Just for fun, today I thought I'd share what my manuscripts look like after I start the revision process. I'm only on chapter 2 (out of 13, plus epilogue), and this is the reason why. I don't re-draft, so this step makes up the majority of my editing.
I'm a big fan of banyan trees. Any trees, really, but banyan trees are so easy to climb that I usually can't resist. I'm trying to figure out how to get one to grow in Canada, but it looks like I'll have to find myself a mad scientist.
How much time do you spend writing, or thinking about writing?
My friend asked me that question a little while ago. We'd been discussing books and various gender-related tropes (yes, all my friends are nerds), and he said he was curious. When I'm at home with my other half, for example, am I thinking about writing then? What about when I'm on the train by myself, or at work, or in bed?
The answer is almost always yes. Writing thoughts have occupied the majority of my brain-time since I was at least twelve, when my friend and I wrote an enormous (and by that I mean multi-thousand-page, with concordances) alternate Star Wars universe. (With myself as a genius, pre-teen pilot, smuggler and Jedi who was friends with Han Solo, natch! Hush, don't pretend like you've never done that.)
When I wake up, I'm usually crunching on whatever I'd been working on before bed — in this case it's my 2010 NaNoWriMo and a urban fantasy-ish YA novel. At work, I'm either editing or writing (if it's between classes and I've finished my lesson planning) or thinking about writing (if I'm teaching and the kids are working independently on something). If I'm in the staff room and have some time, I'm usually online, talking about writing with my friends, and screaming inside when the bell rings and I have to go. Once I'm home, I catch up my other half and writing partner on anything that I came up with, and she gives me her new plot details or shows me the new grammatical rules she came up with for her conlangs. Then we usually take a break and watch an episode of something before planning or writing again.
Nearly all my significant connections with people have had writing at their core. Even if the other person isn't a writer, we still find ourselves talking about particular elements of books or films and what makes them work or fail — and this isn't just restricted to other women. The friend who prompted this post is both male and heterosexual, but we've had lengthy discussions about the gender binary and double standards in print and on screen. Just yesterday we spent the commute home discussing, in all seriousness, the tropes that make or break various Kamen Rider series. He was also one of my beta readers for this year's NaNo, and provided me with invaluable feedback.
Most of my friends now started out as readers of my work or writers of what I was reading, and have evolved into some of the closest, most intellectually intimate relationships I've ever had. It's so nice not having to justify why I'm up at three in the morning, tapping away on my keyboard because I just have to finish this scene. They understand when I skip a social event to stay home and write or brainstorm. Heck, most of the time when we meet up in person, that's what we're doing — sitting in a coffee shop with our laptops or notebooks, chatting away about our worlds.
As for me and the bestest, I'd say we spend a good three-quarters — at minimum — of our time on writing. We have a number of collaborative universes together, so we're always interrupting dinner with "oh hey, I got some new info today", or texting each other throughout the day with random character conversations or things that we've come up with. It's how we pass the time on long train trips, in queues, in waiting rooms. If we plan a movie night, but at the last minute one of us says "Oh dang, I got an idea and need to write now — can we postpone?" the other not only understands, but is excited! We've missed plays or films or been late to social engagements because some characters ran into a problem (a fight, a personal crisis, a plot twist) and we couldn't leave the house until we'd fixed it. When we were stuck on the bus back from Ise and I thought I would go mad from boredom and car-sickness, we worked on character and media details for one of our novels.
I have no idea what life would be like with a non-writer. I imagine a lot of patience and understanding on their part, with me feeling guilty half the time. I'm not sure it could work. Some people insist that their friends or partners share the same ethnicity or religion; me, I just need them to be passionate about the written word.
So what about everyone else? How much time do you spend writing, or thinking about writing?
Honestly, I wish I were a child or that they sold this shirt in adult sizes. Every time I see it I crack up with glee (and, you know, a surplus of maturity *cough*).
The new year (a major thing here in Japan) and the start of the final academic trimester means I haven't had as much time for creative endeavours as I'd like. If I'm not attempting to coax my unheated apartment to a temperature higher than the inside of my refrigerator (not exaggerating!), I've been working on lesson plans and semester overviews and the usual mid-year performance reviews. I've kept myself sane by working on creative things in my head (I'm almost never not thinking about characters, plots, etc.), but that doesn't translate well to visible content.
I have, however, begun editing this year's NaNoWriMo novel during my down-time. Armed with a hard copy of the novel, a multicoloured pen (red for small on-page edits, blue for continuity, green for larger notes-to-self on changes that can't be fit into the margins) and five colours of highlighter and sticky notes (pink: changes, blue: continuity, green: plot, yellow: character/dialogue, orange: major changes), I'm diving in to the glorious world of revision.
Confession: I actually like editing. I love wrangling struggling prose into something workable, finding continuity errors and fixing them, slashing my pen through weak scenes. It's like playing "Where's Waldo" or those "I, Spy" books, except instead of tiny men in striped shirts or sixteen trumpets, I'm rooting out all the things currently dragging my book down. Instead of despairing whenever I come across something that needs fixing, I'm just glad I (or one of my betas) found it.
It helps that I have a system, which speaks directly to my rather compulsive mindset. In a separate notebook, I note the changes made on each page of the document (in the appropriate colour, with the appropriate sticky), so I can quickly skim through and cross-reference my edits. ("Page 18: cut redundant explanation of Cris' botany project, as per continuity note on page 3") I probably look absolutely insane, but it's good to have a reference, and filling the pages with visible changes also gives me a visual barometer of my progress, which is much more satisfying than a word document.
This is a slow process. I check each page for continuity errors, character motivation, dialogue problems, world-building, and places that need expansion, and each sentence to make sure my prose is tight and as free of weak words as possible. Here is my Editing Hit List:
- 90% of the time I find the word "was", I reword the sentence to get rid of it. I hate weak phrasing, and copious "was" sentences make for mushy prose. I replace them with action or description instead.
- I don't have an all-out vendetta against adverbs; I believe they can be used well, but it's often just as effective to cut them and add description instead. Sometimes I reword, but often I just cut redundant ones that somehow crept in — J.K. Rowling's "Harry shouted angrily" comes to mind.
- Generic Dialogue
- My characters' dialogue should sound like it belongs to them. If the scene is expositional or plot-forwarding, sometimes I slip into "author-voice". These get reworded immediately.
- Generic Voice
- None of my characters' narration should sound like a newscaster. If they're twelve, their narration shouldn't sound like an adult. I don't go overboard with the quirkiness, but I do try to keep them individual. Why have four narrators if they don't bring something new?
These are the immediate edits I make right there on the page. I do my best to tighten my prose (without going overboard; my writing style is not minimalist) and make sure I'm not just telling the reader what they're "supposed" to see.
After I've gone over the technical details, then I move on to the bigger picture:
- I'm very guilty of this. The plot demands that Character A have a certain skill in order to move onward (accuracy with firearms, for example); eager to move on, I write in a quick justification and go on my way. Except that by the end of the story, Character A just so happens to have 5 or 6 of these little skills that end up directly relevant to the plot. Since I don't like my characters to be the human equivalent of Q's Bond Gadget Stash, I have to backtrack and figure out which of these little skills to integrate, remove, or work around.
- Sometimes it's as minor as a physical description that changes without explanation, or a character's name that I forgot and subsequently changed (in this draft, one of the characters is either a polygamist or I didn't remember I'd already named his wife). Sometimes it's little things like repeating a metaphor I particularly enjoyed, or doubling up on exposition. Other times it's larger plot elements that directly conflict. The thing with NaNoWriMo is that it doesn't leave much time for reflection and in-process continuity checks, so I tend to find a lot of these.
- Dropped Threads
- During NaNoWriMo I often introduce a concept, character, or plot idea only to abandon it almost immediately. Sometimes I forgot that it existed; sometimes it wasn't that important to begin with; sometimes I genuinely thought I'd followed up on it, only to find out it's all in my head. Either way, at this point I make a note and decide whether to work it in through the rest of the story or get rid of it.
- Are the character's motivations clear? Does it make sense what she's doing? Does it directly contradict something he said earlier? Has the character changed from the beginning of the story to the end, and if so, is it clear this is character growth and not just sloppy, inconsistent writing? Also, if the narrator is unreliable, here's where I need to make it clear. If Character A believes his actions are impeccable without any moral quibbles, I need the reader to understand that this is his belief, not the story's. I don't want the readers thinking I think Character B is a saint when he's really an opportunistic sociopath just because he does.
- How's the speed of the scene? Does it leave the reader wondering what the heck just happened? Or does it crawl, getting stuck on minor details or description or wandering because I didn't know what happened next and hoped that just writing would lead me there? (This happens more often than I'd like. I always figure it out, but then I have a lot of middle bits to cut.)
For each scene and subsequent chapter, I check to make sure that it …
- forwards the plot
- doesn't derail on a tangent unrelated to the rest of the story
- isn't redundant
- wasn't written because it was 3a.m., it was NaNoWriMo, and I realized if I just expanded on a particular tangent then I would reach 1,700 words and I could finally go to bed
- makes sense (see above)
During this whole process, I don't go back to my digital document to make any changes. It's too soon to tell if I'll introduce new contradictions and continuity errors, or if something I'm noting now gets explained later, etc. Only when I've finished the entire hard-copy draft do I get to go back to my computer and start changing things. After that, I read it over again to catch any typos or sneaky weak words that infiltrated the rewrite, ship it off to my betas to make sure I didn't miss anything, and I'm done!
It's a crazy, lengthy process that eventually starts eating my brain and destroying my soul a little bit, but it's insanely rewarding at the same time. And since I refuse to let myself edit the text document piecemeal, I don't get stuck in "editor's hell".
I haven't finished a novel in a long time so it's been a while since I've gone through this process. I'm looking forward to it, and enjoying the 18 or so pages I've done so far. If, in a month, I start to lose my mind, please remind me that I said this. ;)
I'll give Japan this: it's done wonders for my crowd-phobia. After the crushing mess that is attempting to visit a famous shrine between January 1-3, I don't think a Canadian crowd will ever faze me again.
The sad thing is, none of my photos accurately portray just how insane the crowds were.
I enjoy Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf, and that quote quite aptly sums up my feelings about the days before diving in to the revision process.
It's the beginning of 2011, which means my one-month cooling-off period after finishing my 2010 NaNoWriMo novel has finished, and I'm officially allowed to look at it again. I spent the last month torturing myself by wanting to open it and just tweak that or fix this, based on feedback from my reviewers or my own thoughts, but I held back.
Now I've passed my self-imposed wait date, but I'm hanging back for a few days until I hear back from some of my first-draft reviewers. One of them gave me updates as he went, but the others are going to send me lump feedback once they finish. Once I get them back, I'll go through them, see if any of them agreed upon a particular problem, and weigh the rest: immediately agree, waffle, or immediately disagree. If it's the second, I'll let it sit, but if it's the third, then it's time to think about why I'm knee-jerking so badly. Is it because they've managed to offend me? ("Your main character sucks!") Is it because they've missed the point? (I had someone in a critique group convinced that my spaceship was a metaphor for the womb, and read the entire story through that lens. Those edits weren't very helpful, to say the least.) After I've looked at why, the I'll decide whether to listen.
I've talked before about too many cooks spoiling the broth (or, in Japanese, too many ship captains driving the boat into the mountains), and I don't plan on taking every suggestion. But I still want to see them, to find the ones that I've missed, because I forget that the story in my head isn't necessarily the one that makes it onto paper. Sometimes I forget to put in a vital plot point because I know about it, so it slips my mind to write it down, and that's the hardest one to pin down for myself because I'll be convinced I must have written it somewhere.
At the moment, I'm chewing my nails waiting for them to get back to me, half in anticipation and half in terror and agony. There are things I know I did horribly — one or two much too convenient skills for my characters to have, rationalized awfully because it was three a.m., and it was NaNoWriMo, and I'd fix it later, for example. There's a giant character and plot resolution that I forgot to mention. But I know there are going to be ones I had no idea I'd done, character motivations that don't mesh, world-building that isn't clear, and goodness knows what else.
I plan on having this baby edited and ready to go by June, and actually expect it will be done sooner. I don't plan on writing a full third, tenth, or seventeenth draft. This offends some people, who think you need to slave over a novel for a decade in order to have any sort of writer cred. If that's what works for you — and you produce finished, salable novels — then fine, but for most people I think that's silly, and what's more, that's a good way to ensure you will never, ever finish your novel. Your writing style will change, so the longer you take on revision, the more unrecognizable the discrete parts of your book will be. As Holly Lisle said, this will not be the best book you've ever written; it just needs to be the best you can write right now.
I'm terrified and exhilarated, and I can't wait.
One of the biggest customs in Japan is the 初詣, or the first shrine visit of the new year. Any shrine with even the remotest significance gets heavy traffic in the first three days, and I chose to visit the Grand Shrine in Ise, which is the cornerstone shrine for the shinto religion in Japan. I'll spare you the photos of the elbow-to-elbow crowd (though you can see them on Flickr) and instead leave you with a pretty one.
Okay, so this is more than one photo, but I just got back from my vacation. Sue me. Okinawa is gorgeous, so I'm torturing myself by only choosing a few.
Fukushu-en, a gorgeous garden in Naha. I could've stayed there all day.
Carved pavilion roof in Fukushu-en.
Gyokusendo Cave, including the "Dragon Stalagmite", supposedly the most beautiful stalagmite of its kind in Japan. Man, I don't even know.
Furuzamami Beach. This beach is entirely made of coral. I actually have bruises on my ankles from the surf tossing the coral against my legs.
The bay as seen from Takatsukiyama Lookout, the highest point on Zamami Island.
Baby hermit crab! I like hermit crabs.
The beach on Agenashiku Island, an uninhabited island near Zamami Island.
Surf on the rocky side of Agenashiku Island.
I tend not to make a big deal about life resolutions because mine are stunningly boring (case in point: this year's include "eat breakfast" and "wash the dishes EVERY DAY, not just when you start using blank CDs as plates"). Last year's was "take more photos" — with over 13,000 photos sitting in my hard drive at the moment, I'd say that one is done and DONE. However, writing resolutions are something I take a bit more seriously.
Last year I didn't make any. I'd moved to Japan on my own, not as an exchange student this time. I was still trying to get a foothold in my new job as a full-time high school teacher. I had a nightmare coworker of doom. My creative voice had sputtered and died. My one accomplishment in 2010 was this year's NaNoWriMo, which I actually finished, and which I think has potential!
This year, though, will be better. Because I say so.
- blog lots, and consistently
- Yeah, that. I have friends-only online journals, but this is the first real attempt at public, themed blogging.
- send out stories for publication again
- Pretty self-explanatory. I did it before Japan, but I've gotten lazy since moving here.
- edit this year's NaNoWriMo novel, "Hell in Half a Parsec"
- This was the first NaNo novel to escape the "NaNoWriMo Curse" — November ends with the story unfinished, and I never touch it again. This year's was finished (on December 1st, even!), and I want to get it fixed up and eventually start shopping it out.
- write the first draft for book 1 of my joint YA urban-fantasy-sort-of best-friends-having-hijinks series
- My coauthor and I have been planning it since 2008. Time to start writing it!
- And on that note, title the series. Yeesh, guys
- start the actual first draft for my joint reformed-emo-guy-and-sparkly-pretty-boy-are-friends-and-eventually-fall-in-love story
- This one's been in the works since, oh gosh, 2006 I think. I love these characters, and I've written tons of short stories for them, but I want to work on their actual novel. I don't have to finish it this year, but I do want to make headway
- This one also needs a title. *facepalm*
- kick-start a stalled project: "Lucky in Love", a fairy tale
- It started as an assignment and morphed into something I really liked, only to screech to a halt at 13,000 words. This is a giant flashing "DANGER WILL ROBINSON" sign that I've gone horribly wrong somewhere, and need to tear out a few thousands words to get myself back on track. I want to figure out where.
- play in fandom again
- Okay, so this isn't a Srs Bsns Writer goal, but writing fanfiction is fun, it's low pressure, and I don't care what people say — if I hadn't written fanfic, my writing would be so much worse today! Plus it's shorter, so I can feel the accomplishment of finishing something.
Nothing particularly lofty, and I refuse to set a wordcount-for-the-day goal — every time I try that, it's been a miserable failure. I figure setting project goals is better for my sanity, and more realistic as well.
Happy New Year, everyone!