distillation

In the past few weeks I’ve attended several writing-related activities: a book festival/local historical writers meet up, a sci-fi con with a quality writing track, and my monthly critique group. I’ve immersed myself in discussions of writing process, self-promotion strategies, and how and when to edit.

It has been fabulous – I’ve received some good advice and feedback, and have some useful plans for the future. But all the advice comes down to the same thing:

Finish the book.

There’s nothing to promote without a completed book; there’s not even anything to edit without a first draft (my tendency to tail-chase notwithstanding). And I do tend to wallow in the research because it’s comfortingly familiar in the way that a blank page is not.

As such, I may be scarce around here as I make a concerted effort to get things done.

 

Advertisements

internalization

I’m having a hell of a time thinking of myself as a writer.

I know, I know – if you write, however casually, you are a writer. I write a bit most days,  I conduct serious research in pursuit of my book, I take classes and critiques, I tell people I’m writing a book. But I still can’t square these with having never been published, and only recently considering that this hobby could be more.

This situation is not entirely unfamiliar.

Fencing is my other great hobby*. I practice 3 days a week, take lessons, compete nationally, and have a rating (kind of like a belt in other martial arts). I may never be an Olympian, but I am an athlete. I wasn’t always though – when I started out 12 years ago I was a relative couch potato, fencing once a week to stave off weight gain.

What made the difference?

Among other things, getting good instruction and setting aside time for practice (instead of straggling to club only when I had “free time”), but I don’t think I would have done either of those things if I hadn’t been both obsessed with improvement and believed that I could improve. Simply taking my efforts seriously inspired more disciplined habits that helped the fencing: adopting a healthier diet, cross-training to improve strength and endurance, and finding the elusive persistence to keep going even when it was difficult.

Even so, it took me 12 years to call myself “athlete” without laughing:

photo of my "Athlete" pass from the State Games

doG only knows what it will take for me to ever feel worthy of the label “writer”, but at least I’m going through the correct motions. I may never be a bestselling author, but I will be (am?) a writer.

*I also sew/costume, but lately it’s taken a back seat to the writing. File under: not enough hours in the day.

switching gears

My writer’s group critiqued my work for the first time last night.

I spent most of last week preparing the short (~1000 word) chapter I was submitting for review: writing, editing, rewriting, running through Autocrit, and editing until it was as perfect as I could make it. This is pretty standard procedure for me (every post you see on this blog has gone through a dozen iterations, including this one).

I have always worked this way because most of my shared writing has been episodic role-playing and fan fiction: once a chapter is out in the world I can’t take it back or edit it, so I aim for a finished product every time.

By the submission deadline I still wasn’t pleased with what I had. I wasn’t getting across the mood and clarity I wanted and feared my chapter would be seen as lazy writing, or just plain crap.

It turned out that nobody expected a completed work. Everyone could tell it was a first draft and liked it very much for what it was, offering some excellent tips how to fix some of my clunkier phrasing and ideas for giving it the emotional punch it lacks (more show, less tell – but that’s another post).

They also advised me against “over-polishing” because it hinders progress on longer (novel-length) works. Plot developments in later chapters mean I might have to rewrite those “finished” pieces or simply cut them, translating to hours of work down the drain. Besides, sometimes it’s good to get the blueprint on the page and then let it sit for a fresh look later.

It’s going to take a hell of an effort for me to write something and leave it in draft form – it goes against all my prior work habits and grates on my misguided perfectionism besides! But in the name of efficiency I’ll write my next chapter give it a once over, and then…stop.

It’ll be easy to stop typing. Stopping my mental editor when I should be working on the next thing will be the real trick.

On the upside, they liked my ideas and general plot. It’s heartening to know that I’m not the only person in the world who thinks a mixture of espionage, magic, alchemy, and madness would be a good read!

it’s too much

I’ve been having one of those weeks with the writing.

It’s been a struggle to cough up more than a couple hundred words a day, not because inspiration is lacking but because I can’t complete a thought without having to put in placeholders for something I haven’t researched yet:

…the large table in the center of the room. It groaned with food, [what kind? how much?]

or

He shifted to and fro in an attempt to keep his blood flowing. “Besides it’s cold as [16th c. equivalent of “a witch’s tit”]-“

or

Approaching the throne, Jane dropped a low curtsey [how does one correctly greet the Queen?]

And so forth. These pauses not only derail my thinking but illustrate the gaps in my knowledge that I need to place the story in a concrete-feeling time and place. This doesn’t include the list of general questions I need to answer before I know if some of my plot points are even possible.

Currently I have over 80 sources but it still doesn’t seem like enough; my fear of anachronism looms large but I don’t want to put off my narrative ideas until the research is complete (opinions on how much research to do pre-writing differ).

Even so, this often feels like too big of a project to face, as though there are too many details and dependencies to get my head around to do the story justice, and the temptation to just quit is great. But that’s not how books get written so I press on, trying to break it into manageable pieces and keeping my […] in to address in the next draft.

I’m also giving Scrivener a whirl to try to impose some order on this beast. Currently the book is in a series of Word files in a single folder on my desktop, none titled clearly enough to know their content or sequence. Hopefully this will also help with the dreaded outlining.

coming up to speed

On Thursday I went to my first local writer’s meet up.

This is different from my occasional Sunday writing get-togethers with friends, where the goal is simply to write. The  members of this group largely work alone but meet bi-monthly to critique each other’s work and do writing prompts.

It was interesting, but I felt inadequate to the task. I’ve got a bit of a learning curve if I want to offer decent beta reading, or learn from any criticism I receive:

1) I need to get familiar with the proper names for different parts of language. I know when something feels “off” to me in a reading: the pace is too fast, or it feels repetitive, but I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately explain what I mean. Until I understand these my critiques will be vague at best. Not sure where to learn this as I’m not even sure what to plug into Google: “parts of language” finds more about speech than writing. Work in progress.

2) I need to learn proofreader’s marks. Some of the members provide their reviews as marked-up printouts, and these aren’t useful to me if I don’t know what they mean.

3) Better reading aloud. I put as much expression as I could into the small bit I read but self-consciousness and unfamiliarity with the text gets in the way. I’m referring to Mary Robinette Kowal‘s tips for reading aloud videos (part 1, part 2) but I suspect mastering this will come down to practice. I may have to face my speaking in public phobia sooner rather than later (shudder).

4) Formatting. Evidently some publishers won’t even look at a manuscript that isn’t in the preferred justified alignment, .5″ paragraph indent format. I’m new enough to the writing party that I can’t judge anecdote from evidence, but reformatting is simple so I’m putting this in my “can’t hurt, might help” box.

The writing prompt was fun: start a story, after a set time pass your paper to the person on your right so they can continue. It’s like the RPGs I used to play in, where everyone had permission to write everyone else’s character and take them in places I couldn’t imagine.

I think I will be attending this meet up again as time permits, but only if I can be of some use to the other members.

 

reticence

There are times when I find it uncomfortable to write.

I don’t mean physical discomfort or run-of-the-mill writer’s block, but a sort of anxious distress that has me doing everything from laundry to reloading Facebook to avoid having to face the work in progress.

What I always want (what I suspect all writers want) is that perfect state of flow where the words just pour out like water, the imagery and emotions so clear in my mind that I am merely describing the unfolding events and the character’s reactions to them.

For a long time I assumed “real” writers were in that state all the time; through discussion and experience I’m learning that this is definitely NOT the case and that part of learning to write is plowing through the times when you’re not “in the mood”.

I’m finding that the two main things that make me want to flee to the cuddly vapidity of YouTube cat videos are 1) I can’t get inside my character’s head, or 2) I feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Dealing with the first is easier – I created elaborate back stories and personality profiles of my main characters that I can refer to when I just can’t “go there”. It’s not the same but it does give me some direction when I’ve written them into a corner.

The other is harder because even though everyone says to “write what you know” it’s impossible to stick to my own narrow range of experiences and inevitably I wind up in uncharted territory.

This is especially true with historical fiction, and even though none of my potential readers have lived through the 16th century either I still cringe at the thought that someone who has done better research than I will read something I’ve written and realize I’m winging it.

This is my critiquing Kryptonite – I’m more self-conscious about someone catching me being clueless than I am about lousy grammar, poor plotting or anything else.

Of course I’m (over)doing the research to avoid that possibility, but I suspect the real lesson is how to get over my flailing and find a way into “the zone”. I know what to do once I’m there – it’s just the getting there I’m struggling with.

writing by the seat of my pants

Last night was my first class in a 3-week workshop on character development. As in, a real, live, in person class, with a classroom and everything.

I was iffy about signing up for it at first; I prefer online instruction because it gives me time to think about my answers, and I’m always cagey about adding another non-moveable item to my cluttered calendar, but I am ultimately glad I did it.

Turns out the instant back and forth is something I need, because it short-circuits my tendency to over think. On my own I’ll constantly refer to notes (would they be in this room? What are they wearing? What time did X take place chronologically?), but the exercises were timed and specific: Take a news headline and expand on it in 3 minutes; Look at a picture and describe the character’s mindset in the same amount of time; generate a fake name from the phone book and write a first-person paragraph.

I expected these to be nerve-wrackingly difficult but they weren’t simply because I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I think perhaps the most useful exercises were how to base a character on your own experiences without it becoming a Mary Sue (use a different name, write 3rd person, and change the situation slightly to build emotional distance) and how to build a character around an object (who owns this? How did they get it? Why is this important to them?). The latter in particular I’m going to use to build a character in world I tentatively built years ago but couldn’t populate.

My classmates are few but enthusiastic; one of the things I love about adult continuing education is that everyone in the room wants to be there. Everyone also got there by different side doors: one is a teacher who wants to write for kids, another is a journalist who wants to write fiction, yet another has her own historical fiction thing going on.

Also, the teacher is clearly excited about stories and storytelling, and with the small class size there’s a lot of good back and forth.

This week was “building characters from personal experience”, next week is using psychological insights, which is why I signed up in the first place. Keep ya posted.