Category Archives: First Drafts

Made to Be Broken – A Guest Post by Hamilton Perez

A guest post by Hamilton Perez.

I was just starting out in college when I first decided to be a writer, and I set for myself the goal of publishing my first novel before I graduated. Seemed reasonable, I thought. It’s an uncertain field, after all, I should try to break in as soon as possible so I don’t just sit on my degree afterward. Now, several years after graduating, I still haven’t finished that first novel, let alone published one.

To be a writer is to be a dreamer. But that’s only half of it. To be a writer is to be disappointed. It’s easy, in the beginning to be blinded by imagination, ambition, by the colorful worlds sprouting and blooming inside your head. You can do this, you think. It’s all possible.

And therein lays the unsolicited rub.

Being a writer, or any artist really, is essentially an act of faith. It’s surrendering any sense of control in your personal (read: financial) destiny in pursuit of a creative field that’s harder to crack than a macadamia nut.

That’s why goals are such alluring creatures to an artist. They allow us to believe (for however brief a time) that we have some control over our pitiful fates. They’re lies we tell ourselves to get us moving when the doubt creeps in. But as with art, goals are often born from an excess of ambition. You learn that quickly as you fail to write your thousand words a day, then your five hundred words, then one hundred, until that day comes when you don’t write at all and spend three hours on the couch, watching The Flash with your dog who’s clearly disappointed in you.

Once you fail at your goals, you realize that the same imagination that fuels stories also fuels your hope of what you can accomplish in the one or two hour window you’ve set aside between work, relationships, and nap time. Little did you know when you set those goals that you were setting yourself up for failure.

O cruel, twisty irony!

It’s easy at this point to be discouraged. Indeed, that part’s encouraged. Wallow, dammit. You’re an artist. But once you’ve finished your wallowing, take a look at your work. You might have failed to meet a daily word count, but perhaps you reached half of it. Maybe you found a new plot device or story title. There’s always a silver lining hidden amid the dross. You’ve made something, which is the first step away from making nothing.

Before you can be a successful writer, you have to be a bad one. Before you can set reasonable goals, you have to chase the crazy ones. You have to know what your limits are, what you can handle and what you can’t. The good news: you’re doing it! The bad: you have to fail, you are going to fail.

Embrace that failure.

But setting goals and working towards them isn’t enough. You have to recognize when those goals aren’t working and are actually holding you back. Writing 250 words a day isn’t going to make you a better writer if you’re just typing “Why am I doing this?” fifty times. When that failure comes, you need to either change the goal or abandon it. It’s better to only write a promising first chapter during National Novel Writing Month than to write a terrible novel that had some potential in chapter one.

In 2016, I tried the popular NaNoWriMo for the first time. I planned out the story a month ahead. I did my research beforehand. I calculated how much I needed to write in a day and when I could afford to take a day off. And the first week I was on a roll, churning out one to two thousand words a day. But in the second week, I started to slip. I wrote less and I was less happy with what I wrote. The dream of having a completed novel to work with and develop in December was slipping away. I had a choice: I could either slog through and try and reach the final word count, or readjust my goals and develop the parts of the novel I liked to see where the story actually wanted to go.

The exciting result: I still haven’t finished that novel… But I absolutely love the three chapters I’ve got so far. Most of what I’d written after that point has been scrapped or reworked, and the novel is so much better for it. But because of the work I did during NaNoWrMo, even though I technically failed at the goal, I now know where I want the story to go.

Like rules, creative goals are made to be broken. They aren’t for life planning. They’re for now. For getting you moving, getting you writing. Whether you meet them isn’t really the point. The point is you keep going. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quick. You keep going. You write and you create.

So set your goals. Set reasonable ones. Set ambitious ones. Just set some goals, something—anything—for you to shoot for. Then abandon them when they stop working for you. Wallow a bit. Clear your head. Set some new goals, and write.

Rinse, repeat.

 

About Hamilton Perez

Hamilton Perez is a writer and freelance editor living in Sacramento, California. When not writing, he can be found rolling 20-sided dice or chasing squirrels with the dog. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Metaphorosis, and Syntax & Salt. You can follow him on Twitter @TheWritingHam.

Finishing What You Start, Or Not

When I first started writing fiction in 2009, one of the first things I learned were Heinlein’s Rules. While they all have a place in the heart of every writer, the one that sticks out the most to me is “Finish What You Start.” It’s the single most often prescribed bit of writing advice I give to aspiring authors. The ability to sit down and finish a story, good or bad, is critical to learning the craft. However, I’ve also come to understand (and experience) that there are simply times when you shouldn’t finish what you start – you should put it down and walk away.

I’ve had an idea for a novel in my head for the last several years and I’ve toyed with outlining it here and fleshing out dialogue and characters there and I decided that I’d sit down on really focus on it last year. My intent was to write about 10,000 words and really determine if the story was something I could commit to fully. While it sounded good to me, and I was pretty sure I could write it, could I make it an authentic story? Could I answer the most important question in every reader’s mind – “Who gives $&@#?” I believed I could and I promptly sat down wrote about 8,500 words and stopped dead – seriously, like in the middle of a sentence.

At the time, I believe the words I spoke to myself were “What in the hell are you doing, Kevin?” My great idea wasn’t as great as I’d believed it to be. From my reading and occasional instruction of outlining and character dynamics, I realized that while I had a fun premise to explore, my character was simply horrible. I’d designed goals for them and tried valiantly to put them into some type of story line capable of captivating an audience. On paper, everything was a fit, but I realized that I didn’t “love” my protagonist. In fact, I kinda loathed them. Every time I wrote their dialog in that 8,500 starter, I cringed. It got to the point at the end that I threw up my hands and said “I’m not finishing this.”

A few years ago, this would have bothered me tremendously. Having learned that finishing what you start is critical to success as a writer, my younger self would’ve pressed on and turned out something vaguely akin to a novel that was destined for the circular file. Instead, I realized that while I’d seemingly done my homework, outlined and plotted the story, and built my character in a way I thought would work – the whole mess didn’t come together. Was it a result of my talent? Or my motivation? Or did I just not believe in the story anymore? Your guess is as good as mine. What mattered was that my brain said it was time to stop – that I wasn’t getting anywhere fast and that I was laboring over a first draft instead of letting the ideas around my outline flow. That story went into the dark recesses of my hard drive likely never to be heard from again. It simply didn’t work. I didn’t need to send it to my first reader or any beta readers – I could sense that the story was dead on arrival and I stopped.

I recently went back at looked at what I’d written in the 8,500 word, suddenly truncated start and completely agreed with my decision. In some similar cases, I’ve looked at something with fresh eyes and starting typing anew – pushing that gestated idea to finalization. As I read the first chapter, I thought I might be able to do just that. By the end of chapter three, I knew it was a lost cause. That character, and their storyline, went into the experience file. From there, I went back to another one of Heinlein’s rules – “Write something else.”

I’ve been busy ever since.

Welcome to December – 2017 Year In Review

This month, the Fictorians and a few guest bloggers will share their successes, lessons learned, and their challenges as we collectively pursue our writing careers. I hope that some of their stories and posts resonate with you. We’re all at different places in our journey, but the idea that we’re all stepping forward is critical to remember.

Every year, I set Writing Goals. Those goals have become more ambitious over the last few years and I’ve been challenged to get my butt in the writing chair to achieve the things I wanted to at the beginning of the year. I opened up my schedule to attend more conventions and events, I ambitiously took on a new project that was not on my writing goals at all, and I managed to get two books published in the last half of the year. I’ll share more about those projects later this month, but there were two things that happened this year that harken back to something that Kevin J. Anderson talks about: “Popcorn Theory.” The idea is that as writers, we can’t treat our stories like a single kernel of popcorn. If we were hungry, we’d starve cooking one kernel at a time. Having more projects going breeds creativity and creates unique opportunities. This year, I’d decided to take a break from writing all short fiction to focus on writing/editing two novels. Yet, opportunities knocked and I listened.

The first was an opportunity I’ll discuss more in a couple of weeks, but I received an invitation to submit a story for an anthology in the bestselling military science fiction series of the Four Horsemen Universe. I had a blink in my schedule, so I wrote the story, turned it in, and saw my whole calendar for the year derailed when not only did editors Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey love my short story but they asked me to write a novel with my character Peacemaker Jessica Francis. But, more on that later.

Very soon, AVATAR Dreams – An Anthology Inspired by the ANA X-Prize, will be published that features some of the biggest names in science fiction. Edited by Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Resnick, this collection features stories from Jody Lynn Nye, Todd McCaffrey, Martin L. Shoemaker, Tina Gower, Marina J. Lostetter, Brad R. Torgersen, Josh Vogt, Dr. Harry Kloor, Andrea Stewart, Ron Calling, Kay Kenyon, and Kevin Ikenberry. That’s right – me. Opportunity knocked and I was in the right place.

Kevin J. Anderson looked across the table at me and said, “I need another story for the AVATAR Dreams Anthology. Can you get me something in two weeks?”

Yes, I could.

From story idea to turn-in was seven days. It was a crazy, hectic time but I had a story crystallize in my head that combined the movie “The Fast and the Furious” with Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage. With the help of my friend Lou J. Berger, some bacteriology tutoring from my father (putting that PhD to use), and a couple of late nights, I turned in a story faster than expected. Hearing that it was a great fit for the anthology was icing on the proverbial cake. But, my take away from the experience was that I could take a short-notice opportunity and do something good. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a short story and I’m pretty proud of “That Others May Live.”

So, as we go through the month of December and hear different stories, there’s a chance you’ll hear opportunity knocking. Don’t be afraid to answer the door. Everybody on the blog this month has been listening, I’m sure.

You Won NaNoWriMo, Now What?

I’m a big believer in the power of finishing things. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual writing adventure challenging writers of all skill levels to write 50,000 words in the space of thirty days – this is an average of 1,667 words per day. For most of us, this is a challenge. As a multiple year winner of NaNoWriMo, I can tell you that typing those last words on a manuscript is a great feeling but I can also tell you that “The End” is just the beginning. So, you’ve won – what next?

First Things First

Celebrate. Kick back on December 1st and relax a bit. You’re a NaNoWriMo winner! Be sure to upload your novel text and get your official word count verified. Be sure to look for the emails about the winner’s prizes (and there are usually some great deals). Post your success and get virtual high fives on social media. Take a little time to enjoy your success, but don’t be surprised if the urge to get back into your manuscript is there gnawing at you. What do you do?

Resist!

Do not open that NaNoWriMo manuscript for at least a month – six weeks is best. Your goal right now, Winner, is to forget that you wrote that book. Yes, there are things you need to fix. Yes, you have a passive voice problem or a comma splice problem. Yes, you have a character that explicably vanishes from the story in Chapter 3. I got it. Your mind is whirling with all of the “I should fix this immediately” things. If you’re really scared you’ll forget them, write them all down on a piece of paper but do not open that manuscript. At the end of that six weeks, sit down with a notebook and a pen/pencil alongside your manuscript. You’ll see immediately that you’re reading with fresh eyes. Again, though, resist the urge to make corrections. Read your manuscript as a reader would and see what pieces of the story develop as you go. You’ll see holes and find things that seem out of place – make a note and move on. When you’re done with the read-through, close your notes, and give it a few days to percolate. Now you’re probably thinking that this is a lot of time when you’re doing nothing on this manuscript – and you’re right. What should you be doing with your new disciplined approach to writing every day?

Write Something Else

If you want to write on December 1st or 2nd, open up a new file and start typing something else. Make it something different than your manuscript. Different characters, different settings – everything in this new piece should be different. If you wrote fantasy during NaNoWriMo, write science fiction. You get the idea. Write something that you’d never be caught dead writing. I’ve messed around with a romance novel idea, a zombie apocalypse story, and a few other things that may never see the light of day in this phase. Think of it as cleansing your writing palate. When the six weeks described is up, you’ll be ready to jump back into your NaNoWriMo winner and edit it from start to finish. But what if I want to keep writing that new project? Do it. Adjust your writing goals and expectations, though – you’re trying to get your NaNoWriMo winner in shape to send out into the world.

After Edits – The Next Step

I can’t stress hard enough that you really need to run through your manuscript at least once before you look for potential first readers. Gaining insights from others is a huge piece of this step. You cannot write in a vacuum and expect to put a rough manuscript into consideration for publication or start the mechanics for self-publication. Take the time to get it read, reviewed, and even professionally edited. Trust me, it’s worth your time to do this even before you submit it to a publisher or do it yourself.

NaNoWriMo is a race to 50,000 words. It’s a challenge that teaches you self-discipline and creates a habit of writing daily. Publishing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. It will take time to get it right. There are times it will seem like glaciers move faster than your manuscript through the process. Keep writing other things and do not, under any circumstances, get caught up in any one novel project. Keep moving forward. That’s really what NaNoWriMo is all about. Starting a project, finishing it, and moving on to the next one. And the next one after that.

That’s how you win NaNoWriMo, folks. Keep moving forward.