Four episodes without any story goals is too much for HBO’s The Leftovers.
I feel like there should be some sort of law against television shows (or the books they are based on, I guess) that only raise questions without giving any answers in the first four episodes of the series. I can handle two episodes of story without context. I could even go to three episodes without any context. But four? Nope. That’s too much. I should have a basic understanding of where The Leftovers is going by now. (I have talked before about my need to understand the goals of the characters early in a story.) But now I have lost faith in the writers. Didn’t we learn anything from Lost? They are clearly just making it up as they go.
It’s been a while since my last writing update, so I thought I would tell everyone what’s happening.
It’s been a while since my last writing update, so I will now write one. Ha-ha. Get it? Write a writing update? So funny I am.
Let’s see. Where was I? Hold on a moment while I read my last post from March.
Oh yes, I was writing 50-100 word summaries of each scene that would be in Sovereignty. That did happen, sort of, but I never actually finished an outline that I felt comfortable with. There are still holes in the plot that I can’t fill in. Still, I wrote about 1,000 words of a new first chapter. Unfortunately I was not happy with it. I just can’t find a "hook" for that story. It remains tantalizingly out of reach.
In all that time of not re-writing through April, May, and June, I had plenty of time to pursue some other ideas and write something brand new.
But of course I didn’t do that. I’ve been a gigantic heaping pile of failure as a writer.
My self-confidence for storytelling is entirely gone right now. I feel like that’s something they never tell you in writing seminars and workshops and how-to books: Writing a made-up story is terrifying. There are so many things that can go wrong, not the least of which is that people won’t like it. Or even worse, you won’t like it. Those are very real, if not 100% certain, possibilities. It takes a lot of determination to push through that barrier.
And that’s not all. They tell you to write every day to get better. But I’m beginning to understand more about why you should write every day, and it’s not necessarily about improving. It gets harder and harder to start writing as more days pass without writing. After a certain amount of time, it’s nearly impossible to start up again. For me that time limit seems to be about three weeks to a month. Soon after, the illusory bubble that I can be a successful author of novels completely pops.
Maybe I’m not cut out for writing fiction at all. Maybe I should try writing non-fiction. I had an amusing idea for a non-fiction book: Advice For Those New To The Internet. In it, I would write things that genuine newbies would find helpful, while simultaneously entertaining people who are Internet veterans.
Another book could be: Advice For People Who Are Scared Of Computers. I could sub-title it: A guide to surviving the robot apocalypse. And being non-fiction, it has the advantage of only having to be about 20,000 words. Oh, bugger. Of course someone has already written one.
Those are not very good ideas.
So I’m back at square one. I might as well have never written anything before. (Wow that’s a hard sentence, and I’m still not sure about it.)
So here’s what I’m going to do. Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up in July. I think I might jump into that one and write something brand new. Because I’m at rock bottom right now and I need a creative spark.
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.)
Wherein I learn a lot from writing a 100-word summary of a manuscript.
So yeah, somehow two whole months have disappeared and I haven’t done much writing. It’s actually more intimidating to try to revise existing manuscripts than it is to try to write new manuscripts.
Anyway, in order to spark some positive momentum, I challenged myself to write a 100-word summary of the plot of The Sovereign of Tel. That probably sounds trivially simple, but for me to zoom that far out from the story and give such a super high-level overview of it is quite a challenge. I have tried to write “pitches” of my books before, but those only included the setup for the story. For this, I wanted the entire story arc from start to finish.
This is what I came up with:
When Elaheron’s powerful leader falls ill, it leaves the country ripe for attack from neighboring Morland. Hayden Metherel, Elaheron’s heir, is unprepared to lead the country through the crisis, so his sister Elenora takes control for the good of the nation. But before she can consolidate her rule, a coup attempt by the rival Andaloran family drives her from the castle. The new Andaloran leader, unwittingly influenced by an enemy spy, enacts a plan to surrender to Morland and submit to their rule. Elenora rallies her scattered forces to retake her father’s crown, secure the Metherel family reputation, and retain her country’s sovereignty.
I could probably spend months tweaking each individual word in that paragraph, but overall I’m quite pleased with it. I feel like that captures the most basic thread of the story.
What’s interesting to me is that it has no mention of the main character and story I originally started out writing. The summary above describes the events that I came up with to fill in the background around my original main character and his plight. As it turned out, I wrote more about the background events than I did about the original character and his story.
My point is that I learned a valuable lesson here: Condensing the entire story down into 100 words revealed the most basic core of the story in a way I hadn’t been able to see before. Now when I go through my revisions, I need to make sure that every scene in some way relates back to the above summary.
(It’s also shockingly clear that I need to change the name of my country. “Elaheron” and its “Elahi” people sound way too much like the name “Elenora,” and there’s no way I’m changing Elenora.)
(Also the summary revealed with crystal clarity that the name of the book should be Sovereignty, so I will start calling it that.)
Next I want to try to turn the 100-word summary into a 1000-word summary, and see what happens.
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).
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."
I’ve never particularly liked Matt Smith as the Doctor but it was still sad to see him go.
I didn’t understand much of anything that happened in the Christmas Special The Time of the Doctor, Matt Smith’s final episode as Dr. Who. I didn’t understand the story, I didn’t understand why he was carrying around a Cyberman head, I didn’t understand why the crack was back, I didn’t understand why there was a town called Christmas or why The Doctor was stuck there, I didn’t understand where the Church of the Holy Whatever with the soldiers came from, nothing, zip, zilch. It seemed like a completely random jumble of people, places, and concepts. Was any of that in the last half-season anywhere? I sure don’t remember it. I guess I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention.
Also I’m a little confused over how they calculated this to be Dr. Who’s thirteenth regeneration. By my count* it was his twelfth, counting John Hurt between 8 and 9, unless there’s another one in the lore that I don’t know about, which is entirely possible. I was a bit surprised to see them deal with his limited number of regenerations at all. Of course they resolved it in typical Dr. Who problem-solving fashion, which basically involves hand-waving and magic, but at least they acknowledged it instead of just ignoring it.
The best (and frankly the only meaningful) part of the episode was the touching farewell in the last five minutes or so. I’ve never particularly liked Matt Smith as the Doctor but it was still sad to see him go. It was a nice touch to bring back young Amy and older Amy for a moment.
I couldn’t tell what we’re going to get with Peter Capaldi since we only saw him as The Doctor for about five seconds. I’m hoping for a bit more gravitas, though. (Also, it seems like he should consider not regenerating on the TARDIS – this will be the third time in a row that he crashes the thing after regenerating.)
What I learned from barely winning NaNoWriMo this year.
I won NaNoWriMo, barely. Scrivener said I had 50,140 words, but NaNoWriMo only gave me credit for 50,005 words, which I turned in on the night of the 30th. You might be surprised to know that I actually did "end" the story as well. I didn’t just stop writing.
I will freely admit that probably half or more of those words were "filler" words. Maybe a kinder way to put that would be "practice" words. The characters spent a great deal of time talking about the book itself and their roles in the book and how best they could advance the story. Sometimes there were characters from totally different stories wandering through to talk about their lives.
What lessons did I learn from this experience? Well, I learned that I can type pretty fast on a Macbook Air. That chicklet keyboard is kind of awesome in that regard. I learned that Scrivener for the Mac "feels" more polished than the Windows version. I learned that if I just pour words out of my brain onto the page, keeping my fingers typing no matter what, most of what comes out is confused nonsense not even related to the story, often in the form of characters bickering amongst themselves. But I can produce about 500 words in 10 minutes of such an outpouring.
Those are not particularly useful things to know, though. So:
Lesson 1. You have to start somewhere.
Something I re-learned again, for like the hundredth time, is that you won’t get anything done unless you sit down and write. Nearly every single day of November, I didn’t want to write. The first few days I was curious to see how this new story idea would turn out, but it quickly turned out that this new story idea was nowhere near ready to be written. I ran into plot problems big enough to drive a space freighter through by the second day. On top of that, my writing was dry, stilted, boring, and generally terrible.
It was very hard to continue writing on something that I knew was bad. And I’m not talking about the oh-that’s-just-your-insecurities-talking bad. I mean objectively, conclusively, definitively, not-even-remotely-publishable bad. But I made an astonishing discovery. No matter how much I didn’t want to write, if I sat down and started writing anyway, there was almost always a point when I stopped thinking "This story is stupid I don’t want to do this when will this torture end" and started thinking "oh cool maybe if I do this it won’t be so bad after all."
You would think it would be self-evident that one needs to write to overcome "writer’s block," but it’s a lesson that’s easy to forget, and it’s always a surprise to re-discover it.
Lesson 2. Keep writing sessions short.
Surprisingly, sitting down to write sixteen hundred words all at once is rather daunting when you are not in the mood for writing. So I came up with a simple little writing schedule in order to reduce the number of words I had to write in any given session. It involved short writing "sprints" and it went something like this:
Begin typing at the top of the hour. Set a word count goal of say 250 or 500 words, depending on how ambitious you feel. Something you can realistically do in 10-15 minutes. Stop when you reach that goal. Set an alarm for the bottom of the hour. Set it aside and do something that you want to do until the alarm goes off. At the bottom of the hour, begin typing again, setting another word count goal of 250 or 500 words. Keep repeating until you have a sufficient number of words for the day. Over the course of three or four hours, it adds up surprisingly fast.
There are two reasons I think this strategy worked for me. The first is that because the word count goal was small, it felt like the suffering I would have to endure was relatively short. The second reason it worked is that over the course of an hour or more, it didn’t "feel" like I had been doing an onerous chore, because I had also been doing something I enjoyed.
Lesson 3. Add a proxy character.
This is something that I think I will embrace in every first draft going forward. During NaNo, I inserted a silly character into the story who I called a plot demon. (I had done this once before in a draft that was dying and needed some ideas.) Whenever somebody said or did something that didn’t make sense, the plot demon would step in and tell everyone what they were doing wrong. If I didn’t know what to do next, the plot demon would step in and start a conversation among the characters about how they should advance the plot, or what they should have done differently in previous scenes.
I found it to be a great way to keep moving forward, and it kept the writing fun so it didn’t feel like I was on a death march during the parts where I wasn’t feeling inspired (in this case, the entire thing from start to finish). In a way, it relieved the burden of having to write a perfect draft. "I know I won’t be keeping this plot demon, so it’s okay to write whatever. It’s even okay to make a spelling mistake or two."
So those were the main things I learned this year. Now I’m in that post-NaNo December where it feels like there is a gigantic hole in my life. This year I am forcing myself to not write for a week or so. In previous years I’ve attempted to keep going in December and got burned out by the first of the year.
As for the story, it’s possible I might do another draft someday. It might still have some possibilities…
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.
I am all over the place with this year’s NaNoWriMo. Some days I write enough, some days I don’t. Overall I am behind, but not so far behind that it’s impossible to make it up. My heart is definitely not in it, though.
This story is bad. I mean, really, really bad. There is a kernel of a seed of an idea that I don’t think is too bad, but everything else around it is as bad as it can possibly get. And also the writing is bad.
For NaNoWriMo, it doesn’t matter if it’s bad or not, and with that attitude I have written plenty of words that are pure, self-indulgent comedy. However, as someone who is actually interested in writing for a living, I am struggling to come up practical lessons to learn from this, and what I can learn by continuing to write something that is obviously bad.
One unexpected writing lesson I have learned is that it is very difficult to write when your main character cannot physically react or move. My character is in a position where she is essentially trapped in someone else’s body, and can only view the world through their eyes. She has no sensory input other than vision, and she cannot express any emotions through typical physical reactions like tears, rapid breathing, blushing, hairs standing up on her arms, shaking fists at someone, punching them in the face, crossing her arms in exasperation, nothing. All she can do is speak. I had no idea how much of a challenge it was going to be to put someone in that position.
It brings up some interesting philosophical/physiological questions. Is it even possible to feel fear if your brain isn’t connected to a heart or lungs? The fight or flight response is extremely physical. Rapid breathing and rapid heartbeat make you better able to run away or punch somebody. Interesting to think about.
As for continuing to write, there is always the possibility that things could improve. I do believe there is a story in here somewhere, so perhaps that is all the motivation I need to keep throwing myself against a brick wall night after night. One day I might find the spark that pulls everything together, even if I only end up with a short story or novella.
NaNoWriMo is off to a mediocre start this year, as I am running about 900 words behind after the first weekend. Not too bad, really, considering what a collosal chore it has been to get writing.
NaNoWriMo is off to a mediocre start this year, as I am running about 900 words behind after the first weekend. Not too bad, really, considering what a collosal chore it has been to get writing. I feel like there’s a compelling story in this mess of text somewhere but I’m having a hard time getting to it. I am writing this year with zero preparation, by the way, other than some ideas jotted down so I wouldn’t forget them. Also, I’m not doing very well with my main goal of making myself laugh, because what I’m writing is not very funny so far.