Help in a Writer’s Hard Times

get by with a little help from my friendsHard Times

The last several months of work on novel #2 have been pretty miserable. I felt like I was dragging every word out of my brain by its heels, kicking and screaming. When they finally landed on the page, my only thoughts were self-bolstering phrases like:

This is terrible.

Can this get any more boring?

The story isn’t going anywhere.

Craziness

I went a little crazy. I spent a bunch of time on outlining schemes and re-writing. I wrote three new openings for the book. Still, I wasn’t happy with it. I even flirted with starting a new book altogether.

The Cavalry Arrives

At last it came time for me to submit my stack of pages to my critique group. As it turned out, their evaluation was radically different from my own:

“The writing is compelling and beautiful.”

“Another great episode.”

“What a powerful story.”

“…mastery of revision, and fluent writing style.”

I was floored, in a good way, like when you finally work up the courage to ask that out-of-your-league person out and they say “yes.” The positive feedback was a huge shot in the arm. Now I am writing with a positive outlook on the work and all the joy I had when I started it.

Objective Views

It’s wonderful how an objective view (or views) of your writing can change it for the better. Often such views are editorial and corrective, pointing out weaknesses you need to fix, and that’s always good. But sometimes, the objective view can just be encouragement. I don’t find writing lonely, but I do find it solitary, and I’m grateful for capable people I can reach out to for help on a regular basis.

Your Thoughts?

If you have some ingenious way of getting objective feedback on your writing, I’d love to know about it, and so would the other three people who read this blog. Please leave a comment. Thanks!

CarsonCraigSignatureCroppedTransparent

P.S.: I wrote a novel ( get it here ) called Trouble Spots. Now I just need somebody to read it. Here’s the skinny:
Grieving over his dead parents, newly homeless, and bereft of his beloved younger brother, Colin Davis, aspiring writer and compulsive smartass, is certain life can’t get any worse, and it probably can’t. But then there’s the afterlife… When an injury sends Colin’s body into a coma, his soul awakens in the claw foot tub intended for the Limbo-bound, but a demon dressed like a Bible salesman tricks him into entering Hell instead. Colin’s one avenue of escape: Thin Spots, unreliable portals between realities that are as likely to land him in the lobby of a Ramada Inn as in the caldera of an active volcano. His quest to obtain the one means of controlling Spots, the Golden Bough, puts him on a collision course with Satan, who wants the Bough to launch a war against an unwary Heaven. To get the Bough and save the universe (and, incidentally, his brother), Colin, with the help of Hell’s queen, her handmaid, and a scholarly angel, embarks on a quest across the ocean of Limbo to beg Heaven’s unwilling angels for help. When the angels refuse his plea, Colin decides victory is a do-it-yourself deal, where the terms are a deep breath and a dive into the hottest flames Hell has to offer.

Get it here. 

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Down the Writing Rabbit Hole

rabbitholegraphThe Rabbit Hole

Because I’m kind of a geek, I like to keep a line chart of the number of words I’ve written in my novel to date. Usually, this is an encouraging exercise, because I can see the number of words mounting up, day after day, week after week, passing the magical 50,000 mark that separates novel from novella, and heading on to the 80,000 words that, in my mind, signals a robustly realized book.

Sometimes, though, the graph ends up looking like the image above (or next to, depending on your display) this line. Note the steady climb upwards (wild cheers!) followed by the precipitous drop (miserable groans and sad emojis rabbitholesademoji). The drop represents a trip down the writing rabbit hole.

rabbitholeholeWhy The Drop

I was writing along my merry way, following the adventures of a major, though non-leading character, when a terrific idea for his backstory smacked me upside the head. He’s an assassin, and the backstory was going to be about the first time he killed a man. It was all there in my head: he’s just a kid, he gets imprisoned by some bad guys, escapes, and makes the kill to avoid recapture. There was a little circus troupe and a mysterious, crumbling wall in the middle of the forest. Gripping stuff! A no-miss detour off the main story line!

Until I started writing it. The dratted thing just got longer and longer, rambling along with no end in sight. So I started over. Same result. Ramble, amble, bumble. Undaunted, I went at it again, determined to keep it short while retaining the excitement. The result of that venture was something akin to an overused dishrag.

Eventually, after about two weeks and five or six thousand words, I just excised the whole thing. That’s where the drop comes in. All those words, all that time, zapped.

Feh. rabbitholesademoji

Not a Complete Loss

I was pretty well disappointed and annoyed about that loss of time and words, but, as you can see, the graph took an uptick right away. Having freed myself of the backstory and gotten back to the present condition of this character, I found the story taking off again, better than before. Even though the backstory adventure was incomplete, it had given me a better grasp of the character’s background and motivations, which made his current situation easier to write about.

So What?

  1. I didn’t get rid of that backstory altogether. I cut it out and pasted into another document, to be saved for later. It might be useful for reference, or for another entirely different novel, or for a later section of this one.
  2. I got to know the character much better. Now, when he has to turn right or left, I’ll have an improved intuition about which he will choose.

Go ahead and curse those rabbit holes, but not for too long. You never know when you might come out the other end and find a pot of gold. I know, that’s rainbows, but you get the idea. Right? Sure you do. See you next time.

Comments?

Wishie says to leave a comment or he will keep staring at you with his mildly creepy fixed expression.

wishie-cropped-for-090916

 

One Bite at a Time

Duck taking single stepAllow me to begin this post with a few timeless proverbs:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Laozi, philosopher)

“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” (Creighton Abrams, general)

“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying small stones.” (Chinese proverb)

“How do you write a novel? One word at a time.” (Me, but somebody else probably said it first.)

I recently started a job that takes up a lot of my time, usually a normal workday plus two to four hours. It’s a good job in most respects, and glad to have it, but it does eat into my leisure time.

Time I might ordinarily spend writing.

Too often, people stop writing or don’t write at all because they believe they have to devote large chunks at a time to the pursuit. I know this, because I was one of those people for a long time. Then, somehow, I discovered the magic of small steps.

When I started my novel, I had to manage my time, so I set aside one hour a day, Monday through Friday. It took a while, but now my first novel is finished and I’m shopping it to agents. I have also started my second.

That second novel is going to be written under even greater time constraints than the first one was. I’ve had to cut down to one page a day, about 300 words, which takes me about 30 minutes to write. If I keep up at this pace, I can have a good 300 pages done in a year, maybe more (maybe less, but I hope not).

I had a brief Twitter conversation with a lady a while back who told me she made time for writing by always having the project with her and writing in tiny spaces of open time, like when she was stopped at a traffic light. Wow. Talk about small steps.

Don’t hang around waiting for those big chunks of time. They might never do so. Write a page a day, 10 minutes a day, a sentence a day. Get your novel written one word at a time.

Thanks,

Carson

 

Re-writing Your Fiction: Starting from Scratch

Box of fruit representing Rewriting fresh fiction when you need to do soWrite Fresh When You Must

Today’s lesson: Don’t become too enamored of your work. Be ready to trash it and start fresh.

My Re-Writing Retreat

Recently, I treated myself to an overnight writing getaway at a local hotel. I took a half-day off, checked in early, and settled down at my trusty laptop to make the most of my uninterrupted hours of re-writing novel #1. (Am I the most boring guy in the world? Quite possibly.)

My first aim was to fix a couple of chapters featuring my bad guys, who are a bunch of demons.

The first of these chapters was a strange one that had Satan holding a high-level meeting with his three top generals and giving an address to an auditorium of lesser demons at the same time. Plainly, the two—important meeting and speech–don’t go together. The two elements needed to be separate events.

The second chapter is about the audience’s reaction to the speech. The crowd isn’t at all enthusiastic about Satan’s message until a minor demon, my hero’s main opponent, jumps on the bandwagon and gets everybody all whipped up. This chapter worked pretty well on its own.

Aha! I thought. I’ll just remove the speechifying parts from the first chapter and graft them onto the second one.

Simple, right? Well, no.

Re-Writing: Easier than Patching

It didn’t take long for me to see that for my plan to work, I was going to have to change the point of view of the second chapter from Satan’s to the minor demon’s. That would require me to have a different beginning to the second chapter. And then I found that taking the speech-y parts out of the first chapter required me to write or rewrite big chunks to plug the holes the excisions left behind.

I was going crazy because I didn’t want to lose any of the writing I was already so fond of.

At some point, I pushed back from the desk and threw myself onto the bed for a good stare at the ceiling. I was just about to switch from writing mode to napping mode when the awful truth bloomed in my brain.

I was going to have to throw out the two chapters and start all over again with this part of the story.

So I did. I started a fresh document, thought through a rough outline (I am an outliner – your method may be different) and wrote the thing from scratch. The result? One chapter instead of two and a more streamlined, more interesting (I hope) section of novel. To finish up, I stripped the two faulty chapters from the manuscript and replaced them with the one I had just completed.

Writing Lessons Learned

During this process, I learned a few things:

Make versions! Whenever you make a major change to your manuscript, save the old version first with a version number or a date. You never know when you’ll need to go back and mine the original for material.

Keep an experimental mindset. Your scratch rewrite is an experiment. Maybe it will be great, maybe it will utterly fail. I find this makes me less nervous about excising a chunk of previous writing and replacing it. I’m not committing to the big change until I’m good and ready.

Rewrite from scratch in a separate document. I just think this makes life easier. With a nice, blank document, your mind is free from the subtle distraction of what comes before and after your rewritten section. You can patch up any rough transitions or what have you in the next draft.

Don’t hesitate to start fresh. Waiting around to do a fresh rewrite is just a waste of time. I tossed away a good hour, at least, trying to tape and spackle those two existing chapters. When you get that awkward feeling, go ahead and start writing something fresh to replace the stuff that’s not working.

What do you do when a portion of your novel is crying out for major revision? Let me and the rest of the world know in a comment.

Thanks for reading See you next time!

Farewell to Bloggerland… for now, anyway

farewellDear Nascent Novelist Readers,

Firstly, thanks for visiting this space. I’m grateful to you for taking your valuable time to visit.

Secondly, I won’t be posting here for a while. I’ve learned to never say never, put its possible this may be the last post here, ever. If I do get the urge to come back, well, great, so be it.

Why, you ask, as you mop a tear from your cheek? I’ve simply reached a point where my plate is too full and something has to go.

The day job has gotten very busy, in a good way. Family life is as busy as ever. Writing fiction takes time.

I find that I’m stressing out trying to get everything done and that’s counter to the entire philosophy I’ve tried to expound in this blog.

If you’d like to stay connected, you can follow my Twitter feed: @coolcarsoncraig, or you can friend me on Facebook by searching for “carson craig, nascent novelist.”

So, not goodbye, but farewell, as in may you fare well in whatever your endeavors may be.

Onward! Even When Your Fiction Writing Stinks

02-27-13 OnwardIf I have learned anything about writing fiction this week, it’s that the magic genie comes and goes. I’m talking about the magic genie that makes your writing worth someone’s putting an eye to.

Monday was painful. I had to squeeze fiction in amongst a bunch of other stuff and what came out was corny or wooden. Tuesday was much the same. But then, on Wednesday, something happened. My imagination woke up, the cork came out of my word-bottle and the next thing you know I was writing about pirates-turned-gladiators-in-Hell and a prison where the inmates are encased in solid blocks composed of some – let me exercise some delicacy for once – especially unpleasant materials. I had action, sights, smells, characters, plot movement—joy! Thursday and Friday continued this happy pattern.

So what does this have to do with you, dear reader, who is perhaps, like me, a time-challenged part-time fictioneer?

Everything. Well, okay, a lot.

The one thing I did on each of this week’s five working days was sit down and bang out some fiction. Stinky, glorious, whatever its quality, I hammered on it. That happened for a few reasons, handily revealed by hindsight:

Habit. Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve become accustomed to the routine of carving out about an hour or so five days a week to work on the not-so-great American novel. So part of getting through this last weird week was just reflex, one I’ve developed through some early discipline.

Big Picture. I kept reminding myself that this is the first draft. It’s okay for the first draft to be rough—okay, terrible—in places, or even all the way through. I’m just at step one of a lengthy, multi-step process.

Permission. I followed the advice of J. A. Konrath and gave myself permission to write crap. It never fails to surprise me how that little attitude adjustment will help you keep going.

Associative Causality. That sounds important, huh? Let’s say it again, together: “associative causality.” Ooooh. We are smart. Actually, I’m not smart enough to come up with a term to encapsulate the notion that because our thought processes proceed by associating one thing with another, that even crummy writing produces thoughts and ideas that eventually cause your brain to spit out something halfway decent. This is just a pompous, ten-dollar way of saying I realized that if I kept going, something good would happen. I just didn’t want to call it “optimism,” okay? Too cheer-leader-y.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I hope it’s helpful. Good luck with your genies, folks.

Overcoming Obstacles in Fiction Writing and Life

02-21-13 cellWarNotebooksI’m late to this party, but I’m going to join it, anyway.

Earlier this year, Duolit (selfpublishingteam.com) posted an article about about Julie. Julie is the author of the the Cell War Notebooks, a chronicle of her battle with cervical cancer. Julie lost her battle, leaving behind a daughter, Luka. The book is still being published and all proceeds go to Luka.

The folks at Duolit proposed that on January 31st, its community of readers write posts about overcoming an obstacle, include a link to the Cell War Notebooks, and publicize the post via social media.

I have an old friend who is suffering from cervical cancer right now. I don’t know how it will turn out and I can’t do much about it, but I can do this.

First, the link to the book: http://amzn.to/W17WN4

Now, about overcoming an obstacle…

One of the chief obstacles I find among the aspiring novelists in my writing group is time, or, rather, lack thereof. One friend has an invalid wife to care for, in addition to his day job. Another just had his first baby (with the help of his wife, of course). Another has care of her young children. We’ve all got responsibilities of one kind or another that make fitting the writing in difficult.

How to overcome this obstacle? We sacrifice something else. In my own case, I sacrifice taking a normal lunch break to relax, socialize, or catch up on work. Instead, I get away to a coffee shop, the library, or an empty conference room and spend about an hour writing. My friend with the ill wife does the same thing.

One member of our group tells a tale of when her three children were very young. She would lock herself in the bathroom for short periods and write in a legal pad braced on the toilet seat while the kids shouted for her outside. Many writers carry their work with them and write in snatches whenever the opportunity arises—at stop lights, at baseball practice, while waiting at the dentist’s office.

In the past, I despaired of writing because I was convinced I had to do it in blocks of at least two hours, so I could get warmed up and then produce a satisfactory amount. When I finally let go of my perfectionist ways and started doing what I could, instead of what some false ideal told me I should do, the creative dam broke and now I’m three-fourths and 80,000 words into my first novel’s first draft.

Before I could find time, I had to give up and attitude, an unreasonable belief, that writing had to be thus-and-so. If you’re unable to find time for your art (even if it’s not writing fiction), step back and check yourself for such an illusory barrier. If you can identify it, you can work to give it up or work around it. Then your creative work will take off. It might go more slowly, but it will go.

Finding time for writing is nowhere near the obstacle cervical cancer is. I’m grateful I don’t have to face such a thing. May all those suffering from serious illness or issues similarly daunting find healing and peace. May all those seeking time for their art overcome their blocking attitudes and find the time they need.

The “Ikea Effect” and Re-writing Fiction

Ikea store frontThe other morning, after dropping my son off at school at 0-dawn-thirty, I heard a report on NPR about something called “the Ikea effect.” In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years—which is fine, if that’s your choice—Ikea is a chain of stores that sells housewares, including a lot of furniture. The unusual thing about Ikea furniture is that you purchase it in a box, unassembled, take it home and—you hope—put it together yourself.

Some researchers at Whassamatta U. or some such institution did some research and discovered that while people who buy new tables like them, people who buy new tables from Ikea and put them together love them. They love the tables more intensely and for longer.

Why? Because they put some effort into them.

If you’ve ever put one of these things together, from Ikea or anywhere else—my kit was a desk with a hutch—you know that you had darn well better love the thing, because it was such a pain in the buttocks to construct.

By now you’ve probably guessed what this has to do with fiction writing. We don’t just pour knuckle-flesh, blood, time and our cussword vocabularies into our craft. We pour our hearts into it, our deepest emotions, a measure of our souls. Even something that might seem less than deep to the reader has come out of our boundless, crazy need to create worlds on paper with the magic of words.

So, naturally, when we’ve finished writing some slice of fiction, we tend to love it with a passion that makes an Ikea table-lover look like somebody who… well, somebody who really, really likes a dumb table.

There’s a problem here and that’s the strong temptation to send our literary babies off into the big world before they’re ready. I know, I know, you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating (and besides, I wanted to write about the Ikea effect because it was cool, and it’s my blog). Let that manuscript sit in a dark drawer for six weeks, at least, after you finish it. Then, and only then, drag it back out, read it and improve it. Time will separate you from your passion for the thing.

And that’s not all. Get your writing group or some beta readers to give you impartial feedback and then rewrite yet again. If you’re able to and your manuscript is a big enough deal, have it professionally edited—not just proofread, edited—and rewrite again. Then rewrite some more.

Okay, so maybe you’ll do fewer rewrites, maybe more. I’m not trying to dictate a process. But it is undoubtedly very important to put some emotional distance between yourself and your fiction before you polish it, so you’re not blinded by the Ikea effect.

The world has plenty of wobbly, lopsided tables already. Let’s all be sure we don’t add to them.

Why-Wisdom for Fiction Writers

Notebook paper with pencil writing whyI was sitting in church the other day, listening to the sermon with my usual rapt attention, when I realized the minister was saying something about “why,” as in ultimate reasons. I suppose he was making a religious point of some kind, but my mind immediately leapt to fiction writing. Why, indeed, write fiction?

There are two bones to pick here, I think. The first is why you, dear reader, pursue the wordly way. The second is, why are you writing this particular piece of fiction?

Why Write?

To write, you’ve got to have the basic need to create. Not a longing or a hankering, but an itch you can never scratch enough. For a writer, this undeniable yen is fundamental; without it you’ll give out.

As for words, you may be instinctively drawn to the power of story and language like a yellow jacket to a picnic, just because of the way your DNA is wired. You may have a psychological need to write because of your life experience. Or maybe you just don’t have any place to paint, so you’re making do.

This first Why is the seed of your mission as a writer. Your raison d’écrire informs your choice of subject, your tone, the type of stories you choose – everything. If you know what it is, you can make those choices with more intelligence and better results. And when you get tired of the whole business, you can go back to Why #1 for a shot of ambition.

Why Write This?

The second Why, regarding why you are writing a particular piece, gets you to your theme. Theme is the thing you’re trying to demonstrate or prove in your novel. In a romantic comedy, that might be “love prevails, even for goofy people.” In something tragic, your theme might be “people can and will be noble, even when doomed.” If you really want to say something with a particular piece of fiction, that’s your theme, your second Why. Knowing the statement you want to make in your story is another thing that will keep you going when the batteries of enthusiasm run low.

Theme may not reveal itself to you right away. In my own case, I started writing Thin Spots because I thought the idea would be fun to develop into a novel. That’s no theme, though, and I may not figure out what it is until I’ve finished the first draft and re-read it. But that’s just the screwed-up method of a nascent novelist. You are far more clever than I, of course, and will figure out your theme, your Why for this particular piece, up front.

Why-dle Dum and Why-dle Dee

You may find that Why #1 and Why #2 influence each other. Writing a particular story may lead you to insights that change your overall reason for writing and, as I said earlier, your overall reason for writing is sure to influence the types of stories you choose.

Why Think About Why?

I suppose you could go your entire writing career without thinking about the Whys at all. Personally, though, I like living with as much awareness as I can, because that leads to better decisions. Knowing my Whys, as I’ve pointed out, also gives me additional resources to fall back on when my writing energies flag.

That’s all. I could write more, but I can’t think why.

Observation for Fiction Writing – Lift Your Head!

Observation signI’m in the Phoenix airport, waiting on a flight (what else would I be doing there?) and it seems like the perfect time for a blog entry. It also seems like the perfect time for a nap, but I’m thinking of you, dear reader, so here we go.

Today I am reminded of the importance of observation. Airports are great places for watching people and planes are great places for chatting with total strangers, should you have a chatty seatmate.

I am a sort of shy, introverted person – which probably explains why I choose to spend so much of my free time alone in a room or coffee shop, pecking at a keyboard, so usually when I have a chatty seatmate on a flight I try to bring the flow of small talk to an end as quickly as politely possible.

But this day was different. My seatmate on the flight I just left was a little blonde woman with sloping shoulders from bad posture and a shortage of front teeth. Her expression mixed depression with confusion, so, ungenerous swine that I am, I leaped to categorize her as a nut.

She began to chat and I was all ready to go into shut-her-down mode when I thought, wait a minute. Maybe there’s a character to observe here, or something to learn. So I chatted back.

It turned out she was travelling to her mother’s home in Ohio because said mother had just passed away. She had pulled herself together on short notice and hopped on a plane. So there’s your depression. She hadn’t flown since 9/11, she said. So there’s your confusion. Then she talked about job troubles and moving west from Atlanta, her brother’s shortcomings in handling the situation with their mother, living in Rio de Janero as a teenager and working for a Denmark-based company, to name a few. How much I would have missed if I had blown her off!

It just goes to show you that it’s important to lift your head up from the keyboard on a regular basis and observe – heck, even engage with – the great big world. And I don’t mean just people – birds, buildings, grass, rocks, storefronts, flowers, garbage, everything – is waiting to plant its seed in your creative little brain. I’ve been neglecting to do this and I’m glad I broke loose of my blinders today.

I also like to think I gave a grieving woman somebody to talk to when she needed it. I hope so, anyway.