Don’t Look Back: A Retrospective of My First Drafts

don't look back.

Don’t look back. Something might be gaining. (Photo credit: mariaguimarães)

It is fall of 2012, and I am writing.

The new novel—the good one, the exciting one, the one I’ve been waking up at night to think about—is being written, and for these short weeks or months or however long it takes, I’ve caught lightning in a bottle. It doesn’t like being caught. It fights me. It turns back on the hands that hold it. It hurts, sometimes. But I’m getting it done. And the good days are so good. I’m going to win NaNoWriNo, but that doesn’t matter anymore because this is about the story. NaNo is just a bonus, a background note, a way to stay connected to other people. I know this draft isn’t perfect, isn’t even close, but that doesn’t matter, because right now I’m fucking flying. I remember all the things I learned from the last time…

…Which was 2011. I’m grinding my way through this messed up story, fighting it every step of the way. I know I’m being horrible to other people, know that I’ll pay for this hell-bent run later, but right now I need this. I need to go through the fire. The victories here are hard ones, and I make a lot of mistakes. But I’m resigned to that. Hell, at this point, I welcome it. I’ve made mistakes before.

Like 2009. The corpse of the half-finished novel falls dead from my word processor and I feel like a murderer. Or, worse, a failure. The mistakes I made this time around will keep me from writing long fiction for almost two years. I went too fast, I got caught up in the panic of the word count and competition instead of in the story. I finished NaNoWriMo, but crippled the story to do it, and I know in my heart that it’s broken beyond repair. In later months, I’ll return to the story time and time again, a killer returning to the scene of the crime, trying to put it right. Eventually, I have to drag it out back and put a final bullet in its head before burying it deep, putting us both our of our misery. I almost give up entirely, because this isn’t at all like….

2008, and I can totally fucking do this. I did it last year, didn’t I? And that was just a trial run. All right, the novel before that one was hard, but that’s understandable, because I was just learning. Now I know how to do this. Funny, people always said it took fucking years to figure out how to write a novel, but here I am and I feel like I know everything. Not like that kid last year…

…In 2007. I’ve done this before—sort of—but not like this. Not in such a short period of time. Maybe it will hurt my writing. Or maybe it will help. I have no way of knowing. Fed up with my own insecurity, I start to write anyway. Whatever happens will happen. I’ll be fine, I tell myself. After all, you made it through the first one.

Which was only six months before. For the first time in too many years, I have time to write, and I’m doing nothing. Just staring at the blank screen, waiting for something to happen. Too many questions—can I do it? Will I be good at it? Will I fail?—and absolutely no fucking answers. The screen doesn’t give me any, and I’m too goddamned inexperienced to know on my own. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared of failing, scared more of doing nothing at all.

But the universe hates a coward. I take a deep breath that calms me not at all, reach for the keys, and—hesitantly, badly, but getting better—start to write.

Uppers and The Death of Your Social Life: NaNoWriMo Survival Guide For Participants

Fuck you cards.

Send these out to the haters. (Photo credit: m.k.)

(Stay tuned on Wednesday for Part Two, which is for everyone surrounded by the insanity this month, but not taking part. I have not forgotten you, brothers and sisters, because I am one of you. Coming soon, the NaNoWriMo Survivial Guide: Spectators Edition!)

1) Find a Roadmap. You should have some idea of what you’re going to write, even if it’s only the word ‘fuck’ 50,000 times in a row.* Do you have a type of story? A character? A scene? A genre? All of these are foundations upon which a proper story may be built. Get yourself a pen and paper and get cracking.

2) Get Caffeinated. Or indulge in some other upper of choice. I’m not here to judge until you actively start foaming at the mouth. In which case it will be my duty to put you down like the rabid word-hound that you are.
Until that happy day, though, you’re going to need some quick-fire energy. I recommend espresso, each one spaced about two hours from the last so that your heart doesn’t explode, but choose your own indulgence. Chocolate, candy, tea, smoothies…the possibilities are endless. Just, you know, partake responsibly.

3) Make Space. Notify family, friends, spouses, children, pets, coworkers, and any other living entity that might wish a moment of your time for the next thirty days that you will be, if not unavailable, then at least very fucking hard to reach. Change your email auto-response. Adjust your answering machine. Switch your Skype icon to ‘unavailable’. Fake your death. Whatever you have to do in order to carve out a chunk of writing time.

4) Manage Your Pace. This will mean different things for different people. For example:
If you get ahead: cherish these moments but don’t slack off. Maintain the momentum that got you there. If you take a break for a couple of days, you might not regain your pace.
If you get behind: Don’t panic. Catch up when you can. Scribble a few words whenever you get a chance. And remember that this is supposed to be fun, not an exercise in hand-wringing and paranoia.
If you’re on track: Then stay there. What the fuck else were you expecting?

5) Onwards To Adventure! This will be a unique project for you. Even if you’ve done NaNo before, nothing will be like this. So enjoy the ride. Experiment! Write freely and with passion. Editing is for December.

*Though I will say that plan is unambitious at best.

How To Finish A Story

The Achilles heel of many. And with NaNoWriMo coming, sometimes we need a little help to figure things out.

Português: Funeral do papa João Paulo II.

Clearly, whoever you’re going to kill will be popular. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here are my top tips—tip tops, heh—on finishing that first draft.

1. Start with a plan. This isn’t always possible; sometimes we just want to fucking write, and fair enough. But having a plan, or at least a goal in mind, can help you get to the end. Try an outline, especially if you don’t usually use one. Or just a three-sentence synopsis.Those of you who are afraid it will ‘kill your creativity’, grow a pair. A good idea is not an asthmatic glass-boned puppy: some handing won’t kill it. If anything, the good ideas are more like Vibranium. The more you hit it, the stronger it gets.
But what if you’ve already started? Isn’t it too late? I’m glad you asked. It brings us to…

1b. Continue with a plan. Stuck halfway through? Now seems like a great time to outline. Make thyself a roadmap, word monkey.  You got this far on gut instinct, but now it’s time to make some plans. Lay out your pieces and figure out what the fuck comes next.

2. Change things halfway through. Why the fuck not? Just leave a note for yourself with the changes and move on. You can edit them in after. Like mystery writers say, you can always go back and leave the footprint in the flowerbed when you realize you need it. Writing is a very specific time machine.

3. Silence the doubt. With booze. Hah, no, that doesn’t work. Nothing does, really. But learn to recognize the midway slump for what it is: doubt and fear. Things feel like crap when we’re in the middle of them because we lose confidence. Find it again. Or fake it and go on to the end. Which brings us to…

4. Hum a few bars and fake it. Sometimes you really don’t know what happens next. You don’t know how this mess you’ve made sorts out. Next time it happens, try this: write an ending anyway. Even if it’s not exactly right, having it down will allow you to more easily spot the wrong. And then you can figure out why it’s wrong. Space llamas ride to the rescue? They can’t because their helmets don’t function in Rigel-6’s atmosphere. So either change the helmets or figure out who else can ride to the rescue. Wrote a funeral when no one died? Time to kill someone off. Sometimes you have to try some wrong before you can figure out what’s right.

The Path To Not Sucking

Slightly Muddy Trail

Watch your step.(Photo credit: jaybergesen)

The other day, I was looking through short story submission listings and I found one that I thought I might have a story for. But it was something I wrote back in the long ago that never found a home. So long ago that I couldn’t remember which of the four or five titles I’d decided on for it. So I had to go through my File O’ Finished Stories* and read a bunch of stuff from that era to see if I had one that fit.

That was a bad trip.

It was less ‘stroll down Memory Lane’ and more ‘get jumped and robbed by thugs in Memory Lane who then proceed to boot fuck you a little bit while you’re down on the ground.’ When I say that a lot of this stuff sucked, it doesn’t even cover half of it. To properly describe the amount of suckage, I would use all my words for today, tomorrow, and probably the rest of the weekend. But I won’t, because I’m going to need those words for useful stuff. Like maybe writing a story that I could submit to that anthology without wanting to die of embarrassment.

It was a fucking humbling experience. I like to think I’ve got some skill with words, but there was little evidence of it in these stories. There were ideas, sure, but they were couched in graceless language and as poorly executed as a mob lynching.

I decided to be depressed for a while.

Which was pointless. All it meant was that I got less shit written than I should have. But eventually, I came around to the truth of the matter:

The path to not sucking lies through a lot of sucking.

There is no way around it. You have to suck at something first. You have to slog your way through an awful lot of Being Bad At Shit before you find your footing and start on the road of Not Being Terrible. You’ll still fall off the path every now and then, but your footing will grow more sure with every step until you hardly fall into the mud of suckage at all.

But you still will. Sometimes. Because no one’s perfect.

And as you’re lying there in the cold wet mud, you can either give up and drown, or get your ass up and try to find your way back to firm ground. It’s your choice.

Just remember to keep those old missteps around. So that, every now and then, you can look back and see how far you’ve come.

*In my head, it’s a digital version of the Island of Misfit Toys

Brand New Skin: Editing A Zero Draft

Statler and Waldorf

Statler: Wake up you old fool. You slept through the story. Waldorf: Who’s a fool? You read it. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a shitty part about doing a zero draft, and it is this: sometimes you have to look at a mess you’ve made and realize you’ve now got to make something worthwhile out of it. And, fuck, that seems like a lot of work.

Funny, the idea of just writing it the right way the first time around never seems like as much work. Just think it out until it all lines up perfectly and then write it. Right?

If you can actually do this, then I salute you. Also, I’m probably going to hunt you down and eat your brain in the hopes of gaining your powers.

Zero drafts are a mess. They’re stories without their skin on, just the bones and blood and unidentifiable bloated squashy bits all kind of hanging together in a semi-cohesive shape. It’ll fall apart if you so much as look at it funny. That’s why we edit: to make it stronger and better and generally less fucked up.

Sometimes that’s a tall order. For example, my own editing adventures yesterday led me to write this comment on a particularly weak section:

“Yes, bring me the Macguffin! Or horrors will befall thee! I’m not sure what horrors yet, but they will be horrors! Beware the unspecified horrors! Beeeeewaaaaaaaaaare.”*

I am my own Statler and Waldorf.

There are big fucking sections of this thing that are going to get mown down like the nameless security forces in every action movie. Huge chunks that are going to be ripped off like splints and bandages. And, like those splints, they served a purpose once: they kept things moving. They made me move on, write on, get the story into some kind of order, no matter how flawed that order seems now.

But their time has passed, and they are no longer useful. So they have to go. And I need to build the story strong enough to stand up without them.

It’s going to be a lot of work. But I think I can get it there. And Macguffin-free, too.

*My comments on my own work are about 50% useful notes, 20% questions, 20% mockery, and 10% ‘What the unholy fuck?’ notation.

Do Better

A standard ice pick

I need more of this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most common comment I leave for myself during the editing process consists of two words: do better.

You’ll spot that gem up and down the margins of the print out, scrawled in red ink. It’ll pop up in the digital bubbles of the comments function on the computer. Sometimes it just ends up printed in big ass block letters on a post-it and stuck on my desk.

Do. Better.

I slap this comment on every instance where I think I fell short. The parts it references aren’t spectacularly bad or anything. They’re just…meh. Nothing. Forgettable. Or worse, cliched. They’re all the places that I didn’t bring my A-game. I was going through the motions like an overpaid athlete with a bulletproof contract and a rabid badger of an agent. I did what I had to do, I moved the story along, but I can do better. And I know it.

Zero drafts are full of this shit, and they have to be. Zero drafts are about getting through the story, in part so I can find out what the hell it is. The prettiness comes later. But when I’m hacking my way through that first rough pass, I’m so busy trying to nail the story to the floor before it has a chance to get away that I fall back into the easy phrases, the lazy words. Nights are dark, people are constantly looking at things, and things are a little too on the nose. It gets the job done, it gets the reader—in this case, me—from one point to another, but it lacks artistry. More than that, it lacks impact. It falls through the brain without a ripple, let alone the ice-pick of revelation for which we’re aiming.

I read about a songwriter once who said that he threw out the first rhyme he thought of every fucking time. No light and sight for this guy. No heart and start. He always looked for something else. Something that wasn’t so goddamn obvious. It’s the same principle at play here. Don’t complicate for the sake of complicating, but learn to recognize the difference between simple and elegant and lazy and boring. The only way to recognize that difference, to train your brain’s nose to zero in on its unique stench, is to go through your own shit and find it. Because, trust me, it’s there.

And when you find it? Simple.

Do better.

Return To Sender

Egg Shell

Surprise! (Photo credit: MzScarlett)

I think I got an idea that was meant for someone else.

A short story I was working on has hit a snag. Well, more than a snag. I’ve got a zero draft done, and it’s not terrible.* It was on track. But as I was slogging through a round of edits earlier this week, I finally realized something.

I don’t want to tell this story.

That’s a weird feeling: looking at something you’ve made and having no other thought than I don’t care. As someone who frequently gets far too obsessed with stories and characters, it was profoundly unsettling. Like cracking open a perfect egg to find that it’s just an empty shell. Surprise.

It’s also odd that I let it get that far. There have been stories I didn’t care to tell before, but they’ve very rarely gotten past the initial idea stage. After spending a little time together, I realized we weren’t a good fit and let it go. Or I couldn’t get through an entire draft before running out of idea juice. But to get all the way to a completed draft is….unusual.

It’s not that it’s a terrible idea. It’s really not; trust me when I say that I know a bad idea when I see one. It’s just not mine. I have virtually no interest in telling this story. And, more than that, I will do a bad job at telling it. Any reader would be able to sense the apathy. It’s practically dripping off the page, all grey and boring.

I figured this out when I was doing everything else on my to do list in an effort to avoid it. And I mean fucking everything. Laundry. Organizing my digital files. Cleaning the kitty boxes. You know something is not on your favourites list when you’d rather scoop up another species’ shit than do it.

I’m going to have to let this one go, I think. It’s not mine. And it deserves someone who will look after it properly. Someone who can tell it right. Not the half-assed, disinterested pass I’m giving it. And it’s not like I don’t have other stuff to work on.

So, free to a good home: one story idea.

*Not any more terrible than any zero draft, I mean.

Approaching The Speed Of Editing

English: The famous red eye of HAL 9000

What do you think you’re doing, Steph? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I write fast. Everyone knows this. But I edit slow. Really slow. Like ‘plot advancement of an art house film’ slow. It takes forever.

That’s because editing uses a very different brain than writing. It’s more deliberate and precise, but it also burns out faster. Editing takes a lot of concentration, so have to do it in chunks of about half an hour, interspersed with something that doesn’t make my brain creak so much (i.e. writing). This is why I usually have different projects going on at the same time. For example, I’m breaking up the morning’s editing with this blog post. I edit until my timer goes off, take a break, then switch. And so on until I either finish or until the effort of cleaning the insides of all the story lightbulbs makes me snap.*

Oh, yes, the timer. I have one. I use the digital version of the Pomodoro Timer, mostly because it sits unobtrusively in my task bar and I don’t have to think about it.** Also, I find the 25 minutes on, five minutes off break down great for me. Five minutes is long enough to check Book of Faces and Twitter, walk around the room and stretch a bit, maybe get a coffee…but not so long that I lose touch with what I’m doing. I don’t usually use it for zero draft writing; it’s better to dump that mess out in one go. But for edits, and re-writes, I need a little more structure.

The net result of this is that a story that took me two and a half hours to pour out on the page in its initial form will take almost a week to edit into something worth reading.  I took it from a zero draft to a marginally readable one on Wednesday and Thursday, but there’s still more work to be done. Every draft gets a little cleaner, a little sharper, a little closer to the magical point of good enough.

And with luck, I’ll hit that point before the deadline.
*Some clarification may be needed: ‘Cleaning the insides of the lightbulb’ is household slang for ‘taking a task to the point of obsession’. I have lived with two people for whom this phrase was invented just for cleaning the house. It has it drawbacks, but the lightbulb are very clean.

**And the delightfully robotic voice sounds like I’m being told to take a break by HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Fill Needed: Editing the Short Story Zero Draft

Rodeo clown Flint Rasmussen

Not Shown: The Main Character. Unless the editing takes a weird turn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, it’s done. The first draft of that short story I was wrangling with last week. And most of the week before. In the kind of twist that my brain loves, the winner of the Draft Cage Match was…a completely different story. This is the equivalent of, at the end of The Hunger Games, having the Punisher appear and gun down the last three competitors simultaneously. Cool? Maybe. But definitely unexpected.

But there’s a draft, and it’s done, and now I need to make it not suck.  Here’s my attack plan:

1) Fill in the holes. My zero drafts tend to be either really wandering or really sparse. This is the latter. About half of it is just dialogue at this point. I need to go back and backfill some of those gaps because, right now, they’re just talking heads. At least one of them has a head. The other might have none, or more than one. Hard to tell.

2) Continuity of Voice. I wrote first person this time, so I need to make sure that the viewpoint character’s voice is consistent throughout. No changing into a hard-drinking, hard-loving rodeo clown halfway through. Unless it’s really awesome. Then it’s okay.

3) Continuity of Rules: Working in speculative fiction is freeing—magic and science and warping the laws of physics, oh my!—but also oddly constricting. You need to know what the rules are before you break them, and then you need to break them consistently. This story concerns a binding contract and certain conditions that have to be fulfilled and loopholes within those rules. I miss one, then the premise falls apart.

4) Shiny!* Time to break out the polish and get to buffing. Take out the nicks, grind off the unnecessary rough edges**, make it slick enough so that when the gut-punch comes, it’s that much more unexpected.

There’s a lot of work to be done, especially considering the state of the draft, but now there’s a place to start. That’s all a zero draft is: a point on the map to say ‘you are here’ so you can figure out how to get where you want. Now I’ve got to get to work.

What’s that, you say? You can hear something under the floorboards? Oh, that’s nothing. Nothing important, anyway. It’s certainly not the butchered corpses of the last three drafts trapped under there, trying to get out so they can force me to finish them. No. Nothing of that sort.

…Where’s the flamethrower?

*I may have been watching Firefly again lately.
**While leaving in all the necessary rough edges, of course. It’s the difference between a skin condition and a signature scar.

Thinning the Idea Herd

A herd of goats in Greece

All right, some of you have got to go. Volunteers? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The common question writers get asked is: Where do your ideas come from?*

And, for most writers, this is the wrong question.

If you’re at all like me—and most of the other people I asked—the problem is not getting ideas. The problem is figuring out which ones to devote your time to. Because ideas? They’re like fucking snowflakes. In fact, they’re exactly like snowflakes, because, unique and magical though they may be, lately I’ve been having to shovel a pile of them out of my goddamn way before I can get anything done in the morning.

I have come to the realization that there will never be enough time in my life to write every idea that comes to me. Barring some kind of time-stop device, that is. Which I’m not ruling out.

But until the day that I hold one of the dimensions in my hands, I have to pick and choose. Which ones make the cut? Which ones aren’t strong enough? Sometimes I can use the Spotter’s Guide to weed them out, but other times, I’m left with a bunch of strong ideas, any one of which could be The One.

So I have to pick. I have methodology that I use, questions that I ask according to what I’m trying to do, but in the end it mostly comes down to gut instinct. Which one feels right? Which one piques my interest slightly more than the others? That’s the one I go with.

But sometimes I’m fucking wrong.

That happened this week. The short story that I spent all last week working on, the one that was due today…it wasn’t good enough. I got through a zero draft, took a look at it, and realized that, not only was I not into it, but you could feel that disinterest in every word.

So I trashed it.** And started again.

Yeah, it sucked to have to start over with less than a week to go. But c’est la vie. If you can’t face up to the idea of junking something because it’s not good enough, editing will be very hard for you.

In the end, the new story worked out much better, and I just barely managed to get it finished in time. It was a race, I’m not going to lie. But it’s done and sent in. Now I just have to sit back and wait for the next rejection letter.

And, in the meantime, I’ve got a whole new crop of ideas that need weeding.

*Fiction writers throughout the ages have made a number of snarky and/or clever responses to this. I encourage you to Google them, not because they’re helpful, but because they are an entertaining time waster.
**Metaphorically speaking. It’s still in the Purgatory file on my hard drive, thinking about what it did.