Category Archives: writing

The more you write, the more ideas you get.

 

pen-and-paper

I remember reading the excellent book On Writing by Stephen King sometimes in 2009, when I had just moved state-side with my husband. And I remember feeling so pumped up and excited to start writing something, because the great Stephen King said that ANYONE could write a story, they only had to start.

So I sat down with my pen and paper, already thinking about printed books and glory and fame… and I hit a wall. I had nothing to write about. My mind was blank. Not a single interesting story idea to be found anywhere. But I wanted to write! So I grabbed the first half-baked story that had the misfortune to wander into the spotlight and tried to run with it. The run quickly became a walk, then a crawl, and finally it died in horrible convulsions. That was my first effort at becoming a writer and, as you can see, it was not a very successful one.

Then in October 2013 a good friend of mine told me, “Why don’t you try doing NaNoWriMo with me?” I looked at the site, I read the rules, and I decided why the heck not? But the last disastrous foray into the land of writing was still fresh in my mind, so I was rather freaked out to just start on November 1 and write 50k in 30 days. And I still had NO IDEA what I would be writing about! Needless to say that the closer that first of November loomed, the more stressed I got.

And then a miracle happened. Around October 15, one a character literally barged into my dream, knocking the door down with his military boots, and said, “Ok, you will write this, and you will write it now.” I woke up with a half-formed idea, three fully-formed characters and an almost feverish need to put pen to paper and get story out, because it was burning me from the inside. I spent the last 15 days before the start of NaNo frantically outlining the story, I hit the month of November running, and I didn’t stop running until I finished the first draft around January 15.

During this exciting journey, I learned a lot about writing in general, as well as what worked and didn’t for me (outlines are a must – I can’t pants it for the life of me). But something even more extraordinary happened in the process as well – all of a sudden, my mind was bombarded with stories clamoring to be told. I was writing one, and at least three more were knocking more or less politely at the door, waiting for their turn. Where I had suffered from lack of things to write about back in 2009, I was overwhelmed with possible ideas now. It was like the trickle had transformed into a downpour!

hourglass_parchment_quill_cover

I now have a list of stories I want to write, and it’s getting longer every month. I must admit that it’s exciting. I am in the middle of the first rewrite / edit of my NaNo novel, and I have a finished short story waiting for a second rewrite, but I am also writing a brand new story that might turn out to be a novella. And I have enough plots for at least two more short stories set in the same word as another short story I just started sending out to magazines. Not to mention, another half-written novel I really want to go back to, because I have finally figured out the outline for it.

I guess it is true what everybody says – the more you write, the more you discover stuff to write about. It’s hard to start the ball rolling, but once it’s on the move, it gathers all sorts of interesting things along the way.

Editing my novel – first steps.

Editing woes

 

My big adventure as a writer started November 2013 when I attempted to take advantage of NaNoWriMo to write at least part of my first ever novel. I plowed ahead and even won NaNo with a nice 55k word count. My novel, however, was only halfway done. So I persevered. I applied butt to chair for the whole of December (well I made a break for the holidays) and half of January, until I had finally put THE END on my manuscript. I ended up with a 100k word brick and an immense sense of satisfaction. I did it! I had finally finished something. For the first time ever. Yay me!!!

So I put my first draft in a drawer and busied myself with writing a couple short stories. That was also fun and challenging in a different way than writing a whole novel. When you have a very limited amount of words to tell your story, you have to be a lot more careful about the choices you make.

Short stories were also my first serious attempt at editing a piece into something good enough print (still working on that, first story is on version three so far). I had tremendous fun editing and rewriting them, trying to see if I could tell my story better.

But now I am faced with the 100k brick that is my first draft, and I must admit that the task of editing it is daunting. I mean it took me two weeks to tweak a 5k words story well enough to be able to send it to my critique group, how long would going through THAT many words take me? I admit that I am terrified. I have been circling around this text since beginning of March, unsure where to start.

I even sent it to my wonderful beta who had been there with me every step of the way while I was writing the darn thing. I think she sensed my rising panic, because she advised me to break the story into manageable chunks, to re-outline my novel now that it’s finished, breaking it into scenes, and go from there. That’s what I have been busy doing for the past week.

I must admit that this advice was invaluable. Not only do I have a clear Excel spreadsheet with every scene making every chapter, but I also have a better understanding of what is going on in my story. I now know how the events unfold and link to each other. And I already see a few problems that need fixed. I didn’t notice them when I read through the manuscript before, even though I felt that something wasn’t quite right.

So now that I have that clearer picture, I can start working on my plan of attack. Hopefully, I will manage to make my novel better (and not get paralyzed by fear in the prospect of the cheer volume of words I have to edit).

But this is the first lesson I learned about editing a novel – a detailed scene by scene outline is a must.

The process is ongoing, so stay tuned for more!

A Newbie’s reflections on editing

Editing my short story.
Toss and rewrite.

As far as editing is concerned, I am what the gamer world would call a total “noob”. I have only started seriously applying butt to chair since October 2013, and so far I have a finished first draft of a novel and two short stories to show for that. So I have minimal experience with editing my work (even smaller than my experience in actually writing it).

However, I started this blog not only to share my thoughts and opinions on books and shows I like, but also to track how I progress and evolve as a writer. So based on editing two short stories and finishing the re-read of my first draft, I have made several observations about my writing process.

So far, when I sat down to edit both of short stories, I ended up keeping about 10% of the original text and rewriting everything else. When I noticed that, at first I was depressed, because I felt bad for all that time I wasted writing the first draft only to toss most of it away. But then I started analyzing the differences between the draft and the end product, and the result was not as abysmal as I had thought. Yes, I had tossed 90% of what I had written, but the bones of the story remained the same – the plot stayed in those 10% that were left in its entirety. So I got the structure of the story right the first time around, but it’s the presentation that needed reworking.

Doesn’t that realization make you feel better instantly? I know it did for me. I didn’t waste that time writing the first draft. I put the skeleton of my story together instead. And those scenes that I tossed and rewrote? They served a purpose too. They showed me that first setting / event/ character reaction that came to my mind didn’t work. If I hadn’t put it down on paper and re-read it, I would never have noticed that. Guess what, that made me think of a different way of telling the story. And if the critiques I received on Critters are to be trusted, the story only became better because of that.

And now I am faced with the daunting task of taking the first draft of my novel (which about 95k works longer than my short stories) and trying to make a decent story out of it. I must admit that I am scared: if I have to toss and rewrite 90% of the original, that would be about 90k words. That can potentially take me A LONG time. But I have learned one thing from the short story editing exercise and the read through my draft – the plot is there, the characters are alive and their POVs are visible, so the “bones” of the novel are solid. Now I just need to make sure to flesh it out and dress it in Sunday’s best before I let it fly into the world.

J. K. Rowling or why telling a bestselling writer to stop writing makes no sense.

I know I am jumping on the wagon way too late, since this article had been posted on February 21st, but I have some thoughts on the subject, so I decided to post them anyway. Hey, this is my blog, so I can do whatever I want in it, right? Wait, where are you all going? Come back!!!

Ahem, back to the subject at hand. I think the idea that bestselling authors somehow steal readers (and thus money) from less known writers by publishing new books is absolutely preposterous. More than that, the reasoning is flawed.

Would I buy a new book by J. K. Rowling? I would read the synopsis first, and if the story interests me, then yes of course I will. But I would do that with any other book as well, regardless of the author. Granted, seeing a big name on the cover would incite me to pick up the book and actually look at the synopsis more than a name I don’t know. Does that mean that bestselling authors sell more books? Yes, definitely. Does that mean that by doing so they steal money away from less known authors? Heck no!

No author, no matter now prolific, can publish more than one or two books a year. Even an average reader goes through at least 12-20 books a year. And a book junkie like me usually goes through at least one book a week (because I still have a full time job, a family and my own writing which chip away at my reading time). So after I am done with the latest Rowling, King or Scalzi (those should have kept me occupied for about a month), will I just sit on my hands and die of boredom the rest of the year waiting for their next book? Of course not! I will go on a hunt for more books to read in the genres I like.

This is why I love Amazon with their neat feature called “Customers who bought this item also bought”, or the recommendations page on Goodreads. I discovered many fabulous authors by browsing through those recommendations, opening each book and reading reviews and synopsis until I found a book I wanted to read. And if I happened to like a book by this new author, I would look for more of his or her books to read.

My point is, if this – if this bestselling author hadn’t written a new book that I read and liked, I wouldn’t have gone looking for something similar, and I would never have discovered a lot of new fledgling authors that I love and follow now.

Bestselling authors shine a spotlight on the genre they chose to write in and attract more readers who might have been unfamiliar with that genre before. And this is good news for everyone, readers and authors alike.

Back to our example, J. K. Rowling wrote a crime novel. Even if only one third of her followers bought it and liked it, chances are they will want to see what other crime novels there are out there, and they will not wait for Rowling to publish a new book. Instead they will go and browse the crime section on amazon or their local bookstore / library. Chances are, they will pick up Lynn Shepherd’s novel next, or the first book of another new author, boosting their sales.

So instead of telling those bestselling authors to put their pen down and retire, we should encourage them to explore more genres so that everyone could benefit from the publicity.

Also, a good writer can never retire, because writing is not a job but a way of life. Telling them to stop writing is like telling them to stop breathing – rather impossible to do.

The Shadow Hero – Severus Snape

At the beginning of this month, I had started a new series of posts about literary (and movie) characters I really liked and the reasons why I liked them. If you are interested, here is my first post about Doctor Who. I would like to continue this series with another famous character that I dearly love – Hogwards Potion Master and spy extraordinaire Severus Snape.

severus snape

I need to warn you now that this post will contain SPOILERS for all seven books, so if you haven’t read them yet for some reason, proceed at your own risk.

Alright, this warning out of the way, let me explain why I love this character so much. I think it’s because he is so complex and has such hidden depths that even the author didn’t suspect until she started writing him. I also think that Alan Rickman fit into this role perfectly in the movies, even though his Severus Snape is a lot older than the one in the books (who, after all, was only 38 in the first book).

Everything in the books is seen through Harry Potter’s eyes, and he takes an instant dislike to his taciturn Potion Master, so of course everything Snape does will be painted in negative light. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Severus Snape is a miserable bastard. He is bitter, angry and full of self-hatred as well as hatred at the world in general, and the way he treats Harry or Hermione is simply inexcusable.

But let’s set aside his horrible personality and consider his actions instead. In the first book, he does everything to try and protect the Sorcerer’s stone and he spends most of the quidditch match muttering counter spells to prevent Harry from falling off his broom. In second year, he is responsible for brewing the potion that would save all the kids that had been petrified by the basilisk, including Hermione.

I think that we see the true mettle of that man in book three though, when he rushes out of the castle and into the Shrieking Shack even though it’s the night of the full moon and he is about to confront a werewolf that almost killed him once already. He doesn’t hesitate though, because the lives of three children are in danger. The image bellow shows it perfectly well – even when faced with one of his worst nightmares, his reflex is to defend the children, even if that means die a horrible death himself.

Always protecting students, even those he hates.
Always protecting students, even those he hates.

I like Severus Snape because, even though he is a profoundly damaged man, he is also a man of honor and principles. He basically sacrificed his entire life to bring the downfall of a madman and thus to repent for a mistake he had made when he was barely out of his teens. He became a double agent, despised and distrusted by both sides, friendless and alone, with nobody to turn to for comfort. He was asked to do unspeakable things for that cause.

I can’t even imagine what the last year in Hogwards must have been like for him, when he had to play the role of the Death Eater Headmaster and bear the scorn and open hatred of his former colleagues and students. Yet, he made sure that none of the students were permanently harmed, even with two clearly unstable Death Eaters on the premises. Not to mention that Harry would never have gotten the horcruxes destroyed without his timely help. No, I am certain that without Severus Snape and all the sacrifices he had to make, Lord Voldemort would have won and Harry Potter would have been the boy-who-died… along with many others.

And even though I don’t buy into the idea of Snape’s undying love for Lily Potter as the driving force behind everything he had done, I can’t help but admire his extraordinary force of character. He truly is the greatest shadow hero of this book.

Character-driven narrative

I admit that I am not a seasoned writer. Heck I started writing seriously only since mid-October, and all I have to show is one finished first draft of a novel and one short story. But I have already started planning my next novel, and I have ideas for several other short stories. So I guess the person who encouraged me to start writing was right – the more you write, the more ideas come to you.

But the point of today’s post is not about my writing experience or lack of thereof, well not entirely. I have read somewhere that writing is the never-ending path of self-discovery, and I agree with that statement. Even with my very limited experience, I have already discovered one fundamental thing about my writing – it is character-driven first and foremost.

As far as I can see all my stories, even the gazillion unfinished drafts, started with one or two characters. Usually, I see them in very vivid details, sometimes even with background stories, and then I have to try and build a story around them. One of my good friends once told me, “Think about where you want your characters to get, both physically and emotionally, and then build a story to accomplish that.” That’s the best piece of advice I have ever been given.

For example, Of Broken Things was born when one of the characters literally barged into my sleep, sat down and said “Listen, you are going to write this…” The initial idea was very simple: what would happen, if a super-soldier fell in love? And if the person he cared the most about was taken from him?

So in the beginning I only had one character with his set of problems and priorities. But then I had to think about what kind of woman would a man like that fall for? She would need to be truly exceptional… And that’s how Cassie came into the picture and took the spotlight. Then I started writing my outline, and all of a sudden private investigator Aiden Stappleton came out of nowhere and highjacked the whole of Act 1. But even with all that, ultimately the story was still about the super-soldier and the consequences of his actions.

Working on Of Broken Things showed me that I like writing about characters. I like putting them in difficult situation and watching them change in order to overcome obstacles. Story and setting are important, but only as a catalyst for character change.

This realization made me take a good look at the books, movies and TV shows I like. Just as I thought, they are all character-driven. The author could have created the most beautiful world with the most complex society, thought about how the magic works and what Gods his people worship, but if the characters walking this world fail to interest me, I will probably put the book down before I reach the end. Setting and world building doesn’t interest me if they don’t influence the protagonist and make him or her evolve in some way.

I think discovering this particularity about my writing is a big help against writer’s block, because now when I feel stuck in my writing, I know that it’s probably because I lost sight of my character’s development somewhere along the way and made them do something very out of character.

On editing – did I really write this crap?

When I was in the middle of the first draft of my novel, I ready many blog posts about writing, first drafts, rewriting and editing. I read somewhere that first drafts sucked, and that you were lucky if you kept about 10% of it on the rewrite. I remember thinking this can’t be true! That would be absolutely horrible and heartbreaking to spend months putting one word after the other just to have most of them end up in the dust bin.

Well, once I finished my first draft and put it in a drawer to marinate until I come back to it in February, I decided to distract myself by writing a short story. It was set in a completely different world than my novel and it was fun to write… Then I decided that before I could dive into editing a 100k words manuscript, I should probably try and tackle a 4k words story first, just to see what it entrails.

I read my short story with a critical eye and realized that it had all kinds of inherent problems.

First of all I was so focused on putting the story down and fitting it in a short story format, that I didn’t give my main character a chance to say anything. Basically, it was like I gagged her, tied strings to her arms and legs, and marched her down the story like a brave little puppet. She did all those wonderful deeds and never got a moment to tell the reader why she did them or how she felt about them.

Then I noticed a second problem with my story. My heroine encounters an old dying werewolf and, after hearing the creature’s story, takes pity on it and puts its soul to rest. Well, the werewolf’s story frankly sucked. A woman scorned by a man who turns into a monster and destroys the entire village where the man lived? Including innocent women and children who had done her no harm? No way in hell my character would empathize with a monster like that! But the fact that she connected with the werewolf and understood her pain was important to the story. The conclusion was – the werewolf needed a better story.

 Editing my short story.Editing my short story.

So I sat down with my printed short story, lots of spare paper and a blue pen and went to town: changing, adding, crossing out and rewriting. In the end I think I kept maybe 5% of the original first draft, everything else had been drastically rewritten. I think the story is better now, but that still a lot of words that ended up deleted.

 

This also kind of scares me when I think about the 100k words 350 pages monster waiting for me in my desk drawer. If I have to rewrite my novel just as drastically, it will take me months to accomplish this.

Of Broken Things – first draft finished.

Last night, I crossed a very important milestone: I finished the first draft of the novel I had started in November 2013 for NaNoWriMo. For me, it is a huge accomplishment, because I have never actually finished anything before.

Sure, I have plenty of stories that I had started and abandoned after a couple chapters, when I got bogged down by plot inconsistencies, couldn’t see my characters clearly or had no clue where my story was going, or simply got bored and went off to write the next shiny new thing. But not this time. This time I stuck with it, through happy moments when words flew onto the page faster than I could write them down and moments when every single word seemed to cost an ounce of my own blood. I stuck with the story, with the characters and I brought it all to a satisfying conclusion.

The feeling is… exhilarating, electrifying and a bit scary. I have done it. I finished something. I proved to myself that I am a writer, that I can tell stories from beginning to the end. That’s the exhilarating part.

The scary part is that I am entering uncharted waters now. I have never finished a draft before, so I have no idea how to go about rewriting and editing it, and what steps to take to transform it into a book it deserves to be, a book that I wouldn’t be ashamed to send out into the world. It feels like standing at the entrance of a labyrinth with no map and knowing that you have to navigate through it to the other side. It’s kind of paralyzing.

So I need help and I need advice from everyone who has been in my shoes and had already tackled the editing hurdle. Where do I go now? How do I even begin?

Frist Drafts woes and wonders – rebelling characters.

Image

NaNoWriMo is over and done, but at the end of it I still had an unfinished story on my hands. So I had decided to keep up the good habits I picked up during November and write every day. I set my goal to 1200 words per day, which is about 800 words less than the mad rush of NaNo. I managed to stick to it so far, so my manuscript is now at 68k words and I would reach the end of Part 2 after one more chapter.

 This feels really good, to see this story finally taking shape on paper. I have never stuck with a story for so long and so consistently before. I have never written so many words before on one story either. The feeling is… exhilarating. If feels like an accomplishment. Even if my story is only two thirds done, even if I still have at least a long month of bleeding words on paper in front of me, I feel like having a small celebration. Like I passed a milestone or something.

But this is not what I wanted to discuss today. No, I wanted to talk about characters and all the marvelous things they do to advance your plot and sometimes totally mess up your carefully laid plans and nicely detailed outlines.

 When I wrote Part 1 of my novel during NaNo, my main character Aiden was a good sport and went along with almost everything I had planned for him. He rebelled only on the small details. So we really had a peaceful and productive collaboration during the month of November.

 Then I wrapped up Part 1 and moved to Part 2 which follows another character. I knew that I was in deep trouble from the get go. This character has a mindset very different from my own, so getting into his head and writing from his perspective was like reformatting my brain with a screwdriver – a slow and painful process. And as if to add to the suffering, he decided to fight me every step of the way. All my carefully-laid plans for Part 2? Out of the window. All the shiny scenes of romance and conflict I thought I would write? Scrapped and disposed of. He was having none of it. It was going to be his way or no way at all. So for fourteen chapters now I have been in a state of panicked wonder – how will he manage to change my plot this time?

 But you know what? I am just one chapter away from finishing his arc of the story and looking back at it, I must admit that what he did is much better, more in character than anything I had in mind.

 So my question to you all is how often do your characters rebel against your plans? Do you go along with them when they do? Does it turn out better when you do give them free reign or worse?

NaNoWriMo 2013 – on wining and what I learned from the experience.

2013-Winner-Facebook-Cover

As of this morning, I have won NaNoWriMo 2013 with 50021 words. What a strange and wonderful journey that has been!

When I made the decision to participate in NaNo, I thought that the goal of reaching 50k in one month was frankly unrealistic for me. I had been writing on a story for over a year, on and off (mostly off), barely managing 100 to 400 words per session. How was I supposed to get 1667 words per day on paper? But I decided to give it a try, especially since another story came to me beginning of October and just wouldn’t let go. I am glad I did.

What NaNo taught me is that I can sit down every day and write. That 1667 words is not that much, all things considered. Most of the days, I averaged about 1800-2000 words, with only two days where my word count was under 1600 but still over 1300.  So lesson number one – I can do this if I stop making excuses. If I want to be a writer, nothing stops me from being one but my own insecurity and procrastination.

Lesson number two – there is no such thing as writer’s block. The story is not going to write itself while I sit around and wait for inspiration. Only words on the page push the story forward, no matter how horrible they seem to me or how painful they were to come up with.

Lesson number three – you really need to love your story when you  set out on this big adventure, or you will get discouraged and abandon it. I had days, especially during Week 3 when I switched to a different POV, when it felt writing was like pulling nails. I was tired, I was starting to loose steam and my new character’s POV was very different from my own, so inhabiting his head was like trying to reformat my brain – painful. But I sat down and powered through it all, because I love my story, I love my characters, and I want to see them safely to the end.

Now that the big rush to the finish line is over, what I am going to do? Well I will continue working on my novel, because at 50k words it’s only barely half-way done.  And now that I know that I can write that much in a month, there is no excuse not to finish the manuscript before January.

So that ‘s my next goal.

What about you? What are you all planning to do with your NaNo novels?