What I want writing to be, and what writing is

I want writing to be about starting at the beginning and writing through until I find the end.  When it goes like that I think, “See, I was right, that’s what writing is like!”  When it doesn’t go like that I think, “Aaahh, I’m failling*!”

I’ve been writing my fairy story since the beginning of this year.  I’ve written somewhere between 15 and 20k words in this story.  (It is destined to be a novel, unless I suddenly discover that Lo, there isn’t really a plot where I expected there would be a plot**.)  And partway through the summer I realized I couldn’t keep writing the scene that I was trying to write, so I skipped ahead a little.  I mean a little, like I skipped over a boring bit that you wouldn’t have wanted to read anyway.  And then I was stuck.  So I backed up and tried again, this time trying not to skip ahead at all.  I have learned, in my years of writing stories, that when I’m stuck it’s usually because there’s something wrong with the story as I’ve written it so far, not because I’m inherently lazy, nor even because the story is inherently flawed.  And so if I can find the right question to ask, I can figure out what went wrong and fix it, and then the story will go merrily along on its way.  So I backed up a little, and rewrote.  And the newer version read better than the older version.  And then I got stuck, again.  I could’ve pushed on, but I know that pushing is a good way to get a bad story that’ll have to be rewritten.  So in July or August, I ripped back*** to a scene I’d written in May (oh, how that hurt), and noticed several plot holes.  Whew, that’s been the problem all along! thought I, and happily got back to writing.

In September I went on a (non-writing) vacation for two weeks, and when I came back I couldn’t remember why this story was supposed to be interesting, and ugh who wrote this rat’s nest, and why am I supposed to care about these characters?  What crystallized for me was that there were too many complications.  Yes, I need to have complications to keep the story going forward.  But if I can’t keep track of all of them, then my reader will have no hope.  So I simplified.  I pulled out an event that happened in the third scene and I made sure I knew, in each scene, what each person should primarily be reacting too.  If they’re not, then it’s a problem.  These things gave me a lot of clarity, and I am not rewriting.  I wrote down what I want to change, and I can see how those changes move forward into the “now” of my story so that I can pick up from “now” and keep writing.  I won’t waste time on rewriting that I could spend on writing new words.  The first draft will not be coherent from beginning to end, but coherence can wait until the second draft.

In order to make these decisions, to see what needs changing, I needed two things.  First was distance away from the story.  Second was the recognition that writing is a process of figuring out what the story is—and also what the story isn’t.  Just because I don’t always know what the story is doesn’t mean I’m failing.  Or falling.

It means I’m writing.

——

* Not merely a typo, but also “failing” and “falling” smooshed together into one word that should already exist.  I’m shocked I didn’t think of it sooner.

** It feels a lot like Columbus sailing and sailing and sailing, and then falling off the end of the Earth because, Lo, there really isn’t more Earth in that direction.  Luckily for all of us, there really was more Earth and he didn’t fall off.  But there are no guarantees for my story.  Mathy philosopher types like Euripedes^ have been positing for centuries that there is more story, but they could be wrong.

^ Was it Euripedes?  Who’s the guy from Egypt who calculated the circumference of the Earth to within 5% accuracy based on the fact that a pole in the ground had more shadow at noon than a similar pole 200 miles south?  That’s the guy I’m thinking of.  Except really I’m thinking of the metaphorical guy, who’s actually just one of the voices in my head, telling me that it has mathematically computed that there must be more story, and its circumference is about the size of a novel.  And other voices are pointing out that this mathy guy hasn’t really proven he’s not just pulling numbers out of his hat, so don’t trust him too much.  I’m trying to be neutral in this debate until I have evidence one way or another.

*** That’s a knitting metaphor, right there.  I’ve ripped back rows in knitting often enough, too.  I hate doing it more than once on a project—and again I think I must be failing—but sometimes it’s just part of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.  But in knitting there is no second draft.  (And if your second sleeve looks better than the first?  Then your sweater will look funny.  :-/)

Desire, Blockage***, Motion

I have this desire to write more.  I want to tell the world funny rambly stories about my life and whatever catches my attention, because—ooh, shiny!—I’m entertained by totally random things, and I firmly believe there exist people who will find my entertainment entertaining.  (Yeah, I can’t decide if I created that sentence on purpose or not.)

I don’t want to write about my day job.  It’s not relevant, and I have a tendency to drift into snarky rather than funny, which is inappropriate if I want to remain a respected employee.  I don’t want to be inappropriate, and I don’t actually want to be snarky more often than is necessary to entertain the people who find me entertaining.

I’ve noticed that I can tell tragic stories about my own mental processes in a funny way, and I can tell boring stories in a funny way (though they may still be boring).  And I can tell perfectly straight* stories in a perfectly straight way, though I usually bore myself halfway through and have to stop and write something random.

I have a desire to learn how to NOTICE good blog-post subjects, so that I can write about them.  I also have a desire to learn how to WRITE those posts, quickly enough that I’ll click “post” before losing the energy behind them such that I suddenly decide they’re actually dumb and no one cares.  I know no one ought to care, but I’m hoping that the people out there who find me entertaining will care even when the subjects are dumb.

So, what steps should I take to make those two DESIRES become MOTION**?  (Feedback encouraged…)

——

* Straight=non-funny, straight!=hetero, in this context.

** And when will I stop with the random YELLING for emphasis?

*** Does this sound as gross to anyone else as to me?  :-/  I can’t think of a better word, though, so I’m not changing it.  And yeah, I totally added this FIRST^ footnote last.

^ And I’m still yelling.  Sorry, I’ll try to get over it for next time.

writing update

I just noticed I haven’t posted about my writing in a while, and you might think I’ve quit.

Never fear, I haven’t!  I’ve been working slowly, but steadily, on the same New! Shiny! project I mentioned in January, THE LAST FAIRY GODMOTHER.  And it’s rolling along.  No angst, no bashing head into the wall, no pulling teeth.  I know what’s going to happen later in the story*, and so I keep writing until I get there.  My characters keep surprising me–there was a funny bit with a tea kettle I didn’t see coming–and a few things that showed up as throw-away lines have turned into plot points.  The coolest thing is that I’m still interested in the story.  I know that in a little while, they’re going to reach a whole new place and it’s going to be fascinating (to me) to find out who is there and what miscommunications will turn up.  I know there is plenty of room for miscommunication, and I know things will go horribly wrong, but I don’t know the details yet–and I can’t wait to find out.  I’m hoping it’ll be funny and meaningful, all at the same time, and hopefully not too much like watching a train wreck**.

At my current writing pace, I  might finish this (draft of this) novel in about 3 years.  o_O  I’m hoping to pick up speed somewhere along the way–NaNoWriMo would be an excellent opportunity–but in the meantime, it’s going along.  And I keep having new things to add to this story.  Until that stops, it’s all good.

* Not that I’m going to tell you, of course…

** Incidentally, you can spend hours watching train wrecks on youtube.  http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=train+wreck&aq=f.  I wish I were kidding.

New year, new project

Happy New Year!

Since last we met, several exciting things have happened.  Haven’t you missed me?

First, I wrote THE END of my Vampire Story.  Again.  This is THE END of the Second Draft!  Not the final draft, I have a major revision to go, but it will be a revision not a re-write.  I’m planning to start revision at the beginning of February.  I got burnt out figuring out how to get to “the end” so I could move on to the next story bouncing around in my head, so I’m giving myself a good bit of distance before picking it up with my Editor Goggles on.  But any later than February seems like procrastination.

Vampire Story, Second Draft
7500 / 7500 (100%)

Second!  I started my next story!  This one has been bouncing around in my head for a couple of years, just as a vague idea for a fairy tale that ends (or maybe starts) with the fairies getting the upper hand.  Why is it that Rumpelstiltskin never wins the first-born child?  This is the story where he does.  Well, not Rumpelstiltskin himself, but some other fairy creature.  That was all I had, a bare premise.  I wrote a short story called “Wing Stop” a while back, which ends wrong but I couldn’t ever figure out why*.  A couple of months ago, I suddenly developed a plot and characters.  I don’t know where they came from**, except that I was given this fabulous poem called “Bad Day” by Kay Ryan about an elfin tailor.  And suddenly I knew how the child was taken, and a bit later I figured out what came next, and then–BLAMMO!–I had a whole*** novel-lengthed† story arc.

This has never happened to me before.

I suppose it still hasn’t quite happened.  I mean, the story was brewing in the back of my head for yearsSomething must’ve been going on back there.

And eventually I discovered some characters and stuff, too.  So, I’ve started writing!  See?

The Last Fairy Godmother
2000 / 100000 (2%)

Ok, I think that was only two things, even though I said “several”. You could invent a few more for me if you wanted.

* Proof that I do and have finished things, despite the trash I talk about myself.  Just not “final draft”, “ready to be published” finished.  :-/

** Maybe from reluctance to find the end of my Vampire Story.  Funny how procrastination can have some fab fringe benefits.

*** Well, whole by my definition.  There are a whole lot of blurry details and not-so-details that I haven’t figured out.  And I do still have to write the whole thing.

† At least, I hope so.  What if it falls short?  Hrm.

Getting the scene right

Why is it that every scene I write seems to require at least two versions to be even remotely close to what it should be?  The first scene in this second draft was fabulous coming out of my pen, really fun when I read through it again, and then fell flat when I came back to it a week later.  Fortunately, I figured out how I can step up the creepy factor (dude, it’s a vampire story, it needs to start out at least a little creepy), so that’ll take a serious revision.  (Not until after I finish this whole draft, however.  I’m not rewriting whole scenes until I hit The End [again].)

My current scene has taken one and a half passes, and I’ve just realized I’ll need another.  The first pass was half done, and then I couldn’t quite figure out what to put next, so I stopped writing and went away for a few days.  Driving home one day, I figured out that if I rearrange it like so, and have the conversation go like this, then it’ll flow better, and I can get where I need to go.  So I wrote it out yesterday, and it was ok, there was a sort of banter between the two characters in the scene–banter much like that I have with my friends, except I think it isn’t as much fun when you’re reading about other people.  But it wasn’t right, it didn’t make me feel jazzed.  This morning I set my brain on it and realized that there’s too much of the MC saying, “I want X”, and me (the author) responding, “Ok, here ya go!”  Bah*.

Which means that either I can’t give the MC what she’s asking for (not without an extra big thorn) … or she doesn’t want what I’m going to give her.  I think I have an idea of how to rearrange it so she isn’t getting what she wants, as such, but … I’m not sure it’s all that conflictive**.  I want her to end this scene in a particular place, having seen a particular thing, but I’m not sure I’ve figured out how to make that conflicted yet***.

But this still leaves me with the question: Why can’t I ever write the right scene on the first try?  Why is it always that right after, or the next day, or several weeks later I realize “Oh, this would be so much better if …”

Or maybe the more important question: Am I going to reach a point where I stop thinking of the better versions, and can just call it finished?  I really don’t want to write a third version of this story from scratch.  :-/  (Barring another change of MC, I’m not going to.  It’ll just be heavy revision.  But still.)  And I’m tired of  knowing that the story as-written is quite different from how it will be in the next draft, so I can’t go back and read the way it’s going to be.

*sigh*

* Kicking puppies.  I’m supposed to be kicking puppies.  That’s my job.

** It is too a word.  See? en.wiktionary.org/wiki/conflictive

*** Which is why I’m not rewriting the scene until the end.  For now, it suits me to know that I have a better version in mind (described in my notebook, where I won’t forget it), which I can write later.  So if I come up with an even better variation, that’ll get added to the pile of notes, and I’ll only have to rewrite (again) once.

Bad lessons my brain teaches me

My brain is determined to teach me bad lessons about my body.

Last night, I had a caffeinated beverage at about 7.  I don’t usually, but I decided to risk it cuz I’ve been pretty tired lately, and I was at my writing group.  So, I didn’t end up leaving until after 11, and then had an hour-long drive home.  I put on some nice classical music* and set to pondering stories, both my own and those of my friends.  By the time I reached 92, I’d completely reworked the (new) beginning of my story so that it will be much more dramatical.  It was a totally visual experience, I could see all of the scenes that need to happen.  Once I can see them, they’re usually right–though my ability to transcribe them onto paper is often imperfect.  Then I had to pay attention to driving, because it was nearly midnight and very foggy and 92 is twisty.  When I got home I scribbled for another hour, completely wide awake and buzzing, totally jazzed about making my vampire more creepy and my MC’s problems more troubling.  (And I may have figured out a theme.)

Finally I went to bed, and as I tried to fall asleep, I figured out what will make the climactic scene with the new MC unique from the last version–and more powerful, I think**.

So apparently being tired and drinking caffeine when I should be winding at the end of the day is the right way to get breakthroughs.  Just as I’ve been fearing.  That needs a warning label with it: WARNING: USE DRASTIC MEASURES ONLY WHEN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, AS IT CAN CAUSE SLEEPINESS, POOR PERFORMANCE AT WORK, AND ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES TO CONCLUDE YOU ARE IRRESPONSIBLE OR DON’T LOVE THEM.  Or maybe it needs indications. USE ONLY AS DIRECTED. USE ONLY AS MUCH AS NECESSARY.  DO NOT USE MORE THAN ONCE EVERY 6 HOURS, AS IT CAN LEAD TO INTERNAL BLEEDING AND HALLUCINATIONS.  DO NOT OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY [sic] WHILE USING DRASTIC MEASURES LIKE SLEEP DEP AND STARVATION TO INDUCE CREATIVITY.

Yeah.  Or as Ben said when I described the effect this morning–“Oh, you’re an artist.”  :-/

* Ax, Stoltzman, Ma : Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart : Trios for Piano, Clarinet, & Cello, which is currently one of my favorites.

** One of the nice things about not sharing the first draft^ with anyone is that no one will be able to gainsay me about whether the second draft is actually better than the first.  They’ll have to take it on its own merits.  🙂

^ Or at least the ending of the first draft–I realize I did share a lot of the beginning with my writing group.  Fortunately, when I shared the new beginning with the group last night (not the one I re-envisioned while driving home, the first version of the new beginning with the new MC), everyone agreed the MC has a personality.  Yay for small victories!  Yay for main characters who aren’t wet blankets!

Welcome to Summer, and Second Draft-y

It’s a beautiful day!  Summer (sic) has finally arrived in Half Moon Bay!  The sun is warm, the breeze is mild, and I’m not leaving to go to work today!

Ben made a vegetarian chili last night, which I had for lunch today.  Om nom nom.  My favoritest co-worker ever brought me kefir* grains** this week, and I’ve started making kefir.  I put a few spoonsful on top of the chili, just like it was yogurt or sour cream or, you know, kefir, and I ate it, and it was delicious.  Mmm.

The other thing I did today was that I finally started the second draft of my vampire story, with a completely new main character.  I’ve been putting it off for weeks (since my last post), because I don’t really want to re-write the whole damn story.  But!  It worked out pretty well today, sitting outside in the sun (mmm, warm), I managed to see the first scene, and then I started writing.  It just kinda flowed.  The new MC has a voice, which the last one didn’t, and I’m unreasonably amused by her.  (Which makes me fear no one else will find her amusing… but that’s what third drafts are for!)  I think I wrote about 1000 words*** today, and felt much better about it than I would’ve about rewriting 1000 words of the first draft.

(Incidentally, 1000 words is about a fifth of the rough draft–which doesn’t seem likely for this second draft, because I’ve only just gotten to the point where the first draft “started” [after I hacked off the initial two scenes that sucked† and therefore weren’t counted].)

And yesterday I looked up who Mandelbrot was, and decided that I like him quite well as a namesake for my MC.  Who’s a girl.  I dunno, the name popped into my head, that she’s called Mandy, and it’s short for Mandelbrot.  And I couldn’t remember who Mandelbrot really was, so I was afraid he was a serial killer or something.  But no, he’s the guy who discovered fractals, which works for me, though I haven’t figured out why her parents picked it.

* It’s like yogurt, only runnier and different.  This morning’s batch was solid and wobbly just like yogurt would be, though it fell apart when I transferred it to a different container.

** Kefir, you see, is also a bacterial growth, just like yogurt, but the bacteria grow these gel-like modules around them, which are called grains.  It’s really strange, and looks a little like cottage cheese, and you strain them out before drinking the kefir (though you don’t have to), and then put them in a new container with new milk, and they keep growing.  Yum.  I’ll have to report more about this as I continue experimenting.

*** One of the troubles with writing long-hand is that you can’t give an actual number, without doing something dumb like counting.  Computers count for you.  Someday, maybe I’ll learn how to compose directly into a computer.  My recollection is that I usually fit about 150 words into a page of my notebooks, and I filled 6 pages.  But I seem to recall that sometimes the number was more like 200 or 250, and I don’t remember if that was in a different shape of notebook, or if it really varies that much depending on how big my words are.

† Ok, they didn’t so much suck as just not have a place in the story.  I did keep them, because some of the description was relevant.

A rough draft!

I now* declare the first draft of my vampire story to be complete!

I wrote an ending** and I printed it out–20 pages, double-spaced.  Very exciting!  And then I had to reprint parts of it, because the printer ran out of ink and was printing too faintly.  *sigh*

There’s a lot left to fix.  There’s one scene that needs to be rewritten, because the wrong things happen in it, and I didn’t figure that out until after I wrote it.  And all of the other scenes need things that I haven’t identified yet.

In fact, there are several things about this story that aren’t quite right, aside from basic prose.  The main character is about as interesting as a cardboard box***, and I can’t figure out how to fix her.  The situation is really interesting, but on some level it could be happening to anyone.  So why her?  The setting–a high-tech future hospital–is relevant and important, I know it.  But I haven’t figured out how.  Or rather, I haven’t figured out how to emphasize it.

So today at the gas station I had a thought–what if the MC is just in the wrong position?  She’s flat and dull because she’s not where she needs to be… or maybe she’s just not the MC.  I have an idea for someone in a better role to be the MC.  But of course, that would mean rewriting quite a lot of it.  Possibly all of it.  If she ends up having a personality that would be a really good thing.  But… rewriting the whole story, from a whole new perspective. :-/  That sounds more complicated than my last crazy idea.

I’m going to sleep on it, and see what I think tomorrow.

* Ok, I actually declared it last weekend.  I’m a little slow.

** I didn’t end up adding in the complications I was thinking of in my last post.  They didn’t make sense after all, and I decided to simplify and just finish the damn thing.  Also, I’m pretty certain it’s not the ending.  But … it’s better than no ending.

*** A friend in my writing group described her first version of a main character as having the personality of a coffee table.  Mine’s less solid than that.

Do I overcomplicate things?

Ok, my last post said half a scene from the end, and that’s true.  But I haven’t been able to write it.  I’m not convinced, somehow, and I can’t commit to picking an ending.  I’ve been struggling with the technology in my story.  It’s set in the future (sci-fi horror, you see), but the high-tech doesn’t feel like a crucial aspect of the plot.  If I could just as easily set it in the here-and-now, then there’s no point in setting it in the future.  But I’m convinced that setting it in the future is important to the story.  Therefore, my plot has been missing something, some element that could only happen in this time and place and none other.

Today I figured out how to do that, but it requires adding in a whole nother character, probably 2 more scenes, and reworking several of the others.  (But see, since I haven’t “finished” it yet, I haven’t rewritten those scenes yet, and they were going to need work anyway.  So, it wouldn’t exactly be a waste.)  But I’ve gotten rather attached to the parts of the ending that I’ve already written, and I’m afraid it wouldn’t happen quite this way with this extra plot point.  Which would mean that this great scene I wrote, that I totally love, may not make as much sense.  I might have to kill my darling*. *sniffle*

But would this plot addition overcomplicate things?  Can I accomplish the same thing–or something better–in a simpler way?  I’m also concerned that if I do add this plot point, it could change the tone pretty drastically, and by adding another character it would shift the balance of the story.

And furthermore, then I’d have to write two more scenes, and do the work to integrate that into the whole rest of the story–which isn’t very long.  This is major surgery, on a story this short.  Is it really worth it?

Maybe I’ll sleep on it, and come up with something even better tomorrow.  (“Speedy” hasn’t exactly been my name so far.  Have you noticed that it’s August already?)

* Good explanation of the phrase here: http://wendypalmer.com.au/2008/09/25/writing-rules-misapplied-kill-your-darlings/

Ending, not beginning

I’m half a scene from the end of my vampire story.  Why half?  Well, I think the rest of the story takes place right now, in the same place.  The ending should be relatively short and simple, a few paragraphs, maybe a whole page, but probably not two.

I haven’t written it yet.  I’ve been thinking about it for three weeks, since I managed to connect the chronological parts of the story up with the almost-last scene that I wrote two months ago.  (Yay! One chronological story!)

One of my goals in this story has been to end it with an ending.  Since I’m so bad at finishing things (not just stories), I figure that endings are the part of story-writing I need the most practice at.

The problem with endings is that they’re really beginnings.  “And they lived happily ever after” is the beginning of the whole rest of their lives.  I wrote a short story last year that was really a prologue to a possibly-novel-lengthed story about a human child who was stolen by fairies.  I wasn’t ready to write the novel yet, but I had this idea about the fairies taking the infant to a shop that sells wings, to have wings put on it.  The fairies want to make it seem that the child is a hybrid, not a full-human.  But the ending wasn’t satisfying–it was really the beginning of the rest of the novel.

I can’t decide how the vampire story should end.  It’s a short story, not a lot of mass to it, so there’s no one obvious direction it’s been going in for chapters.  The way it ends will determine the theme of the story.  The point.  Whatever ending I pick, it will translate into just one summarizing statement that will describe the whole story.  And I can’t decide which statement that should be.  What will be a powerful ending that won’t make the reader want to throw the story against a wall?  (For example, killing the MC* would definitely make my readers want to throw it against the wall.)  What will be the powerful ending that doesn’t obviously lead to a whole rest of the story?

To this end, I’ve limited how much back story is relevant, how many characters are involved, and the time span covered.  I’m now at the point where I know how long is left (about 10 minutes, I think), and I know several ways it can go.  I need to know which way its going before I can revise, so that I can make sure the ending feels surprising-but-inevitable… so I need to pick an ending.  No, I need to pick the ending.  The best one, which has high impact and translates into a theme that matters to me.  And doesn’t feel cheesy, or like a cheat.

And then I can call this draft done.

—-

* Main Character