Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Where Does Your Story Start?

As I continue to learn about the writing process, I'm always excited when I hear a piece of advice for the millionth time. It means that piece of advice is probably pretty accurate.

I had this experience at a recent seminar that was filled with people who really hadn't even written a single word of fiction yet. I wish I had heard this piece of advice when I was just starting out, because it is perfect and true.

"In your first draft, your story probably doesn't really start until chapter four."

Or chapter seven. Or, in my most recent first draft, I'm pretty sure it was chapter fourteen. But that's okay, because that's what, as Anne Lamott calls them, shitty first drafts are for.

They're for feeling out your character, finding your voice, edging your way into the story. But, as you revise, you have to be able to lift away the muck that was your warming up writing and yank it out of the story. Get that gunk out of there. Delete it. Or, if you're like me, save it in a different precious little Word document so you can always go back and grab those words if you need them. Another piece of advice: you'll probably never need them.

It's hard to take a hatchet to your book. But your story will be better served if you can get right down to it sooner. So write away. Then as you revise, take a close look at where things really start shaking, and let your story begin there.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fun with numbers

I wish I could remind myself that it's really not necessary to count drafts. But I like having concrete goals and accomplishing specific tasks. It feels so fantastic to say, "Do you know what I did these past few months? I finished the third draft of my novel." Specific, concrete, and tangible. But hey, do you know what's not always specific, concrete, and tangible? Creative writing.

I wrapped up my second draft in mid-June, three very long months ago. And I've been plugging away at the book for most of those days, but certainly not all. There's been some stuckage. And I'm starting to make my way through the muck the past week or so. But when I solve the problem in one scene (for example, what happened to my antagonist? Why hasn't he shown up in forty pages?), another one awaits me right around the corner.

I've been doing a lot of cutting editing. When I cut a big chunk out of a current draft (anything more than two sentences) I save the text in a document called Extras. And just as I was getting frustrated about working hard yet feeling like I was going nowhere fast, I noticed some interesting math in my word count.

  • Word count draft one: 88,260
  • Word count draft two: 72,911
  • Current word count of draft three: 79,646
  • Current word count of Extras I deleted from draft two: 5,908

    We all know that a first draft is often full of awful, extra, excessive, unnecessary, redundant words. But let's take a look at what's happened between drafts two and three. My good friends over at Excel tell me this means that while I've cut about 6,000 words out of draft three so far, I've added in 12,000 new ones. My story isn't getting completely hacked away after all! And hopefully my sentences are getting more efficient. If I said it in ten words, could I say it just as well in eight?

    So back to the challenges ahead. One word at a time.
  • Tuesday, September 8, 2009

    Back to School

    I'm not going back to school, like at a place where they confer degrees and such, but I can't help get caught up in the spirit of the Back to School season. I've been thinking about my fourth grade Trapper Keeper, the one with the kittens, a lot. I have an urge to buy pencils and a new pair of shoes. I live across the street from a school and it was fun to see the kids file in again today.

    What I am going back to is writing workshops at my lovely neighborhood writing studio/place of work StoryStudio Chicago. First class (I'm taking two, two classes I say!) starts tomorrow and I've been doing critiques today. I love critiques, I really do. I love when I learn about writing from other people. I love when I recognize a little flaw that I've also made in my own work and finally see a way to fix it.

    I've been stuck on the book for a while. This summer I really focused on getting my hook nailed. Getting those first fifty pages just right, so that everything that flows after makes sense, is connected, appears somewhat logical, those kind of things.

    I think that now I can finally get on to those next fifty pages. I think I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel once again. So I'm kind of going back to school too, in my own little way. Which, I'm pretty sure, means I get to buy a new pair of shoes.