alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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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.


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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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NaNo Now What? — The Great Novel Revision of 2013

Very sad statue in Paris

Photo by Toni Birrer, via Flickr (CC-BY_SA)

In November, I wrote a novel novel-length THING.

On December 1st*, I felt immense relief and deep, personal satisfaction.
On December 2nd, I entered the 6 stages of grief PTSD (Post Draft Stress Disorder):

  1. Talking about how much I hate what I wrote
  2. While secretly fantasizing about how superb (imaginative, yet readable, yet funny, yet brave, yet unexpected, yet deep and touching, yet best-selling, yet critically-acclaimed) it is
  3. But knowing even more secretly how this is completely NOT TRUE
  4. Deciding it was a good experience and I learned a lot but I will never look at this particular lopsided story aberration ever again. It would be the kindest thing to do, truly. Best just to move on.
  5. Remembering that brilliant first draft of that *other* novel I wrote 3 years ago, which would totally TOTALLY be less work to revise–only two weeks, okay a month, tops–after which it would be a best-seller, yet critically-acclaimed, yet funny, yet heart-wrenching, yet…see #2.
  6. Talking it all over with Ashley Hope Perez on a freezing cold morning run, and deciding that the wisest course is to suck it up and REVISE** what I just wrote.***

This morning, I sat down to try to make a plan for THE GREAT NOVEL REVISION OF 2013. I got out my trusty notebook, wrote today’s date at the top of the page and the word, “Plans,” which I underlined 3 times to emphasize my sincerity and determination. And then…

<<< >>>

Yeah. Exactly that. Because you know what? I’ve never revised a novel before. I have no idea what happens, or how long any of it takes. But, you know, learn by doing and all that. Thanks to Nos. 1 & 3, above, I have some ideas about where my story is lacking. And I’ve identified some resources that I think might help:

Did you write a novel for NaNo? Did you write a thing? A half-thing?
Are you going to do anything with it?
What’s YOUR plan?

*Well, actually at about 11:52 am on November 30th
**You smart people saw this one coming, didn’t you? That was always going to be the answer. The shortest distance between two points is….well, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be a writer, now would I?
***Though it’s possible I would have agreed to anything while my brain was popsicled. Seriously, it was colder than a polar bear’s breakfast out there.


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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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Friday Rant

The Dog: She’s tired of this stuff, too.

This was too long for Facebook, so I guess it’s time for a bonus post.

Be warned: ranting ahead. Ranty rant rant.

I like to listen to audiobooks when I go for a walk in the afternoon. It’s been a busy month, what with all 26,000 of those NaNoWriMo words I’ve been pounding out. So yesterday when it was time to choose a new book, I decided I’d have a mystery/thriller. An intellectual Scandinavian one. Not too vapid, but with atmosphere and plenty of plot.

I chose Jo Nesbo’s, ‘The Leopard.’ I got the audiobook a while ago, but I didn’t remember the description in any detail. I just remembered it was supposed to be good.

I got out on the street with the dog and it started out with some nameless woman being victimized by some nameless ‘he’. And, you know, maybe she gets all empowered by the end. And maybe it passes the Bechdel test and a kick-ass female heroine appears and saves the day and she and the erstwhile victim go on to be smart and funny and talk about things that aren’t men. But you know what?

I don’t care. Because, I just don’t want to listen to this. I don’t want to go along with some poor woman’s mutilation and humiliation one more time. I don’t want to be horrified, or titillated through horror, or whatever you want to call it. I’m tired of that whole trope. Weary, really. So I crossed the road, I turned it off, and listened to music for the rest of my walk.

Today I’m going to listen to “Broken Kingdoms” by Nora Jemisin instead.