Friday, 27 April 2012

Revision Schmevision: Unflick Your Bic

I'm revising a novel for the first time in my life.

I've written three and a half novels, but after five years, tons of short stories and a couple of comic book scripts, I have finally careened through a novel I think I can handle revising.


Yeah. I'm going to be cradling this thing like a baby for the next four months or so and with the help of a revision course (more on that in a minute) I'm going to tear this sucker down, open it from groin to throat and perform some serious surgery.

One of the first couple of lessons Holly Lisle tosses me has an interesting step. You reread your manuscript (pen in hand this time) and highlight, circle, underline, somehow tag sections you want to change based on their impact on character, world, story, and so on. You also tag the sections you want to keep.

Holly Lisle has written many books and can be found here (takes your to her post on revising a novel). She opened up a novel revision course about two or three years ago and I was one of the first students. Like most online courses, she gave the option of handling the course weekly, or if you're like me, sitting on the course until all the lessons came through and plowing through them. So of course I forgot I had signed up for it for about two or three years. Until this January, anyway.

I didn't really forget, I just kind of thought I hadn't written anything worth revising. I was scared to face the crap I had spewed out during the Nano marathons and my tendency to write quickly and remorselessly, which is to say, making little use of the delete key. I would finish a work and know deep in my heart that it wasn't what I wanted when I started out, but had no idea how to get there.

We all have different ways of dealing with this kind of gap. Some of us try over and over until we just break that wall down with our heads. Some of us join critique groups so people who are not us can articulate the problems we know are there but just can't see. Some of us spend a lot of money on something so terrifying that it is best left a guilty secret in our browser history.

I finally decided I might as well utilize this money sink, but I made one important change this past Nanowrimo season. I went into Nano knowing I would have to be able to see this book again. I would have to be able to live with this hunk of ink and paper for a year. Maybe more. If it gets published, the rest of my life even.

The novel I got wasn't the one I originally wanted, but it was far better than the ones I've attempted before. When I got bored with my writing I put something interesting in, even if it didn't make sense. I wrote notes to myself if I didn't like how a scene went, so that I could see later how I wished it had gone. I put myself in the headspace of expecting to see these words again, over and over. Forcing my dorky character to be cool yet adorable, forcing my whiny little boy character to say awesomely inappropriate things, forcing my characters and my plots to bow to my whims made me confident that I could handle looking at this thing again someday.

I still wound up with a pile of crap. Such is Nanowrimo. But this time I wound up with crap I could smush down again and throw back on the wheel to re-shape.

Lisle's first couple of lessons really help with that. In the first few lessons, she had me go through the manuscript and tag sections on character, world, story, and others, that I would have to change. She also had me tag sections to keep.

Now when I'm feeling like I just need to light this thing on fire, I can look at the (short) glorious list in my notebook of all the sections I want to keep in my novel. I know that keeper section is there for a reason more than making me put the lighter down, but when I get really frustrated I flip to that section and reread a couple of lines and recharge my creative fortitude. It's not all suckitude, it's not all pear-shaped mischaracterized unthemed dreck. Whether or not you use a course or sheer willpower for revising your work, I highly recommend a greatest hits list of quotes that you wrote. In that crucial moment, it just might help you unflick that bic. This is no time for a massive writer freakout. These manuscripts aren't going to red pen themselves.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Procrastination Station (Revision Edition): Reread to Retread

The big philosophy of Nanowrimo - after caffeine, chocolate, and community can turn any die-hard type-A into a writer! - is that to rewrite, first you must have written.

Somewhere in between writing and rewriting, you must reread what you have written.

Oh, boy.

This is the painful part. It wasn't naming characters or killing off your favorite, or your nine favorites, or even clawing your way through the occasional five thousand word day to drag your manuscript across the finish line. You thought those were hard, but wait until you have to reread what you slapped down at 2 am that one time you thought finishing off the wine bottle on your ownsies was a brilliant idea.

Rereading what you actually have is like ripping band-aids off your eyeballs. It hurts, best done quickly, and is kind of a letdown. Think about it - your eyeballs have a lot of moisture so I imagine that adhesive isn't all that bad, not like tearing a band-aid off your arm or somewhere with actual hair. Anyway, my point is the first reread happens without a pen in hand. My goal with that first reread is to unrosy my view and understand that, yes, I really did rename my male protagonist halfway through my novel without realizing it. I later renamed another male character with the exact same name halfway through a scene.

I think I really like that name.

I put a comma in the middle of a word, I brought up three separate storylines that went approximately nowhere, I suddenly answered questions that had yet to be asked, and thanks to my tendency to write four thousand words in a sitting and then ignore my work for three days, my manuscript has wide swaths of text that makes sense but setting all those wide swaths together gives me something swampy and uneven.

My villain whines, my sympathetic sidekick is the creepiest sociopath outside of Hannibal Lecter, and the love interest should have been pushed out a window by page two. From a very tall building.

The first reread is the most painful I've noticed because not only do I wince at every new scene but I skim when I know I've committed a writing sin which means I'll have to read it again. That's okay. Those stray commas aren't going to circle themselves.

Most importantly, those five page chunks of prose that go nowhere aren't going to X out themselves.

The first reread is the worst, until I get to the second, and the third, and the fourth...

Thinking of revision as some kind of huge undertaking is a good way to put my novel in a drawer and never look at it again. Instead I have to think of it as a series of small steps. Where Nanowrimo says write, then write, then write some more, I now have to read. Read. Read some more. Try not to strangle the love interest. Keep reading. Don't look away.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Nanowrimo Break: Inception and All Your Settings

It may not be a surprise to regular readers that I sort of have a thing for Inception. I have a shout out tag for Inception and this blog is not about a.) film making b.) suits or c.) Tom Hardy. I also occasionally mention my Inception view count, which has now gotten a little confusing as I own it on dvd, digital copy on my computer and my phone. Some people take a one minute break by viewing photos of loved ones, I like to watch a little Inception. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, this is not about my undying love for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in zero gravity or Leonardo DiCaprio's strut, but rather a study in setting. No, not the awesome hotel decor or the matchy-matchy bad guys wearing white in the snow level. This is about using all the bits of your setting to create a world that works for you while you entice the reader to continue reading your work.

We first see setting the second the movie opens, but seriously, the first time we truly interact with setting is when Mal mentions "Postwar British painters". She refers to the artwork in the dream hotel and hey! It's by Francis Bacon. That's not the cool part. That is an easy way to engage setting - and by engage I mean draw the audience's eye toward it. Now for people who hear Postwar and British and Painter, it's a detail. It's dialogue that says she knows what she's talking about. To people who hear that and see the painting and think Francis Bacon, that's a little reach out and say hello to the audience members in the know. We like to feel smart. Some of us may use Google to get there, but we become members of a special club when we figure it out.

That throwaway line, by the way, tells us a lot about Mal. She can spot a postwar British painter for one thing. Now - SPOILER - for the 0.01% of you who haven't seen or possibly heard of Inception, Mal is a figment in Cobb's head. What does that tell us about what Cobb knows?

Anyway, the point of being in people's heads is that we aren't supposed to be there and so the projections in other peoples' heads try to uncover you and then remove you from the landscape, by tearing you limb from limb if they have to. Knowing this, watch the scene where Cobb begins to convince Fisher that something is wrong while he sits at the bar surrounded by rich older people. At one point there is a sound so out of tune with the ambience of the bar that everyone pays attention. Can you imagine that older woman with the shawl and the white hair with blood staining her mouth, fingers curled into claws?

You can now.

********************************And NOW****************************************


I wrote the above about halfway through November and then remembered that I was writing a novel. I was also municipal liaising my region, with roughly 400 people (on paper) and got a little caught up in my newfound productive writing life.

Here we are in the year the world ends (see previously 2000, 1999, and 1997 according to the World Weekly News) and I am a novel richer and half a blog post poorer.

It happens sometimes that you come back to something you were writing in a different head space, physical space, you-space and you realize - hey! This was pretty good! I wonder what happens next. And then you totally blank.

I have no idea where the rest of the post was going. I do, however, know what I would like to say now, 55,000 words later, about scenery and setting and how different and necessary the two are to everything in your story and how your audience perceives your world.

I've been using setting and scenery interchangeably in my previous posts (and if I haven't, I've been doing it in my head) but they really are quite different. Scenery is a necessary part of setting but setting encompasses scenery. Scenery is the vase on the mantelpiece and the stone setting in the hearth and the rich yet threadbare rug under your feet. Setting is the opulent sitting room gone slightly to seed in a story about an old rich family that has possessed wealth so long they have forgotten they have it. You know the type, the ones who wear t-shirts and drive beamers and buy tens of thousands of dollars of diamonds just to say it's Tuesday, I love you.

Take away some of those details and they become nouveau riche, conscientious of what they have and how much they have to show it to the world. Take away other details and they become misers. Suddenly your story is about something else entirely.

The settings may be the easiest to describe later when you're talking about that book you just read, but it's the scenery that makes it so memorable. Scenery, the bangles, the gun, the hidden corpse, the missing figurine on the bookshelf, the details give your story a why without you having to come right out and beat your reader over the head with what you're trying to say.

Getting back to my minor obsession with Inception, let's look at Arthur. He's gorgeous. And now, analytically, let's look at what says competent. It's the slicked back hair, the suits, the fashion forward little touches, the flashy fighting style, and the way he remains calm under any kind of pressure, with or without gravity.

Ariadne, on the other hand, screams college student. If we hadn't met her first in a college, we would quickly place her there in the Inception special anniversary edition paper doll playbook (I would totally buy that, wouldn't you?). There's the brash manner of speaking, the curiosity with none of the temperance borne of what some might call maturity but what we can also call the knowledge of consequence from touching a hot stove. She hasn't had that curiosity slapped down yet. She wears those scarves and coats with rolled up sleeves, stands slightly to the side and watches and learns while the others move.

The settings of Inception and the personal scenery of each of the characters (including where they stand in relation to one another...I guess I have another rewatching to do) require all those little details and more - leave nothing to chance. Your dialogue, character descriptions, workspaces and living spaces advance the reader's understanding of what you are trying to say in your story. Are you talking about money? Love? Evil and our interactions when faced with such a thing?

Now you (and I) get to shave away every detail that doesn't have to do with cementing your answer to the question you are discussing in your work, right down to how your character eats lunch and where and why.

Yay, scenery!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Nanowrimo Break: Sleepless and Bitty Details

Sleepless by Charlie Huston is one of those near future science fiction things you hear about but never realized exists until you hold it in your hands. It's detailed.

Most of the time when someone says 'detailed' he means 'they talked about a space ship a lot and maybe there was a character and stuff happened.' Or maybe the author dedicated forty pages on fashion styles to explain why the protagonist took that parasol with those boots.

Sleepless is detailed in that every part of the world - the WOW game stand-in, the human bombs, the devastating disease - are effortlessly referenced in sentences and phrases before Huston dedicates entire scenes to explaining just what the hell is going on. The background details are such a part of the world that his characters live these pieces of science fiction and the reader can breathe it all in without pausing to admire the damn spaceship for pages on end. Think of the last time you had a fight with a friend on a message board and tried to explain to someone (to whom message boards did not exist) how you had trouble communicating in real time. The important part of the story you are telling this person is not that you have to wait minutes, hours, or days to get the last-last word in, but that you are having an argument with a friend and the bastard won't lay down and accept defeat in light of your brilliance. In between recounting witty repartee, you still have to explain message boards. That's the importance of detail.

As I Nano (only four thousand words behind, it's okay, that's a weekend marathoner, no problem) I have to keep detail in mind because while it's tempting to boost a word count with nonsense like two thousand words of what color sneakers my character has on, the bits I get to keep later while Nanoedmo'ing (National Novel Editing Month) are the pieces that advance the story while maintaining a careful snare around the reader's attention.

If you have a minute in between typing madly and procrastinating just as madly, give Sleepless a try. It's science fiction without the spaceships and it's a brilliant apocalypse that will make you wonder about the tiny things in life. And if near future science fiction can't make you doubt every minuscule interaction in your life with a tiny shake of fear, it's obviously not trying hard enough.

Another detailed series I've always enjoyed are the Company novels by Kage Baker. She takes history and future with the same finesse, and while she shines with historical detail I'll admit my favorite of the series is Graveyard Games where she really starts telling us about her world's terrifying future.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Nanowrimo Break: Handwavium and Transitions

John Connolly's Every Dead Thing is a little rough, and one of the most delightfully gory mysteries I've torn through in a long while. For someone who usually devours horror movies and peppers her sci-fi diet with The Cat Who... Every Dead Thing was a welcome respite. Though it suffers from the tragic past hero, it has an intriguing (and conveniently helpful) secondary cast of an assassin and master thief, Every Dead Thing moves quickly through sometimes not quite explained transitions. We are at point A, now we are at Point B, now we see my old friend. Now my old friend is dead, look at my dead old friend, meticulously dissected atop his equally dead wife in a creepy yet totally memorable scene.

Anyway, this is one of those books (and series) I return to when I want some handwavium. My transitions usually suffer from real-worldism, where we actually have to walk out to the car, and open the door, and fiddle with our keys. In book world, we are simply driving. Last page we were in San Francisco, and now we are in Las Vegas! Did we mean to be in Las Vegas? Who knows? Who cares! Look at the pretty lights!

Writing 50,000 words in 30 days means taking some big leaps of faith in terms of travel, changing groups of people, and on occasion, surprise action scenes. Writing at any point can use a little handwavium, so long as your reader can handle a little handwavium. Remember suspension of disbelief, and the value of your reader coming back for the sequel.

Something I find helps is sitting for a few minutes and asking myself what is absolutely necessary to get this message across? Do I need to show us on the road? Do I need to explain the ninja? Can we just have the evil guy over here, suddenly? Would that be really cool? When I strip the scenes down to the absolutes, it makes the writing go faster, the reading, and at times, the head scratching. Anyway, if "The Most Terrifying Thriller Since Silence Of The Lambs" (see cover above) is not your slice of pie, try Jim Butcher's Dresdenfiles. For some reason, I have Small Favor listed on my outline for this post, so I suppose it must be an example of handwavium. I recommend the whole series, just so you too can spend all of White Knight with a big fan-service grin on your face.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Nanowrimo Prep: Breaking (Almost) All the Rules

There are 8 rules for writing.

There are only 7 plots in the whole wide world.

There are 36 plots.

There is only 1 rule for writing.^

You have to write fast. You have to write slow. You have to plot first. You have burn on pure creativity. You must structure your story. You must begin at the beginning.

After a few years of attending talks and workshops and listening to people who also wrote but did not write like me, I realized everyone follows their rules. They just forget to tell you that everyone has their own set of rules that they have cobbled together from their trusted mentors and peers and sources which are totally different from yours.

Once you look at all these different rule sets a pattern emerges where you see this person's set of rules is that person's wriggle room, and that person's set of rules leaves little spaces for this person's rules to fit between. Together they make a series of contradictions that function smoothly with only a few conjunctions to smooth the way.

You have to write fast and (some days) you have to write slow.

You have to plot first or you have to burn on pure creativity.

You must structure your story but you must begin at the beginning. So what if your structure doesn't begin with the beginning?

Nanowrimo has one rule: Don't look back!

Like speed limits, it's a guideline, and like the rules above, it works best in conjunction with your pre-existing personal writing rules.

Let's talk about speed limits for a minute. There are some speed limits you obey without questions because of the unstated "or else". I always obey the speed limit that says "25 mph on this twisty mountain road...or else you might die" and "30mph in this residential area...or else you might kill someone". That sentence started with "I" for a reason, because you might trust yourself on mountain roads or trust your breaks or distrust driving through gorges...

My writing rules were pretty set before I did Nanowrimo the first time. And they were pretty set right after that first hellish month of approximately 12,000 grueling words that had been over-plotted and under-developed. I planned the life right out of my characters and spent my first word war paralyzed with writer's block.

My writing output before and after Nano was about the same, which is to say, slim to none.

The second time I tried Nanowrimo, I decided to follow the 1 rule and throw everything else out the window. I didn't look back. Some days I wrote in complete silence, some days I created careful playlists to evoke moods and characters. Some days I looked at my outline and some days I said to hell with it and plowed onward. Some weeks I went to the write-ins and sat with fellow writers and some weeks I spent wrapped up in my cocoon of a bedroom as a solitary serious artist.

I like to celebrate Nanowrimo as a time to explore new rituals in being a writer. This upcoming month I have plotted my novel as three separate storylines in very sketchy details. My characters are defined in single phrases and as comparisons to existing celebrities, TV characters in certain episodes or arcs, or even as a time of day.

Rather than plotting every single scene on index cards* I have decided to plot tomorrow's writing at the end of today's writing. I am going to break the only rule of Nanowrimo that exists to save accelerating writers from their own inability to stay off the delete key. I will read my writing of that day once I've finished it in order to write down certain details to aid with plotting - namely where I've left threads and throwaway details that may enhance tomorrow and even next week's writing.

I'm a little worried. This is the one concrete rule I've held for three successful Nanos. It won't break any of my other rules (be true to my characters, don't talk down to the reader, at some point I have to actually like the person through which I am viewing this world, among others), but it may throw off my routine. It may cause doubt. Doubt brings with it the paralyzing uncertainty 2 minutes into a 15 minute word war that can last another precious 7 minutes, losing hundreds of words in the process. I will, in effect, pants my novel.


Wish me luck!

^If you follow this link, only one rule applies to writing. :)

*Done it. Even drunk plotted before. All I have to say about that is, I guess I get philosophical when under the influence of a good white wine. Philosophy, unfortunately, does not do a whole lot for an action packed climax, especially when I've just compared an emotional arc? The path out of hell? The antagonist's long lost daughter and/or mistress? to winter's light. Oh, maudlin, oh, hangover. Nothing says bad idea like the morning after, trying to decipher both my handwriting and genius.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Nano Prep: A Little Panic on Plot and Word Counts

If you Nano on a regular basis, you know the spiel. 50,000 words is Of Mice and Men, a quick action-oriented novella by today's standards, or one of thousands of sci-fi books your parents collected in the 70's and 80's.

Today's word counts have an interesting history based partially on being paid by the word and partially driven by consumer expectation. There's obviously many other factors behind the word count evolution, and all it means is that two out of the last three books I bought can be considered concealed weapons if they could actually fit under my coat.

A little bit of word count

Conventional wisdom and other writing articles give rough estimates of word counts thusly:

<100-100 words = drabble
100-500 words = flash fiction
100-750 words = short short fiction
<25,000 words = short story
25,000 - 40,000 words = novella
40,000-60,000 words = short novel
70,000 words = basically a normal novel
>100,000 words = burglar stunner, also called an epic (or "bargain" in terms of entertainment hours)

So that 50,000 word draft you're about to lovingly pound out in a matter of days filled with caffeine abuse, familial neglect, and passionate bouts of insomnia, is a fantastic entry to the world of long form written art.

What about panic?

The first time I participated in Nanowrimo, I had never written anything longer than a short story or a long essay. I had some idea about how to plot an entire novel because as it turns out, pre-writing and procrastination are pretty darn close. Pre-writing gets you a neat little outline, maybe a massive wall of stickies, and carefully crafted character arcs with every gel pen color you can get your hands on.

What it doesn't do is sit your butt down and get you to write.

Around day four, I learned it was all fine and well to move character B across setting C to have conflict with characters E and I, but (aside from a hard lesson in ridiculously large casts) when the words won't come, all the stickies in the world can't get you across the 50,000 word finish line.

After a precious 3000 word dry spell (approximately 2 days of not writing) I started getting that itchy feeling of staring at a great big F for failure. It's not like Nanowrimo costs you anything, but losing usually karate chops my dignity something fierce, even if we're talking about losing Stupid Ninja seven times in a row. Nanowrimo says, in many sayings stemming from founder Chris Baty and from hundreds of thousands of participants: just write.

Desperate to not lose a contest in which I held no actual personal stake and won no riches beyond a little pixel icon, I broke my story down into mini stories, or what normal writers will probably recognize as "scenes", wherein each day of typing encompassed a beginning, middle, and end, with action and reflection and more than just a little word salad. Hey, it's 50,000 words, and one of the strategies repeat winners recommend include losing your em-dash between paired words and make at least one character a stutterer.

This year I'm going to stretch my ability to focus by breaking my overall plot into chunks. A few thousand words go into the premise [from my story sentence(s)] and a few thousand words go into the opposition and how he's going to stop the protagonist. A couple dozen grand go into the main journey part of the plot and perhaps a few thousand go into the emotional connections between the protagonist and her citizens. Before you know it, I will have ripped out 50,000 words of mayhem and occasional sentences that actually make sense in English.

My strategy will look like this:

40,000 words = main plot (includes premise, protagonist and antagonist, and just a few allies and enemies along the way)
10,000 words = secondary plot takes the main stage to take me through the muddy middle
20,000 words = main emotional past issue arc (also called "How did we get here?")

If you do math moreso than me (not hard), you'll notice that adds up to more than fifty thousand. It's about 70,000, or roughly a marketable length for a real live novel. This will be my fifth year doing Nanowrimo and I thought it was time for a little extra challenge. I'm breaking out in hives even thinking about it because I have been one of those 11:59 pm word count validaters on November 30th, but if we reach for the moon, we land among the stars. Or at least, somewhere beyond where I have gone before, and that's what Nanowrimo is all about.

So to all you plotters out there, are you stickies fanatics or do you prefer twenty packs of multi-colored gel pens?

And to all you pantsers, what kind of inspiration and caffeine are you stocking up on in preparation?