writing

Drafting: fast and messy or slow and clean?

I’m experimenting with a new way of writing.

In the past, my story ideas have resulted in explosions of speed-writing, typing as fast as my fingers can because I have to get the story out. I’ve done it this way three times, and all three of those it’s been intensely enjoyable. And let’s face it–there are definite advantages to doing it this way: it gets done. Powering through until you type the very last sentence, without questioning yourself or what you’re writing, is like riding a roller coaster. You almost feel like you’re being carried away by something stronger than yourself, and there’s nothing you can do but hang on tight and ride it to the end.

However, writing that way does produce a messy, messy draft. And let’s face it–messy drafts can be a bit overwhelming to tackle during revisions.

I went back to one of those stories recently, determined to whip it into shape and make it query-ready. What I found was discouraging–a villain who didn’t deliver, a plot that didn’t get as exciting as the lead-up promised, overly verbose descriptions of this and that, all-over-the-place POV (point of view)–holy cramoly. It felt too messy to salvage, and every time I tried to revise in a significant way I felt trapped by a heroine who, upon further reads, I realized was unlikeable.

At this point, I could have shelved the story. But honestly, I never considered shelving it. I loved the story and the characters as I knew them in my mind–it just wasn’t translating to the page. So. I’ll scrap it, I decided. And start fresh. Same story, same characters, new writing. New, awesome writing. New, awesome, super-tight writing.

I’ve been working on it for a couple months now. It’s a very different experience, because I already know the substance of the story. I (roughly) know where it’s headed. I know the characters. So it’s more of a matter of getting there in the right way. Finding the right scenes. Knitting them together in the right sequence.

This time, my focus isn’t GET THE STORY OUT AS FAST AS YOU CAN. It’s get the story out right.

It’s slower. A lot slower. It involves combing over material that I’ve already written and messing with scenes–their content, style, sequence. It involves deleting stuff that doesn’t work. Tweaking, finagling, squinting at a line and just sitting with it. The writing, compared to my fast and messy drafts, is leaner and tighter. But it’s taking a looooong time. Sometimes a couple hours’ work only results in one tiny new scene. Or a couple scenes slightly revised.

One of my fears in going about it this way was that it would be a passion-kill. That by going at a snail’s pace, somehow all the excitement would bleed out of it. That hasn’t been the case. True, it’s not the fit-of-passion of my speed-writing, but it’s very enjoyable. When I open the manuscript, there are no rules like there used to be (go go go go go FAST!). Instead, there’s latitude. I might do some new writing. I might go over some old writing. I might focus on the opening scenes (again). I love the reminder that, in writing, there are no rules. As long as I finish it, it doesn’t matter how I got there. And that is very freeing.

By the end, I think (I hope) it will be a relatively clean draft. Of course it will require the usual post-draft steps–revisions, critiques from readers, more revisions, resting time, more revisions, and all that good stuff. But I’m excited to produce something that isn’t a mess.

What about you? Do you write slow and clean, or fast and messy? Do you find one way better than the other?

writing

The scrapping of a novel (and its rebirth)

Last you heard from me, I was coming back to work from my maternity leave, and expressing small (okay, medium) amounts of terror at the thought that it was also time to kick my creative life back into gear.

My creative life had been in neutral for pretty much a year. Plus, with another grey Chicago winter upon us, for the good of my soul (and my family’s happiness, so much of which is tied into my own happiness), I need to be working on something. A ridiculous short story? Sure. An unpublishable novel? Sure. A collection of poems about minestrone? Whatever. As long as I’m excited about the project and committed to seeing it through, I’ll do anything.

How about a project about me, Mom?

Uh . . . all I got is this:

You are so roly

your rolls bedazzle me, son

let me squeeze them now.

(No, it doesn’t rhyme, my son)

(It’s called haiku)

Anyway, there’s something about having gumbo bubbling around in your creative cauldron that just makes it harder to be sad/down/depressed/eating chocolates and popcorn because you’re not sure what else to do. Whether or not the gumbo is edible at the end–well, that’s not exactly the point.

The point is the process.

Everyone says so.

I say so.

Anyway! I blogged about choosing among my bajillion ideas and committing to a project, and I’m back to report that I HAVE COMMITTED.

And the project I picked makes a lot of sense. It’s a project I wrote and revised last year. Then it sat on the computer. I thought about querying it, but then I didn’t. I think part of me realized it wasn’t ripe (good job, Jenna’s Subconscious). When I opened up the document recently, I cataloged its problems. Unlikable heroine (again! Ugh). Slow pacing. Too much gratuitous description. Way too many scenes that didn’t further the plot. A cool set-up with a less-than-cool pay-off. Etcetera, etcetera. The thought of fixing it (mangling it and then trying to restitch it all back together) was too much (not to mention I didn’t want to create a Frankennovel), so there was only one solution:

I scrapped the novel, gathered its ashes into a small, sooty pile, and will henceforth try to birth a phoenix kind of a thing.

In other words, same characters, same story, but new writing. New pacing. New scenes, new dialogue, new structure, new new new.

The benefits of this are clear–I know the characters pretty well. After all, I’ve written a novel about them before, albeit a crappy one. I know the story and happen to love it, too. But there’s enough mystery in how I’m going to pull it off in this new and better-paced, page-turning way that I’m feeling that familiar exhilaration/fear.

Last night I was typing away and I felt a wonderful surge in my chest.

“I can do this!” I said.

Five minutes later,

“I don’t think I can pull it off,” I said.

Then I remembered–this is what it’s like to write a book. A wave of confidence followed by a wave of fear. You’re holding puzzle pieces but you don’t see how they’re going to fit together. You’re not even sure, in fact, that all the pieces are from the correct puzzle.

Sometimes the words flow. The scenes make sense. You’re on a roll. And, other times, like the Grinch, you sit there until your puzzler is sore, without typing a word, and you think I’m never getting out of this one. Then, in the middle of a hot shower as you’re singing Rudolph the Reindeer in harmony with an imaginary Fred Astaire, suddenly the solution comes to you and you rush out only mostly rinsed because you’d better write it down before it all evaporates.

The up-and-down of confidence and fear–it’s been so long since I’ve felt it.

And it’s good.

It’s the process.

It’s what I’ve been wanting. Waiting for. Longing for.

Hallelujah! Bring on the challenge.

Publishing

The road to publication: if I’d known

This is how I imagined my writing career would go during that wonderful, magical time when I sat down to write my first novel in the late summer/early fall of 2014:

I would write the novel (no problem, I had the first draft done in a month).

I would revise (this turned out to be way fun, so, cool).

I would send to beta readers and revise some more (check, check).

I’d submit to agents (yep, not a problem, the internet is full of information on how to do this).

They would request the full manuscript (this happened too! Things were looking good).

They would fall in love with it and bing-bang-boom, I’d get a publishing deal.

Cue a long and prosperous career, movie deals, etc.

This would probably happen by Christmas.

Um, no.

What actually happened:

I wrote four novels (plus many many other half-finished projects and idea-flirtations ranging in length from a couple pages to 100,000-word forays into stories that, in the end, didn’t cut it).

I queried two of the finished novels (make that “am querying”) (with a year-break in there to have a baby, etc.) until the present day. For non-writers, “querying” means pitching my project and myself via a short email to literary agents who, if they love your book, will agree to pitch it to publishers and sign you on for the remainder of your writing career.

That’s one and a half years of active querying, or overall, two and a half years, if you’re counting.

(Can you tell I’m counting?)

I have received more rejections than I care to count. (Please. Don’t make me tally them. It’s in the three digits).

Anyone who’s been through the querying process has heard all the phrases:

“Not quite right for my list”

“While you have an intriguing concept …”

“Didn’t connect with the characters …”

“Oversaturated market …”

“Didn’t love it enough …”

As of now, two and a half years after embarking on what I was certain would be a quick journey to becoming a published author, here I am, unrepresented and still searching for that agent who will say, ‘yes! I love this story!’ Along the way, I’ve also recognized that neither of the two manuscripts I have floating out there in query-land on various agents’ computers and tablets may land me that effusive love-love relationship that writer and agent must have for their relationship to work.

Which is fine.

Looking back, I was in NO way ready to be represented in 2014. I had a lot of work to do honing my craft, learning about what gives a story good bones, and scraping those early-writer flaws out of my writing (-ings, “just,” “start to,” fancy dialogue tags, and everything the internet can tell you about, too), and I imagine I still do. For all I know, I’m not ready now either and two years from now I’ll be grateful that no one snatched me up.

That said, waiting is hard. Just to give you non-writers an idea of the molasses-speed timeline of things, it can take three months for an agent to respond to an emailed query (sometimes longer!). If she likes your query and requests the full manuscript, it can take up to a year for her to read it (my longest standing full manuscript out there is currently over the eight-month mark). If an agent signs me, I will still need to go through revisions with her, probably for a number of months. Then, she’ll pitch it to publishing houses. Cue another wait. And down the road, I know, there are even more waits. Even if I get a ‘yes’ today from an agent, it will still be years until any book of mine hits an actual shelf (and there are still no guarantees it will happen).

This process is not for those who need immediate gratification.

If I had known it would take this long, be this hard, and involve so much waiting and rejection, would I have started the journey?

Maybe, but with less spring in my step. Maybe, but perhaps with less enthusiasm and drive. Which are some of the ingredients that kept me writing.

I’m so grateful that I couldn’t (and can’t) see the future. I’m even grateful that I started out thinking I could spring up the mountain of publishing like a young goat–because it got me going. It got me writing. Now I’m readjusting. It turns out I’m not a young goat–or at least that the top of the mountain has turned out to be much further and the goat has aged along the way.

I think I’ll be a donkey instead now. Still climbing. More slowly, but steadily (I hope). Ready for the long-haul. Not exactly less hopeful, but with a hardier kind of hope that’s a little broader in its scope.

For all I know, one of the agents currently reading my manuscripts will fall in love and sign me. Though I’m not holding my breath like I was in 2014 (I’d have passed out by now). So for now, I’ll keep plodding, hopefully upwards (though ready for detours).

What’s at the top?

It’s a question work asking.

Is it becoming famous? Making millions?

I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to support my family with my writing. But right now, the top of the mountain is this:

Sharing my work with readers.

Because there’s nothing like putting something you create out there and having someone else enter into your creation and respond to it.

And the thing is, of all the different dreams I could have, that is a dream that lies within my power to realize–whether it’s in two years or twenty, with or without the backing of New York Big Publishing. Self-publishing is a viable option for the future, and I’m finally allowing myself to recognize that. It’s such a relieving thought–that I have that power–and that helps me be patient. Wait another day, another week, another month, another year. Maybe many years.

Thankfully I don’t have to make decisions now. I certainly don’t want to send half-baked work out into the internet–I need more time to hone. Revise. Perfect. See which path opens up and which does not.

The bottom line is that I love writing. I love what I’ve written. And eventually, I will get those stories out there.

But that day is not today.

So right now, I need to write and I need to wait.

Here’s to more writing. More waiting. Then more writing. And–I know–a lot more waiting.

 

writing

Pausing is not quitting

I read a book recently. I couldn’t for the life of me quote the exact line, but the gist was this:

There’s a difference between pausing and quitting.

They can look the same at first: you start a task. It gets really hard. You don’t feel like you can do it. Strength spent, you stop.

If you never come back, if that’s the end of it, you quit.

But if you come back the next day, or the next month, or the next year, and do it again, you just paused.

Last fall, I started a fantasy project. About 40k words in, I got completely stuck. The story ran out of steam.

Okay, okay, it’s fine, don’t panic, I told myself. I reasoned that not all my drafts had to come together in a month (like my previous three projects had), and that I was just facing an exciting new challenge.

In subsequent weeks, I hunkered down and did what I knew how to do: I plotted. I mapped out a progression of events with multi-colored sticky notes on a massive section of my bedroom wall. I went back and rewrote a main motivation and followed its trail all the way through, hoping the story would surge ahead (it didn’t). I brainstormed. I scrapped, I rewrote. I read blog posts about how to deal with story blockages and found lots of great advice. I took long hot showers, a place where plot tangles have traditionally come unwound.

Still, the novel was stuck.

Discipline, I told myself. Discipline is the secret. This is where the rubber hits the road. You can’t always feel high when you write. You have to learn to write from a low place too. If you want to make a career out of this, you need to learn to butt-in-chair, push-push-push, take the muse by the roots of her hair and yank her back into her place.

It didn’t work.

In my non-writing life, I can be quite disciplined (or maybe I should say stubborn). I’m the kind of person who is sometimes a little too determined to succeed. This streak kept me at a job for three years that I should have quit as soon as I realized that my boss was a narcissistic megalomaniac and most certainly a psychopath. But no–I had to succeed. I stuck it out, through emotional abuse and tirades and general misery.

I wish I’d clung less to my misguided vision of success–but that’s another story for another time. The point here is, I can be dang stubborn. I can stick to things through difficulties, tears, and beyond. Certainly I should be able to apply my fingers to a keyboard and bang out a dang novel.

I couldn’t.

Why am I failing at writing? I asked myself over and over.

But see, already I’d made a big mistake: equating stopping with failing.

Stopping doesn’t have to be a failure. Stopping can be pausing. Stopping can be natural, and healthy, and sometimes even necessary.

What I saw as a massive creative failure was just a big old pause button.

By the way, the pause button on that particular project is still deeply pressed. I sense it’s not done forever, that it would be nice to take up in the future and see if I can make something of it (I really do love the setting and the main character) but I’m not planning on picking it up for at least another year.

As the sun comes back, my seasonal sadness is lifting, and life seems all-around a happier place than it did in bleak January, I’m working on a new project birthed from an old idea in a voice completely different than anything else I’ve written.

Will I see it through?

I don’t know. We’ll see. But I certainly don’t plan on freaking out at each pause like I did with the last project.

Writing friends, there’s something to be said for butt-in-chair discipline.

BUT. Don’t recriminate yourself for pausing either.

Pausing is a necessary rhythm in the long race of life. Without pauses and rests and breaks, you will burn out.

The creative side of me, I’ve been learning, has surges and lulls that don’t seem to be entirely in my control. So my goal for this year: learning to work with them. Learning to pause without letting my self-doubt fill my head with shouts of “quitter!”

I’m not a quitter.

 

I’m a pauser.

And I think that will enable me to run longer and get further in the end.