Sunday, December 21, 2008

Deep Cuts

One of the tricky things, I'm discovering, about revising a NaNo draft into presentable form is culling out the parts that I threw in simply for the sake of wordcount.  I've hacked out several scenes already and just tonight I decided that the story really ended about eight thousand words before I stopped typing.  So out they went.  The resultant ending is a touch abrupt, but further revisions should allow it to flow more naturally.

The manuscript has dropped down to approximately 78,000 words in total.  I have a few other scenes in mind for the cutting room floor as well, and they can depart more easily now that the extended ending has been lopped off.

It's almost like finding the statue in the block of marble--chipping away the extraneous material to get to the story I'm trying to tell.  I'm not sure if this is an optimal method for a working writer, but since I still remain in the ranks of hobbyists, I suppose it will have to do.  It at least feels better, as I think I may have said here earlier, to be talking about the manuscript I'm revising as opposed to the neat idea I have for a novel.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt

Sometimes I wonder what the heck I think I'm doing with this novel.

Lots of people, of course, dream of being professional writers.  I've wanted to be one pretty much since childhood, when I discovered that people could write stories for a living.  My parents, avid readers themselves, encouraged me on this path, but suggested I have some useful talent in the back pocket to support myself whilst establishing myself as a fiction writer.

Unfortunately, I didn't really put that advice to much use.  I graduated with my shiny Creative Writing degree into the 1992 recession and jounced madly from a vague attempt at a journalism degree to an even vaguer attempt at an MFA with a number of odd jobs in between.

Since I spent a lot of time in science fiction geekdom, I moved in the circles of science fiction/fantasy/horror writers of varying levels of success.  The general expectation in that particular genre is that one starts with short stories and then gets published in enough places to have something to put in the cover letter when submitting a novel. While this is not an absolute path, of course, it's certainly an easier one than writing an entire novel and casting it to the mercy of the slush pile.  I did manage to write some things, but the usual hard knocks of rejection and criticism made me increasingly reluctant to put myself out there.  (Poetry was a nice refuge for a while, since all you have to do is be halfway decent to impress people at an open mike.)

Over time, I've gotten increasingly disenchanted with the tropes, the expectations and the outright badness of a lot of the genre.  No, I'm not saying that sci-fi/fantasy is automatically crap.  But because of its huge and fanatical built-in audience, it doesn't have to try very hard.

I want to be better than that.  I want to write something that people remember and think about.  I want it to be more a few hours of disposable entertainment.  And there are times, like now, when I seriously wonder if I'm up to the task.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Surviving NaNoWriMo

I did, in fact, make it.  Barely.  I was vexed by the fact that the site temporarily went down in my final stretch of Sunday afternoon wordcount, and when I resorted to what Word told me the wordcount was, it lied to me.  Or, at least, exaggerated a bit compared to what the NaNoWriMo site decreed.

So I pasted what Word told me was 50,000 words and the robots counted and spat back the number 49,911.  Ouch.  And I had come to a pretty good line to end on, so I didn't want to drag it on beyond that.  Fortunately, we live in an age where backing up and inserting things is a matter of a few points of the mouse.  (How did people manage to write novels on typewriters?  What did they do when you needed to add a whole new paragraph on page 98?  I shudder to think of it.)  So I took a few scenes that had been written in haste (given that was, well, nearly all of them, it didn't take much digging to find such) and added some marginally more detailed descriptions.  I nudged the word count up, paragraph by paragraph, until it reached 49,995.

I added five words: "Good riddance to bad rubbish."

And thus I obtained my nifty winning certificate.

It was a shameless, wish-fulfilling, self-indulgent romp and I did enjoy writing it, even when I was pounding out words for hours at a stretch over Thanksgiving weekend and neglecting to shower.  I am, however, neither egocentric enough nor masochistic enough to want to inflict the results on, well, anyone who isn't me.

So what was the point?  The point was, I got to spend time with some really fun characters, try out some ideas and discover how nonstop bliss needs a little disruption to be worth writing about.

After this little vacation, I hope to return to my waiting manuscript and revise it with a new eye.  I'm a little more aware of my own weaknesses as a writer after this particular effort, and perhaps I can work on strengthening those weak points in my revision, even if what I'm revising is completely different from what I just wrote.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I broke 10,000 . . .

. . . and it's only day four.  Not bad.

I have a class tomorrow night, so I prolly won't get as much done.  But I've got a comfortable lead to fall back on.

And I can sleep a little more soundly tonight, I think, for other reasons . . . 

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why, Yes, I Am Crazy . . .

I'd initially planned to sit out this year's NaNoWriMo, on the basis that I had a novel to revise and a number of other projects on my plate.

Suffice to say that one such project got removed from my plate and left enough room that I figured, what the heck, let's give it another go.

My current tally is over eight thousand words.  And, to make it even more ridiculous, it is a sequel to the very first NaNoWriMo I successfully completed.  So next year, I'll pretty much be stuck writing something new.

I am enjoying it immensely.  It is light, fluffy, self-indulgent, utterly unpublishable and exactly what I needed to be doing.

So the next month or so will be taken up with that.  I'll poke here periodically and let y'all know how it's coming along.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wrinkles

So yesterday evening, I decided to save a few ounces of gasoline and walk to the grocery store instead of driving.  It was a longish walk, but not impossible, and it gave me loads of time to think.

And as I walked, I came up with two ways to rewrite two crucial scenes that made so much more sense.  I got so excited, I went ahead and plowed into one of those scenes and wound up staying well past my bedtime hashing it out.

I'm still figuring it out exactly.  But one of the downsides is that all the subsequent scenes that refer back to that moment now have to be rewritten.  The little wrinkle it leaves has to be pushed all the way to the edge of the table.

I think before I tackle the other rewritten scene, I should read through to keep track of what other parts refer back to it, so I'll know where I need to smooth things once I know what it's been changed to.

But it's starting to get addictive again, which is a good thing at this point, I think.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Wrong End

Once in a while, when I mention that I've finished a manuscript and I'm in the middle of revising it with the intent to submit it for publication, someone will suggest something along the lines of "Well, if that doesn't work out, you can always self-publish, right?"

I sort of smile and shake my head when people say that.

I think the digital printing revolution is a marvelous thing, I truly do.  My parents actually created their own small press, using Lulu as a printer, so my mother could create a simple and inexpensive textbook for clinical nursing instruction. And, of course, my years in the poetry scene have introduced me to many a traveling poet selling self-published chapbooks in order to have enough gas money to make it to the next gig.

But for novel-length fiction, self-publishing is doing the hard work from the wrong end.

My intent is to do the hard work at the front end--at grinding and polishing this chunk of prose into something that makes it to #14 on the Slushkiller list.  (At this point, I think I'm at least at #7 but probably no higher than #9.)  Because once I reach that point, I can relax.  The contract is signed, the book is printed, the books go to bookstores and (I sincerely hope) people buy them.

But if I take what I have, take it to Lulu, slap a cover on it and say "Yay!  I'm published!" then the hard work has just begun.  Then I have to find a million ways to wave this book in people's faces and say "Hey!  Ya wanna buy a book?"  And believe me, that's a hell of a lot harder to do when people can't go to your local Borders or B&N and pick the thing up, thumb through it, think "hm, this looks interesting" and put down the cash for it.

Yes, there are self-publishing success stories of people who have managed bookstore placement by acting like a small press.  Here's the thing--they weren't fiction.  When you're dealing with information, it's easier to determine if the book will be successful because it can be measured in how useful the information is.  When you're dealing with art, it's much harder to quantify.  And, the fact of the matter is, there is already a metric ton of self-published novels by people who were too impatient to polish their work to the level it needed, so the moment a bookstore buyer sees self-published fiction, the assumption is that it will be crap.  And it's a pretty safe bet.

I have no interest in having to struggle to reassure people that, really, it's not as bad as the pixelated cover might imply.  Frankly, I don't want to have to reassure people of anything--I want them to buy my books in such a way that I never see them do it.

And, yes, that's ambitious.  Which is why I understand I have a lot of work left to do.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

More Scenes to Murder

I haven't had much time to work on the manuscript, because several other projects are demanding my attention, but the thing was in a pile on the floor for several days after the last time I did some work on it and I just tidied the stack a bit and put it in the bag I've been keeping it in.

As I was going through the pages, I came across a note I'd scribbled at the bottom margin of a certain scene.

Is there a point to any of this?

It looks like I have many more darlings to kill. My plan of action at this point it to chop out the meandery and cringeworthy bits and then start adding all the details I glossed over in my race to the November 30 finish line.  Subtraction before addition.  We'll see how it works.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Taking the Gun Down

If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act. --Anton Chekhov

The term Chekhov's Gun has its own Wikipedia entry, as I discovered as I was trying to track down the exact quote. (As it turns out, there is no exact quote, since Chekhov reiterated the point in a number of places--I used the quote from the footnotes to the entry.)

The point being, if you introduce an element into a story, then you need to follow up on it. I just changed two lines in the novel, simply because they hinted at something that ended up not happening. At the time I wrote it, things were still in an open-ended state of flux and it was a distinct possibility, but ultimately there was no need for it to happen and it didn't.

So I cut the line, replaced it with something that emphasized what did end up happening and I could feel the whole thing weaving together a little more tightly.

There are still a lot of loose spots that need to be tightened (or cut!) but I'm feeling more confident with each change that this thing could indeed be shaped into something worth reading.

I've also been going through the slightly embarrassing process of what might be termed de-Sue-ifying my narrator. There are, I must confess, a few too many times where she is reassured of her wonderfulness in the course of the draft. Old fanfic habits die hard, I suppose. So I'm paring those down and trying to make people's reactions more like those of actual human beings (where applicable.) Having seen the horrors that result when the author identifies a little too closely with the narrator, I know I have to watch myself.

I also have to be careful I don't end up spending more time blogging about the process than actually engaging in it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Killing a Darling

I just removed an extended scene from the manuscript that dropped the wordcount by some five thousand words.

And you know what?  The two points between fit together seamlessly.

There are some lovely bits in there, and I'll miss them, but I can always go back to the raw draft and revisit them if I really feel the need to.  But when I read over the pages, I realized that as much fun as it was to write and as clever as some of the lines were, the entire sequence served no purpose except to kill time.  Which is great when you're trying to hit the 50,000 mark by the end of November, but not so great when you're trying to shape it into something compelling.

There's one bit I may have to extract and insert elsewhere.  I haven't decided yet.

Right now, a lot of my energies are being taken up with some other projects of mine, but it felt good to sneak in and do that one simple thing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Oh, yeah . . .

I just spent two hours with my manuscript and a pink pen, marking inconsistencies and designating entire scenes for the writerly equivalent of the cutting room floor.

It felt great.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Blue Shirt Theory

I've decided that what I really need to do is print this baby out so I can see it tangibly and scribble on it where I need to.  So I figured I'd get a bloggy posty thing in while I'm waiting for the pages to grind out of my little ink-jet printer.

The critique group at Orbital was extremely helpful and quite encouraging.  And it gave me a certain insight into how to take constructive criticism that I wish to all heaven I had figured out ages ago.

In my younger days as a writer, I dutifully took the short stories I wrote and ran them past a certain circle of writerly types in my acquaintance.  Some of them had actually been published and I made the fundamental error of assuming that since they had ascended to the ranks of the published, they knew more than I did about how I needed to be writing.

I think part of the problem was, they were perfectly good writers, but not terribly good critiquers.  One in particular (won't name names) had a tendency to suggest things that were How He Would Have Done It, even though the way he thinks and the way I think are so fundamentally different that we can debate the questions of the universe for days.  Which makes for lively conversation, but not the best of writing advice.

Ponder this metaphor--you're picking out an outfit for a certain social event.  You want to make a good impression, so you ask your roommate (for example) what she thinks of it.

"Hmm," she says, "First off, your shoelace is untied.  And the pants look good, but I'm not sure if they go with the red shirt.  How about that blue one you have?"

Finding mistakes in grammar, punctuation, et cetera, are the equivalent of "your shoelace is untied."  They're things you don't always catch, especially if you've been staring at the same pages for ages on end, and those are always good things.  (Something that's technically a grammatical mistake, but done for effect, might be the equivalent of "your jacket is all wrinkled" to which your response might be "Um, it's crushed velvet, it's supposed to be wrinkled.")

The blue shirt, is a little trickier.  The blue shirt can be things like "this character seemed like a rather sensible type; why the hell did she suddenly decide to jump on the back of a motorcycle with a complete stranger after only three lines of conversation?"  That's the moment that you notice that the red shirt has a slight pattern to it and the pants are pinstriped and one or the other has got to go.

There are different ways to react to a blue shirt criticism.  Sometimes you realize they have a point, and the blue shirt really does work better.  Sometimes they have a point that the red shirt doesn't quite work, but the blue shirt they're suggesting doesn't quite work for you either, though you do have this purple one that you try on and matches perfectly.

And sometimes you look in the mirror and think about it and decide that the red shirt is just fine.  But you at least tie your shoelace.

It is probably best to find a critique group who has the same taste in clothes (if you will) that you do.  At the very least, they should be familiar enough with your work and sensibilities to know what your mental wardrobe looks like.

But when it comes to writing, it really is best not to wear other people's clothes.  They won't fit you properly or look right.  Take the advice, try what fits and tailor it to what you're trying to create.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Greetings from Orbital . . .

So I'm here at Orbital 2008, which is this year's Eastercon. The Eastercon is apparently a long-running thing in the UK--it's a science fiction convention of a more literary bent, a bit like WorldCon, only not quite as enormous. It's held on Easter weekend, because that tends to be a slow weekend in the hotel industry, so it's easier to find a place to hold it for a reasonable rate. (Interestingly, there's a convention in Atlanta called Frolicon that likewise is held Easter weekend for much the same reason. A rather, um, different kind of convention, though.)

I am here because one of the guests is a writer named Tanith Lee. There's also a writer named Neil Gaiman in attendance, and it's been groovy to see him, but I honestly wouldn't have come if it had just been him, since he actually shows up in America more often than not. Tanith Lee hasn't been to America in some time, so if I wanted to see her, the mountain had to come to Mohammed.

My sister had a large collection of Tanith Lee books on her shelves and I read my way through them a number of times. The one that particularly stuck with me, especially in my adolescence, was a book called Don't Bite the Sun. I love that book to bits, I will pimp it to everyone until the day I die. (By the way, it's back in print, bound along with its sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine under the name Biting the Sun. Look in science fiction paperbacks under Lee. You can thank me later.)

She also wrote many other books that I read over and over again,, weaving their way into the fabric of my inner life--The Birthgrave, The Silver Metal Lover, the Flat Earth series . . . I could go for days listing titles, but I'll spare you. I consider her a huge influence on my writing, perhaps not in a direct I-want-to-write-just-like-her way, but a lot of my clumsy first efforts at fantasy stories owed a lot to her. (Thank heavens there was no internet back then, or some of the things I wrote might still be out there to be Googled. At it was, the internet was still in its infancy in those days, so my bad writing in public was largely confined to computer bulletin board systems that are now utterly obsolete.)

So I bought my membership ages in advance and when it came time to decide if I was going or not, I booked the flight. I made it one of my New Year's Resolutions--Attend Orbital 2008.

Orbital is a very relaxed little gathering of geeks. Reminds me a bit of Chattacon in Chattanooga--panels where people talk about geek stuff, including panels about writing and the almighty question of How To Get Published. As I mentioned, I submitted the first 3,000 words of my novel and I'll be getting it critiqued on Monday. I met Martin Owton, who was organizing it and he introduced me to Gaie Sebold and Sarah Ellender, the lovely ladies who will be doing the critiquing. (When I gave them my name, one of them said "Sheila O'Shea! Oh, Soft Places, right?" I guess that's a good sign if they remember the title.) I've been to a few writerly panels and it's been really inspiring and made me that much more determined to whip this thing of mine into shape and get it sent out.

And I met Tanith Lee. She was a sort of foyer area, talking to a few people and I hovered a bit and finally found a moment, steeled my nerve and walked up to her.

"I came all the way from the United States of America to see you," I said, "And I think that probably says it all."

And then I burst into tears.

Thankfully, she didn't seem to be too disturbed by this. She was genuinely surprised that someone would go to such trouble for her. I tried to explain, between sobs, how much her work had meant to me, how Don't Bite the Sun had been a mirror for my awkward adolescence, how I felt much like the protagonist who had too much of an imagination to fit in her head, lived in a kind of paradise and yet didn't quite fit in.

It is such an amazing moment to be able to look someone in the eye, someone who has created things that uplifted you, that inspired you, that filtered their way into your sense of self and to be able to tell that person how much those creations meant to you.

Ms. Lee (I still feel weird calling her Tanith) was very kind and very inspiring to me. She said she hoped that I wasn't too disappointed to find out that she was merely a human being. I assured her it wasn't a problem. She asked if I was a writer; I told her I was and I told her about the novel that I'm bashing into shape right now. She said she was looking forward to reading it when it was published.

I met her again the next day, and she signed my copies of Don't Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine. She wrote a lovely note, pointing out that what we get out of books comes from within us. "You are the magician," she wrote.

I'll wrap this entry up with this--when I arrived on Friday morning, I had to fill out a something called a Landing Card which they make you fill out if you're an alien entering the UK. They had a line for "Occupation." I filled it in with the word WRITER.

On one level, it's not like they're going to track me down and say "You lie! Your bills are paid by being a paralegal!" On another level, it is a signal sent to the universe, a signal of intention, the intention to make that declaration a completely honest one.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"So, when do I get to read it?"

Not everybody asked that, of course, when I mentioned I just finished my draft, but quite a few people did.  Somebody even asked me that when I was still in the midst of burrowing through the tense-shifting rewrite.

The answer is, at this point, "not yet."

When I crossed the finish line in 2006, I did send out copies of the result for people to read.  Only one person managed to read it all the way through and tell me what he thought of it.  (He liked it, which was quite encouraging.)  That's sort of reason number one--I don't really feel like hanging on the edge of the "what did you think of it?" seat until the next step is figuring out what literary agents might be interested in it.

When I crossed the finish line in 2007, I was even more reluctant to show the world the result, because there was a lot I put in there in haste that I feel downright embarrassed by.  So that's the other part of it--I need to clean up those bits so I'm not cringing when I'm reading them.  Because if I'm cringing to read them, I can't imagine what someone who isn't me would think of them.  And if, for some weird reason, they liked it, I'd be put in the unfortunate position of writing to please someone who enjoyed something that I'm not altogether thrilled with myself.  That's no way to be creating art, as near as I can tell.

I have come to terms with the fact that I'm not all that good a writer on the first pass.  When I read things I've dashed off quickly, I kick myself for overusing words like "actually" and repeating clever phrases twice in one paragraph.  Backspace, cut and paste, edit buttons . . . these tools are my friends.

(Funnily enough, my vague reputation as a spoken word artist is maintained by avoiding these things entirely.  Every Sunday night at a little coffeehouse called Java Monkey, there's a poetry reading called Java Monkey Speaks.  For longer than I care to contemplate, my usual thing there is what I call my "hat trick"--I arrive just as the sign-up sheet is put up, I put my name on the list and then in the half-hour or so before the show, I write in a notebook until Kodac Harrison starts the show.  Then when my turn comes up, I get up and read what I just wrote.  It goes over surprisingly well, but it probably helps that it's spoken into the air to dissolve instead of sitting on a page for you to read and notice how crap it is.)

While perfectionism has stymied me from even starting to write for far too long, now that I've mastered the art of setting it aside to get the words down, I think I'm ready to let it back in for a spell and see about fixing things up a bit.

In the meantime, no, you don't get to read it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

97,769 words . . .

It's a start.  I have now officially fused my past two NaNoWriMo efforts into a unified manuscript.

For those of you wondering how 50,000-odd words plus another 50,000-odd words adds up to less than 100,000 words, allow me to clarify.  My NaNo 2006 effort (Soft Places) was written in the form of diary entries by the narrator.  (I even dated the entries contemporaneously, and threw in things that were happening at the time.)  The 2007 NaNo (The Things Behind the Sun) was written in first person present tense (though I did include references to the narrator continuing to write things down in her diary.)

I decided, ultimately, to do the entire thing in first person present tense.  This meant I had to take the diary entries and rewrite them accordingly.  At first, I was trying too hard to rewrite and perfect everything as I go, then I decided it would be faster and more effective to just cut, paste, redo the verbs and do a little rewriting here and there to smooth the transitions.

So I have finally, as of tonight, completed that process.  I have a relatively unified manuscript of 97,769 words, according to the Word Count function on Microsoft Word.

It still needs work.  A lot of it.  I'm not going to go into a great deal of detail about what the book is about (it's about ninety-eight thousand words, at this point, and that's all you're really getting out of me) but I'll continue, I hope, to talk about the process as I go.

There are still many things about it I'm not 100% happy with, things that I plowed on past on the first pass because, hell, it's NaNo, just get the words out and fix it later.  (That's another reason the word count dropped slightly on the rewrite--there were quite a few things I decided to go ahead and excise while I was at it.)  But at the same time, it feels good to be able to talk about The Manuscript I'm Working On instead of about This Neat Idea I Have For A Novel.

I've also taken the first 3,000 or so words and submitted them to a writing workshop that's going to be held at Orbital 2008, a writerly sci-fi type convention that's being held in the UK.  (I'm flying all the way from Atlanta, Georgia, because one of the guests is Tanith Lee, who is one of my favorite living authors in the history of the written word.)  It should be genuinely interesting to see what someone who isn't familiar with the places I'm describing will think of it.

So.  Well.  There we are.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to run around in circles and jump up and down for a bit.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

What's This Thing About, Anyway?

So now that I've gone and told a couple of people that this blog exists, I might as well explain what it's about.

This is the first blog I think I've done under my real name.  Googling me doesn't turn up anything about yours truly until page six, I think, and I felt I needed to rectify that.

This blog is about me and writing.  I have another blog for the sort of 'had lunch' details of my day-to-day existence, this space is more for me to talk about the process of writing, and, eventually, the product that I hope will result.

My qualifications to pontificate on such are not wildly impressive, but they're not utterly nonexistent.  I am one of the first graduates of the Creative Writing program at Emory University.  The leftover poems from my classes gave me enough material to make a minor name for myself on the Atlanta spoken word circuit in the mid-nineties.  I have a couple of poems in actual bound books (that I didn't have to pay for) and I've done a bit of music reviewing for some local publications.  So there's that.

I am currently working on taking my past two NaNoWriMo efforts and fusing them into a unified work, which I hope to revise and submit for publication.  I decided instead of waiting until after the thing's published (should it happen--knock wood) I'd go ahead and blog about the process itself and see what comes of it.  It could either be a lovely Cinderella story or a tragic farce.  I have no way of knowing until I set things in motion.  And I invite you, gentle reader, to come along with me and see where it leads.

Friday, February 22, 2008

tap tap . . . is this on?

I decided I needed to get a blawg with my real name for my writerly endeavors . . . and here it is.

More shall come later.  For now, I'm going back to working on my novel.