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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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.