Category Archives: Process

On Icebergs, Novel Writing and Journaling

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Tip of the Iceberg

Tip of the Iceberg — Image by © Ralph A. Clevenger/CORBIS

It’s a metaphor that gets used a lot, but I’m going to make an embarrassing confession about its application to novel writing: for the longest time, I didn’t get it.

See, I had approached writing a novel like so:

  1. Think of an idea
  2. Start writing chapter 1
  3. Keep writing until you hit “the end”
  4. Go back and revise a million times until it works

Was the underside of the iceberg just all the stuff I cut from each draft? I honestly didn’t
give it too much thought. I know every writer crafts differently, so I figured this was one of those things that other writers did and maybe it didn’t apply to my process.

Or maybe, in hindsight, I didn’t have enough process yet.

book-journalBack in February, a friend gave me a journal as a birthday gift. It took me until April to decide what to do with it, because I refuse to start a journal until I’m sure what I’m going to fill it with. I have a personal journal that’s so thick it’ll take me another two years to finish, so I wanted this one to be for something else.

After reviewers read my novel draft in March, I realized that the story needed to go in some darker directions. I needed the story to be more bleak. And I realized that I wanted to understand my own magic system and characters and setting better than I did.

Suddenly I knew exactly what I needed that extra journal for.

heart-science

I began with magic-system stuff and progressed to everything. The more I wrote, the more I realized there was to write. I sketched and mapped settings, I jotted down research notes about relevant phenomena, I analyzed the numerology and astrology of every character.

gina-and-chrisAnd most importantly, I wrote lots and lots of backstory—pages and pages of situations that happened to my characters in the years preceding the story, down to why they were riding the elementary school bus in third grade and what family circumstances were like for each of them back then (nine years before the story starts). I even ended up writing about things that happened to my character’s parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. I spent the summer fleshing out their lives and having a marvelous time.

The result is over 200 pages of handwritten notes that cover just a small portion of the thinking and processing that went into them.

Now I’m at the point of placing those insights into the story—and the iceberg analogy suddenly makes sense. Because from all that backstory, I’ve been inserting maybe two sentences at a time into the novel itself—details that give it the depth of those extra pages, even though readers won’t see what’s underneath.

With the next novel I work on, you can bet I’ll have a journal from the start.

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Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part III)

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You can tell a lot about a person from the obvious pieces we’ve discussed in the last two posts: their features and their name. Even without knowing energy types we could probably identify apple cheeks as fun, puppy-dog eyes as sensitive, sharp chins as determined, and long faces as serious. Similarly, we make natural judgments about a name that are often true.

(One beta reader commented, after learning my artsy character Phil is short for Theophilus, “I was a little surprised that he goes by Phil as opposed to Theo. Theo sounds artistic, but Phil sounds kind of carefree/humorous which also seems to fit him.” Later, when she learned Wendy had been the one who insisted on calling him Phil, the reader said it made perfect sense.)

Today we get to dive deeper—into the invisible influence of astrology.

Character Sun Sign

Read the rest of this entry

Goals, Obstacles, Epiphanies

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A month ago when my mother-in-law came over to help with the kids one day, I saw her cleaning the crumbs out of the cupboard under my kitchen sink. She’s sweet like that, always looking for the little ways she can help me tidy up.

But the very next week, the crumbs were back. I noticed them when I went to do my usual task of opening the cupboard to empty the dustpan into the garbage can that’s under the sink.

An epiphany struck. Those crumbs weren’t sneaking in on their own. I was creating a mess every time I swept by shoving the dustpan into the cupboard.

So I changed my ways. I took the garbage can out from under the sink, then emptied the dustpan more carefully, so as not to spill, then returned the garbage can to its home.

I reported this to my mother-in-law the next time we got together and lamented that this is the trouble with my housekeeping skills: I have so many bad habits that I don’t even realize are bad habits, and each little thing I’m doing wrong causes other problems, and reverting my habits requires first having an epiphany about each and every little thing that’s not working!

As another example, remember that goal I made months ago to clean my kitchen as I cook? I wanted to meet that goal, I dedicated myself to that goal, I determined that I would conquer it. But there were still so many obstacles impeding my progress that by February I’d about given up.

Among them was the fact that our eighteen-month-old is so strong-willed and forceful that we’ve nicknamed him Attack, and one of his favorite things to attack is the inside of the dishwasher, so I felt like I could never leave a single dish in there. I had to hurry and unload them once clean but then leave the dirty ones in the sink all day until I could wash them after he went to bed.

This is probably stating the obvious, but having a sink full of dishes was an insurmountable obstacle for me. I absolutely could not keep the kitchen clean without room in the sink to wash/rinse things off. And the problem caused other problems, like elevating the stress levels of myself and my family.

Long story short, I finally drove myself to the hardware store and bought a child-proof lock for the dishwasher, and the kitchen has been clean ever since — the cleanest it’s been in our entire marriage. That goal I made back in September was a great goal and I’d visualized it and was all set to meet it, so once I removed the obstacle, I prevailed!

Of course, life is full of obstacles — most of them much bigger than a messy house.  It breaks my heart to see or hear about people who keep failing to achieve their goals because of challenges. Teaching at a community college, I see so many moms and dads in tough circumstances, trying to get an education and turn their lives around for their families, and every semester a few of them just disappear, stop coming to class, can’t make it past whatever obstacles have cropped up in their lives.

But at the same time, every few semesters I see a truly courageous student pass my class despite enormous problems, whether medical issues or family issues or transportation or job issues, often a combination of more than one, and it reminds me that it’s not the obstacles themselves that stop us from meeting our goals; it’s how we respond.

And I think the response is the same regardless of the size of the problem.

For college, my personal obstacle was paying my own way, so I went without a car or a computer or a cell phone (true, this was 2000–2004), using the bus and the school computer labs and the campus phones. I remember one time my checking account got down to 19 cents until my next pay-day, but somehow I survived.

For keeping the kitchen clean, it was as simple as buying a $3 appliance lock. I could have done that in September and saved myself five months of grief!

For my writing, the obstacle was fitting it in around teaching, so I had to take a hard look at how I was spending my time and decide on and commit to a schedule that would allow my writing to be a higher priority. Consequently, my manuscript has come together after years of partial neglect, I’ve met every weekly writing goal I’ve set for myself the past two months, and I’m on track to send it off to agents May 1.

I think the secret is to stare the obstacle in the face with absolute determination, with your mind made up that you are going to get around it somehow. Your brain will throw you a bone; you’ll come up with a plan, so long as you don’t give up.

Epiphanies appear when I refuse to let obstacles impede my goals.

Best of all, the more success I have at conquering obstacles and realizing goals, the more empowered I feel to achieve even more.

I can’t even tell you how on top of the world keeping my kitchen clean always and writing daily have made me feel. I’ve been happier and more excited about life in the past month than I remember feeling before. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for ages suddenly feel possible.

Yesterday, for example, I decided that this upcoming school year I want to do class at home for my kindergartener and second grader, who have been begging me to let them try it. I’ve met so many amazing families who home school, have read so much about the benefits and been so convinced of the good it could do for our kids, but until now it felt 100% overwhelming. I thought there was no way I could continue to write novels and teach college if I taught the kids at home. But the other successes have taught me that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and yesterday the needed epiphanies came and I feel not only ready to tackle this but thrilled about the possibilities. It’s not definite yet, we could still change our minds, but I’ve committed myself to the goal of getting organized and prepared by July.

I know it’s March and not New Year’s. Maybe it’s a strange time to talk about goals. But to me, goals are an ongoing process of setting, working toward, conquering, and selecting the next. And in all my recent enthusiasm I couldn’t help sharing.

May you have an epiphany for every obstacle you encounter, may you meet every goal with success!

What do you think? How do you work past obstacles that get in the way of your goals? What goals are you excited about right now?

Leave a comment!

The Undoing of Things

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It’s New Year’s Day 2012, and I’ve been stuck dealing with a 2011 mess.

This is the view I’ve been tackling for the last hour:

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It might be hard to tell what exactly is going on thanks to that tangled mass of yarn, but the tangled mass is what’s going on. Or what’s going out.

I volunteered to crochet some hats for charity, and as I was working on the blue-and-brown one a few weeks ago, my toddler and preschooler had a little too much fun with the skein of yarn. I got to a point where I couldn’t even use the yarn anymore until I stopped to unravel it.

And the unravelling is taking forever.

20120101-143249.jpgSimilarly, on Friday I bought myself a desk out of the classifieds. It called to me the second I viewed it, after paging through hundreds of other desks, this one full of character and exactly the size and shape (and price range) I need to move my writing station off our kitchen table and into our basement.

But it wasn’t in much better shape than my skein of yarn. I spent all afternoon Friday sanding and staining until my right arm was so dead I couldn’t use it to even wipe my nose that night.

As I sanded, I thought about the undoing of things. I thought about how much I wanted to jump to the polishing stage, how ridiculous it felt to be taking the desk apart before I could put it together better than it was.

20120101-143157.jpgIn many ways the original desk seemed closer to being done than the sanded desk I spent hours on, as you can see in the picture of the not-yet-sanded drawer next to the sanded one.

And I thought how it feels that way with writing too. Sometimes it feels like I’m going backwards, undoing things in my story by deleting scenes and rewriting sentences. It’s hard to feel like that’s actually progress when I want to be at the polished stage.

I just have to remind myself that unraveling the story is essential. I have to sand it down until I’ve got everything in place, every piece ready to proceed.

Sometimes the undoing of things is the first step toward creating something better.

Soon I’ll have a ball of untangled yarn ready to become another hat. And as of yesterday I have a polished desk ready to hold a laptop, a printer, a manuscript binder, pens and scratch paper and all the other essentials, so that I can start 2012 off right, ready to be the year that I send off a polished novel to be published.

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The desk will still be the site of more undoing as I cut more scenes and trim more lines. But it’s all in the name of progress.

Sometimes undoing is what has to be done.

Aside

Revision is hard work. It’s just so difficult trying to pinpoint what is “off” and how to create the effect you want it to produce — the right images and moods and tension and so on.

But most of all, I think what’s difficult for me is pinpointing how each character should sound. Most of the time I can’t figure it out until I do . . . meaning I only know it once I’ve got it. So I struggle through every passage, mucking about in sentences until I’ve found a match.

Here’s one I came across today as I’m jumping back into revisions after a weekend off. It’s the kind that made me smile as I looked at the before (on my printed copy) and after (on my screen), because it shows I’m making progress. Hooray for that!

Dry, boring, lifeless passage with no distinct voice:

The adolescents had separated the moment they got to the beach, leaving Caprice to make a fast decision about which she would follow.  Phil had wanted her, of course, and she’d given him enough of a nudge to get started on a few drawings.  Wendy and Peter would have been an obvious choice, but Caprice found herself too jealous of Wendy at this point.

Sticky, fun, livelier passage with Caprice’s voice:

The adolescents had divvied up as fast as they touched the sand, forcing Caprice to choose whose shadow to be.  Phil had wanted her, of course, but she’d given him a nudge of what to draw and sent him along, in no mood for coddling.  Wendy and Peter were the obvious choice to stick by, but Caprice reeked of jealousy too strong to put up with herself near them.

As always, I’m sure I’ll be tweaking this more, but before-and-after shots definitely help me feel like I can do this.

That Elusive Thing Called Voice: A Quick Sampling

Let It Grow, Prune It Later: Writing More than You Need

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A few weeks ago I came across this tweet by my friend, neighbor and favorite author:

What? Shannon doesn’t keep every simile? She doesn’t craft them so carefully and perfectly that each and every one is a gem to sigh over?

I think that even though I know better, I’m often guilty of pretending that the way I read a book, from page one to the end, is the way the author wrote the book. After all, authors are so brilliant that the books just fall into their heads fully formed, right? An author whose use of language I admire must use language that beautifully all the time.

Ha ha.

Anyhow, I wanted to share her tweet today because I’ve been thinking of it a lot this week.

I’ve been rewriting “romantic” scenes in my manuscript, which I put in quotes because I really don’t want them to be the equivalent of romance-genre romantic scenes, just subtle teen romance where the angst and electricity is palpable between two characters, you know? And in earlier drafts, the emotion was lacking, so that’s what I’ve been revising for: adding more of the main character’s thoughts and emotions so that we can experience the fall into love with her.

The trouble is, my revisions aren’t so hot. They feel clunky and awkward and cliché. I have to keep reminding myself of the advice another writer friend gave me to “fearlessly write what she’d feel”; it’s amazing how much fear gets in the way.

What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of awful writing — to the point that the fear paralyzes me.

So Shannon’s tweet has been comforting. Maybe I have to overwrite first, explore my character’s emotions in whatever similes and descriptions I can get my hands on, not being too choosy at first. And then later on I’ll get to experience the joy of pruning: taking big ol’ garden shears to my manuscript and lopping off wayward twigs and branches to expose the best ones, until the wild growth of my novel is shaped just the way I want — and will look like it was always meant to be that way.

How much do you let yourself write more than you need? How much do you cut as you go?

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