Long Time No See

Holy cats, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? It’s amazing how fast time gets away from one.

I don’t need to give anyone an explanation for the past ~16 months or so, but it’s been nearly five years since I last posted here. It wasn’t until some 9 months after my previous post that I finally began drafting my current WIP, which I’d been waffling about for about three years before. Since then, I’ve been working (relatively) steadily on this novel, and I am finally at a point where I can send it out to beta readers, in preparation for beginning the querying process.

It’s all thanks to my fabulous writing group that I’ve been able to complete a draft at all. If not for their encouragement (“Just start writing! Then keep writing. Don’t rewrite the first three chapters over and over; you’ve got to get the whole story out first.”), I would’ve kept trying to do perpetual pre-work instead of putting anything on the page.

And for me, words on the page are most important. Even if it’s crap, I do a lot better with editing existing text than with writing fresh. In fact, even when I have to rewrite an entire chapter from the ground up, if I have anchoring text to go around it, it goes more smoothly. I have discovered that, even though I’m a “pantser” at heart, I need structure to thrive.

That’s why having that zero draft down on the page was so vital. With something to work from, I could analyze the structure I’d created and figure out where, and occasionally even why, it wasn’t working. Then I could get to editing. (So. Much. Editing. OMG, so much.) But my writing group always had helpful feedback (it can be truly amazing to see a story from outside one’s own head for the first time—like… of course that doesn’t make sense without this context I haven’t provided!), and every iteration gets stronger.

I’m hoping to get back to blogging here more regularly. If nothing else, it can be a journal for me to look back on as I embark on this journey in hopes of becoming a published novelist. So as inspiration strikes, I’ll pop back in every now and again to share what the process is like for me. Hopefully I’ll have interesting things to say—and sooner than five years from now!

Am I a Writer?

It’s been nearly a year since I last published a post here. I have a slew of drafts in various states of completion, but none of them ever felt compelling enough to finish and share. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering the meaning of identifying as “a writer,” and feeling mostly downtrodden.

I will always write, in one form or another, but it’s become increasingly difficult for me to feel like I could be a Writer. In my head, a Writer is not even necessarily an Author (whom I consider a person who has written a novel/book and had it published), but is at least someone who gets paid for their work. Given that definition, will I ever be a capital-W Writer? I don’t know.

I love to write. I think I’m even reasonably good at it (though there is plenty of room for improvement, particularly in plotting), but the self-doubt trolls have been throwing a party inside my skull for months now. Given the vast list of other things I have to do every day, though, writing tends to slip to the bottom of the list, until I have no mental fortitude left for the creativity. And the longer I let making inroads on my WIP slip, the harder it gets to force myself back into that headspace.

Every once in a while I manage to latch onto a new idea that has potential to become something useful in my story. For a few minutes (maybe hours, or—if I’m super lucky—days) I feel that spark again, and think there might be hope for my poor novel yet. But then I have to go get groceries, or take my kids to music lessons, or pay bills, or any of a hundred other things that come with being the chatelaine of the estate (that’s how I try to think of it; it makes me feel better than considering myself a “homemaker”).

If I’ve learned anything about myself since I started writing fiction, it’s that I need long stretches of time to dedicate to writing. It takes me an inordinate amount of time to settle into the proper headspace, and if something interrupts me, I have to start the process all over. That’s a tricky thing to have to balance with chatelaine duties.

I keep finding myself hoping things will improve once school starts back up for my kids, but a tiny, nasty part of my brain keeps whispering that it won’t help. I read about what some of the Writers I follow on social media—Authors, even—do in order to carve out their writing time, and I think, “I’ll never have that kind of glorious obsession.” I don’t think I have the temperament to work that way.

So I wonder if there will ever be room for a person like me—distractible, painfully slow, far from young, and without a writing workshop or publication credit to my name (to date)—in the meat grinder that is the publishing industry. Maybe there isn’t.

Then again, maybe there is, even if I have to play the part of the Tortoise. All I can do is “keep on keepin’ on” (as my mother would say) and hope that by continuing to be a writer (which I can’t help) that someday I can be a Writer. And if not, then at least I haven’t let the self-doubt trolls trample me to death.

Finish What You Start—Or Not

One of the more common pieces of writing advice one sees is “finish what you start.” The idea, as I understand it, is that if a writer never learns to follow through on a project, they will never make it “in the business” (after all, how can one get anything published if there’s nothing complete to submit?).

And so, for nearly three years, I have slaved away at my WIP with varying degrees of dedication. Having decided to try my hand at fiction writing for the first time, I sketched out a short story or two (more character pieces than actual story, in retrospect) in October before jumping into the NaNoWriMo challenge in November. That was 2012.

As anyone could have predicted, the resulting draft was a hot mess. I won’t even bother to outline any of the details of how truly stinky it was, but suffice to say that even three years on, I cringe when I think back on it (let alone subject myself to rereading). But it was a draft! And a draft can always be revised, right?

I set to work, first with utter naïveté, and later with a slightly clearer picture of the task ahead. I took some classes, acquired some wonderful critique partners (CPs), and kept plugging away. Finish what you start.

The further along I got, the more my craft improved (I’m still pretty green as a storyteller—let’s not kid ourselves—but I can be taught). The more my craft improved, the more I recognized the flaws in my narrative (even though my CPs often had to point them out to me). The more flaws I found, the more chunks I cut out, rewrote, and pasted back into place with copious PlotSpackle™.

It’s been my goal to get a working manuscript ready for querying by the end of calendar 2015. Things like moving house and being primary caregiver for kids home from school for the summer have slowed down my progress, but I decided to ease my way back into a writing habit by using September as #MeNoRevMo (that’s “justMe Novel Revising Month”), in which the goal was to spend one hour each day on revising my WIP. Finish what you start.

The funny thing about actively working to improve your craft, though, is that sometimes lessons take you by surprise. I was privileged enough to be among the students of Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford for their first online version of their “Writing the Other” course (as mentioned in my previous post). Our final exercise, to be completed several weeks after the end of the course, involved submitting a piece of a WIP for critique by our classmates and instructors.

Talk about “tough love.”

My submission was (rightfully) panned. Nothing mean—or untrue—was said, but all the issues I’d been trying so valiantly to pretend weren’t a problem anymore got called out. The average person off the street might not notice issues with a pretty, new house (though they’d know whether or not they like it), but someone in the construction business will be able to tell immediately if its been shoddily built. Similarly, my PlotSpackle™ and paint weren’t fooling more accomplished writers.

I’ve been sitting with the feedback for a little while now, and after finally being able to distance myself enough from the work, I have seen the wisdom of the advice I was given: it may be time to set aside this particular WIP.

There is a lot that is dear to me in this story, but if I’m honest with myself, I’ve always known that its plot is a mess. Perhaps after I’ve taken some time to distance myself from it, I can come back and examine which of the underlying ideas are still sound—strip the story down to the studs. If there’s enough left on which to build a new structure, perhaps I’ll begin again, and try to create something that’s sturdy first, and make it pretty after.

In the meantime, it’s time not to finish what I started.

Real Estate Ate My Brain

Over the last year and a half or so, my life turned into the real estate equivalent of a soap opera.

In March 2014, we put our house on the market, and “sold” it (had a purchase agreement in place) by early June. Closing was set for 01 August. A week before closing, our buyers told us they wouldn’t be able to close on time due to circumstances beyond their control (financial snafu).

So we waited for it to get sorted out until we got sick of it (and we lost the house that we were going to buy and move into), then put it back on the market. A second buyer eventually emerged, but canceled within a week. We said, “screw it” and pulled the property from the market.

Fast forward to March 2015. The house goes back on the market on a Wednesday; by Thursday night we have a signed purchase agreement. Within another couple of weeks we’ve made an offer on a new house for ourselves, and the paperwork is signed there, too. Everything goes smoothly this time, and over Memorial Day (last Monday of May) weekend, we move out of the old place and into the new.

Keep in mind that (a) we’d effectively been living out of boxes since mid-July 2014 and (b) it will take us many more months yet to finish unpacking. Needless to say, I’ve not exactly been in a prime writing headspace. So yes, it’s been more than fourteen months since my last blog post here. Apologies.

In those fourteen months, though, I’ve not been entirely lax. I’ve taken a couple of online classes at The Loft Literary Center and with the brilliant writers K. Tempest Bradford and Nisi Shawl. The latter, “Writing the Other” (WtO; based on the text of the same name by Shawl and Cynthia Ward), is being offered again this fall. I highly recommend it to all writers. If nothing else, it will introduce you to a cadre of like-minded writers who can serve as sounding boards and resources in their own right.

As for the status of my work in progress, the going is still slow, but thanks to the constant support and feedback from my critique partners—as well as new input from my WtO classmates—it is taking ever better shape. In January, it was my goal to have my ms ready for querying by the end of 2015, but that’s looking more and more like too tall an order. Time will tell.

So real estate really screwed up both my regular writing schedule and my blogging here. I would like to think I’m “over the hump” and can natter on about my writing journey here more regularly again now. With my kids’ school starting up in a couple more weeks, hopefully writing will slide back into my schedule more naturally all around.

I’ll keep you posted!

The Dreaded Prologue

A writer new to the industry hears a lot of rules and guidelines, do’s and don’t’s about how to craft a novel. None of these are hard and fast, though one is encouraged to understand why the same “rules” crop up again and again before going off willy-nilly to break them. There needs to be a compelling reason to ignore all that advice.

I think one of my CPs just gave me a compelling reason.

Since its inception, my current novel has contained flashbacks. In and of themselves, flashbacks aren’t considered a no-no, though some readers have a distinct aversion to them. Because I wanted to sprinkle specific information into my story without starting the thing years beforehand, or slipping it awkwardly into dialog, I took the (quasi-)calculated risk of utilizing flashbacks.

However—and this is especially true of the first one, which currently appears extremely early in the narrative—they can have a jarring effect on the reader. So  how do I include that information without pulling my reader out of the story?  The answer may just be another of those novelling taboos: the dreaded prologue.

The objection to prologues, as I understand it, is that they often indicate the writer has simply started their story in the wrong place. Why start your story twice (once at the prologue, once at Chapter One)? This argument has always made sense to me, and I regret to admit I’d always felt rather smug that I hadn’t fallen into the prologue trap.

Now, though, I’m seriously considering going there. The inciting incident for my story actually happens weeks before the meat of the plot begins. Putting that catalyst to adventure right up front in a prologue instead of waiting to revisit it in a flashback several chapters in makes perfect sense now that it’s been suggested. I think doing so will create a stronger whole.

I just hope some agent or editor somewhere thinks so some day, too.