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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.

Now What?

I’ve been quiet here lately. I’d like to say it’s because I’m so busy writing awesome things, but that would be a partial truth at best. That nasty little “Real Life” thing keeps getting in the way of my more esoteric pursuits, like updating this blog, so while I have been working on my novel, it’s more accurate to say I’ve been absent because real estate concerns have been eating my brain.

Enough  of that, though—I’ve reached a new, exciting, scary point in my process! All of my chapters have been revised and reviewed by my CPs, and revisions based on their feedback have been made. Now I’ve submitted the entire last chunk of the novel to them for review as a whole, and once they’ve had a chance to read and comment and I’ve made revisions based on that feedback, I’ll hand the entire manuscript back to them to read as a single unit. It’s a thrilling place to be, though still scary to think I may have missed something important along the way. The biggest change from my perspective, though, is that I don’t have anything else to work on in this story while I await comments. What do I do with myself now?

Every writer knows the obvious answer: go work on the next thing. I’m just not sure what my “next thing” is.

I could work on a new short story. I saw another writing contest/call for submissions recently that looked cool, but would require me to create an entirely new story. New stories are good—except that I kind of suck at devising storylines. I can find story seeds pretty easily, but I have difficulty molding them into feasible plots.

Which leads me to my other option: plotting out my next novel. This route feels more likely to bear fruit, yet is incredibly daunting. I’m still polishing my first novel; I know full well how important a logical, engaging plot is. I’ve also never been good at writing outlines; I tend to think of ideas for actual text and dive into writing before I have a road map. Obviously, there are pros and cons to that method, but given my experience this time through, I really want a clear sense of where I’m going before I set off on this journey.

So here I sit with my Save the Cat! beat sheet and my list of stages along the Hero’s Journey, trying desperately to solidify what plot points are already flitting about my head and bring others into being to create a cohesive whole. Given that brainstorming doesn’t lead to words on the page, the part of me that monitors whether or not I’m working has been jangling its alarms—a state of affairs not conducive to clear thought. It’s a struggle to recalibrate my Procrasto-Meter™ and get on with things.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer facing this challenge, but enticing one’s muses into action feels like a lonely road. I just need to buckle down and walk it. So wish me luck—I’ll need it.

A Reindeer for my Lawn

I’m getting down to the last couple of chapters here in Round Two of major revisions. All the plot wrinkles that I’ve ironed out through the rest of the manuscript have bunched up here at the end, and are proving more irksome than I’d naïvely anticipated. On the one hand, it’s frustrating to see how much I still need to do, but on the other, it’s actually encouraging to know I have learned enough since I first wrote this chapter to improve it so markedly.

The biggest stumbling block in the chapter to this point has been the spot where—I finally realized—I broke the pact with my reader and completely glossed over an important moment that should have contained serious plot and character development. One moment it’s all “what if we tried this?” and the next it’s “and now we’re at the denouement!” No sense of struggle, of the protagonist having to work for the end result—nothing.

Today I finally muscled past it. It’s not pretty, or smooth, but I’ve drafted a patch. Score one for me! I was all set to do another micro-draft dance when I read on to the next half-page.

~headdesk~

Another half a chapter lies ahead, and within those pages, another non-negligible obstacle awaits. Now one of my supporting characters (or maybe two or three) has to change his reaction to events in order to be consistent with changes earlier in the story. The entire shape of the resolution needs to be different, and I’m not entirely sure how to mold it. (For some inexplicable reason, I’m now put in mind of a mold for some sort of garden statuary—and my brain has chosen to insert the form of a reindeer. My denouement has become a lawn ornament…)

So I’ve got quite a bit more work to do on this chapter, and I have only the vaguest idea what the reindeer should look like. Guess I’ll start by shoving four plot-legs on it, and hope it comes out looking vaguely quadrupedal; I can save the antlers for a later version.

Time to roll up my sleeves—I need to start massaging that word clay!