alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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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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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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Right Mind

Broken House by cindy47452 on flickr. This picture makes me feel the same way as a house I drive by everyday.

Broken House by cindy47452 on flickr. This picture makes me feel the same way as a house I drive by everyday.

I’ve been trying to get my writer’s house in order lately, trying to organize the forces of the universe in my direction. It’s not that I think feng shui is going to make me the next Meg Cabot, but more like I’m trying to see my obligations beyond putting words on the page, and do the right thing.

This week, I finally sent that thank-you letter for the conference scholarship I received in June. I sent out two stories for submission, not because I think they’ll be accepted, but because sending out stories is the right path and I’ve neglected it.

Along those lines, Tayari Jones has a really nice post about what to do with feedback on your work. It starts and ends with gratitude to your readers, but in between there are practical suggestions like “listen to the vibe of the comment as much as the specifics” and “when you love something that one of your readers hates, just sit with it for a while.” I’m going through a couple of revisions right now, and it is not my favorite fun time. Reading her post makes me feel calm and serene, yet powerful, like I’ve just had a great yoga class.

And while that universe alignment may not be working for me, at least it’s working–a good friend is on the verge of selling her first novel. Glad to help.


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Doing It Again

Revision is something I struggle with. For years, I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it was some sort of advanced authorial copyediting, where I leaned back and admired the matchless sheen of my prose and gave the 100-watt corners an extra buff with the word-chamois to bring them up to 110.

That wasn’t revision, that was narcissism. It was also kind of boring. Real revision – taking apart your story, your characters, your presumptions, your plots, your locations, your motivations piece-by-piece, can be exhilarating.

It’s also – for me, at least – a miserable, tooth-gnashing, soul-destroying self-flagellation. In life, I’m a hard-core pessimist. But in first drafts, I’m sunshine pollyanna. I absolutely believe that I can write anything I like, that the good stuff comes from the uninterrupted, unmediated unconcious, and that I, as writing manuals are so fond of instructing, “can always fix it later.”

Good advice. Except they never mention just how hard that fix is. Maybe there’s some zen koan secret to it, where if I would just give up and stop struggling, stop fixating on my original inspiration, stop believing that the finished product should have a passing relation to why I wanted to write the story in the first place, I would be writing better stories.

I have been helped, psychologically, by watching some writer friends go through the same thing. Seeing their work taken down 19 or 20 pegs in critique, and seeing them come back with a whole new manuscript, re-thought, re-considered, and re-written. The act of watching it happen in someone else somehow makes it more possible. Because I know in the end my problem with revision is not about craft: it’s about fear.

As Karen Outen says in this article from Glimmer Train, “The general fear of revision is, of course, simply our fear that what we want from our stories cannot be achieved.” She’s 100% right. And while I think I’m a long way from the “joyful” she’s talking about, every little bit helps.

Any of you other writers want to comment on your feelings about revision? I would really love to hear how it works for someone else. I even understand that there are some people/loonies out there who claim to love revision, and say it’s their favorite part of the process.