It’s Okay to Talk to Yourself.

Don’t mind the stuttering, the staring. Forget everyone that’s around you. One of the biggest complaints I hear from aspiring writers or envious onlookers is that “there’s never enough time to write.”

Truth is, there’s always time to write. Especially if you think outside the glowing metal box. I had the honor of hearing Kevin J. Anderson speak, and that’s when I learned his dirty little secret.

Kevin talks to himself. So did Upton Sinclair. In Sinclair’s prime, he was turning out 8,000 words a day, seven days a week. That was enough for him to employ two stenographers full time while he dictated his stories. The ending to the sprawling epic “Wheel of Time” was dictated to eager ears and hungry tape recorders on Jordan’s death bed.

I never believed it could work. I tried several times, and after stuttering and stopping three words in, I said to myself: “Screw it.”

After six months of beating myself up because “the words just won’t come”, I decided that this needed to end. I had the whole of Golden Hills’ first draft written, the only thing I was missing had been this one niggling scene that was beginning to drive me insane. It was supposed to be the fun scene, the epic battle where the good guys win and the bad guys get ground into bonemeal. But, why wouldn’t it come to me?

I had been so wrapped up in perfectionism and staring at the blinking black cursor that it was giving me a headache. I’d sit down with every intention to write one word, maybe two. And so I would be there and slowly start typing: “This is my awesome ending.” Backspace, this isn’t good enough. So, I’d try again: “Your head will explode from how awesome this scene is.” Delete. Still not good enough.

And so it would go for days, weeks, six months at a time. It was terrible, all I’d do was wrestle with semantics. Nothing was good enough, nothing ever was.

Frustration really started to settle in. Around this time, there were discussions going on in a message board about Kevin’s dictation methods. Other writers were debating the usefulness, the awkwardness and all that good stuff. Figured I’d give it a go, jump on the band wagon. I dusted off my Sony digital recorder. And I spoke. To myself.

Much awkwardness ensued. “The round went high and wide.” Pause. Repeat. You sound stupid, try again. And so it went for about two weeks. I’d talk to myself in the car, get a few sentences in and feel even dumber than when I began. So I’d quit and go back to my music, my audiobook, flipping off the knucklehead that just cut me off, whatever.

Weeks became months and the frustration really started to amp up. I went back to talking to Kevin about camping and hiking. I’d talk to other friends about what was and wasn’t working on the draft. I came back and decided to rewrite a whole subplot, create a bunch more scenes that were unnecessary, and delete whole chapters. All for the first draft.

Finally, I said the heck with it. I went out into the swamp with my Reader and my digital tape recorder. I stopped at the river and reread the last chapter that I had written [it was the original first draft, with a scene I had since deleted] and something happened. I don’t know what. But something happened. I got that funky lightheaded feeling that only comes from perfect mental clarity.

And then I pushed record. As I rounded the ravine, stepped in some mud, and ruined a perfectly good pair of socks, I did not push stop. Except for when the trail took me under the interstate, and then I couldn’t hear myself think. Soon as I got through the bridge, I hit record again. An hour gave me a little over 4,000 words. Words that needed to be said. It didn’t matter how terrible they were, because there was no backspace key. There was only one way to go, and that was forward.

While orating is not my preferred style (Scrivener, Chai Lattes, and New Age Music, for those who were curious), I found that it works wonders when you need to knock the cobwebs out of your head.

Prior to finishing Golden Hills, I had come off a six month slump where I just couldn’t find the time, didn’t listen to the muse, whatever. You name it, I used it as an excuse.

But there’s a saying I learned which does not bear repeating in polite company [excuses are like a certain unnamed body part every living creature has] and once I wrapped my head around that and took a walk in the woods…I found out that my excuses were nothing more than simple excuses.

Or distractions.

But that’s a matter for another post.

To Continue or Not To, That May Be The Question

I just spent a full fourteen months working on my first paranormal romance. My schedule looked something like this: Feb thru Apr– world-building, developing characters, and outlining / May and June – writing rough draft / Jul thru Oct – rewriting and rewriting and rewriting (it had problems) / Oct – more character development (I realized I didn’t know my characters well enough) / Nov and Dec – rewriting / Jan – more world-building (I realized I had a boring world with no conflict in it) / Feb and Mar – rewriting / Apr – put in virtual drawer indefinitely.

So, the question is – what prompted the last action? While I have been writing my entire life, I have only been writing with the goal of being a writer since the beginning of last year. I’d talked about it and done a few things with that goal in mind, but not until January of 2010 had I committed myself completely to writing as a career. So, as a newbie, I consider writing this first romance book, all the critique groups I joined, all the books on craft I read, all the conferences and seminars I attended, all the writer friends I found, and the amazing critique partner I connected with – all of it was my Master’s class in writing genre fiction. 

Many, or most, authors will say that their first book written was not their first book published. In fact, it may never have seen the light of day again after being tucked away in that drawer of shame. Or, it may have been pulled out later, whipped into better shape and offered to the world. Either way, our first book (and possibly second through who-knows-how-many) is not good enough to be our entrance into the publishing world. Do I think my story is good? I do. Do I think it’s great? In all honesty, I question this. I’m half way through final rewrites, and I don’t think it’s good enough to be great. 

Do I continue on this project or move on to something fresh that given my now more developed skills will be better from the first draft with the potential to be great by the final? I decided move on. Spinning my wheels and wasting more months on my first is getting me nowhere. I don’t want to be that person who spends decades or even years on one book trying to make it perfect. Nothing is ever perfect. And this was not a wasted effort. I learned a lot while writing this book and I will continue to learn a lot as I go forward in my career. One of the hard lessons – when to continue and when to move on.

Is it a hard decision to abandon my baby? You bet. But, it’s also the right thing to do. Baby #1 has been officially stuck in the drawer. And the process begins anew. 

Be brave, Fictorians… every step on this wondrous journey we’ve undertaken is worth the effort.

A Writer’s Software Arsenal

The enemy of every writer is the same: the blank page. We each have different weapons that we use against this common foe, but being a programmer by trade, I tend to use software in my arsenal. Being my first post, I thought it would be a good idea to list some of the common software tools that many authors, including myself, use. Just to note, these are all my own personal recommendations and I have not been influenced by their publishers.

The Word Processor

Microsoft Word: ~$149.99 with office. (https://office.microsoft.com)
Openoffice: Free (http://www.openoffice.org/)
Google Docs: Free (https://docs.google.com/)

A common theme you’ll hear when writers give advice is to use what works best for you. It doesn’t really matter which word processor you use, as long as you have something you can use to write with. When you write, you should use something that is familiar to you and lets you work with very little thought on how it goes down on paper. If the line that appears under misspelled words throws you off your game, disable the feature. You can always run a spell check at the end. Just write!

Plotting:

Wikidpad: Free http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/

When I first started plotting my books, I would create a lot of files in Microsoft Word and put my thoughts down there. As my novels grew larger, my system began to fall apart. Another author suggested wikidpad to me and it has been a huge time-saver ever since. It has a small learning curve that takes a little getting used to, but once you’re familiar with it, things begin to fall into place. As you plot out elements, you can quickly link to other elements and world elements. This can easily turn a convoluted mess into a well-structured system. The price is hard to beat as well.

Backup

Dropbox: Free http://www.dropbox.com
Carbonite: $59/year http://www.carbonite.com/

Computer backup services have been around for a while but still tend to go unused by many writers. Some claim that they don’t want their unpublished works stored somewhere online, while others just haven’t taken the time to set it up. As with any type of insurance, it’s not a problem until something goes wrong. I personally keep all my transcripts on dropbox. The advantages are numerous. I can access my documents from my home or work. I can start writing on my desktop at home, and finish from my laptop in a café with no worry of how to transfer it between the two computers. If I’m at a conference, I can pull out my iPhone and instantly pull up a transcript to show off, or even email to potential agents or publishers. One other feature I like about Dropbox is that it will keep a revision history. If you have a bad night and delete half the document in a fit of rage, you can go back and pull up a prior version, restoring the lost chapters.

I will continue to look at other software that may be useful to writers to battle the blank page. If you have ideas or suggestions, please leave a comment, and I may look at them in future posts.

Revisions ““ Discovering Those Great Plot Gaps

There’s no greater feeling than getting that first draft done! Celebrate, pat yourself on the back and then take a break. Yup, you heard me. Set it aside and walk away for a few weeks or a few months. Tackle another story, another novel, another writing project. This will accomplish two things – it’ll be easier to switch from being creative to editing and practice makes perfect so your improved skill level will help you revise.

My first revision always looks at plot gaps. There are several methods and each can be employed for their own reasons but the quickest and best one I’ve found is to write the dreaded synopsis. I use it for the same reasons editors do: to see if the plot makes sense, if it creates tension and if there is a story arc as well as main character arcs. Some would argue that the original outline can be used this way. I choose to write the synopsis because it’s a fresh approach to looking at the novel and I’ve got to write it at some point.

For the purpose of revision, my synopsis is about 2,500 words for every 80,000 words in draft. The reason for keeping it so short is because I want to focus only on key elements in the plot and character lines. Subplots and side stories/events are examined later with respect to how they support the key plot points. The synopsis is written in third person, present tense and in the style or voice the novel is written in (humorous, chatty, dramatic).

Before you write the synopsis, make a note of the basic story arc which starts with the inciting incident. The inciting incident is what motivates the character toward a goal such as conflict resolution, finding true love, solving a mystery, saving someone, to resist change, etc. Then there are the obstacles to reaching the goal, the climax wherein the goal may or may not be achieved and then the denouement.

Like every good book and book jacket blurb, a synopsis starts out with a good hook. This introduces the protagonist, her motivations, goals and the conflict which keeps her from her goal. A synopsis isn’t a simple listing of events but rather it show how the events affect people and what they do which in turn affects plot and outcomes. Now, weave in the story arc, the key points of your plot, with your character’s actions, reactions while showing how they are affected by the decisions they make or actions they take. Use this method through the crisis and denouement.

When I read over the synopsis, I ask the following questions with every plot event:

  • Given the protagonist’s motivations, are her reactions and actions believable? If she really wants to save her family from the villains, why is she enjoying a glass of wine on the beach?
  • Is there enough tension between the protagonist and the antagonist? Does it increase until the climax?
  • Does this feel like it’s naptime? Has something been resolved too quickly? Are more obstacles needed? Remember, if you’re bored so will the reader be.
  • Does it move the story forward in a way which is exciting and logical? Or does it feel contrived, flat and unimportant?
  • Was this the most reasonable reaction and action for the character? Why didn’t she react another way? These questions focus on the logic problems of a character’s actions. For example, why didn’t Jean simply kill Maggie by pushing her over the ship’s railing when no one was looking? Why did she choose to slowly poison her to death? As the writer, you may know why, but did you communicate it clearly?

A synopsis is a great tool, even in the middle of a novel to check how your plot and character arcs are evolving. Recently, I was completing the first draft of a novel and I just couldn’t finish writing the last three chapters. Something wasn’t quite right and I didn’t know what. After writing the synopsis I discovered a couple of logic holes in a character’s reaction which didn’t fit his goals plus there was a plot logic issue. With these now understood, the draft was completed to my satisfaction. And, I’ve got a great tool to refer to during the revision to make sure the scenes, plot and character arcs in the manuscript follow the synopsis. Better still, I have a draft synopsis which I can revise for my queries.