Survey Revisions Continue

Continuing revisions on “Survey.”

I promised myself I would try to write two writing posts a month. Technically this should be the second one, but it’s actually just the first one. Oh well.

While I have not been extremely happy with my progress on editing “Survey,” my 2016 NaNoWriMo project, I have at least *made* progress on it. Last time I described how I was highlighting sections of text that needed attention, and I have more-or-less completed that.

Initially I highlighted text in blue for Backstory and Exposition (“the history behind this thing is…”), then red for Telling, Not Showing (“she felt angry about that”).

I added another category of highlighting: Worldbuilding and Continuity, in green. These are sections of text that refer to any in-world names, places, dates, or times. While I’m writing a draft, those things are very much in flux, so while I might start out the draft thinking that an event occurred a thousand years ago, by the end of the draft it could be six thousand years ago, or vice versa. If I actually took some time to plan things in advance, I might not have to change them all the time.

To be fair, I *did* spend some time worldbuilding for Survey, long before I even knew what the story or characters were. As it turned out, most of the worldbuilding of names, places, etc. did not even end up in the draft.

Now that I’ve finished with the highlighting, my goal is to start working on real edits. This is the hard part for me. The part that I dread the most, and in retrospect, the part that I was simply postponing by highlighting the first draft. That is, moving text around, and writing new text to replace shoddy work in the first draft. I am unfortunately going to need to write a lot of new text for Survey.

The draft told me that this novel has three parts. Part one involves arriving on the planet. Part two involves the events that occur on the planet. Part three involves events that occur after leaving the planet. The vast majority of the draft I wrote happens in parts one and two. Part three got very short shrift because I didn’t get to it until late in November. (That part of the draft is highlighted almost entirely in red.)

I will need to make a lot of major revisions to Part One because the story does not begin very well. There was entirely too much exposition at the beginning of the first draft, despite intentionally trying to move it along quickly. The story is supposed to begin with a ship crash-landing on a planet, but I felt like it took way too long to get to the exciting part in the draft. I tried to explain how the ship got to the planet first. :)

We may kid ourselves into thinking that readers are sophisticated enough to give an author time to develop a story, but the reality is that I’m a new author, so if the first sentence, paragraph, and page doesn’t scream action, mystery, and/or humor into the reader’s face at full volume in short, declarative sentences, I can expect 99% of the audience to go elsewhere. (Especially agents and editors.) After I’ve published a handful of successful books, then maybe I can start with more leisurely exposition.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how to approach this part of the editing. It’s *incredibly* intimidating, because it feels like I might as well just delete the entire draft and start over, and obviously that is two months of work, minimum, at the end of which I will have basically a second first draft which is no closer to publication than the first first draft is right now. Surely there must be a better way.

Maybe if I can crack the first chapter or two, it will seem easier to manage. Or perhaps I should start the revisions in the middle. I was reasonably pleased with large sections of the middle. Or maybe I should start with writing the ending that I didn’t have time to write in November. The possibilities are too numerous. :)

The Editing Process

Some notes on how I am editing my nanowrimo draft so far.

I’m trying an experiment: I’m going to try not to completely abandon the novel I wrote in November.

This experiment has failed every year since 2010. NaNoWriMo drafts from 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016 languish more-or-less in exactly the same state they were in on December 1st. Drafts from 2010 and 2011 have been edited a lot, but remain woefully unsuitable for submission.

But this time I have a plan. Well, a first step in a plan, at least, which is better than I’ve ever done before.

My first goal is to go through the entire draft and highlight sections of text based on certain criteria. Here is an image of the actual Scrivener project I am working on above demonstrating this highlighting. (I blurred up the text because it is too embarrassing to show the world.)

First I went through the text and highlighted every paragraph which contained backstory of events that happened prior to the story, or exposition about the world and setting. I highlighted those sections in blue. There was a lot of it, but I was pleased to see that it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

There was a strong correlation between the days that I didn’t feel like I knew what to write and the days where I highlighted a lot of backstory in blue.

This process went very quickly, and I completed going over the entire project in about an hour.

Some backstory will be necessary of course, but I want to make sure it is in the right strategic places. The first chapter, for example, is not a great place for large swaths of backstory. The movie version of my novel will not start with a black screen and a bunch of text explaining everything you need to know before you can enjoy the movie, like so, so many movies do. (And video games, for that matter.) Instead, hopefully, it will begin with likeable characters doing something intrinsically interesting. I personally give movies on Netflix or Amazon Prime about a minute or two before I decide whether to keep watching or not, so I am trying to keep that in mind when I write my novel. Readers will give me a page or two at best, so I can’t junk it up with pointless backstory. (Not even counting agents and editors, who might give me a *sentence* or two.)

During this first pass, I also marked up any sections where I “broke the fourth wall” just to get filler words into the draft. I used the “strikethrough” text format for that.

In my second pass through my draft, I am working to highlight all of the text which sounds like “telling, not showing” in red. (Red for “danger,” get it?)

This is a fairly subjective measure. It’s easy for me to tell the difference between backstory and current story, but this is taking a lot longer and requires more judgment calls. I have only completed highlighting the first eight days over the course of a couple of hours.

I am looking specifically for any text that basically just states outright what a character is thinking or feeling. “Dejena thought that was dumb.” Things like that. Again, it is largely impossible to eliminate “telling” entirely, but once I have all of the passages highlighted, I’ll be able to evaluate each one to see if it works as is, or if it needs to be fixed.

In a third pass, if I ever get to it, I want to highlight descriptions in green. I don’t expect to see very much of this, because when I write my first drafts, I very rarely describe anything or anyone. For one thing, the appearance of the characters has little or no bearing on the story, so who cares? And secondly, it tends to bog me down in distracting details. It’s very easy to fall down a rabbit hole for hours or days trying to figure out what a personal communication device might look like in five or ten thousand years.

So that’s what I’m working on.

NaNoWriMo 2017 Post-Mortem

Notes on what I did well and not-so-well after completing NaNoWriMo 2017.

Hi! I’m finally back with another writing update. I completed NaNoWriMo again this year, and here’s my assessment of my performance.

Summary

This year’s novel is code-named “Survey.”

It’s a science fiction/fantasy set many thousands of years in the future, in a time after a long war between humans and aliens has finally resulted in a treaty.

A human captain leads a ship on a mission to survey a planet, where a lost colony had once been established thousands of years before. They find a struggling pre-Industrial human society, and alien ships in orbit.

The captain’s ship is shot down, and an alien plot that leads to the brink of war unfolds.

What I Did Well

First I like to highlight what I did well, so I remember to do them in the future.

Workmanlike Effort

I’ll be perfectly honest. At no point during the writing of this draft did I feel particularly inspired or excited about this novel. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like it has potential, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

What I’m trying to say is that I was never driven by a “muse” or “divine inspiration” or a “need to tell this story” or a “personal connection to the characters” or anything like that. Every day I had to force myself to continue writing, because I wanted to give up on it pretty much every single day.

This was a very valuable experience.

Minimal “filler words”

During the gamified NaNoWriMo event, where the focus is on quantity, not quality, there’s a very strong temptation to just put *anything* into your NaNoWriMo draft. This is a fairly well-known, joked-about phenomenon. I call them “filler words.” They might be ideas for another story you’re thinking of, the weather, “I don’t know what to write” over and over, the complete works of Monty Python, things like that.

My personal favorite filler material is breaking the fourth wall to have the characters talk about the story they are involved in, or brainstorming notes about what to write next.

This very blog post could conceivably be used as “filler words” for my draft. I am starting this post on Day 30 with 48,407 draft words completed, instead of writing words to finish up my draft.

But this year, I’ve added very few filler words. I counted only three days that included “filler” content, and I kept it relatively focused on brainstorming for this particular story. I didn’t ever venture into discussing the weather, for example. (The weather was chilly for most of November, incidentally.)

That means that for 27 out of the 30 days of the event, even though I never really felt like I quite knew what to write next, I buckled down and figured out what was appropriate to write for the story.

I finished the story

If you’ve done NaNoWriMo more than once, you probably know that you can’t write what would be considered a novel today in 50,000 words. My personal target for a debut novel is 90,000 words. I’ve read repeatedly that 80-90k words is roughly the point where publishers are willing to “take a chance” on a new writer. They aren’t likely to publish a debut author’s 200,000 epic fantasy, in other words. Get a few successful books out first, then we’ll talk.

(Incidentally, I still consider traditional publishing the best route for me to follow in my writing career. While it would be relatively easy to self-publish, and in fact I *have* self-published a book on Amazon, I just don’t have the mettle to deal with marketing.)

Getting back to the point, there’s a strong temptation to simply stop writing at 50,000 words on Day 30, even though one knows quite well the story isn’t over yet. For me in particular, once the month is over, I really don’t want to write any more. The “special event” is over, and there’s no more social motivation to continue writing. One has to go back to internal motivation and self-discipline, which is what we in the writing biz call “work.”

In the past, I have ended drafts unfinished. Last year, in fact, when I got to 50,000 words of my historical fiction, I felt like I had only completed perhaps one of three parts in the overall story.

But this year I determined that I would complete the story. I knew I could not write the 90,000 words required to tell it fully in November, but I knew that if I did not at least summarize the end of the story, I would never get back to it.

So over approximately the last five days, I stopped trying to “show, not tell” and reverted strictly to telling. This allowed me to dilate huge swaths of time down to paragraphs, and resolve most of the plot threads that I had started earlier. Later, I will be able to come back and expand those paragraphs out into chapters, instead of scratching my head wondering how to finish an unfinished manuscript.

What I Did Poorly

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a post-mortem unless I had criticisms of my performance.

Procrastination

I procrastinated a *lot* during November. I had plenty of time for writing, but I did not use it wisely. I could have easily written 100,000 words or more in November, if I had really set my mind to it. On good writing days it was easy to achieve 2,500 words. Pushing further to 3,000 or 3,500 would not have been difficult with some discipline.

Grammar

I don’t think the quality of this year’s writing is very good. It will require a lot of editing.

It’s not unusual for my first drafts to be poor, because I am more focused on getting down the ideas in my head before they fly away, but I think it was worse than usual this year.

Improving the quality of my first drafts is a point that I want to work on, because I don’t enjoy the revision process as much as the writing process. Once I know how the story is going to turn out, it’s less of a creative process and more of a crafting process. (Not to say that there isn’t a lot of art in grammar, it’s just that I am not particularly good at the more literary styles of writing.) I think of it like sculpting: Chiseling and filing away at the words and sentences until they look right.

If I can improve the quality of my first drafts, it will make the revision process that much faster. I don’t really know how to get better at it except to keep practicing.

February Status Report

Continuing work on my post-apocalyptic novel, slowly but… surely?

Perhaps if I update my blog more often, it will inspire me to do more writing, so that I’ll have more to talk about in my blog. So…

As February begins, I’m still working on my post-apocalyptic novel that I started in NaNoWriMo 2014. I’m up to about 70,000 words, so you can probably figure out that I’m not writing very fast–typically I only put down about 500 words a night, somewhere around four a five nights out of a week. (I went from 50,000 words in one month to 20,000 words in three two months.)

On the plus side, I’ve discovered that 500 words is a very good “session size” for me. Sitting down to write 500 words does not feel daunting to me, even if I have nothing in mind to write. I can usually knock it out in a half hour, more or less. And by the time I’ve written 500 words, mentally I’m usually ready for a break. So chalk up another self-discovery finding there. For the next NaNoWriMo I participate in, I think it will go better if I plan to try to write three 555 word sessions per day, instead of one 1667 word session per day.

I’m pleased to say that I wrote the ending of the novel. By which I mean that I wrote what I think the final scene should be–at least the final one related to the main character. This was a tremendous accomplishment because for most of the lifespan of this novel I’ve had no earthly clue where anything was going. I wasn’t even sure who the main character was. This first draft has basically been a very, very long brainstorming session. I think it would be more appropriate to call it a zeroth draft, actually.

The biggest story problem I have now is somehow connecting where I was in the middle of the novel to the ending, which could be challenging considering that the middle part has nothing to do with the ending. There are still some issues to work out, in other words. I’m not very adept at solving problems like this, either. I think I’m just going to have to put my head down and power through it.

Sovereignty 1000-word Summary Completed

What I learned from writing a 1000-word summary of Sovereignty.

FYI, I completed a 1000-word summary of Sovereignty, but I won’t post it here because it’s filled with spoilers, just in case it turns into a real book some day.

It’s now abundantly clear that there is no place for my original story in the book. Not even as a side plot. One of the original driving forces for this book was: What if there was a culture of people who bred servants in the same way that we breed pets? The original main character was going to be one of those servants.

That aspect of the culture did not make any appearance in the 1000-word summary, so I guess poor Ril won’t make much of an appearance. It’s so absent that I’m not sure I even want it to be in the book.

That issue aside, I have another problem to deal with. Reading the 1000-word summary feels like I’m reading a section of a history book. The events themselves are not particularly unusual. They could have happened (and did happen) in any number of neighboring countries in any of the hundreds of years of medieval Europe. (Or really anywhere that countries disputed territory along their border.)

My point is that the plot itself isn’t that dramatic. Which means that in order to sell this story, I’m really going to have to play up the drama of the characters.

It’s making me think more about my main characters, which appear to be Hayden and Elenora Metherel, son and daughter of the king. (I don’t want to call him a "king," though: I want to think of another non-European-sounding name for the ruler of a country. I was using "sovereign" but that didn’t turn out to work very well.) Why are these people interesting? Why would anyone care about their fates? What makes them different from any other generic medieval fantasy characters?

I will probably need at least one more POV character as well, because Hayden and Elenora aren’t always around to see every part of the story. One might be Garrett Andaloran, and another might be a gangster named Faust.

I also feel like this story would be helped by adding some mystery elements. There is a spy in the story, and I think if I make "finding the spy" a larger part of the story, it would help to draw readers along to see what happens. (It works for me, at least.)

Currently I’m working on writing short 50-100 word summaries of each scene to be put into the book. It’s a bit depressing so far. It’s very disheartening to see how many scenes are brand new. There won’t be much I can import from the first drafts.

(No, I haven’t thought a new country name for Elaheron.)

Writing Plans for 2014

A year-end wrap-up of 2013 and a look ahead to 2014.

The first week after NaNoWriMo I had to force myself not to write a new story draft because it had become such a habit. The second week it was kind of a relief not to have to write anything, and that terrible story had finally left my brain. In the third week I was anxious to get back to planning or writing something, lest I fall into a not-writing habit. Then came the holidays and the end of the year, and I predictably fell out of the writing habit.

Now it’s the beginning of a new year and a chance to start anew.

But first, a year-end wrap-up of 2013. In 2012, I was convinced that I could write three first draft manuscripts a year and had a schedule laid out to do just that. It started out great when I hammered out the Sovereign of Tel at the beginning of 2012. Then along came Curses which I abandoned. Then along came Airworld which dragged and dragged. Then NaNoWriMo came around and I kept working on Airworld. Then 2013 came around, and I was supposed to start a new manuscript, but I just kept stubbornly plugging away at Airworld until I finally gave up long after I should have. Then I started and abandoned a couple of drafts. Then I wrote something vaguely resembling a manuscript for NaNoWriMo 2013. To make a long story short, I wrote 1.5 manuscripts in 2012 and 1.5 manuscripts in 2013, for a grand total of one potentially usable manuscript over two years (The Sovereign of Tel).

Wah wah.

Okay, not the greatest two-year cycle ever. The sure-fire "become a best-selling author" retirement plan is looking a bit grim right now. Particularly since I have yet to come up with a single thing to send to an agent.

That seems like a problem. I’m never going to get anywhere if I keep writing first drafts. At some point I’ll need to polish something and send it out. And hey, guess what? I have a bunch of first drafts I can polish.

So that’s what 2014 will be: The year of polish.

Yet I cannot stop writing first drafts, either, so I should plan to keep writing those, or at least planning them. But perhaps three-a-year is a little ambitious. Perhaps this year I will plan to write one or two first drafts, while the rest of my time is spent revising at least two other manuscripts. (Probably Tel and Kubak Outpost.)

I also have an idea that I will pursue some freelance writing this year. The biggest problem with that is finding something that pays a meaningful amount of money without over-committing myself to writing, say, 25 blog posts a week. (That is a real number that I saw.) If I could pull in around $100 a week from freelance writing I would call that a success. That would be enough for me to think, "This might have a real chance of becoming a full-time income if I quit my day job."

A Typical Day In The Life Of NaNoWriMo 2013

Last night I once again stared at a blank document, wondering how I could possibly write 1,667 words of a story that has no outline.

Last night I once again approached my NaNoWriMo writing at about 9:00, which is the absolute latest I can possibly start writing with any expectation of getting anything done. Once again I stared at a blank document, not even looking at the previous day’s writing, wondering how on earth I could possibly come up with 1,667 words to write of a story that has no outline. Not just 1,667 words either. I actually need slightly more than 2,000 words a day to catch up again.

Based on my enthusiasm level, my expectation each night is that I will sit with the blank page for a while thinking about how much I’d rather be doing something else, then I’ll write a couple of hundred terrible words, and then I’ll give up. "Well, I tried," I’ll think. "At least I got a few hundred words down."

That was a common scenario in the first two weeks of NaNoWriMo. (I fully recognize it to be an extremely lame effort at "trying.") Now, however, I can’t skip a day and realistically expect to make it up another day. Now I really have to write. Now there’s a deadline looming up ahead, ready to crush me beneath its iron fist. Now is when "real writers" must shrug off the surly bonds of indifference and trudge forward through the mud.

So I’m pulling out every trick I can think of. I typically start off writing something along the lines of, "I don’t want to write." I try to morph that into something related to the story. "Diana didn’t know what to do next." If that doesn’t work, I’ve invented a story demon who comes along and randomly interjects himself from time to time to inform the characters that they need to get moving, or do something dramatic, or resolve something. He also points out all of the plot holes and things that would never work. I’ve also inserted a wererat character from a totally different story idea to give soliloquies on the many ways that society treats him with disdain. My last trick was changing the tense of the story from past to present. I usually disdain present tense as a gimmick, but it actually felt much easier to write that way, so I kept it up with a tiny bit of enthusiasm.

Eventually I made it to around 1800 words before 10:00 and called it quits. I would guess that fully 75% of those words would get thrown out in even the mildest of revisions, which seems about average for this manuscript so far.

Here’s the real question. If I were really writing for a living, I’m not sure if I would call that writing session a success or not. Almost none of what I wrote was "commercially viable" in any way, so I did not get any closer to a finished novel. In that sense it was a total failure. But I did write, and by the end I had forgotten how much I wanted to do something else, so in that sense it was successful. I also did in fact learn that writing in present tense felt better than writing in past tense, so that was a positive development.

I guess I’m going to mark it down as a success, whether it actually was or not.

Silencing Your Inner Editor

Writing Excuses recently challenged the standard newbie writing advice that you should "silence your inner editor" while writing. Personally I think Mary completely missed the mark on this one.

Writing Excuses recently challenged the standard newbie writing advice that you should "silence your inner editor" while writing. Instead, Mary advised that you need only silence your "inner heckler," while harnessing your "inner editor" to tell you when you need to improve your writing.

Personally I think Mary completely missed the mark on this one. (And I got the sense that Brandon wasn’t on board either.) The "inner editor" as I’ve understood it is not so much a heckler as it is someone who is obsessed with good grammar and who is terrified of making a mistake. Such a person will constantly revise and re-revise and re-re-revise every sentence before moving on to the next one. Listening to this editor will result in never finishing a book or never thinking it’s good enough to release. This is not the kind of thing you want to think about, particularly when you’re writing a first draft.

Even in Mary’s sense of the "inner editor"–that voice that seeks to improve your work–that voice literally always see things to fix and improve. There is never a time in any creative process when you can stop and say, "That’s perfect. It can never be improved." There is always a way to tweak and improve any creative work. If you ever want to finish a work, you have to pick a time to just walk away. Ie. you have to silence your inner editor. At least I do.

http://www.writingexcuses.com/2013/10/20/writing-excuses-8-42-the-internal-heckler-vs-the-internal-editor/

Page of Scribbling Technique

A page of scribbling trying to block out what I thought would be the final 10,000 words or so of Airworld.

AirworldScribblesSmall

Just for posterity, here is a page of scribbling I did trying to block out what I thought would be the final 10,000 words or so of Airworld. What ended up happening is that I raised more questions than I answered, and all the answers started branching off into all these other fairly massive sub-plots. You may also notice there is a whole new, vitally important character in there that was introduced very late in the story. (Just in case I ever do finish the story, I blurred out some spoilers.)

(I’m not really sure if the page-of-scribbling technique actually works for me as a writer.)

A Minor Variation

I had a minor revelation for my Airworld story last night.

With apologies to Billy Joel. I had a minor revelation for my Airworld story last night. It occurred to me that things would work out much better if the location of the Council of Life is known when we start out. For some reason I had set it in stone that Naobi was leaving Motiva to search for the Council of Life. Now she is leaving to visit the Council of Life. With that minor variation, some other things fall into place nicely. Mainly, it removes “finding the Council of Life” as a condition for ending the story. I was having major problems with the ending because it wasn’t symmetrical with the beginning.