I Am A Work-In-Progress

Keep working, Mr. Bee.

Miles run today: 10

Words written in my novel so far: 53,592

Times I have been wrong: 4.5

You may ask my husband and family: I am never wrong. Well, I mean… mostly never.

Memorable times in history when I have been mistaken:

1. “Pluto and Yugoslavia will always exist as they are today.”– Anne, circa 1987.

2. “I don’t get the big deal about the Information Superhighway. It isn’t going to affect my life in any major way.” –Anne, circa 1992.

3. “I am completely uninterested in sharing my life in a blog.” –Anne, circa 2009.

(The .5 is to encompass any slight oversight in my recollections.)

Please control your gasps, but a sea change occurred recently in my writing life, and I need to confess:

4. I was wrong about being a pantser. Plotting and outlining my novel might be a good idea.

I know. It’s huge.

Much has been made about the plotting vs. pantsing divide in the writing world: some writers prefer to construct detailed outlines of their novels, while other writers write “by the seat of their pants.”

I read an excellent blog post by a published author recently, though I can’t find it now to save my life. She said that she had many reservations about outlining… until she got very pressed for time: between caring for young children and rigid deadlines from publishers, something had to give.

She found that by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to write out, longhand, the gist of the next couple of chapters, she increased her word count by thousands of words. The result was dramatic and life-changing.

I was resistant to the outlining/plotting process. Like this author, I was afraid that specific, Roman-numeral, English-class-style outlines would stunt my writing, essentially locking me in a 10×10 cell wrapped in blank pages.

I’ve never been fond of formal outlines. They represent everything about school that I disliked, all rules-y and authoritative, judgmental and blocky.

But if you can find a way to make a chapter summary-style outline work for you, it just might change your life. I am finding, not that I’m writing wildly productive, 10,000 word sessions, but that the chapters I am writing have more of a focus.

And if you struggle with maintaining tension and keeping conflict alive in your writing, as I do, a scene/chapter loose outline may help you hone in on the nugget that each chapter needs to push your story forward.

I am fortunate to be in an excellent critique group, and if you have critiqued other writers’ work as I have, you will find that sussing out lack of tension in other writers’ work is SO EASY. Why, how simple it is to see what someone else is lacking! You, there–your story is getting dull! Your characters are talking about nothing that helps the story move forward! I just read a chapter that didn’t even need to be in your novel!

But it’s not so easy to see in your own work. At least not during the initital writing process.

You can become so enamoured of your characters, of the setting, of your snappy dialogue, that you forget the very essence of why you are writing: to make the reader want to find out what happens next!

I’m still muddling through on my WIP. I am no speed writer or novel goddess. I have not yet placed in the time trials of Olympic Novel Writing. I, myself, am a Work-In-Progress.

But I’d love to hear back from you about what you have changed about your writing process. What were you wrong about? What has made your job as a novelist easier? What nugget of wisdom can you pass along to make the world a better place?

Advertisements

When Characters Whine

Keeping both the trees and the forest in mind.

Miles run yesterday: 5.5

Words written in my novel so far: 40,265

Interviews done about Santa Barbara last week: 2! Yippee!

Now that I’m right here in the middle of my novel’s first draft, I realize that a.) the first part of my novel is usually its weakest part and b.) this is a problem.

I’m in the meaty part, the part where my characters are doing things and saying things and not keeping their mouths shut like maybe they should. And I love it.

But here is my question: how do you keep the reader rooting for a somewhat unlikeable character? I’ve read many takes on this subject, many thoughts about the antihero as hero. And while my heroine is not an antihero exactly, she is not completely large and in charge of her life when the novel opens.

In fact, she has been described as whiny.

There is a reason for the whininess, of course. She has had to struggle, in a non-poverty, non-substance abuse, non-down-and-out kind of way. But struggled, nonetheless. She is the teensiest bit self-pitying.

I kind of liked that about Scarlett O’Hara, and I don’t mind it a bit in my own character. The reason: I know what she’s been through, and I know what’s coming.

But what if you don’t know? What if an agent, or eventually you, pick up my book and then put it down before her metamorphosis occurs?

I try to write truthfully, and in my experience, people do tend to whine and complain, at least to a degree. Being noble all the time gets a little tiresome.

One time, a few years ago, I wrote an essay to submit to a women’s (writing) magazine. The thrust of the magazine? Very feminist, very strong. The thrust of my essay? I’m not great at traveling, and while I still plan to do it, it’s not easy for me… and I haven’t completely overcome some of my fears.

The feedback I got was that they loved the voice but wanted the subject (me) to have conquered her fears. I could have written that, I suppose.

But the truth of the matter? We’re all works-in-progress. We don’t always overcome things in a noble manner, kicking all doubt to the curb and becoming a Better Person.

I’ll keep working on making my character more likeable, less whiny. But the truth is that I kind of like her that way. She’s not perfect; she doesn’t have it all figured out yet. She’s not noble.

What do you think? Have you ever struggled with making a character more likeable? How do you balance truth with what readers (and agents) expect?

Planning the Happily Ever After

Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Times I thought I had life figured out: 57

Times I did: 0

Times I thought I had writing figured out: 98. But didn’t: 135

I was lucky enough to get to interview YA author Jordan Sonnenblick yesterday for work. Not only was he gracious, but humble, too. He has published eight books so far, and he wrote the first four in four years while still teaching full-time. He had some advice to pass along. As always, being in the presence of greatness makes me think about my own writing and how to improve. I thought I’d pass along what I’ve been mulling over since we spoke.

Picture the end of your novel before you start page one. Sonnenblick said this was advice he’d give to middle school students who hoped to become published writers one day. As an aspiring novelist pushing forty, it spoke to me in a kind of “duh, why didn’t I think of that before I went on a meandering, character-developing goose chase?” way.

When I was in my senior year of college, I had some major soul-questioning moments. There was a recession, and I couldn’t figure out how to get hired doing anything journalistic. Or, let’s be honest, how to get hired doing much of anything at all. In my college town, my peers seemed polarized into those who were already hired as assistants to the President of the United States the second they graduated and those who were going on to graduate school. I fit into neither category. My hometown of Atlanta was gearing up for the 1996 Olympics, and when I tried to get a job in public relations there, a family friend said that she had gotten several resumes from people with 15 years experience who were willing to intern for free (no money!) just to be close to the scene of the action.

I’m a planner, and I was ready to know how my life was going to turn out. If I could have, I would have flipped the pages of that book and discovered, stat, if the heroine ever gets a backbone or a clue.

Fast forward to my thirties, and applying that floundering lesson to my long projects didn’t take. I had left my characters bereft, floating on a (symbolic) raft, with no distinct goal. Or at least a rather amorphous one.

Lesson learned. Sonnenblick’s advice makes perfect sense. If only I had interviewed him a few years ago.

Head for the deep water. Sonnenblick had the good fortune of being blessed with Frank McCourt (of Angela’s Ashes fame) as a high school English teacher. Sonnenblick, already proficient at writing humor, wowed his classmates. But McCourt kept telling Sonnenblick to “head for the deep water.” As Sonnenblick said (and I’m paraphrasing here), humor without poignancy doesn’t last. True, dat.

But here’s the thing: deep water is very scary. You don’t know what’s under there. Even though I love boogie boarding in the waves, I’ve heard the stories about rip tides. That, and my mom still stands by the edge of the sand and yells, “Don’t go out too far!” I’m almost forty. Read into that what you will.

The uncomfortable bearing of my soul and the fear that no one will really relate are probably behind my adherence to the breakers. Let’s just say I’m working on it.

If Frank McCourt had been my English teacher, I would be an award-winning novelist today. Only kidding, Mr. Sonnenblick. What I remember from AP English was that my teacher, a pinched, narrow, Englishy teachery type, favored long silences punctuated by pushing her cheeks in on either side as she considered any comment. It was distressing.

As we studied the Book of Job and all the horrible things he had to endure, I had no trouble making a personal connection to the text. English class was a hair shirt that I pulled on once a day to atone for my sins. My teacher wrote only one thing on my papers that year, “Be More Specific,” or more disturbingly, “Specifics?” I never asked her what she meant.

I found my way back to writing by late freshman year. My salvation was journalism school, a refreshing change from five-paragraph essays. But please note that news stories lack, even encourage, no solid conclusion. Bingo! I can now blame both bad luck in the English teacher lottery and journalistic style for my unpublished novel.

We writers must plot out our own courses, and I’m back to the feeling of wanting to flip to the end of the book. Will I ever get to be a published novelist? I’m going to plan on it.