But I Get Up Again

I never realized how stuck I’d gotten after writing that story that just failed.  I’ve started and not finished three stories in the last week.  Not finished.  I usually finish shorts in one sitting.  It’s the novels I poke at (and I’m poking, I’m poking.  Gotta get the MG one done soon, seriously).  I got stuck because I’m afraid that every word is more fail.

Fuck it. Seriously.  So I failed. That story really doesn’t work at all and nothing will save it (maybe the setting, the setting might, the setting is good.)  I have to get over that.  Move past it.  It’s so easy to dwell on what doesn’t work, what feels or reads wrong.  I think my academic side lets me down here, because I’ve been trained to pick things apart.  It’s time to get back up.  The mini self-inflicted rollercoaster of “I suck!” and “I might not suck!” annoys me.  It’s stupid and it is stopping my writing.

In 11 minutes I turn 29.  I hope that someday I’ll look back at my 20s as the years it really started.  Addicts have their sobriety dates, I guess writers have their “got serious” dates.  Mine is Feb 4th 2009.  I’ve got a year left of my 20s.  I want to make it a good one, one where I did everything in my power to reach my goals.  For my birthday I wrote myself a check and dated it Feb 4th, 2020.  I won’t say the amount, but it is fairly ambitious, at least I hope.  As I enter the final year of this decade of life, I want to know that I didn’t let the little things get me down.  And that when they did, I got back up.

Now, I should go practice what I preach and finish some damn stories.  Because no one is going to buy stuff I haven’t written and submitted.

Hard Work Ahead

I’ve been reading over all the comments I’ve ever gotten on my writing.  Between the MFA classes, the editor comments on rejections, and the two con workshops I’ve done (not to mention the great help my friends give as well), that’s actually a ton of feedback.  And I see a pattern, a very annoying pattern.

I think I’m weak at plot.   Not that I don’t grasp what plot is, or that my stories exactly lack it, but the kinds of comments I often get involve the structure of how and why things are happening, or my personal favorite (heh) comment that recurs a lot which is “this would make a great chapter of a novel”.  When my plots are strongest, they reach too far and involve too much for the short story frame.  When they aren’t, well, readers are confused by what’s happening or don’t feel that the ending was satisfying or inevitable.

This means I gotta roll up my proverbial sleeves and work on this.  I don’t think it’s necessarily an issue in my novels since the longer form lends itself to plot development (plus I outline constantly with novels).   My short stories need work.  I’m not going to worry too much about the ones already written.  They are what they are and if I can patch them up I will, but going forward with the next few shorts, I’m going to work damn hard on making the structure sound.  There are plenty of formulas for plot out there.  I don’t tend to follow them, instead letting the story develop on its own.  Maybe I’ve strayed too far, however. Clearly something isn’t working because my stories are getting the “close but no” response.  The comments from others hint that it might be plotting issues.

The good news is that this is something I think will be reasonably easy to fix.  It’s just going to take me staying mindful of where a story is going.  I think the next few short stories I’m going to do mini-outlines for, same as I do for my novels just on a smaller scale.   I’ll probably outline scene by scene and see what results. I may also try to fit some of my ideas to plot structures (likable hero overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds, or hero tries, makes it worse, tries and fails even worse, then finally succeeds, or one of those formulas that abound out there for story structure).

It’s weird.  I used to hate writing dialogue and I felt like every character I had sounded the same.  I started working hard to build characters up and get my dialogue to sound normal.  Soon enough, I started getting comments on stories that my dialogue and characterization were great.  Then it was that my beginnings were always rough.  So I started working on beginnings (still am, I think beginnings will always be rough for me since I tend to write my way into the story).   Sometimes I feel like my writing is this monstrous creation.  I poke at the weaker parts and build them up, then realize that other parts are now weaker and my monster is lopsided again.  So I poke at those parts, rinse, repeat.  It looks like plotting is the next weak limb that needs beefing up.

The novel is progressing.  I reread a few chapters (and ended up doing some line editing since eeks I’m wordy in my rough drafts) and am part way into the next chapter.  I’m guessing I’ll finish somewhere close to 100k words, maybe a little over since I’ve got some scenes to add to help weave it all together.  I’m rebuilding my writing momentum and optimistically hope that I can get back up to a chapter a day by the end of the week.  I need to sit down with the outline tomorrow and update it with the new scenes I’m imagining for the end of each of the upcoming chapters.  It’s tough to split the main characters up since the main plot right now only pertains to one of them, but I think as a reader I’d want to know what’s going on with the other two during this time, plus I need to show the passage of time since three years are about to pass but for the main character it’s going to seem more like a few weeks.  I can do this.  I’ve passed the half-way point, deep into the murky middle of the story.  It’s a linear story, no real twists or turns here, just a horrible climax to build to and a bittersweet ending.  Head down, keep writing.

Getting Down to Business

I’m quitting my MFA program.  Though money was partially an issue, in the end it came down to me not enjoying the program and my classes not helping me as a writer.  I think that I’ll be more productive on my own for now.  I have the Online Writing Workshop for my critiquing fix.  So the plan is for me to work on the current novel projects this year and come next year apply to a couple of other MFA programs.  I’m thinking Stone Coast and Seton Hill, since they offer Popular Fiction tracks.

In the good news from all this, however, a girl in my workshop who writes pretty delightful regency romance has agreed to do chapter exchanges with me.  So I’ll be emailing her chapters of Chwedl and she’ll give me chapters of her current novel project.  Editing novels is tough partially because they’re so damn long that getting people to read all of it takes some doing.  It’s been my experience so far with the OWW that novel chapters don’t get as many critiques as short stories, plus there’s often no one to look for continuity errors or flow since people might only read a few chapters and not the whole book.  I’m thrilled that this girl and I will be exchanging chapters.  We’ll both get eyes on the whole of our novels.  Not to mention that I’ve read the first couple chapters of her novel and am totally hooked.  Hopefully she’ll feel the same about mine once she sees the first chapters (she’s pretty brave to want to exchange without seeing the novel first, but she has seen two short stories of mine, so I guess that’s something).

I aim to have Chwedl finished by the beginning of July with an edited version ready by the end of August.  At that point I plan to write up a query letter and start the fun and exciting agent hunting part of the writing life.  I have a short list of agents I want to query and it’s my hope that I’ll maybe get to meet and chat with a few at Worldcon, though I intend to keep that informal.  It would be nice to talk to some of the agents I’m considering, however, so I can get a feel for it this project is right for them.  And of course, I have to find a real title for the book since “Welsh word no one can pronounce” probably isn’t going to fly.

Hmm… “Aine and the Hounds”? Nah. “The Hounds of Clun Cadair”? Too Holmes-ripoff.  Grr. I’m not good with titles.  If only I could bribe Elizabeth Bear into thinking up titles for me, hers always rock.

A Bit More About Process

I’m not a seat of the pants kind of writer, even when it comes to short stories.  Now, mind you, I don’t outline for short stories (though I might jot down notes or lines that come to me).  I definitely know where something is going when I sit down to write it.  I do change my mind and write something else to make things make more sense when I have to.  I imagine, however, that anyone watching my short story writing process would think I’m doing it on the fly.

This is because I write short stories in one or two sittings and hardly ever have notes (I usually do research as it comes up, thank you Google).

My short stories don’t start on the page.  They start in my head and sometimes have a very long gestation period.  Novels are the same way, though I tend to write up more notes when thinking about novels due to the sheer amount of stuff going on in my head when it comes to bigger projects.

First, there’s the spark.  Whatever set off my mind with a “hey, this could be a good story”.  From the spark I start to think about what it needs to fill it out, to bring it from cool character/idea/image/line of dialog etc… into being a full story/populated world.  From there I decide if the idea is going to need a novel length to fill it out (ignoring here, for the moment, that one of the most common coments I get on my short stories is “hey, this would make an awesome novel” sigh) or if I can turn it into something shorter.  Frankly, I prefer short stories because I like to just sit down and finish things.  Also, rewriting fifteen pages is far easier than rewriting 300.

But my point is that I spend a great deal of time thinking about everything before it ever sees the page.  I run through potential scenes, characters, what would or would not work in the particular world I’m inventing and why, and other useful questions like that.  I sometimes even start composing in my head and run through different POVs and tenses to feel where I want to start a story.

And then there are the times that I call my version of Writer’s Block.  I never run out of ideas, ever.  However, I occasionally get stalled out because my brain won’t stop with the thinking and focus on something long enough for me to just write something.  It’s why I haven’t been sleeping lately, and why I’ve done nothing but revise things for a few weeks now.  Too many bloody ideas.

So I’m going to have to force-march my brain for now, I think.  No starting or thinking about anything new before I’ve finished the following:

Sparks (fantasy short story), Prince Called Courage (fantasy novella), final edit of Monsters (fantasy short story), two thesis short stories (prewriting for my thesis novel), Chwedl draft (fantasy novel) and the rewrite of Casimir Hypogean (science fiction thriller novel).  The ambitious part of me says I can totally do this by September.  Suuure.

I’m going to do the short stories first, mainly becaues that means I’ll have eight or nine short stories out making the submission rounds while I hunker down to finish the novels.  I want to be done with this all by September since starting my thesis novel early wouldn’t be a bad idea.  Fortunately, ideas are imploding my brains but good when it comes to that novel, so at least it won’t be stalled due to lack of my head working on it.  Which is different from Casimir Hypogean, the bane of my existence.  I’m going to look at it as a learning experience and force myself to finish the rewrite.  If I never touch it again after that, so be it, but I’ve come too far to give up now.  It’ll take about 6-7 weeks of hard work to complete at this point.  I can do it.

The First Cuts

There’s an anecdotal story about Michelangelo’s David which goes something like the artist spent 15 months just staring at the marble before he ever cut into it.

I feel that way about this novel. An awful lot of staring is going on and not so much is happening with the cutting (writing). It’s the damn plot. I’ve constructed it in a way that for the next 4-5 chapters the whole rest of the book is set up. This is the climb towards the crest of the rollercoaster. And if I go off the track now, the whole thing will fail. I want to get this right. Which means I’ve been stabbing at the same couple paragraphs for the last week and a half.

To continue the stream of unrelated and piss-poor metaphors: this is probably the writing equivalent to opening the oven door every two minutes to check on the cookies. I know I need to stop obsessing and apply word to page. Let the whole thing sort itself out later. If I break it, I break it. That’s what editing is for, right?

The only problem is that once again I’m faced with the paralyzing fear that I’ll break this draft as badly as the first one and have to rewrite the novel in its entirety again. And again. I deeply respect and admire authors who are able to run through five or six or more completely different drafts of the same novel. I really do. I’m just not sure I have the fortitude to be one of them. We all have our own styles, our own ways of writing and working. I don’t think I’m a gazillion draft writer. Or maybe I am and I haven’t accepted my fate. Who knows?

I think I’m going to just try to press on. If the novel ends up broken in a way that small scene rewrites and repairs won’t solve I think I’ll be done with this book for a while. I’ll stick it in the proverbial drawer and move on to the next novel. Lessons learned. I can’t take another rewrite, this one is hard enough. Hopefully my future first drafts won’t be quite as broken as this one was. I have a feeling writing the thing on a bet in 19 days pretty much doomed me there.

I also think my next project will be fantasy. Probably the Welsh fairytale novel. It will require minimal research and have nothing to do with science. Making the world believable and constructing the pseudo-science is one of the things slowing my current novel project down a great deal. The next novel that requires research will definitely get better research done before I write it.

Of course, the next novel that will take lots of research will likely be my thesis project. I’m hoping I can do the War Witches idea as my thesis. That novel is slowly percolating and building in my mind and would be perfect for a MA thesis. Lots of research, lots of history, lots of texture, and plenty of Important Themes to explore.

All right. Back to hacking up the stone. Which really feels a lot like trying to gnaw the David out of titanium. With my teeth.

Tasty.

Little by Little

I’m well into chapter 3 now. The set up is going slowly. I can’t wait for this part to be over. Another three or four chapters and the plot will have taken shape. From there it will be just writing my characters running headlong into peril after peril. That part I’m looking forward to. The setup? Not as much. I’m working hard on the characterizations and descriptions. Which means I’ll likely have to cull a great deal from this in the later edits, but for now I’d rather include the kitchen sink (and its five paragraph description) than wonder what I’m missing later.

In the last week I’ve had no less than three people ask me what I’m doing for a living now. It feels awkward to say “writing” because I’m not exactly making money at it yet. If you count my editing and freelance writing work from the past, I’ve technically made money doing it, however, so it sort of counts, right? And I am writing now with the goal of publication and monies in the future. I’ve no other paid work at the moment. So I nervously answered “writing” to all of them. No one questioned it. Which probably means I should stop questioning it too.

However, my trying to write full time led to a fight with a sibling. She was in town and so I took a day off to see her. She then wanted me to take another day and drive her some places (which would have taken the whole day). I refused. Driving for hours at a time eats a lot of energy. I knew that if I did this, it would mean no writing got done that day. I’ve been working hard to make sure I spend at least a few hours everyday working on the novel. This is my job now. If I’m going to have a draft done by the time classes start, I can’t really put off writing too much. There are already many things scheduled (like PAX 2008 this weekend) that will take away writing days.

I tried to explain this to my sister. I carefully explained that I had to work. She didn’t get it. She figured I could just take whatever time I wanted since I’m unemployed. Eventually I gave up trying to explain how I wasn’t really unemployed, just self-employed (which is how I see it, despite the no incoming money yet thing). It didn’t end so well.

I have a feeling this is only the first in a line of battles to guard my time and have my writing life taken seriously to the people around me. Once I’m published, perhaps, they’ll truly understand. But I’m not sure they can, being non-writers, understand the sheer volume of work that is writing a good novel. It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard. Maybe it isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. Writing takes a great deal of mental energy and lots of time. I can spend ten hours working on something and end up with only a couple hundred usable words. And unlike most jobs where you have bosses and coworkers and such, if I don’t do the work, it doesn’t get done. No one is going to write my novel for me. The more time I spend not writing, the longer it will be until I can expect any kind of compensation. This is how it works, for me.

Little by little. I have to guard my time. Writing is my job, and as such, I have to make sure I take it seriously. I don’t want to dabble. This isn’t a hobby. I want to write for a living and the only way I know how to do it is to actually write.