A Letter . . . to my Characters

For the past few days, I’ve struggled with rewrites. I’ve gone through the manuscript. I’ve made my notes. I’ve sorted what worked and what didn’t. I’ve reconsidered scenes that I tossed long ago, thought about bringing them back.

Then I sit down to write . . . and the fingers won’t move on the keyboard. Words don’t become sentences. Sentences don’t become paragraphs. What I do get down, I don’t trust.

I poke and prod at it. Hoping to wake it up. Knocking on my characters’ doors, hoping to find them at home, letting them know I’m here. But where are they? Do characters go on vacation? If so, mine must have done so. Are they, at this very moment, tossing back highballs on a beach in Maui? If so, why the hell didn’t they invite ME?! 🙂

But it’s time for them to come home. Time to sort them, and their stories, out. So I wrote them a little letter.

Time to get to work, guys.  I know we just finished that first novel and you think it’s time to slack off a little, but it’s really not. We’ve done great work in the past – I’ve seen it. I’ve read it! Some of those scenes are popping! But we need to get the rest of them popping. 

Remember, we’ve got new characters. Demon – sorry, Nicholas – it’s your time to shine! I know you. I re-read your bio last night. I’d forgotten all that stuff! You told me your life story a long time ago, and I’m sorry I sort of let it sit on the sidelines for so long. You deserve better. You’re witty and loquacious and I really like you – you know, for a demon – and this book needs you. The series needs you. You’re a worthy adversary for Erin and Kai, and I’m sorry you’ve been through so much, but let’s get it sorted, shall we? Tell me how you do what you do. Tell me your plans. Tell me how you’ll execute those plans. 

Erin and Kai – this is YOUR book! This is the one that started it all – the trust and mistrust, the sidelong looks, the questions and non-answers. Neither of you is trusting,  yet you both trust each other. The demon knows this . . . and you do, too. It’s time to take your story to the next level. Let’s do it! 

Shannon . . . I know you don’t play quite as large a role in this book as you’d like, but then again, if I ever let you, you’d take over the entire books and then where would I be?! You’re sassy and smart and scary and – well, let’s face it, you’re evil and you like it that way. I know you didn’t want to die, and I know everything you do now is a reaction to that. I’m sorry you barely got your heart’s desire and then had it ripped from you. Not my fault, though. And your time’s coming. But for this book . . . you’re in the backseat, girlfriend. 

Nick . . . wow. I got nothing. Seriously, you’re a douche. And you know it. You say ‘cad’ because you’re British and you’re describing yourself, and I can feel you. You’re ready to go! I’ve got no problems with you. And I know all your little secrets, too. 

In short, guys – I know it’s going to be another long slog. I get it. It’s not going to be easy at all. It’s going to be another round of ripping apart scenes, adding new ones and cutting the old, using a hatchet and then maybe a scalpel. I really do get it. Who wants to do all that work?! Well – we do. Right? I mean, isn’t that why you all came to me to begin with? 

I know – there’s a lot of people out there who roll their eyes, even get downright hostile, when I talk about my characters like they’re real people. But how can anyone spend time with their characters and not feel like that? How can anyone write day after day, feel that exhilaration of blinking your eyes and realizing that you don’t remember writing anything on the page – yet not only is it there, but it’s really good – and deny that their characters are real? You guys are. I live with you. You go with me to work, to the grocery store, on my walks. When I can’t sleep, you’re there sometimes, giving me whispered lines and paragraphs. 

So sadly, guys, if we want this book to get done, it’s got to be a team effort. 

I’m here. Get back from vacation, and let’s get started. 

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Writing Every Day: Myths, Realities, & Why I Hate It

Pick up a writing book – any writing book – and I’ll bet you that somewhere in there, it says something to the effect of:  “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every single day. Even if it’s crap. Write.”

Or it’s “Set a goal of x number of words per day. If you write 500 words per day, in a year you’ll have a novel!” Or whatever the magical number is supposed to be.

I hate this advice. And here’s why:

1.) It assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality. News flash:  no one is the same. Painters do not paint in the same style as everyone else. That’s how art historians can tell whether it was really Rembrandt who painted this particular work, or one of the many assistants he kept on staff – or even a forger two hundred years later. Writers do not write the same, either. Yes, there are some who write every single day because if they don’t, they lose the rhythm, or the plot, or (like a friend of mine) turn into raving lunatics. But not everyone is like that.

2.) How much pressure is that to put on new writers? “Write every day OR ELSE!” Or else what, exactly? The world won’t end. You may take longer to get better at writing, is all.

2.) Sometimes, I literally don’t have the time to write. We all have busy lives. Some have kids and spouses; others, pets. Most writers have other jobs (maybe even 2 or 3 jobs) to pay the bills. Real jobs that require us to shower and go out into the world and interact with people that care whether we brushed our teeth this morning or not.

3.) Sometimes, I don’t feel like it. We all need breaks from everything in our lives. That’s why people take vacations. If I’m stressed and frustrated about other things in my life, it’s impossible to get my writing mojo in gear. My writing needs to be something I come to when I’m fresh and excited to be there. Like sex! Ever have sex when you really didn’t want to? It’s like that. Take the past two weeks, for example:  I had graduate tests to oversee, just found out my hours are getting cut at work much more severely than I originally thought, and I still hadn’t done my taxes. It wasn’t until the tests were done, taxes were done, and the job search was underway, that I felt like going back to my manuscript.

4.) I need to have something in mind when I sit down to write, a scene that must be written. If the characters aren’t in my head chattering away, I don’t write. All the times I’ve sat down at the computer and forced myself to type something out because I felt like I had to, it’s all been absolute crap. I’ve learned over the years not to force it. A lot of people will say “Write it anyway! You can revise it later!” But there’s revision, and then there’s I have to toss the five pages of dribble that I forced myself to write the other day, because there’s nothing here worth salvaging.

5.) It makes writing into a chore – and you resent it. You get home from a long day at work, the kids are screaming, the cat’s throwing up, you’re getting a headache . . . and then you think, ‘I’ve got to write 500 words tonight before I can go to bed!’ How good do you think those 500 words are going to be? And more importantly, how much are you going to resent every single one of those words?

6.) But the thing I hate most about this advice is that I believe it stops people from writing. New writers who read this advice and think ‘Holy crap, I can’t write 500 words a day, every day! There’s no point in even starting!” So they go do something else instead, and that dream they had? Of writing? It never gets fulfilled. Because of this advice.

Now, I admit that when I’m in the middle of drafting a novel, writing every day, or nearly every day, does help me stay connected with my characters and my story. But if all I’m doing is typing out cold dribbles of pudding that will never, ever end up in the finished version, what am I accomplishing? Nothing. I may as well be photographing in the dark without a flash.

The idea that all writers write every single bloody day is a MYTH. If you’re trying to get into the writing habit, then yes, a word count per week is a good idea – but for some of us, it just doesn’t work. We’re wired differently. I can go days – even weeks – without actually putting fingers to keyboard. But I’m mulling over ideas. Letting the story evolve in my subconscious. And then, when I do sit down, I write in spurts, doing two or three hours a day, every day, for a week or two, or even six or seven, depending on the project. It’s just how I roll. It’s neither right or wrong. It just IS.

If you’re a slow writer, or you need to do research, or life simply gets in the way and you think you can’t write because of that – of course you can! It’s a different path, is all. It takes longer to get there. But you CAN get there.

Writing should be a joy, not a chore. It should be the place we go to express ourselves, to find an outlet for our creativity, to give our characters voices and lives and beating hearts.

So just do this for me.

Write when you can.

 

When the doubts come marching in . . .

For the past few weeks – in between many other things – I’ve been going over the book I wrote last spring. It’s gone through 21 revisions already.

I have two chapters left. The climax and denouement. That’s it. Two more to finish reading and revising. So I sat down last night to get them done. Just another 30 pages or so, and I can get started on putting the revisions to work.

So I picked up the manuscript and started reading . . . and ten minutes later, threw it down in disgust and got up to do laundry instead. Epiphany Time had arrived.

My books sucks.

Is there a time in every writer’s life when they stare at the mess they’ve created, rather like Dr. Frankenstein, and say “Ye gods, what have I done? What have I done?” (Imagine enraged, desperate scream to the heavens echoing from stone walls here.) A time when the doubts come marching in?

I hope so, because I am so there.

To be fair, I do this all the time, with almost every manuscript. Well. No. To be fair, I actually don’t. It’s just this urban fantasy series. What about it is so infuriating? What about it makes me incapable of writing it to any façade of satisfaction? I have no idea. What I know is that I get to a place where I’m happy with it, I send it to my betas, they review it and send it back to me, and then . . . when I start on the revisions, I realize that It Sucks.

I have plenty of other novels sitting on my hard drive that don’t do this to me. They’re good. They were early novels, but there are things about them I love. The writing, the characters. The fact that they move forward. That they have plots. That my characters develop over time.

Yeah. I’m starting to see the problem with the current novel.

The fact is, the doubts march in only when they’re needed. Sort of like gargoyles. Gargoyles only come to life when they’re needed to combat evil. Doubts are there for a reason: to let us know that all is NOT right with the world we’ve created. I take heart from that. Gargoyles might look damned scary as they swoop down on you (though I admit, I’ve never really seen this, so I’m guessing here), but in the end, they’re there to save the day. Doubts must be the same way, right?

I’ve realized quite a few things about this novel in the last couple of weeks.

  • Some chapters need to be rearranged.
  • Some need to come out altogether.
  • I need a plot that actually goes somewhere, but to have that, I have to have characters who are actually willing to do something. Right now, I don’t. So the plot doesn’t progress.
  • Although I adore most of my secondary characters, I’m having trouble with my MC, Erin, and the primary “mover” in the book, a girl named Rebecca. Rebecca doesn’t do much, either, and the truth is, I don’t even really like her.
  • My secondary plot lines are great, but my main one is virtually nonexistent.
  • Rebecca’s biggest problem is a guy named Seth, who only shows up in the last scene.

Maybe most damning of all, I am not familiar with my setting. I’ve never been to England. I want to. I’m dying to. But without having been there, how can I write about it with any conviction? I can’t describe the streets and buildings, or the route Erin takes to university every day, or the shops. I can’t put her in a convincing setting.

But what I think I hate most about it is that it seems so superficial. Like my characters are skating on top of ice, when they really need to be swimming in the depths below. There are moments when I feel them beginning to fall through the ice and get to those dark depths, but those moments are too few and too far between.

Is it fixable? Maybe. Will it need extensive rewrites? Absolutely. Have I got other things to be doing? Yup. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up yet. But the doubts have definitely – and thankfully – marched in. Now, I need to listen to them.

 

Is Your Novel a Rust Bucket? Mine Is!

I’ve been thinking a lot about cars lately. I love cars. My dad used to custom-build race cars, and he restored his own Model A. My dream is to rescue a ’76 Triumph Spitfire and restore it (along with several other British cars like the Jensen, the Sunbeam Alpine, the Sprite, the . . . ) 🙂 Plus, I’ve been researching them for my YA novel, looking at exactly how you drop a large engine in a small car and modify it so that it isn’t immediately apparent what you’ve done, and how that affects the rest of the car’s body and its performance.

I’ve also been rewriting the first two books of my urban fantasy series. I just finished rewrites on the first one, and it went to my betas on Thursday (YAY!); now I’ve started on Book 2, which used to be Book 1. And what I have, I realized, is a great big rust heap.

Driving Lessons

When you get an old car, nine times out of ten it’s not complete. You might have a body and frame, but no engine or transmission. You might have a frame OR a body, and maybe the transmission but no engine or interior. So you have to go to swap meets, get online, find other “parts cars,” and sometimes manufacture things yourself. That’s where I am with this novel. So much of it has to change — not only is it going from third person to first, but the entire timeline is changing, getting shorter. That means a lot of scenes have to go, or be rewritten and re-purposed. Moved elsewhere. Some of it simply isn’t usable.

What I have is a frame — the basic story line, the plot, the characters. And I’ve got the engine and transmission — the conflict, the inciting incident, the rising tension. I have a few doors and instruments, and a steering wheel — scenes that I can rewrite and use.

Now, I have to go find my parts cars. Dig through old drafts and locate things that might be usable. Those, I can slowly weld together. Rough at first, yes. Welds always are. But then you sand down the seams — your rewrites, your transitions between scenes. You make sure everything’s aligned — all your scenes are in place, everything’s been referenced in the right order, the story progresses naturally and chronologically.

After several drafts, you have something that looks like a story, just like when you get the body put on the frame and the engine and transmission dropped in, you have something that looks like a car. But are you done? Nope! Let’s say that car’s been sitting in a field for forty years. Mice and rats have eaten the upholstery and wiring. Hail finally broke out the windows. Rain ruined the walnut dashboard and rusted out the floorboards. All that has to be replaced, brand-new. Just like I have scenes that will need to be written fresh, just for this novel. So now I get to do all new wiring. Order the new dash. Pick out the upholstery color and material. Make it all match the original, as close as possible. Of course, this isn’t going to be original — we’re going custom. So I have a little leeway with a few things.

Some people would be happy with that. The car’s now running. You have seats and headlights — it’s done, right? No! Now, you have to choose the paint, put on several coats to get that deep, glossy finish, sanding it down between coats to make sure the next one goes on just right. You have to make sure every stitch in the interior is exactly right. That the stain on the woodwork is even, deep, glossy, satin-smooth. This is coachwork. This isn’t an assembly-line, cookie-cutter car. This is your novel! It shouldn’t be like anyone else’s, and it shouldn’t be less than perfect. Not a single flaw can be allowed to exist in the finish, or in that walnut dash. The engine must be spotless. The pinstripes, absolutely straight; no drips, no differences in the thickness of the lines, no hesitations. This is the editing phase. Just like this attention to detail is what separates a good car from a concourse car, this same attention to detail is what separates the okay novel from the great one.

I remember when my dad brought home his Model A, it was nothing more than a frame, two doors, and pieces of a rusty engine. My mom looked at it and said “What the . . .?!” But he knew what it could be. He had a vision for what it would look like, already. That’s where I am with this novel. I have a lot of parts sitting around, but I know where they need to go and I know what I need to do in order to restore it properly.