An Anniversary I Don’t Want to Celebrate

I am my own history buff sometimes, and that means I tend to mark anniversaries and remember what I did on a certain date years before.

For instance, at the end of January ten years ago, I quit the third job I’d worked for over a year (meaning I worked a full and two part time jobs all through 2003—not my third job ever 😉 ).
It was turn down service at the Grand Floridian, if you’re curious (the expensive rooms on the top two floors of the main building).

credit: sanctumsolitude on Flickr cc (cropped)

credit: sanctumsolitude on Flickr cc (cropped)

Two years ago, I finished editing chapter 26. Little did I know it would be the last full chapter of forward motion.

I’d like to think I’ve come a long way since then, but it’s still disheartening to realize how much further I have yet to go to get back there.

One day…one day.

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Giving Myself Permission to Play Again

An editor friend of mine recently began a series of posts outlining “a clear editing method that will help prepare your manuscript for submission…” This piqued my interest, making me think I’ve been missing some grand checklist that would’ve made my editing process a breeze. Today, she finally posted that checklist, and I eagerly downloaded it.

By the third line, my eyes had glazed over. The list is a wonderfully concise plan for wading through all the editing how-tos, but my resentment toward the information finally hit the breaking point. When I read the bare-bones rules of writing, I get the same sense of elation most kids have while writing a term paper.

Photo by Jassim madan

Photo by Jassim madan

I don’t know if I’ve applied all this to my work, or accomplished these things correctly. I don’t want to sit there and analyze what I’ve done, or second-guess myself even more. I’d spend far more time trying to answer the question of whether or not my characters are sympathetic than editing my words.

And that’s when it FINALLY dawned on me.

My writing has always been my creative and emotional outlet. My stories were fun; I didn’t have to worry about rules or reality. (What do you mean there’s no way in the universe a super popular boy band would hang out with random middle school chicks?) Like the Reading Rainbow theme song said: I could be anything. The rest of my life was work; writing was my play.

Photo by Jassim madan

Photo by Jassim madan

Children learn through play, and they learn best when they don’t know they’re learning.

I had always cringed under the structure of HOW TO WRITE. “Outline” was a four letter word, and the thought of putting scenes on note cards brought back nightmares of school projects.

This slowly changed for me thanks to a panel by Christie Golden at Star Wars Celebration V—coincidentally titled “Things I Hate (But Learned to Do Anyways, and So Can You)”. When she detailed how she outlines her stories, I realized it was something I already held in my head about my own novel. It didn’t have to resemble the outlines I’d done in school. (A, B, C, i, ii, iii…)

But just because I’d started to learn about and accept THE RULES of writing didn’t mean I was ready to analyze my own work in such a cut-and-dried manner.

Part of my personality loves dealing with absolutes, with the concrete instead of the abstract. But if the concrete concept looks brittle, I shy away.

For example, in my early school days they made a big deal out of putting together competitive “problem-solving teams.” The students would pick a large-scale problem (ie world overpopulation, which was such a big worry back then) and go through specific steps until they arrived at solutions that could be implemented. Ugh. I’ll pass, thanks.

Yet, those same problem-solving steps are exactly what happens when doing puzzles. I love puzzles. Sudoku, Bejeweled, Solitaire, Mah Jong, Dr. Mario, Tetris…yes, please. No one ever pointed out the similarity, so I shied away from “problem-solving” when it was something I already did.

So it is with the rules of writing. Not every how-to book appeals to me. I’m still scratching my head over Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, trying to figure out if I’ve implemented all those things as well as in the examples shown (high literary works, almost none of which I’ve ever read or want to). I have a much easier time with Jeff Gerke’s writing books, which use movie examples and popular genre works.

Something else about Jeff’s teaching style: he makes writing sound FUN.

Photo by Daniel Chodusov

Photo by Daniel Chodusov

And that’s what’s been missing since I started revising my work and trying to implement THE RULES.

No wonder I’ve been so frustrated and burned out and questioning why God won’t let me trash my book and do something else.

Yet, I’ve managed to throw off the restraints enough and revel in STORY enough to get 13½ great chapters. So, somehow, I’ve got to do that more often. I have a lot of story left to edit.

For instance, take the scene I’m editing now. It’s emotional and there needs to be a break. But all of my minor characters are otherwise occupied, and cutting away to them would make what they’re doing more important than it is. Why write a throw away scene?

So I’m crafting a reason to cut to the villain.

What she’s doing isn’t that important in the overall grand scheme and might, in fact, undermine the surprise of what happens when she and my protag next cross paths. But, in figuring out a reason, I discovered I could highlight a tiny detail that might show her motivation. (ugh. a rule.)

The cut-and-dried method says, “Show her motivation, show the details of the scene and keep the tension high while making sure to engage the reader.”

omg. I’d rather do the dishes!

The fun, appealing method says, “What if the villain were to see a small child at play while torturing a monster and milking him for venom like an über scary snake? Bonus if you can describe a lab with 70’s era decor and not use the words ‘shag carpet.'”

The print finishing room of the Atlas Laboratory at CERN, in the 1970s.

Credit: ESO

Yeah. Can’t wait to see how it turns out. 😉

He Loves Broken People

Last night I finally finished Chapter 15 after having worked on it since November. At the end, the mentor character points out how the protagonist’s actions contributed to the devastation of an entire country. It’s a heavy scene that embodies the theme of the entire work, and I LOVE how it turned out.

Chapter 16 is supposed to be a continuation, where the protag and mentor talk through the fallout of the action of the previous chapters. It’s an important conversation, but I’m having the worst time trying to work through it. Three years ago, when I jumped (face-first) into this rewrite, this is the chapter that derailed me so badly, I’ve never really recovered.

I mean, how do you portray this type of conversation with God? One where you just found out you’re responsible for so many deaths and you almost caused more in your selfishness? But He’s not finished with you? In fact, you’re the key to His plan of redemption for others?

I also figure my problem with it has to do with my own father issues. I love my dad, but we’re too much alike, and our relationship has left me crying out for something more. We’re both emotionally distant on the outside, though we feel very, very deeply inside. As a result, I feel like I’ve never really connected with him. And it hurts to say that.

I know in my head that God is not like that, but I can’t feel it. What is it like to be secure in the knowledge that you’re completely loved and accepted by the only One who matters?

That’s what I want to portray. That’s what I want my protagonist to feel, to experience, to know. I want her to understand that despite her faults, her past, and her actions, there is NO ONE else he would choose for her purpose.

Because that’s what this life is all about.

It’s January Already?

One year ago today, I received a message that changed my view of writing and unlocked the vise-grip of doubt that had killed my creativity. I promised myself I’d blog about it.

Instead, I threw myself full-steam into yet another rewrite of my novel, this time changing it to present tense. I made big changes, joined a writing group, a site for writing, a critique group, went to meetings, went to conferences and got major feedback. I promised myself I’d blog about it.

And just like in journals I’ve kept, I’ve never caught up writing about all the changes, events, and people that have impacted my life.

In a way, that’s a good thing. It means I’m busy living life instead of just writing about it.

This January, even more changes happened, and I find myself once again in the vise-grip of doubt.

The question I have to pose to myself is one I always thought a no-brainer: Will I keep going if no one but me ever sees what I do?

Accentuating the Positive

Felt down tonight until I began recounting what I’ve done for my writing and realized this has been the best six-month stretch ever.

For our anniversary, my husband bought me a subscription to the Bestseller Society. Jeff Gerke runs the Fiction Academy and is an awesome book doctor and small-press publisher. I talked to him about my frustrations with writing, and he not only understood, he gave me the keys to unlock my own confidence. That, my friends, is worth any price.

About the same time, I decided to rewrite my novel in present tense. My book is in 1st person, and a lot of readers don’t like it because they believe the main character has “survived to tell the tale.” Well, that lack of suspense will never do. 🙂 Honestly though, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made, because it breathed new life into my writing.

Through the Bestseller Society, I met a local professional editor (what are the odds?). After I finished and polished my first 5 chapters, she did a line-edit. Holy cow, may I just say they rock?

They are locked, they are loaded, and they are ready to go. Period, end of story and omigosh does it feel good!

I’m just about ready to send her chapters 6-12. I’m saddened that a few of my chapters are too long for their own good, so I’ve had to cut some. This means that I’m not quite 1/3 of the way through my novel, but close enough for government work.

Whoa. Let me repeat that: Almost 1/3 of my novel is completed, done, polished and locked away to be opened only by a publisher on Christmas. Wow!

This is a far cry from the horrible feeling of stumbling around in the dark, not sure of what I’m doing that I’ve had for the past 2 years.

We’re also joining the local chapter of the ACFW. In the May meeting, they presented a panel of authors talking about synopsis writing. Since my ms has been requested, I wasn’t certain I would even have to do one. Regardless, I planned to do it last and dreaded it as 1 more thing between me and shipping this monster beauty off.

I was so inspired by the meeting (and the announcement of a contest) that I went home and wrote one. Ha, take that, stupid synopsis!
Er, not quite. My formatting had to be fudged for it all to fit.

But since I’m against all forms of cheating, I knew I had to fix it. It finally occurred to me to focus on the main Supreme Being in the novel, to center it around his walking the main character through her inner journey…and voila, the thing fell into place.
Lean, mean, logical machine. That’s my baby.

So, in the last six months, I’ve made huge strides toward finally finishing and shipping my manuscript. I’m happier and my work shows it, and things are looking high and bright. 😎

Understanding the Psychology Behind Improving My Writing

forest

I know I’ve been around and around with this before (and I seem to complain a lot), but in the last couple of days, I’ve finally come to understand how I got here.

My first pitch resulted in “Send me a full”. That tells me I have something worthwhile. I can write. But at the same conference, I learned that I’m not there yet. I learned that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

To my logical brain, that meant I needed to work to improve my writing before sending in my manuscript and facing rejection.

And there’s the rub. Fear of rejection.

When I was young, I paid special attention to all those “lessons” they try to teach kids. Learning from others’ mistakes seemed the guaranteed way to keep from making so many myself. I worked hard to do right and endear myself to those in authority over me. After all, the lessons taught me that peer pressure just made people do stupid things. Listening to adults and experts was the way to go.

The problem with this is that writing experts don’t agree. There’s no standard to follow because it’s all subjective.

There are as many how-to books on writing and editing as there are writers and editors. Some of them say the same thing in different ways, but none of them can ensure that you apply the proper lessons to your own work.

In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell had this to say about backstory:

I was in a crowded elevator at a writers’ conference after teaching a class on great opening chapters (wherein I had been cheeky enough to use one of my own as an example). A bespectacled fellow complimented me, then added, “I did notice, though, that in the opening chapter of your novel, you had backstory. The rule is no backstory.”
Almost everyone in the elevator nodded in silent agreement.

This was under the title, “Give Backstory the proper respect, and it will help readers bond with your characters.”
And that’s just one rule that has gotten blown out of proportion (and proper understanding).

So how does one navigate the revision process with confidence and not bloated arrogance? How do you ignore the bad advice and find and apply the right “rules” to the story? How do you even know what’s best for your story?

I’m still trying to find out.

But at least I know that fear of rejection and a desire to make no mistakes are part of what is driving me.

In any enterprise, quality is job one. Quality is defined by two things:

1. Appeal of the workmanship
2. absence of defects

Never flag in the pursuit of writing excellence, for that is your workmanship. The Japanese were inspired by the concept of kaizen, the philosophy of seeking constant improvement in all aspects of business, every day, all the time.
At the same time, keep learning about the common defects found in unsuccessful writing and in the operations of the publishing world—so you won’t engage in them.
Sun Tzu wrote: “He wins his battles by making no mistakes.”

Next time, I’ll talk about another step I’ve taken in the pursuit of finishing this revision.

More information on James Scott Bell

Novel? What novel?

I’d say I’m disappointed in myself, but whatever.

I finally figured out how to state what’s been going on. There is a fine line between perfection and professionalism. I’m reaching for the latter, knowing that perfection is a myth. But every time I think I’ve hit it, someone finds something else that’s wrong. (The latest is TO BE = wrong wrong wrong/do not use at all costs.)

The editing is in shambles. Chapter 27 is currently broken all over my computer and in desperate need of a rebuild. Chaps 28-33 await the same fate. They need it. And I have big plans to fix things and answer questions my 1 amazing critique found. Big plans. And no motivation. None. Not since February have I seen forward motion in this area that doesn’t look like I’m writing the next See Spot Run.

Chapters 1 and 2 have been reworked so many times that I’m not even sure they’re from the same story anymore. Chapters 3 to 9 have been gone over sixteen billion times and desperately need some more editing. Chapters 10 to 22 could use a lot of work. I’ve got notes up the ying yang—these after the huge list of changes I already made. Chapters 23-26 should have been perfect…should have been.

And in all of this, I simply wish for a mentor, a person who can take my novel and help me (correctly) apply what I’ve learned. Erm, not going to happen. Stop dreaming, writer.
Since this is November. I decided to do Nano again to help me get back into the story. I got 3700 words before life got in the way. This sucks. I used to know how to write before I discovered the rules.

All of this may sound like I’m depressed as hell. I’m honestly not. I’m just stating the facts, and they don’t look good. I do (should) have the next two days to just write. We’ll see how that goes.