Month: October 2018

So You’re a NaNoWriMo Revision Rebel?

Though you’ve likely heard of NaNoWriMo, you may not know about NaNo Rebels. These are writers who participate in the month-long writing marathon, but don’t follow the rules. They may write essays or nonfiction instead of novels, they may set a word count other than 50,000. They may work on more than one project at once. Or they may revise instead of writing something new. Since I’m knee-deep in the edits for Rock of Ages, if I participate in NaNoWrimo this November, it will be as a rebel. I love the excitement of the month and the tools the program offers, but other than posts on the site’s forums and a few blog posts, I haven’t found tons of resources for participating as a rebel. If you’re planning to use the month to revise, read on for my plan.

Using the Word Tracker

This is the main topic of discussion amongst revision rebels. How do you translate 50,000 words into editing? People tend to do one of a few things:

  • Words processed- Count each word of your old manuscript that you go through
  • Words in the new version- Count the words in your revised work, even if some are copied and pasted or only changed a little bit. These first two are useful if you’re working on a new vomit draft.
  • Daily work- Some people aim to work on their revisions each day for the month. Each day you work, add 1667 words to your count.
  • Time- 1 hour= 500 words, 1 hour= 1000 words, 1 hour= 1667 words, etc. Since I’m trying to slow down and be more deliberate for this draft, this is likely the way I’ll go, though I haven’t decided my time to words ratio yet. A bonus to using this method is that you can count things like research toward your goal. It also leaves room to go over the same passage multiple times without hindering your word count.

Word Sprints

Word sprints are one of the most helpful tools for me when I’m aiming for quantity. These timed sprints often take place on Twitter, but you can do them with a writing friend, too! They help you circumvent your inner editor and get the words flowing. If you’re trying to summon your inner editor, though, you don’t want to suppress her. Here are some ways to harness the energy of a word sprint if you’re revising:

  • If you’re counting words processed or words in your new version, go ahead and race! You can always go back and edit your edits whe the sprint is done.
  • Use it as a focus tool. Ban yourself from looking at or doing anything else for the five, ten, or twenty minutes of the sprint. Even if you just sit there staring at your manuscript, don’t give in to distraction for the set amount of time. Maybe you’ll get something done, or maybe you’ll give your brain enough of a rest that you’ll be able to focus more afterwards.
  • Use it as a break. Give yourself the time of the sprint to work on something new or to do some stream of consciousness writing. You won’t feel guilty that you aren’t getting your revision done because, hey, it’s just a few minutes, and the excitement of writing will likely re-energize you when you return to your draft.
  • Use it for character or world building work. Use the time to write freely about a character’s arc, a scene from their childhood, or a discussion between two of your characters. Write a scene from your world that isn’t in the book. Describe how part of it looks, feels, smells, sounds, and tastes. Write one of your scenes without people. Write one from a different character’s point of view. All of this will help you shape your actual manuscript even if it doesn’t end up in the final version of your book.

Rejoice, Rebel!

Don’t feel guilty about being a revision rebel. NaNoWriMo is a tool to help with your writing. If it’s working for you, then you’re participating, even if you aren’t doing the classic 50,000 new words in 30 days. One of the best parts is the community! So gather your friends, attend a write in, enjoy the forums and the Twitter chat. Sense the buzz in the air that is the worldwide writing community feeling motivated and excited. Happy Almost NaNoWriMo!

An Editing Pep Talk

I’m writing this because I need it. The Internet is full of writing pep talks, largely due to NaNoWriMo. There are plenty of posts about just getting the words out, not thinking about quality, and suppressing your inner editor. There are inspirational diatribes about how you can worry about editing later, essays about the merits of writing for writings’ sake. But what if you’ve already got the words out? What about people in the midst of editing? What about when it’s time to wake that inner editor up?

I googled, “Editing Pep Talk” and came up with article after article about getting motivated to write. So for anyone slogging through the swamp of a major editing project, this is for you.

You’ve written a book. You’ve suppressed the urge to edit as you go. You’ve ignored the little voice inside that told you that maybe you weren’t good enough or asked what business you have trying to be a writer. You’ve put some of your deepest self on the page, some of your biggest truths, your hardest or most precious memories. This is brave. You committed enough of your time to creating that you’ve come out with this thing. A book is a big deal.

Maybe you tucked it away for a while. Maybe you’ve shown it to some people you trust. Maybe you have a publishing deal! But now you’re realizing that just getting the words out is important, but for this particular book, it isn’t enough. Writing is a revolutionary, sometimes healing act. Sometimes just the creating is enough. But sometimes you realize that what you’ve created is asking for more. It wants to be seen, read, breathed. The world wants it.

This is harder than writing. Don’t tell someone this before they’ve got the writing thing done, but the writing is the easy part. Yes, it’s brave putting yourself on paper. Looking at it again is like looking at yourself naked in the mirror after a night of drinking with the sun shining through the window right on your hungover, unwashed, puffy-eyed face.

It’s the come down after a mania. It’s realizing that maybe you aren’t as interesting, talented, or unique as you thought you were and if you want anything to come of this culmination of incredible effort that  you’ve completed you’re going to have to put in even more work.

Writing is exhilerating. You watch the page fill, your word count go up, up, up. You can work yourself into a frenzy and thrill at the speed at which the words pour out. Even when the going is slow, you’re moving forward toward a goal.

Editing is slow. It’s lonely. It’s circular. It’s endless.

But it’s necessary, and your book deserves it. There’s a community of writers in the world who have been there and they know how hard it is. For every person who thinks editing just means combing through your manuscript for typos, there’s another who has spent five days staring at the same paragraph, reworking it and reworking it until it shines. People might not see you now as you’re questioning each word, analyzing how it relates to its neighbors, but they will see you when you’re done. It will speak to them in a deeper way, flow into their hearts more smoothly, because of the work you are putting in. Each second you spend on improving your book will make it better.

Every great book has been through this process.

None of this is in vain. You won’t be satisfied by mediocrity and because of that, you will emerge with a masterpiece. You might have to hibernate. If you are used to word sprints and  virtual high fives, you may feel like you are going through something of a detox. You might need to hide away, envelop yourself in your closet or office, create a bubble around yourself and your book. You are about to get intimate and rushing through it won’t be helpful. Hunker down and read closely. Read fantastic books and take notes. Be hard on yourself. Let any feedback you’ve received be hard on you too. Take it in and make it useful. This isn’t about getting through something. This is about working and working until it’s right.

And you will. Because you’ve committed to it. You’ve committed to this book and to yourself. Your book will be best it can possibly be and you’ll always know it’s because of the work you’re putting in now.

There Might Be More Than One Vomit Draft (And Other Lessons From Editing A Book)

I am about to embark on the 5th draft of my novel. Before beginning this process, I don’t think this statement would have necessarily surprised me, but I didn’t fully understand it either. “Of course you go through several drafts,” I may have thought. “You find new mistakes each time.” What I didn’t realize yet is that each draft serves a different purpose– is really almost a different book.

The Vomit Pass

My first draft was my “vomit pass.” Touted by folks like Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham, and encouraged by the structure of marathon writing programs like NaNoWriMo, this is the idea that you just have to get the words down. They don’t have to be good. They don’t even have to make sense. You just have to suppress the urge to edit as you go and get a lot of words on the page. For Rock of Ages, this was about 50,000 words of stream of consciousness writing. I got out stories from my own life as well as some based on family stories and my dad’s poetry. It was definitely a mess, definitely not cohesive, but I still think there were some gems in it. There was emotion in it and it was honest.

Finding a Story

Years later I came back to this jumbled mess and decided to make something of it. I laid each of the stories out on an index card and moved them around until they were in an order that made sense. I filled things in to make a plot–  a string that tied one story to the another. At this point I was pretty convinced I was a genius. When I read authors talk about how bad their early drafts were, I thought I was one of those rare writers with extraordinary natural talent. This book would be a classic, I thought, and I’d already done most of the work on it.

Fixing it Up

Now sufficiently confident, I sent my book out to some beta readers, who responded well. Bolstered by their approval, after another long break (to have some babies), I started doing some line editing. I changed sentences to make them read better and fixed some spelling mistakes. This round was easier, but much less exciting. This is the draft I sent to Inkshares.

The Developmental Rewrite (Vomit Pass Take Two)

My editor had a lot of suggestions, and surprisingly, in spite of my previous big headedness, I was extremely excited about all of them. We worked together to rework the book’s outline, taking out some superfluous plot lines and fleshing out the important stories and characters. I worked ridiculously hard for three months rewriting the book based on this outline, adding description, researching time periods and places. I ended up with a new draft that was almost 40,000 words longer than the one I had sent in. I felt like a badass. Now this was the big hurdle on my way to a finished book, I thought, and I had rocked it. I knew there would be more changes. Maybe I’d have to rewrite a few chapters, hone my prose some more.

So when I talked to my editor a couple days ago and he referenced this as my “vomit draft” my heart sunk for a moment. I had done a vomit draft! Three drafts ago.

I realized though, that in an intensive edit like this, there might be more than one vomit draft. Any time you change so much of the outline, you’ll have to have a round of just getting the words out there.

The Old POV Switcharoo

So now I’m back to step two again– improving the vomit draft. I’m switching from first to third person. I’m overwhelmed by this huge task, but not upset about it. I needed to use first person to get into my characters’ heads and write them authentically and now I need to use third person to improve the prose. I’ll be working on my descriptions, on making them even more authentic for their time periods. I’ll be working to make my book very literary– not just the meanings of the words but the words themselves, their sounds, will invoke the feelings I want to convey. I’m taking it all to another level.

My editor was reassuring when we spoke about this next step. He did the same with his book, he told me, as did other big books he’s worked on. “This is just the process,” he told me.

It’s overwhelming. It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating.

But it’s also incredibly exciting. I’ve seen leaps in my goals along with the leaps in my writing. A few months ago I just wanted to be published. I wanted a few people to read my writing and relate to it. Now I know I can make something really, really special.

With each draft, my imposter syndrome diminishes. I am putting in the work. This process has also shown me the importance of having an editor, and a good one.

If you’re on the fence about hiring someone for a developmental edit of your book, do it.

If you’re in the middle of rounds and rounds of edits, keep it up! The work you are putting in is important and meaningful. It will be worth it.

If you’ve gone through edits like this and come out with a finished book, TELL ME ABOUT IT! Send me motivational quotes! Send me book links!

 

Writing Complex Children: We Need Better Arcs!

There’s something we might be overlooking in our character development as writers.

We all know about character arcs. Characters need to change over the course of a story. When I received my developmental edit letter for Rock of Ages, my editor conveyed that even the jerk boyfriend in my story needed to have more depth, to show an arc. It could go downward, certainly, but he needed to change. Protagonists certainly have to learn or grow or change in some way. In good writing, all of the characters have arcs and end up at least a little different by the end of the book.

But what about the children?

I’m not talking about children’s or young adult books, obviously. So many of those authors are amazing at creating complex characters and showing these characters grow, learn, develop, and change. I’m talking about books written for adults with adults as the main characters but that  have children as supporting characters. It’s hard enough to think of adult fiction that features kids meaningfully, which is strange because there are a lot of kids around us, but it’s even harder to think of examples of adult fiction with kids who show growth and change over the course of the book.

Children in books should not function only as accessories or a plot device. Children are just as complex, have just as much depth, as adults. More importantly, they change a lot faster. Their development happens simply as a matter of time– it doesn’t depend on external circumstances.

So here are some tips for adding complexity to young characters in an adult-centric book.

Read About Child Development 

The human brain is amazing and the ways we develop early on are absolutely fascinating! How much time passes in your book? How old is the child in your book at the beginning and how old are they at the end? Do some research! Read about child development at those ages. Demonstrate those changing abilities in your writing. Maybe at the beginning of the book a baby doesn’t understand object permanence and cries whenever her mother leaves the room but by the end, she understands she’ll return shortly. Maybe a child who doesn’t grasp the difference between fantasy and reality is starting to comprehend this by the end.

Talk to a Kid

If you’re writing about a child but haven’t spent much time with one their age, see if you know one you can visit or speak to on the phone. Take note of their mannerisms, pronunciations, and sentence structure. 

Let Them Surprise You

Kids in books can do things that would be more out of character for adults because they are changing constantly. Just because a child in a book sleeps with the lights on every night for the first half of the story doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly decide to turn them off. A five year old who is outgoing may become a five and a half year old who is more reserved. I’m not saying to make your young character do whatever you want. They should have a personality and mannerisims and tendencies, but they can diverge from those more easily than you could get away with with an adult character. You can have the adults around them react with surprise, astonishment, or reflection to highlight this difference.

Read Good Kids

Get inspired by books with good young characters. This may mean reading children’s, middle grade, or young adult books, but try to find adult-centric books as well. I recently read Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and was impressed with the character Kayla (or Michaela, depending on who you ask.)

Oskar of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a fantastic character, though this book is a little different since he’s the protagonist. Jonathan Safran Foer does this well in another of his books, Here I Am, too, in which the kids are secondary characters but still complex.

I have a hard time thinking of other good examples, which might show what a gap there is. What have you read with good kid characters?

What’s In a Word Count?

Writers I know tend to obsess about their word counts– daily, weekly, monthly, as well as the word count of their manuscripts.

I don’t think other creative people do this in quite the same way. When I was a dancer, we didn’t sit around in the dressing room saying things like “I practiced four different pieces today!” In jazz band, there was no sense of competition regarding how many songs we rehearsed.

Sure, in both of these examples, we’d compare time and battle scars. “We rehearsed for four hours straight yesterday. Check out this blister,” was definitely heard. But there’s a difference between talking about time invested, signs of your commitment to your art, and to obsessing about output. I think writers are unique this way.

In a way it makes sense because it’s just easier to measure with writing. Word count is tangible, measurable, and it’s reinforced by hearing well-known authors discuss their daily word count. There’s also a difference in that the act of writing is how we practice and get better. Focusing on a numeric goal can be a good way to just get some words on the page and get out of your head about getting them perfect. The word count goal of NaNoWriMo is what motivated me to write my first draft! So there’s definitely something to be said for getting your words in.

I read this article recently, which highlights the daily writing routine and average output of some famous authors. The norm seems to be 500-3000 words a day, with many saying 1000.

Tom Wolfe, notably, says he averages 135 words a day, and Michael Crichton produces a whopping 10,000, but none of the others were too surprising. As I rewrite Rock of Ages, I’ve been averaging 1000-2000 words a day, and it was kind of cool to learn that this is on par with a lot of professional authors. What I realized, though, when I read about their routines, is that many of them noted writing from morning to evening, or at least for several hours. I get my one to two thousand in an hour or two! Maybe if I was actually writing as a full time job, I’d have 10,000 words a day too!

I’m currently taking the Margararet Atwood writing course at Masterclass.com, and in one lesson she stresses that for most writers these days, especially if we aren’t rich men with someone watching our children and bringing us our meals, our writing time is charactertized by interruptions. Unless you are able to devote the bulk of your day to your craft, it’s important not to compare your routines to people who can. If you’re whipping out 500- 1,000 words a day and taking care of children or doing another job, or really, anything else, you’re doing a fantastic job! And if you aren’t, think of Tom Wolfe!

It’s important, too, I think, to bring some of the attitude of other creative pursuits to writing and remember that, though working to write every day is important for improving, it isn’t all about numbers. Would you rather write 100 mediocre books or one really wonderful one? Nobody is going to the concerts of a musician who plays tons of songs badly. So prioritize your writing time. Set word count goals if they’re helpful. Get those words on the page and keep working at it. But also, be kind to yourself, be realistic, and remember your passion about what you’re writing, too.

How many words do you write a day? What does your writing routine look like? Are word count goals helpful for you?