Eight Thoughts for 2018

I was inspired by Natalia Sylvester’s post on the Writer UnBoxed blog: 18 Writing Lessons to Carry Into 2018. I don’t have 18 profound lessons to offer, myself. I do have eight general thoughts that I will be reminding myself of this coming year in my writing, so I decided I’d share them with you.

  • Just Write. Everyone knows this one, but speaking for myself, I need a constant reminder. Like every other habit of productivity, it only works if you do it regularly. This has been hard for me (I failed at my 10-minutes-a-day challenge last year) but I’m determined to do better. Wish me luck!
    • You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. (Jack London)
    • Writing is hard for every last one of us…Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal? They do not. They simply dig. (Cheryl Strayed)
    • Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. (Isabel Allende)
  • Minimize Distraction. This is a closely linked topic, but a more focused one. For me, a big distraction lately has been Twitter. Toward the end of last year I was posting once or twice a day in the various hashtag writing challenges. It was fun, but took too much time. I’ve cut back on that (now I only do #1linewed), but I could still do better.
    • Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. (Zadie Smith)
    • It is doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. (Jonathan Franzen)
    • Writing is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet. (Anonymous)
  • Find the Right Words. I’m going through my WIP now to bring out more evocative descriptions and clearer action, But at least for my own style, I also want it to be transparent. It should open the window between the reader and the story, without calling attention to itself. That’s going to be quite a trick.
    • Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. (Anton Chekhov)
    • Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand (Anne Enright)
    • If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. (Elmore Leonard)
  • Listen. Read the story aloud. Though I do my writing on a computer, I printed my most recent version out and sat with it on my lap, reading aloud. I can’t tell you how helpful this was. I tweaked lots of sentences that didn’t flow right, which I only discovered when I stumbled over them while reading. There were places where things just came together to abruptly, or the rhythm was off, and wrote notations in the margin like “give this more weight” or “needs a beat” or “more reaction.”
    • Listen to what you have written. (Helen Dunmore)
    • Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are okay. (Diana Athill)
    • Reading aloud is a vital part of good prose. (Robert McCrum)
  • Focus on the Story. All the literary tricks in the world won’t help if the reader doesn’t deeply care about the story and about the people living in it, and that won’t happen unless I, too, care deeply about it. As I go through the revision process, polishing the form and structure, worrying about pacing and sensory detail, I have to keep the story itself front and center.
    • A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (which is what the story is actually about). (Lisa Cron)
    • No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. (Robert Frost)
    • Write the book you’re desperate to read. (Keren David)
  • Deny Perfectionism. Sometimes people set such high standards there is no hope of reaching them. This can happen when people buy into the hype that you should never settle for second best, so it’s perfect or nothing. It can also happen when people unknowingly handicap themselves, because if I never accept anything I’ve done as perfect, then I never have to expose it to anyone else’s criticism. Either way, guess what — nothing is done.
    • The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly. (Joshua Wolf Shenk)
    • Progress, not perfection. (A principle of 12-step programs)
    • Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. (Neil Gaiman)
  • Draft Boldly. This is a more focused version of the last one. I’m revising right now, but there will be drafting in my future as I move on to the next book, so here’s what I have to remember about drafting. Just get the draft done, pushing through to find the story. There will be time to polish later
    • I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles. (Shannon Hale)
    • The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. (Terry Pratchett)
    • Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. (Jane Smiley)
  • Be Wary of Rules. I collect advice like this, hungry for it as a squirrel after acorns, but in the end we’re all just feeling our way along. I’m still figuring out what works for me. The best rule is, do what works for you.
    • There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. (W. Somerset Maugham)
    • Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken. (Esther Freud)
    • Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. (Lev Grossman)

What ideas are lifting you up as you go into 2018? What helps you keep going? Share them with the rest of us.

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Book Baby’s 4th (Version) Birthday!

I hit a milestone today. My baby book reached its 4th full revision, and I decided it’s mature enough to hit paper! I printed the whole thing out  and had it spiral bound. Now I’m going to sit with a pen in hand and read it, start to finish, making notations but not actually editing anything until I get to the end.

This is the next step in my general revision strategy. One thing cognitive science teaches us is that we don’t ever actually perceive the world. Everything is filtered through our expectations and the mental context we bring to the situation, and this makes things like proofreading or reading critically very hard. I know what I intended to say throughout my story, and that’s going to color my view of what’s there. One way to help fight that is to slow myself down. Switching from screen and keyboard to paper and pen does this, along with changing the fonts and spacing, and reading it in a different room from where my computer is. Once I work my way through the paper version I’ll make the edits electronically, and then Book Baby will reach its 5th version.

The other way to defeat the mental context, of course, is to be a different person. After I’ve gone through it on paper and fixed all the things I mark along the way, I’ll hand it all over to my critique group for their comments, and that will move Book Baby to version 6. After that I’ll broaden the audience, looking for critique partners online who don’t know me. Version 7, version 8 —–  One day I’ll reach a version that’s as good as I and a village of partners can make it. Then it’ll be off to the query process.

But for now, I have to confess to a sincerely giddy feeling, holding my baby book in my hands for the first time. I can’t even imagine what I’ll feel like if it becomes an actual book people can buy, one that’s published and on shelves. I’ll probably have to be sedated.

Revision Report

Once again, Camp NaNoWriMo provided the structure for me to complete a writing task. Two years after I wrote the first draft of my novel through Camp, this year I spent those 31 days on a complete, top-to-bottom revision, turning Draft 2 into Draft 3. This isn’t the finished draft by any means, but it’s closer. In addition to the day-by-day pressure to finish that I got from Camp NaNo, I also relied on the 31-Day Revision Workshop posted in Janice Hardy’s Fiction University blog. Both forms of structure were important to keeping me going.

I learned some interesting things about my book and myself as a writer in this process:

  • There was so much excess that I needed to prune away! I probably took out a hundred examples of “that” and another hundred of “just.” I cut out dozens and dozens of unnecessary dialogue tags and bits of stage direction (he nodded, she shrugged…). I converted a ton of “he was X-ing” to “he X-ed.” I insisted my characters stop saying the same thing over again in slightly different words. I rooted out extra adjectives draped all over the place. There was so much that had to go, the book was about 1000 words shorter when I finished than when I began.
  • Yes, I tend to overwrite. But this doesn’t scare me any more, because I know it and I can find and eliminate it in revision.
  • I still like my book. There have been days when I didn’t, and nights when I can’t imagine what made me think I could be a writer, but when I come back to it I find there’s still something there that speaks to me. Kay’s story is important, at least here inside my head, and I’m going to keep pressing to tell it the best way I can.

So what’s next?

  • Running the whole thing through a computer system to get word frequency counts, so I can find and eliminate some more of the things I say too often
  • Revisiting the chapter breaks, since I have a nagging feeling that some chapters should be combined and others broken up
  • Putting it away for at least a couple of weeks, probably a month before looking at it again!

In the meantime, I’m pleased to be able to hang the Camp NaNoWriMo WINNER badge on the site. One small step forward in this very, very long process.

 

Camping Again

Two years ago I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, and it worked for me – I hit the 50,000 word goal by the end of July and pushed on to complete the first draft of my novel in August. Since then? I’ve been working with a critique group to revise the draft, making it better all the time. I’ve almost gotten all the way through the draft with them, and expect them to be reading the last chapter for the first time in a couple of weeks.

So now I’m going to try camping again. This time it doesn’t make sense to set a word-count goal. Instead I’m setting a time-on-task goal: 30 hours (almost, but not quite, an hour a day in July). I’m also thinking of it as a chapter a day, since I think my book will have 25-30 chapters when I’m done putting it all back together.

If it all works out as I hope, I’ll have a completely revised version to share with my critique buddies in August. Wouldn’t that be something?

Wish me luck.

Location Danger

Yes, I’m still working on my book. That was actually the original focus of this blog, way back when it started, and it’s still part of what I do here, though I’ve branched out and most of my posts are on other things. Today I get to connect the writing-a-novel thread with the weekly-photo-challenge thread in one image.

About 18 months ago I visited the real-world spot where most of the action in my book takes place, and I wrote at the time about how useful this visit was. For today’s photo challenge I’m sharing one image from the trip, one that shows what the view might be like from my fictional hotel.This is the vista of Lake Ontario from the Devil’s Nose bluff, and the sign warning me to keep away from that edge. It was good advice. The drop to those frigid waves is about 20 feet (around 6 meters for those of you in more scientifically enlightened places), and it would not be easy to climb back up the muddy bank, especially if you’re wet and shivering!

In other ways, though, I don’t want to keep away from the bank. There are times when the whole idea of writing a novel is terrifying. Maybe that’s part of why I’ve taken so long to get from finished first draft to first revision. I blame it on other things (taking on extra responsibilities at work, preparing for my daughter’s wedding in JUST FOUR WEEKS), but we all know that I could carve out more time for this if I really tried. There’s an edge there that’s scary. So now I want to tell that sign to go jump in the lake – I will NOT keep away from bank. I will go to that bank, right up to that edge, and finish that book.

Posted in response to the WordPress photo challenge: Danger!

 

Time Travel – Skipping Through Time in a Story

Weekend Words today were inspired by a recent post in the Pub(lishing) Crawl blog by Jodi Meadows: The Weight of Time (In Your Book). Jodi pointed out a mistake lots of writers, beginning and experienced, make in first drafts. The issue is how to get from this scene to that scene without dragging the reader through the entire time span in between. Go ahead and read what Jodi says, because she’s got it right.

In a story, words are time. The reader spends roughly the same amount of time reading per word throughout the whole book (yes, it varies a bit, but not significantly). So when deciding how to cover a period of time, what we need to be focusing on is how much time we want the reader to spend with that experience, not how long the actual experience takes. This is part of what is meant by pacing. We want to slow the reader down when a lot of important things are happening, so we need to spend more words there. When nothing important is happening? Fewer word. Even no words at all.

Here are two examples from great stories by skilled authors.

The Deep Blue Good-by (1964) is the first of the splendid Travis McGee stories by the incomparable John D. MacDonald. Nobody can create characters and settings as vividly in as few words as MacDonald. He also handles time and pacing very well. About two-thirds of the way through this book (p. 149 in my copy), narrator McGee finishes up with a conversation with one character and leaves her to visit another character, Cathy. Cathy is in the hospital, following a severe beating from an ex-lover, and McGee needs information from her to find him and bring him to McGee’s form of justice. Here’s how MacDonald handles the transition, with the closing dialogue of the previous scene (with the character talking about the pants she’s wearing) and the start of the new one:

“I bought them today. I don’t feel very secure about them.”

Cathy was in a six-bed ward. I pulled a chair close, kissed her on the forehead and sat beside her.

See how much time MacDonald spent on the transition? None at all. We hear the last line and then, blink! We’re in the hospital. No need to walk through the whole process of getting there.

Pattern Recognition (2003) is an all-time favorite science fiction novel by William Gibson. Cayce Pollard is someone with an unusual sort of mental power who finds herself embroiled in an increasingly confusing and dangerous world as she tries to avoid kidnappers and soviet-era spies. The disconnected, other-worldly feel of the story is reinforced by Cayce’s frequent sleeping and waking up in new places, and having to remind herself of where she is and how she got there. (This book contains a wonderful description of jet-lag.) The up-to-the -minute atmosphere is also strengthened by frequent references to current technology. Here’s one transition, as she goes from flying in the first-class cabin to another country and connecting with Bigend, the person she’s going to meet. This is the last line of one scene and the first line of the next:

Decision out of the way, she closes Taki’s jpeg, puts the iBook away, and returns to bed-mode.

When they exit immigration, Bigend is waiting, the only smiling face in a scrum of glum chauffeurs holding hand-lettered sheets of cardboard.

Once again, there is a discontinuity in time. We don’t see her arrive, deplane, find her luggage, and go through the immigration line. There’s nothing there the reader needs to see, so no words are wasted there.

My lesson. I really need to learn to do this. When I looked at my work in progress with this in mind, I found no examples where I went from one scene to the other without at least skimming over the time in between. Things like, “After dealing with all the aftermath of the disaster, I was heading down the road…” This is going in my revision checklist. Where can I cut through that whole transition cleanly, like a film cut, jumping straight from one scene to another with nothing in between? I have to make each of those transitions prove to me that they’re worth it, or out they go.

What do you do when you need to go from one scene to another? Do these transitions give you trouble, as they do for me?

 

Cultivating Creativity

On today’s Wednesday Words, I’m mostly giving you other people’s words, not my own. I want to share some recent blog posts related to creativity. Enjoy!

First, Roz Morris, in her Nail Your Novel blog, posted her inspiring Writer’s Manifesto for 2017: Take Your Imagination Seriously. We’re writers! Imagination is our main tool and purpose, but we tend to be sheepish about it. This is all just pretend, after all. But no, Morris says – we have to step up and welcome our imagination, fight for it, be proud of it. Amen! So now I’m all fired up to get serious about imagination. But how?

Here’s how: 8 Ways to Improve Creativity, posted by Beth Nelan on the Writer’s Edit blog. She gives a series of specific techniques that can make any of us more creative. They range from the simple action of looking up (and around) to take in more of the world than we usually do, to more involved actions like taking courses or traveling the world. Yes, these are excellent ideas that can give any of us a creativity boost.

Coincidentally, I just discovered a blog aimed at my day job, but with ideas that any of us can use: The Creative Professor. Risa Stein posts frequent messages about creativity in the classroom. I can use them in how I teach, but they are also valuable in my writing as well. Here’s the most recent post as of right now: Crappy Pictures are Awesome. She talks about how fearful we all are that others are judging us, and our failures will be on display for all to see. Better to keep our thoughts to ourselves, stick just to what’s safe and expected, right? This kills creativity. Don’t worry if your pictures, or your ideas, seem crappy. I’m reminded of a frequent exhortation from a choral director I know: “Be right or be wrong, but be bold!”

How do you nurture your creativity? What helps you take it seriously? How can you make sure to do more of that in the weeks and months to come? Pick a creativity-bolstering activity and make a pledge to do more of that.