Story Stew

There’s no such thing as writer’s block.
Write a little bit each day.
Butt in chair.

I’m sure we’ve all heard variations on these themes regurgitated online and in craft books and by cranky creative writing professors.

Writers write, right?

Yes, but sometimes such a pace is unsustainable. You don’t want to get so burned out you never want to pick up a pen again. You also don’t want to keep writing just for the sake of writing if there’s something fundamentally wrong with your story. Sometimes you just need to stop and have a think.

This doesn’t mean you have writer’s block or that you aren’t being productive, even if you’re not committing words to a page. Thinking through your story is always time well spent.

The prewriting stage of a project is the most familiar, most obvious, time you spend thinking about a story. Also before launching into a major revision. In both cases it makes sense to give yourself a few days, weeks, even months, depending on story scope, to think over what you want to accomplish, and how that tracks through the narrative.

Recently, particularly for my short stories, I will get a story idea, but wait until the point where I cannot stand not writing the story any longer. I stew and stew and stew, let my story ideas come to a simmer, then a roiling boil, and then and only then do I start to write. I’ve found this leads to more complete first drafts and a better sense of my characters and the overall story arc. High five.

There are also less obvious times when it makes sense to hit the brakes and think on what comes next. For me, I usually pause in my drafting when I approach a major tentpole scene. I also slow down my pace the closer I get to the end of my story. In both cases, I’m usually juggling a lot of characters and plot elements, and it can take time to work my way through these scenes even with an outline. A slow and steady pace, particularly with lots of time built in to stew about the possibilities, usually helps it all come together.

I’ve taken to addressing problem scenes this way too. I’ll take a break, stew a few days, and then come back re-energized to get the story back on track.

How do you stew?

Obligatory Arrested Development Reference (Source)

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Transitioning into a Second Draft

I discovered the short story I had a sneaking suspicion was actually a novel last fall is, in fact, a novel. And I’m 90% done drafting it. I have the last section roughly outlined, and should finish up the first draft by the end of the month if not sooner.

And it needs to get done by then. So I can revise it, and expand it, and send it to my CPs, all in time before Taos Toolbox come June when I plan on sharing the novel with the other participants. It’s overwhelming when I look at all those goals smooshed into a single sentence, but the terror is keeping me going, keeping me productive, as I pound out ~2k a day to get there.

But even though the first draft isn’t completed yet, I’m already thinking about what I’ll need to do to prepare for the second pass. I don’t have the time to set the story aside for a couple of months – even though I am planning on a break here and there for writing short stories.

So I need to be focused and smart in terms of how I proceed.

Research 

I’ve been doing a lot of research on an as-needed basis as I’ve been drafting, but there’s still a lot more to be done to really make the story come alive. Aspects of the world I’ve created need to be fleshed out and tied more firmly to plot elements. Parts of the story take place where I live currently, so field trips to area attractions and museums and the like are good too for getting at those concrete sensory details to anchor the story action and make it as authentic as possible. Geography, language, history, science, politics…I’m drawing on it all and want it represented as accurately as I’m capable of doing in this second draft.

Description

This is one of those things I have to consciously incorporate when I write. I usually get so caught up in action and dialogue that description usually falls by the wayside. So in my second draft, I know I’ll need to really pay attention for opportunities to describe my world and my characters. I’ll be drawing on my research for one, but now that I’ll have a completed draft, it’ll be easier for me to go back and accurately depict my characters as well. Usually, I don’t really have a good sense of my characters until I finish the first draft, where I can then chart their character arc over the whole story. So on this second pass, I’ll be taking a hard look at how I describe and characterize the story players throughout the book.

Stakes

Partly because of the way I’ve chosen to structure this book (for now) and partly because I’ve been so focused on getting to the end of the first draft, stakes aren’t as fully explored as they’ll need to be if I want to attempt to publish this story. In my second draft, I’ll be taking a hard look at each chapter, each section of the story, to determine ways to consistently raise the stakes and ratchet up the tension as the story progresses. It’s close now, but it needs to be even more pronounced to achieve that page-turning quality in what’s turned out to be a more character-driven sci-fi adventure (I know, I’m still wondering how that happened too).

Plot Expansion

Because I’ve been flying through my initial draft (for me at least), there are some huge gaps where I’ve left out entire scenes or have only provided the barest skeleton of story action. All of those areas will need to be fleshed out and expanded. There’s a good chance what I discover in writing these new scenes will need to be incorporated elsewhere in the story as well so everything fits together naturally – I don’t want things shoehorned or appended onto the story at this stage. Things should hang together at this point. And if they don’t, I know I have more work to do.

Sentences

This probably goes without saying, but when I’m drafting I don’t always have my most beautiful prose flowing. I’m trying to get from point A to point Z as fast as possible, and if the right word or phrase isn’t readily available, I skip it and move on. On the second pass, I need to root out every instance of lazy writing, cut clichés and awkward phrasing, and instead create laser-sharp prose chock full of precise details. Intentional writing, made a heck of a lot easier once I have my first draft done and understand the shape of the story.

Keep your fingers crossed for me as I finish up my first draft and decide what to do with it.

What do you look for improving on a second pass? How do you prepare to revise a first draft?
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Untangling Plot Threads

I spent yesterday wrangling the unwieldy plot threads of one of my scifi WIPs. Just about all of them. It was intense work, but absolutely necessary if I wanted to, you know, finish the book.

Photo by Gurms at Flickr

My plotting was compounded by the fact that I hadn’t really worked on this story for nearly a year. Sure, I workshopped a couple of chapters over the summer with my writing group, but, for better for worse, this year has been about getting my historical romance ready to query (check) in addition to writing and revising a half-dozen speculative fiction short stories (check check).

Now, with those goals well in hand, it was time to turn my attention back to this particular story. It has a lot of potential—well, at least I think it does—but it also has a lot of problems, some of which I talked about way back in Exorcising Demons.

But it’s not hopeless, which I established after reading through the whole story start to finish. That doesn’t mean those 60k words are beautiful, mind you, but (I think) I can work with them.

The bigger issue is that I essentially have three versions of the story I’m trying to juggle:

Version 1 – my initial draft, with two viewpoint characters, simplistic plot, overblown romantic subplot, and mustache-twirling villain.

Version 2 – partially revised draft (note partially), with three viewpoint characters now including the antagonist (note shift from villain to antagonist), reduced romance, and more plot events of the variety “something cool happens here”.

Version 3 – the supercool idealized version that lives in my head, with new character quirks and backstories, set pieces, and ambitious socio-cultural details to be included.

And yesterday was all about resolving these different versions. Good times. Especially since I never finished resolving the second version with the first version. Note to self: Never do that again.

So how did I make it work?

1) Stew – I always kept this story in the back of my mind, stewing over the characters and plot until I had the time to fully devote to it. This is how Version 3 came to life.

2) Reread – Rereading what I had already wrote helped to clarify what changes had been made and what ones hadn’t, as well as gave me the confidence to tackle even more onerous ones. Also, the refamiliarization was essential for getting me back into this story since it had been so long.

3) Write – I actually tried to pick up where Version 2 left off and make the changes I had originally planned to while working in Version 3 details as well. Got about 4k in, then decided I really needed to start from the beginning.*

4) Outline – Yep, I basically sat down yesterday and wrote out a rough outline for the entire book, synthesizing elements from all three versions. And now I feel confident enough to begin the revisions in earnest.

*This is why I have trouble with Nano – I get to a certain point in a new story then realize that I need to step back and revise from the beginning. I don’t start over per se, but I tend to write a discovery first draft, usually a partial draft, until I really understand what my story is about. When that realization comes, I can’t make any forward progress until I resolve the issues that linger in the first part of the story.

I won’t say I have things figured out with absolute certainty – I’m sure I’ll be switching out plot points and what not, but for now, I finally feel I have a handle on this story instead of the other way around. Which makes me excited to actually dig in and make the changes the book needs.

We’ll see how much progress I make this December.

How did you work through a problematic plot? Have you ever had to straddle different story versions? How did you make it work?
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When Novel Ideas Masquerade as Short Stories

I’m coming off a summer of insane productivity. For me.

And although I’ve done some work on two of my novel-length projects, the name of the game has been short stories.

Five of them in the 4-6k range, all speculative fiction. Two were written before the summer, and I’ve been revising and soliciting feedback on them. The other three were drafted this summer. One was accepted by an anthology. The remaining two I hope to have submission-ready by next month. Fingers crossed.

I’ve started to workshop the pieces with like-minded members of my local meetup writing group – a breakout group of those who were actively pursuing publication and were already at a certain level with their craft. This group of ladies has provided some hugely helpful feedback (even though we all write very different things).

Something that has been consistent in their comments is that each short story could be so much more. Sometimes that means I have to flesh out the world or the story a bit more. But most of the time it means they think I should be writing a novel instead of a short story. That my short stories are novels in disguise.

I’ve talked before about my difficulties in writing short – and believe me, I’m aware of the irony that my other publishing credits are flash fiction.

What’s a girl to do? Well, I’m not opposed to writing novels, obviously. In fact, my “natural length” is probably more novel than short story (and writer Juliette Wade has a great post on this: Natural Length and the Fractal Nature of Stories). The problem is I’ve got two speculative fiction projects already queued up. So converting any of the stories in this current batch into a longer work won’t be happening any time soon.

Then there’s the advice that writing short can be a great way to jumpstart your career (see Lydia Sharp’s post The Benefits of Writing Short and The Long on the Short post from Magical Words). And that’s what I was trying to do with these stories that I’ve turned out this year.

So, as I revise, I’m working hard to do the following:

1) Streamline story elements as much as possible without compromising my view of the story world

This may mean simplifying plot points or removing certain features of the world – especially if they open up a whole host of questions that my story doesn’t address. I often add in aspects that I think flesh out the worlds in a shorthand way, but oftentimes these are the same things my writing group calls me out on. As Juliette Wade points out in Worldbuilding for Short Stories: “in a short story, you have very little room to explain or explore. Everything you do has to be done in as few words as possible.” So Poe’s assertion that every element of a short story should work in concert to achieve a unity of effect is something I need to keep in mind.

2) Find ways to develop character without developing character

Calm down. I’m not advocating one-dimensional characters. But in SF/F stories, where worldbuilding and story action demand a not insignificant portion of the story, that doesn’t leave you with a whole lot of room to devote to your characters. This is where voice is so important – and it’s no surprise that all the short stories I’m working on are written in first person. I vowed at the beginning of the year to write in first person to help me really sink into my characters and that’s proven doubly helpful in terms of developing character without slowing the story action down.

3) Analyze all the themes/issues/plot points and decide if they are best served by the short story form

This is always tough. I have to decide if I can fit everything into one story. Or, if I remove some elements, will the story be stronger? If not, maybe I should just save it for a novel. I fear this is already the case with one of my short stories, but I will give it the old college try at keeping it short. Besides, more than other genres, lots of SF novels started out as short stories, and I’m just following the trend…

Have you ever been told you have a novel masquerading as short story? Did you end up paring your story down? Or did you turn it into a novel? Happy writing!
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The Competitive Edge

I think it’s fair to say I’m a competitive person.

Growing up, I constantly challenged my younger sister to silly contests: Who could sing the loudest? Who could build the bigger block tower? Who loved our parents more? I played sports through high school. I got good grades and not so subtly competed against my friends for class rankings. So I’ve always had a sense of who to beat when it came to something I wanted to excel at.

But writing is one of those things – especially when you are apprenticing like me – where a competitive mindset can hurt you. We’re human, so it’s not uncommon to feel jealous of other writers. (See posts by writers James Scott Bell, Leslie Greffenius, Diana Santelli, and Juliette Wade who are more eloquent than I on the subject.)

When we’re just starting out, we need community, not competition. But it can be hard to bury that competitive instinct. It’s how you manage it that’s critical.

For example, I held off sharing my work with others because (in part) my competitive nature could not handle failure. Sucking was not an option, especially at something I loved. I got over that, of course, because we all know there is nothing more humbling than writing for publication. I exchanged my work with a few writing groups and found two wonderful critique partners.

But now that I’ve started work on a new novel-length project, some of those old fears have crept back. How can my new story possibly be as good as my old one? What if my first story was just a fluke? What will my CPs – who have come to expect a certain level of competency from me – think?

But then that competitive edge that kicked in: Not good enough? You will make it better. You’ve done it before; you’ll do it again. Or else.

Ok, so maybe my inner voice didn’t say it quite like that, but the prospect of having someone else’s eyes on this particular story pushed me out of the writing funk I found myself in whenever I thought about the project.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t make myself take initiative – I had ideas on where to take my characters, possible plot lines, even a full draft – but I wasn’t making any real headway in completing the story. But once I decided this would be my next project after my historical romance and consequently the next novel I share with my CPs, I found my motivation again.

Suddenly it was easier to commit to some changes and cut what wasn’t working. With the prospect of someone else reading the story who wasn’t me or even my husband, I found it that much easier to direct my revisions. I have certain expectations of my writing before it’s ready to share with others, and my competitive nature won’t allow for anything less. So I funneled that energy into my story, and so far, I’ve been pleased with the results.

You may have heard the advice: know your audience. This is important, and author Micheal Cunningham has some interesting thoughts on the subject as well. He suggests finding that one person to write for – not yourself, not the world at large – just one person to focus your efforts. I think it’s important to take that concept one step further – write for that one person who forces you to be your best.

For this particular story at this particular point in its development, I’m writing for my CPs. To ensure the quality is there and worthy of their time. They won’t always be my intended audience – at some point I’ll be revising and rewriting for agents and a general reading audience – but for now, while my story is still new and full of possibilities, there’s no one better to write for because my competitive nature will force me to ensure the work is as good as I can make it before I turn it over to my CPs.

If you are competitive like me, how do you harness that energy in your writing? Who inspires you to do your very best?

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