Keeping Score: August 7, 2020

I need to get back to working on the novel.

I’ve let it sit these past few weeks, untouched, while I finished getting one short story into shape and started plotting a new one.

But if I’m going to meet my personal deadline of having the novel ready to submit to agents by December 1st, I’m going to need to edit this second draft.

To be honest, I’m intimidated. I’ve never edited anything this long before.

How do I even do it? Read it all through, and then go back and edit passages? That sounds…like it’ll take forever.

Or do I work chapter by chapter, editing each one until it’s done, and then moving on? That sounds like an easy way to lose sight of inconsistencies (or to having to go back and edit previous chapters anyway, as inconsistencies show up).

I think what I’m going to do is a series of editing passes. Pick one thing to look for — like the consistency of a single character’s dialog — and edit all instances of that. Then pick something else — the descriptions of a ship, say — and edit all of those.

I’m hoping this will give me a structure in which to do multiple reads over the book, without getting lost in the weeds of any individual chapter. And it should broaden my perspective so I can stitch the book together, so to speak, with these edits. Make it more coherent, more whole.

But what do I do with the short story I’ve been outlining? I don’t want to lose momentum on that. And I worry that the novel, once I start editing it, will take up all the room in my brain for narrative.

I want to work on both. Use the story as a break from the novel, and use the novel as a break from the story. They’re different enough — one’s near-future sci-fi, the other is early modern period fantasy — that I should be able to keep them separate in my head. And editing is different enough from drafting that I’ll be exercising different writing muscles with each.

What about you? What do you do, when you’ve got a longer piece to edit and a shorter one to draft? Do you alternate working days? Finish the shorter piece before editing the longer? How do you handle two stories that both need your attention?

Keeping Score: July 31, 2020

I feel like I’m telling this story to myself, over and over again, with each outline. New details get filled in, new connections appear, with each telling.

And each day I get up and tell it to myself another time, adding more pieces.

I so much want to just write, just set the words down on the page and let them fall where they may.

But then I’ll be plotting out the second third of the story, and I’ll have an idea that ripples all the way back to the beginning. And it makes me glad I haven’t started writing anything more than snippets of dialog just yet. Because all of those snippets will likely need to change.

This story…It’s more complicated than other short stories I’ve written. Less straightforward.

It’s a five-part structure. One part setup, followed by three parts flashbacks (taking place over years and across continents), followed by a climax. And it all needs to hang together like a coherent whole, present flowing to flashbacks and then returning to the present.

I’m not sure I can pull it off, to be honest. I’ll have to do a good bit of research for each flashback, just to ground them in reality. Then there’s the problem of each flashback needing to be its own story, complete with character arc, while feeding into the larger narrative.

It’s like writing four stories at once, really, with them nested inside each other.

Will it all make sense, in the end? Will the flashbacks prove to be too long, and need culling? Will my framing device be so transparent that it’s boring? Will the conclusion be a big enough payoff?

Who knows?

All I can do is tell myself the story, piece by piece, over and over again, until I can see it all clearly.

Keeping Score: July 24, 2020

I’ve never written a short-story this way before.

I’m coming at it more like a novel. I’m outlining, then researching things like character names and historical towns to model the setting off of, then revising the outline, rinse, repeat.

So I’ve written very little of it, so far. And what I have written — snippets of dialog and description — might get thrown out later, as the outline changes.

I’m not sure it’s better, this way. I feel frustrated at times, like I want to just write the thing and get it over with.

But I know — well, I feel — that that will result in a story that’s not as good as it could have been. Like eating grapes before they’ve ripened on the vine.

And I do keep coming up with more connections between the various pieces of the story, more ways to tie it all together. Each one is an improvement. Each one makes the story stronger.

Perhaps that’s how I’ll know when to stop outlining, and start writing? When I literally can’t think of any way to make the story itself better?

How about you? How do you know when it’s time to write a story, and when it needs to sit in your mind a little while longer?

Keeping Score: July 17, 2020

Started drafting a new short story this week.

I’m taking a different approach, this time. For short stories, I usually just sit down and write it out, all in one go. At least for the first draft.

For this story, I’m doing a mix of outlining and writing. I jot down lines of dialog as they come to me, or — in one case — the whole opening scene came in flash, so I typed it up.

But the majority of the story is still vague to me, so I’m trying to fill it in via brainstorming and daydreaming. Sketching a map of where it’s taking place, thinking through why the town it’s set in exists, what it’s known for. Drafting histories for the main characters.

It’s fun, so it’s also hard to convince myself that it’s work. Necessary work, at that.

Because my guilty writer conscience wants to see words on the page. No matter that I’m not ready, the ideas only half-formed. For it, it’s sentences or nothing.

So I’m pushing back by reading a book specifically about short story techniques, using the authority of another writer to argue (with my guilt) that it’s okay to pause and think. That progress can mean no words save a character bio. That every story needs a good foundation, and that’s what I’m trying to build.

It’s working, so far. My guilt does listen, just not always to me.

What about you? How do you balance the need to feel productive with the background work that every story requires?

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Masterful. Incredibly well-crafted series of nested narratives that simultaneously did a deep dive into Dracula lore and sucked me into a single family’s generations-long saga. Just…wow. So well done.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • You can use flashbacks to cover over narrative time that would otherwise be boring, like train (or plane) travel
  • To make an old myth feel fresh, look for the side that’s not usually given a starring role (like the Turkish side of the Dracula legend), and explore it.
  • Journals and letters are a great way to both nest stories, and keep each story personal, told by the person that lived it

Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Beautiful. Simple, tight prose, telling a deeply moving story.

Can’t wait to read the next one.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • What a society condemns is just as important to making it feel lived-in as what it praises.
  • Characters don’t always have to be imposing their will on the world. They can show their inner character by the opportunities they take advantage of, as well.
  • In a world of bad choices and flawed people, heroes can be cruel and cowardly, and villains can show mercy.

Getting Back to Work

Haven’t been able to write since Tuesday. I’ve been too hurt, too confused, too angry to spin up my imagination and write about what’s happening in that other world.

It doesn’t help that it’s supposed to be a light book, full of whimsy and humor.

I don’t feel very funny anymore.

But I’ve got to get back to it.

Maybe the book will turn out a little darker than I’d intended, now. Or maybe I’ll find a way to recapture the fun spirit I started with, and use the book to remind myself of the good things that are still out there: the wife that loves me, the friends that support me, the peers that understand what’s happening, and forgive.

But most of all I need to finish it because this book has suddenly become more explicitly political than I intended.

My main character is a lesbian, which when I started out was just the way the character came into my head. Now it feels like writing her is an act of defiance, a way of pushing back against Trump and his ilk.

No one else may ever read this book, and it may never be good enough to be published. But damned if I won’t finish it, and make it as good as I can make it.

Because the importance of minority representation in fiction has just hit home to me, and I want to do my part.

Editing Day

Today is Editing Day.

I’ve patched the holes in the plot. I’ve gone through and made the language more consistent. I’ve checked the character’s backstory to make sure it all hangs together.

Now it’s time to do the cutting. Time to trim away the fat from my descriptions, to cut the unnecessary dialog, to skip over any boring action sequences.

It’s good I have the day off. I’ll be spending it making the first cuts, and planning the word culling to come.

Lustlocked by Matt Wallace

Brilliant. Wallace’s writing is as lean and focused as ever, keeping the action moving and the laughs coming.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Background action can be sped up, to keep focus on foreground.
  • It’s ok to stand up and cheer for your characters once in a while. It gives readers permission to cheer for them, as well.
  • Seeing the consequences of a weird event (transformation, spell effect, etc) before seeing the event itself can make its eventual description less confusing and more interesting.

Chasing the Moon by A. Lee Martinez

Intimidating. Martinez mixes bits of Cthulhu Mythos with Norse mythology while maintaining a comedic slant throughout. How does he do it?

Three writing techniques that I think helped him pull it off:

  • Use the mundane to ground bizarre events. That could be the relationship between two characters, or the rhythms of work, or the ubiquity of bureaucracy.
  • When describing weird things happening, a deadpan tone with a bit of sarcasm can both help the reader sympathize with the characters and help them see the humor in the situation.
  • Voice goes a long way in defining a character. If each character has a very distinct voice, then the reader doesn’t need as many vocal tags, they don’t need as much description of the character, they can build it in their mind from the dialog.