Textual nightmares: or, some ways you can not suck at editing by learning from my mistakes

Writing novels is not my problem. My output has only improved in the last few years, and I’ve finally moved beyond the whining about not having time, or making every excuse in the world not to write stage. Those were big hurdles for me, and I’m proud of the accomplishment. I generally make my 1K goal every day, with a few exceptions, and I love telling the stories.

So what’s the problem, right?

Unfortunately, what’s resulted is lots of first drafts, and not completed novels. As a writer who fumbles around in the dark putting pieces together, this is truly problematic as editing, the next step in the process, just opens up all sorts of new and strange writing problems and therefore, inevitably, leads me toward a complete creative freeze.

I have approached editing three drastically different ways for the last three completed drafts. With The Aldersgate, I rewrote everything. I think I saved just over 3K of the original 100K book, and ended up somewhere around 150K (which is still too long). With Pilgrim of the Sky I did a direct edit, three times through; didn’t re-write, so much as restructured. This worked well, but burned me out, and literally left textual imprints on my retinas.

Then came Queen of None. I wrote this book in about five weeks, just after my sister’s cancer diagnoses. Read: therapy. After finishing the edits on Pilgrim I went right to it, and was disappointed by pretty much the entire book, or at least the chapters I’d managed to get through.

  • Mistake #1 – I should have re-read the entire thing, without editing (and trying not to think about editing) before I went about the deed. It would have given me access to the better parts of the book, and I would have been a better judge of the story overall, rather than each chapter in succession. Because parts of it are not good, or even worth keeping, and that completely overwhelmed me.
  • Mistake #2 – I should have thought harder about my narrative perspective. Hands down, Queen of None was the easiest book I’ve ever written. Hell, after the 8 POVs in The Aldersgate it was a cakewalk. But the awesome thing about multi-POV is that when you get tired of one voice, you just move right along. Not so with first-person. I have found myself loathing, admiring, despising, and loving Anna Pendragon. I chose first person because I wanted it to be her story. She’s Arthur’s sister, for goodness sakes, she deserves to tell it her way! I’m just not sure I knew what I was getting into at the time.
  • Mistake #3 – I also let so-called edited chapters out before I should have, sharing with some other writers. While this is a good thing–sharing, yes!–I was a little too enthusiastic, and rather than ask myself the harder questions and really shake up my edits, I ended up being overwhelmed by the feedback. Not that it was all bad; it was simply a bad move considering the shoddy framework that I’d already built around me.
  • Mistake #4 – I just let myself get the better of… uh, myself. Instead of rising to the challenge, I grumbled, I buckled, I put it away. I did not champion on, I did not do better; no, I folded. Now I’m standing in front of Queen of None again. It’s been up and down the last few days, but I’m still making slow progress.
  • Mistake #5 – You know when people say to work on something else if one particular work is giving you issues? Well, that’s well and good, unless you end up with seven unfinished short stories and three unfinished novels in various states of disrepair. There’s a point of utter saturation, where, in my case anyway, the brain is no longer capable of focusing on one thing and, therefore, giving it the attention it deserves. It’s a kind of mental multi-personality disorder, from a textual perspective anyway.

So… forging on. I’m going to make a list (haha, this is not my typical approach) and rate my projects in order, and spend some time really considering a) marketability b) reality and c) creative attachment. I’ve got to work on something I love, and it’s got to be worth my time. Maybe that sounds a little uninspired, but clearly my free-as-a-bird approach isn’t working. I need a little drill sergeant in my life.

I’ve been writing novel-length stuff since I was twelve, and I’ve got to say, I still feel like a total n00b.

Confessions of a newbie novelist.

I have embarked on a new adventure as of late: contemplating publication, putting together a query, trying my best to keep my head above water, and sell, sell, sell.

As I research the publishing industry, and all that goes into it, I can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed; okay, a lot overwhelmed (you get how many queries a day?!). I read an article recently by J. A. Konrath called Confident or Delusional? and it certainly made me contemplate a bit. I’ve never considered myself either confident or delusional, in all honesty. I’ve written about the confidence issue at length. Most of it stems from growing up in an environment of non-writers/non-readers. And to the point, perhaps I’m a little delusional, but not entirely.

While I agree with about 98% of the statements in Konrath’s article–and have certainly moved my way from delusional to confident on quite a few issues therein–I get itchy thinking about the whole royalty check/praise issue. Seriously, I’m not even at the point where I can contemplate royalty checks. I’m just dipping my toes in, and first and foremost I want to share my story with other people. Oh, yes, I sound like Pollyanna. But, at the heart of the matter, I’ve always been a storyteller, and I’ve always looked for an audience. I’ve been programmed that way. Yes, I’ll take tips, of course. But eh. I’m just starting out. I think it’s a little bit delusional to sit there, writing your first few works, and be constantly thinking about the bottom line.

Further, in spite of the fact that we labor alone as writers, once that paltry query finds its way into an agent’s hands, we all become just another annoying writer looking for a break. “But I swear, my vampires are different!” we cry. The truth is, we likely aren’t. When work becomes product, everything changes. And this is one of the hardest things for any writer to accept: the words “you are not that special”. And either we can break through that hurdle or not. I suspect a great many people do not.

I have been so focused on the goal of completing this edit of The Aldersgate for the last year, that when I finally finished I was a little surprised. I sort of spun my wheels for a few days, decided to start a query for a laugh, and promptly gave up. Then I tried again. And I did it. I don’t know if it was a good idea, or a bad one. I’m wondering if my decision to podcast my draft was good or bad, if my decision to write so much about it was good or bad, if the the world holds up, if I am just doing the whole thing wrong. (And if it is wrong… hey, mistakes. We learn from them. I can deal with that.)

Though, I think I’m a little less worried than I ought to be, and I owe this to two experiences: undergraduate fiction workshopping and writing business copy for two years. While these two may seem unconnected, they’re not. Workshops taught me to grow a thick skin, that you can write really well and still be lacking; I learned that writers have egos, and if you want to write well you have to tear that ego down and replace it with persistence. Writing business copy and immersing myself in the marketing world for two years taught me that writing is a commodity, and that it can always be better (i.e. use what you learned from failing miserably the first time, write it again, and make damn well sure it’s better). It’s also going to be a great deal of work to get it right–but when you do, you can change the way people see things with the right words.

I also worked at Starbucks in graduate school, and I was really good at my job. I knew the exact drinks for the right customers (venti non-fat no-foam latte, grande 2% no whip black and white mocha… I still remember some of them) and made that espresso machine my bitch. During the holidays they always pushed us to sell the big stuff: the coffee makers, espresso machines, etc. I remember selling one of our more expensive models to a woman dressed to the nines, late one evening. I love coffee. I talk about it a great deal, and so selling this lady the machine wasn’t that tough; I just gushed about how well it worked, and how joyous a fresh home-brewed cup can be.

She smiled brightly as I was ringing her up at the register, and she patted my hand as I handed her the receipt. “You can sell anything,” she said. “Whatever you do in life, you’ll succeed as long as you can do that.”

At the time, I was hoping to be a professor of Medieval Literature somewhere, still believing–deluding myself into thinking–that I couldn’t make the writing work. That it was somehow less worthy of a goal because so few in my family would get it (chalk it up to being an oldest child, I guess, and always wanting validation for what I’ve done).  The idea of selling stuff rubbed me the wrong way, I remember thinking to myself, “Great, I’ll be an awesome car salesman.” But she meant it honestly.

Now, I finally believe in myself enough to continue as a fantasy writer, and I know it’s time to put my Mad Hatter Saleswoman hat on. Hopefully the coffee machine lady was right.

But regardless of what happens, I have a great deal of peace knowing that it won’t stop my own process. In the last year alone I have learned more about myself through writing, and have challenged myself as a writer, more than during my entire time here on the planet. So, as Konrath concludes:

Confident writers know success is beyond their control. But they keep writing anyway, and will continue to even if success never happens.

It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.

You must believe in yourself.

But first you have to prove yourself worthy of that belief.

I’m working on it.

Podcasting problems with WordPress – Fixed (for now)!

I’ve been podcasting draft chapters of The Aldersgate for the last year or so, and everything had been going great until a few months ago when various podcasts just started disappearing. First it was 1-6, then it was 1-10. I had tried a few options for fixing, but nothing seemed to help.

Searching the WordPress help guides is a painful process, and nothing we found (my husband helps me here, as this sort of stuff boggles me on a daily basis) was even remotely close. I assumed something was wrong with iTunes, then I assumed something was wrong with FeedBurner.

It wasn’t. It was WordPress itself.

Well, apparently in “Settings” and “Reading” there’s a little number next to “Syndication feeds show at most” and then a paltry 10. So if you’re a podcaster, that means it’ll only feed the 10 most recent podcasts, so any new subscribers won’t be able to subscribe through a feed and make any sense of the situation at all. Granted, some folks just come to my site and go to the archive, but that’s not the best method.

As a caveat to those who might be starting a podcast and using WordPress to manage the feed–beware! If you’re planning more than ten episodes, you’re in for a surprise.  And if you’re like me, and have very little in the way of technical savvy, and have a very busy life, this is an extremely important bit of information to know.

I will pretend I’m not thinking about how many subscribers I’ve lost. Ah, well. Fixed, now. Apologies to those who have clicked and walked away! Hopefully it won’t happen again.

Gender and fantasy: a missed opportunity

Because fantasy literature is derived from a mythological tradition steeped in masculine strength and honor, it is often cited as one of the worst offenses when it comes to gender biases. I mean, heck, you don’t have to look much further than SF/F aisle to know that boobs and bodices are really one of the hallmarks of the genre. I’ve talked about this at length before, from a feminist perspective, but the last few days I’ve been thinking about this in a much broader sense.

I mean, it was hard enough for me as a woman to find characters to identify with in fantasy. By and large, even in adult SF/F, female characters are few and far between, and most are signficiantly lacking, especially in the male-dominated “canon”. Women, even if they are the center of the novel, tend to either be a) defined by their sexuality or b) forced into masculine roles to be “taken seriously” as a hero. It’s eternally frustrating for me to read a book and constantly feel off-put by the portrayal of women (recent exceptions I’ve found lately include Elizabeth Bear’s Elaine Andraste in Blood and Iron and Emma Bull’s Mildred Benjamin in Territory).

But for every complaint I have from a feminist/women’s perspective, I can’t even begin to stack those for people of other gender identities and sexual orientations. If there are gay characters in fantasy, often it’s done either a way to titillate (especially with the portrayal of lesbians) or to demonstrate some kind of dementedness (often done with gay men). Or, sometimes, the character’s unexpected sexual orientation is simply a way for us to feel bad for someone who’s closeted and, of course, rather melancholy about it. Or, my personal gripe, a gay character (most often a woman) who is “turned” by someone else into a wonderful, fulfilling, heterosexual.

What I don’t understand  is why more writers don’t push this envelope. Moreso than any other genre, fantasy and science fiction writers have the opportunity to recreate societies and construct worlds where our concepts of gender and sexual orientation can be challenged. But there seems to be general resistance because, as the Big SF/F Writers that have come before us have kept in the safe zone, so too do many others. When J.K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay after she finished the books, I was absolutely furious that she hadn’t at least given it a footnote. This is a woman with incredible reach, but she felt that his sexual orientation wasn’t pertinent to her story, and though the reaction was positive from most, I wish she had at least given a window into this. So many kids struggling with gender issues would have been put at ease knowing that one of the most powerful characters in the Potter universe was a self-confident, compassionate, wonderful gay man.

My road to my perspective on this subject is a long time coming. I was brought up in an Evangelical church, in the middle of Northampton, MA, where Smith College is. For those not in the know, Northampton is a funky, eclectic, beautiful city that is called, at least by some, the “lesbian capital of the US.”  And let me tell you, if you’re brought up in a church nearby, chances are you will quickly learn who Others are.

I remember spouting off anti-gay crap one dinner with my step-grandmother when I was ten or eleven, bascially regurgitating the things I’d heard from adults. My take was that it was really funny. Gay people are funny! And eww, how could they kiss in public? My grandmother set me straight very quickly, and I am grateful she did. She leveled me with a stare and said, “So you don’t think that people who are in love should be able to show affection for one another public?” I had nothing to say in response; I felt ashamed, immediately. I had never thought about it that way. To me, the gay community were Others, and therefore, less human, let complex, less worthy of compassion.

It didn’t take long for me to actually meet people who challenged my long-held prejudices, either. Like actually gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. Beautiful, wonderful people who had survived unbelievable childhoods. By the time I was in graduate school, reading medieval texts like “Silence” (where the main character, a woman, passes as a man) and contemplating Portia and Rosalind in Shakespeare, I was forever changed. Thank goodness.

So how does this fit in to my writing? I realized, the other day, as I was cataloging my work and works in progress, that every single substantial work I have is diverse from a gender perspective. And it’s not that I sat down and said “this character is gay, and loving it!”. No, these characters are fully developed people that just happen to be gay, or bisexual, or (as in the case of the entirety of the Sibs in The Aldersgate) completely genderless. For the latter, I even had to create new pronouns in order to properly represent them in the text, which was a big challenge. But so far, readers have said that the Sibs are the most intriguing, most unique part of the book. And that makes me very proud. I mean, what’s the point of creating new worlds if you can’t write the rules yourself?

Whether or not we are aware, we write our fears and our prejudices into our writing. And mythology, as beautiful and replete with images and inspiration, is often one of the worst offenders (I mean, read “Beowulf” and you get my drift). Because fantasy and science fiction are derived from these traditions, writers often stay within a safe area where men are men and women wear chain mail bikinis. But if the full capabilities of the genre are ever to be realized and appreciated on a larger level, it’s essential that we push the borders of comfort and expectation regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. As one of the largest consumers of SF/F are young adults who, at the crossroads of their lives are most susceptible to the opinions and are most often struggling with these very issues, it’s a responsibility we should take more seriously.

Just to clear something up re: self-publishing

Okay, so the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about “self-publishing” and its definitions. Publishing has been radically altered because of the Internet, and so have the concepts of rights ownership and creative property. From the getgo, when I started The Aldersgate Cycle Blog, the idea was that I wanted to invite people into my creative process with no strings attached. Yes, technically podcasting my chapters is self-publishing, but it’s not the end-product. I don’t plan on going through Lulu or any of print-on-demand publishers at this space in time because, frankly, I haven’t even tried to get the book published. From the beginning I have referred to the work as a second-draft/second-edit, and have asked people to respond/comment, etc. on the progress of the book. In this way it’s like sharing proofs with close friends, except on a much larger scale.

Look, I think Creative Commons and the “Free” literature movement are awesome. I have licensed everything I’ve done as such–including all the music I compose for the podcasts–with the hope that it will be used, if someone desires. It’s not about making money for me, it’s about telling the story. And if and when someone picks up the book, I’m hoping they’ll see eye-to-eye with me, too. But that’s putting the proverbial cart before the horse, eh?

But I don’t think right now, from where I stand, that self-publication is the way to go for me. Besides, I am also not submitting the Aldersgate immediately. Why? Because it’s honkin’ huge. Even if I edit it down, it’s unlikely to be less than 140K or so. And no agent will touch that with a ten foot poll. Someone’s going to have to really really believe in me for that to happen, and though I have some confidence in my storytelling capabilities, I’m not that audacious. I have two other books (I love the way that looks when I type it…) that I’ll be circulating prior to the Aldersgate, both which I’m aiming to set free within the year.

Now, I know this seems a little backwards. And it probably is. But publishing is a business, just like anything else. And although sharing my novel has been a labor of love and creativity, my hope is that eventually I can make a living off of writing. While, in some ways, that’s a far-reaching goal, I know that the only way I can succeed is if I play the game. Granted, I’m not writing about vampires, shapeshifters, or highlanders, and that might be a problem, but judging by the quality of the majority of what’s on the bookshelves these days, a little grammatical know-how and minimal plot go a long way.

So that’s that. For the record. :)

Writing to reach you

I’ve been in a writing zone lately. Every day, writing. In the car, in the house, upstairs and downstairs. It doesn’t seem to matter. As I’ve mentioned over at the Aldersgate Cycle blog, I’ve been so busy that blog writing isn’t really a possibility (except um, obviously right now).

I realized I’ve clocked about 70K in the last month and three days. Which is impressive.

But what really got me is that I’ve written 35K in the last ten days.

Though I’m typically very, um, unpredictable when it comes to writing, I have little in the way of explanation for this one. To my knowledge no one has spiked my drinks, and I’ve taken no performance enhancing drugs (unless you count red wine, coffee, and ibuprofen). Usually I’ll write for about a week, and stop, then not write for a month. Unless I have NaNoWriMo or something. But in the space of a month I doubled my WriMo work, and not even really that consciously.

And honestly, I’ve felt kind of crappy lately. My sister is fighting Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, our finances are shaky at best, we’re moving again, and I’ve got the third cold this year. It’s also February, which is, contrary to popular belief and T.S. Eliot, the cruelest month. Dar Williams had it right. Maybe this is escape. Maybe it’s determination. Maybe it’s me trying to make real to a promise I made myself, that I wouldn’t just be a writer in theory, but a writer in practice–that writing would become more than my hobby, it would become my vocation. My calling.

Anyway, this is not a gloating post; I am the first to admit that quantity does not equal quality. There’s much work to be done, but at the moment I’m feeling a little bit accomplished. And hell, I could really use that right about now.

Going for the jugular: killing characters

These days high-profile writers get a lot of press for doing awful things to characters. Yes, killing a protagonist can be a very effective way of adding a hint of surprise to your novel. But it’s by no means unusual or original. I mean, if you ever have read any George R. R. Martin or heck, even J.K. Rowling, you know that people make a very big deal about killing characters. It even becomes some writers’ defining characteristic.

The weird thing is that it’s not new. Take the “Song of Roland”. Hint: everybody dies. Well, Roland and Oliver die. And everything falls apart. Pretty much the same story in Arthuriana. Ditto Hamlet. There’s always the Lancelots and Horatios who linger, but on the whole, it’s a bloodbath.

But death sometimes isn’t the right choice. In the first draft of the Aldersgate, I was so invested in what I was writing that I started to get a little overwhelmed with all the characters. As the action drew to a climax, I started killing people, left and right, because I just couldn’t deal with them. I think the excitement and the power got to me a little, and instead of dealing with complicated relationships, I just cut characters out. (As a side note–some of these deaths may or may not occur in the final draft…)

Not to say you should never kill a character, but you have to make sure that the decision is sound, that your choice is the best option for the sake of the story.  Here’s some questions that I ask when contemplating death for a character:

  • Am I just frustrated with the character arc?
  • Has the character done what they needed to do in the plot?
  • How will the death affect other characters?
  • What does the death represent? (i.e. chaos, destiny?)
  • How does this death fit into the main plot?
  • Is it easier to kill the character or let him live?
  • Ultimately, what other options do I have besides death that I might not have considered?

How about you? Have you ever encountered the death conundrum? If so, what kinds of questions do you ask yourself?

More process than product.

I have been editing a book for longer than I’ve been writing it. Such is the way of things. But I am seven chapters from the end of The Aldersgate, and looking at my collected chapters in Scrivener gives me a very warm sense of accomplishment.

I’m hitting the home stretch, and yesterday when I went to visit my husband at work, I was listening to the radio and tying up loose ends in my head for the last few chapters; everything sort of rushed and me, and I realized about ten minutes into my thought process that I was going the wrong way on the highway–i.e. north and not south. I had to turn around.

I’m a mess when I’m this involved, and right now it’s like trying to make sense of a hive of bees. Posting may be a little few and far between in the next week or so as I’m doing all I can to finish this.

But on a separate note. Podcasting has made this whole process very different from editing I’d done in the past. Now I’m so much more aware of the language, and details often jump out at me that I would have likely forgotten. A few times I’ve rewritten entire chapters as a result of reading it aloud and realizing that is doesn’t. So my editing has been very non-linear. Today I opened up the last of my problem chapters, one I’ve not yet read but will be reading soon, and I was fully prepared to do another rewrite. However, upon reading it I realized–heck, this is good. This is fine. What was I thinking before?

My goal by February is to print out everything at Kinkos again, let it sit for a few weeks while I work on another WIP, and get ready to get his thing going!

Currently the draft is at 122K… hopefully I can reign in a little, trim later, and just concentrate on telling the story before I go much more long winded! Egads.

A quick word from our sponsors.

Well, hello there.

A quick first post. This is my new home on the web, intended to be a little more free-form than my other blog, which of course you can find over at The Aldersgate Cycle.

What will you find here? Well, first and foremost this is a blog about writing. Secondly, it’s about being a geek. Thirdly, it’s about being a mom. So you might find quasi-feminist rants about the latest Pages interface design. Or Renaissance recipes. Or D&D discussions on how to balance family and gaming. Or quips of poetry or… well, you get the idea I daresay.

If you’ve enjoyed my stuff at the AGC, stick around. If you’ve just stumbled upon me, well–stick around, too!