switching gears

My writer’s group critiqued my work for the first time last night.

I spent most of last week preparing the short (~1000 word) chapter I was submitting for review: writing, editing, rewriting, running through Autocrit, and editing until it was as perfect as I could make it. This is pretty standard procedure for me (every post you see on this blog has gone through a dozen iterations, including this one).

I have always worked this way because most of my shared writing has been episodic role-playing and fan fiction: once a chapter is out in the world I can’t take it back or edit it, so I aim for a finished product every time.

By the submission deadline I still wasn’t pleased with what I had. I wasn’t getting across the mood and clarity I wanted and feared my chapter would be seen as lazy writing, or just plain crap.

It turned out that nobody expected a completed work. Everyone could tell it was a first draft and liked it very much for what it was, offering some excellent tips how to fix some of my clunkier phrasing and ideas for giving it the emotional punch it lacks (more show, less tell – but that’s another post).

They also advised me against “over-polishing” because it hinders progress on longer (novel-length) works. Plot developments in later chapters mean I might have to rewrite those “finished” pieces or simply cut them, translating to hours of work down the drain. Besides, sometimes it’s good to get the blueprint on the page and then let it sit for a fresh look later.

It’s going to take a hell of an effort for me to write something and leave it in draft form – it goes against all my prior work habits and grates on my misguided perfectionism besides! But in the name of efficiency I’ll write my next chapter give it a once over, and then…stop.

It’ll be easy to stop typing. Stopping my mental editor when I should be working on the next thing will be the real trick.

On the upside, they liked my ideas and general plot. It’s heartening to know that I’m not the only person in the world who thinks a mixture of espionage, magic, alchemy, and madness would be a good read!

fuel

Ack! I’ve not posted in over a month! I’ve not been idle though:

I’m still sticking to my habit of cranking out at least ~200 words a day. Even if it’s another version of a scene or nothing to do with the book I’ve kept this up (except during travel: writing on the go is the next thing to figure out).

Unfortunately I’ve come to a point that I’m rehashing the same material which is not only boring but isn’t moving the book forward.

I’m finding that once I’m in a rut it’s best to stop writing and start reading. Research is preferable but fiction is good too – really, anything that shakes up the brain pan.

The research is, as ever, essential because it provides not only more information but new ideas. For example, one name I pulled out of the source material and used as a placeholder for a minor character turns out to have been a spy with ruthless methods and uncertain motive. Using this discovery makes this character both more interesting and better rounded, which in turn makes his interactions with my protagonist both more layered and easier to write.

Fiction introduces rhythm of prose and familiar words used in new ways (I’ve always been a reader, but I’m finding that my work uses an embarrassingly small vocabulary). Descriptions are also helpful, because for all I can see scenes “in my head” they never turn out on the page the way I envision, so it’s good to see how others do it.

So, still always the student.

In the new year I’m going to have my first writing group critique, so I’m spending some time hammering that out into something I’m confident sharing. Keep you posted.

it’s too much

I’ve been having one of those weeks with the writing.

It’s been a struggle to cough up more than a couple hundred words a day, not because inspiration is lacking but because I can’t complete a thought without having to put in placeholders for something I haven’t researched yet:

…the large table in the center of the room. It groaned with food, [what kind? how much?]

or

He shifted to and fro in an attempt to keep his blood flowing. “Besides it’s cold as [16th c. equivalent of “a witch’s tit”]-“

or

Approaching the throne, Jane dropped a low curtsey [how does one correctly greet the Queen?]

And so forth. These pauses not only derail my thinking but illustrate the gaps in my knowledge that I need to place the story in a concrete-feeling time and place. This doesn’t include the list of general questions I need to answer before I know if some of my plot points are even possible.

Currently I have over 80 sources but it still doesn’t seem like enough; my fear of anachronism looms large but I don’t want to put off my narrative ideas until the research is complete (opinions on how much research to do pre-writing differ).

Even so, this often feels like too big of a project to face, as though there are too many details and dependencies to get my head around to do the story justice, and the temptation to just quit is great. But that’s not how books get written so I press on, trying to break it into manageable pieces and keeping my […] in to address in the next draft.

I’m also giving Scrivener a whirl to try to impose some order on this beast. Currently the book is in a series of Word files in a single folder on my desktop, none titled clearly enough to know their content or sequence. Hopefully this will also help with the dreaded outlining.

I don’t even know these people

Last week I gave another friend my “elevator pitch” about the novel and the historical characters on whom I’m basing my story. While most people express surprise at how strange and unlikely the reality was, she asked a question that I’d not heard before:

“Do you like any of your characters?”

It’s a good one, especially considering that part of what made me want to write this story is that none of the people involved seemed like they’d be overly pleasant to deal with, even before taking fictional liberties. As it stands now my protagonist is an unstable con man, the man he is conning is pious and obsessive, the pious man’s wife is an angry control freak, and the con-man’s wife is shaping up to be timid and naive.

As such, these people are lots of fun to write (because happy, stable characters are boring), but I can’t say I’d want to hang out with any of them!

Having said this, I have compassion for them as well: the con man gets in way over his head, the pious man’s needs drive him to compromise his principles, the control freak is lonely and frustrated, and the milquetoast may well be the sanest person in the room.

I suppose it’s good that I appreciate their strengths as well as their weaknesses. After all, if readers unconsciously emulate their favorite fictional characters, imagine what it’s like for those of us who write them.

My mixed emotions also come from the fact that all of the characters embody aspects of myself, and not always my best points. I suppose this is inevitable because the only head I’ve ever been in is my own. I’ve been obsessive, angry, questioning, and out of my depth; incredibly I’ve even been the sanest person in the room at times. While this may not make my characters pleasant, I hope it makes them relatable.

And they continue to take shape as I write them. Just this week I wrote one making a gaffe that embarrasses another and I’m still not sure how their different personalities are going to deal with the aftermath. I just keep referring back to my character profiles for cues and hope that something believable comes out in the narrative wash.

In short – do I like them? Sorta and not, but honestly I’m still getting to know them.

coming up to speed

On Thursday I went to my first local writer’s meet up.

This is different from my occasional Sunday writing get-togethers with friends, where the goal is simply to write. The  members of this group largely work alone but meet bi-monthly to critique each other’s work and do writing prompts.

It was interesting, but I felt inadequate to the task. I’ve got a bit of a learning curve if I want to offer decent beta reading, or learn from any criticism I receive:

1) I need to get familiar with the proper names for different parts of language. I know when something feels “off” to me in a reading: the pace is too fast, or it feels repetitive, but I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately explain what I mean. Until I understand these my critiques will be vague at best. Not sure where to learn this as I’m not even sure what to plug into Google: “parts of language” finds more about speech than writing. Work in progress.

2) I need to learn proofreader’s marks. Some of the members provide their reviews as marked-up printouts, and these aren’t useful to me if I don’t know what they mean.

3) Better reading aloud. I put as much expression as I could into the small bit I read but self-consciousness and unfamiliarity with the text gets in the way. I’m referring to Mary Robinette Kowal‘s tips for reading aloud videos (part 1, part 2) but I suspect mastering this will come down to practice. I may have to face my speaking in public phobia sooner rather than later (shudder).

4) Formatting. Evidently some publishers won’t even look at a manuscript that isn’t in the preferred justified alignment, .5″ paragraph indent format. I’m new enough to the writing party that I can’t judge anecdote from evidence, but reformatting is simple so I’m putting this in my “can’t hurt, might help” box.

The writing prompt was fun: start a story, after a set time pass your paper to the person on your right so they can continue. It’s like the RPGs I used to play in, where everyone had permission to write everyone else’s character and take them in places I couldn’t imagine.

I think I will be attending this meet up again as time permits, but only if I can be of some use to the other members.

 

short circuit

I am easily distracted. There, I said it.

This is a big problem when I’m trying to buckle down and produce prose because writing is such a motionless, solitary activity that almost anything becomes more appealing if the muse doesn’t strike instantly: getting a drink, tidying my workspace, surfing the internet…

Ah yes, the internet. It’s a fantastic research tool but also a diabolical time suck that people made of sterner stuff might be able to tune out, but given the opportunity I will click through useful information to trivial amusing junk Every. Damn. Time.

The solution is obviously to turn it off, and working away from my local wireless does help but I like the convenience of working from home. By sheer luck I was reading an interview with author Malinda Lo in which she revealed that she had the same problem and provided her solution for it.

Mac Freedom is a tidy little app that does only one thing: it cuts off internet access without having to cut the connection, in time intervals up to 8 hours. No web, and no email notifications either.

I’ve been using it all week and was finally able to get a difficult scene written because I turned off interference. This isn’t an ad – I’m just a satisfied customer.

What’s your worse writing distraction, and how do you handle it?

reticence

There are times when I find it uncomfortable to write.

I don’t mean physical discomfort or run-of-the-mill writer’s block, but a sort of anxious distress that has me doing everything from laundry to reloading Facebook to avoid having to face the work in progress.

What I always want (what I suspect all writers want) is that perfect state of flow where the words just pour out like water, the imagery and emotions so clear in my mind that I am merely describing the unfolding events and the character’s reactions to them.

For a long time I assumed “real” writers were in that state all the time; through discussion and experience I’m learning that this is definitely NOT the case and that part of learning to write is plowing through the times when you’re not “in the mood”.

I’m finding that the two main things that make me want to flee to the cuddly vapidity of YouTube cat videos are 1) I can’t get inside my character’s head, or 2) I feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Dealing with the first is easier – I created elaborate back stories and personality profiles of my main characters that I can refer to when I just can’t “go there”. It’s not the same but it does give me some direction when I’ve written them into a corner.

The other is harder because even though everyone says to “write what you know” it’s impossible to stick to my own narrow range of experiences and inevitably I wind up in uncharted territory.

This is especially true with historical fiction, and even though none of my potential readers have lived through the 16th century either I still cringe at the thought that someone who has done better research than I will read something I’ve written and realize I’m winging it.

This is my critiquing Kryptonite – I’m more self-conscious about someone catching me being clueless than I am about lousy grammar, poor plotting or anything else.

Of course I’m (over)doing the research to avoid that possibility, but I suspect the real lesson is how to get over my flailing and find a way into “the zone”. I know what to do once I’m there – it’s just the getting there I’m struggling with.

NaNowriMo?

It’s impossible to write without considering National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’m new enough to serious writing that I’ve never participated before and I’m getting encouragement from all quarters to give it a try. It DOES sound like a good way to get words down, but I have to ask – does it really count if I’m just doing prep/background?

Don’t misunderstand me: I will still be writing key scenes for the novel and doing exercises to improve in general but I’m in no way ready to force a multi-thousand word first draft.

Part of this is because I’ve not completed my timeline of the historical events on which I’m basing my story. These cover 6 years and several countries, and while I already know I’m going to have to deviate from the reality to make a ripping yarn, I want to have this complete before I start the main writing so I know exactly how and where I’m breaking off from fact.

Figuring out a compelling story arc is the other problem. History seldom unfolds in a tidy seven-point story structure or the like, so once I have the fact down I have to hammer it into a readable fiction.

As such I’m going to end up doing more of a NaNoOutlineMo/NaNoResearchMo in order to get everything lined up. I suppose this is illustrative of how much writing doesn’t have much to do with actual writing, at least when I’m not done with my research.

this is what going mad felt like

The Historical Novel Project(TM) is creating a number of writing challenges that are above my pay grade, but it’s not the believable characterization, compression/abbreviation of real historical events or the need for creating an accurate world that intimidates me.

I think the hardest thing I’m going to have to describe is the mental state of a character who is slowly developing visual/auditory hallucinations through a combination of stress and overwork. I need to sell his slow decline to a modern reading audience while:

  • limiting myself to 16th century vernacular, as they didn’t have a vocabulary for mental illness the way we do
  • convincing the reader that the character does not realize he’s going mad – he thinks these visions are real
  • making it clear that there is no “voice of sanity” – everyone around him believes his visions are real too, and some actively encourage them
  • that in the context of the time/place this assumption makes sense.

This requires a huge amount of research. Not that I mind, but it’s hard to find sources for exactly the situation I’m trying to convey.

At the suggestion of my new historian acquaintance, I got a copy of highlights from The Anatomy of Melancholy, to get some idea of what language 16th/17th century people used to describe mental/emotional distress. I’ve also picked up Carl Jung’s Red Book, because though he does use modern psychiatric language it’s the only documentation I can find by someone who realized he was having a psychotic break but chose to interact with his hallucinations.

It’s also revealing the need for a lot of context about the mindset of the late Renaissance, when the scientific method was just being developed and a lot of superstition (such as the belief that it was possible and expected to talk to spirits) was still accepted as fact.

I’ve got my narrative work cut out for me.

writing by the seat of my pants

Last night was my first class in a 3-week workshop on character development. As in, a real, live, in person class, with a classroom and everything.

I was iffy about signing up for it at first; I prefer online instruction because it gives me time to think about my answers, and I’m always cagey about adding another non-moveable item to my cluttered calendar, but I am ultimately glad I did it.

Turns out the instant back and forth is something I need, because it short-circuits my tendency to over think. On my own I’ll constantly refer to notes (would they be in this room? What are they wearing? What time did X take place chronologically?), but the exercises were timed and specific: Take a news headline and expand on it in 3 minutes; Look at a picture and describe the character’s mindset in the same amount of time; generate a fake name from the phone book and write a first-person paragraph.

I expected these to be nerve-wrackingly difficult but they weren’t simply because I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I think perhaps the most useful exercises were how to base a character on your own experiences without it becoming a Mary Sue (use a different name, write 3rd person, and change the situation slightly to build emotional distance) and how to build a character around an object (who owns this? How did they get it? Why is this important to them?). The latter in particular I’m going to use to build a character in world I tentatively built years ago but couldn’t populate.

My classmates are few but enthusiastic; one of the things I love about adult continuing education is that everyone in the room wants to be there. Everyone also got there by different side doors: one is a teacher who wants to write for kids, another is a journalist who wants to write fiction, yet another has her own historical fiction thing going on.

Also, the teacher is clearly excited about stories and storytelling, and with the small class size there’s a lot of good back and forth.

This week was “building characters from personal experience”, next week is using psychological insights, which is why I signed up in the first place. Keep ya posted.