

That’s a quote from Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, and it’s something that’s long resonated with me.

I haven’t blogged here in the past couple of months, and I wish I could say that’s because I’ve been devoting all my typing to productive writing. Some days, that’s been true. Many days, it hasn’t been. Many days, it’s been a definite struggle to put myself in front of the laptop and get even a few hundred words down.

Part of it has been my everyday life being quite busy, both at the day job and socially. There are, after all, only so many hours. But part of it has been depressed creativity. It’s hard to find the love, to find the juice, to find the blood when you feel stagnated. Being on sub is a rough place to exist as a writer, especially one hoping to make a solid debut. (There aren’t as many posts covering the submission process as there are for querying, but there are some fairly good ones out there — and this one absolutely nails what it feels like). Writing takes a lot of dedication, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of energy. When you feel like the wheels are just spinning in mud and kicking up gravel, it’s hard to keep going — hard to feel like the words you’re carving out are anything worthwhile.

But. You have to.

More accurately, have to.

I wrote over 3000 words yesterday, and 3000 today, and all actually on the correct project, not scattered all over the place in drips and drabbles of assorted nonsense. These have definitely the best writing days I’ve had since mid-May.

It reminds me that I can. It reminds me of my ability and of my passion for the words. It reminds me that I have stories inside me that want to be told.

And it reminds me that I need to suck it up, cupcake. This isn’t a game for whiners or quitters.

Bits of Fun

Suck It Up, Cupcake: An Inspirational Playlist

I don’t know about y’all, but I find music incredibly helpful. I make playlists for projects I work on, characters I’m working with, moods I’m in or think I might be in at some point in the not too distant future — really, for anything. I probably have over a hundred built across various platforms.

The past few weeks, I’ve been in need of a particular sort of motivation. Writing’s a tough business sometimes. But if you want to be a writer, lying down and letting the challenges ride roughshod over you just isn’t an option. You have to pick yourself up and keep going. Keep writing. Keep trying.

So here you go. A playlist partially born of my own cussedness, partially inspired by “Fuck Your Pre-Rejection, PenMonkey” and other blog posts of a similar nature, designed to help you screw your courage to the sticking place, grit your teeth, dig in your heels, and get the job done. Whatever that job is for you right now — writing your first draft, getting through your edits, sloughing your way through the query trenches, or anything else — if you don’t do it, it ain’t getting done. So suck it up, cupcake. Are you a writer or not?

Also an inspirational gif party because why not?

Elsafuckitall

Barneychallenge

TinaFeyfreeingfailure

Enjolrastothebarricade IronManhatersgonnahatePercycomeatmebro Tianaalmostthere

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General

The Paleontology of Plotting

As I jubilantly expressed on twitter last night, I’ve found a plot!

Finding a plot is rarely, I think, like tripping over an unconsidered trifle or discovering a lost item during a ramble through the woods. It’s more like paleontology. You know there’s something under there — at least you’re pinning a lot of hope and faith and hard work on it — but there’s no guarantee that it’ll turn out to be worth finding, or that it’ll be unique, or that it’ll be something anyone else wants to look at.

paleontology_dynamic_lead_slideFirst you dig deep, just to make sure you’re in the right place. I’ve tried starting a few different projects since finishing my last round of Aven edits, and none of the others have gotten past this stage. Sometimes you just plain realize that you’re digging in the wrong spot. That can be frustrating, but I think it’s an important awareness to have. Better to let go of something that isn’t working early, shift your location, and try again, rather than spending valuable hours of your life just moving dirt around. When I back off of a project, it doesn’t go away entirely. I just put a pin in it, hoping — intending — to return later. Aven started life in 2007 as something completely different. I never wrote more than about 10k on it, though, before I realized it wasn’t coming together at all. In 2011, I started over from scratch — and that’s the project that’s carried me through several Nanos. I tried again, and that time I struck true.

So, once you know there is something there worth unearthing, you chip away until you can see the shape of the thing. Is it the thing you thought it was? Or a slightly different species of story? Is it contorted oddly in some place? Is it tangled up with something else? Do you have as much as you thought, or are there bits missing? For me, a lot of this happens in the process of writing itself. I am, in Nano terminology, a pantser, not a plotter. I discover so much while actively writing. It’s not the framework that suits everyone, but it’s wonderful to me — it helps make sure that when I sit down to work, I’m always excited for it.

Then, finally — and this might not happen until later editing phases — you get out the tiny brushes, and you clear off every last bit of debris. Get rid of everything unnecessary so that your final project really gleams, bright and brilliant. This might take a damn long time, and it requires a lot of close focus — but the reward isn’t just a cohesive and impressive whole. You might also learn something new about individual moments, just by spending so much time honing them. I often don’t even write an outline until this point, especially now that Scrivener makes it so simple to keep notes on what happens when — but once I’ve got the shape of a thing generally patterned out, then the outline can be useful to spot gaps or places where some scenes might need to be shifted around — to line up the vertebrae, if you’ll allow me to keep extending this metaphor. (I really love dinosaurs, so it comes easily).

Last night, I jammed a shovel into the earth, and I came up with the first sign that, yes, there is something worth uncovering here.

This is doubly exciting because it doesn’t happen to me a lot. I am, in defiance of Aristotle, a writer who puts Character first. All my stories start with character — as did this one. Perhaps it’s because I am, in some ways, too much a historian. I tend to see people, and the conflict I like best comes out of them crashing into each other. Which is great in my head, but doesn’t always involve the sort of fast pace or high-stakes-drama that the genres I write in require. Fantasy wants the strong beginning, middle, and end that history rarely has — since it, y’know, goes on indefinitely in either direction. It needs, if not an explicit quest, something quest-like, something that drives the characters beyond the bounds of their normal life. So as I was moodling around this new project, I started to feel a familiar pinch of concern: Yes, Morris, you’ve got some interesting personalities milling around an intriguing setting. Some of them like each other and some of them don’t. But what are they going to do?

But, this time, in finding character, I found a new system of magic. And in finding that system of magic, I found the Exciting Incident — the first shape of an object I can start chipping away at — a cataclysmic change, really, for my main characters, something that disrupts their paradigm and forces them to construct a new one, against the ticking clock of threats from without and within.

And that, I think, shall be the challenge that drives the book.

It also gave me a working title, which is super-helpful, since naming things gives them power. So at least for now, this WIP will be called The Seventh Star.

Mind you, I’ve got a what, but I don’t yet know a lot of the how. I have some characters that I don’t know how they fit into the plot (and they might not ever — Aven had its share of discarded characters who were great in my head but never made it to a page anyone else saw). I still have a lot of tinkering to do when it comes to working out the magical system. I need to do some research about a particular kind of warfare and city defense. I’m not quite sure what the end game’s going to look like. But that’s okay. I’ll find out.

So enough nattering to you all about it. I’m off to spend a weekend digging!

General

#WhyNaNo?

For anyone who missed it, there was a pretty incredible National Novel Writing Month chat on twitter today: #WhyNaNo. It’s part of #NaNoPrep — a chance for veteran Nanoers to talk about what keeps us coming back and to convince the potential newbies to join in the madness. The conversation was lively and inspiring, and it got me thinking about my own reasons for Nanoing over the years.

Why (quoteymcquote)Why did I start to Nano? To show off. 2001, senior year of high school, and I mostly wanted to prove that I could. And I did! Though it was far from good — a lot of self-indulgence, a lot of waffling, a lot of fanfiction muddled with original stuff (not that there’s anything wrong with fanfic). But I did 50k in a month, and it felt good. My friends and I read bits of it aloud at lunchtime and giggled a lot, and their encouragement kept me going.

Why did I keep Nanoing? I discovered how much I liked it. And I wanted to keep showing off. In college, it was pretty easy. For as much as college students complain about overwork, even at William & Mary (where your best hasn’t been good enough since 1693), I had free time. And finals weren’t till December, which left me days after Nano to write those papers. So I kept pounding out stories that, in retrospect, weren’t very good. But some of that went to creative writing classes as well, and one of them held the seed of a project that I still turn over in my mind every couple of years, hoping to find the right angle on it. And someday I will.

Why did I stop Nanoing? Graduate school happened to me. And a working adult life happened to me. Man alive can those things, however wonderful they are, suck the ability and the energy for creative writing out of you. Particularly, in my case, because I was doing so much academic writing (and still do, at work), which is an entirely different skill set. My graduate thesis left no room in  my brain for creative endeavors, and for the first year I was working, it was just too hard to come home and make myself sit down in front of a blank screen again. I gave up on Nano for a couple of years the same way I’d given up on almost all creative writing.

Why did I start Nanoing again? Because I hated that I’d given up on creative writing. I knew I still had stories in me. I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was eleven, and I hated that I’d lost sight of that. So I used Nano as a kick in the ass to find it again. And it worked. Aven began life in Nano 2011. It bears little resemblance now to what it was then, but that was the start. I immersed myself in a new world for the first time in years, and I gloried in it. I got back into the habit, and I’ve managed to keep it up in the three years since. 1667 words a day no longer scares me. 3000 words a day is a stretch, most of the time, but I know it’s not impossible, so it doesn’t scare me either. One Sunday during this past summer of revisions, I managed over 6000 words in a day. That Nano was a major step on the path of turning me into a working writer, not just someone who daydreams about being a writer. I made myself do it, discovered that I could, and decided that I must.

Why do I keep Nanoing? For the joy. It’s still a great activity. I’ve Nanoed and Camp Nanoed these past few years, with varying degrees of success. I used the Camps of the Summer 2012 to finish Aven‘s first draft, so those went well. But sometimes I fall on my face — life gets in the way. Or, it’s been a month where editing and revising Aven took precedence over creating something new. I don’t beat myself up about it — I know I have the habits now. I know I can’t write 3k or even 1k every single day of my life. But Nano got me into the pattern of doing it regularly, of always working on something, new or old. I do like being able to participate properly in November, though — there’s a delicious energy to it, the mania of keeping up, the excitement in the forums, the challenges and sprints and encouragement on Twitter.

Why will I Nano this year? If I do, that is. It will depend on where Aven is, really. It’s likely that it will be out to editors, and I’ve learned that the very worst thing I can do is look at the manuscript while it’s out with others, because that will just make me crazy. So, if that’s the case, I’ll Nano, for the joy, and for something to keep me occupied while we’re waiting to hear back. It’ll be a challenge this year, since I’ll be spending the first week of November at Disney World — but I’ll give it a go anyway. Just to see what I can do.

So how many of y’all have Nanoed before? What drove you to it? What have you gotten out of it?