current state of the (nonfiction) manuscript

I don’t often talk about my in-progress writing, except, whenever I do, it’s with other people who are also writing (or trying to write) and it’s a useful conversation for both of us. It’s also something I see less of when it comes to nonfiction/academic writing. I don’t think that’s just because I hang out with a bunch of creative writers, since it didn’t even really happen in grad school. We had to take that class and buy Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, but … that was kind of it.

I’m also going to be all superstitious and secret about the actual content of this project, for the record. Partly because hyping it all up and then still having to write it feels like knitting the second sock (I don’t knit socks because I have to do the exact same thing twice) and partly because … well of course my ideas are so good you’ll want to steal them. Right? [Insert sweat smile emoji here]

So this week I picked up a draft I’d started back in November. When it grows up, it’s going to be a book, maybe 80,000-90,000 words. I haven’t really touched this one since the end of last year. It was about 33,000 words when I opened it up again to see what, exactly, I’d been trying to say.

Since it’s nonfiction, I’ve got the whole outline established. (This is in direct opposition to my fiction drafting.) All of the chapters are there, and even major headings within the chapters. Perfect.

I’ve been out of my normal routine for a while, so I wanted to re-establish that and make some realistic goals. Now in the past I have drafted academic writing at 5,000 words a day, every day, with no breaks, until it was done. That’s how I wrote Surviving Stephen King, for example, but a side note there: that was in April 2020, when I could pour all my emotions into my writing and let it distract me, and I’d just quit my job to write full time anyway, and I didn’t have any freelance work just yet. I’d also been researching King academically since 2014 and reading him longer than that. So. 5k/day was not a realistic goal for this past week.

I settled on a couple guidelines:

  • 1,000-2,000 words a day for all 5 weekdays
  • sit down to write by 10am

It looks so innocuous and simple, doesn’t it? But let me also explain why these were my goals.

First, like I said, I know I can produce 5k words a day. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally possible. I’ve done it before. But that was then, and this is now. It’s a different book, a different topic, and I’m in a different place in my life.

Plus I’m coming back from a pretty long break. So. I wanted it to be realistic and achievable, but with a push. A push with breaks – weekends are still weekends. No need to go into burnout and frustrate myself trying to expand this draft.

As far as the “sit down by 10am,” I’ve got a couple things going on there. If I say “write from 10am until noon,” I might not get my word count goal. If I get up early, then I don’t really want to force myself to sit around until 10am to start. My sleep is something I try to put into my schedule, but it doesn’t always happen when I want it to, so some flexibility is good. Start by 10, check. Can do.

I’ve also clearly got that time free to schedule as I want – some of my freelance work is at specific times – and I know what time of day I’m most likely to be productive. So the point is to set myself up for success as much as possible, but also to show up and get my butt in the desk chair even when I don’t feel like writing.

I’m still at the point in the draft where I can easily skip around and fill in different parts depending on what catches my attention the most. I like this part. Monday I worked on Chapter 7, Tuesday Chapter 6, Wednesday Chapter 3 … I’ll have to go back through and make sure things flow properly, sure, but I know where the blank spots are.

Here’s a tip:

One of the first things I did was skim through what I’d already written and add [more] at the places that still need something: a transition, a whole section, whatever. The highlight helps me scroll through the document and see where I still need to do some work, and I chose the brackets because I don’t use brackets within the text. This makes it easy to search and see exactly how many places I still have left to work on.

Some of them are small (a transition) and others are pretty big (the conclusion chapter), but that part doesn’t matter for me right now. The important thing is that I can easily tell where more work needs to be done, and I can fill in all of the 0ther [more]s before tackling the conclusion. That’ll save me from printing it out for what I think is a final proofread and realizing I’ve left out an entire section.

Now when I sit down at or before 10am to write at least a thousand words, I can search for the missing piece that grabs me the most and start there.

I also like the Pomodoro technique.

Some days it takes longer than others to write a thousand words, so that can seriously be an extended time when I’m trying to force myself to focus … and nothing else. So most days, and especially days when I feel sluggish and like there’s no way in heck I’m getting 10 words, much less a thousand, I’ll start the timer. 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Or I’ll use my Pomodoro – Focus Timer app (I paid the one-time fee and it’s totally been worth it for me) and set it to 15 minutes on and 5 minutes off.

For the record, when I use the app, I set my phone on a stand where I can see it count down. It helps me to know how much longer I have to force myself to focus, or how much longer I can be on Twitter, and I like how I can set it to automatically run. Once it starts, it’ll tell me when the focus session is over and I can take a break, or when the break is over and I can get back to work. There’s no messing with individual timers to switch back and forth between 5 and however long I’m focusing. I really only use it in the moment and don’t even look at my stats, but you can try the official 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off for free. It’s setting up your own timing that’s part of the paid app.

Otherwise, it’s really just one word at a time.

If I hit my minimum goal, that’s 5,000 new words this week. If I max out, that’s 10,000 new words. They’re not necessarily all keepers, no, but once again, you can’t edit a blank page. Right now I’m still in full rough draft mode: nobody ever has to see this. I’m just shoveling sand in the sandbox and telling myself the story. Once I get all of those [more]s filled in, I’ll have to switch gears and get into revision mode, but that’ll be a while yet.

Current state of the manuscript: rough draft, over half of the way there

the one about failure

All right, as promised (because I knew I could make myself write about this, but only if I’d actually put it out there): the failure stories. Okay. Honestly. Here we go.

*deep breath*

I actually feel pulled two ways about this. Some of my abandoned WIPs have gems buried in them: awesome phrases, sparkling dialogue, or a nugget of an idea that’s still worth pursuing. Others totally faltered for good reasons (mostly the reason being “I have no idea where I’m going with this”). But I think I’ve managed to hang on to at least 90% of them, so I can give you some actual numbers. (Even though I’m not sure I really want to look at the numbers myself.)

I wrote my first original “novel” in 2000, so in the past couple of decades …

I have 87 abandoned projects on record

Okay. I’m not sure if it hurts more or less to have the actual number written down like that. It works out to just under 4 abandoned projects a year, but in the cases where I’ve got the original dates, they totally group up. Some months I try and try and try and try and … nope.

Some of them are only a paragraph or two. Others are already tens of thousands of words (and I really want to know how they end, but … I still don’t). Many are variations on a theme, where I kept trying to find the proper path into the dark forest. For some of them, I eventually made it … after a dozen attempts. Others are just abandoned.

I’m not entirely sure why I saved them all, even if I’m grateful I did. Some were saved on a CD. Others were printed off and put into a three-ring binder. The more recent reside in the “nuggets” and “established beginnings” folders on my computer (with a sort of arbitrary line for when something’s long enough to become the second instead of the first).

And, if we compare my numbers with the titles in my “completed” folder, we’ve got 10:1 odds here.

For every plot arc I’ve completed, I’ve made 10 attempts

That’s just overall. Sometimes – the magic times – I complete a plot arc on the first attempt. Others take four or six or twelve false starts.

I think if I wanted to do more math I’d find that the ratio started out much higher and has come down over the years. I also don’t think it’ll ever be 1:1, but 3:1? Maybe. And I also think that’s only happening because I do keep trying.

I mean, aside from the obvious “You’ll never finish anything if you quit starting,” I like to think that bringing the ratio down is all part of the process. Maybe I’m finding myself more easily, or maybe I’m more wiling to circle the dark forest longer before trying to make my way in. And for me, finishing is the ultimate goal: getting a draft with a complete plot arc so I don’t flip the page years later and groan because it’s blank and I have no idea what happens next.

But I’m also really proud of Teenage Me for the fact that, despite the 20:1 or so ratio, I kept writing. Like I seriously want to go back and give myself a hug for it. I made repeated attempts and even kept the record of those attempts, even though it’s basically a record of failure. And that momentum has made it easier, or maybe even necessary, to keep saving everything like that. To keep on dropping breadcrumbs on my way.

So I’ve kept them, and every so often I’ll pull them out and go through them. I’ve even made lists of the lines that still strike me as good and the ideas that still intrigue me, just in case.

If I’m feeling very brave, I might even share some of those someday. (Right at this moment I’m not feeling very brave …)

When’s the last time you looked at your WIPs? How does your stack compare to mine?

To outline or not to outline: that is the question

I know I’ve already shared how I, personally, outline books – or, at least, how I outlined Ripper’s Victims specifically – but since I’ve also pointed out that each new project can feel like learning to write all over again (and since that first post is pretty darn old by now) I thought I’d come back to this question with a broader scope.

Yes, I outlined Ripper’s Victims using sticky notes before I ever started writing it. Yes, I’ve still got that poster board. And there are a lot of times I use sticky notes and poster boards to organize my ideas in the early phases, especially of nonfiction projects, but of course that’s not the only way.

I have friends who:

  • jump right into a project without any notes or outline or anything. She just sits down, goes “Hmmm,” and writes the first page. And it works. She’s written entire novels this way.
  • come to the first page with a pretty detailed world and the first couple scenes in mind, then see where that takes them.
  • outline everything very meticulously. And I mean very. To the point where it’s less of an outline and more … nearly-completed scenes. But she doesn’t like revising, and she can manage to keep up the energy not only of these outlines, but also then writing the book.

They’ve also all written more than one project, so these methods are the ones they’ve figured out to help them keep moving forward. It’s like Stephen King‘s “Write every day” advice (I wrote my own thoughts on that here): it works for him because he knows what doesn’t work for him. My outlining friend does so much work before “officially” writing because she’s seen what happens if she doesn’t. The friend who writes by the seat of her pants hasn’t had to change her method because it works for her.

And along with the “each project is new” aspect of it, I’ve also realize that – shock, I know – there are major differences between my nonfiction and my fiction approach.

I don’t outline my fiction with sticky notes.

Sorry. I should’ve warned you. That one’s probably a big shocker.

For Not Your Mary Sue, I don’t think I have any written notes … at all … before starting it for NaNoWriMo (at 12:01am November 1, because I’ll force myself to wait for November, but no longer). Even though the idea had been in my head since February that year.

I’d been thinking about Marcy, and her family, and her background, and how she’d react to waking up on that island, but I don’t have any character sheets written down. No timelines drawn out. I “cast” Jay in my head but I had even less on his background than Marcy’s.

Since it’s from Marcy’s POV, she was the one I needed to know better. I also knew Jay’s main goal would be talking and telling her all about himself, so … I figured that I’d be able to learn along with her. (Hey, it’s a first draft. Nobody ever has to see your first draft. If it crashed and burned, nobody ever had to know.)

And the thing is, the story I thought I’d be writing ended up being only about half of what actually came out. I saw where it could go, to a specific point, and assumed I’d then write a little tag scene to sort of wrap things up, but … the story didn’t want to be wrapped up there. I knew who Marcy was by then, had spent so much time with her, and realized her story wasn’t done yet.

So I had even less of an idea of how the second half of the book would go, but I followed her anyway and let her do her things and live her life, and followed her like Joe Goldberg and wrote it all down. (Maybe someday I’ll share how I thought Marcy’s story “should” have ended, before she told me how wrong I was.) But I was like my first friend and had no idea at all what was going to happen next until I typed it, and … it still worked. The story came out. It made a complete arc.

Okay but that’s a success story.

I get it – there are plenty of ways to outline a story or not, and they all work for different people, and look at how well they worked for me! Whee! But what about when something doesn’t work? What about all the failures and the discards and …?

Next post, I promise. We’ll talk about about the failures next. I’m going to need a lot of space for those.

so you want to talk about flesh prisons (aka characters’ physical descriptions)

The other night at dinner, my husband was talking about Ready Player One. He read the book (in English) first shortly after it came out, then saw the movie, and now he’s reading the book in Italian. (Which he’s taught himself, because this is the guy I married.) He commented on how, since he’s seen the movie, he kept picturing the character Art3mis as her on-screen version and not the book version.

Which got me going about describing characters and using the phrase “flesh prisons” (yes, while we were eating) and he asked a) if I’d write it up, and b) if I’d use the phrase “flesh prisons” in my post.

So. Here we are.

I’m even going to throw in the asterisk that I gave him before going on my rant: this doesn’t work for all genres. If you’re writing romance, for example, you’re going to go right ahead and slow down while focusing on the love interest. There are times, be it in genres or just scenes, when more description matters. Just bear in mind that longer descriptions do slow down the action, so they’re more suited to certain places in your book than others.

Okay. Asterisk out of the way. When boiled down, my own personal decision on how much to describe my characters is this:

What do we decide to do with our meat prisons?

Bearing in mind that my characters are contemporary figures who get put into “basically today, usually Michigan” for their thriller settings, they’re humans. And human beings can be interesting, but part of what I’ve come to realize about myself is that physical appearance is most interesting to me when it ties into characterization.

Maybe also that I’m just not good at in-depth character descriptions. Anyway.

Let’s take Jay for a minute. I know, I know, only a handful of people have read Not Your Mary Sue so far since it’s not out until June, but you can meet him in the opening pages here. And most of the description comes when you first meet a character, right? So we can see some elements of Jay’s appearance: reddish hair (currently messy instead of purposefully tousled); blue eyes; tall; has a smile that lights up his entire face. I’ve even dropped in a clue about whether he’s right- or left-handed, but that’s not really a physical descriptor.

The thing is, in the first draft of the novel (from NaNoWriMo 2017) I did something that made me cringe a little when I went back over it: I described him based on which actor would play him in the movie version. It made sense within the book itself – Jay wants his story to be told and become a bestseller, so it’s not a stretch to imagine it then getting turned into a movie, the way both Mark Harmon and Zac Efron have played Ted Bundy – but I ended up cutting it.

Naming a well-known actor basically locks us all in to the same Jay, forever and ever, amen, the way my husband’s been picturing the Art3mis from the movie while reading the book. If I describe someone as “Avengers-era Chris Evans” (not my Jay model, in case you were trying to make it work), then we’re all stuck with Avengers-era Chris Evans in our head. We might not complain, but … we’re still all picturing the exact same thing.

I want to give you some leeway.

Pick whatever kind of nose you want for Jay. Imagine his eyebrows. Fill in the rest of his face.

You’ll learn later about why his smile maybe isn’t such a welcome thing, and Marcy has her own reasons to focus on his physique in the early pages of the book, but there’s enough to play with so that your Jay doesn’t have to be my Jay. And I’ve gone for sort of the low-hanging fruit: hair color, eye color, and height. Basically sketched in a roughly humanoid figure.

The rest of what you learn about Jay has to do with his character: who he is as a person. When Marcy describes his physique, it’s in comparison to what she associates with his favorite hobby. (Spoilers there, so that’s vague. No, it’s not serial killing.) His hair matters because it is messy instead of deliberately tousled, each of which says something different about a person.

What I like to describe about my characters’ physical selves are the things that tell us something about them as people.

It’s usually not something they had no control over – whatever genes blessed or didn’t bless them from birth – but the things they do: hair style. Tattoos or piercings. Hair dye. Clothing. Hobbies and learned skills that show themselves physically, like a guitar player’s calluses. Sometimes things they didn’t necessarily have control over, but tell us about their lives, like scars.

In the Ready Player One example, Art3mis is encountered first – and for the vast majority of the book – as an avatar. Cline spends a lot of time having his main character describe that avatar, in part for those romance novel reasons (Wade knows who Art3mis is before encountering her “in person” so he already knows she’s interesting) but also because the avatar was entirely created. Art3mis chose not only her screenname, but every element of her avatar. Everything about her appearance is therefore a deliberate choice that tells Wade something about her before he ever meets her.

And to be fair, I have wondered if character descriptions are one of my weakest points. (If you’re going to tell me I’m right, please be kind while you do so.) Maybe it’s something to do with being ace and just not looking at people the “usual” way. Or maybe I just think motivations and internal aspects of character are more interesting than flesh prisons.

How do you approach describing characters’ physical appearances? Do you have any favorite authors who seem to be really good at it?

Learning to write all over again

Writing can feel really isolating: just you and your computer as you stare at the blinking cursor and wonder when the document is going to have the desired word count. How you get from 0 to that word count is pretty much up to you. If you’ve got a deadline, you just have to be faster and figuring it out.

It’s also one of those things where you don’t always realize what you know or how valuable your own struggles – uh, experiences – might be until you’re talking to another writer and someone says “OMG, me too!” in clear tones of relief.

In grad school, we didn’t really talk about the writing process. It was like everyone assumed we already knew how to write and just had to be told the assignment parameters. When I submitted for my first conference, I felt like I was winging it. Same for my first chapter. We didn’t talk about writing, and it didn’t seem acceptable to ask anyone about writing. It was just this weird taboo.

So it was hard to tell if my own experience actually related to anyone else’s, or if mine was somehow … subpar. Like I’d missed a bunch of key information that everyone else somehow magically knew.

Part of my intent with this blog is to share the things that get me the “OMG, me too!” responses so I don’t play into the secret-keeping aspects. I’m (somehow) at a point in my career where people look up to me and think I’m a real writer (imposter syndrome what?) and there are so many things I wish I’d heard from someone when those positions were reversed, so …

Starting a new project can feel like learning how to write again from scratch.

There. It’s out.

You’d think, or maybe hope, that after you write one book, you’ve got it down. You’ve managed to go from 0 to 80k or so, get it passed editors and proofreaders and through the printing process, and you’ve learned a bunch of lessons along the way. All of which can be applied to Book #2. Right?

Uh. Well.

To be fair, at first I thought maybe I was just making things harder for myself by not approaching a new book project the same way I’d gone about the first. Like I was just reinventing the wheel to keep my stress level high for the fun of it. Except each book project is different, so why should the process look exactly the same?

For me, Book #1 was about Jack the Ripper. Book #2 was about H. H. Holmes. Two nineteenth century serial killers, right? Well, yes. But …

Ripper’s Victims came out in 2018, but I’d started reading about the Ripper in 2007. I’d already racked up a respectable number of books by the time I signed the contract, and bought even more in the process of researching it. But it wasn’t like I’d only looked into the Ripper from the moment of signing the contract. I’d already had a better part of a decade not only reading about the Ripper, but writing a paper on the women for a graduate independent study course and then presenting that paper for my first conference. I had this whole history with the Ripper, and there was such a huge bibliography to make my way through.

Take a look at this:

I know you can’t read it, but the framed poster board at the bottom with all the neon sticky notes is my outline for Ripper’s Victims. I went through and wrote down the titles of books about the Ripper and organized them chronologically. Which worked quite well until the 1990s, which spilled over, and then for the 2000s I ended up parsing out different themes because yowza. The Ripper was popular and still gaining.

Holmes isn’t that popular. I’ve had people hear I do true crime and name Holmes as their sort of “gotcha” killer, because apparently we’re gatekeeping true crime now. (Also apparently Erik Larson’s book, despite selling so many copies, hasn’t made Holmes mainstream. Who knew? Maybe everybody reads it for the architecture.)

But already straight off you can see I couldn’t start the same way with Holmes as I had with the Ripper. I’d read I think three books about Holmes when my editor asked if I’d be interested in writing my own, and three compared to my Ripper history seemed kind of pitiful. Except … there aren’t over 100 books about Holmes. My bibliography didn’t stay at three, but it certainly didn’t explode like my Ripper posterboard.

That’s just one major difference. Another is the subjects themselves: the Ripper was never named, but Holmes was. He’d been identified, put on trial, and even wrote both an autobiography and a confession before his execution. You can’t approach them the same way. It makes no sense to try.

And still I thought maybe I was just trying to make life difficult for myself.

Is this a case of form following function? (That’s for you architecture fans out there.) Granted, the final form – a book – looks very much like any other book. There’s a different cover, but … sentences and chapters and pages.

I think the biggest takeaway here is flexibility.

When you’ve written a book, you’ve learned one way to write a book, but it’s not the only way for anyone to write a book … and it’s not even the only way for you to write a book. The tips and tricks you’ve amassed are certainly there in your toolbox to be used as often as you need them, but they’re not the only tips and tricks in the world. And they might not always work on a new project. (I’d try for another architecture metaphor, but I personally read Devil in the White City for the serial killer.)

I’ll revert to Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey: he says that the hero has to find his own path into the woods. If the journey’s easy, then you’re on a path someone else has made, and you’re not going to be a hero.

Writers have to find their own path into the woods … for each book. Maybe you can make some headway on a path you’ve made before, but not always. Sometimes you have to reassess your approach and start hacking away in a different direction, because this book isn’t the same as the last one. You’re not looking to end up in exactly the same place, and you’re probably not starting from the same place, either.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep … and enormous. Starting a new book can feel like learning to write all over again, and that’s not a bad thing. It can be frustrating, but it can also be thrilling and rewarding.

What do you think? Do you find yourself still learning how to write, no matter how much you’ve written before?

“Do you ever get into a writing funk where you just can’t summon the energy to write?”

If you google “write every day,” you get over a million results. I mean, it’s Google, so there are usually tons of responses, but … it’s common advice. I don’t know if it’s the most common, exactly, but it’s out there enough that people who don’t write everyday are worried, or even convinced, that they’re doing it wrong. To the point where someone I know, who is in no way a slacker, asked me this question: do you ever get into a writing funk where you just can’t summon the energy to write? Because maybe she assumed that, being a “real” writer, my answer would be “no.”

How accepted is this idea? I wrote back “YES” and she responded “THANK GOD.” (We proceeded without shouting after that.)

The thing is, we get people like Stephen King telling us to write every day. And you’d think he knows what he’s talking about, right? World-famous bestselling author, and he says:

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop, and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind … I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.

Stephen King

So … write every day. Right?

Not according to Cal Newport. Or Kristen Simental. Or Luke Eldredge.

I’d like to pick apart King’s quote, because even though it often gets repeated as the simple “Write every day,” he actually tells us more than that. In fact, he reveals a bit about his own writing pitfalls. Once he starts a project (so presumably not 365 days a year), he feels that he, personally, has to write everyday because otherwise he sees issues in characters, plotting, and pacing.

Remember how not all writing advice is universal? How there are so many books about writing out there, and they all have different advice? We call come from different backgrounds and have our own potential pitfalls. Not all advice is for every writer, and not all advice is shared in a way that’s actually helpful.

That’s why we need the full quote: to see what, exactly, “write every day” means to King, and why he stands by it. He’s noticed, in his own many decades of experience, that he, personally, has to write every day once he starts a project, or else these issues arise. He’s not “writing every day” because it’s been repeated so often, but because he knows what’s likely to happen if he doesn’t. For King, writing every day is the solution.

I’d say I more or less align with King here: once I get started on a project, I’m likely to write something in it every day until I hit my goal. Sometimes the goal is a completed draft; other times it’s a completed section of a draft. If I’m at the very beginning and I’m excited, then “every day” means 7 days a week. Other times it means 5 days a week, because even people with “real” jobs get weekends. (Mine aren’t always Saturday and Sunday, or two days in a row, but they’re still days when I don’t expect myself to write.)

The biggest argument I hear for “writing every day” is that writing is a job. If you’re serious about it, then of course you’ll do it every day.

Think for a moment about what you do every single day of your life. Breathe, eat, sleep. Take care of other humans or pets in our household. But even exercise plans have rest days built in. Work limits your hours if only because they don’t want to pay you overtime. We recognize the need for rest, recovery, and making space for other things when it’s not writing, so …

If writing every day burns you out, then it’s bad advice for you. Like all other writing advice, it’s something you need to consider for both practicality and personal adaptation. If you’ve never tried it, maybe it’s time to pick a project and adhere to the advice for a set amount of time – say, a month. Give yourself long enough to figure out if it’s working, and maybe long enough to become a habit. Maybe you’re a big don’t break the chain kind of person. But even then, remember that the true test of your chain is missing a day … and getting right back into it on the next.

You might mess around with expectations. Are you trying to write a specific number of words each day, or carve out a specific amount of time for writing? When you say “writing,” do you mean “putting words on the page” or will you count research, plotting, daydreaming, and so on? Are you willing to switch up your goals and your schedule to better match your actual daily output? Is this a 24/7/365 sort of goal, or a project-based goal?

So no, I don’t put words on the page every day. I don’t sit in front of my laptop for a set amount of time every day, either. When I’m working toward a deadline, it’s far more likely – but even then I remember that weekends are a thing. And, like King, I’ve been doing this for a while, so I have a pretty good idea of what works for me and how to avoid my worst pitfalls. But that doesn’t mean you have to do exactly what I do.

Sometimes I get into a funk and can’t summon the energy to write. It happens. I’ve barely worked on my book projects all month because so many other things have come up. Stress is real, and burnout is real. If writing every day adds to either of those, then it’s probably not your best solution right now. Because that’s what writing advice should be: a solution, not stress or shame.

How was your January? Were you more productive, word-wise, then I was?

Remember to look back

Sometimes things just come together for inspiration. Take this tweet from a friend of mine:

Dan’s clearly a skilled maker – he’s also a fiber artist as well as doing woodwork – and he’s got this striking visual example of his progress. We can see how intricate his work gets, even if we’ve never made spindles ourselves. And we can see it at a quick glance.

I’m connecting this back to writing. Of course I’m connecting this back to writing. Because lately I’ve been a lot more involved in communities of writers, which involves things like feedback and support and beta reading.

Beta reader (n.) A beta reader is a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues.

definition from Cali Bird

For authors, beta readers are a sort of reality check. Is the piece doing what you think it’s doing? Is that loveable rapscallion of a character actually loveable? Does that tender scene between your main character and the love interest actually bog the plot down and make readers yawn instead of sigh with heart eyes? Betas help us figure out what’s working, what’s not, and which darlings need to be killed. (Sob!)

Now, not all beta readers are “right.” We’re all coming from our own backgrounds, with our own impressions and preconceived notions and references and all the rest. Just because I interpret something in a specific way doesn’t mean everybody will. That’s why there’s usually more than one beta reader in the process: if all of them say something’s not working, then it’s probably not working. Sorry. But if one says the darling needs to be murdered and the others don’t … author’s choice.

I’ve been writing all my life. I can’t remember not engaging in reading and writing. I do know that I wrote my first original “novel” (okay, it’s more the length of a novella) when I was 15, and that’s a couple decades ago by now. I’ve been writing more than half my life. I’ve had, and even taught, classes on writing. If you have to write a million words before you get to the good ones (who first said that? it’s complicated), I had them all down at quite a young age.

The thing about those first million is that you’re supposed to discard them, because they’re crap. Did I? Well, not all of them. Like Dan, I can look back over my work from bygone years and compare it to what I produce today. (Unlike Dan, I can’t convey this in a short video, since you’d actually have to read my stuff. Also unlike Dan, I don’t feel like sharing some of that past work, thanks.)

But I do have it. In fact, I have a lot of it on my Kindle right now, next to my current WIPs, so I can easily revisit them. It helps to remember where I am in my own journey especially when I’m volunteering to be a beta reader for someone who’s in a different place on theirs.

There’s a lot that goes into being a good beta reader, and I think part of it is the recognition that it’s not just the words on the page that’s a work in progress. I mean, that’s the whole point of sharing a piece with betas: to get feedback, because you know it’s not quite there yet, wherever “there” is. As authors we probably also feel like we’re not quite “there,” either. There’s always something to learn, and we only learn to write by writing. Hence the million words. You don’t have to count every single one, but the writing has to happen. There’s no shortcut there: to be a writer, you have to write. (But that’s also the only step: to be a writer, you have to write.)

I think it’s good for all of us to take a look back at something we’re good at doing (now) to remember when we weren’t. Especially if we’re remembering a time we totally thought we were good, until we revisited it at a later date and … well. It’s good to remember, and to help each other along our journeys the way other people helped us along our own.

It’s good to look back and recognize our progress, too, even if that might feel a bit more selfish. Maybe we want to get better, but there should still be room to measure the distance between where we were before, and where we are now.

What makes you put a book down without finishing it?

The other day one of the writing discords I’m part of asked us what makes us stay up too late reading, and I had trouble actually answering that one. What is it, exactly, that makes me keep turning pages? Compelling characters and situations, yes, but I’ve finished plenty of books where I didn’t actually like the main character, especially not at the beginning. (Wally Lamb writes some very angry men, for example.) I’ve also finished things where the ending or ending explanation is disappointing. (Sorry, Stephen King, but we know you know.)

A screenshot of Stephen King’s cameo in It: Chapter Two where he insults the author character’s endings.

But those are all books I’ve finished in spite of not loving them completely, not books I DNF’d (did not finish). Looking back, though, it takes a lot for me to DNF.

Take We Need to Talk About Kevin, for example. It’s epistolary, for starters, which isn’t usually my thing, and the POV character’s voice really grated on me. She seemed snooty and just … who writes letters to her husband like that? I slogged my way through quite a bit of it before I made a strange (for me at that point, at least) decision: I went to Wikipedia for the plot summary. (Gasp! Who does that? Don’t all good readers finish everything they start, one page at a time?) And, in this case, knowing the ending meant it was worth finishing.

I can’t remember the title of another book I truly DNF’d after going through the same process: slogging through because everyone says it’s good, going to Wikipedia, and then …

Here’s my cardinal sin: when it’s the author screwing with you instead of the characters.

What I found in that Wikipedia search (and really it’s probably good I can’t name the title or the author) was that the jarring POV change I’d just hit was the author purposefully obscuring the truth. Making it seem like the POV in the first section was a specific character when in fact … it wasn’t that character at all. The author jerking you around and yanking your chain and (I imagine) feeling pretty darn clever about it. (Can you tell this is seriously my pet peeve?)

I love reading thrillers. Can’t get enough. And I love unreliable narrators. Gone Girl is awesome. It’s not Gillian Flynn playing the deception, though – it’s her characters, all working to deceive each other in-book, and therefore deceiving the reader. Gillian’s not the one feeling pretty darn clever about it – [character’s name redacted in case you haven’t read the book yet] is the one feeling pretty darn clever about it. Because [character] wants to fool everyone, and the reader just happens to be part of everyone.

I love thrillers with unexpected twists. I also read a lot of thrillers, so more often than not, I can guess the twists. The cool ones leave two or three options open so I’m still not sure. The awesome ones still manage to surprise me. But even when I can guess an ending, I can enjoy how the author takes us there and how they present the story … as long as they don’t get in their own way while doing it.

Clearly the answer to this one is incredibly personal and subjective. What about you? What’s the point where you mark a book as DNF and pick something else up? (Also: what are your favorite thrillers? I could stand to add a few to my TBR pile.)

Nitty gritty: narrative timelines

So this post isn’t about how much time it takes to write something, or caring about a project for months, or about planning your writing schedule. It’s about the timeline within your writing. How much time passes from the first page to the last? How much in a chapter? And how can you make it clear?

I’ve read books where the chapter titles are dates or even, in the case of Rewind by Catherine Ryan Howard, timestamps. (This is especially useful for books that aren’t presented chronologically.) But of course you don’t have to do this to indicate how much time has passed. You can work it into the text via either the characters or the narrator – say, the way The Princess Bride uses “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

We’re going to think about this one for a moment.

If you’ve never read or seen The Princess Bride, it’s a book-within-a-book scenario. William Goldman presents it as the book his father read out loud to him when he was sick, so he’s never actually read it himself. He tracks it down for his own son, who deems it boring, and that’s when Goldman finally picks it up … and decides to publish his own “good parts” edition because the book is boring. In the “original text,” for example, those three years of Buttercup’s life and her training to be a princess are explained in excruciating detail. Goldman, therefore, writes what his father said as he skipped over all those pages: “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

S. Morgenstern, the “original author” of The Princess Bride, should probably have listened to Elmore Leonard:

I try to leave out the parts that people skip

Elmore Leonard

But the question is: what are those parts? How do authors know what to skip?

For Not Your Mary Sue, I have some Very Important Plot Points that happen in June, all close in a row. There’s pretty extensive coverage for a couple weeks, and then … well, the next part I really wanted to write was almost a year later. But it’s not as easy as just writing the parts we want to write. There had to be snapshots of what happened in between in order to set up the proper emotional situation for the almost-a-year-later section.

In my initial draft, I had a bunch of information there. New places, new relationships, new activities. And it was helped along by timeline cues: references to seasons or holidays, which is easiest in the fall and winter. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas New Year’s, Valentine’s Day … they’re easy touchstones because I imagine most of the people interested in my writing would know when they happen, so I don’t have to explain.

Now here’s the tricky part: I actually edited out a bunch of that myself before sending out the full manuscript. Trying to leave out the parts I thought people would skip, you know? Keeping some of the timeline touch points and making it clear time was passing, but … not in as much detail as those first few weeks, or the days covered almost-a-year-later. Those, I figured, were the interesting things.

Well. On the plus side, I still have all those scenes hanging around for when I was asked to put more detail in that middle section. By leaving all of them out, I’d whacked off the opportunity for emotional investment and therefore weakened some of the things that happened almost-a-year-later.

So, if you’re sitting down to plot out or write a story, what are some things to consider about timelines?

  1. Sketch out a calendar. I’ll print out the months my story covers because I tend to use real time, but even giving yourself seasons works. This helps me see when things are happening that will be important to the plot or offer that emotional connections for readers, and what time can be skimmed over. It also helps me make sure I’ve put in all necessary clues and foreshadowing so nothing that happens later should feel like a trick – the seeds should be there.
  2. Use signposts for readers (and yourself). If real-world things like “It was almost Halloween” aren’t going to work, then consider opening a scene or chapter with “It had been three weeks since she’d seen him” – something to help your reader know that yep, there was a time skip. Nothing important happened. (Or, if something did, it’ll come out in the dialogue when she sees him again.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to add too many details to that first draft if you’re not sure. And, when you cut them for a new draft, keep your old draft intact, or cut-and-paste things to a separate file. Don’t ever fully delete your work or kill your darlings, just in case they’re going to be useful later. Go ahead and take your time with the important plot elements – those can expand to fill more pages. Take the time that needs to be taken during your first draft, because you can always massage it later.
  4. Have someone else read it. Get more eyes on the page than just your own. Can they follow what’s going on and when? Do they have enough to form the emotional attachments you’d like them to? Are there in fact parts your beta readers would like to have skipped? (Are there parts that need more emphasis earlier on?)
  5. If things still aren’t working, draw out the timeline again, this time based off what you’ve actually written (and not what you’d planned to write). I like color-coding these and tracing them across characters so that I know what all the important people are doing during a certain week or month, even if they’re not currently “onscreen” in the novel. It can especially help when considering characters’ motivations and their actions: did they just come off of an emotional moment? Or have they had weeks to adjust to something?
  6. And of course remember that your rough draft is a rough draft. It’s for you. Nobody else ever has to see it. This is where you can try to cram in as many clues as possible, or cover that “boring” day if you think it’s important to show changing character relationships, or meticulously explain that cool thing you know how to do just because it brings you joy. Then, when you’re revising, you might sigh and take those things out … or leave them in and see what your beta readers have to say about them.

We’re never going to get it right for everybody – there will be parts people skip, and parts people wish you’d said more about – but paying close attention to your timeline (and not just your plot outline) can help guide you, your characters, and your readers through the story.

Do you think about timelines during your writing process? Is it part of your planning, plotting, revision … or not even on your radar?

What role does the setting play in your plot?

It’s one of the requirements for writing a story: where it all happens. You can have amazingly detailed and dynamic characters but, unless they’re floating in the vacuum of space, they’re not enough. You need to know where they are, and what effect that “where” has on them and on your story. Your setting doesn’t necessarily have to be a character in and of itself, but choosing the right setting matters.

Setting matters for characterization

Think about how the places you’ve lived have affected your own life. They’re going to influence your way of speaking, even when you’re not aware of it. I’ve seen lists of things about the Midwest that other people find weird and of course aren’t strange to me, but it’s important to know all of those “natural” things you say, do, or expect aren’t universal. If your characters say “Ope,” drink pop, or look for a corn maze in the fall, then your setting is going to have to support all of that.

Setting matters for plot

Also think about the challenges you want your characters to face. Should they be able to run to Wal-Mart any hour of the day and buy things to solve their problems? Do they have access to Internet and cell service? Are they living on top of each other in an apartment block or way the heck out there in the middle of nowhere? If there’s a family emergency, how quickly can they be at their parents’ side? If they have a medical emergency, where’s the closest hospital? Your setting will have an effect on all of these plot elements.

Setting matters for believability

Yeah, I know we can argue about what, exactly, is meant by “Write what you know,” but if your story is set in the real world – even if you’ve made up your own town, like Derry, Maine – your familiarity with the wider setting can really help make things seem believable (even when a killer clown comes out of the sewers). Stephen King is from Maine, so his stories set in Maine have a certain verisimilitude because of his personal experience. When he mentions Yoopers, though – he’s done it twice so far, in 11/22/63 and Billy Summers – it’s … not quite right. (Look, I’m impressed he even knows what the UP is, but Traverse City isn’t in it.)

If you choose to mention real places and you’ve never been there, you run the risk of alienating readers who have. Take Traverse City, for example. I was born and raised there, so King’s reference to TC was cool, but … wrong. There’s also Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which messes with the city’s geography in ways that (sorry, Lauren) could have been fixed with a simple google search. Granted, how many people in the world are going to know where there is (and isn’t) a Mailboxes Etc. in Traverse City? Well, say the 15,500 or so people who live there, but … if you don’t know TC, you probably don’t even remember it’s ever been mentioned.

Still. It’s something to think about.

So how do I bring this all together in my own writing?

Not Your Mary Sue opens on an island in Lake Superior. I don’t name it – it’s just … a private island. The actual location along the coast doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact of isolation. I wanted my two characters completely stuck with each other for the first half of the book.

I’ve lived in the UP since 2007, so I know the area. The way Superior looks when it’s the only thing on the horizon. How to warn people if you’re going through certain dead zones because no, your cell phone won’t work – you know you’ve come out the other size when you get a whole slew of notifications. I wanted my characters to have the isolation in Misery but to somehow make this happen in the 21st century, when cell phones and Wi-Fi make that difficult. It’s hard to be a kidnap victim for weeks on end when you can simply dial 911.

Lake Superior as seen from Eagle River

My male main character is from the UP, and my female main character grew up in the Midwest and has done a bunch of traveling, which means I can use either my normal speech patterns or the way my friends talk. I don’t have to try to make sure that someone’s always from Brooklyn, for example, because they’re from the places I know.

For me, the setting and initial situation – two characters in isolation – occurred together. I’ve never tried to put Jay and Marcy anywhere other than their rocky island out there in Superior. (Unnamed island, remember, so nobody can tell me I got the number of pine trees wrong.) It just made sense, based on my own life experience.

What’s been really interesting, though, for someone who’s lived in Michigan most of her life, is remember that not everyone knows what it’s like to look out over Superior. How that view can change drastically depending on the weather.

Lake Superior at Agate Beach

Superior isn’t a main character in the book, but she’s certainly a presence. They’re literally surrounded by the water, isolated because of it, and any thoughts of escaping have to take the lake into account. In Not Your Mary Sue, the setting plays such a major role in that first half of the story that it couldn’t be picked up and transplanted anywhere else.

How do you think about setting when you write? What makes your settings necessary to plot and characterization?