All Posts Filed in ‘you mean my process?

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A for-realsies blog. FOR REALSIES.

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After has been going better than it has been in months. A while ago, I said something about it to a friend and she said, “oh, so you’re still writing it?”

Yes, I’m still writing it.

I’ve just stopped talking about it, because I ran out of ways to spin my lack of progress.

I’m about to start my first draft again, from the start. It’s maybe the 6th or 7th time I’ve done so, but I’m hoping that this time might be the last. I’ve thrown out or can’t use over a hundred thousand words of material. It’s frustrating, and it’s depressing, and there were a few months there were I was frighteningly close to hating the whole project. But I’ve never stopped writing – and I have no intention of that changing.

One of the walls of my bedroom is covered in post-its. I have spreadsheets and documents and flow-charts and note cards, and I still – almost a year later – don’t know how my first act should run. So I write it, and I write it, and I write it. So far, one scene – the first scene I ever wrote, months and months ago – is the only scene that stays constant. Months ago I was blogging about trying to find the feel of the universe, and in some ways, I’m still there. Some days it feels like, if nothing else, I’ll surely eventually exhaust all the ways this story shouldn’t go.

I hope so. I don’t know for sure, but I feel close. What I wrote this week – every day after work in the library – feels real. The worst part is that once I get out of the first act, I have a solid outline. I how the rest of the story goes, I just can’t work out how to get these people colliding in the right ways – and how to make the prose feel the way their world feels in my head.

But I’m closer.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. I always think of Patrick Rothfuss, who said — roughly — in response to fan complaints about how long it was taking him to write The Wise Man’s Fear, “You know I have to make all of it up, right?”

Honestly, it’s huge. I’m excited.

It’s funny, at this point, three years in, really knowing what it means to write a novel. To still want to write novels. To have a job where I’m paid – well – to write stuff that, if not all that interesting, is definitely satisfying, and know that I’d still rather be sweating and agonising over my laptop. Ruining my posture and my eyesight and my social life for people who don’t exist.

The idea of the tortured writer, hunched in a dark room with a bottle of whiskey and their own misery, probably holds a grain of truth. It’s a satisfying process – an amazing, rewarding, incredible process – but it’s not a fun one, a lot of the time. You struggle through the horrible days where you’re grinding out horrible words you know you’ll delete tomorrow, to get to the days where something clicks, or surprises you, or a recalcitrant character starts to talk back. Those days are incredible. On those days, I remember why I do this. Nothing else – nothing else – feels as good as that. My stomach churns and my hands shake. I get so excited I feel physically sick.

It’s a drug, essentially. And sometimes the hardest part is that I can’t share it with anyone – I can’t show you how it feels, and no one in my life will ever be able to be part of those moments, or feel it with me. The best moments of my life are always going to happen on my own.

Which is okay.

But just because I’m not talking about it doesn’t mean I’ve given up, or ever will give up. The opposite.

It doesn’t sound like the most positive recommendation, I know. It’s not really. There’s a reason that so many published authors’ top piece of writing advice boils down to “If you can do anything else, do that instead.” The idea of novel-writing as this creative fiesta, a giant free-for-all of conjunctions and characterisation, is as crazy as the maudlin drunk crying over a typewriter. Writing a novel, producing hundreds of pages of carefully structured story, is more science than art, and more slog than science. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill, and at this point, I’d tell you that even more than creativity and talent, it takes being pedantic, more than a little obsessive, and obstinate to the point of insanity.

But most of all, it needs to be in you. It needs to be part of you. You need to have no choice.

So that’s where I’m at. And right now it’s kind of awesome.

—–

NB: all quotes not ACTUAL quotes, as I’m WAY too lazy to find sources. The second one is definitely attributed to David Foster Wallace at least, but I also feel like Maureen Johnson has said it well too. WHERE she might have said it is a MYSTERY. Everyone loves a mystery!

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Here’s something I prepared earlier…

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I have a problem: I can’t fill up my day.

Seriously, you guys, my time management has turned to custard. For the last 10 months, I’ve been planning, outlining, researching, free-writing… I’ve got 72,000 words of background information (I counted. I was bored) and a clutch of scrawl-filled notebooks — I’m used to getting up, doing whatever has to be done to keep me alive and semi-presentable, heading to the gym, and being settled in at my café by lunch, where I play in my imaginary world until it’s time to go out. I do a solid four or five hours every Saturday and Sunday.

But now I’m writing, and I burn out after two.

I know my limits — I can do a thousand words in a stretch, and then my mind goes into standby. If I push it, I can sometimes squeeze out more, but it’s usually not much, and it’s always bad. So I write a thousand words a day… which doesn’t take that long.

This should be good. I know this should be good. But it turns out that there’s all these hours in days, and I don’t have anything to put in them. I’ve had three coffees. I’ve tried on every pair of ridiculous heels in the city. I’ve fed and watered and exercised myself. I wrote my shopping list and adjusted my budget and called my parents. I washed my hair, even though my hair didn’t need washing

I’ve officially killed all the time I feel capable of killing, and I’ve still got an hour until Sunday drinks kick off.

So I’m early. And I’m drinking. Alone. While blogging, longhand, IN A BAR.

I’m also hogging a four-person outdoor table to myself. Suck it, other patrons.

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Afterverse!

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So, Buffy and Supernatural are both shows in which good-looking people fight monsters. The same themes and scenarios (and actors) turn up in both of them, but the Winchesters’ universe is dark and damp and vaguely 70s; all blue-collar bars and classic rock. Sunnydale is bright and quirky and compact — the people there go to the mall and watch TV and wear colours. Even though Supernatural is the newer show, an iPod feels out of place there in a way it wouldn’t on Buffy… and on Buffy, the Impala would be a joke.

As much as I need Faith and Dean to hook up (and, believe me, I do), they don’t inhabit the same world.

I have the outline for After, the this-then-that. The characters are up and moving. Coco has a delightfully foul mouth. Lucas always has his foot in his. I thought Jamie was going to be cool because Jamie thinks he’s cool, but it turns out no one else is buying what he’s selling.

I’m writing, but mostly in circles. I still don’t know how their world feels.

(Tense, POV and style are all facets of this, but I’m not talking about voice here. Voice — although obviously influenced by what you like and steal and are motivated by — isn’t something I think you can engineer. It develops as you do, but you can’t consciously affect it without sounding like a stunted douchebag. The tense I’m writing in changes the atmosphere of the story, but I can’t decide to write like Elmore Leonard or Meg Cabot any more than I can grow a tail.)

I know it’s hot there. Dry and barren and broken-down. There’s crows and sun-bleached bones and carcasses by the side of the road. People ride horses and carry guns on their hips. There are tattoos and long-fingered trees and rusted-out cars. I know those things, but I can’t feel them yet. I’ve built their world, but I don’t inhabit it.

I went back and read some of Sparks the other night, just to remind myself that although the story may not have worked, I can, historically, write coherent English. The setting — the feeling — of that book centres it. Grounds it. Whitaker is an island that only exists in my mind, but I know how it feels to walk around there.

It helps that I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest. Whitaker is equal parts Deep Cove and Bowen Island, and it feels like the top of North Vancouver in October. It’s crows and firs and constant, half-hearted rain. The mist sits on the ground at night and gets tangled in the tops of the trees in the morning. Raspberry canes crowd out over the sidewalks and houses perch over streams or back into cliffs. In that world, everything is damp and heavy and lush. Everyone has an agenda. It’s seedy and unruly and slightly claustrophobic.

I wrote Sparks here, in New Zealand, mostly in summer. I don’t need to stand in a desert to write dry heat in cold rain, but I’m not comfortable in After’s world yet. I haven’t got the mood, the feel, the weight of it in my head. I wrote a whole sequence in a deserted suburban house before I realised that the house didn’t belong. I moved it outside and changed the tense and it started to click, but I’m still pushing the pieces around, looking for a way in.

It isn’t enough to build the architecture of a world — to know the rules and logic and history. You have to build an atmosphere. The setting and the characters should build on and inform each other, creating something bigger than the sum of the story’s parts. Creating a universe.

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Plotansering…

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I’m freaking out a little bit. I took the end of last week off work to finish my character work and get my ducks in a row to outline, and realised that after six solid months of planning and world-building, I pretty much have everything I need already. YOU GUYS, I COULD WRITE. LIKE. TOMORROW.

WORDS ON PAPER, IN SENTENCES. ACTUAL STORY.

Okay, so by ‘freaking out a bit’, I sort of mean FLIPPING MY SHIT. I’m flipping my shit.

For Sparks, I did a full outline before I wrote a word, and then I did a scene breakdown in a spreadsheet, to keep track of clues dropped and facts collected. Then I wrote the first chapter.

Then I re-wrote it.

For six months.

Then I got back to New Zealand and decided to get serious, and I finished it at a thousand words a day, seven days a week. I banned myself from editing. I banned myself from reading back over anything I’d previously written. If I made a change to a character or plotline, I left myself a note to change all the earlier references to it in editing, and kept going. I kept the document open and minimised at my current page, to prevent the temptation of scrolling past old words.

For After I’m going to try something different. I’m still going to write at a thousand words a day, because that seems to be my creative limit — at least while still working a 40-hour week. I’m still banning myself from reading back or editing as I go, because that way lies chaos and self-doubt and stalling. But I’m not going to do a full outline.

This feels a little like announcing I’m going to jump out of a plane without a parachute, which I genuinely think would be easier. I’m a planner, not a pantser. I can’t pants to save myself. I get overwhelmed and my words dry up and my characters don’t know who they’re supposed to be, and everyone is gripped by a paroxysm of inactivity on page 7 and — gasping — slowly chokes.

It’s always page 7, by the way. My mental leash is about 3,500 words long.

But that said, I had to have a rigid outline for Sparks. It was a mystery. Events had to spin themselves out in a certain way. But at the same time, the depth of my outline kinda bound the story up in itself — or, more, it bound the characters up in the story, and both of them suffered for it.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

— E.L. Doctorow
(From this excellent post on the subject by Timothy Hallinan.)

What I am doing is a partial outline. I know roughly where the whole story ends, and where I want to take my characters in getting there. I’ve spent a lot of time and words getting to know who they are, and the world they live in. After has a three-act structure, and I have a rough outline for act one. From that, I’ve done a scene breakdown of the first sequence of act one. When I’ve written that, I’ll break down the next sequence —  I need to see how everyone copes with the first sequence to understand how the next one will play out, but I need some framework to keep me moving from A to B. I’m hoping this is going to be a compromise that works.

(All of this, non-writers, is extended code for ‘a lot of talking to myself’. Which is also what I’m doing with this blog post. Fun!)

So now I have to use my words. Scary. It’s been almost a year since I finished the first draft of Sparks. WHAT IF I DON’T REMEMBER HOW TO MAKE FICTION WORDS? And more importantly, WHAT IF THEY SUCK?

This idea, as long as it’s still an idea, is still perfect. I haven’t stuffed it into sentences that can constrain it or ruin it. It’s all beautiful, delightful potential. I can still believe I’m good enough to write EXACTLY WHAT I INTEND TO WRITE (belly laughs echo from all other writers ever to live). Wrestling a story out of your head is scary and slippery (and exciting, and daunting, and impossible). Part of not reading back over my work is giving myself permission for my first draft to suck as much as it wants — and part of it is avoiding knowing how much that is. But now, this bit, before the first words go down and the story becomes an entity in its own right; it’s hard not to feel daunted by that bit. I want it to be good. I want it to be PERFECT. Knowing it can’t be doesn’t stop that.

So even though I COULD write tomorrow, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll need to give me at least another week of dicking around before I get up the guts.

—–

In case it’s not completely obvious, all this process stuff is just what works for me — and that’s a work in progress itself. If I’ve learned one thing from the wider interwebs, it’s that everyone’s process is different. You have to be true to whatever works for you. Cherry-pick from any advice that sounds good, but you won’t know if it will work for you until you try it.

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I didn’t forget you, dear imaginary readers!

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Actually, Analytics tells me you’re not all imaginary, but I have NO IDEA where you’re coming from. Comment and say hi, would ya? Especially the visitor from Ethiopia.

Things what occurred in my absence:

— Chuck invalidated my entire last post, but in a way so excellent that I can’t even hate them for it. Also, Supernatural and I made up. It was the fireworks that did it, but Pamela sure didn’t hurt. I forgive you, Kripke. You know I can’t stay mad at you.

— My bestie had a baby! He’s super cute and my new favourite. Many people don’t see the appeal of newborns, prone as they are to a limited repertoire of activities, but this is exactly what’s in their favour: you can cuddle them almost indefinitely, because they have NOTHING BETTER TO DO! Seeing as her other son is now two, and old enough to know he doesn’t HAVE to give hugs on demand, this is a superb development for me. Thanks Rach!

— I read lost boy lost girl by Peter Straub last night, and thought it was fantastically creepy and unsettling, while also being a stonking good read. I’ve been meaning to read Peter Straub’s solo work for years. YEARS! The Talisman and Black House have been two of my favourite books for a large chunk of my life, but somehow I never seem to get around to investigating what Peter Straub does when he’s not pulling Stevie K’s endings up by the bootstraps. And what it turns out that he does is be awesome.

After After After. Which still doesn’t have a better name, but the story and the world and the people who live in it are really starting to come together. Scary. And amazing. Also daunting, overwhelming, terrifying, etc. But then you have that moment, when another piece slides into place and you feel the click as it slots together — and suddenly you’ve got something bigger than you had before, and all these paths open up to creep along, feeling your way blindly until you find the one where the lights flicker on. I love that feeling. That inexplicable, tingly feeling of knowing something is RIGHT. Like I’m not inventing this world — it exists, buried somewhere. I’m just unearthing it, piece by piece, word by word.

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Things that disturb me

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  • How often I end up on celebrity-babies.com.
  • Driving while talking.
  • The level to which shoes > porn.
  • The tingle I get from a page covered in red pen.

So, I’m going to admit it: editing kind of turns me on. I did a lot of it in my previous job; the most satisfying feeling I get, professionally, is taking something complex and wordy and difficult and trimming and squeezing and shaping it into something simple. I dare anyone to turn a page of dense tax-related legalese into a set of one-syllable bullet points and not feel slightly attracted to them afterwards.

Turns out, editing my own work borders on indecent. Livejournal would put an adult content warning on it and hide it from the general public. I already knew I felt that way about short stories, in which I usually end up cutting more than I leave, but (so far) it’s exciting to know that editing something novel-length is just as delicious. It’s long, and it hurts, and I have to ditch stuff I liked, but watching this rambling word-monster of a manuscript get pruned and tugged and tightened into shape… well, it wets my noodle (even more than hyphenating things, which is my second-favourite new hobby).

I read a thousand books on writing, and they said a thousand different things, the most useful of which was Stephen King’s, which I think more-or-less (hyphenation!) boiled down to: do what feels right. So that’s my basic strategy.

Accordingly, I’m editing from the midpoint out and then the start back in. I already know the bulk of re-writing is in the first couple of chapters, but I’m not altering anything that affects later events, so it’s easier to start in the thick of things and go back to the beginning later. We’ll see if this works when I come back around.

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Dear self: you’re an idiot

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(Also known as: I use sentence case in titles because I don’t always know what to title in title case, what’s it to you?)

I’m pretty sure everyone who writes or creates – or thinks they’re way more awesome than other people do – spends a bunch of time wallowing around in their own head. According to my mum, I gave up sleeping at age five to free up more me-time. She’s always thought I spent my nights going over the events of the day, little brain tick-tick-ticking back over the contents of my sandpit or the Barbies I made my brother play.

Fuck that noise, I couldn’t have cared less about my day: I was preoccupied with working out the mechanics of my future life as a Lost Boy, or making sure I was prepared in case I happened to wake up with a tail or be captured by pirates. I’ve always enjoyed walks and bedtime and showers as opportunities to hang out inside my own head. Reality, like stinky cheese and early nights, is something I only developed an appreciation for as an adult.

But man, sometimes I have to stop thinking. I have to stop thinking about blogging, because… well, hi. Trying to be clever just isn’t. I want to punch myself in the face right now. And yet, I can’t seem to stop myself, much like I can’t seem to stop over-analysing everything I think is wrong with my novel.

Last night, after days of bitching and moaning to anyone who’d listen, pages of red pen flow diagrams packed with aggressively-punctuated URGENT CAPS!!, and a constant state of near-hysteria that I’m pretty sure has actually raised my metabolism, I re-wrote all my scene summaries from my first draft. I got myself so worked up about my story structure it took me DAYS to think of this. I’m so obsessed with everything that’s wrong or not perfect or de-scopes my future fanfic writers, I somehow forgot I already have a freaking story. I’m not fixing this plot in a vacuum: I have 320 pages of it sitting beside my bed.

A couple of hours and a glass of wine later, I had an updated outline from those scene summaries, and my red pen could go to work IN CONTEXT. The shortest distance between two points is to stop being a motherfucking idiot. Occam and/or his razor might also have some shit to say. I get so buried under the big picture and the end result and my insecurities and what-ifs and views on Zac Efron’s haircut that I lose my grip on my story. It all seems too big to fix and too terrible to bother.

Dear self: Relax. Stay small. Find the next step and take it. Zac Efron probably knows what he’s doing – trust that you do too.

And then I spend the morning reading Agents’ and industry blogs and think it might be more fun to die in a fire than finish this thing and have to do something with it anyway.