Sunday, November 1, 2015

How do you finish a first draft? Low Expectations

 The trick to writing and finishing a first draft of a novel is simple. Ready? Low expectations. I’m not saying you should adopt this as a philosophy for life, but for a first draft of a novel,  absolutely. A first draft is a pale version of what you will eventually revise your novel into. If you accept that, you can allow yourself, give yourself permission,  to write it, to progress onward through the fog. Yes, the draft will be very much less than you want. Yes it will be so much less than the best you can do.  Yes, yes. But constantly stopping to revise, being disappointed by the awkward language or the less than compelling narrative or the development of character, can wear you down and cause you to give up.  And that means never finishing. LOOK, of course, sometimes you should give up. Sometimes the draft just isn’t working. But many times writers quit simply because they get discouraged by how much less their first draft is than the vague but compelling first vision they had for their story. Don’t let that stop you.        


            One way I think about this is my first draft is like a movie that is out of focus, and with a soundtrack that’s a little off--bits of dialogue going in and out, the wrong songs…you get the idea.  My first draft might have nice moments here and there but overall it’s an embarrassment.  My next drafts are my attempts to bring the story into focus. I do this in a number of ways. I make my description more concrete, more sensory. I tighten info dumps. I give dialogue subtext. I work on the precision and flow of my language. I go through the plot for weak moments. I deepen characters. I try to make motivations clearer and on and on…there are so many things I do. And I get to do this because that’s what REVISION is. And for me writing is revising. I get something on the page and then I work with it and work with it and it gets closer to that vision that  inspired me to want to write the story in the first place.
            But to get to that I have to endure the first draft, parts of which, by the way, are very fun because I discover all kinds of things. That said, it’s never easy—low expectations.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Characters Who Surprise

There are so many things to talk about when you get to thinking about character. We want characters who surprise us--in a good way. By that I mean not in a WTF way--that character would never act like that. Or, I don't understand at all why that character would do what he did or think what he thought. One of the surest ways to lose a reader is to have them feel a character is inauthentic, that he is doing things because the author needs him/her to do them. But a real surprise that fits with the character, those can really involve a reader.

One way to do this is to have the character play against a certain Trope. See this clip from Firefly for a great example of this. The hero acts in a very different way than most heroes and it both reveals characters and entertains...

Another way to do this is to make a character act against some controlling belief they have in themselves. Like they think they're evil and they have done lots of evil things because of this. But some shift in the plot causes them to see the event or time that makes them believe themselves evil in a different light. This causes them to do something that is surprising and different and that also makes their character grow. Anytime a character's actions can advance both character and plot, that's a good thing.

Another way to make a character different (and so surprising) is just to put a character in a situation that would usually be taken by a different kind of character. Make a Buffy a vampire slayer instead of the heroic warrior or make a detective have some personality trait that seems like it would make it hard for them to do the job but, in fact, also helps them to do it. For example, MONK. Not your usual tough-guy detective and interesting because of that.

In screenwriting there is this idea that audiences love the familiar and strange in plot. They want to recognize the type of story they're being told but they want to have twists to it that make them feel they're watching something that is also completely new. I think this is something to shoot for with characters. And one aspect of that is creating surprises.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Story ideas are everywhere

When people learn I'm a writer (at a party or some social event--not a writing function), they often tell me they have an "idea" for a story. It is a great idea they tell me. An idea so original that they are certain it will make them a million dollars. They simply don't have time to write it. Maybe I would like to write it and we'll split the profit 50/50?


Their idea--if they manage to tell me over my protests that I couldn't possibly rob them of half their million dollars simply for writing a few hundred pages --is usually very bad. It frequently isn't even an idea, just a vague notion or a family anecdote.

But even good ideas are fairly common.

An idea for a story, to me, involves a character in some kind of situation. In my writing class last week, after some examples, I broke my class up into four groups and gave them each ten minutes to come up with ten story ideas. All four groups did and two of them came up with more than ten. In ten minutes, the class had 45 story ideas. Granted, not all of them were stellar, but many of them were pretty darn good. This just illustrates how ideas are everywhere. The hard part is not coming up with  ideas but developing them into a full story. If you find the right idea--one you can be passionate about as a writer, one that engages and interests you--that is a great start to writing a story.

Or so I think today.

Friday, July 10, 2015

give yourself time--- between drafts and revision

If you're like me you have a love/hate relationship with your work. You get really excited about a sentence you write or a cool idea or a cool new character. You feel good about it all. Then you feel really bad. Then good again. It's great. It's terrible. But as you work through drafts, you feel better. The story seems to come together. Many aspects of the work that were out of focus are more in focus. You improve your sentences. Your characters are more in the scenes, more real, more developed. They have depth--yes they do.  It all seems to be going somewhere. Hallelujah.

And then there comes the moment when you think you are finished. You have done everything you can. You're done.
Probably not.
Do not be fooled.
If you're like me, you're seeing a manuscript that has been greatly improved by many drafts. You're seeing something that is so, so much better than that first draft. You're  thinking about the cool things in the manuscript and accepting the weakness as not all that weak. You want to believe they're small and of little consequence, like a few tiny chips in armor. Nothing to worry about. And the cool things. Come on,  so cool--it's good--a good story.

This is the point where you need at least a month to get far enough away from the manuscript that you can see that though the cool things might still be cool, those weaknesses of the manuscript are real and need to be worked on. And you will also see that there are other problems you couldn't see before. Sure, it's a little disappointing that after many drafts there are still a lot of areas that need work. But doing this final revision, working on these weaknesses, can be the difference between a pretty good manuscript and a very good one.

Give yourself time and distance from your work AFTER you think it's  ready to go. Doing this has really helped me.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"And know the place for the first time"

 from T.S. Eliot “Little Gidding”

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time"

I was thinking about the Hero's Journey and the way that some writers use it as a method of story structure and I saw this quote and I thought--yeah, that's it. The stages and the specifics of the "journey" structure can be somewhat helpful if not followed too closely, but this right here is what I'm trying to get at with my quest story.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bad Writing Advice: write what you know

If we could only write what we know there would be no Harry Potter, no One Hundred Years of Solitude, no Red Badge of Courage. So many great novels would have never been written because the writer tried to stay on the narrow road of his own experience. Don't write what you know. Write what you can imagine. OK, you can write what you know--sure. BUT you don't have to.

I do think this advice has some truth in it. You have to be emotionally engaged in what you write and you have to find experiences in your own life that will help you be emotionally engaged. These experiences might come from actual life but they can also come from things you've read  or watched in a movies or over-heard at a party. Whatever you use, it is only raw material. For me, at some point, imagination will transform these kernels of experience into something very different, something that fits in the story.

Write what you know is, for some of us, like wearing a straight-jacket. We might as well be coloring by number. Our characters and our worlds won't breathe. There will be no life. Write what you want: What you know, what you can imagine, what you over-hear, read, see, whatever gets your work done.

Or so I think today.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Here's a link to a post I wrote on why character is not plot. I'm thinking about plot a lot lately because I struggle with it so much and because I see other writers struggle with it so much. You have to be able to do a lot of things to get novels published and plot is one of them. But plot was hardly mentioned at all in any of the writing classes I took in college. I think part of that was most of the teachers didn't understand it and part of it was they thought it didn't belong in a discussion of "serious" fiction. But look at the best books. They're good stories first. All the other pleasures come out of that. There are a few that are primarily about other things, like language, but these are the exception. Most good and great novels are good stories first.
 Here's some thoughts on plot and character:

Also, a new video for my novel, UTOPIA, IOWA. Thanks for watching.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Why do they do what they do?

Sometimes I think a very large part of writing is figuring out my characters' motivations. Why do my characters do what they do? Yes, it has to do with what they want and who and what stops them from getting what they want. And it also has to do with how they see themselves and how that changes when they get involved in the plot.

Being true to the motivation for all characters--even villains who, naturally, see themselves as the hero of their story-- can take you a long way down the narrative path.

But this motivation question  is not just about the big events.  Every scene, every gesture, every conversation and silence, has motivation in it and can, if done right, reveal character. Every little thing done by every character has to be accounted for. And when you have main characters who are on stage in a scene and act in ways that feel inauthentic, it is usually the unfortunate failure of motivation that is behind their inauthenticity.

Why do my characters do what they do in both small and large ways? I try to keep coming back to this question. A lot of discovering and revealing the secrets of character lies in motivation.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The number one thing that a novelist has to have is...

Novelists need a lot of things to write well. They need some talent with language and story. They need to have read a lot to learn the structures of fiction. They need to study and understand all the elements of craft-- like characterization, plot, setting, language, show and tell, voice, POV and on and on. They need practice, lots and lots of practice. BUT the number one thing they need, in my humble opinion, is a passion for writing. They don't have to love to write all the time--good god no-- but they need to be passionate about their writing. And here's why--the writers who end up publishing and making a life, whether it pays all the bills or not, out of writing are those who continue to write and try all kinds of ways to get better.

I fully admit I have a love/hate relationship with writing. I love it much more than hate it but there are a few frustrating moments when I do hate it. But I am always passionate about it and it is this passion for writing (not publishing which is a different beast all together) that sustains me. I've met a lot of talented writers, particularly in graduate school (MFA in Writing, yep) who are not writing now and have published very little. The praise a person gets in school isn't going to sustain him/her as a writer once out and the teacher and student audience is gone and the larger one not yet materialized. What sustains a writer is that passion, that learned love of the act of writing.  Honestly, it takes most writers years and years to start writing well. What you have to do as a new writer is just keep writing and finishing (VERY important to your development is finishing work so you know what it's like to write an ending) your manuscripts. If you focus on what you love, write what you love, then you will feed that thing that I think is most important--a passion for writing, which means you will do it whether you get the pay or praise of the outside world.

Novelists do need many things (including luck) to get published but what sustains writers, I think, what keeps them going and writing the next manuscript and the next is passion. A little talent and a lot of passion will push a writer to keep writing and learning and those things make many things possible. You have to write and finish work to give yourself a chance to write something you've always wanted to write. The passion keeps you writing and the writing, finishing work, gives you hope and that's a fundamental part of the writing life.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Here's a link to an interview I did and also a giveaway of free hardback copies of Utopia, Iowa at this site. I have several other interviews coming up about writing that will be on the web. One is about Merlin and his effect on my writing and on  drinking coffee, and one is on writing and reading and one on process. Also, I have a few book events coming up: I will be at the North Texas Teen Book Festival on March 7,  teach a class for WLT on Plot in Character Driven Fiction on April 4 and be on a SCBWI panel on process on April 11 and at TLA  in Austin on April 16, 17.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Road to Utopia, Iowa, Was Paved With Rejection

Utopia, Iowa, my YA novel, is being published by Candlewick Press today (FEB 10) and that’s a most excellent thing. I’m very grateful. But it almost didn’t happen. That is to say Utopia, Iowa’s road to publication was not a smooth superhighway. It was more like a road I drove in rural Mexico one summer not long after I graduated from high school, one that was an obstacle course of potholes and cracked pavement and that eventually went from poorly paved to not paved at all, then to mud, and then ended in what appeared to be a cow pasture. My choices were hang with the cows or go back and try to find another road. I like cows but…

How many rejections did Utopia, Iowa, get? I could probably ask my amazing agent for an exact number, but I’ll guess in the neighborhood of fifteen, including one from the publisher who ultimately accepted and published it (though not the same editor). And also--an important detail- the version she accepted was not that same version that had been rejected.

We’ve all seen the lists of novels that were rejected numerous times and ultimately became huge bestsellers and/or literary classics. To name a few…

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone--at least 11 rejections. (Bazillion copies sold)
Lord of the Flies: 20 rejections (15 million+ copies sold) Classic
A Wrinkle in Time: 26 rejections. (millions sold) Classic

I don’t know how many of these manuscripts, if any, were rewritten during or after rejections. I have read that J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was rewritten after many, many rejections and only then accepted by a publisher.

If you enjoy these kinds of lists here’s a long one at this site.

Obviously, no one knows for sure what people will buy—so there’s that. But also, since there are a lot of critically acclaimed novels and even classics on the list I’ve linked to, it’s fair to say that experienced editors and publishers may also be wrong about the quality of a novel.

So there’s that.

But what I’d like to focus on is I wrote a manuscript that was the best I could write at the time and that was handily rejected. Eventually, we had to admit that it wasn’t going to sell. I left it in my documents and moved on. I wrote another novel and that one was accepted. And then I wrote another and that one was accepted, too.

But I never entirely forgot that manuscript I’d left behind. Something about it, even after years, still interested me. Maybe part of that interest was that it was set in Iowa, the state I grew up in and hadn’t been back to for many, many years. But I also think I felt a connection to it that I never entirely broke free of. So I pulled the manuscript up and read through it. I still liked parts, but I saw a big problem in the manuscript that I hadn’t seen before. There were two stories and they were competing with each other—not working together. I thought about this problem for a day. Did I really want to go back to the manuscript again? It was going to take a lot of work and a lot of time and I could quite possibly end up in the same place—that damn cow pasture. Ultimately, the answer for me was yes. Part of the yes was that foolish stubborn steak so many writers have that serves us for both good and ill, but part of it was that I thought I could fix the story, that I could make it much better. It was worth the gamble.

So I tried.

And that version of Utopia, Iowa, sold on its first submission and made me very happy. I don’t want to say we should never give up on our manuscripts. Most writers have a few they were wise to give up on. However, I do want to say that if you have a manuscript buried in your documents folder that you couldn’t publish, maybe one that came close to being published or one you still feel connected to in some way, it’s worth taking a look at it again. Maybe the time away will give you the distance you need to see it more clearly. You never know. Writing, like publishing, is seldom a straight road.

Two minute version of Utopia, Iowa—in case you’re looking for a fast read.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Writing And Not Thinking

I've written on writing in the moment before but I want to add something about my process here.

One thing that was important for me to learn is that writing fiction is juggling many things at once and not thinking about any of them while you’re in the act of writing. There are just so many areas of concern: voice, character, plot, setting, language, and on and on. If we think about them while we’re writing, there’s a good chance we’ll freeze up or go into a kind of stiff, forced writing, or maybe make the wrong choices. And the wrong choices can be deadly in a novel. The wrong choices can lead you to other wrong choices and then you’re halfway through the novel and you’re thinking, HOW THE F**K DID I GET HERE? WHAT AM I DOING HERE? THIS ISN’T MY BEAUTIFUL NOVEL. THESE AREN’T MY BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS (and before you know it you’re in a Talking Heads song—sorry, off topic). 

So--you can't think--much--about writing while you're writing. You can think all around it, of course. When you're driving your car (this, of course, does raise safety concerns but we all must make sacrifices for our art), taking a shower, walking the dog (one of my favorites). I'm constantly turning over aspects of what I'm working on when I'm not actually working but the writing itself, in my opinion, should be as much in the moment of the story as possible.

So yes--writing in the moment is important for making the right choices and discovering connections between plot and character.

But the thinking that goes on around the writing process is important too.  Lately, I've been trying to order this thinking a bit more by writing it out. I'm not yet ready to call it an outline but it is brainstorming in a more orderly way.  I've always been a discovery writer so this is a bit new for me. More later on how this works for me--for now I just want to point out that I think that you can be a believer in discovery writing (finding your way by writing it out) AND mapping aspects of story and character in order to guide some of these discoveries.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My best advice-? Keep Writing

When people ask what my one piece of advice would be to new writers, I always say write and also read, which sounds kind of uninspired except that it is REALLY the best advice. Writers become writers by writing. They learn by writing. They learn by their mistakes and they figure out things and they become better. Reading helps. You have to read, but writing is #1 way to get better.

I wrote five novels before I was published. I wrote five novels where I was learning how to write. I thought they were good at the time. I loved writing them. But they weren't really very good. When I figured out why, little by little, I got better. I'm still working on getting better with everything I write.

I was looking at this youtube by Brandon Sanderson
Check it out for inspiration. He wrote 12 novels and hadn't made a penny off of them. He thought the first five were practice but he thought the sixth was very good and he felt like he knew what he was doing. He felt that way about the subsequent novels he wrote, too. But none of them were published. Finally, though, someone did agree to publish #6 which was called Elantris and it became a big hit. Now he's a bestseller.

We've all heard these stories. They're rare but what I like about Sanderson's is that he just kept writing. Twelve books. Whether you traditionally publish or publish independently, you still have to deal with finding an audience. That can be hard. A lot of it is random. A lot of it is luck. What you can control though is your work, your writing, your learning how to write better each book. So the simplest advice---keep writing--is still the best as far as I'm concerned. Write what you love and what you really want to write. Be aware that your writing isn't perfect and keep looking for ways to improve. You'll find your way and you'll love what you're doing.

ALSO, I have a new novel coming out on 2/10/15
My publisher is giving away ten copies of  Utopia, Iowa  at YABC........