I get up at 3:30 am to write. Well, I get up at 3:30 because I can’t write. I want to see if a few hours of sleep have exorcised whatever demons have been keeping my muse at bay.
I start something – an article I’ve been promising an editor for three weeks. Two sentences in and it’s already a failed piece. I put that in the drawer marked “Brain Hurts. Try Again Later.” Next: another promised piece, a pitch already accepted, an editor waiting. I do a bit of research, track down a couple of links and as soon as my fingers hit the keys, a magnetic force field takes over and I am unable to type a single word. That unfinished piece gets put in the file marked “Unable to Conclude. Come Back Again When You’ve Had More Sleep.” Frustration sets in. I have plans! Ideas! Phrases that would kick Ernest Hemingway’s ass. I just can’t put them all together. It’s the level of hell known as Writer’s Block, the level that Dante himself probably never knew. All he had to do was keep adding levels. He would never run out of ideas as long as numbers still went to infinity. 1,248,474th Circle of Hell: Bronies. Work on editing and rewriting the Great American Novel. File unfinished edits under “Outlook not good.” Realize that this morning is becoming an infinite series of failures. Sit and wonder how other people can not only come up with clever ideas day after day, but act on them, finish them, make them look effortless. Drink coffee. Drum fingers on desk. Sigh a few times. Type random words. Watch the Weather Channel, determine that yes, it is cold outside. Play a game of Word With Friends and decide to use some of those words as writing prompts then realize I don’t even know what the hell “qi” means. Turn on the tv, but Viagra infomercials don’t provide much fodder. Hey, there’s Joe Theismann selling prostate pills. Again, no writing fodder, but great twitter joke material. Wonder what other writers are doing at this ungodly hour and picture some haggard looking guy poised over his keyboard, wearing nothing but boxers and a coffee-stained shirt, suddenly remembering Hemingway’s adage to write drunk. Eventually he passes out, head on desk, drink in hand, not a single word written. I decide to forego the 4am beer. Fuck Hemingway, he’s been nothing but trouble today.
When I first started my novel, I did so many years ago, under the guise of NaNoWriMo (this was the third of fourth NaNoWriMo). I didn’t have the luxury of planning the novel out because when you’re trying to complete a book in 30 days, time is of the essence. So I just wrote.
I didn’t finish the 50,000 words in thirty days. In fact, I didn’t finish until last year. But I still wrote in first draft mode: write, write, write, edits be damned, everything be damned, just write it out.
First drafts are a holy hell of a mess. Now, thanks to my awesome editor, I’m fine tuning and doing things that probably should have been done from the start. I know a lot of you are writing novels as well (isn’t everyone?) and maybe these exercises can help you.
1. Character bios.
My editor had me write a bio for each character. Not just their history, but little tidbits about them as well. What do they carry in their pockets? What are their prized possessions? What are their favorite words? As I wrote out each bio, I found out more and more about my characters. I was able to go back and fix dialogue and rewrite entire paragraphs based on what I learned by writing the bios. Your characters are ALIVE. Their personalities will form as you write, but writing out a bio for each them goes a long way toward getting their words and actions and motivations right the first time. Had I done the bios before I started writing, I’d have less rewriting to do.
Sketch out a timeline of events from the opening word to the very end. This is really important for structure. Writing out the timeline made me see how many structural changes I had to make to the story. I have to move whole chapters or rewrite some based on the timeline I made. The act of writing it out made me see where I screwed up in some places and where additions needed to be in the story.
Make a list of all the important places in your story, from houses to stores to whatever. Describe them in detail, even details you won’t use within the story. Write out how your characters interact with these places. It will make it easier to write the action that takes place within and give you a better feel for the locations your characters live/work/play in.
Maybe most of you do this already. I’ve probably gotten it backwards. But doing these three things has helped me tremendously in moving my story along and getting more words - not extraneous words - in. They also gave me a more intimate knowledge of the people and places I’m working with. A lot of the story and dialogue kind of wrote itself after I completed these tasks.
Also, have a good editor on hand. Can’t emphasize that enough. You need another eye to see the things you’re missing.
Back to writing.
My editor friend has started in on my novel.
He tore it up. Which is what it needed. While the story itself is good it has many flaws. Hey, I never wrote a novel before. I usually deal in short stories. So there are a lot of things that need work.
It’s weird to have someone take something you spent a few years writing and tell you all the ways in which it needs to be re-written. It feels personal. But I didn’t take the five pages of notes as hard as I thought I would. In fact, I was kind of excited to read all the ways in which I can improve the story. And I’m excited to get started on them.
I have homework assignments. I need to work on my character development, my dialogue , the structure and - my achille’s heel - my mixing of tenses. So it turns out the
first second draft is just a skeleton on which I need to add flesh and muscle.
So much work ahead of me. But instead of being down about all that is wrong with the novel, I’m taking this as an opportunity to learn how to really write one.
And if this is all I’m talking/thinking about for the foreseeable future, I pre-apologize for having such singular thoughts here. But this novel is my third child and I must nurture it, feed it, clothe it and raise it right. And that will take everything I’ve got.
Thank god I don’t have to send it to college.
A dear friend who was an editor of science fiction novels in a previous life has taken up the grand task of editing and helping me rewrite my novel.
I’ve been putting this off or barely working on it for a year now and the agent who was interested in working with me is still waiting for the rewrite.
It’s a hard thing to spend years working on something, feeling the euphoria of completing it and then basically starting over it with it again. But that’s what writing a book is all about. Rewrites. When you finish writing a story is when you really have just started writing it. If that makes sense.
I know this is going to be brutal and emotional. I’ve invested so much of my time in these characters and their personalities and surroundings that they are a part of me and I understand Kirk is going to perform surgery on all of it, but it needs to be done. And I’m ready for it.
I am going to publish this novel. I don’t even care if the only people who buy it are family members. I am going to get this published.
The initial story is done. Now begins the long, hard road to the next draft. And the one after that. It’s going to be a lot of work and this is where all of my writing time will go for the foreseeable future. I’ll have no time for anything else. I’ll have no brain for anything else. I am going to cry, I am going to scream, I am going to sigh with relief at some points as problems clear themselves up. I have no idea how long this will take but I’m going to get it done and get it done right.
I’m excited. Sure, I’ve got a little bit of dread in my at the prospect of maybe losing a character or changing my words, but that’s what editing is all about. That’s how you build a better story. But it’s so nice to be excited about this book again, to pick it up and turn it over in my head and work on it and get it into shape. It’s nice to be excited about writing again. It’s been so long and I think the entire reason I haven’t been able to write in so long is wrapped up in the fact that, with an agent waiting, this should have been my top priority and I was just too overwhelmed to start the process and it kept me from doing anything else.
I’m fortunate to have a friend with professional book editing experience be so willing to work on this with me. When people believe in you and what you’re doing it makes it easier to get off your ass and do it. And of course, believing it yourself and your ability to get it done goes a long way.
So here goes. Years of writing and story building and plotting and more writing are about to get scrutinized and turned into something better. And I couldn’t be happier or more motivated. I’m going to make this agent say “This was worth the wait.”
I’ve got this.