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?! ūüôā

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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Are You Tough Enough . . . for Rewrites?

Rewrites are really tough.

I don’t mean the nit-picky line edits to catch grammar and spelling errors. I mean the kind of rewrites that require you to rip apart entire scenes and stitch them back together, then rewrite the segues between chapters. The kind that make you look at characterization and character arcs.

We always draft our novels, hesitate over things that don’t seem quite right, and say ‘Well, that’s what rewrites are for!’ but the fact is – rewrites are bloody hard work.¬†

But. If you ever want your manuscript to see the light of day, you have to do them. Seriously. Think about it. How many times have you read a novel where you threw it across the room because it a.) was poorly edited, b.) had major plot holes, c.) characters did things out of character, or d.) ___ (insert reason here). This is why YOU have to do them – so no one, hopefully, throws your book across a room.

I just finished rewrites on the first novel in my urban fantasy series (which – I am hoping – may actually meet an agent this year), and now that it’s off to my beta readers, I’ve started re-reading and editing the second book.

Here’s the thing:¬† in my mind, that book was already done. In fact, that book was originally Book #1 of the series, but – well, I discussed this in another blog post (¬†https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/wrong-path-wrong-focus-whats-your-novel-really-about/ ). It had issues, I knew, but nothing on the scale of the one I was currently working on. Suffice to say that for the past few months, while I’ve been frantically editing and rewriting on Book #1, I’ve been consoled by a single thought:¬†¬†Book #2 isn’t as bad. In fact, it’s really good. I remember it flows well and the characters do great things and it’s funny and full of tension. It’ll need a few tweaks, is all.¬†

HAH!!!!

OMG. I long for those halcyon days. They were what, four days ago?!

I’m about halfway through the first read of the draft of Book #2, and I can’t believe I thought this was anywhere close to being done. It’s not. It’s SO not.

I suppose every writer goes through this. Neil Gaiman, when he came to Tulsa, told us that there’s a point about halfway through his books where he calls his agent and tells her he can’t do this and the book sucks and he’s a horrible writer (and his agent says “Oh, you’re at¬†that¬†point in the book.”). In her book¬†Write Naked,¬†Jennifer Probst talks about her rewriting woes as well (in fact, she tells a story about her editor calling with a bombshell:¬† the book sucks, and you need to rewrite the entire thing in seven days. Probst told her editor that she had two small children, and rewriting an entire book in seven days would be problematic – to which the editor said, “Well, you’ll just have to give your children away for the week.”).

And it’s not even so much that I have to do the rewrites – I knew that was coming – it’s the fact that I could be So Freaking Wrong about how good I thought this manuscript was! The book I have in my memory was 85% complete. It needed tweaked. I remembered a couple of scenes that needed some work, and a few that I wanted to move around for better flow, but after that . . . in truth, I was thinking I’d have this thing wrapped up in a week or two.

Yeah. Well. No.

Maybe this is like when you break up with someone, and after a few months, they want to get back together, and you’ve conveniently forgotten why you broke up with them in the first place. You forgot the hideous laugh, or the crude humor, or the way he strips his transmission rather than go into the proper gear, or . . . whatever it is, you forget it. Then, when you’re back together, poof! You remember!

Like I said, I’m about halfway through that first read-through, making notes and sticking turquoise Post-It Notes to nearly every page. Sometimes two or three per page. Realizing, as I go, that this isn’t a quick fix, and it’s not an ‘edit the existing manuscript’ thing, even.

It’s a¬†let’s rewrite this entire manuscript¬†thing.

As I’m reading, I’m struck by several factors that I can’t believe I forgot about. They must have been there – and not lurking in the shadows, either, but right there out in the open. Nearly every page has entire paragraphs that are circled, with a big black REWRITE next to it.¬†A lot of things that were changed in Book 1 need to be addressed – new events, thing that got switched out between Books 1 and 2, motivations. My entire Chapter 1 has to be trashed and redone. Scenes don’t flow – in fact, they don’t even go together in some cases! It’s confusing, convoluted, and crap.

I have the glimmer of some goodness. Some scenes are okay. Some paragraphs are all right. Some sentences can even be left alone. If I can figure out how to fit them back in and where they go, anyway. But overall? IT’S CRAP!

I’m tempted to start rewrites right away, but I need to finish this re-read first. I know it will be a total rewrite. I also know I can do it – but I feel so blindsided! How the hell did I think this was any good?! How?!

My saving grace, I think, is that since I just finished the rewrites to Book 1, I’m in the right mindset to be brutal for these. With Book 1, I was¬†downright¬†brutal – I cut entire scenes! If a scene didn’t propel the story forward, ask or answer questions, and hold my attention, it got cut. By the time I was done, I¬† was so close to it that I don’t know if I accomplished that or not. We often refer to books as ‘babies,’ but the fact is, when you reach a certain point in the writing/rewriting cycle, that ain’t your baby anymore – it’s the freaking enemy, and all you want to do is defeat it, by any means necessary!

And since I’m still in that ‘it’s the enemy!’ mindset – I’m ready to be brutal!

Yes, rewrites are tough.

We, as writers, have to be tougher.

 

My blog post about seeing Neil Gaiman in Tulsa:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-magical-evening-with-neil-gaiman/

And Jennifer Probst’s website:¬†¬†http://www.jenniferprobst.com/

 

“Endings are impossible.” Can we make them possible?

“Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.

No doubt ‚Äď endings are hard. But then again… nothing ever really ends, does it?”

These are the immortal – yes, I said immortal – words of the prophet Chuck, from¬†Supernatural.¬†“Swan Song” is probably my second-favorite episode of that show, in part because of Chuck’s narration (Chuck is a prophet – well, a bit more than that, really – and chronicles the Winchesters’ lives in a series of tawdry books).

I was reminded of these words tonight as I struggle with the ending of my current work in progress.

Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible.¬†You know a writer wrote that! And it’s so true. Beginnings are easy. You’ve got your characters. They’ve got problems. You chronicle the problems. You watch as your characters solve one thing, only to have two more issues pop up. Characters come onstage. Characters die. They get ever-closer to what they want.

But endings are impossible.

Endings should be natural. We hear that so often. They should be the organic outcomes of every decision your characters have made. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, that’s exactly how it goes. You’ve written the novel so well that there can be only one ending, and it flows right out of your keyboard like water from a bottle. Maybe you tweak a word here or there, but then – you’re done. You’ve tied up the loose ends, answered all the questions, given the characters their happy-ever after (or their just desserts, whichever).

If this ever happens to you, please let me know which alternate universe you’re living in, so I can come visit. Because this is NOT where I am!

I’m working on rewrites to a novel I drafted a couple of years ago. The rewrites keep going well, but now it’s time to draft the ending. My beta readers had issues with the ending. They believed that it was weak, that it didn’t solve anything or answer any questions. I had to agree. I never liked the ending, to be honest. I didn’t mind that some loose ends weren’t tied up – but it was weak, and I hated it.

So what are the elements of a good ending? Think about an ending to a novel that¬† you’ve never been able to get out of your head. What makes it so strong? J.K. Rowling writes fantastic endings. Take any of the Harry Potter books. Read them through. Mark all the questions you have as you read. Then, ask yourself how many questions are left at the end. She’ll always leave something up in the air – it has to lead into the next novel, after all – but all the Big Ticket Questions are answered.

But more importantly, nothing is left to chance. Rowling lays the clues down one by one, so subtly and thoroughly that you always smack yourself in the head for not seeing the ending coming, even as you’re on the edge of your seat, begging Harry to win. Think about¬†Goblet of Fire.¬†We knew all about Portkeys, and wand duels, and of course, we loved Cedric. (cry!) So when the Goblet turns out to be a Portkey, we’re shocked – but we know what it is and we know what’s about to happen. And where did we first encounter Portkeys? Oh, that’s right – in Chapter 1, where they’re an integral part of the plot, a means to get everyone to the Quidditch World Cup. See how neatly she did that? (I highly suspect this was the result of rewriting, but – you know what? It works.)

Setting your readers up for the ending is a challenge, and one I’m facing right now. I’ve been trying for a week to figure out precisely why the old ending was so weak, and what I have to do with the new one to make it work. The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. Let me say that again:

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The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. 

 

 

Here’s some problems I’ve seen with book endings:

1.) They’re too long and boring.¬†Wuthering Heights¬†comes to mind. Who gives a flying monkey’s butt about Heathcliff and Cathy’s children? I sure didn’t. Although come to think on it, I didn’t care about Heathcliff and Cathy, either.

2.) The promise of the book isn’t delivered.¬†The Lovely Bones.¬†I literally threw this book across the room because of the ending. Susie remained as a ghost to see if her killer would ever be brought to justice, and¬†nothing happened!¬†The killer isn’t even brought to justice by Susie, her family, or anyone else; his death is a random event. Hated this book¬†because¬†of the ending.

3.) Something is tossed in at the last second to save the day. Either the cavalry comes riding in (which denies your hero his moment), or some random knowledge/ gun/sword/superpower is suddenly discovered that gives the hero the edge. You think Harry ever had that? Nope! When he pulled the Gryffindor sword from the Sorting Hat, that was foreshadowed. Whatever your hero needs to defeat the enemy or accomplish his goal, you have to foreshadow it. Otherwise, the reader will be cheated. Not feel cheated –¬†be¬†cheated.

4.) There’s no logic to the ending. Again, the ending is a product of the rest of the book. Every choice your characters make, every scene, every bit of dialogue, are leading to this. Your MC can’t act out of character, either.

5.) The MC or hero isn’t the catalyst for the ending. The ending has to be¬†because¬†of your hero’s decisions. It also need to be affected by your secondary characters, especially your antagonist, but the MC has to be driving it. Again – when Harry calls out Voldemort at the end of Book 7, it’s¬†his choice.¬†He knows there’s like a 99.9% chance he’ll die. But he’s going to do his best to take Voldemort out with him. If your MC has made mistakes, or wrong choices – those have to bring about your ending. In one of my early stories, my MC’s hubris led to the death of someone he was supposed to be protecting – and, in turn, led to his imprisonment. Your characters aren’t perfect. They’ll make mistakes. Use those to create a tension-filled conclusion.

6.) And oh, yeah – there’s no tension. If you’re writing a suspense novel, there’d better be real questions about whether your MC will make it out alive or not. A romance novel better have a real question about whether your happily-ever-after will happen or not. Your characters have to face some kind of risk of death – which can be a lot of things. Death of a career, a dream, a love – or their lives. It’s life and death. Make your readers believe that. How? By emphasizing – in the rest of your novel – how important this is to your MC. Again, the ending has to be the logical, organic outcome of the rest of the book.

And ultimately, I think that’s where my problems lie – although my manuscript is a lot better, it’s not perfect, and I’ve still got a few holes that weren’t apparent until I started trying to draft the ending. That’s when all my characters took a step back, raised an eyebrow, and said, “You want us to do WHAT?!”

I tried! I tried to write it. And the first part is good. It’s everything that comes after that isn’t coming. My characters are acting like puppies put in a collar and leash for the first time – throwing themselves on the ground, growling, whining, jerking backwards. Resisting. Because I didn’t do¬†my¬†job completely, they can’t do¬†theirs.¬†So now, my job is to go back through the manuscript and revise specifically for the ending. It’s a bit odd, I admit – and in the end, I still may not have a workable thing. But I feel, for now, that this is the best way forward for me.

“No doubt – endings are hard.” Yes, Chuck, they are! But maybe I’ve got a bit better handle on mine, now.

 

Here’s some links to articles and stories about endings (and how to write better ones):

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/on-bad-endings

http://www.foremostpress.com/authors/articles/endings.html

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-structure-a-killer-novel-ending

https://www.ravishly.com/2015/01/14/happily-ever-after-romance-novels

 

NaNoWriMo Eve

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Here we are! Halloween! Or, for some of us, NaNoWriMo Eve. ūüôā

Yes, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo (https://nanowrimo.org/), kicks off tomorrow. For some, it’s a frantic thirty days of writing every single day; for others, it’s a slower, steadier pace, in which they will finish their 50,000 word count sometime during Thanksgiving break. For some, it’s about getting the gist of a novel down; for others, about rewriting an existing novel, or writing short stories or poems, or – well, anything, really!

Today, NaNo has the Young Writers’ Program, which works with K-12 schools to get kids writing in the classroom, as well as Come Write In, in which libraries, bookstores, etc. can sponsor write-ins for NaNo. It’s a great way to write with buddies, and stay motivated.

Because let’s face it:¬† writing can be a lonely business!

And that’s actually one of the main goals of NaNo – to ensure that writers around the world have a global – and regional – support group. You can post your word count, connect with writers on the forums, and meet up with local writers for write-ins. The Wichita KS group, for example, has a standing appointment at a local restaurant each week. If you’re in the area, you’re welcome to drop by and write!

It’s good to go into NaNo with a plan, though (besides the 50,000 words, that is). Goals might include things like:

  • Finally taking all that sick leave you’ve been saving up.
  • Starting that novel that’s been in the back of your mind for the past six years.
  • Finishing¬†last year’s project.
  • Avoiding work and family like the plague so you can spend time with your characters instead. After all, they¬†get¬†you.
  • Revising and rewriting an existing manuscript.
  • Having a ready-made excuse for not cooking or cleaning during November.
  • Doing character sketches. Sometimes, we need time to just let them talk to us, after all. Those long, dark November nights are the perfect opportunity.
  • Working on your short story techniques. Or practicing short-short stories! One 1667-word story per day is all you need! Or, if that’s too long, two 850-word stories.

Right now, around the world, there are people who have boxes full of notes and notecards, champing at the bit, as excited as most five-year olds are on Christmas Eve, just¬†dying¬†to get started! They’ve already set up schedules, blocked out hours of time, warned their families, canceled plans with friends. They’ve set their goals. They’re raring to go!

My goals for NaNo are simple rewrites. If time permits, I want to finish the historical romance I worked on last year. But I’m really focused on finishing my urban fantasy, and its sequel. I don’t know if that will take up 50,000 words or not! But that’s my goal.

So if you haven’t checked out NaNoWriMo, you might want to. It’s a great chance to dedicate yourself to writing – and because the focus isn’t necessarily on¬†good¬†writing, or even completing a project, you feel free to do whatever you want. You may find yourself taking risks with your writing, experimenting with a genre, a character, an idea, or a technique you might not otherwise have thought about doing.

And if you win – get your 50,000 words done, that is – you, too, will get a nifty banner for your Facebook page. ūüôā

 

“350 Queries to Read . . .” Make yours stand out!

You probably read that title and fainted, right? ūüôā

Sad fact: ¬†it’s totally a true story.¬†

This weekend was the Rose State College Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. Along with the OWFI conference in May, it’s one of two that I get to attend every year (if I’m lucky!). I picked up some great tips (and, small brag, the first chapter of my work-in-progress¬†Ghost Hunt¬†took first place in the Fiction category in their contest!).

I attended a lot of great sessions, which I want to talk about in subsequent posts. But one of the best was from author Tamara Grantham on how to write great query letters. Let’s face it: ¬†agents get too many submissions. WAY too many. In fact, from Word One, they are looking for a reason to reject you and move on to the next query.

And to tie back to my title, Tricia Skinner (an agent with Fuse Literary) said she knew for a fact that she had 350 queries waiting for her when she gets back home Monday. Yup. Three Hundred and Fifty. 

That’s the competition. That’s¬†your¬†competition.

Tamara gave us great hints from agent Janet Reid, who runs queryshark.blogspot.com¬†, which has more than 250 query letters, ripped apart for your benefit. She will also rip apart yours, if you’re that brave! Here’s what I learned:

1.) Do NOT talk about ‘theme’ in your query letter. Your job is to entice the agent, not beat them over the head with a freshman Literature class.

2.) Why? Because you’ve got 250 words to get your novel across to the agent. That’s it.

3.) So how do you pull that off? Simple. You basically get 2 paragraphs to pitch your novel. Paragraph 1 should include:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What does your MC want?
  • What’s keeping them from getting what they want?
  • What will they sacrifice to get what they want?

4.) Your second paragraph should be your inciting incident, and where that leaves your MC. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t tell the agent how the book ends. Don’t give them all the things that will happen in the middle of the book. Make them¬†demand¬†your full manuscript in order to find all that out!

5.) Don’t include backstory. Ever. It will waste your 250 words.

6.) Here’s another way to look at it:¬†

  • Your MC must decide whether to ____ .
  • If your MC decides to do ___, the consequences will be ____.
  • If your MC decides NOT to do ___, the consequences will be ____.

(Hint: ¬†this is a great way to check that you’ve actually got a pitch-able story. If you can’t answer these three questions, it’s time to revisit your story arc.)

7.) Have others read your query letter. Give them specific things to look for:  eliminate redundancy; strong vs. weak words; and most of all, that hook. Do they want more after reading this?

8.) This is not an overnight process! Tamara recommended drafting your query letter, then putting it away for about 4 weeks. Then, before you read it again, write a second query letter. Look at them together. Is one better than the other? Can you combine elements of both to create something even better?

Now, of course, sometimes our minds just don’t work the way we wish they would, and our novels may not fit into this rubric. If not, don’t fret. Remember the basic information you’ve got to get across. Then, shake it up a bit. As long as you get the agent hooked, you’ve done your job.

Practice with this. I’ve been mentally going through novels I know well, making them fit into these molds to see if I can do it for my own manuscripts. Take my favorite novel,¬†Outlander,¬†as an example:

  • The decision: ¬†Claire Randall must decide whether to return to her own time in 1945, and her husband there. ¬†
  • If she does: ¬†she will lose her new husband, Jamie, forever.¬†
  • If she doesn’t: ¬†she will risk her life, and will lose her old husband, Frank, forever.¬†

Or another – let’s say,¬†The Hunger Games:¬†

  • The decision: ¬†Katniss must decide whether to volunteer to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games.¬†
  • If she does: ¬†she may die, and her family will starve as a result.¬†
  • If she doesn’t: ¬†her sister will definitely die.¬†

It’s all about the craft. Crafting your query letter is no different than crafting that first page.¬†If you’re like me and nearing the end of rewrites – boy, there’s a scary thought! – then this is a great way to double-check your plot structure.

If you can’t get your novel across in this amount of space, then maybe you don’t know your story as well as you think – or maybe your story needs some tweaking.¬†

If you can – then congratulations! You’re on your way to writing a great query letter.¬†

Again, here’s the link to Janet Reid’s site: ¬†http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

Tamara Grantham’s website: ¬†http://www.tamaragranthambooks.com/

 

Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a¬†sentence¬†we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years.¬†

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s¬†the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was¬†not her job¬†and would I¬†please figure that out already?¬†

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that¬†scene had to be my opener.¬†I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus,¬†indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my¬†true¬†focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.¬†¬†My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling¬†good.¬†I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the¬†real¬†story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.

 

 

 

“Are you done with the book yet?”

In¬†Eat Pray Love,¬†Liz Gilbert talks about the nature of the Balinese people. They must know where they are, and where you, are at all times – physically and spiritually. Most important, she says, is the question, “Are you married yet?” In America, this is considered a rude question. In Bali, however. . . well, as Liz puts it, “They really want you to say yes. It’s such a relief to them when you say yes.” And if you’re¬†not married,¬†the correct answer is “not yet.” “This is a polite way of saying, ‘No,’ while indicating your optimistic intentions to get that taken care of just as soon as you can.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I was at the coffee shop writing, and a friend stopped by. Her first question was, “Are you done with the book yet?”

Any number of thoughts immediately went through my mind, the first one being¬†why did I tell her I was writing a book?¬†I knew she wanted me to say yes. I knew this. And yet, being me, I had to be truthful “Not yet!” I said, smiling. (See? A polite way of saying NO, while indicating that I am working on getting that done just as soon as I can.)

“Well, how much longer?” In her eyes, I could see the question bordering on accusation. You’ve been working on this all summer! How long does it take to write a book?¬†

“I don’t know. Not long,” I said cheerfully, and she went back to the friends she’d come with, and I went back to my characters.

But it left me pondering a few things. Number one: ¬†books, my friend, are never¬†done.¬†Ask any author. You just sort of reach a point where you stare at it and say, “Screw it.” And then you start sending out the query letters. (And even then, as we all know, it’s STILL not done. Edits and rewrites shall abound.)

Number two: ¬†How long¬†do¬†people think it takes us to write a book? Yes, there are prolific writers like Barbara Cartland and Stephen King who can put fingers to keyboard and type nonstop for hours, until it’s done. The rest of us mere mortals, not so much. The phrase “we’ll get there when we get there!” comes to mind.

And number three: ¬†why must people ask it precisely like that?! Bloody hell, we just don’t¬†know¬†how long it’s going to take!

If you’ve ever encountered a scene like this, with friends, coworkers, family, or complete strangers (yes, those people who think nothing of putting their hands on the stomachs of pregnant women also feel no shame in asking about your deadlines), I feel for you. Been there, done that! I think most writers have been. In fact, I’ve been biting my tongue the last week or so, because a local author’s been at the same coffee shop typing away madly. I know she’s trying to get some writing done before school starts, and I keep wanting to stop by and just commiserate with her – but being a fellow writer, I can’t make myself interrupt her flow. I know she has small children and like me, those are her precious stolen moments with her characters.

The truth is this: ¬†I don’t know how long these rewrites will take. I know what I set out to do daily. I hope I get it done. I’m working in small chunks of writing, stuffed into small windows of time. Those long stretches of uninterrupted writing time are a MYTH, people. A MYTH! Most writers, like me, steal away to a local haunt, order a latte, and if we get a solid hour or two of work done before Real Life comes knocking, we’re lucky. I have to walk in there knowing exactly what I want to accomplish in that time frame, and do my best to make it happen. Even during summers, my life is complicated – running a business, dealing with umpteen animals, errands to run, and, you know, I’d also like to sort of¬†enjoy my summer,¬†too – so I have to squeeze my writing into small bites.

But you know what? Those small chunks of time are working well for me. For starters, they work well with my inability to sit still and do one thing for hours on end. If I can focus for just an hour or so on this one scene, or this transitional between scenes, or these changes, I can get them done and it feels good. I have my to-do list of items, and some days I cross things off and some days I add to it, and some days I do both. Some days, when I go for my walk in the morning, I have an epiphany that makes me sit right down and draft out something; other days, I struggle to put three paragraphs on a page.

In short – I’m writing.

So to answer my friend – No. The book isn’t done yet. But it is getting there. It gets closer every day.

And it feels good, this round of rewrites. Not perfect, not yet; but good.