The Tide Rolls In, The Tide Rolls Out

The energy tide, that is. I’ve had to take several breaks from the revision of Privileged Lives, but I’m down to the final chapter today. A lot of tightening up reduced the word count enough that I’ve been able to build up weak areas without making the book longer. 93,000+ words is a good length to maintain. Next will come several editing runs, then spell check, a round or two of ProWritingAid, and a final proofread. The cover is still ahead, with the first viable idea since I wrote the darn thing.

Oops. I was going to start serializing it yesterday. Fibro fog or just old-fashioned forgetfulness? Since the first two chapters introduce the two protagonists, Maybe I’ll post both those chapters this weekend. Nope. They’re both around 5,000 words, so I’ll have to split them.

The renewal notice came up for PWA the other day, and it was somewhat alarming to realize I’ve had it for a year and only used it for one book. The cost was probably more than I earned all year, so I’ll have to keep that in mind from now on and get more work finished. Which I intend to do anyway.

I’ll be so glad to get this novel out of the way. As usual, new ideas keep nagging at me along with the WIPs that are demanding my time.

Serializing Privileged Lives

Back when I was active on Live Journal, I serialized my first novel, Hidden Boundaries. It worked out pretty well in most ways. I got some very helpful critiques, and when I finally polished it up and published it, there were actually readers waiting to turn into buyers. Granted, the book fit nicely into a fairly big niche with a lively community on LJ. It appealed to readers of slavefic, most of whom want sex in their stories, so my deliberate avoidance of the usual cliché tropes of slavefic and the near-absence of any sex, and that only suggested was a bit risky. But I wanted to challenge expectations, and present slavery in a somewhat more realistic way, even though it still took place in an unlikely alternate universe.

A lot of the serial readers were oblivious to the ethical aspects of the book, and loved it mostly because they could cry over the protagonist’s sad plight. Still, it was satisfying that some readers did see what I was getting at. The book was fairly successful by my very low standards, and still picks up a sale now and then. I’d probably shudder if I ever read it again, but at least it would be cheering to know that my writing has improved considerably since then.

Blogging here is very different from Live Journal, and I have no idea whether serializing a novel would work. But since it’s being pretty extensively revised and edited, it would be nice to get some feedback to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Future sales would be nice too, but that isn’t something I would count on — maybe as an extra bonus.

So I’m giving serialization very serious thought right now, if for no other reason than curiosity. How would it work out? I’m thinking two posts a week, which should be enough to keep up readers’ interest. Some of the chapters are pretty long, around 5,000 words, so I’d split those.

Editing, Kitty Adoption, News

The revision of Privileged Lives is going well, although stuff got in the way yesterday and I only did about two chapters. Still… Cutting the fat, expanding scenes, combining chapters, all on the way to a final rewrite. It’s down to 29 chapters, from 38, and I’ll probably combine several more before I’m through. It’s kind of amazing how much I’ve learned since writing it back in the Spring of 2011. And it’s hard to believe it’s been hanging around that long. This is one of those cases where you have to decide whether a book that’s never sold more than a few copies is worth overhauling. It might still languish unread, but it’s worth it to me.

The “stuff” that got in the way of book work yesterday, was one of the massive shopping trips I go on almost every week with my son. Usually, it’s two grocery stores and one or two thrift stores. Yesterday’s started with the local Humane Society. I decided a month or two ago that I missed having a fur ball, so I kept checking out the photos on the HS site. The cat I’m adopting is a ten-year-old orange female who might not have found another owner at that age. She wasn’t exactly abused by her previous owners, but they put her in their basement because of their little kids (no details on that except her inability to cope), and lived down there for a year. She’s still skittish, but didn’t have any trouble with my petting her, leaned right in, in fact, so I think she’ll be fine once she settles down. We’ll probably go in tomorrow to sign the adoption papers and take Stella home.

As part of getting my life somewhat normalized, which used to mean being owned by a cat, I’m cutting way back on the news. I’ve accepted that things are mostly going to get worse as the new “president” lays about him with an axe handle. There’s nothing I can do about it except put my little bit of money where I hope it will do some good. I made a second donation to the Standing Rock Sioux this morning, even though I know that particular battle will probably be lost.

RESIST!

By George, I Think She’s Got It

I’ve never been able to say how many times I go through a WIP to edit it. In my usual disorganized fashion, I might do several chapters, leave it for days and weeks, and then try to go back to more or less where I left off. The result, I’m sure, is that some chapters haven’t had enough eye time, while others have been worked down to the bone. Scrivener has been my long-time helpmeet, keeping me more or less organized, but it can’t do everything.

I’ve sworn, over and over, that at least one readthrough has to be from page one to the last page, without distractions. But I’ve never accomplished it — until this week. I tried different methods, including reading Camp Expendable on my Kindle, but that never worked out — for one simple reason, I now realize. I couldn’t keep myself from doing the editing as I read. On the Kindle, that means making notes for every highlight because you can’t edit on it. If there’s anything more distracting than making notes on a Kindle, I haven’t discovered it yet.

I’m not one to give up, though. (stubborn, pig-headed, slow learner) The secret — cue the trumpets — is to highlight the trouble spots and just charge ahead. That leaves me with the obvious problem of remembering exactly why those highlights are there. But once I’ve spotted a problem, it isn’t really that difficult to go back and realize what it was. So, I am now the proud possessor of a novel which I read straight through in three days, doing nothing to distract me from getting a good overview.

There are probably well over 100 highlights, which is a discouragingly impressive number considering how many times I’ve been through the novel, weeding out clumsy sentences, poor word choices, etc. But it’s also encouraging. I only found two or three actual typos, and one continuity problem, so that really isn’t too bad for a length of almost 78,000 words. Most of the work to be done involves fleshing out some of my usual bare-bones sentences, and restructuring others. I’ll also be adding one short scene which, if I’m very lucky, won’t introduce a whole batch of new problems.

With all those highlights to guide me and keep me on track, maybe I’ll actually have the damn thing completed to my satisfaction within the next few days. But haven’t I said that before? Stay tuned.

The Never-Ending, One and Only Draft

Came across a moderately interesting review —Track Changes — of the book of the same name, on how the change from typewriters to computers has changed the way novelists write. Some writers still use typewriters, and a few write by hand. And of course, there’s mention of early criticisms that word processing would, in some way, degrade literature. I imagine that one topic is covered pretty thoroughly in the book.

What really stood out for me was just one line: “Philip Roth and Zadie Smith have both said the computer has done away with drafts: they edit as they go, saving over earlier versions.” That, quite frankly, was awesome, because I do exactly the same thing and have been working that way for a long time.

In discussions about novel development (or development of any book, but mostly usually novels) drafts are always a hot topic. How many drafts are optimum? How many drafts should I write? How many drafts do you go through? I never get into those discussions. What am I going to say, “I write only one draft?” Horrors! That has to mean I don’t care about grammar, construction, story development, or any other aspect of writing.

If I say that I just keep writing over the first draft, more horror. What if I cut out something I later realize I want to keep, and it’s gone? There are two ways to deal with that possibility. 1. If I’m really in doubt about cutting out some material and then regretting that it’s gone, I stick it in a text file called “Fragments.” Scrivener makes it very easy to do that. Or, what I’ve switched to doing instead, I can add it to “Fragments” in the floating Notes feature. The advantage of using Notes is that I can keep it onscreen, rather than having to jump between the “Fragments” text file and the chapter text file. There was a time when I just stuck the deleted text at the bottom of the chapter, but that messes up my word count if I’m keeping track of it.

2. The other way to make sure my golden words aren’t lost forever is to take a snapshot of the chapter as it is at that moment. Snapshots are another clever feature of Scrivener, but the truth is that I’ve used it only once, just out of curiosity. Snapshots are, though most people probably don’t think of them that way, another way to back up your material. Since I save to Dropbox, and have an external drive just for backups, plus thumb drives, when I remember to use them, that would be a bit of a redundancy on top of redundancies.

When it comes right down to it, though, over time I’ve developed the attitude that there are multiple ways to write a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. In a sense, writing a novel in a word processor is like playing with Silly Putty. Your ideas are plastic, always changing, always capable of being reshaped. To make the best use of the power of writing digitally, your mind also has to be plastic, willing to let the past evolve into the new.

If nothing else, you don’t have to deal with the clutter of all those old drafts that you’re probably never going to look at again.

When Desperation Drives You

That’s when you’ll do crazy things. Like sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo. Which I just did. Why? Because Camp Expendable has been hanging for almost seven months now, despite having had an excellent beta critique and some major rethinking on my part. Why the rush? Considering the months of prep work I put into it before actually writing it last November during NaNoWriMo, the time is probably close to a year.

I’m more or less normally functional about every other day. The rest of the time, accumulated aches and pains, and fatigue, turn everything I do into a debate about priorities and how much energy any one job will require. Not exactly a situation conducive to sustained work on novel revision.

The first draft of Camp Expendable was 52,394 words. Since then, I’ve done a fair amount of editing and increased the word count to 64,620 words. The scope of the novel means that it really needs to be at least 75,000 words, and that’s what I’ll be aiming for in July. It’s pretty pathetic, really: a goal of just over 10,000 words for an entire month’s work  — 335 words a day. But half the year is gone, and I haven’t done diddly on any of my writing goals for this year. Something has to give. July will be do or die time.

 

 

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.

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.