Archive for the ‘Self-Help’ Category

Day 21 total: 3,041 words      Total: 64,682/~23,500 (in progress)

Two big goals yesterday: working on the first two chapters of Act II, and reworking the outline for the last half of the novel. When I made some big decisions about the character arc, it ended up more or less invalidating the original climax of the story. At the time, I decided not to worry too much about mapping that out in detail. I just tried to finish whipping Act I into shape and get an idea of how Act II would progress.

Now I think I have an equally dramatic, less byzantine, and somewhat more satisfying conclusion outlined. In addition, I think that the plot twists I discarded for this manuscript can serve as the heart of a sequel. You know, just in case. 🙂

On a lesser note, I went back into a couple earlier chapters and added or replaced a few paragraphs of setting-oriented material. This had the effect of hopefully making several scenes both less generic descriptively and more exciting. This is a process I plan to continue throughout the drafting stage. For other writers, it might work better to lay out the setting in exhaustive detail before beginning to write. For me, all I ended up with in the past was large setting documents full of details that were interesting to me as facts but not tied clearly to characters or stories. So I’ve gone with a broader picture that I’m filling in as things suggest themselves to me. The risk with that approach, I’m guessing, is inconsistencies in the manuscript.

So far, Scrivener has been very helpful in tracking this process. I’m hopeful that by using meta-tags, I’ll be able to  identify all the instances where I’ve referenced a key character, location, or concept. My current plan is to review the manuscript on a weekly basis and do some book-keeping to keep those tags as up-to-date as possible while highlighting or resolving discrepancies that arise (depending upon how readily a solution presents itself).  I always have some days where I feel blocked on the story front and that would give me a useful task to pursue while staying engaged with the story as a whole.

Hopefully these posts are remaining somewhat lucid as I plow forward. It’s amazing how tiring this whole manuscript process is. I hope that one builds up endurance with writing the way you can build up physical endurance.

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Day 18 total: 5,076 words      Total: 57,669/~17,500 (in progress)

I tell you, if I had just done one draft of every chapter without revising anything, I’d finish the whole novel in 30 days! Well, probably not, though it feels like it some days. And I’m pretty sure I’d end up with a manuscript I couldn’t bear to read through afterwards, because that has happened before with a shorter effort.

Anyway, yesterday I got a lot done by one set of metrics, not so much by another. Once again, I probably need to learn how to revise my chapters without rewriting things wholesale, but usually what happens is that I look at the earlier draft for a bit and a bunch of changes suggest themselves and by the time I get started moving bits around and reframing scenes and so on, it’s just easier to start writing from scratch.

Nearly done with all the revisions I wanted to do for Act I. Reworked one chapter that I had originally planned to skip and probably should have in the interest of forward progress, but it was one of those things where I was reviewing the narrative leading into the following chapter and I felt inspired by a few ideas.

Act I is probably going to come in at just under 15,000 words at this point; the higher total given above is my estimate of what I can salvage from chapters that got cut from Act I but have content that is likely to show up later in the newly reconfigured storyline.

Today promises to be quite full with family activities and household chores, so I’m not sure how much I’ll get done. At least I have an idea of how I want today’s scenes to go, so hopefully I can hit the ground running. Sunday, if all goes well, I’ll finally be charging into Act II. Then will come the real test of whether I’ve learned to write first and then revise or if I’m still stuck in these habits of going through three drafts of a story arc sequence (two-three chapters) before pressing on!

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Three-day total: 10,265 words      Total: 51,328*/? (see below)

Well, I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve hit a block and been unable to work around it with much success so far. Not a block in terms of getting words down, because I’ve been averaging over 3,000 words a day.

The problem is the number to the right hand side of that slash up above. My net total is actually decreasing because I keep reworking the first Act of the novel. I wrote three versions of the Act I ending, gateway chapter called for in my original outline before I realized that I just can’t make it work without hand-waving too much in the way of common sense. So I scrambled frantically to replot on Monday and then start revising/rewriting chapters to fit.

I’m now on target for six chapters in Act I instead of nine, and though the chapters have gotten a little longer, it’s still looking like perhaps 15,000 words total instead of 20,000.

I also got into a bit of a funk because I just don’t feel like my current writing does a good enough job of transporting the reader to another time and place, which is a key function of a fantasy story. This failing is partly due to the fact that I haven’t focused as much on thinking through all the little details of the setting for this effort, choosing instead to focus on character and story.

So right now I’m bummed. I can still say that this process has been useful because it is forcing me to write and work on story with an intensity I haven’t approached in many years, if ever. But I am less convinced each day that I’m producing a real novel manuscript. This inability to let go of flawed beginnings and sustain my personal faith in a novel through to the finish has dogged me before and I am afraid that I’m going to let myself down again.

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Today: 3,821 words      Total: 32,600*/21,776 (see below)

*Revised based on some recounting and recalculation. Basically, the Excel worksheet told me I had the wrong total when I plugged in all the numbers. 🙂

I think yesterday went well. I rewrote the majority of Chapters 1 and 2, shortening them in the process. I had wanted to avoid rewriting on such a scale during this stage, but when you (a) make a significant change to the main character and (b) realize that your characters should be traveling by ship in the early chapters rather than by caravan, changes must be made. They may call camels the “ships of the desert” but it’s remarkable how little carryover there is from one set of descriptions to the next.

I’m also almost through revising Chapter 3. There were substantial rewrites there, but also blocks of text that I could keep in place. Some of the biggest changes have been cuts to the length. I’ve shaved 1,000 words off the first draft of the chapter so far and I think it reads better.

At this point I think that I will be combining Chapters 4 and 5 in addition revising and making some cuts to each. Then Chapters 7 and 8 need to be cleaned up, though if I’m down close to my total word count goal of 20k for Act I, I’ll be less concerned about handling that bit of business at this stage in the process. As for the Prologue, I’m not touching it for now, which technically means I’ve still got those 2,000 words available to cut if the Prologue disappears down the road. By its very nature, the Prologue doesn’t impact the immediate storyline in Act I, so I don’t feel the need to square it away before moving forward to Act II.

Anyway, as a result of all this, my total writing word count for the project window has gone up, while my net word count for the manuscript has gone down again. It’s odd seeing those two numbers moving in opposite directions during this phase. I think it’s all productive and part of the learning experience, however. Not wanting to cut or shorten scenes is a natural feeling, particularly this close to their creation. In the past I would have seen that I’ve already ditched 1/3 of my total output as a depressing sign.

But my perspective is starting to change. Finding the determination to make these cuts in the service of larger goals (clarity, continuity, marketability) is somewhat liberating. As is being able to bounce back from a bad day or two and forge ahead. For the first time in a long time, I feel as if I’m gaining control of my own writing process. I just hope that I can build up a discipline that I can carry through into a daily routine once I have more challenges. On the other hand, I go through a fair number of “dry periods” as a freelancer. Even being able to use those more productively to pursue my own goals would be a big step forward.

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Day 9 Recap

Today: 4,097 words      Total: 24,228

Got through Chapter 7 and the bulk of Chapter 8. Coming up to the end of Act I, the “doorway” (to use Bell’s term from Plot and Structure) that the protagonist passes through that commits him to a new set of goals and challenges. A quick assessment of these chapters reveals that a fair number of the scenes could be taking place on a stage with no backdrop or scenery; they are largely dialogue and action. I do have some ideas in mind for key elements of the architecture I’d like to describe, so that’s something that I’ll need to add in when I revise.

I’ve noticed that when the writing begins to flow for me, the aspect most likely to be missing from the end product is description of place. This is no surprise, but just something to be aware of after these sorts of writing days. When the writing is a bit more of a slog, I’m more conscious of what I’m doing and I tend to take the time and effort to add more descriptive details of the environment. I suppose the takeaway is that there are positive aspects to both “good” and “bad” days at the keyboard.

It will be interesting to see if I’ve dumped too much expository setting info into some of these dialogue exchanges. It seems believable to me right now in the context of the conversation and I prefer to work it into dialogue rather than just have it sit there in a narrative paragraph, but I have a nagging feeling that when I read it over again some of it will feel forced. That’s really where having additional readers of the manuscript will help identify things that are escaping me.

On a similar point, I felt as though I had enough chapters in hand to create a chart displaying the word counts per chapter so far. It was very illuminating. (I find that after dealing with words all day, it’s very helpful to visualize parts of this process and activate a different portion of my brain.) After my big structural revision, I do seem to have achieved my goal of writing shorter chapters. But there are a couple big exceptions, and those chapters tend to have a slower pace to them. I’m not experienced enough or removed enough from the manuscript to know if these longer chapters will derail the pacing for the reader or if they will act as useful breaks, stepping down the momentum slightly for the reader to regroup before moving forward again. I have tentatively split one other long chapter that didn’t match the pattern of the others. Now I’m thinking it might be an action sequence that runs a little long, without a clear breaking point to use to increase or decrease the tension. It’s just hard to know how this will read when it’s fresh to someone else’s eyes.

That’s the sort of insight that comes from the combination of experience and feedback, I imagine. It’s hard to resist the urge to show this material to some of my trusted friends and colleagues right now. I’m blessed to have some great resources in that area: three professional technical writers, a creative writing student, two self-published authors, a couple university professors in the humanities, and a couple more people actively writing and submitting speculative short stories. These are all people who care about words and writing.

But in the past I’ve jumped the gun and shown people work that was either very rough or that never got completed. This time I want to hand over something that reads from start to finish, even if it reads in a flawed way. Today I’m hoping to wrap up the first Act and then perhaps take time to revise the earlier chapters so that I have a clear idea of what has been established in terms of character, plot, and setting before I jump into the many chapters and twists of Act II. It’s a pretty sure bet that I’ll have jury duty tomorrow, so that might be a good day to pause and reflect, review my outline, and make some notes so that I can jump into Act II with renewed focus. But first, grinding out Act I.

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Today: 2918 words      Total: 20,131

Finally got back on track in terms of making forward progress on the novel. Completed Ch 6 and got about halfway through Ch 7. Once again I got a sizable chunk of writing done in the evening before bed, so no blog update in the evening. I’m not counting a couple pages worth of handwritten scenes that I wrote in the car while waiting for my son’s piano practice to end, mostly because it’s a pain trying to estimate them! Hopefully I’ll be able to transfer those passages largely intact to the computer when I sit down later today. I can tell there’s going to be a lot of editing to do down the line with some of these chapters to craft them into a story that has the little nuances of character and setting that make great speculative fiction come alive.

On the other hand, I think I’m achieving my main goal of learning by doing. I’ve spent far too many years sitting around pondering the writing process rather than putting words on paper (or pixels on screens). I’m starting to gain confidence in my ability to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different scenes and note ways to improve them. That’s a big deal for me, as in the past I’ve often rewritten material without a clear set of goals in mind to guide the process, leading to endless recursions and little progress.

I also remind myself that it’s highly unlikely that the first novel I write will measure up to many of the fantasy and science fiction novels that inspire me when I’m writing. Those novels are generally the products of talented writers who honed their skills over time with a lot of prior publications. Everyone has to start somewhere. I don’t mind aiming high, but I’ve made the conscious decision to keep certain elements of this story, like point of view, fairly simple at this stage until I learn more about what I’m doing.

Finally, I’m learning more about how I react emotionally and physically to the process of writing intensely for myself. For example, in the past, writing right before bed has made it hard for me to sleep. Last night I listened to some very soothing Brian Eno music from the albums Ambient 2, Apollo, and Pearl during the last portion of my writing, then took some time to stretch before bed. The combination helped calm my mind and led to some peaceful dreams. I think I’ll try to stretch along to the music the next time I’m in this situation. I’m also coming to realize that I can’t work out as hard physically as I’ve been doing lately while also trying to write. Physical activity and exercise is very important for emotional/mental balance and well-being, but I have a limited reserve of energy to burn. So I’m going to try to dial back my routines a bit and incorporate more dynamic stretching and core work to compensate for all the time spent sitting and focused.

Heh, here I am writing as though the completion of this novel manuscript was a done deal. Based on my past efforts, it is no such thing. Based on how I feel right now and upon the steps I’ve tried to take to gain more control over the process, however, it seems like more of a possibility than ever before. As always, we’ll see.

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Day 7-Recap

Today: 1202 words      Total: 17,213

Yesterday my main focus was completely rewriting my outline for the novel, chapter-by-chapter, based on the new starting motivation for the main character, some revisions to character arcs, and a reevaluation of some of the political circumstances within the setting and how they would affect interactions between certain factions and characters.

This was a lengthy process, taking several hours. I reworked some scenes, put others in the discard folder (where I can check back on them later), and added a dozen or so new ones. I also reorganized everything into a clearer chapter format and added keywords to every chapter, noting what characters I planned to have appear as well as locations.

The Keyword function in Scrivener is a nice way to add metadata labels to a larger project and quickly sort through the instances where those appear. For example, I am now able to track all the chapters where I expect different characters to appear and get a quick list. Same thing for locales. This has already been helpful. I noticed that I had one key character appearing very little in the early portions of the book, even though he was available. I felt that this made his later actions have less emotional impact for the reader, as they wouldn’t have built up any views on this character beforehand. Looking back over my outline, I saw places where he could be inserted without any problem. In fact, I think his presence will liven up a few scenes.

Along the same lines, I discovered that I had a couple locations that will appear more often than I realized over the course of the entire novel. So I need to visualize and describe those places with a bit more clarity.

As I complete the first draft, my plan is to add further metadata tags associated with key concepts or aspects of the setting that need to have some consistency. For example, I want to describe the different cuisines of the city in an interesting and consistent way, but it isn’t a focus of the story and so such details could be easy to overlook. By tagging Food, it reminds me that this is something I wanted to look at and lets me quickly reference all mentions of food in the story when I come around for the next draft. I’ll probably have some similar keywords for architecture, religion, and so forth. We’ll see how that all works in practice.

I’ve also made an effort to outline shorter chapters on the whole, with the hope that this will help me maintain pacing. In addition, I’ve put in a brief note at the end of many chapters that I call a Kicker: this is a twist, plot revelation, or threat that appears at the end of the chapter to help provide a dramatic endpoint and help propel the storyline to the next chapter.

As far as actual writing, I got that done in the evening, which is why I had no blog post yesterday. I polished up the ending of Chapter 5 and got about halfway through Chapter 6. Not my best writing, but it can be hard to tackle big-picture planning and individual scene quality in the same day, at least for me. Hope to get back on track today after two slow days in terms of overall progress, but I have a lot of chores on my honey-do list.

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