Character –> Revisions –> Frustration

Working on Camp Expendable has become an exercise in frustration. I want it finished and it doesn’t want to be finished. I put the first three chapters through ProWritingAid yesterday, and my overall impression was that the writing is better, so there isn’t as much to be corrected as there would have been only one or two drafts back. But… I was still finding details I was unhappy with that required further tweaking. Will this never end? Apparently not.

To make things even worse, while I was reading K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel last night, Casey’s personality and my problems with it intruded. Casey is the primary protagonist, and it’s his actions that direct the novel. I think I’ve developed him fairly well, but all through the various revisions, I’ve felt that there’s something lacking in how he comes across. That lack is weakening the novel, and even though I can see the problem clearly, I haven’t been able to figure out what to do about it. Until last night.

Here’s where I would love to turn the novel over to beta readers because I don’t know if I can trust my own judgment that he’s coming across as a whiner with a bad temper, whose stance changes with every shift in the wind. He’s also very strong when he needs to be, and very caring, but extremely vulnerable because there have been so many losses in his life. He’s conflicted.

But I’m being stubborn about getting this book published as soon as possible, so waiting for beta readers (if I can even find more than the one faithful one who’s been so much help to me) is simply out. I don’t have the patience, or the time.

I recently broke each chapter into its scenes so I could have a better overview. That may stand me in good stead now because I can go through the named scenes and track Casey’s arc, which is something I should have done earlier. “Arc” is another concept I’m just now getting around to in thinking about structure.

I now have a better handle on how to present Casey’s conflicts, even if the details are still  fuzzy. But that’s the pantser aspect of my work. There’s always a lot that doesn’t come clear until I start digging in. Unfortunately, all this insight means a fair amount of revision. The word count is probably going to go up, which is fine, except that most of my chapters are already quite long (around 4,000 words), and I may have to break up some chapters. That means more editing before I can put the “final draft” (the second or third final draft) through PWA.

I think I’m going to go make a batch of cookies now and eat myself sick. (I’m a frustration binge eater.)

A final note. This is something I’ve thought about off and on. Much of the discussion and advice about how long it takes (or should take) to write a novel, is based on stories that depend heavily on plot. Such stories can be outlined, with approximate word counts and deadlines set before the first word is written. Stories that depend almost entirely on characterization can not be written that way. I was learning about Casey long before I wrote the novel last November during NaNoWriMo. So, he’s been on my mind somewhere between six months and a year. And that still hasn’t been enough time to know him as well as I need to. Think about someone you thought you knew very well after years of being friends, and then they surprise you with an aspect of their character they’d never shown before. You may have to rethink your whole relationship, and your view of who that person really is. That’s Casey.

Discovering Structure, Moderating Ambition

I restarted a work journal for Camp Expendable today. I’d started one weeks ago and forgot all about it, but I’m trying again. This post is a slight reworking of the entry.

Story structure — I’ve paid very little attention to structure, just forging forward with the story, letting it take its own shape and hoping it works out. Structure may be the last big aspect of craft that I need to learn about and be aware of as I plan and write.

To that end, I broke the chapters down into scenes yesterday. I also named them as a way to remind me what’s in each without having to skim through every time to figure out where I am. The result of breaking it all down into scenes is finding that 1. they don’t always break neatly. Is that because I’m careful to include transitions, or is it a problem to solve? 2. Chapters vary wildly in the number of scenes they contain, and the length of the scenes varies just as wildly. The usual range is from two to four scenes, though one reached five. Another problem to solve?

It’s obviously time to find a good book on story structure.

The task took a whole day to get through, so that’s one more day of delay to publication, which is moving further into the distance with every day that passes. And I thought I was on the final run-through before proofreading. Trying to understand the structure of what I have here will take at least another day. Given the conflict between wanting to get the darned thing done and out of my hair, and wanting this book to be different in terms of quality and reader appeal, I’m starting to feel desperate. I hoped this one would be a true breakthrough, one that I could say was a real achievement rather than a decent job. So far, I haven’t felt that it’s anywhere near that point, and this sudden concern about structure makes it blindingly clear that I may be trying to accomplish something I don’t have the skills for yet.

I could laugh at myself and chalk it up to being an obssesive perfectionist, but it makes more sense to admit I still have too much to learn to aim for such a grandiose outcome. Maybe next time? So the work goes on, and if it takes a week or more past the deadline I tried to impose on myself, then that’s what I’ll have to accept.

How Many Drafts? The Rights, The Wrongs, The Reasons

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I don’t write separate drafts, so it’s impossible to say how many I go through before I’m satisfied with a story. It’s occurred to me that my “method” would probably be a nightmare for most writers. There are no older drafts to go back to, just the one that has been evolving and changing from day one. I also do a lot of stopping and starting over the months or years that I work on a novel, and usually start back with chapter one, so some chapters have been revised more times than others.

The subject of drafts has been occupying my mind for quite a while because there are so many opinions about it. I have a strong bent toward picking apart the pros and cons of subjects that are more a matter of personal opinion than of hard fact, and that’s what I’ve been doing lately. There are logical reasons why some professional writers insist that you should whip that novel out and stop fooling around with multiple drafts, while others insist that you must rewrite until you have a polished gem.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I see one specific factor influencing how many drafts a professional writer considers optimum. The concept of “professional” writer has changed somewhat over the decades. By today’s standards, someone like J.D. Salinger would be considered a hobbyist because he published very few works, and took his own sweet time about it. Back when writers were paid by the word for magazine articles and stories, there was a fairly clear distinction between “hack work” and Literature. Hack work was about earning a living, and its practitioners were professional writers; Literature was about creating a body of work that would exist long after the words were put on paper, and its practitioners were also professionals.

Of course, those two categories didn’t necessarily say anything valid about quality. Some hack work turned into classics, some Literature was forgotten before its authors had died.

Today, from what I can observe, writing for a living is professional; everything else is considered hobbyist. It’s a dichotomy that leaves most writers scrambling to churn out their next novel as quickly as possible, and a smaller number fighting a rear-guard action for consideration of old-fashioned qualities like depth and complexity.

As a general rule, writing for a living is writing to entertain, and necessarily concentrates on plot and action. Writing “for the ages” strives for meaning, and focuses on style, complexity, and insight into characters. The two are’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but current debates tend to sound as if they are. You’re either a professional writing for a living, or at least aiming for it, or you’re a part-time writer, a mere hobbyist who doesn’t take writing seriously.

The irony here is that “taking writing seriously” is now defined by speed and productivity, rather than by maturing craft painstakingly learned over time. A notable change, which may be another overgeneralization, is that many of the writers who wrote for a living—the science fiction writers of the Golden Age of SF, for instance—churned out an enormous amount of crap initially, but learned how to write, on the job, and became the classic authors we still read today. Many of today’s professional writers, some of them hugely successful, write just as badly years later as they did when they started.

When I say “write badly” I’m talking about the qualities that make a book a classic and that are necessarily left out when the goal is to earn a living. These professional writers do improve their ability to plot, to maintain tension, to keep a reader hanging on until the exciting ending. What they may not bother with is style or even basic grammar. This does not describe every professional writer, and I’m not trying to feather and tar professional writers, as a group.

The real problem is that they are influential, and their advice to beginning writers, based on their own experience, and their success, makes it appear that their methods must be followed if success is to follow.

What does all this have to do with drafts? Everything. I think it was Ray Bradbury who advised writers to produce only one draft, and get the darn thing published. It’s popular advice, but I wonder at what stage of his career Bradbury made the suggestion that has, over time, turned into a rule. Was it an early statement when he was struggling to establish himself? Did he stick to it throughout his career? He wasn’t alone in advising just one or two drafts, and I suspect it’s the reason we see so many books that look exactly like first drafts: grammatically awkward, vocabulary-challenged, full of plot holes, continuity errors, and cardboard characters.

But here’s the thing. If you can write a story that hooks and holds the reader, you can get away with all that. Why? Because the majority of readers don’t see the problems, and even if they do, they don’t care as long as they’re being entertained. So, if you want to earn a living by entertaining the readers, one or two drafts will do the trick. You will rake in the bucks and it won’t bother you that your stories are read one time and then forgotten when the reader grabs another one more or less like it. It won’t bother you that your books will eventually disappear, buried under the ever-growing mountain of momentary entertainment, or that your name will be forgotten. You accomplished no more during your lifetime than the office worker sitting in his or her cubicle, but let’s hope you at least enjoyed it more than the office drone enjoys his job.

Good Intentions

Six chapters of Camp Expendable read yesterday, eleven more to go. This was supposed to be a straight readthrough in one day, but I hardly ever manage that. Just gotta edit when I see something that needs to be changed. But I’ve been managing a little self-control, and highlighting some of the areas that I want to go back to after this round.

The cover is sort of done, after having to drop two different ideas. It still needs work. My second idea was a sign post with the camp name stenciled on. It looked terrible, so that was out, but I kept the stencil font. That will have to change. And I should probably delete the question mark. So this is a semi-final version. Comments are welcome.Camp Expendable-blog

 

Best Laid Plans, Spring, and All That

I intended to spend Sunday reading straight through Camp Expendable, then start another editing run-through, and maybe work on the cover. Didn’t happen. Son invited me to the “traditional” “Easter” dinner of lasagne. Any holiday, and I doubt anyone in the family observed this one, is a good excuse for a big dinner, even if there’s no tradition in back of it. My DIL makes a mean lasagne, and I got to take some home with me.

It was a perfect day. Actually sat out in the sun with my Kindle, took a guided tour through the gardens to see what was coming up (lots of daffodils), and even pulled a weed or two. Got back home just ahead of a major thunderstorm. Before the trip home, we took a side trip to their store, which has evolved over the years from office supply store, gift shop, arts and crafts gallery, to antique shop. One lovely display is small plants, including mini African Violets, in tea cups and carved-out old books. Don’t worry, none of the books are worth anything. The African Violet of my dreams was in a tea cup (for $19.00!), but luckily there was one still in its mini pot. So I now have the first of what will probably turn into another African Violet collection. I had one years ago, and have missed them.

It’s officially Spring now because I just ordered vegetable and herb seeds from Burpee. And one single strawberry plant. It was ridiculously expensive, but it’s a spreader, so I’ll propagate it from runners if the flavor is as good as they claim. I also dipped into my son’s seed supply for a few items, including marigolds, which I’ll use as companion plants for repelling bugs. And they’re pretty.

I used up most of a 40 pound bag of potting soil in the six and a half months since I moved into my apartment, and another one will be needed very soon. I’ve cut back some on my plans for this first year of indoor food gardening. But there will still be eggplant, summer squash, tomatoes, lettuce, swiss chard, and carrots, plus peppermint, sage, and basil to add to the lemon balm, parsley, and ginger already growing.

Back to the book today?

Progress

One more chapter of Camp Expendable to edit in this round. Then read through the whole thing quickly before getting into what I hope will be the final round before proofreading. My original idea for the cover didn’t work, but that’s okay. The new one won’t be spectacular, but I think it will work. I’m looking for the right font, because that’s what will really make it. I’ll be very, very glad to get it all over and done with because I’m itching to get back to the book about the death penalty.

I’m also nervous about tackling it because it’s going to be an experiment in style. In fact, I’d have to say that I’ll be pantsing it, not something I normally do, or at least not to the same extent.

If I can find the font for Expendable and get the cover finished up, I’ll post it here tomorrow.

Excerpts

Today is going to be a revision and editing marathon, for as long as my eyes and concentration hold out. I’m making good progress on Camp Expendable, but not good enough. So this is today’s post, unless something hits my must-write button later in the day.

I added “Excerpts” to the sidebar, and have posted selections from three chapters of Expendable. Excerpts from other WIPs will be coming along on an irregular basis.

The End is Nigh (Nearly)

I almost always have trouble figuring out the endings of my novels, but Camp Expendable sets a new record for me. Most of the novel has been through several rounds of editing and revision, bringing it very close to being publishable. And the last chapter still isn’t finished. I tackled it yesterday, determined to get the stubborn thing done, but didn’t quite make it. 400 words or so brought it up to 2,100, with one character’s fate still not determined. Does he die of the influenza that has him in its grip , or does he live to be executed for murder, as he deserves?

I don’t want the chapter to be a victim of the “Wrap it up and be done with it.” attitude that always comes on after months of intense work. That’s what happened to Privileged Lives, and it’s why I’ll be putting out a second edition after correcting all the problems that should have prevented me from publishing it in the first place.

On the face of it, Privileged Lives should have taught me not to publish just a few months after writing a book during NaNoWriMo. But I live to learn, and in the years since writing Privileged Lives, my writing has improved immensely. So, rather than repeating that mistake, I learned from it. Sometimes, it makes sense to give a book more time, even years. But when you have WIPs stacked to the digital ceiling, it makes sense to learn the best ways of getting the job done.

Sometimes, of course, we don’t have any choice but to stretch out the time from first draft to publication. Life gets in the way, or other writing projects sink their hooks in and demand our attention. But, unless you’re determined to make a living from your writing, and intend to churn the books out on an assembly line, it’s a reasonable goal to produce a new book two to four times a year. The goal isn’t simply to write faster, but to learn as you go and use that knowledge to eliminate, as far possible, the stumbling blocks that slow you down.

2016 will test whether I’m able to make use of that wisdom. Right now I have a novel to finish.

Down to the Wire, and Raising the Stakes

I’m trying to finish and publish Camp Expendable by the end of the month, and it’s going to be tight. I’ve picked and poked my way through 16 chapters, sometimes with major revisions. Half of them have been through ProWritingAid, and will go through one more time before I’m finished. I’m down to the last chapter, which I’d never finished writing. If all goes well, meaning fatigue and headaches don’t pull a sneak attack, I’ll complete it today. Once that’s out of the way, the whole thing goes through another round of editing before a final proofreading. I’m not going to kill myself getting it all done, including compiling the epub (if I can figure how to do that without tearing out my hair), and putting a cover together. I will try not to let it drag on past the first week of April. My fingers are crossed.

Raising the stakes means taking on a blogging series that should nudge me in the direction of continuing to write A Well-Educated Boy. I plan to devote April and possibly May to Set Me Free, so Boy would serve more or less as breaks from that intensely difficult book. Nonfiction is much harder to write than fiction, and requires an entirely different frame of mind that’s difficult to sustain for long. Breaks are an absolute necessity.

The plan is to use the development of Boy as a way of showing what goes into creating one of my “grand” works. Just comparing before and after sections can get pretty boring for readers, especially those who aren’t writers themselves. I have a tentative list of what will go into the posts, including: the graphic for the cover, and possibly the cover in development, figuring out where the story will go and how it will end, how it’s set up in Scrivener, general notes, real-life sources of inspiration, excerpts. And possibly the short, initial first draft.

Since Boy won’t be top priority for quite a while, the posts won’t appear on a regular basis. To make the whole thing easier to follow, each post will have links to the previous ones. This is basically an experiment. I hope it will be interesting for other writers, and different from the normal practice of serializing an entire book on a blog. I also hope it will encourage me to keep working on the story and get it finished.

Time-Out From Editing

Two posts in one day? And on a Sunday, when readership is low? Sometimes I need to write for myself. If other people read it, fine. But this is for me on a day of chill steady rain when I’ve been obsessively editing Camp Expendable, while working myself in and out of headaches. Literal headaches. Not metaphors. I don’t know what brings them on or why they go away. I’m just grateful when they’re gone, even though I know they’ll be back.

I put the first nine chapters through ProWritingAid as soon as I finished each edit, but that hasn’t worked out well. Editing a chapter, and then editing again right away, using PWA is so exhausting that it actually cut down how much I could accomplish each day. So I’m editing the last eight chapter the way I normally do, one after the other. When I’ve done all of them, I’ll go back and rework them with PWA. That should give me the “forgetting” space I need to see them objectively again.

I’m finding PWA very helpful, but the caveat is that I have to ignore a lot of the suggestions for corrections. Maybe AI programs can’t be made less literal-minded in following rules, but I find myself laughing at some of the suggestions. I’ve been collecting some of them with the intention of offering them to the company. A beta is still in development, and the company does want suggestions for improvement… The thing is, though, that the rules they’re using aren’t part of the beta. The Scrivener beta is using the same grammar and usage rules as the Windows and Google Docs users, and the people who do all their editing on the site.

I’ll probably post my list of PWA boo boos here one of these days.

I’m having trouble concentrating. I rushed bread dough into the machine a while back so I could have fresh bread for supper, and the fragrance is killing me. Twenty-five more minutes to finish baking, a few minutes for cooling a bit, and then I’m going to be slathering butter over the crunchy, crispy heel.

What? You’re jealous?

Bass Ackwards, as Usual

Meandering around, finding my own best ways of working on my writing has once again turned into “the road less taken.” Or maybe not taken at all, except by natural-born contrarians. An outlining technique I came across a few years ago seemed as if it might be something I could deal with in pre-planning novels. The method, Phase Outlining, was developed by Lazette Gifford, who used to be prominent (as a moderator, I think) on the NaNoWriMo forums. She published a little book, NaNo for the New and the Insane, part of which is describes phase outlining. It’s still available for free on Smashwords. https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/84837

It was helpful to me the first year I tried it, but as usual, I wandered off the path somewhere along the way and never used it again. What does this have to do with my current road not taken. Well, as I’ve been working on Camp Expendable, I’ve been making notes about what’s in some of the chapters. Not in any systematic way, you understand. Most of the chapter have no notes at all, and none have enough for anyone to get a good idea of what each chapter is about.

I’ve run into a few continuity issues lately. Or maybe they aren’t continuity issues and I just can’t remember what I wrote, where. I’ve had the same problem with every novel I’ve written and it’s very, very annoying. The most obvious way to avoid it is to create an outline of some sort. And that’s what I plan to do — after the fact, as soon as I’ve finished revising the last chapter. I can’t make an outline before I start writing because I don’t know what I’m going to write. Was it Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass who said something like: How do I know what I think until I see what I say? That’s me.

As it’s turning out, an outline of sorts may be my best tool for final editing, not for getting the darn thing written. I’m putting much more effort into this novel than any previous one. I’ve always made sure typos and such get stomped, but I didn’t pay much attention (any at all?) to niceties like story arcs or tension. Some of us are slower than others, but we get there eventually.

I’m about halfway through, with eight and a half chapter to go, subjecting each chapter to analysis with ProWritingAid. Once that’s done, I will reread the entire novel, filling in an outline of each chapter. The plan is to get it finished and published by the end of March. Knowing me, that probably won’t happen, but at least it’s a goal. Somewhat unrealistically, I hope to stay on a four to six weeks schedule for novel completion and publication this year, with maybe two months granted to the nonfiction book.

Wish me luck.

More Snow? And Other Trivia

Yesterday, the next door neighbor was grilling on his back porch — in his shirt sleeves. Tomorrow, we’re expecting up to five inches of snow. So I just got back from grocery shopping, to fill in whatever might run short while I’m housebound. The entire winter has been like this, minus the 3-5 inch forecast. Snow, thaw, warm. Snow, thaw, warm. The ups and downs have been as much as 30 degrees from one day to the next. But the days are getting longer and more of them are sunny, so I shouldn’t complain.

This morning, I contacted the people at ProWritingAid to ask some questions about the Scrivener beta. Surprise! The people there reply — quickly. But I may have to ask more questions if I can’t solve a strange technical problem. When I tried out PWA originally, it was with Privileged Lives. No problem. But the book I’m working on right now is Camp Expendable, and PWA keeps opening an earlier version that no longer exists on my computer. So instead of working with the lovely Scrivener app, I have to copy/paste into their online app. Just what I was trying to avoid.

I’ve been scouring my hard drive, but there’s no trace of the old version, not even backups, even using Spotlight to search for it. So how is PWA coming up with it? Talk about frustration!

Even so, I paid for the program, because it’s worth $35.00 a year to have that kind of input into the improvements I need to make in my writing. It can’t help with the kind of critique a developmental editor would do, but that’s far beyond what any software, even the smartest, is capable of.

I wonder if it’s possible to grow asparagus indoors. I just bought a bunch, the first in years, and it has me thinking about it. I used to pick wild asparagus from the roadsides, when I lived in the country. It’s just one of many foods that used to be more or less of a staple and is now a luxury item.