alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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How I Learned to Love Rejection Letters

When I first started writing short stories, the process went something like this:

  1. Finish story
  2. Send to ONE market
  3. Check mailbox obsessively & envision glorious success
  4. Receive rejection letter
  5. Pitch headfirst down stairs of mortification into basement of self-loathing
  6. Give up on story

 

The Basement of Recrimination.  (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Basement of Recrimination.
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Seriously, those rejections were like acid baths that I soaked in for weeks. I’d eventually start to recover and then, like suddenly remembering a nightmare where you’ve accidentally stabbed your mother and drowned a basket of kittens, the pain would come rushing back. I’d remember the cruel words of the rejection, and my unbelievable presumption in sending the story out—what made me think I could write, anyways?–and sink back into the pit.

Your bath is ready, madam.

Your bath is ready, madam. Photo by Iain Browne, via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fast forward a few—well, actually a lot of—years. Somewhere along the way, I hardened my carapace. Rejections became….just one of those things. Part of the business of being a writer. Submit->reject, submit->reject, submit->reject is a background rhythm that means I’m participating in the publishing world. I’ll (probably) even sell the story in the end.

But for the last twelve months, I’ve been focused on novels. Sometime around January 2014, I sold the last finished story I had in my inventory. And that’s when things got tricky. Let’s try a little quiz:

Question: What happens when you aren’t sending stories out?
Answer #1: You don’t get any acceptances.
Answer #2: You don’t get any rejections.

You might not think #2 is much of a problem. But here I am, spending hours at my writing everyday with absolutely nothing to show for it. I’m just typing away, day after day, on some project that no one has read, that maybe no one will ever see, that might not even exist. It’s like one of those quiet Sunday mornings when you go outside and there are no people and no cars and you worry just for a second that overnight everyone decamped in the flying saucer and neglected to tell you.

Where did everybody go?

Where did everybody go?

This was when it was really tempting to turn my focus back to short stories, just to try to prove that I was vital, relevant, active, that I was doing something. But that was wrong, I knew it in my gut. My writing home is in novels, that’s where my happiness lies.

My solution? A novelist’s support group. I had friends from Kij Johnson’s workshop who were also working on novels. What if we got together and cheered each other on? What if we had a place to remind each other of our goals and to complain about our problems and encourage each other?

So we did. We don’t critique. We don’t give feedback. We mostly acknowledge. About once a week, we check-in and say, “Hey, you’re out there working on a novel. I am too.” And “This shit is hard. But we can totally do it.” I swear, this is the best kind of writer’s group I have ever belonged to. Noveling is a long lonely road, and the group is a pair of flip-flops and a handful of trail mix.

The more I work on novels, the more I think that the really truly ONLY skill you must possess in order to write a novel isn’t a mastery of plot structure, brilliant prose, or intense worldbuilding. It’s just the ability to eat your heart out every day and KEEP GOING. If you can do this, you can write a novel. That’s the only single talent required.

And the support of likeminded friends can help get you there.


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90 Days of Writing Bliss

The Fountain of Love, by François Boucher [1748]

What my life is like now that I’ve discovered The 90-Day-Novel
(The Fountain of Love, François Boucher, 1748)

WARNING: This post contains little to no objectivity.

I am in love. With The 90-Day-Novel by Alan Watt.

Because The 90-Day-Novel loves me just the way I am.

After I came home from Clarion West in 2011, I have been hunched over my desk with a gimlet eye, struggling to improve my writing. I critique my peers, I read the pros, and I work hard to identify my weaknesses, correct or patch them, and produce good stories.

Structure and plot are repeat performers in the parade of Things I Do Wrong. I’m a woolly thinker, the sort of person who has to say something (two or three times, usually) in order to find out what I want to say. That makes crisp plot turns tough.

I’ve tried LOTS of writing books and instructive internet articles. I’ve read about The Snowflake MethodGMC, and 7-point Story Structure. I’ve checked out the examples from popular books and movies and noted how they match the analysis perfectly. It all makes sense. My head nods in understanding. Got it, I think. This time I won’t go down one of those weird rabbit holes my brain is always finding. I’m going to keep it simple, stick to the structure, and just do this.

Cute but dangerous

Cute but dangerous

But what seems so simple when I’m reading about it becomes so impossible, so ineffable, when I try to carry it out. I go back and forth from the examples to my story and don’t understand how I could possibly mess up something so obvious and clear. Am I really this stupid? I think.

I’m forced to conclude that I probably am. And then I don’t feel so good. Because I’m me and pigheaded, I keep writing anyways. Spend days hammering at things that made me feel sick and sinking.

A few weeks back, I started writing a new novel. I wasn’t prepared, but I needed to get started, so I jumped in without a plan. I had a genre, two characters, a setting, and a situation. I figured I would just pants my way through an 80,000 word zero draft and worry about it later. I told myself it was a learning experience–though what I would be learning was unclear.

Someone (sorry, I can’t remember who) mentioned The 90-Day-Novel to me because they liked the questions for pre-writing. I put in a request at the library, but I wasn’t too excited. By now I had learned that anything promising 5 Easy Steps or 7 Essential Rules—basically, anything with a number in the title—was bad news.

My precious

My precious

But it wasn’t. The 90-Day-Novel is the how-to book written Just For Me.

I was two weeks into my draft when I finally got my copy. I read the introduction and did the exercises. Just as, you know, an experiment. When I came out the other side, I had tons of new material. And a realization that I needed more of this. It was an incredibly hard decision to throw away the 10,000 words I had already written and start over. It put my schedule for finishing back by almost a month. And it was the best writing decision I’ve ever made.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be working from a plan that works with the way my mind already works instead of against it. Here are some of my favorite themes from the process that I find most restorative:

  • Story isn’t logical.
  • Our idea of the story is not the whole story.
  • The moment we force it, or fear that we’re getting it wrong, we’re out of our story.
  • It is not your job to figure it out. Trust that your subconscious will find a way to resolve it.
  • The story already lives fully and completely within us.

Honestly, working with the 90-Day process, I feel like I could write a novel about anything. Any topic, any structure, no matter how complex or challenging. I can’t wait to finish the current novel and get started finding out what Novel #3 is going to hold. Because with a process like this, it’s going to be good stuff!


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On Community & Coming Out of Hibernation

Reading to my rabid fans at Boxcar Books on April 6, 2014

Reading to my rabid fans at Boxcar Books on April 6, 2014

Writing is a solitary practice. The writer sits (or stands) alone at her desk, with a notebook or keyboard and a cup of stimulant beverage. The writer listens, but only to imaginary people. The writer speaks, but only to herself. Ok, also sometimes to the domestic automatons, e.g.: “&*$! cat! Plonk your furry butt somewhere other than my keyboard!”

Domestic Species  Furry Buttus Obstructivus

Domestic Species Furry Buttus Obstructivus

Earlier this month, I unzipped the cocoon a fraction of a milimmeter and poked forth a tentative feeler. Finding the environment not entirely hostile, I took myself downtown to Boxcar Books to read to the public from my novel-in-progress.

The curious writer ventures forth

The curious writer ventures forth

I shared the marquee with two other local SFF writers, Richard Durisen and Michelle Hartz. I read from an early chapter in which my protagonist interviews for a job at the Paradise Pony Park. It introduces the main character, some of the unique aspects of the plot (viz. haunted ponies), and ends on a “tell me more” note. I had considered reading a different scene from later in the book, mainly because it was a self-contained ghost story with a fair bit of drama. But when I was rehearsing, I realized I would have to voice four different teenage girl characters. That’s a stretch for even an experienced reader, and my acting talents just weren’t up to the job.

A novel takes a long time to write. And even longer to see publication. A public reading is a chance for your manuscript to stroll around town, take the air, and see the sights. If you’re lucky, it begins to make friends. In this case, audience reaction was positive, and afterwards, over instant coffee, mixed nuts, and rice krispie treats, several people asked if the book was finished. Regrettably, I had to tell them about the unexpected delay. Still, it gave me a boost, and I’m excited about revising the book into the best story it can be. If they like it this well now, just imagine how they’re going to feel when it’s complete!

There’s still a long way to go, of course. And no one is going to do those revisions but me. But being connected to a community can make the trials easier to bear. Join me next month for thoughts on using peer accountability to get your writing where you want it to be.

As for this weekend, I’m heading off to Indianapolis for even more community at Mo*Con IX.

P.S. I feel like this post should have footnotes or something with references to pertinent information. I guess it’s just the librarian in me. So here goes:

  1. The three most important things you need to know about reading aloud are: Prepare, Project, and Make Eye Contact! Those three things will improve any reading by about 70%. I’ve attended readings where the author bends over the book and speed-reads through a chapter without once looking up. This is not a good plan.
  2. If you want to work on that other 30%, delve into this helpful series by author, voice talent, and puppeteer, Mary Robinette Kowal. For example, she explains why it would have been a bad idea for me to try to do all of those similar voices.
  3. Public Readings: It could be worse.


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How to Survive an Octopus Attack

That Sinking Feeling

That Sinking Feeling

My novel-writing journey has taken an unexpected turn. Last month, I sent my completed novel draft to four beta-readers, including Barbara J. Webb, co-instructor at the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop I attended in June 2013.

Barbara and I had a Skype call a few weeks ago to talk about my manuscript. She praised me for “paying attention during the workshop,” agreed that yes, 88,000 words is too long, pointed out the many other things I had done wrong, and then she dropped the bombshell:

“My main recommendation is set this book down. Write a new book before you come back to this.”

But I was going to submit that baby to an agent!

But I was going to submit that baby to an agent!

My plan, my very existence, for the next few months was founded on the notion that I’d be whipping this thing into shape and sending it out to agents by autumn. But now she wants me to take (at least!) 3-4 months off and write a whole new novel first? And she was very clear: time off doing nothing wouldn’t count, and neither would spending that time writing short stories. It had to be a new novel, from scratch.

The first thing I did was panic. The second thing I did was check with my neighborhood writing confidant Ashley Pérez–was this Barbara woman out of her mind? But Ashley said no, she thought I should take her advice. Since she’s published two novels and contracted a third, I conceded she might know a thing or two about it.

Problem is, since I was planning on revising this story, I hadn’t been giving a lot of brain space to what I wanted to write next. And now I needed to start a new novel. Preferably tomorrow! (Well, okay, in a week or two.) What to do?

Enter prewriting. According to David Farland, “Prewriting is that time you spend imagining what you’re going to write.”

There are lots of ways to pre-write a novel, including some that don’t involve any writing at all.

Margo Lanagan's  Sea Hearts  scrapbook

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts scrapbook

If you’re not feeling visual, there are other ways of pre-writing, such as freewriting and asking yourself questions about the nebulous story mass wobbling around in your brain case.  Holly Lisle has a really good list of intriguing questions here.

Now it’s time for me to put on my smock and get out the scissors and glue, because I’ve got a lot of imagining to do. Wish me luck!–And let me know if you have any tried-and-true prewriting techniques.


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Naps, Salted Chocolate, and Divining Your Dream Agent

On February 3rd, four lucky friends received a special email from me. An email containing 77,000 words or so.

Yep, that’s right. For the first time, I sent a completed novel draft to beta-readers. I’ve threatened to write a novel twice before, and even “finished” the second one, but didn’t have the courage or knowledge to take the next step. By sending the manuscript to readers and asking for feedback, I’m already closer to publication than I’ve ever been before.

Hopefully I’ll be hearing back from my readers soon and–when I get done breathing into a paper bag–I’ll bring out the garden tools and start trying to make the story better, pruning back that pesky fast-growing exposition and tenderly watering and fertilizing the exciting bits in the hope that they will take over the whole damn garden.

But in the meantime: What have I been doing all month?

Well, first I slept a lot. And complained about the cold. Then I went climbing, and made salted chocolate rye cookies. I also read a short story* every day while slurping defrosted frozen mangoes for breakfast.

Reading short stories at breakfast. Everybody likes the electric blanket. (Bonus points if you can find the dog in this picture.)

Reading short stories at breakfast. Everybody likes the electric blanket. (Bonus points if you can find the dog in this picture.)

I wasn’t entirely unproductive. I wrote some flash fiction and entered it in a contest. I revisited some old projects. I practiced for a public reading coming up in early March. And I started researching agents. If all goes according to plan, I’m going to turn up with a finished novel later this year, and that means I’m (probably) going to need an agent.

So, how do you get an agent?

Research, research, research!

You might hear that Agent Morton T. HotDealz is THE BEST AGENT EVER ZOMG! Maybe it’s even true. But what if he represents military thrillers and you’re writing a cozy Southern mystery with recipes? Surely your manuscript is the best Southern cozy ever, and if you just send it to him along with a beautifully wrapped box of your divine pralines, then he’s bound to make an exception, right?

Er, no. And you don’t want him to. You want someone who knows the market for YOUR book. My current project is fantasy/horror YA, and it’s nice to daydream about being repped by Barry Goldblatt Literary (Rumor has it they host annual retreats for their authors!). But! I have to think about my whole career. Goldblatt Literary only reps YA, and I have plans for other genres (primarily historical romance). Ideally, I’m looking for an agent that can represent both.

So, how do you find the agent that will be your One True Love?

  1. Look for books like yours, and find out who represents the authors. Check the Acknowledgments, the author’s web site, or just google [Author Name] + agent.
  2. Publisher’s Marketplace has information pages for many agents. [See sidebar for the top ten]
  3. For YA & Children’s, Literary Rambles does an in-depth Agent Spotlight, often with links to interviews with the agent on other sites.
  4. If you have friends (or even acquaintances) with agents, ask how they like them.

Also recommended:

Once you have a list of agents that look and feel like a good fit, then you can start thinking about your submission package (which will be slightly different for each agent). Usually this includes a query letter, synopsis, and the first five pages of your manuscript. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

Mmmm, worms.  Photo by Nick Cross, via Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

Mmmm, worms.
Photo by Nick Cross, via Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

*Turns out some of those breakfast stories have since been nominated for Nebula awards. They are:
–Chris Barzak’s “Paranormal Romance” (Lighspeed)
–Sarah Pinksker’s “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” (Strange Horizons)
They’re good stories. You should check them out.


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The Memory Maze

Photo by IM Seongbin via Flickr

Photo by IM Seongbin via Flickr

I’m on the elventh month and third-ish draft of this whole ‘Let’s Write A Novel’ project, and I’ve come to one glaringly obvious conclusion. Novels are big. REALLY BIG. With all these bits that branch and then branch again and again, and if you follow the branches sometimes you come to the ONE THING THAT WILL SAVE YOUR NOVEL and sometimes your face bounces off a prickly green wall and you have to turn around and start all over again. But then you come back to that same intersection and you think, “Left had the angry bees at the end, so I should go right.” Except, maybe it was right that had the booby trap and left is the safe way. Or was that the turn before? But your face is all swollen with hives and you think you might be going into anaphylactic shock and you feel all trembly and why is everything going dark and….CLONK.

So, when wending your way through the maze that is your novel, you need strategy. And that strategy is ORGANIZATION. Everybody’s going to do this differently, but there are tools that can help you find your way out before the bees hollow out your alimentary cavity and turn your intestines into a honeycomb.

IMG_20140127_142738

  • I do most of my thinking longhand, which means I’ve already filled 4.5 spiral-bound notebooks and a bunch of looseleaf with thoughts and scenes (And whining. Whining takes up space too.) Reading a novel is (usually) a pretty linear experience. But writing it isn’t. So what happens when you’re working on Part 3, Scene 12 when all of a sudden you’re seized with inspiration that will remake Part 1, Scene 20 in a blaze of literary glory and your brain is firing so fast with this dazzling save that you can barely write fast enough to get it down? YOU WRITE IT DOWN, OF COURSE. But now you need to be able to find it again when it’s useful. Sometimes this is as simple as marking the scene # with a different colored-ink, to make it easy to spot when you’re flipping back through.

Notebook_crop

  • SCRIVENER: I love Scrivener. Not only does it keep all of my scenes and revised scenes and scraps and research and photos in a single file, it also has the excellent “Document Notes” in the right-hand pane. I didn’t use this much when writing short stories, but I love it for a novel. When I finish working on a scene, I write down what things I want to work on in the next draft (“What Needs To Be Done”). I also make notes about scene goals and character motivation to remind me what I’m writing towards.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 3.13.31 PM

  • EVERNOTE: Another genius application that encourages me to be more organized. Bonus: it’s on the web, it’s on my phone, it’s on every computer everywhere. I can ALWAYS put a note in here, tag it, and find it later when I’m writing. I can even make audio notes if I’m seized with inspiration when I’m out and can’t take my hands out of my mittens long enough to type on my dinky phone keyboard. Evernote lets you keep separate notebooks for different topics. My novel notes don’t get mixed up with planning my fantasy escape to some climate where it’s not below zero during the day or recipes for pies I want to bake. Notes are taggable and fully searchable and filterable. I use notes to make lists: of all scenes where a certain secondary character appears, of key moments in character development, of possible character names, of potential setting locations, of scenes I want to include in the next draft. I use notes to type out and save examples: of particularly proficient prose (by other authors), of action well-described, of active setting, of strong voice, of all the best parts of other books that I want to steal for my own.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 2.34.29 PM

So how much do these tricks and tools really help? Well, I’m not finished with the book, so the verdict’s still out. But I think if you pack your explorer’s kit with these handy utensils, you reduce the chances of having to eat your own shoe leather just to stay alive. But the smart adventurer always stays alert—and remember: Keep a sharp eye out for bees.

Photo by quisnovus via Flickr

Photo by quisnovus via Flickr


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2013: I Did It

I am a writer who–like many of you–routinely deals with rejection from editors, setbacks, uncooperative drafts, lost opportunities, time constraints, deadlines, idea droughts, revision hell, and other unfriendly aspects of the writing life. One December, after I’d had a particularly awful week, I needed some perspective. Surely I had done something right that year I could be happy about?

So writes Lisa Romeo, in her end-of-year blog post, encouraging other writers to join her in an “I Did It” list.

It’s 20F outside in the middle of the afternoon. I have a terrible cold that makes me as sharp and lively as a dehydrated blueberry. I tried to work on my novel this morning and I couldn’t make sense of my notes from last session (Thank Goodness there are notes, at least). I’m at about the 3/4 mark on this draft and realizing how very much important structural stuff I left until “later.” I really want to be done with it and getting reader feedback, but I still have pretty much all of Part IV to go. So I thought maybe I needed to look back and see how far I have already come with this novel. Maybe I can’t say “I Did It” to a finished novel, but there are lot of pieces I Did Do.

The History of a Novel-in-Progress:

  • February 2012: Scene-by-scene outline of novel, following Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure model. This was a homework assignment in “Narrative Structures in Fantastic Fiction” an online course taught by Bruce Holland Rogers through the Odyssey Workshop. I took this workshop hoping to improve my short stories, I didn’t expect anything to do with novels, and I had no idea for this novel before doing the assignment.
  • November 2012: Breakneck zero draft for NaNoWriMo, based on February’s outline. This is where I learned to give my protagonist a problem I cared about. I hit the end of the outline about 10,000 words short of the 50,000-word goal. I kept writing. Those last 10,000 words? That’s when I learned who all my characters really were–they weren’t in service to the plot anymore, and I had the freedom to get to know them.
  • November 2012: Talk with Clarion West-classmate Jenni Moody about how we really need to go to the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in the summer of 2013. Because Kij Johnson!
  • January-February 2013: Reverse out-lining of NaNoWriMo draft and hectic re-writing of first 3 chapters to a highly polished sheen.
  • February 2013: Apply for an Individual Artist grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to support writing novel in 2013/14.
  • March 2013: Apply for and acceptance to CSSF Novel Writers Workshop. Whew!
  • June 2013: Two weeks of wisdom, example, outline, imagination, and the Glorious Fishbowl at the CSSF Workshop in Lawrence, KS.
  • June 2013: Receive IAC grant.
  • July-September 2013: First *real* draft of novel.
  • October-December 2013: Preparing draft for beta-readers.

I knew, of course, that writing a novel is a lot of work. But I think our little primate brains protect us from understanding the full scope of how much ‘a lot’ really is. I don’t regret my decision to go down this revision-paved road. And for 2014? It’s going to be finished. This novel is hitting the road, knocking on the doors of agents and editors.


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Ready to Move Forward with Your Novel? Start by Going Backward

Lost in a dark wood Photo by Lisbeth Salander, via Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

Lost in a dark wood
Photo by Lisbeth Salander, via Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

You know all those fairy tales about being lost in the forest? You start off feeling daring and intrepid and the next thing you know, the sun goes down and the path isn’t where you thought it was and there are scary noises in the trees and ah! what just grabbed my leg?

Revising a novel is kind of like that. You’ve got your main character, and she’s got a goal, and you’ve planned a couple of setbacks for her and maybe a little romantic interest off to one side and….whoa! where did that two-headed plesiosaur come from? I mean, it’s cute the way it flaps its fins and begs for dried squid chips, but your story is supposed to be set in 1950s Vienna. And since when did your heroine start tearing tissues into confetti and weeping at soap commercials? Your character sheet says she’s “strong and capable.”

As all readers of fairy tales know, there is one secret weapon against the fatal forest. The well-prepared adventurer intuits that the forest is not to be trusted and prepares accordingly:

Photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

Breadcrumbs!
Photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

When going into that dark wood of an early novel revision, reverse outlining is your trail of breadcrumbs. Plus, you get to play with colored paper and feel massively organized.

What is reverse outlining? For me, it meant going back over every scene I had written in the first draft and writing down the important parts of the scene on the front of the card. On the back of the card, I made notes to myself for the revision. What changes needed to be made? What was missing? (Usually transitions into the scene) What was excessive and needed to be trimmed? (pretty much everything to do with meandering around an unanchored setting) What was just plain wrong? (oops! Cousin Stella isn’t supposed to be pregnant anymore.)

Cards for the first two scenes in Act II (l, front; r, back)

Cards for the first two scenes in Act II(l, front; r, back)

When I finished my first draft I had a folder in Scrivener with about 20 new scenes (or scenelets) that weren’t in the original outline, that I had written spontaneously while thinking through the first draft. I didn’t have a place for them yet, but I knew they filled a hole in the story. The card process helped me find a place to slot in the new scenes.

Now that I’m about 40% of the way through the second draft, I cling desperately to these cards. The forest is dark and scary and haunted by plesiosaurs. But I have my trail of neon index cards shining through the poisonous smog, and I tiptoe carefully from one to the next, writing wrongs, adding settings, and erasing pregnancies, one card at a time.

My handy dandy sorting box. Just looking at its serene organization can break off a fit of muppet-armed hyperventilation.

My handy dandy sorting box. Just looking at its serene organization can break off a fit of muppet-armed hyperventilation.

The tabs on the left for P1, P2, & P3 divide the story arc into Acts (P= “Part”). Part 4 is lurking behind the cards standing on end on the right, which are homeless scenes that I’m pretty sure I know where they want to go. The blue tab on the right is my current location. When I finish a scene in the current draft, the scene card moves in front of that blue tab. I cannot tell you how good that feels.

Have you tried reverse outlining? Feel free to share what works for you. Tips on taming plesiosaurs also welcome.

Bonus reading:


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The NaNo Novel: One-Month Stand or LTR?

Tomorrow is the first day of National Novel Writing Month. Many of you will open your blank page of choice and inscribe the first words of your epic genius. It’s a heady moment; thrilling, exhilarating, and full of possibilities–like falling in love.

Photo by Epiclectic via Flickr

Photo by Epiclectic via Flickr

In those dreamy first days, it’s all chocolates and long walks on the beach (or screaming fights and great make-up sex, YMMV). But have you ever wondered what happens after? What if you and your novel want to stay together for the long haul? Can you make it work?

Just like in a human relationship, you’ll have to put in some effort to keep that author/novel flame burning. Not every day will be consumed by the fiery passion of your literary brilliance. Some days you’ll wonder why you ever returned this novel’s calls. Surely, it didn’t always have that bloated section in the middle where the protagonist runs around in circles and whines constantly? And why did you never notice that “chuckled” is used in every dialogue tag in Chapters 7,8, & 13?

Not every novel is a keeper, but if the romance is still there, there are steps you can take to keep the relationship strong.

  • “Me” Time – Yes, you love your novel, and there is a danger in only writing ‘when you feel like it’. But you don’t want to spend so much time together that you’re sick of the sight of your literary love. Taking judicious breaks–usually between drafts–clears the novel out of your conscious mind and frees you to have a fresh and generous perspective when you return.
  • Clear Goals – A novel goes through many drafts before publication (6-8 is an average number). One of the worst things you can do is try to work on too many drafts at the same time. If this is Draft #2, be clear about what you want to accomplish. If you’re fixing the plot, don’t worry about the prose. If you’re clarifying character motivations, don’t worry about the pacing. After all, you’ve got to save something for those other drafts.
  • (Semi-) Public Commitment – Stand up in front of your friends and family and proclaim your dedication to your novel. This doesn’t mean rushing out to buy a pound of gold-infused Stilton for the holiday cheese board because of course you’ll be getting a six-figure advance. For me, it meant contacting my beta-readers and asking if they’ll be ready to read by a certain date, because that’s when I intend to be done.
  • Manage Stress – The biggest challenge I faced in beginning the next draft was holding back the panic. Once I got a clear look at the problems and gaps, the job before me seemed enormous. I had to get that hysteria firmly stamped under a boot heel or I wouldn’t be making any progress. Step One was referring back to those Clear Goals: I didn’t have to fix everything with this draft; I just had to make it better than the previous one. Step Two was writing down a couple of phrases that made me feel better (“Better to fail than give up”; “You won’t know for sure until you finish”) and sticking them on the bottom of my monitor. Step Three: 10-minute guided meditations. I’m not a pan-flute kind of person, but I started listening to guided meditations to get through the stress of Clarion West, and the habit has (sporadically) stuck with me. Try the free ones from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
  • Support Network – Writing a novel takes a long time. You need people who know what you’re doing and how hard it is. Celebrate successes with friends. Turn to them if you’re having a bad day. When I was having a slump, I asked, “Tell me why I’m doing this again?” The answer: “Because its going to be awesome.” My writer friends have read early chapters, and they want me to write it. They want me to succeed. Feelings like that can carry you a long way.
  • Write – You’ve heard this one before. Writing a novel means having to write. It means butt-in-chair and fingers-on-keyboard. Whatever tricks you have to play to romance your muse or quell your rowdy two-year-old, you do it. Then you sit down, and you write. And then you do it again.
Sticky pep-talks

Sticky pep-talks


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8 Reasons Why Your First Novel Isn’t Working

In my previous posts, I talked about Why Novels Are More Fun Than Short Stories and lifted your spirits with How To Not Hate Your First Draft. Now that you’ve dried your tears and have begun to envision a glorious future for your deformed brainchild, it’s time to talk about exactly how you’re going to climb that gilded staircase to the stars.

In June, I spent two weeks at the Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop in Lawrence, Kansas, learning from two sharp and insightful instructors: Kij Johnson and Barbara J. Webb. On the first day of the workshop, we eight first-time novelists sat around the table in the fishbowl and listened as Kij told us everything we had done wrong.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Prior to the workshop, we had all submitted the first three chapters of our novel-in-progress plus a complete synopsis. Kij read our sacrificial offerings and summed up her reaction with an inventory of our collective crimes. Use the handy-dandy checklist below and see how your first novel holds up.

Common Problems of First Novels

  1. Not Enough Plot. It can be hard to wrap your head around just how big a novel is. First-timers often try to stretch a thin little string of circumstance over 200+ pages. Other possible offenses: Too Much Plot and Poorly-Paced Plot.
  2. Rushed Scenes. When discussing my chapters, Kij pointed out places where she wanted more description and more setting, and my instinct was to resist. “But that’s boring,” I’d think, “I have to get to the action.” While struggling with short fiction, I had trained myself to mercilessly stamp out every curlicue of narrative elaboration. Now that hard-won skill was working against me. Novel readers look for different pleasures than short story readers: they need immersion, and they need time to settle in.
  3. Churning. Looking at that vast expanse of blank pages you have to fill, it’s easy to get panicky and start throwing incidents at the page. You slap on an explosion here, a gunfight there, sprinkle a one-eyed ogre army over Chapter Five, top it off with a messy break-up and call it a plot. But activity doesn’t = plot. A plot is a sequence of events in which each event causes the next, leading to the central conflict. A lot of flashy unrelated action will never get you there.
  4. Stakes Aren’t High Enough. You’re not going to convince a reader to go along for a novel-length ride if all that’s at stake is whether your protagonist is going to have a bagel or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Your stakes don’t have to be mortal danger or the fate of the universe, but whatever you choose must feel like annihilation for your character. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes.
  5. Lack of Agency. Related to #3. Activity also doesn’t = agency. First novels often feature characters pushed around by circumstance, or ones that don’t initiate activity. Your protagonist must go out into the world and cause things to happen. Preferably bad things that will hurt him/her and rain misery on their hapless head.
  6. Backstory & Exposition Poorly Managed. This one happens in short-story land, too. The reader gets a couple of pages of a scene with a good hook and then everything screeches to a halt while the author explains the full timeline of events since the protagonist’s birth*.
  7. Poor POV Choices. Novels typically have more characters than short fiction, and can handle multiple points-of-view. But are you choosing them wisely? Are you switching POVs at the right places? Kij suggests that more than one POV can improve your story, but if you introduce too many, you’re more likely to trip yourself up. Analyze your POV changes and ask yourself if they are the best interest of your story. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints.
  8. Anemic Description. Characters need to be grounded in their environment. I did this one wrong and so did pretty much everyone else. If your story is set in the Wild West, the reader needs to know not just how it looks, but how it smells, how to saddle a horse, and how long it takes to travel by train. Useful description is what makes a world feel real to a reader. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing.
Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.  Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.
Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Keep in mind that though everyone in the class was a first-time novelist, we were reasonably experienced writers with publications in professional markets like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Writers of the Futureand we still did it wrong.

That’s because writing a novel is hard. It’s probably not much like anything you’ve written before. So don’t freak out: now that you know what’s wrong, a second draft is the perfect place to fix it.

*If you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’re going to get the founding of the nation in which she lives and the genealogy of her ancestors.