Wrapping Up a Month of New Writing Habits

Wife made it back from Arkansas on Tuesday (huzzah!), so my hermit-writing time is coming to a close.

Overall, I think having the weekly goals really helped me. While I didn’t hit them all (mumble mumble agent-search), I hit enough of them to build up a writing rhythm, and got a lot done.

All told, I’ve:

  • written two new short stories, and have started a third
  • circulated three previously-written stories
  • completed final-pass editing of all but the last quarter of my first novel
  • reviewed nine submissions by litreactor peeps

I’d like to keep up some of my new habits. I think the litreactor reviews help me to see similar problems in my own fiction, and practice fixing them. I also think the chapter-a-day editing is the only way I can get detailed editing passes done.

I like writing a new short story every week, but at some point I’m going to need to work on editing them all into shape, so I can submit them. So I’ll keep that one for perhaps the next week or two, then settle into editing what I’ve got.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Another classic that I just never got around to reading before.

And it’s deservedly a classic. Dickens absolutely skewers the ruling classes of three societies: his native England, pre-Revolutionary France, and the post-Revolutionary Terror. The snarky political commentary makes his dips into melodrama excusable.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • You can write in the third-person POV without insight into any characters’ thoughts or feelings at all, only their actions and words.
  • Admitting that there is a narrator telling the story (while standing outside of it) gives you a chance to comment on the action, not just tell it.
  • Even if readers can anticipate a turn in the story, if the characters don’t know it’s on its way, you can generate tension just in putting off the moment that that event happens.

Scorecard: Third Week

Third and final week. How’d I do?

  • Edit one chapter a day: Check. Whew.
  • Write a new short story: Check! Last week’s story is up on litreactor for feedback. Newest story will be going up as soon as I have the points.
  • Critique two stories: Check and check.
  • Find a new potential agent for querying: Dropped.
  • Polish and submit a new story each month: Still on track. Got some good feedback on “Wednesday” from the fine folks at litreactor. I’ll revise it this weekend, and should have it ready for submitting by the end of the month.

Scorecard: Second Week

Two weeks in. Had a holiday in the middle of this one, so…how’d I do?

  • Edit one chapter a day: Mostly check. 5 days out of 7 isn’t too bad.
  • Write a new short story each week: Done. First draft of “Wednesday” is complete and ready to submit to litreactor. Draft of second story is coming together.
  • Critique two stories each week: Check. This has become the easiest one to do.
  • Find a new agent to query each week: Nope again. I might need to drop this one, till the editing is done.
  • Polish and submit a new story each month: On track. Hope to get feedback on “Wednesday” soon, and then will revise and start submitting. Also got a rejection back for one of the stories I’d submitted, so I need to send it out again this week.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Fantastically well-done. Weaves together magic, fairies, Great War trauma, romance, sisterly rivalry, and the treatment of special-needs children into one cracking good story.

So very happy to discover there are sequels.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Dribble out your backstory. At the start, offer just enough to explain the choices that brought the character to that point. Introduce the rest later, as needed for the story.
  • You can get away with a romance between two characters that have little in common if you make their raw attraction clear and compelling.
  • Sometimes the greatest climaxes (or turns in the story) happen when the protagonist realizes something about themselves that they didn’t know before.

Scorecard: First Week

Last week I set some goals to keep me on track for a productive summer.

So, how am I doing?

  • Edit one chapter a day: Check. I’m working through the novel backwards this time, to keep it fresh for my editing eyes.
  • Write a new short story each week: Not complete, but new story (working title: Wednesday) is halfway done, and I’ll wrap it up this weekend.
  • Critique two stories each week: Check. By the time the new story’s done, I should have enough points to post it to the litreactor workshop for feedback.
  • Find a new agent to query each week: Nope. Need to set aside some time next week to do this.
  • Polish and submit a new story each month: Check. I’ve currently got three short stories making the submission rounds, one of which I submitted for the first time this month.

Crooked by Austin Grossman

Another strong portrayal of a villain from Grossman.

Avoids the trap of completely rehabilitating Nixon. He’s sympathetic without being likable, and interesting to follow without the reader always cheering them on.

Loses steam in the second half. There’s plot lines that go nowhere, scenes that could have been cut without changing anything, and the climax happens completely off-screen, with no buildup or release of tension.

Still, I learned a few things about writing:

  • Delivering most of your plot via dialog — so long as you’re not data dumping — can be a great way to keep the story moving.
  • The best villains think they’re the hero.
  • Restricting your book to one POV can be too confining. Multiple POV can let you explore other aspects of your world, which you might need if your story takes place somewhere very different.

Going for the Goal

My wife’s in Arkansas for the next few weeks, visiting her mother for her annual pay-off-the-guilt-from-moving-to-California visit.

Normally, this is a time I tell myself I’m going to get a lot of writing done, hermit-in-the-woods style, but instead end up staring at the keyboard, trying to dig up inspiration.

So this time, I’m setting goals. Daily, weekly, and monthly goals:

  • Final-pass edit one chapter in the first novel every day.
  • Write a draft of a new short story every week.
  • Critique two stories submitted to litreactor (the online writer’s workshop) every week.
  • Find a new agent to query every week.
  • Polish and submit a new story to a new market every month.

I’ve decided to go with submitting the first novel to agents. However, I’ve also joined Publisher’s Marketplace, so I can be selective about which agents I query. Less of a shotgun approach, and more of a laser.

I’m hoping the explicit, bite-sized goals will keep me focused. Who knows? They might become new habits.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Basically perfect. It’s low-key, character-driven sci-fi, stuffed with cool ideas and diverse cultures. Completely scratched my Firefly itch, in a good way ūüôā

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Can think of chapters as episodes of a TV series, with cuts between multiple points of view, similar beats, and cliffhanger endings.
  • Having the Shit Go Down at the end of the book rather than the beginning gives the reader time to know and care for the characters, making it more tense.
  • You can get away with an infinite amount of info-dumping if it’s a knowledgeable character explaining things to a clueless character.

Best Book Forward?

At the Writer’s Coffeehouse this weekend, another writer asked what they should do when they have four novels, all finished, each in a different genre, that they want to pitch to agents. Should they target each book’s query¬†to a different agent? Should they mention they have other novels when querying one of them?

The answer — which surprised me — was no to both.

Don’t mention the other novels when first querying. Save that for later, if they want to talk more.

And instead of sending out queries based on the book, pick the agents you’d like to represent you, and send them the book you think has the greatest commercial potential.

Agents will want to represent everything you have. But by querying with the book that will likely sell the best, it’ll be¬†easier for them to imagine selling your book to a publisher, which will increase your chances of convincing them to represent you.

So now I’m confronted with the question: have I been editing the wrong book?

A frustrating question to have, when I’m only one editing pass away from being totally done. And I’ve already written the synopsis. And the query letter. And have agents picked out.

But maybe I’d be querying the wrong book? Of the three, I think my most recent one’s the strongest draft. The second one’s the best story, though, and my beta¬†readers’ favorite. The first one is, of course, the only one that’s actually done, in the sense of being a final draft.

So which one do I query with?