Keeping Score: 9 September 2022

Finished typing up the first draft of the new story over the long weekend. Even found time to create a new Ulysses export style based on the Shunn Manuscript Format (the standard for most of the markets I submit to) so I don’t have to manually fix up the margins, etc when exporting to Word (there are existing Styles that claim to be standard format, but are all missing one or more essential pieces).

Not that the story is ready to submit, mind. I typed it dutifully, and edited as I went to make it the best version of this draft I could. But the tonal shifts are still too big to handle in a short story, and the ending doesn’t land with near enough force.

So over the past week I’ve taken a page from literary agent Donald Maass’ workbook, which I’ve used before to edit novels. One of the big points the workbook drives home is the need to look for connections in the story: between plots, between characters, between locations, everything. Strengthening connections can both tighten and deepen the story, making the stakes feel larger because there’s more history — more connection — between the events and characters.

For this story, I had a set of three characters loosely connected. One was the main character, who worked for one of the other characters, and had hired the protagonist to work on a case for the third. There was no prior history, no relationship between the characters other than the business one. As a result, the conflicts were mainly business conflicts: Can the protagonist get the assignment done (extracting a secret from the client)? Will she rebel against it when she finds out what it really entails? Etc. Not bad, but certainly not world-shattering, either.

But what if the three characters were more connected? What if the client was the protagonist’s father? And the person hiring her to dig into his past was her mother?

Now things get more interesting. Why would the mother pit the daughter against the father? What marriage would have that level of conflict? Why would the daughter agree to go along, at least first? And what might possibly change her mind?

This one shift generated a whole new slew of ideas for me, so much that yesterday when I sat down to work on the story, I started writing out — longhand, again — an entirely new draft. New starting scene, new tense, new voice, even (it’s now in first-person).

I’m already happier with the new draft. It feels more assured, like a train engine already running under full steam. I’m looking forward to exploring what the characters do in this new situation, with these new connections between them.

I never could have gotten there, though, without that first draft. And I’m still going to crib plot and structure from it, even if they end up squeezed into new shapes.

What about you? Have you ever done a complete rewrite of a story, and were you glad you did?

Keeping Score: 2 September 2022

Draft is done! Long live the draft!

Finished the first, very messy, draft of the new short story this week. I already kind of hate it, even after writing the last scene like the previous one didn’t happen. Both those scenes, I think, are going to see heavy edits in the next draft.

For now, though, I’m simply typing it up. Yes, typing: I wrote the first draft longhand, in a little notebook, after reading the advice in Chavez’s book on anti-racist workshopping. Her take was that making her students write out the first draft by hand made them more willing to experiment, to scratch things out and rewrite on the fly, without their inner editor getting in the way. And for the most part, I’ve found that to be true; I’ve got scenes that are out of order on the page, with squiggly lines connecting the pieces to each other in the right sequence. And knowing that I would type it all later — and “fix it in post” — made it easier to finish writing the scenes that I knew, even while writing them, that I was going to have to change.

(she also said that writing longhand got her students more in tune with their bodies, but being over-40 myself, I mostly got in tune with how quickly my hand starts to cramp up)

I am making changes as I type. Fixing a phrase here, adding some blocking (e.g., “she sat back and crossed her arms”) there. Discovering I wrote an entire scene in the wrong tense (!), or used the wrong character’s name in places.

But I’m holding off from making any big changes till I’ve finished typing it. I want to go through the whole thing once more, reading and typing, getting a better feel for how it might all fit together. I’m taking notes as I go, on things I want to change (or simply try differently, to see how it reads), so I can come back after this and do a second draft.

My intent — my hope — is to have the characters and basic plot nailed down during the second draft. (oh, you thought I’d have that set by the time I started the first draft? welcome to pantsing) From there, it’ll be much easier to iterate on revisions, including at least one pass where I’ll print it out and then go through it.

Given my current pace, I might have something to show beta readers by the end of the month? Fingers crossed.

Keeping Score: 26 August 2022

Ever write a scene, and immediately regret it?

This week I’ve been focusing on finishing one, just one, of the story first draft I’m in the middle of. I carefully plotted out what scenes were left at the start of the week, and spent each day’s writing session chugging along, setting them down.

Only when I got to the second-to-last scene, I made it halfway through before coming to a screeching halt. Despite all my well-laid plans, I was suddenly out of track, for two reasons.

One, I’d decided to have the main character expose her boss as a fake, by flipping open the many file boxes her boss has strewn around and showing them all to be empty. Very dramatic, fun scene, in my head. Only I forgot to come up with a reason why the boxes were empty.

So when I got to the part where she opened them up, and I needed to show her boss’ reaction, I had nothing. No idea. Nothing to see here folks, the muse has gone home for the day.

Two, even once I’d spent some time brainstorming ideas for the boxes, and started back in on the scene, I realized the tone was completely wrong. I’d started the story off as a meditation on memory and purpose, with a protagonist gradually realizing she wants to do something else with her life.

Emphasis on gradually. Not big-d Dramatically, or in some blaze of glory, but over time, like the tide receding from a beach. And here I had this high-volume scene right towards the end of the story. It doesn’t wok, and I knew it wouldn’t work as I was writing it.

But I finished the scene anyway. I’ve been told too many times, by too many authors more experienced and skilled than me, that stopping to edit in the middle of a draft is an excellent way to never get anything finished.

And once again, they’ve turned out to be right! Because in finishing the scene, and chewing it over once I’d done it, I realized moving the scene earlier in the story — with some tweaks — will give it all the things it was missing before: a ticking clock, a purpose behind the boss’ actions, a push for the protagonist to make her life-altering decision.

I’ve got one more scene left to write in this draft, so I’m going to take another page out of their advice, and write it like I’ve already made the change I’m thinking of doing in the next draft. That way, when I actually write that draft, this final scene won’t need as many edits (and I’ll have a completed draft, which is an accomplishment on its own).

What about you? Have you ever had a scene (or a story) that you thought you’d need to throw away, and instead it became the spark that set off something even better?

Keeping Score: 12 August 2022

Earlier this week I decided to take a survey of what stage my various stories are, since I lost track of them over the course of Covid July.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Flash pieces needing final revision before submittal: 2
  • Short stories needing significant drafting: 2
  • Stories needing a complete first draft: 3

That’s seven stories in various stages, none of which are ready to go out to beta readers or submitted to markets! My original list only had five stories; I woke up the next morning and realized I’d left two off the list entirely.

I seem to be replicating a pattern from my day-job, where I commonly work on multiple projects at once, pushing each forward until I hit a blocker (or a stopping point) and then switching to the next. I’ve apparently started doing the same thing with my writing, starting a story and then switching to another if I feel any resistance to working on the first one.

So now I’ve got four months of story work, and basically nothing to show for it (to anyone else, anyway). At this point, my inner Paul McCartney is going “We need a system!”

But is that the case? Is it wrong of me to borrow this working pattern from my day job?

I’m not sure. I don’t have any deadlines to meet. No editors or publishers waiting for my words (those these are problems I’d like to have, someday!). I’ve only got myself, and so long as I’m happy working on several things at once, who’s to say I need to stop?

Except. The danger — as I found in July — is that I lose the thread of the story, or many stories, in trying to work on too many at once. Or end up repeating and re-using elements across them, instead of letting each story grow into its own unique self.

Maybe the answer is compromise: Don’t start another first draft until the current one is finished. Always come back and edit the previous story’s draft before doing the next one. And so on. So I can still work on multiple pieces at once, so long as I only have one or two in the revision queue at the same time.

What about you? Do you work on one story at a time, all the way through from draft to final edit? Or do you bounce between multiple pieces at the same time, working on whichever one strikes your Muse as the one for the day?

Keeping Score: 29 July 2022

Yesterday was my first time fiction writing since I got sick.

That’s three weeks of not making any progress. Of not being able to make progress, because even once the fever and the chills and the wracking cough subsided, I couldn’t focus long enough to read a story, let alone create a new one.

I confess I worried I might not be able to, even now. I’ve heard so much about a lingering “brain fog” after getting Covid to make me anxious that I would try to write again and fail, that I wouldn’t be able to pick up the stories I’d been working on, or find myself writing only in clichés and bad dialog.

Well. I won’t speak to the quality of the draft I worked on yesterday, but I did work on it, and I did make progress. In fact, the rest of the story is coalescing in my head now, and I can see the path to finishing it.

This draft, anyway. There’ll be edits to do afterward, of course.

But at least I know I can keep working. I still get fatigued more easily than I used to; back-to-back meetings at work leave me not just mentally but physically drained now. And when I tried walking last weekend, I made it just a few kilometers out before turning back for home, where I promptly fell into a nap.

And yet. My brain keeps on ticking, and I can work around the fatigue till it passes. So that’s one worry resolved, for now, at least.

Hope you’re able to write through your own worries, and find ways to make progress no matter what stands in your way.

Keeping Score: 8 July 2022

This week I’ve mostly been focused on typing up the mix of notes, scenes, and outline from my notebook for the now expanded, gender-flipped, sidekick-to-protagonist science fiction story (whew!).

I’m having to do a bit of expansion and interweaving as I go. I didn’t write the scenes in order, to begin with, and then I’ve also been blending it with what I wrote in the second (typed straight to laptop) draft, so that hopefully the whole thing is coherent.

I’m nearing the ending, which I haven’t written yet, but I’ve got such a strong image for that I think I can just type it out when I get there. Also I’ve got to lay the path for it, so to speak, by weaving in elements in these earlier scenes so the final one feels like a proper payoff, rather than an abrupt turn (though there is a turn, I just don’t want it to jolt a reader out of the story).

One thing I want to pay particular attention to, and change if I can’t get it right, is the (now) main character’s ethnicity. In my mental storyboards, she’s a second-generation Asian-American, and that’s how I’ve presented her in terms of name, etc. But in reading books like Craft in the Real World and The Girl at the Baggage Claim, and novels like Earthlings and The Woman in the Purple Skirt, I’m starting to doubt whether I can properly portray such a character. I’ve been thinking I can use my experience as an internal (and now international) immigrant as a bridge to their worldview, but I think now that that’s not enough. There’s the pervasive racism experienced by minorities in the States, and on top of that the misogyny that uniquely harms Asian-American women (I say harms, not harmed, because it keeps happening: witness the one character in “The Boys” who is introduced as completely feral and whose voice is silenced is the one Asian woman in the cast). And that’s before we get into differing family relationships, unique cultural touchstones, etc.

So I’m not sure if I should change the POV character’s ethnicity or not. I think that during these handwritten drafts I’ve found an approach that can be both representative and respectful. And I don’t want to be the kind of white writer that only writes white people (any more than I want to be the kind of male writer that only writes men). The world is diverse, and I want to represent that in my fiction. But I want to do it well, which means more than just changing a character’s name or skin color.

We’ll see how the draft comes out. And what my sensitivity readers say when they review it.

Keeping Score: 1 July 2022

I think my writing brain is telling me to move on from the short stories.

I’ve kept up with the notebook writing this week, jotting down scenes and brainstorming directions for the plots of both short stories (the shorter mystery and the longer sci-fi one). But on Monday my fingers refused to write anything for either story, instead choosing to talk about the summer weather (which became my last blog post). And yesterday, when I reached for my notebook, I had a spark of an idea that turned into a plot for an entire rom-com novel.

It’s like my subconscious is telling me it’s bored of drafting the short stories, and wants to move on, to something different. Before I can do that, though, I need to actually type up what I’ve written freehand, and try to edit it into a coherent piece.

So that’s what I’ll be working on this weekend and next week. Typing, editing, and revising both stories, till the ideas in my notebook have been fitted into place. Hopefully that’ll be enough to keep my writing brain engaged and happy; it’s different work, after all, from drafting, and uses different muscles.

And then…maybe I’ll give this rom-com a shot? Or maybe it’s a thriller. It really depends on the ending, you see, and…

Well. We’ll see.

Keeping Score: 24 June 2022

I’ve been reading Craft in the Real World and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, two books that both approach the issue of how the traditional writing workshop in the US — silent author, readers and teacher judging the work, comparison to an all-white literary canon — was constructed less to promote healthy writing communities and more to reinforce white supremacy in the States.

I confess it’s been hard reading, sometimes. Being confronted with the way I’ve been taught — and taught to teach others — about writing and being shown its racist underpinnings does not make for comfortable reading. But I’m pushing past that white fragility of mine, and interrogating it, and each time what I find at the root is simply fear. Fear that I’ll be the one erased, in the kind of workshop these authors describe. Fear that I’ll become the marginalized. Because the one thing all white people know, even when we don’t want to admit it, is that being in the minority in the Western caste system sucks.

When I face that fear, and name it, I’m able to move past it, and see the workshops they’re presenting as what they really are: places where everyone can take center stage for a time, where each author is empowered with the tools and the confidence to better their craft. Those tools are there for me, too, if I’m willing to listen, and use them.

So I’m testing them out, so to speak. I don’t have a formal writing workshop to go to, but I am trying a new approach with the feedback I give to the other writers in my writing circle. I’m aiming my feedback less at “I liked this” or “I don’t like this character” and more towards highlighting the choices I see them making. Like asking how scenes might play out differently if X were changed, or querying about the symbolism behind the repetition of a certain element. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, just yet, but I’m striving for the kind of centering of the author as an actively participating artist that Salesses and Chavez encourage.

I’m also borrowing some of their practices for my own writing. For this new short story I’m writing, I’ve taken to writing out the new draft by hand, in a notebook. Chavez says she insists her students write by hand, as a way to silence the inner editor and let the words flow onto the page. And so far, it’s working; writing it out has helped me get out of my own way, and make progress on the draft, when staring at the computer screen would feel like too much pressure. Chavez is right: Something about using hand and pen and paper is liberating, making me feel less like every word needs to be perfect and more like the story in my head needs to be written down right now.

As a result, the new draft is taking shape. It’s going to be longer and more complicated than I originally thought, with POV shifts and an expanded world. The side character that I had in the first draft and then gender-flipped has now become the protagonist (!) with all the changes that entails. But where I initially approached this new draft with trepidation, now I’m excited to see it come together.

What techniques do you use, to quiet your inner editor and feel free to write the stories you most want to tell?

Keeping Score: 17 June 2022

Gender-flipping one of the characters in my new short story turns out to be the best decision I could have made. Whole new story possibilities have opened up, and I’m following through on them as best I can.

Which is to say, I haven’t made any progress on the horror story I started last week.

I’m basically back to draft zero on the sci-fi piece (now gender-flipped). The story’s going to need to get longer, much longer, in order to capture these new ideas. Somehow I’m going to need to pull off switching POVs inside the short story form, which is usually a no-no.

And it might still be! But I won’t know for sure until I try it out. Maybe switching POV between scenes will be a disaster. Maybe I’ll read the new draft through and find it’s a horrible mess. But then again, maybe I won’t.

So I’m trying to give myself the freedom to explore. I’m still forcing myself to sit down at least 15 minutes a day and work on a story, any story. But I’m not judging the output of those fifteen minutes. If it’s character sketches, great! If it’s brainstorming possible plot twists, also fine. Just so long as it’s effort spent on the story, in whatever form that takes.

This weekend I’m hoping to carve out some time to do some drafting based on the notes I’ve put together over the week. It’d be nice to have a finished draft together, however messy, that I can start editing next week.

Hope your own writing is going well, and that you’re avoiding the trap of judging your work by anyone else’s standards.

Keeping Score: 10 June 2022

Started the first draft of the new horror story this week, but just barely. Managed to bang out a single scene before my brain came to a screeching halt.

At first I was scared, thinking my writer’s block had come back. But after a day to calm down, I figured it out: I still needed to edit the flash pieces I banged out last month. My writing brain — who commutes between my subconscious and Tír na nÓg, I call them Fred — wasn’t ready to move on to a new story just yet. Outline, sure, but draft? No way. Edits first.

So I’ve mostly been editing. Two of the flash pieces I wrote are ready to go. A third is on its second draft, but I think it needs a third major one before any fine-tuning passes. I had an idea for gender-flipping one of the characters that I think will make the dialog more interesting (because it’ll bring out more of each character’s personality) and easier to follow (because the dialog tags will be different).

I’ve also been (kind of) editing my prison break novel. As I mentioned before, I’ve joined a writing group, so I’m using it as my submission — 2,500 words at a time — for each session. We’re using Google Docs for sharing, which I thought would be annoying (ok, it is annoying) but has given me a chance to edit each section before I copy/paste it into the shared doc. It’s mostly cleanup edits: Fixing a typo here, reworking a bit of dialog there. But it’s making the draft stronger, and they’re giving me some very useful feedback on it (like catching that a character didn’t bother to put on a pressure suit before heading out an airlock!).

It’ll take us (as a group) a while to get through it all, but I’m hoping at the end of it I’ll have a firm sense of what needs to be updated in one more editing pass before I can start sending it out to agents. Then maybe I’ll start (finally) editing the novel previous to that one, and so on and so forth, till they’re all edited and all out on sub. Meanwhile, I can keep churning out short stories, and work to find each of them a publishing home.

Wish me luck!