checking in

By tonight, I’ll be at or above 35,000 words on my novel, roughly 1400 from where I’m standing now. I’m frequently a bit below par, but I blame that to writing late at night, past the midnight line. I’m not dead, just very, very focused. Sorry I haven’t been around a lot!

I’ve said this before, but I think I need to say it again. Complete rewrites are beautiful, wonderful things. They’re a lot, a lot of work, but the improvement to the plot and composition are fabulous, and well worth it.

Since I’m finally very happy with my plot and the balance between characters, I’m going to keep up my NaNo pace through December (I’ve heard of a NaNoFiMo– National Novel Finishing Month– next month). Depending on how long this new draft takes me, I’ll be done a little before or a little after the new year.

So, based on that, January through March are going to be editing and revising months. I’ll start agent-shopping this April.

Wish me luck!

writing the second draft

I had a request to share how I went about writing the second draft of my novel. As a disclaimer, this is just how I did it; I’m certain that others try different methods that work well for them.

My first draft was written during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month— I highly recommend participating) last November, 50,000 words in one month. It took another week after November to finally finish it, which brought it up to approximately 52,000 words. As expected of a NaNo novel, it had several major problems.

First, there was the pacing. I was writing furiously for four weeks to produce volume, not good craftsmanship. My first test reader said that the book felt like it needed to be about twice as long, which I agreed with. The city was an undefined blur, the castle equally nondescript. My prose rambled, got distracted, changed ideas halfway through sentences.

Some of the characters were very fleshed out. Others were flat and uninteresting. My two protagonists, Rylan and Wyrren, were not very consistent. My villains showed up when inconvenient for my heroes, the characters were sidetracked at several points. Some characters I had decided would be important, but seemed to decline their part in my plot.

And speaking of plot… the entire middle of my story sagged terribly. I had the ending I wanted, the beginning I wanted, and I got to keep my tiger-fight… and yes, I could see what I was going for in that first draft. It was also an unholy mess.

Now, I’m a terrible critic. I’ve been spoiled by literature, and I’ve read too many good books to be impressed by mediocre work. This might even be the reason that I’m so hesitant to start reading something new… I have a fear of being let down by a book, as if they were a new friend that I was entrusting myself to. When I read a book or watch a movie, I ask myself things like, “If I had written this passage, would I be satisfied with it?”

I also have an excellent memory for words on paper. I can still quote poems that I memorized twelve years ago, regardless of length. So I don’t forget the things I write in a hurry.

In January, I read over a few pieces of my printed first draft, put it away, and began writing the second draft. From scratch. No references, no list of absolutely required scenes. After the second chapter, I felt that I needed to be reminded of where I was going. Instead of going back to the first draft, I wrote a detailed outline of the book and kept going.

To those of you who practice art, I compare the first draft to a thumbnail sketch. It’s enough to let you know what you’re going for. But if you draw from the sketch, you’re just going to get a bigger sketch. Best to have worked out your thoughts ahead of time and begin fresh, looking forward to other references other than old, and quick, work. I can say that my second draft is far superior to the first in every way, but still not perfect.

That’s what the third draft is for.

rewrite goals (spit and polish)

I recently came across a website titled Limyaael’s Rants, in which an English grad student studying for a Ph.D. writes some very good articles about what can make or break a fantasy novel (though I suspect a number of her points could also transcend into other genres). She covers everything from abused characters to world building, nearly 350 articles. Some are lessons that I’ve learned a long time ago… and some are points that I haven’t considered yet.

I don’t have very long before I start up my second rewrite, and the topics on this rant page have got me thinking about what goals I’ll make before going through the novel again. I started this project thinking ‘form and composition first, then scenes, then prose’, and I still think it’s a good way to work with it (though it makes ‘eh’ excerpts at present).

To do, between the drafts:
– Minor characters. If they have an impact on the scene, figure out who they are, where they live, what they do.
– Mapping. Everything in my book all occurs in the same city. There are some notable features of this city, even in the low-end districts where caves are the norm. Refine them, name them.
– Art. I know the style of the noblemen’s art. Not the commoners. I also don’t know who the heroes that the statues between the university and palace are made for. Explore this further.
– Rewrite much of the palace events from Wyrren’s point of view. Make the intrigue intrigue-y, probably add two subplots to contrast with the simplicity of Rylan’s tasks to the complexity of Wyrren’s place. Also, this will serve to disguise Kione’s initial importance. Hide a leaf in a forest.
– Exposition. I actually added no exposition in the first draft. I wanted to write the story first and see what needed to be explained. Now I know: the magic system, the harshness of the surface, and the use of assassins in war rather than armies due to the climate. Those are the biggies. Everything else? By implication.
– Finalize the plot. After breaking my outline several dozen times in this draft, I’m at least hopeful that my characters will be satisfied with their actions. I’m going to rewrite a plot synopsis and rake through it for plot holes. (Die, circular logic, die!! … ahem.)

Anyway, if you have a free hour, take a look at her articles.

weaknesses… (darn critiques)

Last night was time for our monthly local writing group to get together and… well, talk about writing. We talked, I shared a little of my book, reinforced the fact that I have no life by offering the daily word count of my collaborative for-fun-only project, and plugged google documents as a great resource for keeping an up-to-date backup online.

After the meeting had ended, one of the women had taken the time to critique the first thousand words of my first chapter. Any one of these would be a good topic to cover later, so for now I’ll give an overview, then start writing on some of these in detail. This is what she found.

Pronouns. I dislike using names over and over in sentences. I also like long sentences with lots of commas, often with two characters involved, interchanging ‘he’ and ‘him’ without discrimination. Most of my test readers weren’t confused, but she’s right. It’s all technically incorrect.

Research. The sweet older lady has a lot more experience in killing things than I do. Apparently if you’re a cannibal chopping off a leg, you really want to do it at the knee, because the tendons are easier to cut than the muscle and bone. Also, the body’s legs would be straight, not twisted, because it’s easier to strip that way. Obviously, I should kill things more often.

Redundancy. I have got to stop saying things like ‘dead body’ and ‘living man’. Obviously, if the living man is protesting, we’re not going to confuse him with the body. It’s not that kind of fantasy.

Subtlety in all the Wrong Places. I’d put too much space between the discovery of something new and my character’s reaction in attempting to describe the symbol in detail. It made my hero look strange, and his sudden panic became confusing instead of effective.

Blah Words. As Mark Twain forcibly restrained himself from writing the word ‘very’, I have found myself still unable to completely escape the mire of somewhat, almost, actual, and their equally deplorable cousins.

Which isn’t to say that everything was bad. The setting and descriptions interested her (despite that it was just a freezing stone cave with a dead guy), she liked the pacing, thought the story was interesting, and wanted to read more. I also saw approving marks around my dialog, which I’m particularly proud of. My test readers in general say that vocal interaction is a particular strength of mine.

Overall, I’m pleased with the feedback, even after the routine humbling. I’m always more concerned with pacing and plot-holes; most of the work I need to do now are serious, but cosmetic changes.

on rewriting

David Gerrold wrote a book called ‘Worlds of Wonder’, focused on fantasy and science fiction writing. I enjoyed reading it– he had a very friendly style, and it was easy to empathize with him… especially once he started out by telling a story about how a terrible writing professor told him he wouldn’t amount to anything in the field, and his first published works were inspired out of rage. This isn’t of course to say that I agreed with everything in his book, but two of the points he made stuck with me, which is fairly good considering I’m an overly critical skeptic.

I’ll paraphrase his sentiment.

The first million words are for practice. Don’t worry. It doesn’t count. Practice writing your book. Practice editing it. Practice sending it out. Don’t worry. You’re just practicing. Practice receiving rejection letters. And if someone is foolish enough to publish one of your practice novels, that doesn’t mean anything either. Practice cashing that check. After those first million words, then you can start taking yourself seriously.

Perhaps this is something personal, perhaps not. I found this passage extraordinarily liberating, probably because I get anxious before I start writing or drawing. Am I starting in the right place? Is this really the way I want to present this? I have such a hard time shutting my inner editor up. NaNoWriMo was one of the best things I’ve done– it let me finish the 0-draft of my book, with the knowledge that I would be going back and rewriting everything. Like doing small thumbnail sketches in art, the terrible, rushed version still told me where I was going, what elements I would be using. I got out a blank sheet of paper for the second version and rewrote it more concisely, longer, emphasizing some of the right details. And I’m planning on starting almost entirely from scratch a second time before I get into editing the prose itself. I need to get all the elements correct first before I start polishing my piece. And I might be overly optimistic, but I think my writing is getting stronger with each pass.

Don’t worry. It doesn’t count. It’s just for practice.

I’m going to make this book shine.

writing chapter one

I’ve been writing the second draft (third version) of that first chapter prematurely to give to the artist I’ve mentioned. It’s gotten me thinking of what a really good first chapter is meant to accomplish, what it should contain ideally. What I’ve come up with is a bit different than what I’ve seen other writers discuss on craft, and I thought that I’d share.

Everyone talks about ‘hooks’. … You know what? Forget the hook. Forget the clever first line. You’re not working on a magazine ad. Write material that’s gripping and worth reading, something that starts strong and dives in without waiting for permission from the reader. Let your skill be a ‘hook’.

I say this because so much stress is always put into those first few lines, and all it’s done for me is to feel like some sort of gimmick. The purpose of the hook is very valid! But going out of your way to write a good ‘hooking statement’ rather than working on the composition of the book and chapter itself seems too much like a facade of elegance, a layer of costume cosmetics, and I think emphasis on this is misleading. First learn to convey an idea.

For this project, setting was drastically important. ‘Blue Crystal’ is so much unlike any other fantasy story that I’ve ever read. I worked hard to keep the setting and idea original. It’s worked. But it also means that people just coming in won’t know what to expect, and for that, establishing the setting (place, people, customs) is vitally important. If it were just another generic fantasy I’d stick in a dwarf and set it in a bar. No description needed. Everyone and their assorted relatives could fill in the details while multitasking. Excuse me while I shiver.

The first chapter should also hint at all the other elements that will be used in the book, not only the mechanisms, but also the scenery and themes. The reader should know what kind of story this is, and establishing everything well in advance means that you have very clear boundaries on why the hero is very restricted in certain ways, that he can’t just ‘solve’ his problems with magic. Just find a realistic way to accomplish this– don’t become a contortionist writer for a few paragraphs to show things off. Fine a way to make them work.

I’m almost done with the chapter, and unlike much of my craft I’m actually very pleased with it so far. It’s starting to come into focus.