Keeping Score: April 19, 2019

1,086 words this week, all for the novel edit, this time.

Though I suppose calling what I’m doing a second draft would be more accurate. I’m not just reading through chapters, tweaking phrases and dialog. I’m rewriting some chapters wholesale, others I’m stitching together from bits and pieces of the previous draft like a linguistic version of Frankenstein’s monster.

It’s hard to ignore that previous draft, sometimes, even when I know it’s wrong. Not just bad — though the writing certainly deserves the name vomit draft — but wrong. Wrong for the story, wrong for the characters, wrong for the book. And yet, the fact that its words are done, written there on the page, makes it tempting to use them. Even when I know I shouldn’t.

So it’s easier to delete them, get them out of the way. Of course, then I’m staring at a blank page, that intimidating spotless thing. Who am I to rubbish it up, especially when I know this won’t be the last draft? These revisions will need revisions, and those will need tweaks, and those will need a polish.

I resort to tricks, at that point. Lie to myself. “Just 50 words,” I’ll say, “and then you can go back to Twitter.” Or: “Just describe what this character feels right now. You’ll cut it later, but get it done now, just in case some of it’s good.”

And once I’m going, it’s hard to stop. Even when the clock reminds me that it’s time to close up shop and head to the day job, to earn the money I use to keep my hobby — my art — going.

Every day a new trick. A new lie. But every day the word count grows. The work takes shape. The story comes alive.

Keeping Score: April 5, 2019

Written 1,014 words so far this week. That’s a little short of my 1,500-word goal, but given I ended up with 3,805 words for last week, I’m going to give myself a bit of a break.

I hit that awesome word count last week because of WorldCon. Partly because it was so inspiring. Partly because I had more time alone in which to write.

But it was more than that. WonderCon made me feel like a writer.

For maybe the first time, my imposter syndrome was flipped. I started seeing myself the way one of the panelists said we should see ourselves: that like superheroes, the day job is our secret identity, but in truth we’re writers.

And I finally felt that way. Not only did I feel like a writer, I felt like myself. That it isn’t shameful to not be published yet, because everyone starts out unpublished. That it isn’t bad or a barrier to have a day job, because everyone needs a way to pay the bills.

I even got to share this feeling. In the last panel, on “Writing the First Draft,” Jonathan Butler gave us all homework: to turn to the person sitting next to us, introduce ourselves, and build our support network of fellow writers.

But when I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said “So, you’re a writer?”, she looked down and said, “What makes someone a writer?”

I told her what Jonathan Maberry has told us at every Writers Coffeehouse, something I’m not sure I really believed until that moment: “Writers write. If you write, you’re a writer.”

She smiled, and started telling me about the screenplay she’s working on.

I might never see her again, but for that moment, I felt like we were friends, peers, fellow writers making our way along the path.

It was an incredible moment, and for that feeling alone, that feeling of being at the same time an authentic writer and my real self, it was worth it to go to WonderCon.

What about you? What moments have inspired you as a writer, or made you feel comfortable calling yourself a writer?

Keeping Score: March 29, 2019

Something V. E. Schwab tweeted earlier this week really struck me:

It’s often hard to start, but wow, I always forget how much BETTER I feel after writing/editing/working. It’s like a pressure valve. My chest feels looser. My head feels quiet.

Could not agree more. Particularly this week, when I put off working on the novel for…well…most of the week, only to finally sit down on Thursday and bang out most of my word count.

And it was like a spring uncoiled inside me. My shoulders relaxed. I realized I hadn’t listened to music all week, either, but after writing I finally felt like listening again. I felt like singing.

I hope I don’t forget that feeling, today, tomorrow, or next week.

Particularly today, when I’ve only got 1,034 words in towards my 1,500-word goal. The number’s a bit of a jumbled mess; I’ve hit the point where I’m leaving most scenes intact, but still need to rewrite whole sections to make it work. So I’m taking the total word count for each scene, dividing it by two, and moving on.

That means I need to go through 1,000 words this weekend in order to hit my goal. Note to self: remember how good it feels to be done writing? Hold onto that.

What about you? Do you find you’re more relaxed after writing? Or is it like taking a bite of your favorite pie, and once you get going you never want to stop?

Breakout Breakdown: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

So I’ve given myself homework.

I decided to take the list of books the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook uses for examples of good writing, whittle them down to the ones whose excerpts intrigued me, and read them all.

I figure I’ll discover some new authors, learn some new techniques, and get exposed to genres I wouldn’t normally read in.

First up: Empire Falls

Motivation

I liked that it wasn’t Russo’s first book, but his fifth, that broke out. It makes me feel like writing is a craft that you can get better at over time, and so long as I keep practicing and working on my technique, I can write a truly good book.

I was also intrigued because it broke out in a big way: it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. So not only did it make it seem possible to eventually write a good book, it means it’s possible to work hard at it, and write a great one.

Breaking it Down

Point of View

Third-person tight, with flashes of omniscience, plus jumps.

In other words, it’s all told in third-person, and mostly sticks close to one character’s thoughts and perspective during a chapter, but will occasionally jump over to someone else for a paragraph, then come back. Oh, and also the author’s voice sometimes comes in, to render a judgement on someone’s personality.

It works, though it breaks all kinds of rules.

Writing Style

Conversational, bordering on rambling. I can’t think of a single page that doesn’t have at least one flashback, possibly two. It’s all relevant material, and it fleshes out the world completely, but it definitely slows things down.

Overall effect is like an AMC show from around 2006: deliberately slow and relaxed pacing. As if there’s no final destination in mind, so there’s no reason to rush off there.

Breakout Techniques

Even though nothing happens for the first 3/4 of the book, the stakes for the characters involved are clear. Nothing happening is exactly the problem, and the reason so many of them are miserable.

And the plot threads are tightly woven. All that backstory has knock-on effects decades later, and Russo manages to pull otherwise random events together and make it all match up.

That said, “tension on every page” is something the book doesn’t have. If anything, there’s a complete lack of tension. It made reading it rather relaxing, oddly enough; hanging out with the sad sacks of Empire Falls after a stressful day at work felt like unwinding.

Re-readability

None.

I appreciate the mastery of technique here; no dispute about the Pulitzer. But the technique is in service of a story that I don’t want to read again.

It makes me think: if I could write that well about something with more action, more movement, how much fun would that be?

Keeping Score: March 22, 2019

Only 751 words written so far this week. Seems I’ll be playing catch-up again this weekend.

I’ve had some trouble writing the new scenes, particularly dialog. I want to be sure to capture each character’s unique way of speaking, along with their thoughts and feelings in the moment, all the while maintaining the right intensity level for the scene.

It leads to doubt, which leads to feeling blocked. Which means no words.

To unblock me, I’m trying something new: let them swing for the fences. As in, instead of internalizing something like:

I wanted to tell him to go to hell. But I knew I shouldn’t, because that might set him off again. Get me in trouble with the Warden.

I go ahead and let the characters say what they want to say:

“Go to hell,” I blurted. “You’ve wanted my job for years, and you’re just looking for an excuse to take it. But I’ll be damned if you’ll get it without a fight.”

…and then, sure, they get in trouble. But it’s more interesting to write, it’s easier to write, actually, and hopefully it’s more interesting to read.

What about you? How do you get over the fear and doubt that come from staring at a blank page?

Tracking the Books

I need to find a replacement for Goodreads, because I hate using it.

Its UI is terrible. It looks like something I would’ve designed back in high school, and I’m a color-blind back-end developer that wouldn’t know a good font choice if there was only one to pick.

The performance of the site is terrible. Searching for books takes too long, and (and!) if you type too much of the book’s title into the search bar, the one you want will go whizzing by, replaced by books that are nothing like the one you’re looking for.

Even when you finally do locate the exact book you want to add to one of your shelves, if you later want to, say, find a list of all the books you’ve read this past year (as I tried to do back in January), you’ll find that Goodreads does not fill in the date every time you mark a book as read. I think somewhere between a quarter and a third of all the books on my “read” shelf have no dates attached to them, so they end up in a jumble at the bottom of the list, no rhyme or reason to them.

But what choice do I have? I have a few hundred books in hard copy in my house. Another two hundred or so scattered across various ebook formats: Kindle (follies of youth), Nook (ditto), Kobo (simply the best), and iBooks (don’t judge me). All of which I need to keep track of, if only to keep myself from buying a book I already own. Goodreads, for all its flaws, at least lets me do that.

I suppose as a developer I’m supposed to build my own solution. And I’ve thought about it; I could write an importer to take the xml junk Goodreads’ api barfs out, clean it up, and then shove it into a text search engine (probably Elasticsearch) for easy retrieval later.

But that’s a fair-sized project, and if I can, I’d rather take advantage of someone else’s work (and pay them for it, gladly).

So: Are there other, better, apps out there for tracking a personal library? If you use one, which one, and why?

Keeping Score: March 15, 2019

Wrote 971 words this week towards the second draft.

That’s short of the 1,500 words I’d like to produce by the end of the week, so I’ll have to do some catch-up work this weekend.

I’m not too worried though. Even though I’m terrified of sucking every time I sit down to write, once I get over my fears and actually do it, everything flows. It’s like I know who these characters are, I know where and when everything is taking place. I finally have a solid grasp of what their story is and where it’s going.

I’m hoping this won’t turn into a complete rewrite. Not that I can’t do it — I feel like I actually could, no question — but I don’t know that I could do it in time to meet my self-imposed June deadline.

I don’t think that’ll have to happen, though. I’m writing new scenes now, but later on I should be able to take scenes I’ve got and just tweak them a bit to make them match the new story beats.

How do you choose which parts to keep and which parts to re-work completely when editing something? Do you lean more towards keeping what’s there, or are you more inclined to tear it up and start over?

Keeping Score: February 1, 2019

I’m almost done with the Breakout Novel Workbook. Only seven exercises left to go, which I might be able to knock out by the end of next week, assuming I double-up some days.

Even as I enter the last part of the book, the novel keeps changing. One of the last exercises was on marking changes in how the characters see each other, which pushed me to ask why Character X comes to see Character Y favorably, which led me to alter a scene so those two characters were in it (instead of the original two), which opened up new connections I hadn’t seen before between events very early in the book and the arrival of Character X, which led to…a whole cascade of changes.

All good changes, I think. The workbook emphasizes connections — between characters, between actions, between subplots — and each change is making the parts of the book more connected. With each change, it’s almost like I can feel the various plot threads pulling together, tightening up.

And I need that tautness, that tension. I want this story to be so tight it hums.

I’m even starting to see where the lessons of the workbook can be applied to the short stories I’ve been shopping around. Ways to make their stories more personal, more powerful. Once I finish the workbook, I might practice some of those techniques on the short stories before tackling the novel. None of the stories have sold, so it can’t hurt, right?

Keeping Score: January 25, 2019

I’m almost two-thirds of the way through the Breakout Novel workbook, now.

The exercises seem to be getting easier. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m resisting them less, or because I’m just getting used to the idea of needing to punch up the book. Definitely not because they’re any less work; most of the exercises end with a variation of “all that work you did? great. now repeat it ten times, for other parts of your novel.”

Things are starting to fall together, though. Changes inspired by one exercise are rippling through the others, presenting new opportunities for making the book better.

For example, one exercise had me work through the story from the perspective of my antagonists. Thinking about what would make their lives harder pushed me to change the occupation of one of my protagonists, and that opened up new ways to make her story intersect with the other characters in interesting ways.

I know that each change I contemplate is creating more work for myself down the line, when I start to actually implement these changes in the novel. But I’m excited about the work, actually, not intimidated. I feel these changes really will make my novel better.

I might not succeed in pulling them off, true. But if I don’t push myself, if I don’t try to make them, I’ll never get any better at this. And that would be worse than failing.

Keeping Score: January 18, 2019

Ever had a week where you feel like a failure? When even the things that go right don’t go right enough to balance out the things that go wrong?

That’s what this week was for me.

Not on the writing front, thank goodness. But in my day job, in the work that keeps me fed and clothed and housed. This week it felt like nothing I did there was good enough, for anyone, and it’s had me looking forward to the weekend like nothing else.

Thank goodness for my writing. Even as I work through the Breakout Novel Workbook, finding flaws in my novel, I don’t feel defeated. I feel energized, like I finally have full control over something. There’s no committee going to tell me to leave a scene as-is to meet an arbitrary deadline. No coworker to stomp on my dialog choices because they think things should be phrased differently.

No, this novel is mine, like nothing else is. I can do what I want with it, fix it the way I want to fix it, polish it until it gleams.

It’s a powerful feeling, and a solace during such a hard week. Editing this novel is going to be a lot of work, but it’s work no one can stop me from doing.