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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

     Okay, the title of this post was suggested to me by the stupid accident I had the other day. I managed to injure my head and neck in the public swimming pool. I was trying to demonstrate how to do an underwater summersault, and the bottom of the pool turned out to be closer than it looked. I felt the headache right away, but I didn’t feel the neck pain until the next day. Ouch.

    While I am laid up, I have been dipping back into the lyrical world of Patricia A. McKillip. She is one of my favorite authors. I love her command of language. She paints with words like a classic master, creating lush worlds and complex characters. In her stories, she blurs the bounderies between idea and reality. Story and word spin themselves into physical shape and take part in the action. The simplest action on the part of one of the characters has repercussions that echo throughout the story. Objects show up again and again, changing shape and meaning as they go. Her stories are rich in discription and imagery, and yet every word, every image, is important to the story. The result is a work of art that can be enjoyed over and over again, even after the suspense is gone.

     I first discovered Patricia A. McKillip while I was in junior high school. I picked up The Riddle-Master of Hed from the bookmobile and was instantly hooked. I had to wait for the subsequent books to be written and I remember anticipating them just as eagerly as my daughter has anticipated Harry Potter. At the time I was also reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. The last two books, Harpist in the Wind by Patricia A. McKillip and Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper, arrived at the bookmobile at the same time. I was in book heaven.

     The thing I liked about the Riddle-Master series while I was reading it, was that I couldn’t figure out what was going on, even after reading two books. Most of the books I had read to that point were easy for me to predict by the time I was two-thirds of the way through. Then I read the last book, and the riddles began to reveal themselves. Suddenly, the answer seemed so obvious I was surprised I hadn’t seen it all along. I love it when that happens.

     Another thing I loved about the Riddle-Master books  was the way the characters used riddles to talk to each other. McKillip created a world with a culture rich in story and legend for the characters to draw on in their conversations. She does the same thing in the Cygnet series–another pair of books I read over and over again.

     Over the years I have read several of her books. I remain in awe of her artistry with language. I attended a conference where one of the speakers talked about imitating the voice or style of an author you admire until you find your own voice. I’ve never actually tried that, but if I did, Patricia A. McKillip is one of those I would be tempted to imitate.

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Revising My Fast Draft

     Last November I decided to try fast drafting. The result was a 167,000 page rough draft with lots of junk and a few moments of brilliance. I let it sit while I finished the revisions for The Hunt for The Night Unicorn, and now I am looking at it again.

     My initial reaction upon reading it: absolute terror. There were so many words. For my first two manuscripts, I revised extensively as I wrote. As a result, by the time I had the entire manuscript written, it was in pretty good shape. This draft was all over the place–full of dead ends where I had tried things that didn’t work and different versions of the characters as I tried to work out who they were. In other words, it was a mess.

     The one good thing that came out of that initial reading was that I still loved the story, so I decided to roll up my sleeves and plunge in. This first run through would be devoted to digging out the plot and pruning away all the obvious junk. Once I had the size and the shape of the thing, I could start fine-tuning the inside.

     What amazes me as I work is how little of my original draft is making it into the revised copy. I keep the ideas, but a lot of the words change. This may have happened when I wrote the other two as well, but because I was revising as I wrote I didn’t notice it as much. A friend of mine heard a published writer tell how very little of what he originally wrote ended up in his final work, so maybe it’s a hopeful sjgn.

     The one thing I cannot do as I work is look at the word count. Whenever I do that, I get intimidated by the size of the task in front of me. Suddenly, I am finding other things I could do. And with four children at home, there are plently of other things I could do. (I live in a world of perpetual laundry.) The only way to move forward is to work scene by scene–just like Anne Lamott suggests–until, hopefully, it adds up to a finished work. Then I get to revise again.

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I Don’t Dance

    I sent my revised manuscript to my agent yesterday. After I forced myself to hit the send button, I called a friend and told her it was sent.

    “Did you do a dance?” she asked.

     “What?”

     “Did you do a dance?” she repeated. “You’ve just sent something out. You’ve got to celebrate.”

     After I was done talking to her, I called my husband and told him the manuscript was finally done and gone.

     “Great,” he says. “I’ll bring home something special to celebrate.”

     Now, in his case, I can understand the desire to celebrate. I have been impossible to live with these last few days. I have been driven and grouchy–especially during the final proofreading phase.

     Their words got me thinking. The truth is a couple of  phone calls and a post on Verla Kay’s blueboard are all the celebrating I ever do when I send something out. I’ve read several articles that encourage unpublished authors to celebrate each step on the long road to publication. So why don’t I feel like celebrating?

     I think part of the reason is that I am still subconsiously trying to stay under the radar as a would-be writer. It took me a long time to be able to say, “I’m a writer” out loud without dropping my voice on the last word. A part of me still feels that I’m going to be carded at writer’s conferences and booted out. It’s scary going after my dream, and I figure if I don’t shout about it, maybe I won’t notice what I’m doing.

     Another reason is that I generally finish my manuscripts under a deadline. Okay, I’ll admit that a lot of those deadlines are self-inflicted, but it still adds an element of pressure.  Also, after going over the thing ten or twelve times looking for typos I might have missed, I am completely burnt out. All I want to do after sending out a manuscript is crawl into bed and sleep for a week. (Incidentally, it doesn’t matter how many times I go over a manuscript; there is always a typo in the final copy. Typos in my manuscripts are like spiders in my home–I can never completely get rid of them, no matter how hard I try.)

     Finally, I am just to nervous about the manuscript itself. Will they like it? Will it find a home? Will kids like it? I always run my writing byseveral test readers before submitting, but I tell myself, “Well, they just said they liked it because they like me.”

     I wonder sometimes what other writers do when they send out a manuscript. Do they celebrate? If any other writers read this, I would love to hear what you do.

     Oh, and I did find one other thing I do to celebrate submitting a manscript. I invariably go off my diet.

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     It is difficult, if not impossible, to catch all of your own mistakes in a piece of writing. The large errors are easy to find, but the little things–the typos, omitted words, wrong use of there, their, and they’re–these are much harder to catch. The reason is that our brains are overly helpful. The brain knows what is wrong or missing and helpfully supplies the right word as we read, regardless of what is on the page.

     I know this. I teach this. Every year I tell this to freshmen students, encouraging them to find a peer or relative to read their papers before turning them in. So why do I think I am the exception to this rule?

    Part of the reason is probably that I am reluctant to ask a reader to proof a 100+ page manuscript for tiny errors. It’s one thing to ask someone to read for theme and whether or not the story works, it’s quite another to ask her to make sure I have all of my articles in place. This is not to say my friends aren’t willing–they are. They’ve said so. I just don’t want to ask.

     The second reason is because I teach this. I get paid to find these errors in the papers of students. I should be able to find them in my own work–right? It’s just so hard to believe that they would be so very visible in everyone else’s writing and so very invisible in my own.

     The final reason is time. I am pretty good at estimating when I can get a rewrite done. I even build in a little extra time for those inevitable family emergencies, but I don’t leave a lot of wiggle room. The truth is if I laid the story aside for a few weeks and looked at it fresh, I’d probably find a lot of my little errors. I’ve certainly found them in other drafts I’ve had to leave for a time. I just don’t budget enough time.

    So why is this so important? Because it’s the small stuff that can cost an author. Those little errors give an editor an excuse to pass on a manuscript, and with piles and piles of manuscripts to go through they are looking for excuses to stop reading. Of course, having a grammatically perfect manuscript doesn’t take the place of having a compelling plot or well-rounded characters, but it can give you an edge–and in today’s market, a writer needs all the edges she can get.

     As a result of all this, my manuscript will get to my agent a little later than I promised. I’m not happy about that. I just sat through a conference where the presenters stressed the importance of meeting deadlines. Lucky for me, it won’t be too late due to the efforts of a good friend who is going to give up a free evening to proofread for me. I owe her chocolate.

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NaNoWriMo: What I learned

     It’s a bit early for New Year’s resolutions, but I have resolved to update this blog more often. Of course, the bar is really low here since I have only been updating it once a month—so if I manage one more post a month, I’ve doubled my output. However, the goal is to update it once a week.
     My last blog was about National Novel Writing Month. I am pleased to report that I did it. I completed 52,542 words of a brand new story by the end of November. I have to admit it was hard. I never really appreciated before how busy I get in November. There were birthdays to celebrate, parent-teacher conferences to attend, the end of a middle school marking period—which meant a lot of scrambling to finish up late projects. (I am not sure why that involved me so much, but it did.) Finally, I had an entire Thanksgiving feast to cook during the last weekend, and some shopping to do afterwards. By that last weekend, I was still 6,000 words down. My marvelous reading buddies were starting to call me to make sure I was going to make it. I’m still not sure how I managed to.
     So, what did I learn from this? I learned I really am a compulsive editor. It was actually painful to not go back and change things. I had to allow myself to at least fix the typos or I would have broken down completely. I found that I tend to overwrite. I had never noticed it before because so much of it gets deleted when I start an idea over. At over 52,000 words I was still only a third of the way through the story. I was tempted to give up on it, but in the third week the story suddenly took off and became an obsession. It haunted me until I sat down and wrote out all the plot points in a two page list. Now, it is still driving me, but at a more reasonable rate. I am continuing to fast draft the rest of the manuscript—though I did allow myself to drop back to 1500 words a day (weekdays only) instead of the 2500 words I was attempting with NaNo. Finally, I discovered I am more productive when I force myself to continue forward without looking back. Of course, the real test will come when I sit down to pull the whole thing into a workable manuscript. (Oh, I found out that I use ‘of course’ a lot—I mean REALLY a lot.) At the rate I am writing now, I probably won’t begin revisions until mid to late January.
     Two things I loved about NaNoWriMo were the reading buddies and the letters of encouragement. It was very motivating to see all my buddies posting their word counts. I also enjoyed hearing their stories. The excitement was contagious. The letters were also motivating…and simply great reading. I joined two regions and one of my municipal liaisons sent  wonderful, encouraging letters that seemed to speak to exactly what I was going through. I have no idea how she found the time to write them. The director’s letters were also fun, but I think the best letters were the ones from guest authors. I discovered two or three authors whose books I simply must read (I made a list), and I received letters from two of my idols, Gail Carson Levine and Robin McKinley. Yeah, I know—they were just form letters, but there was something heart-stopping about opening my email and seeing their names in my inbox.
     The most important benefit of this experience is that I am writing again on a regular basis. I discovered that when I had to I could find the time to write. I broke through some bad habits that were blocking productivity. Best of all, I am loving what I do again—because, face it, writing is the best career in the world. I would do it for free…and right now I do. All in all, I am glad I did NaNoWriMo. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to write.

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NaNoWriMo

     I looked at my blog and realized I haven’t posted in a month. October was a crazy month full of sickness and school meetings. November promises to be even crazier as I have signed up for NaNoWriMo–which for the  nitiated stands for National Novel Writing Month. Yes, I have signed up to write a 50,000 word novel in a single month.

     The thing about me and writing is this—I am a compulsive editor. I cannot help myself. I edit as I write my first draft, I edit all through my revisions (which is when I am actually supposed to edit), I edit my edits, I edit as I am printing copies for my critique group, I even do minor changes while printing the hard copy of the final draft to send to my agent. I cannot stop myself.

     I know…I know…editing is a good thing. We are supposed edit, and most of the editing I do isn’t a problem. However, I have recently started worrying that I am editing my stories to death before they even make it onto paper (or, in this case, the computer screen). In my last project, I became so fixated on getting the first five or six chapters right that I spent about year doing them over and over and eventually lost the thread of the rest of the story. Yes, I actually managed to edit a project to death. This is why I have decided to seek help.
     Of course, every good rehabilitation program involves a partner or sponsor and mine is NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo actively discourages editing as you write. In fact, I have already received an email ridiculing my internal editor and calling her names. I have over thirty reading buddies on the site who will know if my word count starts to drop off. A few will even suspect why, and at least one of them is likely to call me on it.

     I am giving my current project a well-deserved rest and pulling out a shiny new idea for this experiment. It’s an idea I’ve had in my files for a while—another fairytale retelling. I am planning to write the first draft straight through WITHOUT EDITING AT ALL. Yes, that’s right. It will be an adventure in pure creativity. I can’t wait.

     So now you’re all sitting there saying, “Sure, she SAYS she’s not going to edit, but as soon as she starts looking back through what she’s written, she’ll be reaching madly for the delete button.” But, see, that’s the trick—I’m not going to read through it. Once I write it down, I am planning to leave it on the page and go on. I have no idea what I am going to get if I write headlong like this. I don’t even know if I can create a manuscript that fast, but I’m dying to find out it.
     So…I have the idea; I have the program; I have the people. There is nothing left, but to start writing. Wish me luck.

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Lost in Cyberspace

                I spent most of yesterday writing a blog entry about, well, writing. I worked very hard on it, and I thought I saved it, but when I opened the file this afternoon to finish the entry, it was gone. Welcome to my nightmare. I love the computer. I can edit. I can revise. I can rearrange whole sections of my manuscript without having to retype the whole thing. Best of all, I don’t have to decipher my own handwriting. And I can save all my work with the press of a button…maybe.

                Yeah, I know. I should back everything up regularly—and I do. Every one of my books is backed up frequently in several different mediums. I learned this costly lesson when my hard drive crashed and took the most recent version of my manuscript with it. I had to reenter the whole thing using the hard copy (thank heavens I had that). But this blog entry was something I was doodling on. I meant to come back to it later. And I clicked on save. I even checked to make sure it had saved, and there it was under my docs –“Stuck in the Middle.” It just had nothing inside. When I opened the document, the page was blindingly empty. (And yet Word still took several minutes to run a virus scan and check for errors.)

Here’s the thing I can’t understand: Why did the program go to all the trouble of creating a file if there was no actual document being saved? It seems like a cruel ploy to get my hopes up—which leads me to believe that I might have gremlins. I am researching them for my current work-in-progress and they seem to like to wreak havoc with anything mechanical or electronic.  (Did I mention that my hard drive completely recovered and still works? The only permanent casualty was all my information.) My oldest daughter has been building fairy houses all over my yard. Maybe she’s attracted the wrong sort of fairy.

My husband, who is something of a computer guru, has promised to try to find my lost blog entry in whatever corner of cyberspace it has been banished to. However, I couldn’t help noticing that he didn’t sound all that hopeful. Still, I will let him try, and, if it works, I’ll post both the blog and where he found it. In the meantime, one of my daughters just informed me that she’s lost her homework. I looked at her and said, “Me, too.”

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