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Writing Tidbits (and an early New Year’s Resolution) November 18, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta, writing craft.
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Regarding NaNoWriMo, I think it’s all or nothing for me. As in, I throw all of my writing energy and time into it, to the detriment of all of my other projects, or I work on the other projects and let NaNo languish. I’ve chosen the latter.

***

Saturday was the monthly meeting of Atlanta Writers Club. I wasn’t able to stay for all three presentations, but I did catch the first two. First up, Doug Crandell returned to AWC to do a one-hour workshop on the craft of the short story. I appreciated that he hammered home the point that, yes, short stories must have plots — literary fiction included. He usually starts his story with a character, or even with just a single character trait. Then he discovers who or what is the character’s opposing force. The story grows from there. He said he used to write a lot of stories with guns in them; everybody laughed at this, but I’m sure it was uncomfortably true for some of us. Myself included.

Here’s my problematic method of crafting a short story:

1. Find character. Done. Oftentimes, this comes down to “insert an already-created character” (one of my own, I mean. Don’t mistake me for a fanfiction writer).
2. Come up with nebulous idea of the philosophical conflict guiding the story.
3. Recognize that there need to be actual events and settings to prop up said philosophical conflict.
4. Start writing anyway.
5. Write 4000 words based on the character and the philosophical concept.
6. Delete 2000 of the 4000 words.
7. Reach the place where the end of the story should naturally be. From here, there are two options:
8a. Quit writing story and never come back to it.
8b. Throw in a random murder, a suicide, a car accident, an armed robbery, or a dead relative who’s been messing with the protagonist’s mind.

I don’t really aspire to have my name all over the lit journal world or to be in Best American Short Stories (it surprises me to be able to state this sincerely; I tend to be the ambitious type, but I seem to have mellowed a bit lately, or at least channeled all outlying ambition into my YA novels). I’d just like to be able to write a short story that actually is a story, rather than a collection of haphazardly-arranged scenes. And while I figured out long ago that novels with true plot and structure don’t just burst from head to page (unless you’re William Faulkner on his As I Lay Dying bourbon bender, or — and I say this begrudgingly — Stephenie Meyer and her vampire dream), I’ve churned out a lot of literary crap under the delusion that short stories can emerge fully-formed in a single sitting.

So here’s an early New Year’s Resolution: I’m going to unearth all the short story writing advice I’ve internalized over years of how-to-write books and workshops and a whole boatload of fantastic short stories themselves. (One of my favorite online destinations for short fiction is StorySouth, by the way.) I’m going to try to write a short fiction piece with the goal of creating something that is unmistakably a story.

***

Joshua Corin, author of a rather hilarious sounding novel called Nuclear Winter Wonderland, spoke next. He covered the differences and similarities among playwriting, screenwriting, and novel-writing. (Quick primer: in playwriting, dialogue is the focus; in screenwriting, images are the focus; in novel-writing, narrative voice is the focus.) And he’d probably agree with my plan to have a plan for my next short story. At one point, he said, “Even if you don’t know where you are, know where you’re going.” Yes. Also, he stated that just because you have an idea for a novel, story, screenplay, or play, it doesn’t mean it’s time to sit down and start drafting it out. I agree — my ideas need a lot of time to attach themselves to character details and bits of dialogue and description before they’re ready to be put to paper. I feel uncomfortable sitting down to start on something unless I have one or two of those gotta-fit-these-in lines or phrases lying in wait in my head.

I left the meeting feeling inspired to go home and write… something. I wasn’t sure what. I’ve got plenty on my to-do list.

Plus, you know what’s nice? I am actually acquainted with a handful of people at Atlanta Writers Club, so during monthly meetings I actually manage to chat with people rather than just sit with my arms crossed and silently grump about how no one ever talks to me. With every passing year I grow just a little teeny tiny bit beyond the personality I cultivated so well in high school.

***

If you’re even slightly a fan of children’s or YA literature, you should check out the Winter Blog Blast Tour that’s being hosted by Chasing Ray and other fine kidlit-related websites.

Tips for NaNoWriMo October 29, 2008

Posted by LHK in NaNoWriMo, writing craft.
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(In case this is your first time on the Internet, “NaNoWriMo” is “National Novel Writing Month.”)

Every year, NaNoWriMo happens. And while I generally meet the 50,000-word goal for my annual NaNo project, I never fail to get behind on my writing, to get frustrated with myself for not having enough ideas in mind by the middle of the month, and to get mildly violent with inanimate objects for the amount of bad writing advice that gets tossed around on the NaNo forums. If you’re a cranky NaNoWriMo veteran like me, you might want to get on the right track for a saner November before the month actually begins. Here are some tips.

Avoid the general forums.

Do you really need to be the seventy-eighth person to weigh in as to where you got your novel’s title, or who you wish could play your main character (excuse me, your “MC”) in the never-to-appear film version of your novel? Do you really need to chime in on a game of Movie Quote Bingo or tell the world which song you’re listening to right now? What, exactly, do you hope to accomplish by doing this, especially when the likely result will involve all of the high school freshmen on the forums talking around you concerning their shared love of Vampire Weekend or Tokio Hotel? The song you are listening to right now is “The Ol’ Beggars Bush,” by Flogging Molly, or maybe Stephen Sondheim’s “Every Day A Little Death,” and you’re trying to tell people that your favorite novel is Catch-22 or Infinite Jest or The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul… and no one will acknowledge you. This is not your fault. Do not keep feeding the meter. Move away. Subscribe to just a few forums — your genre forum, your regional forum. Stick to those. Interact and make friends there.

Let people make mistakes. This includes you.xkcd

A bit of an offshoot from “avoid the general forums”: you can’t help everyone. At some point, you might even give up on trying to help anyone. Because if someone posts a topic concerning the use of multiple first-person narrators, and you’re like, “Yeah, you should go for it. It doesn’t always work, but you should challenge yourself,” you’ll soon be drowned out by the sixteen other respondents who contend that first-person point-of-view is “experimental” and “not done very often,” and who encourage the original poster to write in third-person limited, past tense (because “that’s just how stories were traditionally written”).

Stop punching the wall.

You can’t save anyone from bad writing, or from using fanfiction-inspired terminology, or from spending the month of November writing 50,000 words about the Gryffindor kids meeting up with the entire cast of characters of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, or from starting a new forum thread that’s written entirely in txtspeak (and which is, ironically, about how the poster wants to be able to expand her writing style so that she can reach the 50K. Here’s a hint: you don’t do it by writing “idk” all the time).

But you can use NaNoWriMo to try out a different point-of-view or genre, or to finally do that present-tense rewrite of the draft that just didn’t sound right in past tense, or take the supporting character from last year’s novel and see what he has to say for himself. Me, I’m mostly going to spend November doing the revisions on The Center of Gravity so I can get that blasted thing sent out, but if I’m able to do a NaNo novel, I’m definitely going to be doing a weird one. I’d originally planned on writing a YA short story cycle about my character Mercedes. It’s been rattling around in my head for a while. But then, when I was driving to work the other day (actually, sitting in the turn lane and waiting for traffic to pass), I suddenly wanted, more than anything, to write an adventure-caper about Rob Howington, one of the supporting characters from The Center of Gravity. And I wanted to call it Rob’s Day Out! With the exclamation point! I don’t know what it’s going to be about! Or where Rob will go on his Day Out! But I’m sure! It will! Be! Fun!

(Image from XKCD, of course.)

Learn how to do a 5,000-word day.

This can be done, even by slowpokes like me. I usually find myself needing an extra-high-word-count day somewhere around the end of the third week of November. Maybe there were a few days that I wasn’t able to write at all, and several more on which I only wrote 500 or 1,000 words. Rather than wind up with a 7,000-word deficit on November 29, it’s better to get yourself out of the hole as much as possible around November 21 or 22.

I try to do a 5,000-word day in sets of 500. And, yes, you really will need the whole day for this, not just a few hours after work. You’ll need to sit down soon after you get up and do that first set of 500 words. Set the tone for the rest of the day. Get 2,000 words down before lunch. Take a walk after lunch, and then come back to hit 3,500 or 4,000 before dinnertime. Cruise on in to the 5,000-word mark around 8 or 9 PM. By then, you’ll have earned dessert, a stiff drink, a Netflix movie, or another 1,000 words before bed.

What I did last year was grab some scrap paper and write out every single hundred-word multiple between my current word count and my goal word count. 38,100… 38,200… 38,300… and on and on. I’m the type of person who really likes to check things off lists. I tacked the list above my desk and kept myself sitting there, writing, until I could scratch off those first 5 numbers. My writing sessions tend to start out slow, crest to a quicker pace, and then begin to drop again. At the height of my productivity in a Crazy-High Word Count Day, I could get to the point where I’d write 600 or 700 words before I would look up, check the word count tool, and then scratch off the numbers I’d passed through.

Plot. A lot.

I’ve never done this; maybe one day I will. You’ll need a screenwriting book for this one: either Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! or Robert McKee’s Story. Both of these books are far more organized than all the organization I have had in my entire life. Snyder’s book in particular lays out the individual “beats” that make up a basic movie plotline. This can be pretty easily applied to a novel. In Story, McKee goes into great detail about the usage and placement of the inciting incident, the first and second act climaxes, the weaving-in of backstory, and other useful things. If you follow these books seriously, you can have a reliable roadmap for your novel before NaNoWriMo even begins. Considering how many drafts I did of my novel before realizing that the inciting incident and the climax don’t work well together, I sometimes have regrets about not attempting a Save The Cat!-style plot map before now.

A Busy, Nervous Day October 25, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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The Actual, Real New York Editor’s business card came in the mail the other day. I wasn’t going to believe it was truly coming to me until I had it in my hand. Well, now I’ve had it in my hand, and now it’s tacked to my bulletin board, which is just to the right of my writing desk, which you can see in the photo there. I’ve been working hard today, mostly making notes on my Luminotes wiki rather than actually diving into the manuscript and making changes there. Right now, the thought of going into the manuscript and doing anything other than minor line-editing makes me hyperventilate a little. And, you know, I don’t think there’s anything pathological about that. There’s no sense in starting to make any sort of big, plot-level changes until I’m entirely sure how they’re going to impact the rest of the manuscript. Everything is so frustratingly fragile at this point — knock out one piece and you wind up invalidating three other plot points.

Hence the glass of red wine, I guess.

In the center of my writing desk sits Old Blue, my Toshiba Satellite laptop. Old Blue has survived five separate novels, about two dozen short stories, six drafts of one novel, several rough plane rides, and a generalized addiction to the Internet. Old Blue has been with me since 2003. Old Blue still bears the scars of my circa-2003 habit of eating grapefruit while reading cnn.com and nytimes.com. Sticky little spots and smears that predate YouTube, but that now sit right on that area where the screen appears when you’re tired of writing and you start watching Stephen Sondheim-related videos at 2 in the morning. Old Blue has survived a lot of that. Don’t tell Old Blue, but he or she is about to have a nice rest. My new MacBook Pro is going to be arriving soon.

The two books to the left of Old Blue are a couple of useful thorns in my side. On the bottom is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, a book I like to thumb through every week or so, whether I’m working on a first draft or a seventh draft. It reminds me of those little things to try to avoid at any stage on a piece of writing – overdescription, poor rhythm, inappropriate pacing. My old boss gave me the book about a year and a half ago, and it’s taken a beating in the time that it’s been in my presence. The book on top of Self-Editing is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Catalyst, which I may have to sit down and read in full tonight. I’ve been paging through it for about a week now, and I know the general plot of it. I also know that it has some glaring similarities to my own novel. For instance, a character named Mitchell who’s about a graduate from high school with a perfect attendance record. And another character (the narrator, Kate) with a religious single parent and a senior-year schedule full of AP science classes and a habit of going running when things get tough.

Yeah.

Mitchell Waterson is the main character and narrator of my novel. He takes AP Physics and is a “good slow runner” on the cross-country team. His widowed mother is a Southern Baptist (and a bit of a kleptomaniac).  He’s never missed a day of school. And while I firmly believe that a good novel is “all in the execution,” and while I can see that my novel is stylistically different from Laurie Halse Anderson’s, and while the crux of the plot is entirely different from what happens in Catalyst, I can definitely make things easier on myself by excising some of these character similarities before the novel is seen by people who know other YA novels inside and out.

Just more revisions to add to the list.

Time to break for dinner. I’ll update again with my John Green (!!!) photos and thoughts either later today or tomorrow.

Progress, or Not October 15, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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I’ve been trying to stay away from my novel for the last few weeks. Now I’m getting the shakes.

No matter what else I do, and how much progress I make in other areas of my writing life, I don’t think I’ll be able to feel accomplished until I get the novel out of lack-of-suitable-character-arc limbo. The sad thing is, I have made good progress in other areas that I should be celebrating — two short stories submitted recently, and three first drafts of totally new pieces finished over the weekend. That’s good! But it’s a bit like how I felt during my junior year of college when I had A’s in all my classes except my Faulkner class. Faulkner! Who I’d read and studied and emulated (badly) and memorized and cried over for years before that class ever showed up on my schedule. And I was doing well in the class up until the final exam. I got the flu that week, and I’m certain that anyone who touched my exam book likely got the flu as well, considering how much I coughed and snotted over it during the three-hour exam period. (My apologies.) It hurt. I was trying to write an essay about Jewel and the horse in As I Lay Dying, and all I could do was work myself into dizzy spells with the phrase “Jewel’s mother is a horse” careening on a loop in my head.

It hurt.

It hurts to love something that much and know something so well and not be able to prove any of that when it really matters. It hurts the same way with the novel because I feel like I could stand up right now and give a talk called “From Forever to Alaska: The Evolution of Language and Life in the Young Adult Novel,” but I can’t bring together the working pieces of my own manuscript into something that can survive on its own.

Are there therapists for frustrated writers? Is this the point at which some people dig into their bank accounts and hire freelance editors? I don’t want anybody who talks the loopy talk about unblocking your creative self, and I don’t want anyone to recommend a course in The Artist’s Way. I’ve thought about starting the search for a critique group, but I’m not sure if I can make the time investment it would take to find a group where the members really understand YA fiction. What would be ideal is a critique partner who’s at nearly the same point in his or her manuscript that I’m at in mine. I know that folks usually find these mythical critique partners on this here Internet, but I’ve spent so many months trying to detach myself from the Internet in order to progress on my writing that I haven’t made many connections among other YA writers.

Still, I look at acknowledgment pages in published novels and marvel at how people are able to acquire that sort of support network for their writing. Am I simply not recognizing the opportunities I’ve had to connect with people and ask for help? I will say that I’ve got plenty of first readers / beta readers lined up for whenever I have the just-about-polished manuscript ready, but I don’t think it’s fair to foist a broken manuscript upon those same people.

I guess the novel hiatus continues. I’m just too worked-up about its state of unfinishedness to try to dive back into it this week.

NaNoWriMo, Year 8 October 4, 2008

Posted by LHK in NaNoWriMo, writing craft.
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It’s NaNoWriMo season again (that’s “National Novel Writing Month,” for the uninitiated. One novel, 50,000 words, 30 days). Funny how the formerly one-month noveling sprint has become a lengthier event — the October run-up to the event where everyone crowds into the forums and starts the same topics every year, the frenzy of November and how it seems to pass more quickly every time, and then the cool-down in December when everyone pages through their November work and decides if they’ve created anything worth trying to edit.

Adam referred to me in his introductory post on the forums as his “hardened NaNo veteran” wife. This is accurate. This will be my eighth year doing NaNoWriMo, and though I grumble about it a little more every year, I always do join up and write a new draft and learn new things about myself as a writer. I don’t claim to learn positive things, though — sometimes I just learn how babbly and annoying I am when I get the chance to talk about writing with other writers. Or that I hit my diminishing-returns threshold when I try to write past 2 AM. And both in and out of November, I keep running up against the realization that the problems I have with writing these days aren’t anything that can be easily solved with a Julia Cameron book or a workshop about character development. I’m to that point where I can write a solid draft but not a fully satisfying one.

I admit I’m sometimes resentful of NaNo because I applied its “when in doubt, just draft” philosophy to The Center of Gravity for too long. At some point before, you know, the last few weeks, I should have taken ten minutes to BREATHE and realize that slowing down and constructing a workable backbone for the story would have been more beneficial than blasting through draft after draft and expecting all the problems to work themselves out.

So I don’t know whether it’s right to ask the question of when NaNoWriMo will outlive its usefulness for me. It’s better to try to figure out how to adapt what it is to what I need from year to year.

And I hope I won’t be taking on too much this time around (by saying this, of course, I’m insinuating that I know I’m taking on way too much). I’ll be revising The Center of Gravity, writing a new draft of a YA short story cycle for NaNoWriMo, and organizing some events for the Atlanta group. Yee haw, wagons forward, et cetera. Let me use the rest of October to build up an energy reserve for next month.

Decisions and Revisions September 23, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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I have to erase what’s currently on the Plot Board of DOOM. I know, I know — it’s painful. It’s even more painful to realize that I’ve built a whole novel on a very shaky character arc, and that I’m going to have to go back to the beginning to make it right. All of this started to solidify last Wednesday night while I was slogging through Chapter 18, the next-to-last chapter in the manuscript. I was writing the climax, or trying to.

Hint: If you’re on Draft 6.75, writing the climax should be easy. You should know very well what the climax should be at that point. Based on what you’ve already written, it should be the next inevitable event in the story. If you find yourself pulling plot points out of your ass… wait, no, that’s the inevitable answer. Rather, if you find yourself pulling plot points out of your pencil case, dog food bag, or Vitamin Water bottle, STOP right there and figure out where you went wrong.

I stopped. Chapter 18, and that draft is DEAD. I think.

I’ve been reading Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I didn’t mean to be. I plucked it off my shelf around 5 in the morning two Sundays ago, after being awakened by gunshots, either in my dream or somewhere outside. I turned on all the lights and went into the other bedroom to see what I could find to read. The Jane Smiley book looked fat and distracting. Perfect. Outside, it was eerily quiet — no sirens, no voices. No one else around had turned on their lights. Had I just dreamed the whole thing? Possibly. My dream was that I was training to be a security guard. I had to wear a terrible khaki outfit that made me feel tiny and unsafe.

I turned in the Smiley book to Chapter 10, “A Novel of Your Own (I).” I read that and “A Novel of Your Own (II)” before going back to sleep. By then, it was 7 AM.

Here are a few things I learned, or re-learned, as the case may be:

  • Your novel should have an inciting incident. This should come around the 10% mark in the manuscript, or earlier than that.
  • Your novel should also have a climax. This should happen around the 90% mark in the manuscript.
  • Don’t worry about being a formulaic tool by having these elements. Ulysses had them. Atonement had them. You should, too. They’re a part of storytelling in general, not specifically of formulaic storytelling.
  • The inciting incident and the climax should reflect each other. The inciting incident should make the climax inevitable.

Now, maybe I’m not being kind enough to myself. I do have something in Draft 6.75 that looks like an inciting incident, although in my mind it’s not directly connected — plotwise or thematically — to anything that happens in the sorta-climax. And, yes, I do have a sorta-climax, but it doesn’t accomplish enough, plotwise or thematically, to be satisfying to the reader, much less to the characters involved. They’re probably saying at that point, She’s put us through 220 pages of torture, and THIS is the way she’s going to bring it all to a head?

Preemptive apologies to Mitchell, Caroline, Victoria, Rob, Becky, Mercedes, and the rest of the characters. They deserve better.

So what do I do now? This is where my confidence in what I perceive to be the basic steps of writing fiction gets shaky. I think I need to resist the urge to rewrite from Chapter 1 all over again. This has been my M.O. up to this point. (Don’t like the draft? Click. New document! This leads to rewrites that are about as time consuming as you’d imagine.) I need to make sure I know what that all-important character arc is going in to the next revision, and write it on the Plot Board of DOOM and on Post-Its that I will stick to my laptop, and let it guide the revision. I need to know what the inciting incident and climax will be, and let those pivotal scenes guide the revising of the middle of the work.

It’s tough admitting to myself that I can’t be a fully intuitive novel-writer. No matter how much I love the novel-writing philosophy of putting an interesting character into a tough situation and following him around until he gets himself out of it, I’ve now got six (point-seven-five) drafts as evidence that such a technique only gets me so far.

Narrative Arc, Part 2 – Harry Caul and Me September 18, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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Oh goodness – Harry Caul.

Played by Gene Hackman, he’s the protagonist in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), which I watched last weekend. He’s a surveillance expert, inventing his own wiretapping equipment and running his own business from a warehouse in San Francisco. His apartment is a shrine to sterility and anonymity, what with its numerous door locks and its only telephone hidden in a desk drawer. His sometimes-girlfriend knows nothing about his job or where he lives. Whenever he goes out, he wears a translucent raincoat.

But now he’s been commissioned by the director of a large company to tape every word of a seemingly ordinary conversation held on a bright December afternoon in Union Square. Harry does it – with technological flair – and returns to his warehouse workshop to piece together the conversation. His assistant, Stan (John Cazale), begins asking the questions the viewer wants to know (Why these two people? Why was this particular conversation so important?), but Harry rebukes him and sends him packing.

Alone in his workshop, Harry grounds himself in his work by concentrating on photos of the couple while finishing the tapes of their conversation. One line gives him trouble — it sounds like nothing but microphone feedback. At first. With the help of one of his devices, though, he’s able to pick out the words: He’d kill us if he found out. The words stay with Harry, and he replays the conversation both on his equipment and in his head until his drive to get involved with the (perceived) situation of the couple versus the company director overtakes his life.

There’s your story engine right there – Harry Caul’s fixation on the conversing couple, which turns quickly from curiosity to obsession. This is his want, and while it first seems contrary to what we’ve observed about Harry’s personality, we come to learn that it’s born directly from deeply buried aches in his being. And while The Conversation is a thriller, with the possibility of murder looming over the second half of the movie, the real tension of the story comes from character. How far will Harry go? Will he hunt down the couple from the conversation and disclose who’s watching them? Will he try to stop the director from taking revenge on the couple? We, the viewers, come to understand that everything Harry’s doing – or even thinking of doing – is new territory for him. Even though he’s not outwardly a relatable character, nor the sort of guy you’d want to take to lunch, we come to sympathize with him through witnessing this psychological progression that leads him to danger.

I turned the movie on again on Sunday morning and listened to Coppola’s commentary as I was sweeping the floor and doing dishes. Coppola called the movie a character study — that made me put down the dish I was drying and go over to the TV to listen more closely. Coppola said he wrote the screenplay when he was in his mid-20s, and it took into account his love for several literary works – Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (your pal the Weird Quiet Girl hasn’t read this, but should) and Tennessee Williams’s plays, with their comically grotesque characters (your pal the Weird Quiet Girl has read a number of T. Williams plays). I think Coppola’s describing his own work as a literarily-inspired character study drove home a few sad truths about my own recent writing — namely, that I cannot be scared away from plot even though I am, and will always be, a character-based writer. And also that my characters absolutely must have a problem or desire that drives the story. You can have people exploring their problems or having personality conflicts with their friends all they want — but until they start taking real action, there’s no story engine, no narrative arc. This isn’t to say that these things don’t exist in my work. I’m probably not giving myself enough credit here. But I do have a tendency to be subtle with these things, and while subtlety’s great in some aspects of a written work, it can be a killer to others. If the main character’s want isn’t clear, the story’s going to be so quiet as to fade away into itself.
Oh, Harry Caul (and Francis Ford Coppola), you made me realize that I’m going to have to go back to the beginning of my manuscript and revise again. And probably again and again. Will this ever end?

The Narrative Arc September 8, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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At Doug Crandell’s workshop last week, I realized that I’ve been writing my novel backwards. Not in terms of chronology — I have a hard enough time keeping track of the forward-facing timeline of events — but in terms of which aspects of the novel were conceived first, and which came later. To someone who was struggling with getting through the first draft of a novel, Doug suggested to follow the narrative arc all the way to the end, and then go back and make the necessary rewrites and revisions. Of course, any person who has taken a writing class, done NaNoWriMo, clicked around on a writing forum, cracked anything in the 808 section of the library, or even picked up a pencil has heard this tossed around as the conventional wisdom and advice given out anytime anyone’s feeling stuck. Just finish the first draft and then go back and edit! I get it, too — from well-meaning friends and various acquaintances who know better than to insinuate that there’s anything new in my life besides however many words I’ve written in the novel since last Tuesday. I got it recently from my mother, too. Well, her wording is a little different. “Just finish it,” she likes to say. “It’d be great if you’re able to publish it, but we really just want to see you get to the end.”

“I’ve gotten to the end,” I tell her. “I’ve gotten there multiple times. I’ve put several drafts to rest. It’s just… still not done.”

And how do you go about trying to explain that incompleteness to someone who’s never attempted this sort of writing marathon? Well, some people would probably like to tell me (politely, of course): You don’t. Don’t explain. Just finish the stupid thing.

Okay, fine. I will. But how do I explain to myself why I’ve written numerous drafts-with-endings that still weren’t complete enough to be revised and edited? Why do I keep having to start over with the blank Word document, writing the same story again and again? The phrase narrative arc clicked with me at the workshop last Friday — that should be the backbone of the story, and yet, in my story, it’s flimsy in so many places.

What’s a narrative arc? It’s what gives the reader that immensely satisfying we’ve-come-a-long-way-together feeling upon the finishing of a story, whether that story is 15 pages long, or 150, or 1500. It’s what makes a story a story rather than merely a recounting of events or a description of a character’s life. It requires some sort of catalyst for change — even if the main character himself doesn’t change (think Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and other characters who are static from book to book), something about his situation does. Of course, I deal in character-driven stories, so I’m working with a character who needs to show growth, and a story that needs to run in a parallel line to that character growth.

I’ve discovered that you can get through a whole ton of drafts without knowing this narrative arc. You’ll have all these great little character details, and you’ll have a bunch of lines that came to you on your nightly dog walks that you were finally able to work into one of your later drafts, and you’ll write chapter after chapter, and things will happen — character-based things, even — and there’ll be something that you and your readers will call a plot. But you’ll stall out on the ending, because the ending is where the promise to the reader should be fulfilled — and if you’ve never promised anything to your main character, much less made a promise to the reader, then the story could, technically, end at any point.

The other day, I used the Plot Board of DOOM to point out to Adam where I was at in the story. Yep, that’s me pointing at a big empty space. I’ve reached the end of my outline and fallen off into a pool of gray dry-erase sheet metal.

That end-of-novel panic August 27, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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So I’m working on the last two chapters of the current draft of my novel, which, for convenience’s sake, I call Draft 6.75. This time last year, I was at this same point in a previous draft — on the no-one-understands-this-but-me literary timeline, it was in the humid days between celebrating my main character’s birthday (August 22. When you’ve “known” your main character for seventeen years, it is only appropriate to celebrate his birthday) and the Decatur Book Festival. I had two chapters to go. I was exhausted. I loved my story but couldn’t wait to put it to rest. I couldn’t pick up a novel or watch a movie without guilt about putting off the inevitable ending of the manuscript. I was listening to the New Pornographers’ Challengers with the same pathological fervor that lately comes over me every time I put on the Company original cast album. In short, I was — and am — insufferable. More than usual, that is.

The thing about endings, and writing them, is that they can get you (read: me) all psychologically mixed up. Sometime last week, I was having a minor freakout about where the last three chapters were going to go, and how I was going to manage wrapping up all of my various dangling plot threads. For a while, I had myself convinced that this was a bout of perfectionist’s anxiety — as in, I was going to find all sorts of little things wrong with the ending so as to put off finishing the manuscript and sending it out. But was that it? After some meditation on this (read: a glass of wine and some room pacing), I realized that I was being far too kind to myself about the root of this problem. No, the root was alllll the way back in Chapter 7, which has been a problematic chapter for as long as I’ve been working on draft 6.75. A too-coincidental plot point back in Chapter 7 was making Chapters 17, 18, and 19 difficult to write.

I continued with Chapters 17 and 18 as though I’d already written out Chapter 7’s aggravating plot point. One more thing to add to the growing revision list. That’s okay; I like revision. But in this draft writing phase, it’s difficult to spend late night after late night pushing my characters into frightening emotional territory, and not having a strong enough outline (yes, even after so many drafts) to know how they’re going to make it to the other side.

One good thing, though, was discovering just how much progress I’ve made lately. I thought about my research trip / solo writing retreat to Rutherford County, North Carolina last month, and scrolled back to what I’d written back at that vintage-1835 bed and breakfast. I was mostly working on Chapter 11 then, which was nearly 100 pages ago. 100 pages in a month! I can definitely deal with that.

Tomorrow I’ll post a snapshot of the Plotting Board of DOOM, and if I get a chance I’ll say a bit about that most wondrous of events for all weird quiet girls — the Decatur Book Festival.