Tomorrow, if you live in the Boston area and have a free evening, you should really come on down to Improv Boston in Cambridge to see me interviewed on stage for their Spotlight Series, after which I gather there will be comedy improv based upon the things that I say. IB has a talented
bunch of performers and it should be a hilarious, good time. You can also say hi to me afterwards, no doubt, as I will be there in the flesh and what-not. I mean, assuming you want to talk to me. You can also duck out the back door and dodge the goons I’ll have there waiting for you. That’s an option, too. But, you know, sooner or later you’re going to have to pay me that money you owe me, sooooo…
But I digress.
This will be the first time I will be on stage in this kind of performance setting since I left Improv Boston as a performer in 2005. In my five years with the theater, I performed in 12 different shows of varying sizes, directed and assistant directed a few shows, and was one of the architects of Quest – IB’s super-popular fantasy serial show. It was a great, great time and I made a lot of friends and learned a lot of things.
As the years have passed, I find my improv training comes in handy just about all the time. I am delightfully devoid of anything resembling stage fright – I will get up on stage in front of any number of people wearing anything and say whatever without really breaking a sweat (just don’t ask me to dance). I am a champion of doing things by the seat of my pants. It is very hard to knock me off-kilter when I’m teaching a class – I can work the class clown right back into the lesson without breaking stride. All of these things are life skills I either learned or honed through improv theater and have served me very well in my day-job as a lecturer and teacher.
It also helps my writing. Improv, in a lot of ways, is like the antithesis of writing a novel or story – what you do on an improv stage is collaborative, frequently aimless, and usually ephemeral. Writing a story is solitary, firmly directed, and intended to last. However, one of the biggest questions every writer fields is “where do you get your ideas” and nothing gives you a better answer than the skills you develop in improvisation. See, improv comes from everywhere and can be inspired by anything. There are stories and jokes and moments all around you, waiting to be observed. The improvisor sees these bits of inspiration, seizes upon them, and lets their imagination run rampant, free-associating and inhabiting the story they are weaving on the fly until some kind of pattern emerges to ground it. Writers basically do the same thing, just not out loud and not as quickly and not
quite so randomly. Basically, improv is accelerated storytelling, preferring spur-of-the-moment inspiration to meticulous plotting. Now, this does mean that improv rarely rises to the dramatic heights that the plotted, well-considered, well-planned, well-crafted story can, but it manages to capture the excitement of creation and the feeling of wonder that eludes authors so often in an almost effortless way. And it is absolutely perfect for brainstorming new ideas, making new connections, and approaching your outlines loosely, giving your story the permission to breathe and change organically. Improv, in short, teaches you how to be loose without being out-of-control. It teaches you to work with chaos and make something rational out of it, and there are few more apt skills you can learn to become a writer.
So, this is basically a very long and involved way of saying: why don’t you come out Thursday evening, see me in a show, and maybe get exposed to a whole new way of storytelling. I think, in the end, you’ll really enjoy it.
I have never missed a deadline in my professional life. Indeed, I get obsessive about meeting deadlines. I am freakishly punctual and am afflicted with that old-fashioned notion that my word is my bond. If I tell you I will meet you at 6pm, I will be there at 6pm, no matter how many old ladies I need to run over on the way. If I tell you I will do a thing by a certain time, I will do it, no matter the cost to my personal sanity.
I like to think this makes me a reliable person. Somebody who is easy to work with, somebody who is trustworthy. I suppose on some level it does. But I am beginning to think my slavish devotion to meeting my scheduled deadlines and appointments is going to make my work suffer.
We pause now for a quote from Douglass Adams (please rise, doff your hats):
Though whimsical, I have long felt this quote to be not a little bit obnoxious. Then again, the quote also offers a degree of freedom that is terrifying to me. I need deadlines – I crave them. They are my best defense against procrastination and, in a world where they do not exist, writing novels seems truly daunting. I love deadlines, but for the opposite reasons that Adams seems to.
I’ve got a problem, though – a very immediate problem. I’ve got a book (book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed, in case you’re interested) that’s due in January. It seems somewhat unlikely I’ll have it polished to the usual shine by that time. I mean, I’ll probably have a draft of some kind, but it will be a mess – storylines not fully managed, the length a bit unwieldy, etc.. I’ll be basically rewriting this entire novel (standing at about 123,000 words right now) in a matter of three weeks (over Christmas, no less!). That is, well…that’s crazy.
And just to throw more on top, I only just got the copyedits for Book 3 this past week. I’m teaching 4 university courses this semester, and we’re getting towards semester endgame – I’ve got papers to grade up to my eyeballs, and zero leeway on when I can get them back to students. How in blazes can I be expected to copyedit one 116,000 word novel, revise another 123,000 word novel, and get all my dayjob work done AND have all of it meet my standards?
Oh, and there’s a new baby in the house, too. No small amount of stress there, either.
Oh, and I’m designing a new curriculum for a course I’m teaching next semester. (Good God, what is wrong with me?)
If you want to know why I haven’t been posting here that much lately, this is why. I’ve managed to paralyze myself with obligations and have trebled my usual battery of deadlines. I don’t know that I can do it, at least not well. That worries me. I wonder what my publisher will think. I am, though, reminded of what Tim Powers once told me about deadlines:
Ask an editor which they will rather have: a book that’s on time, or a better book. They all would rather have the better book.
Then again, he’s Tim Powers. I’m not.
Then again, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. In every previous instance when I’ve been terrified of not making a deadline, I’ve made it and with time to spare. Maybe it will all be okay. Even more importantly, I need to realize that even if I don’t make the deadline, I’ll be okay, too. Especially if I communicate with my agent and editor well ahead of time (which I have so far), it will probably be okay. We’re all in this together; they all want me to succeed. I’ll be able to do this.
For those of you struggling through NaNoWriMo, I know that terror – that beat of the drum that says you might not make it. But you’ve got to remember – just like I need to remember – that a deadline is ultimately an arbitrary thing. Assuming you aren’t a journalist or somebody trying to defuse a bomb, it’s a tool more than a natural fact of life. There is writing after deadlines. It can be done. Sometimes it has to be done.
But that whooshing sound, man. Gives me the creeps.
First, allow me to apologize for my relative inactivity here over the past month. Things have gotten a little crazy in Habershaw-ville – there’s a novel deadline looming, the semester is in full swing, and a new baby has recently arrived, all of which has cut in to the time I use to keep this place updated. I’m certain my routine will stabilize sometime soon (I hope) and I’ll go back to posting once or twice a week.
But that isn’t why you came, is it?
This past weekend I attended World Fantasy Con in San Antonio and had a grand old time. I didn’t get on any programming myself, so I was worried it wasn’t going to be a productive trip, but boy was I pleasantly surprised to be wrong! Here’s what I did:
I got in on Friday afternoon and immediately attended some readings. I saw friend GV Anderson read from her story “I Am Not I” from the July/August F&SF. Then I went to see friend William Ledbetter read a bunch of flash pieces from various venues. It was a delight to finally meet both of them in person and their readings were very good.
During the rest of the weekend, I saw five panels.
Panel #1 – Borrowing From History: Intention and Appropriation
This panel interested me because, as a white man, I am concerned that I have not always done justice to other cultures I have portrayed (however indirectly) and wish to do better. I was hoping to get some tips on how to responsibly explore and portray cultures other than my own. Unfortunately, I didn’t really learn that. The panel was chiefly concerned with exclamations that appropriation is a problem (which I knew) and that publishers and gatekeepers have a lot of responsibility in giving persons of color greater voice (which, while true, wasn’t especially helpful for authors trying not to be exploitative). The general advice was to do your research and tell stories that do other cultures “well.” While I applaud the sentiment, such advice was sufficiently vague as to be practically useless.
Panel #2 – Religions of the African Diaspora: Beyond Zombies, Ancestors, and Giant Apes
This panel, made up almost entirely of African American academics and authors, was intended to discuss the vast array of African religions and discuss how to portray them in fiction. This, as it happened, wound up being mostly a panel about cultural appropriation, however it was much more useful and concrete from an author’s perspective. Panelists pointed out the hypocrisy of European views of Voudoun (“voodoo”), for instance, which is portrayed as a wicked blood magic when, at the same time, the Christian church frequently displays a corpse (the crucifix) and engages in blood magic itself (the Eucharist). It is not the ritual of voudoun that is frightening to a white audience, it is the fact that it is black people worshiping.
The panel was comprised of a lot of observations like this, demonstrating how so much history goes unresearched and unknown because of accepted cultural and racial biases. It did a good job of getting me to be aware of those biases in myself and give me places to look to dispel them, which made it a lot better (in my opinion) than the previous panel.
Panel #3 – Ancient Cultures, Modern Sensibilities
This one was all about how and whether to use problematic aspects of ancient cultures (human sacrifice, incest, slavery, etc.) in modern fiction and how to portray characters living in those times as sympathetic even though their behavior doesn’t mesh with modern morality and taboos. It was interesting, but I don’t have any tidy soundbites for you.
Panel #4 – Which Witch is Which? Power and Portrayal of Magic in Fantasy Literature
This panel contrasted fictional witchcraft with historical (and contemporary) practice. It was very interesting, especially from a world-building perspective, as witchcraft has an incredibly varied history, ranging from simply local women practicing traditional medicine to those identified as the political enemies of the church all the way to modern Wicca and other traditions.
Panel #5 – The Secret History of the Hyborian Age
This late-night panel was basically for Conan enthusiasts and fans of Robert E Howard’s work. Panelists – mostly anthropologists and Howard historians – explained new revelations about Howard’s life, his work (and world-building) and his correspondence with HP Lovecraft (which was quite extensive, apparently – those two fought like cats for decades). The basic thesis was that Howard was far more conscientious about his world building than originally thought and was in some ways a precursor to the complex fantasy worlds common to the genre today. Fascinating stuff.
Books and Signings!
As usual, the WFC bookbag was amazing. I would post a picture of it, but wordpress is not cooperating and won’t upload any files. It contained such highlights as Martha Wells’ All Systems Red (which I later had signed), Cargill’s Sea of Rust, The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera, an issue of F&SF, and a bunch more stuff, too. I didn’t take all of it home (limited suitcase space), but the satchel bag was nice and the haul was probably the best I’ve gotten.
At the mass signing on Friday night, I ran into a lot of friends. I saw Sara Beth Durst with her super-professional spread (her own bookmarks and everything!). I ran into Beth Cato, who was hawking her super cool short fiction anthology Red Dust and Dancing Horses and, as usual, had cookies on-hand. C Stuart Hardwick was there, too, sitting in the corner and pretending not to be a science fiction author among fantasy authors (and, seriously, don’t we all read both?). I met Martha Wells and got her to sign her book, said hi to lots of other people, and overall had a great time.
Beyond the official events, I spent a lot of time meeting new people and catching up with folks I already knew. I went out to dinner with a bunch of folks from my agency, had breakfast with Charlie Finlay of F&SF and a bunch of fellow F&SF authors, reconnected with Scott Anderson of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and met a bunch of folks from Boston, of all places, who happened to be out in San Antonio and also happened to know people from my Writers of the Future year.
As a final note, my friend GV Anderson won the award for best story! How awesome is that?
So, yet another good year for the WFC. Next year is Baltimore, which is a short trip from Boston. I’ll definitely be there – I hope to see you, too!
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, the real world is full of bad news today! Need to escape? Come join me and a bunch of other authors to chat about writing. 1pm EST and 8pm EST. The handle is #SFFChat. See you there!
Fear of rejection is a real, palpable thing. It keeps people from doing all kinds of things. Hell, it kept me from asking a girl out on a date until I was 18. Everybody fears having their hopes dashed.
In the writing biz, this fear is especially pronounced. You pour so much of yourself into your work, you dream of its potential success, but when it comes time to push it out the door, you hesitate. What if nobody wants it? What if they hate it? The pain at having to face the fact that your stories aren’t as wonderful as you hoped is so terrifying, some people never take their stuff out of their drawer/hard drive.
To be a published writer at all, you have to push past this. After a while, you grow accustomed to rejection. It always stings, it’s always a disappointment, but you understand that a rejection is not necessarily a reflection of your self-worth or talent or potential. There are lots and lots of reasons editors reject stories and manuscripts, and not all of them have to do with the quality of said manuscript. Sometimes they just bought something very similar to what you just wrote. Sometimes they can’t accommodate a story of that length. Sometimes they just don’t personally get it, even though some other editor might. And sometimes the story in question, wonderful though it is, is “just not right for this market.”
This is where we fall into the rabbit hole of self-rejection.
Self-rejection is what happens when you assume a market won’t buy a story and so you never send it at all. You look at the kind of stuff they publish, you don’t see how you’d fit (it’s too good, it’s not like your stuff, it’s not the kind of thing you do, etc.), and so you don’t even bother. The thing is, though, that this is routinely a mistake. So long as your story adheres to the submission guidelines (i.e. don’t send a graphic horror piece to a YA scifi market) and it is the best you can do, just send it. I’ve talked to a lot of editors over the years, and all of them tell me one thing: Just send it. Let us do the rejecting. Let us decide if it’s right for us or not.
Now, I know what you’re saying: “You’re kidding me. They want more submissions? Don’t they get, like, hundred and hundreds?”
Well yeah, they do, but they also want good stories. Right now I am assuming that you’re pretty good at this writing thing. You’ve done your homework, you’ve taken your craft seriously, you’ve revised and revised again. You are of professional caliber – you know it in your bones. Put your Impostor Syndrome aside for a second and remind yourself that you’re good enough for this. Assuming this is all true, then you are already stepping ahead of literally thousands of people who have not done their homework and don’t take their craft seriously and who haven’t bothered to revise and revise again. You’re already near the top.
So send it! Go ahead! The worst that you get is a “no.” And a “no” there doesn’t mean a “no” everywhere. Keep submitting. Keep going.
I’m going to tell you a little story here to conclude: About 4 or 5 years ago, when I had only a few semipro sales and not much to show for it, I wrote a short story called “A Crystal Dipped in Dreams.” It’s a post-apocalyptic piece, but an optimistic one. I submitted it to The Writers of the Future Award and it was one of the finalists, but it didn’t win and was never published. Disappointed, but certain that it would sell soon, I started subbing it out.
It was rejected again and again and again and, honestly, I eventually gave up. The only place I hadn’t sent it was Analog Science Fiction and Fact and they seem partial to hard scifi and more classic stuff than this was. I figured they wouldn’t want it.
Fast-foward to this past February, I was going through old stories that hadn’t sold but that I thought were good, just to see if there were any submissions I didn’t make. I came across this one and figured “what the hell” and subbed it to Analog. I guessed it would be a reject – the story just seemed wrong for them – but guess what? It sold! I just signed the contract today, marking my second sale to Analog and my sixth pro-story sale overall. Just goes to show what I know!
And what I didn’t know, you don’t either. Submit!
This is going to be one of my relatively rare gaming posts, but I think it also has some pertinence in fiction, so buckle up your Chain Mail +3 Vs Geekery and here we go:
I wanna complain for a while about Clerics in D&D.
Okay, okay – that was perhaps too harsh, allow me to rephrase: Clerics’ role in D&D parties is a terrible one and I hate them for it. I’m all for playing devoted followers of this or that god (you won’t hear me complaining about paladins, for instance) and I think a divine-oriented campaign or party or adventure is pretty cool. What I don’t like is all the healing magic.
One of my central tenets of GMing is that players have the most fun when they are the closest to destruction. The corollary to this rule is that players work the absolute hardest they can to avoid being close to destruction. This central paradox constitutes the GM’s primary obstacle to creating a fulfilling and sensational adventure. You want to press them, make them desperate, force them to come up with the most outlandish and riskiest possible solution to their problems while, at the same time, they are working feverishly to prevent that from ever happening.
If the players of the world had their way, every dungeon crawl would be a methodical slog in which everyone left with approximately the same hit points they had when they went in. They would win every combat by a country mile. They would save the day with effortless flair and exact revenge on their enemies exactly 24 hours after being wronged. And then gaming would be (and sometimes is) terribly, terribly boring.
The cleric aids and abets this goal of the players. Work really hard to get them desperate and clawing for supplies? The cleric’s gods waves away their exhaustion and heals their injuries. Blind a guy? The cleric’s gods give him back his sight. Kill a PC in an earth-shattering climax? The players are only a brief prayer session away from getting the dead guy right back.
Players love clerics. They love them to the point where, when a D&D party is forming and everybody is making their characters, there’s always somebody who looks around the table and asks “so…which one of us is gonna be the healer?”
Now, whenever this is said, I always (always) say “you don’t need a healer to be an effective team” or “sometimes it’s more fun to not have a healer.”
They never, ever believe me. Not once in 25 years of GMing.
And the real tragedy of it all is that, frequently, nobody really wants to be a healer. They’d much rather be a wizard or a rogue or a paladin or something. They had this cool idea for a halfling barbarian and then they looked around a realized they wouldn’t have anybody throwing healing spells and shrugged and said “well, all right – I guess I’ll be some guy with a bald head and a mace.” This is so, so sad. You’ve got this group of players who “take one for the team” so they can play a character class that actively reduces the chances of things ever getting interesting.
Now, I should point out that there are exceptions to this. There are players who cook up interesting cleric characters and play them in an interesting way (I just ran a campaign with a viking-esque tempest cleric who was pretty cool, it must be said), but these I’ve found to be in the minority. Instead of playing their hearts (and thereby being really, really invested), they play cautiously, making sure to heal up everybody before they get into a scrap, making sure they’re there to prevent anything dire from really happening.
As long as the cleric has spell slots, you are working with a net. As long as you are working with a net, things don’t get “real” (as the kids say). If all the damage you have sustained can be waved away, why were you scared of being gored by that minotaur in the first place? When you play a game like D&D strategically, you can very easily kill the drama. At minimum, you make it way, waaay more difficult for the DM to present you with challenges that test your ingenuity. And challenges that test your ingenuity are the things that you wind up telling stories about later – the sessions you remember forever and which you identify with the most excitement.
There is an analog here in writing, too. Beyond simply healing magic, you need to be cognizant of consequences in your fiction. You need to make sure that the danger is real and that your protagonists don’t deal with it too easily. You need to yank their safety nets away so the audience is hanging on the edge of their seats. So, if you do have world with magical healing, you need to make sure it is associated with the proper sets of complications and consequences that make things interesting. In my Saga of the Redeemed, for instance, I have Tyvian saddled with the Iron Ring, which has very, very potent powers of rejuvenation and endurance associated with it, but that power comes with strings attached (Tyvian’s behavior) and has a variety of costs. Even when he does heal people with it, it creates problems more than it solves them.
Now, such dramatic flourishes are difficult to accomplish in an RPG, but one thing is pretty easy: next time somebody asks who is going to be a healer, volunteer.
Make yourself a Trickster Cleric with NO healing magic.
Make a rogue who practices quack medicine.
Make a druid who specializes in health food (more goodberries, anybody?).
Go into battle without a cleric, and trust the GM and your fellow players to come up with some seriously memorable adventures that won’t be easy, but will be a hell of a lot of fun.
Everybody’s writing process is a little bit different – I want to make that clear at the outset, here. Anybody telling you that you have to write at such-and-such a time or at such-and-such a pace is full of it. I, for instance, roundly reject the notion that you must write every day. Horseshit, I say! I used to try doing it that way, and my productivity was abysmal. Then I stopped worrying about writing every day and started focusing all my writing efforts on particular weeks or months where I would have fewer distractions (the summers, semester breaks, vacations, etc.), and my yearly productivity basically tripled almost overnight. I now write a novel and anywhere from 5-10 short stories a year, and have published *about* a novel and 3-5 short stories a year for the past few years. So, what I’m saying is that my system seems to work.
No matter what your writing process is like, though, I think we can all agree that the primary obstacle to producing those words is the challenge of sticking your butt in a chair and writing them (whenever and however that is done). It’s hard work, writing, though very few people who aren’t writers think about it as such. To them (the “norms,” let’s call them), we are eternal dawdlers and daydreamers, sitting in our comfy little offices and wasting our time telling make-believe stories for short money. “Get a real job,” is the sentiment (even though almost every single writer I know has a “real” job in addition to their other, evidently fake one).
Such people must be met with stiff resistance, friends. Don’t let them get away with such slights. You tell your uncle that you have taken the week off to write and he says “so you’re free for lunch?” The answer is “no, I’m working.” Writing is work. You do it for pay (well, unless you don’t, and don’t intend to, in which case a lot of this doesn’t necessarily apply). There are literally endless distractions and interference that can keep you from writing those words, from earning your (admittedly meager) pay. You must resist them.
For me, the very best tool I have against distraction is routine. During my writing periods, I get up, eat, get the kids to school/daycare, go to my office, and dive in and write for a few hours. I take breaks, usually at the scene breaks in whatever I’m working on. I work until lunch, then after lunch I put in another hour or two, and then, after approximately 5-6 hours of writing in a day, I’m spent and I read or do something else for a while before I pick all the kids up from school again. This is my approximate routine, and it works very well. Your routine may well be vastly different, but I bet, once you get into it, it works similarly as well.
I call this zone – this place where you are set in your routine, churning out the words on a regular basis – “the groove.” It takes me a few days to really get into the groove, but once I’m in it, I do not want to come out again. I resent disruptions to my routine – I don’t want to switch who picks up whom from school with my wife, I don’t want to run errands of any kind, I don’t want to have to deal with things that don’t fit into the groove – because it’s just so damned easy to get knocked out of it.
Once, I was on a deadline and we had scheduled a trip to Hawaii to visit my sister and meet my new niece. This was a 10 day stay in Honolulu with family, on the beach, hiking volcanoes, going surfing.
I was distraught.
I know, I know – what kind of psychopath is upset by a trip to Hawaii?
The writing kind, is what. What if I couldn’t concentrate? What if I couldn’t put my butt in the chair and produce those words? I’d miss my deadline (unacceptable to me). I fully realize that other people don’t understand this. Right now, there’s a significant portion of my reading audience scrunching up their nose and going “seriously? Hawaii? Poor baby.”
But I am being serious. Distractions are the #1 most dangerous thing to a writer, by far. Other than your own personal obsessions, there is almost no reason to sit in front of that computer and infinite reasons not to. Maybe you’re hungry. Maybe you hear the phone ringing. Maybe somebody’s at the door. And on and on and on…
The good news is that I managed to produce plenty when on vacation in Hawaii. How did I do it? Routine! My wife would take the kids out in the mornings to do something fun and I would stay in the little apartment and type away. Then, in the afternoon, I would enjoy Hawaii – the beach, the ocean, the city, and so on. It worked, and if it can work there, it can probably work anywhere.
Get in the groove, people. Fight to stay there. Write those words. Conquer your writing goals!
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.