alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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Rewrite Your Way to Greatness

Today, I’m less than 10,000 words away from the end of the first* draft of my first** novel. You might think that at this point I’ve got the finishing line in sight and I’m feeling good.

You would be wrong.

Photo by Karl Baron, via Flickr

Photo by Karl Baron, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Now that I’ve written more than 50,000 words and have the overall shape of the novel in front of me, I have this lovely, panoramic vision of All The Things I’ve Done Wrong. It’s like the view of Mordor from Mount Doom. We’re talking volcanoes and wastelands: this is not the kind of stuff I can put right with another measly 10,000 words.

The last couple of days, sitting down to work has made me want to cry and yell at the cats for…having fur and stuff. I wont lie–it feels terrible. But, just as with most other things about writing novels so far, this is just another crisis of faith.

Photo by saxcubano, via Flickr

Photo by saxcubano, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Maybe (okay, probably) some of what I’ve written is terrible. Maybe it’s missing big chunks of plot and character motivation. But that doesn’t mean the book itself is going to be terrible.

I think, as novice writers, we fall into a trap. We compare our first drafts to somebody else’s completed novel. In a side-by-side comparison, that thing we just made–that we struggled with and worked so hard on–looks like crap. Because the thing we made is NOT a complete novel. It’s an early stage draft. And you never see anybody else’s early stage draft. You don’t see the mangled first pages of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or Life After Life, or Wild Seed.

You may, in fact, have the most precocious, promising, early-stage draft in the history of novel-writing. But if you compare it to that OTHER thing, the finished novel, what you have looks like utter, meaningless crap.

Would you compare a cement block to a skyscraper? Would you look at that block and scorn it because it doesn’t have a marble lobby and banks of high-speed elevators that shoot straight to the rotating rooftop restaurant?

The humble cement block. Photo by Jeremy Price, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The humble cement block. Photo by Jeremy Price, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Yet, when that skyscraper’s finished, that worthless cement block will still be a part of it***, hidden somewhere inside, doing its bit to keep the rooftop restaurant turning out platters of regionally-sourced pork belly and craft cocktails.

A first draft is a necessary step on the way to completing a novel.
A first draft is not the same thing as a novel. Not even close.

Go ahead, have a drink. You're going to need it. Photo by David Kenny, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Go ahead, have a drink. You’re going to need it.
Photo by David Kenny, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To prove it to you, Maggie Stiefvater dissects a first draft of a chapter from her novel, The Scorpio Races, and walks you through step-by-step of what she changed and why.

And then she gets ten other novelists to do the same. Including blog hero, Margo Lanagan, talking about her latest, The Brides of Rollrock Island.

There’s also “Writing Excuses: 5.29: Rewriting,” in which guest author and Writers of the Future judge Dave Wolverton (Farland) promises that even Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning authors write terrible first drafts. This is a really good episode, with specific advice, and I highly recommend checking it out. After all, it’s only fifteen minutes long.

This is how novel-writing works:
You write a draft, you find the problems, and then you fix them.
And then you do it again.

* “Real” because this draft was preceded by a zero draft, written at breakneck (NaNo) speed last November.
** In some senses this is my third novel, but those other two have been put quietly away and we’re not going to talk about them.
***Don’t tell me that modern skyscrapers don’t include cement blocks or that’s the wrong kind. It’s an analogy, okay?


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The Superpower Every Writer Wants: An Interview with Intisar Khanani

Khanani Photo ctuIntisar Khanani grew up a nomad and world traveler. Born in Wisconsin, she has lived in five different states as well as in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. She first remembers seeing snow on a wintry street in Zurich, Switzerland, and vaguely recollects having breakfast with the orangutans at the Singapore Zoo when she was five.

I met her at the Indiana University Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2012, where she repeatedly showed me how to fix my ham-handed needle work in the book-making class.

She visits today to talk about writing while parenting, when it’s okay not to write, and the importance of having a nice, private shower to escape to.

1. What’s a typical writing day like for you?

My typical day starts around 6 am when our toddler comes into our room to get me to help her in the bathroom (ah, the trials and travails of potty training). By the time we’re done, the baby is awake and so begins our day. While my husband helps out a lot with the kids, the only “quiet” times I really get tend to be if the kids go down for their nap at the same time. If I’m tired out enough, I’ll go down as well and if I don’t sleep, I spend the time lying down thinking of characters, scenes, and dialogue. Cooking is another good opportunity for developing dialogue. The shower is best, but that typically doesn’t happen till the kids are asleep anyhow. So, when I finally sit down with my laptop sometime after 8 pm, I’m ready to pound out what I’ve been thinking about through the day.

2. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace?

The trouble with my workspace is I don’t really have one. When we first moved into our condo, we had grand ideas of turning one of the two spare bedrooms into a writing room (my husband writes academic books). Now that we have two little ones and my mother-in-law staying with us, we’re a little cramped when it comes to dedicating space to anything other than toys. And diapers. I typically end up writing on my bed or on the living room couch (thank God for laptops!). I do miss the days when I had a desk and chair, both facing the wall. It helped reduce distractions—and I am easily distracted. But hey, any space is better than no space.

Any space is better than no space

Any space is better than no space

3. Besides other books/writers, where do you draw inspiration? 

I’ve realized that, when my creative well is drying up, it’s typically because I’m sleep deprived and a little tired of the day-to-day. I give myself a 2-3 day break from writing, read for fun, get out of the house and do something different with the kids, and get myself in bed as early as possible. By the end of the three days, I’m typically waking up with scenes in my head and am ready to go again.

I know some authors who swear you should write every day no matter what (my husband is one of them). I can’t do it. I’ve tried, and I’ve realized that actually empties me out. I need short breaks periodically; I need to pace myself with my story; and I need to pay attention to when I’m not writing because there’s some emotional depth or plot point I’m wary of getting into—that’s the only time I make myself write instead of allowing myself a break.

4. What do you wish you were reading but aren’t? (Because it doesn’t exist.)

Wow. That’s a hard one. I think I want more Jane Austen. And I want more YA fantasy novels about young women where the love interest doesn’t become the be-all and end-all of the heroine’s life. I know, not a request that you might expect from a Jane Austen fan, but we’re talking about YA fiction, and YA fantasy in particular, today. And what I would most want? A bestseller YA fantasy series about a girl without a love interest, or only a minor one who crops up halfway through and doesn’t rule the plot. You know, like Harriet Potter.

5. Superpower you wish you had?

The ability to write in my sleep. ‘Nuff said.

6. What should a reader do after reading this interview?

Support indie authors! With the advent of e-books, indie published novels are booming. There are some awesome new authors out there who don’t have traditional publishing houses backing them and pushing their books. Consider setting yourself a challenge to read three new indie authors in the coming months. GoodReads is a great way to get the scoop on new indie reads and up-and-coming indie authors, so go have fun!

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Intisiar Khanani currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters. Until recently, Intisar wrote grants and developed projects to address community health with the Cincinnati Health Department, which was as close as she could get to saving the world. Now she focuses her time on her two passions: raising her family and writing fantasy. Intisar’s next projects include a companion trilogy to her debut novel Thorn, following the heroine introduced in her short story The Bone Knife, and a novella series set in a fictional world of eleven kingdoms all controlled by a corrupt Council of Mages. 


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“Everything You Have Seen” – Dance Performance

I was lucky enough to have my winning story, “Everything You Have Seen,” interpreted by two marvelous dancers at the Writers of the Future Awards Ceremony in April. I like this performance more every time I see it, and if you haven’t already, you should definitely check it out. [And if you’re curious about what I look like in make-up and sequins, pretending to be glamorous, my acceptance speech follows the performance.]