Stocking the Shelves

A while back, I started the second draft of a novel I’ve been working on for some time . . . close to a year by the time I opened version 2.o in Word.

I’d made it through the beginning, trudged through the sticky middle, and was well on my way to the climax when I realized some of the characters weren’t where they were supposed to be, both geographically and emotionally.

I’d strayed from my original outline–I’m more Gardener than Architect, though I do try to outline key events in my stories–and realized some changes were in order. It wasn’t until around the 160k word mark of my first draft that I finally understood some of my characters and realized there were things I needed to change in the beginning in order to get them where they needed to be by the end.

So I started over. I got about 20k words in and was really digging the revisions. My villain was more clearly defined in a shorter amount of time. The conflicts seemed more urgent. The setting was even coming to life in ways it hadn’t until much further on in my first pass.

Then, because writers aren’t immune to outside forces, Life reared its ugly head and gave me a smack in the face, bashing my inspiration into the mud and stomping it into an unrecognizable pulp. Pulling words from my head became about as difficult as pulling an entrenched boot from quicksand.

It’s no surprise we talk so often on this blog about what keeps us writing. Sometimes, nothing seems to work. There is no magical can of Inspiration we can use to grease the creative wheels, no verbal laxative to unplug our plugged minds. If there were, I’d put it in a can and stock an entire pantry. I wouldn’t sell it, I’d want it all for myself! Well, I might sell it for an exorbitant price so I could quit my day job and write full time like when I was unemployed. Oh those were the days!

So what do you do when the words won’t come? Last time I posted, I wrote about my return to reading. Indeed, it worked in the short term, coaxing a few thousand more words of my own onto the screen when I wasn’t working or reading. But the effect didn’t last long.

So I ask again, what do we do when an unfinished project turns stale? Many authors will push on, throwing down words they know they’ll delete at a later date until the levee breaks and good words start flowing again. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of writer that can do that. I’d rather write 50 great words than 1000 bad ones. I’m a little too much of a perfectionist for my own good at times.

The answer, at least in my case, is simple: Write something else.

I’m not giving up on the novel I’ve worked on for over a year–far from it–I’m simply taking a break to write something else. Something I can finish, because nothing is as therapeutic to an author as writing “The End”. I started working on a short story, and, lo and behold, the words began moving again. It just so happens it’s a short story I’d actually like to turn into a short, animated film . . . or perhaps an illustrated, not-quite-for-children, children’s book a la Pat Rothfuss’s The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed.

What we write isn’t always as important as actually writing. And the more we write, the better we get. Guaranteed. So, when your darling of a story isn’t behaving like a darling, write the ugly step-child of a story instead. Get the words flowing again, and soon you’ll have your inspiration back. Do that enough times, and you’ll have a virtual shelf–or perhaps a folder on your computer hard drive–filled with ever improving stories.

It can’t be said often enough, the only way to grow as a writer is to write.

Starting Over: A Most Exquisite Agony

Just about everyone who has ever used a computer knows the gut-wrenching pain of having to cope with lost data. Ever had your computer crash in the final stretch of writing an essay, and then discover that the file is unrecoverable? Ever spend hours on a piece of work and forget to save it before disaster strikes?

Of course you have.

But this post isn’t about data recovery, a subject on which I know very little (frankly, I would be well-advised to learn more). No, today’s post is about the exquisite agony of starting over.

Over the course of the last few years, fantasy wunderkind Brandon Sanderson has released chapters on his blog from his early unpublished manuscripts. On the one hand, this is an encouraging development, since it demonstrates so well the gradual accumulation of skill as time wears on. I find myself able to identify with Sanderson’s early writings. Hopefully, given more time, I, too, can become a writer of his caliber.

But the most interesting thing to me is the way that Sanderson openly talks about rewriting, and even re-rewriting, some of his manuscripts. In other words, he wrote it once-it wasn’t good enough. So he waited a while, then wrote it again-it still wasn’t good enough. He waited some more… then wrote it again! Finally, it was ready to see the light of day.

This kind of persistence is remarkable. As far as I can tell, it’s a necessary quality if one is to become a best-selling author.

In my editing career, I frequently come into contact with books that just aren’t good enough. It’s not that they’re outright bad (well, sometimes they are), but rather that editing alone isn’t enough to elevate them to “ready” status. The unfortunate reality is that the writer probably just doesn’t have chops to pull off the story-yet. My suggestion might be to give it some time, work on other projects, then come back a few years down the road and attempt the unthinkable: a page-one rewrite.

In other words, write the entire novel over again. From scratch.

If you’ve ever spent months-honestly, probably years-on your pet project, then the notion of starting over is truly daunting. Exhausting.

In my case, I have a 175,000-word novel sitting on my shelf. I wrote it the first time back when I was in high school-well, I wrote the first half before giving up. At the tender age of sixteen, I knew I wasn’t up to the challenge.

A few years later, I resurrected the project and tried turning it into a series of teleplays (television scripts). I wrote more than ten of them! But this format was impractical in the long run, so the project fizzled out. And almost stayed fizzled.

Then, after a long break, I jumped back into the fray last year and wrote the complete novel, which took nine months. In the spring, I trimmed it down some, bringing me to that polished 175,000-word version.

Except it’s not polished. Not really.

I’ve grown tremendously over the last few years. I was able to accomplish things in my most recent draft that my high school self would never have believed possible. But after receiving a lot of honest and well-intentioned feedback, I was forced to come to an uncomfortable conclusion: it’s still not ready. And in fact, like those editing clients I mentioned, editing still isn’t enough to get it where it needs to be to really come alive.

Indeed, I’ll have to start over. One more time.

But there’s no point in attempting another rewrite so quickly. Brandon Sanderson turned some of his flawed early works into best-selling gems, but they had to percolate for years.

So, just how long will I need to wait? Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule, but I do know one thing: I will accumulate more skills and grow faster as a writer if I keep producing new work.

And there’s the rub. It’s not about waiting at all… it’s about pressing on.

The Demons Within

Are we as writers prone to melancholy? Are we prone to periods of madness so that the proverbial phoenix can rise from the ashes? Is that the true nature of the writer? Or, are we simply dis-spirited when we can’t write?

When life gets in the way and I don’t have the opportunity to write, I become a troll. An ugly self-deprecating troll. Oh, everyone sees the smiling me on the outside, but deep inside, I’m miserable and the world can just stop spinning anytime so I can get off this #@! merry go round!

Every time I find myself this way, I become more aware that the troll exists when I’m not being true to my nature, true to my spirit, true to my creativity. For me, writing isn’t like cooking (although I love to cook too) wherein something is created, everyone ooohs and aaahs their pleasure, the dishes get done and a perfectly satisfying moment has been shared by the hungry and adoring masses. Never have I had story written, published and admired in 3 hours or less and left the office tidy. If that isn’t a realistic goal …..

Some call it a funk, others a dead muse. I wonder who clipped the darn bird’s wings so it can’t fly? Life does that when it gets in the way of my writing. And my spirit feels like it’s died another irrevocable death.

As writers, we support each other through our dead-spirit moments, when we feel like an utter failure, like life is conspiring against our genius. Our genius which we lay, like nervous sacrifices on the alters of critiquers’, teachers’, editors’, publishers’ and readers’ unfathomable fancies. We trust that they, like us, will adore the gem we’ve created. Ooohing and aaaahing, grins of contentment adorn their admiring faces as their contagious pleasure spreads to others so that we, genius writers, may lay greater word feasts before our guests. And when this sarcastic and disheartening inner voice speaks, what can I, the melancholy writer, do?

Despair? Sometimes? Cry? Oh yes! Scream? Too polite to do that. Suffer in martyrdom? Definitely. Rise above it? Eventually. Yes, rise. Push that darn phoenix out of the fire before it gets roasted!

Why bother? you ask. Because the spirit knows no other way. You only give up if writing isn’t part of who you are. Because to give up is death for your soul and the emptiness is haunting. Denying the creativity drives me into deeper madness.

But how does one rise above the despair when the inner demons are so strong, when the melancholy is so deep?

One moment at a time.

One word at a time.

By knowing that life has to happen WITH me participating in it, with all its joys, sorrows, responsibilities, distractions and yes, with the demon of doubt.

The key to conquering the doldrums is not found solely in the act of writing. It is in the act of acknowledging that putting words together is who I am – it is an inextricable, wonderful, creative part of me. It IS my spirit.

That means that sometimes, I must be patient with life because I will need it to be patient with me.

That means I can find other ways to fill the void until life’s challenge is overcome. I can read. I can write a blog. I can research.

I can remind myself that as I emerge from the haze of the demonic funk, I will remember that I never left the path – I just couldn’t walk it for a while.

But most importantly, I can acknowledge the void and be satisfied that I know who I am, that I know what feeds my soul and most importantly, that one day soon, I will feast at the table of creativity and word-smithing. Until then, I get to do a deeper character study of the demon within.

The Number One Rule of Cons

After attending World Fantasy Convention a couple of weeks ago, I thought it fitting to do a post about such a monumental annual convention. I could talk about the workshops I attended, the interviews with Neil Gaimon, the nearly hyperventilating fans coursing around him, or the amazing information and advice I received from well-published authors. I could talk about my first public reading of my own published work; it went well and I enjoyed doing it more than I ever thought possible. Instead, I’m going to rehash a subject that I’ve seen blogged multiple times, but I don’t think it can ever be said enough. The number one rule of cons, of being in the public eye, of our dealings in our private lives, of being a human being: be nice.

There were a few notable authors/agents/editors I met or became reacquainted with who, in my opinion, handled this side of public relations exceptionally well. I hope we can all learn from their examples. Number one on my how-could-you-be-so-nice list was author David Brin. I met him for a total of, maybe, ten seconds in a bar. He walked by, I said hello, his eyes lit up, he shook my hand effusively and with a genuine smile he asked my name and said it’s nice to meet you. Then I glanced at his name tag and realized who I was talking to. I didn’t have to recognize him, say anything great about his books, or be introduced by someone he knows in order for him to be cheerful, pleasant and friendly.

Julie Wright effused the same outgoing acceptance. I almost felt like I’d found a sister after talking with her for only a couple of minutes. Amazing people. I met David B. Coe who was extremely nice even after I ran into him repeatedly within a short amount of time and probably seemed like a stalker.

Am I name-dropping? Oh, yeah. To prove a point. Because they’re so nice and willing to hang around with the new, unproven writers, I’m going to be looking for more books by them. In fact, I bought some at the convention and I’ll be paying attention to these particular writers in the future. I’m throwing their names around on our blog and making positive comments because they were nice. It’s as good for business as it is for life in general. Since I’m on a role, Mary Robinette Kowal, Jessica Day George, and Patrick Rothfuss are some other authors who made themselves available and took time to meet and talk with other attendees.

Only matters with writers? I don’t think so. Cherry Weiner, one of the best agents in the field, whom I’ve met and talked with multiple times has given me advice and help despite the fact that I have nothing for her. She doesn’t represent my genre. Still, I would bend over backward for this woman and do anything I could to help her clients if it was within my capability.

An editor from Baen, Jim Menz, remembered me from a brief meeting two years before, excitedly told me about an upcoming line of books, and mentioned some authors with great projects coming out. I will be on the lookout for those authors and projects.

On the flip side, an agent whom I met for the second time at WFC wouldn’t look at me when he talked to me, talked in clipped, annoyed tones, and literally turned his back on me. I wasn’t pitching, I wasn’t asking for anything, and all I’d attempted was to ask about upcoming projects I might be interested to read. I already knew he wasn’t a fit for my work. This unfortunate incident has made me reticent to read the authors he represents and tainted my attitude toward the ones I already liked. Do I have it in for him or anything? Of course not, and I know he’s a great agent. I won’t be pointing him out so I can make derogatory comments. That wouldn’t be nice. There were a few other authors/agents/editors who seemed to avoid people and only pasted on a smile when introduced through someone they already knew.

Now I’m not saying we should hold grudges, make judgments, or plan business decisions based on these types of interactions. I didn’t even realize I had these feelings, ultra-positive or negative, until I was thinking about writing this post and the impact the con had on me as a writer. But I know my experiences affect my perception of the books I read and people I want to work with or support.

So, it’s been said before and I’ll say it again: number one rule, no matter how important you become, is to be nice…to EVERYONE. Seems simple, but I’m sure I’ve had my moments, too. I don’t like crowds and socializing wears me out. I wrote this blog as much for myself as anyone else.

Oh, and I have to mention the amazing illustrator, Lee Moyer, who will not only be at the top of my list for cover art because of his amazing skill, but also because he’s just such a nice guy.