Thursday, March 26, 2009

Novel vs. Short Story

I’m rewriting a different short story today, one that I started last fall and has been through workshop. The draft I started with this morning was 21 pages. I reviewed notes from critique (yay for me for saving them!), figured out what I wanted to improve, spent time getting the order of events right, and cut stuff. A lot of stuff. Scenes I loved that just didn’t fit. Images that were hard to part with, but just didn’t relate to the central theme. It was hard, but I cut stuff.

Whew! That felt better. I got rid of a lot of junk. Then I checked the page count (why do I do this to myself?) and found the story was now 20 and a half pages. Um, what? What is that about? I thought I cut a lot. And I did write a new scene at the end, but it was a tiny little scene. Or so I thought.

I think the novel has ruined the short story for me.

Novel and short story writing are two such different crafts, I must remember. I can’t really tell the story the same way. I can’t linger on so much in a short story. I can’t reveal as much as I would like about a character. Or, put a more challenging way: in the short story you have to figure out how to still reveal a lot about a character but with, you know, five words or so.

It’s different, so, so different. And I am totally out of practice. But my novel is napping and so what’s a girl to do? I will keep at this short story, I will just remember now not to be so wordy about it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Revising a Short Story

I’m revising a short story I first started more than two years ago. I got critiques from writing groups on two different versions. I just went back into my file cabinet and looked for the mark-ups from workshop and they’re gone. I remember throwing them out. This is why I (usually) never throw things out.

But still, I was able to remember feedback from the critique. The most important feedback I received from this story was that my climax was too early. There was also a scene that pretty much everyone found confusing and terrible (although they were nice enough not to say terrible). Now, all I have to tell you about this scene to make you understand why it didn’t work was that it was backstory. I thought it was important, but I can see now that it wasn’t. Talk about taking time away from your stories. I removed this scene during the last draft I did (about a year ago) simply because everyone had a problem with it. I just didn’t get what the problem was then. Today I do – it slowed down the story.

When I studied Journalism in college we had a professor that gave us ten cardinal rules to follow. The one I remember is “Don’t slow down the reader.” I have used that in journalism, technical writing, creative writing – everywhere I write.

And this scene of backstory did just that. I thought it provided more character development, but all it did was pull the reader out of the immediate story. It was too clunky. I needed to show what was going on with the character in the present.

So, I started moving bits and pieces around and I think I finally got the order right. I still have too much slow business at the front of the story. But if I cut out the slow business, I will have more room for a perhaps a nice long dinner scene where I can show what the character is thinking, feeling, doing, etc., right now as the story is happening.

I have three different versions of this story on my hard drive. After I did the above revising, I went back to the original version. The story as it stands now is pretty much the same content as my first draft, but without the awful backstory and with the crucial flashback broken up and spread throughout the story, and climax in the right spot. This is an example of writing more than you need and taking away what doesn’t work. It took me a long time to get there, but now I can really see it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Novel Nap

So the first draft is taking a little nap, but all I want to do is go into my hard drive and wake it up and play with it! Print it out and put it in a binder and just stare at it with awe. Laugh at its wordy sentences and overuse of adverbs (it is just a little baby novel, after all, it doesn’t know better yet).

But I know better, and I need to let it sit for at least another week. I know I said I’d leave it alone for three weeks, but I really don’t know if I will make it. Last week I took a huge break and did a lot of nothing. Well, I read a lot, which always counts as good use of time in my world. And I watched a lot of movies (thank you, AMC) where you really can study storytelling and conflict and overcoming obstacles. But, I got down just barely 600 words on a new short story. I did not revise any existing short stories. I did not send any finished short stories out for submission. I did not even blog!

And why was my big grand plan of switching to short story land and maintaining my other writerly duties foiled? Well, I was a bit creatively exhausted, but the real reason was that I didn’t set any goals. This is what motivates me. When I make a promise to myself to do something, I do it. When I just kind of think about doing something, well, who knows what happens.

So, I have goals for this week. Send finished short story for submission (going to post office today!). Complete first draft of new short story. Revise two existing short stories and send to critique buddies. I hope all this will help take my mind off my shiny new novel that I just can’t stop thinking about. Then, when I do come back to it, I’ll be able to see it in a new light.

Friday, March 13, 2009

First Draft: Finished!

You guys, I totally finished the first draft of the novel!

Okay, the deets. Draft one is 88,260 words long. Three hundred fourteen pages. It has an actual, honest to goodness plot. Conflict. Subplots even (that I did not know what I was going to do with and miraculously came together in a fit of Diet Coke early yesterday morning). Rising action, a climax, a resolution. It has a love story (of course, how I love to write about love!). Characterization. It has voice.

Now, it also completely sucks. But that is okay, because it is a first draft. Sure, it has the items listed above but in very rough form. I kept switching the names around of two secondary characters – they are too much alike. I don’t know if third-person point of view works and might have to switch it to first. Another secondary character totally disappears two-thirds through the book. There are way too many adverbs.

These are things I can fix in the rewriting stage. This is where the real work exists, I think. I can be all “yeah, I wrote a novel in three months” bad about myself (at least for a little while, right?). But, how good can a book that only took three months to bake be? Answer: not very. So, I have lots to do.

First, I take a break from it. I can’t decide between two weeks and four weeks, so I think I will settle on three. I need to have a rewriting plan. My first plan of attack will be to print this puppy out and go through it with a red pen, marking plot holes, crossing out adverbs, identifying spots to develop.

When I wrote my first book, I wrote it all linearly. First draft all the way through. Second draft all the way through. Third draft, etc., etc. I really think the back half of my first novel was a lot stronger than the front, because I was a stronger writer the more time I spent with it.

But guess what? Agents don’t request pages 180 to 220. They request the first three chapters, or ten pages, or more often, just the first five pages. So I need to get the beginning in the absolute best shape possible. I’m going to try rewriting differently this time, I just don’t know how yet.

I will think about rewriting plans during my break from this book. I also have to outline what other writing goals I’ll have. I want to rework some existing short stories and send a few more out for publication. So I have to put some goals around that, too.

Wow, so lots more to do! I am tired just thinking about it. So, I am going to get a Big Gulp and a sesame seed bagel from Dunkin Donuts, eat/caffeine myself into a stupor while watching bad morning television and then likely take a nap. Where is Season 2 of Mad Men when you need it?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

80,000 Words

I hit a lovely milestone this morning that makes me breathe a humongous sigh of relief. I wrote (without even noticing!) 80,000 words in my first draft so far. Now, I have to admit that some of these words are things like Chapter 27 and this doesn’t make any sense and make sure this is possible. But that is okay and it is close enough for me. I had a bad spell of lousy writing days Friday and Monday in which I wrote less than 1,000 words (a lot less). Yesterday it dawned on me that if I tried for just a little bit I would reach 79,000 words and at one point I was typing while keeping my eye on the word count meter and that was just terrible and I will try to never do that again in my life but I am human so who knows.

I think I may have mentioned before that I keep track of my word count in Excel, harkening to my days of managing things at work and trying to be organized. It is obsessive and not creative, and I understand writing is not about how many words but how good those words are, but gosh I needed something to motivate me each day and turns out my little word count obsession did just the trick.

Anyway, when I first started this book I did some quick formulas to map how close I was to 80,000, 90,000 and 100,000 words. Well, I am at 102% of goal for 80,000 words and have -0.73 days left to hit that goal. So that is somehow (I don’t know what makes me tick, but as long as I’m ticking I don’t really question it) a very big relief and sense of accomplishment. My ultimate goal for the first draft is 90,000 but at this point I am able to let the book wrap up in as many (within reason) or few words as it needs.

I had been worrying the past week about needing to wrap things up and not knowing how to make that happen. When I was reading in bed last night, in the middle of a lovely paragraph, an idea came to me and I thought yes, I can do this. I haven’t really used that idea yet, but having it gave me confidence, like Dumbo’s little feather and well, here we are. Plus I had a Big Gulp this morning and that always really helps.

I am pretty confident I can finish this first draft by mid-next week (famous last words, I know), falling a few days past my March 15 deadline but who the heck cares? After I get the full first draft out of my system I will blog about what it was like. I couldn’t blog about the writing the book while I was writing the book. Weird, I know.

And the nice part is, so far today (about 10 a.m.) I pounded out 2,372 words and I still have more in me - I can feel them.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rejection Letter

I understand and accept rejection of my writing. It still sucks, but doesn’t sting as much as it used to when I first started submitting things. One day, years ago, I got two rejection letters in one day. Then a writer told me she once got four rejections in one day. So I gained perspective.

But, I love, love, love when rejection comes with feedback. I can work with feedback. It wasn’t until I got specific feedback on my first novel from two different agents within about a week of one another that I knew it was time to give up the ghost. They pointed out things I’d worried were weak. They were right and I knew it. The weak spots, I could suddenly see, were beginning writer mistakes. The question was to keep revising the novel or move onto a new project. Hence, book number two.

But earlier this week I got a rejection for a short story I submitted to a literary journal back in mid-November. Yes, this is how long these things take. I submitted the same story to about five different journals around that time and have only heard back from one. I only apply to places that allow simultaneous submissions. I love these places and really see no other way for a writer with a handful of stories in her arsenal to break through.

Anyway, here is the feedback I received on my story: “Skilled pacing and an interesting flow. The story's beginning is most emotionally powerful; its climax fails to keep the same tension and feels a bit forced.”

They are right. I had this nearly exact feedback from a seasoned writer that the ending of the story didn’t match the beginning. I couldn’t see that until it was pointed out to me. I reworked the ending, but apparently not well enough.
But, did you hear those words skilled and powerful? I didn’t even notice them the first fourteen times I read the rejection letter. But there they are, so I should appreciate them. Still, I know the ending needs work.

And guess what? I’m totally struggling with the ending of my novel right now. I kind of know how to wrap it up, but I’m just having a hard time getting the words out. Scenes are too long, people talk too much, a character turns from mean to nice with very little justification. So I recognize that I need to work better at wrapping up my books (remember that 550-page first draft?). But I have no idea how to go about this just yet. At least I’ve learned that I have work to do in this area. Frankly, I have work to do in lots of areas, but it’s easier to get started on that work when you know where the holes are.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Two Weeks Left

No, I am not quitting my job. Even though this (writing!) is the best job in the world. Even though I miss talking to people all day. Even though I’m not getting paid. But I am not in it for the money, and having experienced the time in my life when I was in something for the money, let me just tell you being in something for the money pales in comparison to being in it for the love.

Anyhoo, at the beginning of the year, as I was outlining my writing goals, I set a target date to finish my novel by March 15. Well, let me just remind you that March 15 is in less than two weeks. OMG. Seriously.

But, I will make it or get very close to it. If I’m off by a few days, I won’t be upset. At the rate I’m going, Excel tells me I should be just fine. Unless, well, lots of things. Who knows if the climax will really wrap up in as many words as I’ve estimated? Maybe it will all be a mess and I’ll keep writing and writing and end up with 550 pages like my first novel. If that does happen, I will force myself to stop. At least I can say I’ve learned that.

I’ve started having weird feelings knowing my book is wrapping up. I’m all crabby and tired and, last night, perhaps a little sullen. You know how on the second to last day of vacation you (OK, I) might get a little depressed that the vacation is nearly over and suddenly the sun is not bright enough, or it’s too bright and you wish it would just quit already, and the food isn’t that great after all, and you wonder why you even spent all this time and money being on vacation in the first place since tomorrow American Airlines is going to rip your precious vacation right out of your grubby little hands by shooting you in the air at an obnoxious speed?

Yeah, I’m kind of starting to feel like that.