Posts Tagged ‘The Writer At Work



11
Dec
09

It doesn’t get easier, but would we like it if it did?

Two years ago, before I had my agent or my publisher or any realistic hope of either, I was writing a book and having a hard time of it.

Continue reading ‘It doesn’t get easier, but would we like it if it did?’

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28
Nov
09

middling

I’ve reached my least favorite bit of novel writing again, the end of the middle. In the beginning everything is peachy, I’ve got drive, energy, and none of my plans have turned out to be stupid wastes of time yet. As I write the energy dissipates and problems emerge – I start to uncover gaping idiocies, characters make very good points about why they would never do something like what I needed them to do for the plot, etc. The novel is starting to go off the rails.

Every time this happens, I struggle desperately to hold it on course, and sometimes this gets me through. Other times it just means wasted words on a plot that’s not worth keeping (see previous novel). Either way, I always run into the wall at the exact same place, the 2/3 mark. It’s the place where my bright beginning seems like hair brained scheming, but the end is still so far away I can’t see the finish line. Every morning I wake up feeling like I should just stop, go back and edit my way into something resembling a coherent plot. Sometimes, I give in, but not this time.

I’ve talked before about the novel as a wicked problem, a problem you don’t know how to solve until you’ve solved it. This was true two novels ago, last novel, and it’s true now. The 2/3 mark is where I’m deepest in the problem, my feet haven’t been able to touch bottom for a while, and I’m getting really tired of swimming. But I know if I keep going, push through to the good scenes that are still there, I’ll finish. Of course, the novel will be terrible, but my first drafts are always terrible. I’m just starting to realize this is because I’m secretly a much better reviser than a writer.

Some people really don’t need more than 2 drafts. Some writers just seem to know where their story is going. Some writers take dozens of drafts. All of that is fine, if we all wrote stories the same way, our stories would probably all be the same. It took a while, but I think I’ve finally made my peace with the idea of being a rewriter rather than a writer. I like to tell myself  this skill is because of my amazing problem solving abilities, but really it’s because it takes me a while to have all my good ideas. This is fine, writing is not a performance art. So long as I get the story right by the time it goes out, nothing else matters. Now to just keep repeating that until the novel’s actually done.

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving and good luck with all your projects!

02
Oct
09

Side-by-sidelines: Writing Income

Wow, Nora is either a mind reader or New York is in a bubble in the future, because her (excellent) Sidelines post covers something I was mulling over last night. Namely, is writer income really that unstable?

I’m sure there are plenty of writers who live advance to advance, just as there are plenty of people who live paycheck to paycheck. Both of these are unstable, but everyone’s situation is different. However, if you’re lucky enough to be able to build an emergency fund and save money most months, then I put forward that writing money is actually more stable than a salary.

It took me a while to come around to this way of thinking. When I first decided to quit my day job to do my writing full time I was distraught and worried about leaving what I saw as stable income for the wild and woolly world of advance checks and (maybe, hopefully, if-wishes-were-wings) royalties. I’ve always worked, and while writing is definitely still working, it didn’t FEEL like work when it was all I was doing. Needless to say, my first few weeks were a blur of trying to meet impossible word goals and keep the house spotless. (All I did was learn that moving to writing full time doesn’t necessarily mean you can double your output. I’m sure this isn’t true for all writers, but, for me, more hours does not necessarily equal more words.) I also worried constantly about not bringing in regular money. Sure I had book money, but getting checks and putting them in the bank (especially when you have to save an unknown amount for taxes) is nothing like getting regular monthly deposits. The lack of a monthly cash dump in my bank account made me feel constantly broke, almost enough to send me panicking back to work. Then my husband brought up the following:

He considers my book money to be the more stable of our two incomes. The reason is thus: if you’re making a living off your books, the money comes in in lumps. If you work for a salary, you get paid monthly. Now, say the unthinkable happens and (for whatever reason) both my and my husband’s income streams stopped cold. I would still have a lump payment, and while I’d lose future money, for the moment, nothing would change for me. My husband, however, would see his income vanish instantly with instant ramifications. Of course this disaster would still be disastrous, but because of the lumpy nature of writing income, we’d actually be in a better position than if I’d been also working for a salary.

Everyone’s situation is different, but by and large the hairy nature of writing for money simply strips away the illusion of security in most jobs. Jobs are no better than anything else in the world, every one of them is just a series of unfortunate events away from vanishing.  While writers don’t have any more control over their future than anyone else, lumpy income streams at least allow you to plan your path (i.e., you have a few months of paid warning to decide if it’s time to start begging the dayjob to take you back). Compare that to a surprise layoff and you see what I mean.

I’m not saying the writing life isn’t stressful and a bit like walking a tightrope over a flaming pit at times, but, like any income, with planning and luck it doesn’t have to be volatile. The lumpy nature of book writing income actually lends itself to saving, planning, and stability. Sure, my book could tank, my publisher could go under, and my name could be mud for the rest of my life, but I could also get fired from a job without warning, the company could go bankrupt, or my skill set could be rendered useless by an advance in technology. What I’m saying is there’s no escaping possible disaster no matter where you set up shop, but at least with writing I have my (modest) lump of of a few month’s income from which to plan my next move, and that feels pretty stable, and pretty good.

11
Sep
09

I’m beginning to see a pattern

So I spent about 30 minutes fiddling with this post trying to make it sound less like whining. But, that’s what it is, and there’s only so much dress up we can play. If you can stomach it, please bear with me. I promise to be brief.

I’ve started work on my third contracted book, and on paper, things look good. I’ve got more plot than I usually do at the starting point, I know my characters and my world pretty well, and I’m riding high after my editor’s love of book 2 (still grinning about that). So…

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO WRITE JESUS CHRIST?!

I keep thinking that, if I write enough books, it’ll get easier. I mean, practice makes perfect, right? This is the third book in a series, what’s left to mess up? Why am I having such trouble?

I was bemoaning the above to my husband who, without even looking up from his computer, said “don’t worry, you’ll get it. You do this every time.”

I wanted to scream that I most certainly did not, that this was NOTHING like all those other times! I had it so easy then, he doesn’t UNDERSTAND… except he’s totally right. Looking back at various blog posts from days of yore, horrible, unbreakable, hatefilled writer’s block at the start of a novel seems to be my standard operating procedure, a fact that I somehow forget every time I start something new (probably some ancient survival mechanism, like how laboring women forget the worst of the pain so that the human race can continue).

The good part is that, though this happens every time, my husband is right, I do always get over it, the book gets written, life goes on. It feels so stupid to go through this same song and dance with every new novel, but apparently something deep in my brain needs this to move forward.

Anyone else have a stupid writing roadblock?

21
Aug
09

my stones have a 2 bird minimum

I love efficiency. Love it. When I play video games or clean my house or go shopping or cook or move or do CSS or anything, efficiency is the watch word.  Everything must be done in the most time and resource conserving way. There are few happinesses as great as finished off a day’s work an hour ahead of when you were scheduled to thanks to efficient use of materials and time.

This love of efficiency has served me well in many areas of my life, especially in my professional career. In writing, however, it is a constant source of frustration. Writing, you see, is not an efficient art. Oh, there are efficiencies in storytelling, like making sure every scene is serving as many purposes as possible, or using a conversation to shed light on several secrets at once (As the title says, for my scenes, my stones have a 2 bird minimum). But writing, the act in itself, is not and can not be efficient. This is because the act of writing a novel is what programmers call a wicked problem; you don’t know how to solve until you’ve solved it.

I plan my novels out pretty thoroughly, but anyone who’s ever gotten through a book will tell you that a plan rarely survives the first encounter with the enemy. Writing is idea based, and the author, as a human, has no control over when the best ideas will come. More often than not, I think of a better way to write a scene right after I’ve written it, or right in the middle of writing it, or when I’m writing an entirely different scene 50 pages later. Sometimes I’ll write a scene just as planned only to realize that, thanks to this brilliant idea I had two weeks ago, the scene is now irrelevant or redundant or plain stupid. Often I only realize this when I’m knee deep in the scene, when it’s far too late for even the pretense of efficiency.

If I were being really efficient with writing, I would have those brilliant ideas at the beginning and plan all the little fallouts ahead of time. You can see how this is impossible. Writing, at least for me, is as chaotic as the creative bursts that inspire it, and yet, I feel it is infinitely improved by that chaos. At the same time I’m ripping out my hair over the week I’ve lost writing a chapter that I’ve just realized is irrelevant, I’m happy, because the book is better without that chapter. Some of the best scenes in my books are the ones I never planned, never even knew existed until I was neck deep in an unsolvable problem and then, there, rising from the murky depths of the subconscious, was the perfect, shining solution, and all it would take to implement is going back and rewriting three chapters at the beginning… again.

After three books, I’m still struggling to let the efficiency go, and just accept that any novel I undertake will not be an efficient process. It will be messy and broken and I’ll have to redo about 120% of it, and these things are not failures, they’re just the nature of the beast. I don’t think I’ll ever embrace this completely. There’s a nasty little part of me that thinks this time, this novel, it will be different, and maybe someday it will be, but probably not today.

14
Aug
09

Stupid Writer Tricks

Since I’m up against a deadline today, I thought I’d take a break from heavy writer stuff and talk about some of the stupid tricks I use on a day to day basis.

1) Backing up my work – mailing things to myself

As someone who has lost 2 computers now, I have a horrible and well earned phobia of losing work to technical failures. My solution? Gmail. Every morning when I’ve done my writing/edits for the day, I mail my latest version to myself at my gmail address. Gmail lets me assign behaviors to incoming mail, so I have it set up that all mail from myself with an attachment and the subject “backup” is automatically marked as opened and shoved into its own folder, so they don’t clutter my inbox. Not only does this let me use Google’s billions of dollars in infrastructure and backup to store years (about 4 now) of daily versions of my novels, but they’re available from anywhere and I can search for the name of the attachment, thus finding any novel I’ve mailed to myself in the past. This is AMAZINGLY handy. Gmail, it’s free, smart, and easy, I can not recommend it enough as a backup system or as a mail client.

(Also, if you’re worried about your mail getting hacked, you can just do what I also do and keep a secret gmail address only used for backing up work. Hey, they’re free, get tons.)

2) Writing by event, not wordcount

I used to be a word count fanatic. Video games have taught me that there is no greater pleasure in life than watching my numbers go higher and higher.  Shooting for a high, round number was a great motivation for me, but then I started hitting numbers over and over again, and the shine wore off. Also, I was no longer thinking of my novels in terms of numbers, I was thinking about them in terms of events. So that’s how I started writing. Every morning I’d sit down and say “I will write until x happens” or “I will write until y is complete,” and then I’d do it, or not. Sometimes the story would change and I’d have to pick a new goal, or sometimes I’d just quit in frustration. Still, writing until you finish a scene can be a more organic approach and encourage you to use only the words you need. I switch between word count and scene as I need to, whatever motivates me most at the time (sometimes it just feels awesome to call it a day when you hit 50k).

3) Remembering that writing is not a performance art

I have a post card above my desk with the following: “Writing is Not A Performance Art,” and I try to look at it at least once a day. I tend to get caught up in details when I write, like, did I word this scene correctly? Would Character A really be such a jerk to Character B? Have I been spelling “waved”  as “waived” for the last 80,000 words? (Yes)  When sticks like these occur, I pull back, break away, and remind myself again: writing is not a performance art. No one is watching me, no one is reading over my shoulders. No one ever has to see anything I don’t want them to see. It doesn’t matter if this scene is stupid, unless I tell someone, no one ever has to know it existed. If I can’t get it now, I’ll make a note to fix it later and move on. Who knows, I might not even use it. I might find a better way later in the book. On the first draft, grammar, spelling, even coherency are not as important as getting the thing down. You can always fix it later, or trash it. Any worrying over details at this point will probably be wasted work.

Writing is not live action performace, it’s all post production editing and special effects.

12
Jun
09

Editing is serious business!

I’m getting very, very close to typing those coveted final words on the most embattled, stubborn novel I’ve ever written. I am almost light-headed with joy at the thought of finally, FINALLY being done…

But, of course, I’m not done. The day after I type “The End,” it’ll be edit time. Worse, like all battle fields, this novel isn’t a pretty place. There are bits of abandoned plots, twists I totally forgot I was hinting at. All of this has to be fixed fast, and right. More right than fast, but still fast, because deadlines are closing in, and I’ve got another novel to get busy on. In short, it is time for SERIOUS BUSINESS editing.

Serious Business editing isn’t like my usual, in-novel editorial process, where I sit around and rewrite sections this way, maybe that way, until I’m happy.  We’re talking hardhat and waders, a bulldozer to bury the corpses of bad or abandoned ideas, and industrial superglue to stick the threads back together after I hack things to pieces. Since it’s on my mind a lot right now, I thought I’d lay out my novel boot-camp for you. Hopefully it’ll at least be entertaining in a schadenfreude kind of way:

First, I print out the whole book. On the cover page, I write my goals for this book. The short list of themes, elements, and plot twists I’m out to accomplish. Then, pens in hand and fresh notebook at my side, I start reading. I don’t do any rewriting here. I don’t mess with word choice or style. I’m looking for large scale problems – pacing, story, plot holes, dropped threads. Each of these is noted in the margin, and then in the notebook. I read it once as fast as possible, marking all the problems. This usually takes about 2 days. Once I’m done with read #1, my notebook is usually pretty full. My next task is to go through all these problems and try to solve them as elegantly and efficiently as possible. I also look at what areas are giving me fits and ask the tough questions, like do I need this section at all? Am I just writing to hear myself talk?

Once I’ve got a battle plan for solving my problems, I go back to the text and start making insert marks where the problem-solving changes will fit in. I cross out sections that get the ax, and make short, clear notes about what’s going to go there instead. I used to actually do these notes in the margins, but they tend to get very messy, and messy notes quickly become indecipherable notes. (After losing a good chunk of my notes on my first book, I switched to the notebook, which works better, but still isn’t perfect.)

So, short notes and another read through to try out the solutions in my mind. After this, I usually have a pretty good idea of what needs to change and how I’m going to change it, so it’s time to go back to the text, rename it as an edit file, and get to work actually making the changes.

This usually goes pretty fast when I know what my goals are, and soon I’ll have a new draft. By this point, I’m ready to hand it out to my most trusted readers (the people I can trust not to laugh at the awful word choices that proliferate on a first draft.) I used to slave away to make the manuscript read perfectly before this point, but that always turned out to be a waste of time. I’d work 2 days on one section only to have a reader point out I didn’t need it at all. Now I solve problems from the top down, largest first. Style and grammar are the very last things I worry about. After all, why fret over what may just get axed?

After I get my copies back from my readers, I look at the problems they marked and decide if they’re problems I need to fix. Sometimes I’m just not explaining things well enough, and the problem is more of a misunderstanding than a real plot issue. Other times, they catch me red handed in an act of pure idiocy. This is when first readers are truly worth their weight in rainbows. Once I’ve identified the problems, I decide how to fix them in the notebook, as before. Problem solving in the text only makes messy text and frustrating writing for me, notebooks are where it’s at!

Finally, now its time to edit in the traditional sense. As I’m going through and adding solutions to reader problems, I look at my text, fret with style, do checks for words I use too much, all that good stuff. This is the part of the edit that takes the most time because it’s the most nitpicky. When I finish this part, the manuscript is officially a final draft, ready for viewing by publishing people. This doesn’t mean it’s DONE. It just means I’ve got something that won’t embarrass me to tears when my agent/editor reads it. After all, my first readers already know I’m an idiot who can’t write, but my agent and editor are still fooled. I don’t want to blow my cover.

So, that’s pretty much how I edit a novel. It’s an evolving process, and I never edit any two novels the same way. Tell me, how do you edit your work? Do you have a process? I’m always eager to learn a new trick!