A dearth of words

The words today were few and far between. It’s almost 9:30, and I’d say my total count was around 200, but my end of the day count is more like 20. I’m writing a conversation and I don’t know what happens in it. And playing it by ear is simply not working. It felt like wrong direction after wrong direction after wrong direction today and I kept writing a few sentences and deleting and then wandering around.

There was a lot of wandering away.

But I also did good things today. House-cleaning stuff, business-y stuff, left the house twice, cooked elaborate food, played with the dogs, swam–and so I’m forgiving myself and moving on. I wish the writing had been better but I’m already yawning and it’s not going to happen.

Tomorrow, though, I have nothing important happening until my niece arrives at 5:30 and I am determined to write words. They don’t have to be good words as long as they’re words.

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Scheduling

I pretend on a regular basis that I’m going to get my life organized. Hyperbole and a Half’s “Clean All The Things!” resonates with me. I don’t do the guilt spiral anymore. I suppose that’s my symptom of adulthood–I never manage to be as organized as I aspire to be but I seldom beat myself up about it. But still, on a regular basis, I jump into Clean ALL the things mode, and part of that, for me, is scheduling my time. Today, my smug schedule is tea, walk the dogs, feed the dogs, twenty minutes on a chore (organizing paperwork), eat healthy breakfast, organize food for the rest of the day (checking the menus and shopping list), one-hour writing time, yoga, lunch, grocery shopping, three-hours writing time, swim, cook healthy dinner.

So far, so good. I’ve made it through the first six items on my list.

I’m in a ten minute window before the one-hour writing time starts, so writing goal for today: another 1000 words and some more exploration of this conflict between Akira and Zane. And a strong reminder to myself–it’s a first draft and it’s okay if the words suck.

Finding the conflict

I’m at 842 words and not stopping for the day until I hit 1000–and those words do not include the many emails I answered, go, me. I also walked the dog, went to yoga, swam a little, and ate healthy meals that followed my crazy diet. Repeat the go me.

Most importantly, though, I figured out the core issue with my Belize story. The conflict is all external. The plot is fine, but the problem with it, the reason that I’m finding it boring, is that it’s all external danger, not internal danger. It’s meant to be just a little short story, but it’s not what I write. Fortunately, that realization came attached to a scene where my two lovely main characters get into their first fight as a married couple. Yay!

So back to working on it. I started this blog post hours ago and a multitude of distractions–all starting with dogs–dragged me away, but I am determined to get that last 160 words in.

Monday afternoon

All last week, I tried to get back into the swing of writing daily aiming for a word count of 500-1000 words. It didn’t work. I did, however, open the document most days and I am going to count that as a win. It was a combination of lots of things, including some end of the summer blues, but I’m going to get back to using this blog as a motivation tool, with the occasional longer post about writing and editing, including much more of a series on self-editing. For today, though–it’s just the think-through-my-fingers motivational tool. I’m writing Ghosts of Belize and I’m stuck, back in the first scene, never quite managing to move forward.

When I reread everything I’d written last winter, I decided that a lot of it was better than I thought. The revisions I made in May were not improvements. So I’ve sort of merged those files, but I’m still tweaking those merges and that is ALL I got done last week. And I shouldn’t say done–that’s all I did, but I didn’t finish. I need to just let my fingers go on it, but it seems as if every time I start that, I wind up three sentences in, thinking that it’s pointless and stupid. I need to remember that it’s a first draft and maybe I just need to write a lot of stupid, pointless words in order to find out what the story is. So yes, today’s goal is 1000 words, but I give myself permission to hate them, permission to know that they’re all going to get cut once I unearth the real story that’s going to be buried in a lot of babble. But they’re the dirt I’m just going to have to lift in order to find the incredible fossil that’s hidden somewhere deep within them. Hmm, that would be a better metaphor if it was buried treasure. But I like dinosaurs and I bet Akira does, too. So today’s goal. Write 1000 words, give myself permission to let them be bad. I may try using 20/10s (write for 20 minutes, do something else) to pull the words out.

Editing: Looking at the Big Picture

So a manuscript is finished, yay!

Most people suggest that the first step is to put it away for a while to get some distance from what you’ve written, some objectivity about your words. I do think that’s a sensible idea. I don’t do it very well myself. With Ghosts, I tried to wait a month, but actually I spent that month posting chapters at Critique Circle and resisting the temptation to make more than minor edits. With later books, I’ve managed a few days or a couple of weeks. With A Lonely Magic, it was more like a night. Ah, well.

My true first step is to read the whole manuscript, beginning to end, in a format not the same as the one in which I wrote it. I usually create a Kindle version and use that. My goal is to try to read it as a reader would. I don’t try to make fixes along the way. Instead, I make notes. Lots of them! Here’s what I’m looking for:

    1) Scenes

    Does every scene have a clear purpose? Does every scene move the plot forward? Is every scene necessary? Why does a given scene HAVE to happen? What does it accomplish? If the scene disappeared, what effect would it have on the overall story? If it’s not accomplishing anything important, could I add something to it that would be valuable?

    The flip side, of course, is whether I’ve skipped scenes. I do that more often than writing useless scenes (although I’ve done some of the former.) For example, I’ll often start a scene, then throw in some background information, something that’s happened previously, then continue the scene and in the first read, I realize that the background information should have been a scene on its own.

    In A Gift of Time, most early versions skipped from the bistro to days later at Natalya’s house. Then at Nat’s house, I had multiple paragraphs about what had happened at the police station and with the therapist. In the final version, that was a full scene of its own, one which established Colin’s character, developed a better sense of Kenzi’s behavior, gave Nat & Colin another opportunity for tension, dropped a bunch of clues about Kenzi’s background, and let me balance out my point-of-view switches a little better.

    2) Setting

    I don’t like writing description and I don’t like reading description, so I generally avoid it as much as possible. Sometimes, though, that makes scenes feel floaty, un-anchored, or even confusing. I revised the first scene in A Lonely Magic repeatedly, trying to make it more visual while maintaining the tension, and some readers still found it confusing. Of course, too much description can be boring. I also almost invariably wind up marking my descriptions with notes that say things like, “Clunky and boring, trim!” or “total cliche, fix ad make interesting.” But I make sure in my first revision that each scene has a clear sense of place. If you read my CBCA series of posts, you can think of it as a contextual embedding check–I make sure that I haven’t skipped including those details, because for me, they’re easy to not include in a first draft.

    3) Pacing

    This is an easy check, a hard fix. If I start skimming–and I’m a serious skimmer most of the time, so it’s instinct for me–I immediately stop reading, identify where I started skimming, and mark it for revision. Maybe it needs tightening, maybe it needs to be deleted, maybe it needs to be pumped up, to have some emotion added. I don’t necessarily know as I’m reading what I need to change, but I know that the pacing is wrong if I start skimming.

    And the flip side of that, of course, is that I also look for scenes that are too quick. I think every book I’ve written has a first version of the climax that almost a bare bones outline instead of a complete scene. Those are easy to identify but less fun to fix.

    Finally, I try to consider the overall pace of the story. In A Lonely Magic, the first draft has a climactic moment that is immediately followed by a ton of exposition. In the final version, almost all of that conversation gets moved ahead of the climactic moment so that the pacing doesn’t go straight from a major adrenaline high action moment to a thud of historical detail. So in this first revision pass, I look at the high and lows of the story and try to make sure that they flow the way they should. One of my favorite reviews of ALM calls it a “tilt-a-whirl” which I loved. It means I hit what I was aiming for!

The final element that I look for in this first draft revision is the most important to me, so I’m going to give it a whole blog post of its own next time. Any guesses about what it is?

*****
Today’s writing goal: a whole chapter, at least 1000+ words, of my final Eureka story. I’m dragging my feet about wrapping it up, because it feels like I’m closing a chapter of my life. But it’s time.

Self-editing, part one

I edit as I write. If I let the words flow without any polishing, I wind up wallowing in the depths of self-loathing. Well, or writing-loathing. My self-talk becomes all about what a terrible writer I am and how bad the words are and how stupid what I’ve written is and how no one could ever enjoy reading it. I know everything can be fixed in editing, but if I don’t do some self-editing along the way, I get stuck.

What sorts of edits do I mean? Mostly tightening and smoothing–changes that harken back to one of the fundamental rules of The Elements of Style, “omit needless words.” For example, the above paragraph began life as:

I do a lot of editing as I write, although I wish I wouldn’t. But I’ve definitely discovered that for me, if I simply let the words flow without doing any polishing of them at all, I wind wallowing in the depths of self-loathing. Well, or writing-loathing. The loathing state where my self-talk is all about what a terrible writer I am and how bad the words are and how stupid what I’ve written is and how no one could ever possibly enjoy reading it. I know that we’re supposed to remember that everything can be fixed in editing, but if I don’t do some self-editing along the way,

I stopped when I began to start editing it, cut-and-pasted, then finished editing the original paragraph and ended it. And then, I have to admit, I went back and made a few more edits. I actually try not to edit my blog posts because a blog post for me is just an exercise in getting my fingers moving. My goal with these posts is to kick my brain into gear and my fingers into motion, so that I start the writing that matters to me, my fiction, ready to move, not agonize over each word. It’s a warm-up, a practice session. Despite that, I still edit, because I can’t stop myself.

Unlike the post-draft editing–in which I’m systematic and rigid–my in-draft editing is mostly intuitive. My natural writing is wordy and meandering. Often I write around an idea, trying to understand what I’m trying to say even as I type it. I’ll write a paragraph or three, and then immediately go back and clean it up, deleting words that don’t add value, tightening, getting rid of adverbs, adding stronger verbs, fixing passive constructions. And then I move on. Obviously, I also fix typos! My “first” drafts often appear to have very few mistakes, but that’s because every paragraph has already been gone over two or three times, at minimum.

If you don’t write that way, good for you. Don’t start. It’s slow and time-consuming and undoubtedly a major reason why it takes me so long to finish a manuscript. But I’ll be using examples in this series of posts from my own work, so do bear in mind that all of my “first” drafts have been edited along the way.

On my next post, I’ll talk about my first edit round: the big picture edit.

*****

Meanwhile, today I’m going to work on writing a Eureka fanfiction. I have one unfinished story that I started three years ago, and I’ve made it my goal to finish writing it this week. It’s been surprisingly challenging in really fun ways–over the course of the year that I wrote Eureka fanfiction obsessively, I wrote multiple versions of the characters. This story returned to the canon characters, but it turns out that some of the versions of the characters I wrote are more real to me than the show’s versions. I wrote an AU (alternate universe) story in which two characters changed positions, and I have to keep fighting not to let those characters take over the story I’m writing now. That probably doesn’t make any sense, but I probably can’t explain it any better without getting deep into the nitty-gritty of what happened and who the characters were. Suffice to say, I’m enjoying digging deep into these characters again.

I’m also loving my technological inventions. The most fun part of my Eureka stories were the crazy science & gadgets I invented. In this case, one of characters created an invisibility worm that she sent viral. No digital media–which is all just bits and bytes–records her existence. Or rather computers delete her image whenever it appears in their databanks. It couldn’t really be done without vastly superior recognition technology than we have today and the side-effects from errors would probably be dazzling, since individuals aren’t so easily differentiated, but it’s fun nonetheless. I loved making up crazy technology and mixing ideas.

I got an incredibly lovely message from a former colleague yesterday in which she told me that I was “truly gifted as writer, storyteller, imaginer,” and I so, so loved the last word in her list. I know spell-check is saying that it’s wrong, but it makes me happy!

Okay, over 800 words of babble. The fingers are warmed up. Away I go.

CBCA: Subjective experience

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but Criteria-Based Content Analysis is based on the Undeutsch hypothesis, which states, “an account derived from memory of a self-experienced event will differ in content and quality from an account based on fabrication or imagination.” According to CBCA, one of the ways true stories differ from created stories is by including criteria #12, subjective experience. Basically, that means that when we’re telling true stories, we include information about how we felt or what we were thinking.

Two versions of a true story:

1) I went to CVS today to pick up a prescription. The pen I used to sign my credit card receipt was a vibrant orange.

2) I went to CVS today to pick up a prescription. I was feeling really annoyed, because my current health insurance is horrible and the prescription costs about $20 more than it used to under my old plan. When I signed the credit card receipt I had to smile though, because the pen was such a bright, vibrant orange that it made me think of sunshine.

Version 1 is actually not a bad little story: it includes some contextual embedding (a place and a date) and a weird detail in the shape of that orange pen. But Version 2 is a much better story because it includes my subjective experience–how I was feeling, what I was thinking.

As writers, we’re continually told “show, don’t tell.” If your character is feeling angry, you’re supposed to write him stomping across the room, a glare on his face. And yes, that’s good. But Twilight is one long stream of Bella’s feelings. People read it anyway. JK Rowling doesn’t shy away from telling us how Harry felt. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is overwhelmed, angry, scared, filled with hate—and that’s just in the five pages that I skimmed through while I was writing this. Suzanne Collins isn’t afraid to say how Katniss feels, using those exact words.

I’m sure somewhere along the way in this series, I’ve talked about the advice to not use “thinking” words. It’s valid advice. You don’t want to distance your reader from the characters and the action by adding in lots of extraneous words that separate them from the experience. For example:

“I noticed the sun was shining again. It felt warm on my face.”

is better as:

“The sun was shining again, warming my face.”

That said, for your stories to feel true, your point-of-view character should have feelings, thoughts, reactions, emotions. Delete the thinking words (as much as possible) but make sure that the subjective experience is still clear and real.

Your POV character should also think about the mental state of the characters around her. People don’t exist in a vacuum and most of us speculate about other people all the time. Including “attribution of the accused’s mental state” is criteria #13. In the context of writing, it means that your point-of-view character will seem more realistic if she is (reasonably) aware of other character’s emotions and attitudes.

I threw in that “reasonably” because you do have to be careful about this. Your point-of-view character cannot (unless she is Sylvie or Lucas from A Gift of Thought) know what someone else is thinking. But some POV purists view even simple lines like, “Ralph was angry” as verboten (assuming Ralph is not your POV character). In my opinion, though, if it is reasonable to assume that your POV character would be able to tell how Ralph was feeling, it’s better to include that detail than not.

It is, of course, better if you do it via words that show the reader what’s happening instead of just telling. “Ralph was angry” is not nearly as strong, for example, as “Ralph stomped across the room. Megan’s shoulders tightened. Any minute, he’d start yelling.” But one way or another, to make your stories more realistic, your POV character should attribute mental states to other characters.

Rather than summarizing everything, I’m going to go back and tag all the posts I’ve written on CBCA so that they’re easier to find, but one last note before I wrap up: it turns out that CBCA is not always terribly effective when it comes to lie detection. In a 2010 study from the Netherlands, researchers found that false stories told by high “fantasy-prone” individuals (ahem, that would be most of us, I’m guessing) are more believable than true stories told by low “fantasy-prone” individuals. Good story-tellers already are good liars and most of the elements of CBCA are probably already in your stories anyway, whether or not you’re telling the truth. Still, when a story is feeling weak, looking for details that provide contextual embedding, stand out by virtue of being strange or unusual, and include the emotions & thoughts of your protagonist and her opinions of the same for other characters can help make your story more believable.

The truth of a story lies in the details.