alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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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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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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It’s Not About You + Trouble

Glimmer Train always has such good stuff.

Someone recently told me that they had decided not to take a writing class because of the inevitable presence of  folks who use the workshop to display their own critical smarty-pants, broadcast the tones of their mellifluous voices, and who aren’t willing to take seriously the work that’s in front of them. I admit that I have spent plenty of workshops fuming with impatience, head bent over my papers so no one can see my eyes rolling, but I evenutally realized, as Jeremiah Chamberlin says in this article, that Workshop Is Not About Me (or My Work). The point of a workshop is to become a better writer, and listening to a group of strangers tell you that they, personally, prefer a story with more post-apocalyptic biker fairies, isn’t how that happens.

When I’m working on one of those virtuous critiques of someone else’s story that seems to be all about helping them out, but instead is all about me making my own stories better, I’m always harping on trouble. Trouble is something I have trouble with, too. Most of us writer-types like peaceful lives — it’s why we stay locked up behind closed doors making things up on a keyboard when we could be out in the world lying, shooting, screwing, stealing, cooking meth and picking daisies. We tend to be fond of our characters, and, unconciously, at least, we want them to have peaceful lives too. But that’s why ‘happily ever after’ traditionally comes at the end of the story – now that everyone’s happy there’s nothing left to tell. Aaron Gwyn gives good advice for the hows and whys of getting some Trouble into your stories.


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What a Story Does

I was commenting on someone else’s story today, and I wanted to say something about what a story is, what it does, and why having characters moving around on the page for 4500 words doesn’t necessarily equal a story.

I knew there was a quote that expressed this beautifully and directly. A quote that I really need to keep in mind when I’m doing my own work, because I am also regularly guilty of characters who meander happily (or miserably) without actually getting anywhere.

It’s from David Allan Cates, and it goes like this:

[Stories] explain the day the heart opened, the day the heart closed. They explain how we became who we are, how we became aware of something ugly in ourselves or the world, or beautiful. How we lost faith. How we found it. And how, exactly, to the moment, to the second, we finally—albeit briefly—understood.

Damn, you know. I think that pretty much covers it. I’m going to tape that up over my desk.

(Read the rest of the article at Glimmer Train).


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More good advice

This month’s Glimmer Train bulletin is just chock full of good advice.

Several good tips here from Bruce McAllister, writing coach & former director of creative writing at the University of Redlands. I was most intrigued by this one:

  • Copy out sections or whole stories they love. (It’s “play and mastery”—we know it as children, as we know joy and passion in creative work, though we often block it as adults)

I’ve seen it before, and have always been tempted, but never done it. My obstacle is an efficiency fallacy. There is only so much time available for writing work (especially right now) and I tend to feel that I should be spending it getting my own stories on paper, not doing homework (Steps towards being a novelist:  #1. Write novel.) Exercises are for that mythical “extra” writing time I expect to have, separate from actual writing time.

I have been noticing lately when reading how other writers approach their stories, usually thinking along the lines of “I would never choose those words to tell a story” or “those sentences are so different from mine.” Maybe I’m halfway there. But I can see how actually typing would be like inhabiting someone else’s body for a while. Which is one of the reasons to be a writer in the first place, so maybe I’ll try it.

Anyone else done this one?