Tag Archives: process

Finding the door

image by Rob Wanenchak

image by Rob Wanenchak

If thou followeth a wall far enough, there must be a door in it. – Marguerite de Angeli, The Door in the Wall

One of the first books that I remember being specifically formative for me in terms of actual writing is Stephen King’s Misery.

Like a lot of people, I went through a period of being obsessed with King’s books, beginning with a series of summer nights down at my family’s lake property in Texas wherein I stayed up until the small hours reading The Shining. One could – and many have – levy a number of very legitimate criticisms at King and his writing, and as I’ve learned more about the craft it’s become clearer to me that a lot of his books frankly aren’t all that great. But I retain the opinion than a lot of his stuff really is pretty fantastic, if often flawed – The Stand, the Dark Tower series (mostly the first three books but yes, I love the whole ridiculous thing) Duma Key, It, Desperation, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (a massively under-appreciated gem)… I could go on.

A lot of what I learned about writing, I learned from Stephen King, and not just from his slim, lean, wonderful On Writing. I could name a number of writers who first sowed in me the seeds of Wanting to Write, but when I determined that I might actually attempt the business, it was from King that I started to grasp the inner structure and workings of how to put a story together, how to make all the pieces fit and set the thing running. More, from him I gleaned an idea of creation that was at once cautiously mystical and flatly practical, devoid of both the gauzy, fluffy nonsense and the pompous inflexibility which stand as unfortunate features of a number of books about writing. I got useful images from him that made a lot of what I intuited easier to grasp: toolboxes and tools, people digging away in mines. I gained an understanding of the business of writing as far more practical craft and hard work than the base-level possession of talent, or of sitting around waiting for inspiration.

But sometimes you do wait. Sometimes you shove whatever your current project is into the back of your mind and go on about your life. Sometimes you get an idea but you know it isn’t ready yet, or you suspect it may not be. Then you let it be. I’ve found it useful to conceive – heh – of this as a kind of pregnancy; I can feel that something is growing, but it’ll grow at its own pace. I’ll know when it’s ready to emerge, and to try to force it out before its time could kill it before it has a chance to get going.

But sometimes it doesn’t simply emerge in its natural time, and then you have to hunt for it. You have to chase.

In Misery, King describes my understanding of this process as regarding a blank page, waiting to fall into it. That image has stayed with me, because it feels so right; what you need is a way through and into, and you won’t find it by avoiding it. And it’s not fun. It’s painful.  It’s lonely and frightening, and I think that loneliness and fear is what keeps a lot of would-be writers dependent on inspiration, the lack of which provides an excellent excuse to quit for the day and do something that isn’t writing.

And then there’s what I tend to experience more than anything else when trying to start a project – and sometimes when stuck in the middle of one – which is a combination of the two.

I’m not waiting to fall through a page – or a screen – and I’m not waiting for something to birth itself. It’s like I’m in the dark, feeling my way along a wall. There’s nothing in the dark with me but that wall – except for the wall, I’m in a void. What I’m looking for is a crack, a hole, a window, maybe even a door. I have no clear idea what’s behind the wall. Maybe I can hear things through it, very faint – voices, music. Maybe I’ve heard rumors about what’s over there, unreliable third-and-fourth-hand reports. The fact is that I don’t know. All I know is that I can’t stay in the dark.

And if I keep feeling along the wall, sooner or later I’m going to find my way through.

That moment, when I find the way through, is difficult to describe, but I think King would recognize it instantly. I think most writers would. It’s a moment of quiet elation and revelation both – not an understanding of the whole story or of the totality or the plot but more that you now see the path by which you might get to the end. You have a way in. The country beyond is still undiscovered, but now you can begin – or continue – the journey. And now the journey doesn’t seem nearly so impossible, nearly so overwhelming.

That moment is one of the moments I’ve come to live for. I had one of them last night. I’m not quite ready to start that particular journey, but I can see the road through the door, and I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to. – JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Bird by bird: the fine art of rewriting

55327_girl-writing_lg

I was having a conversation with some other writers on Twitter today about the business of rewriting, and it came up that while there’s initial drafting advice in spades, knowing how to rewrite seems to be a skill that’s harder to come by. I said that I’m actually still afraid of it in a lot of respects, and I am – I just scrapped two novels (in fairness, I now think that was a necessary move in both cases) in order to start from scratch because working through it in a more piece-oriented way was too scary an idea.

But like all aspects of the craft, it’s something at which I’m really trying to get better. So here, if it’s at all helpful, are what I think are some good general tips for rewriting something.

(I should note that, like all writing advice, none of this will work for everyone all the time. Writing is such an individual activity – everyone has their own approach, and every project is at least slightly different, which means they have different requirements. So take or leave any of this as it’s useful or not.)

So.

  • Write. Pretty basic, but sometimes surprisingly hard – I’ve heard others say and have experienced myself that fear of having to rewrite can actually keep one from writing at all. You can’t edit something that doesn’t exist. So you have to get that something out there on the table first.
  • Don’t panic. Again, basic, but sometimes very hard. It’s so easy to look at a writing project that needs a lot of work – especially something the length of a novel – and feel utterly overwhelmed. That’s a natural way to feel, but it’s also your enemy. Fear is the mindkiller. Along those lines:
  • Take it bird by bird. I keep name-dropping Anne Lamott and there’s a reason for that: she’s right about a lot. Here’s one of my favorite passages from her, from which she draws the title of her “instructions on writing and life”:

    Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

  • That said, don’t be afraid to throw it all out. Because sometimes that really is necessary. Like I said, in the last year I had to confront that not one but two novels – novels that I loved, that I worked so hard on – just didn’t work. As they were, they didn’t do what they needed to do. Tweaking here and there wouldn’t get the job done, at least not done enough. 90% of them needed to go. So I did that, and it turns out to have been the right move. That’s rewriting so extensive that you actually end up circling back around to point #1, and I don’t always recommend it, but sometimes it really is what needs to be done.
  • Don’t get intimidated by structure. One of the things that makes rewriting so intimidating for me is that I don’t think about plots in very structural ways. I usually work from only very rough outlines, and my plots develop organically. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, if that’s how you write best, but it does mean that the entire thing can end up feeling like a Jenga tower – you didn’t go through with a very clear top-down sense of how it was all working, because you were immersed much more in the way a reader might be, so it can be scary to imagine pulling out the blocks and putting them in new places. But your book is not a Jenga tower. It’s a book. No change you make is necessarily permanent. If you do something and it doesn’t work, you can go back to an earlier version (provided you save multiple versions throughout the editing process, which you should really do). You cannot destroy your book. There is nothing you can possibly do to it that is irreparable. For all intents and purposes, though you can make detrimental changes, the thing itself is indestructible.
  • Solicit feedback and listen to it. That’s not to say that you should always agree. I once walked away from a book contract because the changes that I was going to be required to make were not good changes and would not have made the book better. I have no doubt to this day that doing so was the right decision, though it was extremely hard. But if someone tells you something and you do disagree, take some very serious inventory regarding the source of your disagreement. Is it because you really believe it would be a bad change? Or is it because it would be a lot of work, or it bruises your ego? I have disregarded feedback for both (bad) reasons, and it’s something I’ve had to learn to recognize in myself.
  • Don’t put it off. This is a hugely important point for any large project. Because the longer you put off doing something, the more you forget what it actually looks like, and that’s when it starts to take on monstrous proportions in your head. Your imagining of a project is always orders of magnitude more intimidating than it actually is. The more time away from it you spend, the more intimidating it will get, and the more you’ll avoid it. Start editing early, and work at it consistently. Keep yourself familiar with your project. Keep yourself on task. But:
  • Give yourself a little distance. There should ideally be a break between the first and second drafts. I generally try to keep mine to at least a week. This is simply because by the time you’re done with a big thing, you’re too close to see it clearly. You need to come back to it with fresh eyes. This break period is also a good time to cast around for people you trust to give you feedback. Just don’t let the break turn into avoidance.
  • Set deadlines and stick to them – which means don’t come in too far under or too far over. This will help you with avoidance. It will also help you pace yourself and keep from feeling crushed under the weight of what you have to do. Give yourself enough time that you can work at it steadily a bit at a time rather than trying to tackle it all at once. I struggle with this, and with the ensuing burnout. Take it bird by bird.
  • Try to remember why you wanted to write it in the first place. There’s nothing that kills enthusiasm for a project like a huge amount of time spent working on it. Again, this is true for so many things besides writing. I think everyone who writes a novel goes through at least a brief period where they just hate the thing. In the rewriting phase, try to find the things you love, not just the things that need work. Focus on the elements of it that are strong, and build the edits around that. Take pleasure in what you’ve created, and in how much better you can make it.

I think this last is probably the most important. Inspiration is never something on which you should depend in order to complete something the size of a novel, but the love of what you’re doing that accompanies inspiration can be a powerful motivator, and it can carry you through hard times. In fact, in my experience, loving a book is sort of like loving a person. There’s the first flush of infatuation, where everything is intense and wonderful. Then things cool off, and you really get to know them, which involves seeing their flaws and the less than lovely things about them, but which also gives you a deeper appreciation for everything you loved about them in the first place, and often reveals new and beautiful aspects of who they are as people. If all goes well, if you’re really a good match, you love the person and then you love the person. I usually find that getting to the end of a book is the same. I may be impatient, frustrated, infuriated, and we might have to have some difficult conversations. We may fight. But at the end of it, I really love it, and I know it so well. That love can carry you through a relationship, and it can carry you through a book.

Be kind to your book. Be kind to you. Go and write.

Some stuff about the Line and Orbit sequel

[NOTE FROM THE FUTURE (January 2014): Fall and Rising as it currently stands is being extensively rewritten and looks almost nothing like this now. If you Googled your way here looking for info, bear in mind that none of this applies anymore. Thank you and farewell from the future.]

I’m almost 50k words into this thing, which means we have – according to my calculations – reached the approximate halfway point. I know it’s slightly risky business to talk about a book in progress, especially given that it may look very different by the time it’s published, but I do think there are some things I can say about it with a particular degree of certainty. Which is… pretty certain.

So for those who care about such stuff, here – for your edification – are some things about the Line and Orbit sequel.

  • It’s called Fall and Rising. For now. Of the two novels I’ve sold so far, neither of them ended up with the title they had at the start, so I know by now not to be too sure about that side of the business. Still, this is what I’m calling it unless/until it changes.
  • Adam and Lochlan are not the focus. They had their book. What I wanted to do here was take the opportunity to explore some of the secondary characters of Line and Orbit, to tell their stories. That doesn’t mean that familiar characters won’t be making an appearance; they will, that’s rather the point. But the focus is different. (And given that the first book was – perhaps questionably – marketed as M/M romance, it’ll be interesting to see how that goes over.)
  • It’s much darker. The body count at the end of Line and Orbit was pretty high – we’re talking about something like a thousand people or so – and not as many people have died so far in Fall and Rising, but I think by the end Line and Orbit will have been beaten. It starts off in a bad place, with all the characters in desperate circumstances, and goes downhill from there. Which is a lot of what the title is suggesting. But of course, the title is also suggesting something else.I was watching Star Wars: Episode One the other day – yes, I realize that it was a very questionable decision, but hey, we had the Rifftrax – and I noticed something I hadn’t before. (By the way, Episode One is actually a great and massive lesson on how not to write a story. I learn new things every time I watch it. I strongly believe that every writer should.) Anyway, what I noticed was that, although this is a movie that ostensibly deals with some Very Serious Themes – themes like slavery and the privation of massive numbers of people and war and death – you see hardly any of the characters really suffering. Nothing truly bad happens to any of them, and you have fucking Jar Jar Binks running around being a racist clown in the middle of a battle where people are dying so when something like the death of Qui-Gon Jinn happens, it has no narrative weight. Nothing does. Everyone is basically safe. You never see anyone really suffer, so you never get the sense that anything meaningful is at stake.

    Of course, Lucas also can’t write suffering for shit. Watch the other two prequels if you don’t believe me. I’m telling you, they’re a giant storytelling master class.

    So people need to suffer. People you care about need to suffer. Otherwise there’s no point. And we’re working up to a pretty big climax in the third and final book. So people are going to be hurting.

  • If the primary theme of Line and Orbit was ecology (and how family kind of sucks sometimes) the primary theme of Fall and Rising appears to be terrorism. Specifically, under what circumstances terrorism might be, if not justified, then at least understandable. It’s been very interesting and increasingly troubling writing these parts; I’m very aware that readers may have problems with this aspect. I think I have some problems with it. But I also think that’s the point. I don’t want this book to be comfortable. I hope people will be willing to go there with me even if it’s uncomfortable for all of us.
  • It’s not romance. Neither was Line and Orbit, if it comes to that, though it was marketed that way, and that seems to have (understandably) confused some people and disappointed others. So getting this out there up front: Not romance. There are romantic elements, but they aren’t the focus. Relationships between characters, though – love, loyalty, hatred, sacrifice, the horrible choices we make to save people we care about, the meaning of survival – those things are a focus. So hopefully we all come out of this happy, one way or another.

As I said, the book is just about halfway done, and I’m aiming to have it finished by the end of the summer. After that there’s naturally a lengthy editing process and such, but I’m hoping to have it released in 2014.

I’m super excited about it, guys. I really hope you like it.

If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.

Listen to Wesley. He knows what’s up.

A “this was very close” story rejection today got me kind of in a meditative mood, especially given the reflective nature of the New Yearish time of year, and I found myself facing something that I come back to a lot these days when successes are immediately followed by things not working out the way I want them to.

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