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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From Crocodiles to Butterflies (aka Short Stories vs Novels)

Thanks to the Indiana Arts Commission, I recently received an Individual Artist Grant for 2013-2014 to support my work-in-progress, a Young Adult fantasy novel about some very bad ponies and the end of the world. As part of that grant, I’ve agreed to write about what I learn as I shift from writing short fiction (500-6000 words) to writing novel-length fiction (60,0000 words and up).

The first thing I’ve learned:
I’m happier.

Even though I have only ever dreamed of writing novels—even though short fiction doesn’t satisfy me as a reader— somewhere along this crooked path of becoming a writer, I veered from my novel goal and detoured down short story lane. It was a crooked, treacherous lane, and I soon strayed into a mire of crocodiles, quicksand, and biting insects.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/neeravbhatt/3816605467/

Photo by Neerva Bhatt, via Flickr

I set out to write my first novel way back in 2005. It was a mystery novel about art fraud in Philadelphia. I made it to 53,000 words, and realized that I don’t have the kind of brain that does mystery plots. My consolation prize was that it had two great villains who I’m still kind of in love with, Yuri and Vassily (aka The Fur Brothers).

What that novel didn’t have was an ending. I thought I should probably get some practice at this ending stuff. I set a reasonable goal that I thought would take care of the problem: I would bang out three short stories with good endings: problem solved.

I figured it would take me 3 months, tops.

[*SOUND OF HYSTERICAL CRYING*]

Dear Reader, I may have been a bit fuzzy on how to end a novel, but I didn’t even know what a short story was for. I never read any, except the ones assigned in Lit classes. The result? I languished in the Crocodile-Quicksand Badlands trying to figure this out for THE NEXT EIGHT YEARS. Eight years when I could have been writing novels.*

A combination of circumstances and some good things happening with my short fiction last year, have set me back on the broad well-paved thoroughfare of writing novels. My little cart of words trundles smoothly along, while I enjoy the pleasant country views, good company, and the occasional butterfly drifting by.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/khoatran/214597579/

Photo by Khoa Trần via Flickr

In June, I attended Kij Johnson’s Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop** at the CSSF in Lawrence, KS. After being told everything that was wrong with our projects and spending two weeks ripping out what we had and starting over, many of my workshop-mates were grumbling and daydreaming about returning to their comfort zone: short stories. They felt that there at least they knew what was going on.

Fishbowling at CSSF--with Brooke Wonders, Dale Ivan Smith, Rebecca Wright, and Emily Hall

Fishbowling at CSSF–with Brooke Wonders, Dale Ivan Smith, Rebecca Wright, and Emily Hall

Not me.  All I could think was: “I’m free!”

For many, writing short stories is “easy.” My Clarion West instructor Margo Lanagan recently said that “Short stories involve less angst than novels…It doesn’t require so much heavy lifting, psychologically.” I have the utmost respect for Margo, but that’s just crazy-talk.

I honestly feel like I have been let out of a cage. At last, I can leave all the aggravations (see: sharp-toothed reptiles, biting insects) of short stories behind. It’s true that writing a novel still means dealing with a full complement of the parts I don’t like about writing, but it has so much more of the parts I do like.

On the other hand, I’m still on the first draft. So what do I know?
I guess I’ll find out.

Stay tuned for next time when I’ll talk about Common Problems of First Novels.

If you’re a writer, what’s your preference? Flash? Short Story? Novella? Novel?
If you’re a reader, what would you rather read? Short stories or novels?

*The moral is: Don’t let this happen to you. You want to write novels? Write novels. Just make sure you finish them.
** This is a fantastic workshop. You should go.


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This is Your Brain On Novel Writing

The brain on NaNoWriMo.
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

As I mentioned in some previous posts, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo this year. As of today, I’ve written 49,119 words of my apocalyptic pony novel (yay!). It also means that I have used up all of the words in my brain (boo!). To that end, I’ve decided to let somebody else do the talking. Special guest post/interview with David Rees-Thomas, fiction editor of Waylines Magazine, coming tomorrow.


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NaNoWriMo Week 2, Day 8: 12,742 words

By Heather Ingram, via Flickr

Just a quick post this week. Somehow, all of my time–and all of my words–seem to have been taken up with this novel I’m writing.

My daily word goals are pretty high, 2300-2500 words most days, because I missed 3 days right at the beginning and I know I’m going to miss more. On the days I do write, I have to write a lot. It feels great when I finish it up around 11:30am most days, and that feeling propels me a long way. But sometime after the sun sets, I start to realize that the amazing feat I pulled off this morning? I have to do it again. And then again.

So, I thought I’d share the things that are getting me through the week.

  • It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Well, okay, NaNoWriMo is kind of both. But, for me, my writing career is a marathon. I may be sprinting through this first draft, but it’s okay that it’s not perfect because there’s going to be another draft. And then another one after that. And then another book. And another. And so on. I can’t get too bent out of shape over something going wrong at 500 words or 5000 or even 45,ooo, because there’s a bigger picture here.
  • Embrace failure. This came in a NaNoWriMo pep talk from author Kevin Wilson. I really had to use this advice on Tuesday. I found a lot of comfort in the idea that it’s okay to fail in writing a novel. It doesn’t have to be a good novel. But there is a difference between having written a novel and not having written a novel. As Wilson summarizes Padgett Powell, “At least you’ll  have the evidence.”
  • Use boredom to your advantage. On Tuesday (maybe you can see that Tuesday wasn’t a great writing day for me), I just kind of wanted to look at election results. But I wasn’t allowed to until I met my word count for the day. So, feeling sulky, I spaced out and couldn’t pay attention. I wasn’t interested in what I was doing. The words were piling up very slowly. Until the point that I got so bored with what I was doing that my brain rebelled and came up with something new.
  • Give yourself a pep talk. Or a pep write. Because I’m only allowed to count ‘manuscript pages’ toward my total, I have a notebook for other notes and thoughts. Sometimes I just need to switch away from the screen and give myself a chance to think more freely. Sometimes that means jotting down notes about how I want to revise Chapter 1 (yes, already I have plans for a HUGE revamping of what I wrote only 8 days ago.) But sometimes it also means giving myself the freedom to whine. Or to remind myself of the Big Picture (See #1). On Wednesday morning, I tapped out a desultory 250 words or so and stalled out. That could have been discouraging, but I went to the pen and paper and wrote longhand about 350 words of encouragement, reminding myself of all of the above, and finding my way back into why I was doing this in the first place. Then I was ready to write on.
  • New characters. Today, I moved onto Chapter 6 and got to hang out with a new character. He’s the love interest, but he’s also kind of quirky. (He’s Jared, and he’s REALLY into pigs.) I got a boost from getting to know him – how he talks, what he looks like, what he’s interested in, how he sees the world – and finding out he interacts with my protagonist. He’s new himself, but because he’s going to be important to her, he also helps me discover new facets of my protagonist’s character. He also brought the Nutter Butters.


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NaNoWriMo Week 1, Day 1

Where it all went wrong?
[Dirty dishes by Zac Zupancic via Flickr]

Today is the 1st day of National Novel Writing Month. I sat down at my keyboard as soon as I got up, because I’ve been bashing away at this writing thing long enough to know that I work best in the mornings. Waiting to work in the afternoon ruins my whole day–and I don’t get anything done. Because I know that I’m going to be away from my computer and unable to write for a number of days during November, I had a pretty big word goal for today: 2274. That number was auto-calculated by my dear friend Scrivener.

Truth be told, word output is not a problem for me–story coherence is. Most of my “writing” time is spent at my desk trying to hack a 9000-word tangle down into a 4000-word capsule that can be swallowed with joy. I have not yet learned to enjoy this part of the process. I call it dying and sobbing, some of you may know it as “revising.” For this reason, I normally track my writing progress by 15-minute timed sessions, a trick I learned from Ashley Pérez. 15 minutes is short enough that I can make myself do it, no matter how argumentative I’m feeling, and long enough that when the timer goes off, I’m involved enough that I’m ready to set it for another 15.

But having that little ‘Project Target’ box open today while I wrote was superb. Every keystroke mattered. Just as quick as I typed, the box tallied. Almost immediately, I had made an impact and the bar was being shaded in before my very eyes. As it grew, it changed color! It went from red to orange to yellow, heading for green as I closed in on the word count goal. So magic! That little tangible proof kept me pretty cheerful.

I met my word goal shortly after 11 am, and I felt pretty good. Before I closed out of Scrivener and backed it up, I had already realized that I wanted to make changes to the first scene. But I told myself that if I hadn’t written what was already there, I wouldn’t have known what needed to be changed. As Scott Westerfeld and Lynda Barry say, making marks on paper changes your brain. So I made a few quick notes about my new notions and promised myself that I wouldn’t come back to them until December.* I crowed my triumph to my writing buddies on NaNo, Facebook, & Twitter. Then I was free to futz around reading email, looking at catalogs of clothes I’d never wear, and wasting time until lunch.

But after lunch, something sinister happened. Maybe it was because I had to face a sink full of dishes from last night, or maybe its because–well, I was going to tell you it was something to do with the alignment of the planets, but when I checked my horoscope it was all about baseball and I couldn’t understand it. But I’m sure I can blame Jupiter if I try hard enough. Hands in the soapy water, I started to feel like what I had written was so terrible that it negated any superficial word accumulation. Sure, I could whack out 2000 words in a morning, and sure they followed the outline. Sure I learned new things about my character and walked her through her first big decision. But, gosh, was it lifeless. Rote. Plodding. Not the sort of thing anybody would ever want to READ.

But who was it that said a writer is the last person to know whether their work is any good? Tomorrow morning, I’m going to sit down at my computer, whip out that life-saving Dialog Spine, and write another 2274 words. I expect that part of the time I will feel like a rock star, and the other half like a worm.

by Leonard John Matthews, via Flickr

How about you? Did you meet your word goal for Day 1? Do you feel good about it? Is your novel rocking along and you’re really excited? Or are you, too, beset by black doubts?

*Rule #1: Never, ever go back and revise the first pages until you’re done. Ever. That way lies the rabid marmot bite of madness.


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Deal with the Devil

Today is Thursday, October 25th. Next Thursday is November 1st. In one week I have to start writing a novel.

I say “have to” but it’s not because failure to comply will result it dire physical consequences. There have been no threats of kidnapping, arson, or death by weasels. The real reason I “have to” do this is because I made a deal with myself. I said I would do NaNoWriMo this year and experiment with cranking out a first draft of a novel and having it all done before I had a chance to doubt or second-guess myself.

Oops. Too late.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, by Udo Keppler [1912]

I think making a deal with myself might be worse than making one with the devil.

It’s not like I haven’t written a novel before. I have. Two. The first one, a mystery novel set in Philadelphia, I didn’t finish. I’m not a logical thinker, and it was just too hard to be writing my first-ever novel and trying to make all the ends tie up. The second one I finished, but didn’t revise. Make that “haven’t revised.” I love my characters, and large chunks of the story, and hope that one day I come into the skills or the fortitude to dig them out of the mess I made. (Yes, I’m aware that I used the passive voice there, like I think awesome skillz are going to just descend without me having to do any work to acquire them. A girl can hope.)

I pantsed my way through the first two. This time I have A Plan. More than that, I have an Outline that I wrote this spring during a class on Narrative Structure with Bruce Holland Rogers, which I took through the Odyssey Workshop*. I have a setting that doesn’t require any research. I have a premise so fantastical research won’t do any good. All I have to do is look into my past and twist the facts to suit my own ends. No detours down Procrastination Avenue there.

I wrapped up my last open writing project last Friday, packed up its lunch in a kerchief, and released it onto the submission circuit. I told myself that having this week off from self-assigned writing would be good preparation. A breather. A chance to clear my head, steel my will, and maybe make some notes, do some character contemplation in a light-hearted, non-hysterical, low-pressure atmosphere. Instead, I’m paralytic.

I’ve waffled over whether I really am going to try to do it in 30 days, or if I’m going to give myself a slightly more realistic schedule for the first draft, like 90 days. That I really need to revise and submit one more short story before I give my attention to such a massive time-suck. Whether I should be writing this novel or another one. How I’m possibly going to find time to write 50,000 words when the coming month will contain a weekend vacation, Thanksgiving, a writing conference, and the beginning of a new (big) freelance project, all eating into my writing time. I’ve been starting to fantasize about what a nice, uncomplicated, *spacious* month January is. It has a roomy 31 days. Holiday nonsense will be over. I can’t see my freelance schedule from 3 months away, so it must clear, right?

But I guess that’s the point of NaNo. There’s NEVER a good time. So you just pick a time, and you start writing. And next Thursday is as good a time as any.

In the meantime, I’m going to read these prep- and pep-talks from Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier and, today, I’m going to work on what Bruce Holland Rogers calls ‘Big Picture Motivation’.**

And then I’m going to write a damn novel.

What about you?

Sharon Brogan, via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

*It was a really good class. They have more classes coming up soon.
**This isn’t motivation for the characters, but for the writer. It comes from the chapter ‘When the Novel Has To Be Done Yesterday’ from Bruce’s book about writing life, “Word Work.”