I’m reading a book right now. It is not good.
It is also not bad.
This is infuriating.
Bad books are easy to discard. Long, long ago I shed that absurd “completist” affliction where I felt the need to finish any book I started (and for that, I thank you, Doctor Zhivago). Now, if I am not feeling a book within 50 pages/20% (whichever comes first), I drop it and move on with my life. This has saved me oh so many hours of pain. If you don’t do this yourself, do it. Your life will improve.
On the other hand, of course, good books are pure pleasure. They fly right by. I can’t wait to read them, I regret having to put them down, and I finish them within a week, no matter how long they are.
The ones in the middle suck. They suck worse than the bad ones. See, they have the audacity to be interesting enough to keep me reading, but the
temerity not to be any good so that I actually want to keep reading. These books are eminently put-down-able. At every chapter break, I quickly set the book down and look for something better to do. It is notable that I mostly read on the train these days and frequently I can, in fact, find something better to do than read the book in question.
I will remind you that I am on a train underground.
Of course, the natural impulse should be to jettison said snooze-fest of a book and move on to bigger, better titles. But wait! There’s still potential there! Maybe it will get good in the next 50 pages? It had such good reviews! The concept is so interesting!
So I keep reading, page by torturous page, as the book plods and stumbles towards its lackluster conclusion. These stupid books eat whole months of my life. I hate them.
Very often, the thing that causes the book to fall into this category is the characters. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the rest of the book. It really doesn’t matter how cool the idea is, the characters and my capacity to identify with them and care about their plight is essential. This means that the characters need a plight, for one thing. They also need to be sufficiently real and interesting that I can connect with them. They also need to do things about their situation. A lot of books (a surprising number, actually) don’t really do this. They have this wizbang cool idea behind them, but the book isn’t really populated with “people” as much as “placeholders for people.”
I could name a lot of names, here, but I don’t like ragging on fellow authors and, honestly, my tastes are not necessarily your tastes. Suffice to say that I’m reading a book right now with one of those super cool high-concept science fiction worlds, but the characters seem to be shoehorned in. It seems as though somebody told the author that they needed actual people in their futuristic techno-thriller and the author sighed and say “Oh, okay – here’s a guy with job and a girl with a katana – that good enough?” The answer is “yes,” but only barely.
Now there are plenty of books that go the other way – really interesting characters in drab, low-concept, predictable conflicts in mundane settings. Those, however, are way more palatable. I could watch Han and Chewie doing anything, you know? Even if it’s a book about Han and Chewie making ice cream for 75 pages, I bet I’d still like it. Character, to me, is everything.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll probably ought to read more about…this crap I’m reading. How far am I through? (checks Kindle). 54%? That’s it?
But I’m more than halfway now…so…(sobs)
Your Novel is Like a House of Cards…
Each piece supports another, each card an integral part of a larger whole. How do you proceed? Can you remove cards from the middle and not have it all fall down? Carefully, carefully slip the offending Joker or deuce from its place. Start at the end and deconstruct backwards – this stupid scene at the end, where did it come from? Trace it back, dig out the rot. Make yourself a smaller tower, a sleeker manse – yes.
But then…wait. No! Not that one…
And then it’s all gone. Your edifice, flawed at its heart, lies flat on the table. Time to start anew. Marshal your strength, steel your resolve. You’re going to have to do it over again.
This is not the first time it has fallen.
Your Novel is Like a Wild Stallion…
It breathes, living and beautiful. It is strong, vital. You made it – with sorcery and wiles you yourself cannot recall the knack of – and yet it cannot stay this way. It must be tamed, somehow. It must be made suitable for others, not just for your own special touch.
And yet, is it not alive? How can you change it without killing what it is? You grasp the mane tightly as it bucks. You try to soothe, but this is not something it will submit to. It loves itself. It loves the free way it tramples prose. The meandering paths of plot and pacing are its familiar paths, wild though they are.
So you build fences and walls. You wield the whip, so terrible the crack, so that it learns respect. And all this while you bleed inside. This is not what you wanted. Not what you intended.
Why cannot the wild thing live free and alone?
But no. That is not what you intended either. It must be broken. The stallion must be broken if a steed it will make. And break it you shall, come what may.
Your Novel is Like a Tree
This thing was not of your doing, you know it. You merely planted the seeds, you watered, and you waited. Day after day, tending the shoots, it has grown into something pretty, but also imperfect.
But how to fix it? Pruning here and pruning there – a careful snip. There is no going back now. The old tree will never return, and you know you cannot grow the same tree twice. And still it grows in ways unexpected. How can you keep a living thing from growing? How dare you?
And what if it dies? No one has use for dead trees, except as fuel, or perhaps sanded down into boards and dull furniture. Stacked in a lumber yard, forgotten.
So you are careful. Respectful. Debating over every cut – how deep an injury will this cause? Because there is no going back, no more seeds to plant. This is the tree, one way or another. And yet it’s still not right.
Perhaps another little cut.
No, still not right.
And so it goes.
Hey everybody! I’m not dead!
Sorry I haven’t posted here in two weeks or so, but I’ve been finishing the rough draft of Book #4 in The Saga of the Redeemed. And guess what? I finished! The currently-titled THE FAR FAR BETTER THING is weighing in at about 123,000 words and does, in fact, tell a mostly coherent story. I wrote it in just under 3 months, start to finish. Go me.
But it is by no means really good, yet. I can’t be – it’s a rough draft.
When you start writing and reading writing guides and hearing writers talk, most of them (possibly all of them) say some variation of the same thing:
The real work – the real writing – happens in revision.
When you’re just starting out, this sounds…unlikely. I mean, do you have any idea how much work goes into writing that rough draft? These writers – these so-called professionals – they must just use a different method, right? They must be writing slapdash crappy drafts. My draft will be perfect. My draft will only need a few minor buffs here, a couple little tweaks here. Like Michelangelo, I am merely revealing the work, fully realized, from the block of uncut marble.
To which I say bullshit.
Look, there are always exceptions, I guess. Sometimes a writer does get that hole-in-one, needs very little revision, and it goes off to be an overnight hit. Most of the time? Like, as in 98-99% of the time? Nope. Not how it works.
The fact that many newer writers have a hard time accepting this is, I feel, one of the various pitfalls that can quickly make completing that draft nearly impossible, or at least vastly more difficult. This is because, if you’re expecting your draft to be perfection in one swing, then every time you make a mistake or see an error or realize that you need to go back and change things, you are suddenly paralyzed.
Sayeth the writer: “What? Go back and change it? Well, I have to do that now, otherwise the rest of the draft will make no sense! Egads, I have to start all over!”
This is how many writers end up writing and re-writing and re-re-writing the first chapter of their novel umpteen billion times and never actually finish the damned book. They’re trapped by a never ending cycle of sanding away at what they think will become the statue’s perfect toe. At that rate, Michelangeo wouldn’t have managed to carve squat, let alone David.
To this conundrum, let me give you a mantra – a mantra that I used as recently as yesterday that allowed me to go from zero to complete 123k word draft in about 80 days:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
Say it with me, now:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
As in post-production, as in revision, as in draft number two. Because, if you’re actually going for your best work and/or you actually want to publish this thing, one draft is not gonna cut it. My last book took seven – seven whole drafts. It happens.
Now, yeah, you ought to proceed with some kind of plan and hopefully you don’t need more than two or three drafts of the book before it is in working shape, but you can’t go through that rough draft rewriting every damned chapter and expect to finish it in any kind of timely fashion (not that it’s a race, but still). Mistakes happen, things you overlooked come up, and, yeah, a lot of times you get a better idea halfway through and wish you had incorporated that earlier. When such problems arise, laugh, repeat your mantra, and keep writing.
The wonderful thing about drafts is that nobody else has to read them. They don’t actually need to make sense to anybody other than yourself! Make notes in the margin! Insert little brackets with things like [rename this character later] or [insert flashy chase scene here]. Forgive yourself for writing crappy passages and move on.
Don’t worry – you are going to go back and fix it all, I promise – but for now, the most important thing you need to remember is that you can’t actually fix the book until you have a book. One chapter? Six? 35K of a Nanowrimo entry? Not a book. You need a complete story (or nearly so), no matter how flawed, before you can fashion a good story.
Finish the book first. Make it a good book later.
Writing a novel is a balancing act. You’ve got to balance exposition with action, description with dialogue, you’ve got to balance multiple character arcs and the needs of the external conflicts and the internal conflicts and lots of other stuff, too. Go too far in one direction and you wind up with a book that is either boring or one that is too frenetic to follow. It will come as no surprise then if I tell you that doing this well is hard, hard work.
When I write a novel (and, I would guess, when a lot of people write novels) there are certain scenes, sequences, or sometimes even specific lines that I know I want to show up in the book. They are the tent-pole scenes – the ones that hold up the rest of the story. The pivot points of tension and reward, of strike and impact (to borrow a phrase from this excellent craft thread from @dongwon) circle around those scenes.
Now, really intense reads – the books that really have you turning pages, that have you staying up late to finish them – have the best tent-pole scenes. They are constantly drawing you from crisis to crisis, giving you a helpless sense of being drawn along through events. A book, though, can’t be nothing but those scenes – it’s impossible. You can’t have nothing but car chase, because very quickly the chase scenes stop mattering (for reference, watch the second Matrix film). You need to build tension and you need to set the stage for the chase. The more understood the stakes are, the more powerful the payoff will be.
The trouble though, is how much buildup do you need? When I’m writing the first draft of a novel (as I am now), I get bogged down sometimes in preparing for the big scene to happen. I know it needs a stable platform to stand, so I just keep shoring up my foundations, over and over and over, until its clear I’m wasting time. In revision, I trim a lot of this buildup out, keeping the bare essentials – balancing set-up and payoff, essentially. This is a challenging process because it is difficult for the author (who has had this pivotal scene in their head for possibly years) to know if the scene is landing for a stranger.
Often I feel I’ve missed the mark – I get feedback from readers and editors who say things like “why is this happening” and I’m like “DUH, CAN’T YOU READ MY MIND?” Naturally, I’ve got to go back then and fill in blanks that I didn’t know were there. This sometimes feels frustrating – I feel like I’m back where I started, wasting everyone’s time. Let’s be honest, if it were possible, we’d like to write nothing but chase scenes and pivotal battles and emotionally wrenching death scenes and stuff. “All Killer and No Filler” as they say.
You can point to various thrillers and action-packed reads and say “see! They did it!” What isn’t commonly realized, though, is that the “filler” – the set-up, the build – is still there. It’s just done so elegantly that you don’t notice. They have just enough to make the action land, but not so much that you get bored waiting. In other words, they balance it perfectly.
I can’t say I quite do this to my satisfaction, yet. But I’m working on it.
Okay, so this is a partial writing update of sorts: I am currently buried in novel projects. On the one hand, Book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed (which needs to be turned in to my editor by January) is perhaps 1/3 of the way through the first draft. I need to finish this draft by late August or I won’t have time to revise. That’s something of a tight deadline for me at the best of times.
Additionally I just received back Book 3 of the Saga of the Redeemed from my editor and I need to have all the edits done on that by July 12th. I bashed my face against this book so many times I’m still recovering from the scars, and yet there are more substantive edits I need to make and I’m literally driving myself crazy in an attempt to solve them.
This leaves me in the unenviable position of trying to both write a novel and edit a novel at the same time on the same days (since I can’t afford to take a break from writing book 4, but I also have to edit book 3 pretty quickly). I think a fair approximation of this feeling would be if your brain were both on fire and freezing at the same time. Sure, you can cool yourself off, but then the cold gets you OR you can warm yourself up but then the fire becomes unbearable.
The crazy thing is, though, that this is what I signed up for. Many authors, if they’re working at a good pace, have to deal with overlapping projects on short deadlines. It’s part of the deal – it’s another gate to pass through, another notch in your axe. You know, assuming you can do it.
And I can do it. It’s just fiercely difficult and very stressful and I spend a lot of time being short of breath and faintly sick to my stomach as I think about what I have to do and how quickly. I’m sure many of you understand what that’s like.
So, I am leaving you all (and myself) with this for inspiration:
Thank you all for allowing me this brief moment of procrastination. Now, back into the word mines with me.
When I teach my college freshmen to write academic essays, I always tell them to start with a loose outline of what they’re going to do. Break it down paragraph by paragraph, I say, and make sure it will make sense before you start. This is, I believe, good advice. Too bad I rarely take it myself. Well, to be fair, I also don’t tend to write academic prose; I have an easier time outlining those kinds of things, as it happens, than I do outlining say, a story or a novel. But still, I’d rather eat tacks than outline sometimes. I’m winging this blog post as we speak, for instance.
It isn’t that I don’t see the utility of outlining – I very much do. I just don’t like doing it. When I started out writing novels (and, like many novelists, I have written way more novels than I’ve actually published), I started out by trying to outline the book first. Weirdly, I found it really difficult to make any headway if I did this. Something about making the outline robbed me of the motivation to actually write the book. I may have spouted some nonsense about outlining “robbing the book of its magic” or something, but what it comes down to is this: it is more fun to write a book without an outline. You get to preserve your sense of wonder at your own book. Like the readers, you are along for a ride which has an ending you can only guess at. This is called “pantsing.” As in, “by the seat of your pants.” Just sitting down at a computer with the barest sense of an idea and then writing it. Just going. You become the Lewis and Clarke of your own work; you are pathfinding the Oregon Trail to the promised land of “perfect novel.”
The problem is there are significant drawbacks.
For one thing, much like the Oregon Trail, there is very little guarantee that you will actually make it to the end. Your book might crash and burn halfway through and then you look back and realize “oh, crap – I’ve got to rewrite that whole thing!” So you go back and rewrite it, this time resolved to take lefts where you took rights. Except that doesn’t work, either. Next thing you know, you’ve rewritten the entire book a thousand times and have had a miserable time of it. There is no magic, there. It’s nothing but thick forests, craggy mountains, and snake bites.
Now, with an outline, you can (theoretically) circumvent many of those hazards before they crop up. You can look into the future and ask yourself “will this actually sustain a whole novel, or am I writing a novella?” You plan and you re-plan and you re-plan again. Granted, you are rewriting things just as often as the pants method, but outlines take a lot less time to rewrite.
But what about the magic? What about those glorious little surprises that can creep into your plot? Don’t outlines kill those things? How are you going to get your butt in that chair if you already know how everything is going to go? I can’t understate the obstacle that creates. As much as I know making a detailed outline is a wise activity, so much of me just wants to dive right in, you know? I want to be inspired by my own work!
These, though, strike me sometimes as the wishes and complaints of a child. I hate magical discussions of the artistic process. I don’t believe in the “muse” and I don’t accept writer’s block as anything other than fear of making mistakes. By that metric, I know that the so-called “magic” of pantsing a novel is just me being lazy. Outlines are work, whereas drafts are fun. But these days I have deadlines and very limited writing time. I can’t spend 2-3 years entirely rewriting the same novel five times. You know what kills the magic? Draft seven. That kills it dead, believe me.
So, for this next novel, I’m rolling my sleeves up, biting the bullet, and outlining the damned thing before I start. You know what should keep my butt in my chair? The idea that I’m a goddamned professional, that’s what. The fact that I’ve got 9 months to write a polished novel and four of those months will be taken up by my day job, and so I need to write this thing in one. It’s time to grow up, be responsible, and make a plan before I wander off in the wilderness and crash and burn yet another 100,000 word draft.
Or so I tell myself now.
As I write a blog post to procrastinate from outlining.
In all this talk of writing and revising and revising again and hunting for agents and publishers and book deals and all that jazz, there is something we sometimes neglect to discuss: how psychologically daunting writing a novel can be. And it is. It downright terrifies people – terrifies them into inaction or despair or even cleaning the house over and over again like some kind of deranged amphetamine addict. Writing hurts on a spiritual level. Well, it can, anyway. It often does.
If you’re reading that last bit and saying “ha! When I write, I am FREE!” I have this to say:
The more I write, the more I believe that the great filter that separates those who write from those who wish to write is not one of talent or time or intelligence or training or money or any of that – it is a psychological barrier. You’ve got to sit down and fail. Yes, fail. And not even spectacular failure, either – mundane, limping, ignominious failure. Failure that makes you question your worth. And then you’ve got to get back up, sit down at that desk again, and try to find success in the failure somewhere.
In my case, I recently finished a draft of a novel (my seventh novel overall, the third in the Saga of the Redeemed). It was the fourth draft of the book and I completed it in about ten weeks or so. I walked away feeling pretty good about myself, let it rest for a week, and then went back to read it.
Oh. Oh God.
The thing is an unutterable train wreck. The external conflict was working okay, but the characters’ motivations were all over the place, the action was boring and predictable, and the twists weren’t telegraphed enough to make any sense. Gah! I’m going to have to rewrite maybe 75% of this damned thing and now the summer (with its blissful days of writerly concentration) is over! No! Soon the students will once again descend upon my mind palace and supplant all this novel-thinking with reams and reams of papers to grade and lectures to deliver and discussions to moderate! I’ve failed to finish the book I swore I’d finish this time around! No!
Honestly, the failure of this draft (complete as it is) has been enough to knock the wind out of my sails in these last days of summer. I feel useless. I threw the novel up on my office wall in color-coded index cards and stare at it bleakly.
But I’m wrong. I didn’t fail. I just didn’t finish yet – I’m one step closer to completion, and I will make that step. It’s just a matter of dusting myself off and fighting for some time to do it. But man, looking at that wall, looking at the orange Xs I crossed through terrible scenes, really hurts. Not physically, but almost so. It’s a knot in my chest I can’t work out, a thing that makes me wince every hour on the hour.
I’ll get over it, though. I’ll ride back into battle with that beast soon enough, and perhaps this time with the wisdom to see myself to victory. As Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers once said:
Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.
True words, my friends. Sit down. Write the words. Feel the pain.
Having a crazy week, so here’s just this quick link to a guest post I made over on Ragnarok yesterday. It’s about how writing novels/stories differs from tabletop RPGs, which is something I feel I know a bit about, as I’ve spend a good 25 years parsing through the differences.
Check out the post here, and check out Ragnarok, too – they’ve got a lot of cool things going on over there and they’re relatively new, so wander around.
Talk to you next week!
I am currently in the fourth draft of a novel. What this should mean is that the novel is nearing its final state – I have the plot figured out, the character arcs established, and it’s just a matter of pacing and sticking it all together. Except, well…I’m not there yet. The first few drafts of this beast didn’t go especially well (damned book’s first act just doesn’t want to gel!), so what this means is I’ve written this book three times now in three slightly different ways. I’ve got deleted scenes coming out the wazoo. I’m a guy who’s lost the instructions sitting in a pile of Lego bricks that he knows is supposed to make the Taj Mahal, but for some reason he can’t figure out where it all fits.
This is what I call “the Frankenstein Stage.”
The term is inspired by a tweet from Chuck Wendig from a couple years back which went like this:
Editing is frequently standing over a corpse with a hammer, a scalpel, a car battery. “I WILL MAKE YOU BEAUTIFUL. I WILL MAKE YOU DANCE.”
The analogy is apt. Right now, this novel is an ugly, dead thing. It isn’t dancing…yet. Right now, a lot of what I’m doing is taking big chunks of scenes from other drafts and copy/pasting them into the new draft and then altering them so they fit with the flow. It is a *lot* like stitching together pieces of a dead corpse and hoping, at the end, to get a living one.
This stage of novel writing is a very dispiriting one. Part of this is because you don’t always hit it – sometimes the book comes together much more cleanly and evenly and the edits are clearer and you feel like a million bucks. When you don’t, therefore, you feel as if you’ve failed and that your book is crap.
But it isn’t.
I know the book I want to write is contained within some combination of the elements I have already laid out. It merely remains for me to find that combination and, possibly, see what needs to be added or subtracted to the final framework to make it sing. Writing, I must tell myself, is not a mystical process full of muses and fairy dust. It is work, as methodical and rational as any other kind of work, and merely requires sufficient time and attention to be made good. This is another way I think the Frankenstein connection is a good one: gods and angels did not fashion Dr. Frankenstein’s monster – a man did. The monster is the result of hard work, intelligence, and dedication with just a sprinkle of inspiration to get it all rolling. And, while Dr. Frankenstein came to regret his labors, you sure can’t say the thing wasn’t a success. I mean, not everybody can manage to get their whole family murdered by a series of body parts you stitched together at medical school – that is, on the whole, pretty damned impressive.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to work. There might be a lightning storm coming in later, and I want to be ready.
Igor, get me more rising action! We’ve got a climax to ascend!