How I Learned to Write

Totally triggered by the most recent PubCrawl Podcast episode about author career qualifications, I got thinking about what’s helped me develop into the writer I am today. Writing is so much more than sentences and grammar (though that’s obviously a pair of critical variables) and learning how to write requires so much more than a creative writing degree (though it helped kickstart me in the right direction).

I learned how to give constructive feedback and absorb criticism thanks to creative writing workshops in undergrad.

I learned about story in those same workshops. 

I learned how to write powerful sentences and build logical paragraphs writing dozens of research papers as a history major. It’s also where I kicked my purple prose habit.

I learned how to accept rejection from rounds of literary magazine submissions.

I learned how to finish a book in NaNoWriMo. 

I learned about pacing and voice by reading reading reading. 

I learned about dialogue from Girlmore Girls.

I learned how to be succinct when writing my pictorial history. (Word count restrictions!) And Twitter, maybe. And my flash-fiction phase. 

I learned about scene structure from a SCBWI conference workshop led by the superb Laurie Calkhoven.

I learned about plotting and structure and beats at a writing conference talk by the fabulous Chris Grabenstein. And by reading craft books.

I discovered revision tactics by reading the blogs of authors I admire.

I learned how to revise on book #4. By pulling the story apart and refashioning it back together, over and over. And by following my critique partners’ advice.

I’m excited to see what the next writing break through might be. :]

How the Writing is Going

A thing that I’ve heard many writers say many times before is that every book you write teaches you something. I like that idea. It’s a concept that’s always appealed to me. For a long time, though, I was having trouble figuring out what, exactly, each of my failed manuscripts was trying to teach me. There was a lesson there, somewhere–there had to be!–but I just couldn’t find it.

Now that I can look back on a sequence of several shelved manuscripts, tucked away in the dark corners of various flash drives hidden in dark desk drawers, I’ve realized that they were mostly just teaching me the same thing: You’re not ready, not yet. I’d write this pile of words that had a few glimmers–some good writing, a few characters I became particularly fond of, a place definitely worth setting a story in–and I’d look at it once I had typed “The End” and just know with this heart-sinking feeling that this wasn’t it. It wasn’t a book, it wasn’t a story–just a few random events with the same cast of characters strung together in chronological order–and I wasn’t capable of making it into something book-shaped. I would think on it for months and wouldn’t be able to think of a single idea that would salvage this not-book-shaped thing I had worked on for months, maybe a year. I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t there yet. So I’d start again.

With each passing failed manuscript, it was getting harder and harder to admit that I still wasn’t ready, this still wasn’t the book that was worth showing to beta readers, would get me an agent, would make it on bookshelves. It was particularly hard for me to admit that fact with the last manuscript, the one I spent all of 2013 writing. My writing was definitely getting better. There were some fleshed out scenes I could see so vividly, certain snatches of dialogue (and let me tell you, dialogue for me is HARD!) that would catch me on a reread. It sounded, a little, like a book. And the characters were the most real human creations I had ever been able to make with my own words. I wanted this book to work. I needed it to work. So, for the first time ever, I went back into a manuscript and tried to revise it–not petty line edits and sentence restructuring, not just adding flowering words here and there–real revision, moving around events and adding things and changing motivations. I spent months trying to revise that could-maybe-be-book-shaped thing and I was frustrated to the point of tears. I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t enjoying writing. I hadn’t enjoyed drafting the book–I’m just not the type of writer who enjoys drafting–but I had assumed all those years that I would really like revising, once I finally got to experience it. It was the polishing point of the process, where all the good ideas came together. It was the part I had loved the most about giant academic papers in college, taking that raw material I had dumped on the page and making every single word right, making them the right words in the right places in the right order. Shouldn’t some stage of the writing be fun, if I’m a writer?

But revising this manuscript was no more fun than drafting it had been. If anything, it was worse. The plot just wasn’t working and it felt like the characters were glaring out of their world at me. If you could just figure out this revising thing, if you could just do this thing right, you could do us justice, they seemed to be saying. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t that I was broken–it wasn’t that I was completely incompetent at revising–it was that the story was broken. And it was also partly because I wasn’t the same person who had written that first draft. I still cared about the characters, but I didn’t care about the plot, about what the book was about, anymore. I wasn’t as excited about answering the questions I had been so eager to find answers to the year before. I had, for all intents and purposes, outgrown the story. So I shelved it.

It was hard, shelving that book. There are parts of it that I believe might be the best stuff I’ve ever written. And at that point, one year ago this month, I had been trying to write a book for a long time. I’m one of those people who wrote books in elementary school, middle school, high school, college. Has always dreamed of being a writer. I fell in love with children’s literature and never really left it. I’ve been devouring it, studying voice and trends and watching the young adult branch of publishing grow and boom. I’ve been reading about literary agents and publishers through my favorite author’s blogs for nearly ten years now–since I was a little public school baby writer–all with one goal in mind: sharing a quality book worth reading with readers. How wasn’t I there, yet? Why were other people, who had just randomly woken up one day last year and decided they wanted to write a young adult book get it done right on their first try? How was it possible that this most recent not-book-shaped thing was still telling me You’re not ready?

Every time I try out a new idea, type up the words “Chapter 1,” for the first time, I try something different. It’d always be young adult, but it’d be a different genre: young adult fantasy, young adult dystopian, young adult historical, trying to find the right fit. I’d try different tenses, pants vs. plot, and different formats, like a book told completely in journal entries. When I set down to write the new book of 2014, it was really different for me. Third person. Middle grade. Male protagonist. I had never done any of those things before.

The drafting, as always, was hard. I kind of hate drafting, I’ve realized. It’s painful for me. I want things to be good–I derive a lot of pride and joy from good sentences, good writing, great characters, from writing I enjoy reading after I’ve written it–and first drafts are just by nature mediocre at best, nothing to ever brag about. And somewhere in the middle of every story I always get completely lost, whether I have an outline or not, and the quality deteriorates even further from there as I write in circles, just throwing words at the page trying to see what sticks. Stuck somewhere in the middle of my story, for a lot of weeks this summer, I didn’t write at all.

I was feeling more confident about this book, though, towards the end of 2014. I felt like I had a better handle on all the things–story, characters, dialogue, scene structure, tension, and that ever-elusive creature “voice”–than I had ever had in the past. I would read over passages and knew that, at the very least, I was definitely becoming a better writer, I was definitely better than I had been a few years before and that was a relief. At least I was getting somewhere.

When I reread the full draft last month, the whispering was a little different than it’s been before. The whispering was, this could work. It doesn’t work yet. But it could.

As I said before, I dislike drafting. I certainly can’t make myself do it every day, as so many people claim “real” writers do. It’s too draining and if I force myself to do it every day, I end up tossing the words usually anyway, and I end up hating writing, avoiding it, even more than I already want to do during the dreaded drafting stage. During the 2013 manuscript, I finally understood that writing every day just wasn’t something I could do while also balancing everything else–exercise, friends, family, reading, full-time job. And I forgave myself for that.

So that’s why how I’ve been reacting to revising this book has surprised me so much.

I’m 22,000 words in now and I’m not slowing down. I put myself on an idealistic 5,000 words a week schedule…and I’m actually a little bit ahead, which I’m pleased about for now. But the way that I stay on schedule means I have to dedicate a decent chunk of hours to consistently revising every week. I originally gave myself the goal of three times a week, totally reasonable. The thing that’s really been surprising me, though, is that three times isn’t enough…not hours-wise, but emotionally. I WANT to revise this story every day, all the time. I’m driving somewhere and I’m thinking about tackling the next scene, diving back into my little fictional neighborhood. I’ve started carrying around a dozen or so pages in progress in my purse all the time (I print out the first draft and pretty much rewrite every sentence by hand and then revise even further when I type it up that night) and edit a half an hour here or there, in-between doctor’s appointments, on lunch breaks. There’s a momentum building with this story as I nail down each chapter that I’ve never experienced before. I feel like there’s a little train, like the miniature one that circles around Christmas villages, in my head, plugging away to the tune This could be it, this might be it, it’s finally sort of working, I think this is working.

This is what revising looks like. Lot's of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

This is what revising looks like. Lot’s of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

So that’s where I am, in case you were wondering. 22,000 words into a 65,000 revision/rewrite, with the plan to finish the second draft by April 1st (no joke) and get it out to some beta readers. Barring any really awful, unanticipatedly drastic feedback, I think that should take about two months. So…the plan is to seriously start querying in June, then I guess.

Fingers crossed this manuscript keeps liking me and I keep liking it and my beta readers like it after that…

Writing Shortcuts: (Part 4) Characters

This is the fourth post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft of my current WIP. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) and #3 (pacing) to catch up!

Apparently everyone in the world besides me knew about this handy little writing trick. Even the non-writers of the world (I polled a few, so it might be an unreliable sample) knew. And when I mentioned my mind-blowing, brilliant, life-changing writing idea to them, even the non-writers paused and stared at me like I was crazy. “. . .  you don’t already do that?” some asked. “Doesn’t every writer do that?” others asked, inevitably referencing some world-famous writer who had admitted to the practice in an interview/magazine article/memoir.

Apparently, this is obvious to the logical people of the world.

But in case some of you out there never had this idea occur to you before (like me) and (like me) just go at a manuscript and writewritewrite 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 words with no real character knowledge, just kind of expecting each word to get you a little closer to the character having life breathed into them, I have news for you:

Characters back stories are the most amazing thing in the world.

Character back stories are a get-to-know you opportunity. They’re generally only one or two pages long and in them they include first impression information (what you’d notice right away if you met them for the first time), self-introduction information (the quick-and-dirty sort of elevator speech every person has when introducing themselves to someone you want to get to know. Think back to how you introduced yourself to your college roommate), and the deep dark stuff you’d only pull out of someone past 2:00 am when you’re laying on a trampoline together, staring up at the stars, and talking about life.

These back story write-ups were inspired by MG/YA authors Kit Grindstaff and Jennifer Hubbard, who gave this great session at the NJ SCBWI conference back in April that completely rocked my world. It was about dirty little secrets. About how important it is to know those secret, dark things about each of your characters. Only once you understood them like that, could you then throw them on the page, like I had been blindly doing, and expect any magic to percolate.

After reading the first draft and giving the first few chapters to a critique partner, I knew one of the greatest weaknesses of the manuscript–and one I didn’t yet know how to fix–was the main character. She was the most important person in the book, by definition, especially because I was writing the book in first person, but she almost barely existed. She had no personality and was overshadowed by the much clearer secondary characters. I was having her do all these things and say all these words, but she was not a fleshed out person with flaws and feelings and fears, and it was really obvious that I just didn’t understand what made this character tick. What was her motivation? Her favorite things to do in her free time?

I came up with nada.

The other characters were also pretty flat, so I systematically began approaching each character with a homework assignment: each one had to have this entire form filled out completely and satisfactorily before I could dive into revisions.

CHARACTER BACKSTORY

[Full name, occupation]

Motivated by: [i.e., truth, justice, fear, guilt, secret crush, etc.]

Instant description words: [i.e., adventurous, devoted, controlling, bubbly, lone wolf, etc.]

Biggest mistake ever made in life: [usually a flashback memory scene to a regret]

Biggest obstacle: [The thing the character finds most challenging, the thing they’re constantly trying to work on. Example: needing to fit in, mending a frayed relationship with a loved one, getting over fear of heights]

Least likeable quality: [Flaws are so much more illuminating of a character than why I like them. This question helped me figure out that one character was meek to a fault, for example. If I had just focused on her likeable qualities, I would have had a pretty flat character who was friendly, polite, and a loyal friend. But with that meekness shining through, she has an added depth and becomes more real.]

These are the basic things I always answer. A lot of other stuff gets written down and crossed out and doodled, but these are the bare bones I need to understand every character’s personal history. I write these out by hand, so they’re pretty much a hot mess of scribbles in a notebook that only I can decipher.

It took me about two weeks to do a character sketch for each of the secondary characters. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about each one. But I kept returning to that blank page for my main character. I’d jot down ideas, tid-bits of the main character’s history, anything to get to know her better.

After a few weeks and a lightbulb moment thanks to a brainstorming session with my sister, I finally finished her character sketch. I understood her. I got her. And it made revising her scenes, her dialogue, her actions, and writing new scenes for her so much easier. I was able to edit away all the crap in the first draft that, it was very clear to me now, was simply not this character’s MO. If only I had done these character sketches to begin with, before I ever started the first draft! Writing that entire first draft over the course of about four months didn’t help me get to know the characters better. I wandered through that world and through that plotline as lost as any of my characters. It wasn’t an effective method for me. The characters just foundered for pages upon pages and even when I wrote “The End,” I was still lost.

Lesson learned? Always write character sketches for each and every character before the first scene they appear in. It’ll help make them consistent and it’ll help the scenes write themselves. Now, off to squeeze in some character sketches to prepare for the secret NaNoWriMo project…!! I can’t wait to spend the month practicing writing a speedy and much better first-draft process! Join me?

Writing Shortcuts (Part 3): Pacing

This is the third post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) to catch up!

While reading through the first draft, I slowly came to realize how uneven the days of the week were. The plot spanned across the course of six days. Nearly 40 percent of the book happened on Day #1. (!!!) Other days got as little as 5 percent of the grand total page count. (This was partly a symptom of my speed-writing need. I get really excited about a story idea during a first draft and want to get to the end so badly that I write only the barest of bones. I just want to write “The End” ASAP…and scenes, chapters, and entire day’s worth of events get increasingly shorter as a result.)

Something that would have REALLY helped me during the drafting process to slow down my writing pace and, as a result, create a manuscript that had better story pacing, would have been a calendar.

Like this one.

Plotting Calendar

Plotting calendar. Magical tool for measured pacing!

Once I read through the first draft, I bullet-pointed the scenes on the calendar. That’s when I started seeing the holes. Literally. Huge, gaping holes. Seeing it laid out like that, I realized that one day only had one scene: a random conversation that happened during the evening. Then, cut scene, the next day! Seeing all these holes was like instant inspiration to dig in and start fleshing out the story. I started envisioning the characters interacting together–these were detailed visions I was itching to get on paper–in scenes that didn’t yet exist in the draft, but which I knew HAD to happen and would fit in those holes perfectly. The calendar helped me see a lot of scenes that I should have written during the first draft but was too rushed to give them the time and attention they deserved.

So, lesson learned? Always have a calendar for a first draft. (A lesson learned just in time for NaNoWriMo! Anybody else doing it? Friend me!)