On Revision

Continuing my thoughts on Stephen King‘s book On Writing (which began here), I would like to talk this week about revision. King says “I think it’s rare that incoherence or dull storytelling can be solved by something so minor as a second draft.” As with the previous posts, I have a different take.

I think revision can cure almost any ailment in a piece of writing (so long as there’s something worth saving about it, of course). Let me tackle the “dull storytelling” aspect with a specific example from my own writing (which will probably carry very little weight, seeing how little I have published, and with no way for readers to see the result of my current example at present).

I wrote a character who was completely lifeless aside from his sob story. This character was the only person in the story other than the main character for a good four chapters or so. My husband, on reading this part, said he hated this section of the book and wanted the character to die.

I love painful honesty.

I see painfully-honest criticism as the grit that eventually polishes a rough story. Rather than becoming dismal about it, and declaring the book a failure, I cheerfully wrote “Give Thibault a passion!” on a paper I wouldn’t lose and mulled it over in the back of my mind for that evening and the next morning. Then it came to me–a solution which would change everything, reverberating out through the whole story; it would increase the character’s presence in the first part, give him some way to contribute in the second part (and not just be a food-sink who endangers the main character), and would flesh him out into more than just a Person Who’d Been Hurt.

I believe revision can make all the difference–a flat character can gain a whole new dimension and change the whole story, all in “something so minor as a second draft.”

Saying “Do Such-and-Such EVERY DAY”

I began responding to Stephen King‘s book On Writing in my post last week, and here I go again.

I never understood authors who said they wrote (or read) a specific number of hours per day, every day. Perhaps I have a particularly undisciplined mind, but I do everything in spurts. I binge-read, tearing through a 500-page novel over the course of twelve hours spread over a few days. I binge-write, going several days where time melts away as I’m lost in my story. Then one day I need a break and I do something else while my creative juices recharge. I binge-watch TV, spending a whole day getting through most of a season of a show I like.

I typically binge-watch TV during unbearably stressful times. This habit originated not with TV but with movies, almost ten years ago during the darkest month of my life when I was almost 18–almost is key here–and I was removed halfway across the country against my will and left at my aunt’s house to keep me from the father of the child I was pregnant with. I was too distracted by my distress to engage in reading books–I tried, but my aunt had very different tastes than I did when it came to books, and besides, my anguish kept rising up and breaking me out of the stories. But movies–stupid, brainless movies that I would have never watched otherwise–could be turned up loud enough to drown out the awful racket of my despair. And my aunt had a portable DVD player and a wall full of DVDs. Thus, I mostly drown out the vast tracts of time in my imprisonment with a load of garbage.

I try to keep away from the garbage these days, though I do fall into it on occasion (less and less often, though, I like to think). But when life has done a good job beating me down, whatever the show is, it’s useful to sit and let the stress fall off me for a few hours before trying to focus on more important matters. Allowing myself to do this is my way of staying sane.

Writing takes a lot of focus, and focus is not something I can typically force myself to have. But when I’ve satisfied my need to relax and I’ve filled up on reading and feel ready to create my own story, dangit, I write with abandonment. Not a specific amount of time per day or a specific number of hours or words, but as long as the ideas are hot and I’m immersed in the story. The moment I pop out of the story, I step away, sometimes for only a few hours, sometimes for a few days, to figure out what popped me out, and how I might fix it. Otherwise–if I charge ahead full-throttle and force it to keep coming even when it’s clunky and unnatural–I’ll end up with large tracts of crap.

Time to think, letting the ideas simmer until they’ve matured, like leaving meat in a crock pot, is what allows me my most well-developed writing.

Perhaps that’s why it takes me so long to finish writing books. Or perhaps the blame for that can be claimed by children, my school, and my day job. Mental energy is easier to come by when I have some kind of free time.

Finally Reading Stephen King’s “On Writing”

Stephen King‘s book On Writing is possibly the most lauded book of writing advice (Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is also up there). Even so, I’ve been writing since I was eight, and I am only now–at age 26–getting around to reading it. (For recommendations on writing advice I have already pursued and liked very much, see Brandon Sanderson‘s Write About Dragon series, Donald Maass’s The Fire In Fiction [particularly the chapter on dialogue], and Jeff Gerke‘s book Plot vs Character.)

I have a lot of respect for Stephen King–he’s more successful an author than I’ll ever be. And this book does have a lot of good information in it, as well as plenty of fun narratives about his past (it is called a Memoir of the Craft, after all, as I failed to notice before reading the first several pages). I would definitely recommend the book to aspiring writers.

There are also things he says which I disagree with based on my loyalty to Brandon Sanderson’s thoughts on the same subject. For example, I don’t think plotting should be avoided at all costs–Sanderson does it tons, and his books are fantastic.

There are also things King says which, though I am a novice in the field myself, with only a single, measly self-published book under my belt, I have some objections to based on my own experience’s behalf.

You’re probably laughing at me right now. I’d have to be pretty pretentious to think I knew better than Stephen King, right?

And I’m not–not really; not quite. He’s obviously right in that his advice works from his perspective, from his worldview.

But what about for aspiring authors who don’t think the way he does?

But I’m sure you’re much more interested in what I have to say about specific suggestions of his rather than what I have to say about what I have to say about nothing specific. Right?

Stephen King says writers should avoid watching television. I call bull. Television was written before it was performed, and there’s a lot to learn from it–both from good and bad TV. Good TV can show you a well-laid character arc, engaging hooks, good timing, and snappy dialogue. Bad TV can show you bad storytelling devices you’d like to avoid in your own writing just as surely as reading a bad book shows you these things. Unbelievable dialogue which was obviously written with a moral agenda in mind is one I’ve noticed.

And TV is what drove home my pet peeve of cliffhangers. I realized they do not make satisfying endings, and satisfying endings are necessary for satisfying stories. I’ve come to view cliffhangers as the sledgehammer tool to force you to care about what happens next–in the next episode, in the next book. I appreciate a writer that doesn’t feel they need to club me over the head. Besides that, cliffhangers drive me batty when I’m only expected to wait a week for the next installment–most authors take 1-5 years between books. Do you want to leave your readers in suspense for that long? Wouldn’t it be better for them to want to read your next book because they care about your characters and what happens to them rather than because you haven’t yet given them a conclusion?

Sorry. As I said, it’s a pet peeve. I’ve thought about it a lot.

I am not, of course, saying that television has any business replacing reading as a means to learn the craft. After all, TV has a layer of separation between the consumer and the written word. If you want to deal in the written word, you need to get immersed in the words directly. Reading a lot is essential for writing well. All I’m saying is that television is not without its own merits.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on the matter! See you next time.

Hate Triangle

I don’t much care for love triangles. I find them tired. Sue me.

However, there’s a lot to learn from them. Interactions between just two can quickly become boring. Interactions between three can be complicated and messy enough to warrant a reader’s attention for the length of a book. And I realized recently that love isn’t the only thing that can be turned into a triangle. In fact, a few of my favorite books have included what I’d like to call “hate triangles,” where there’s not just the vanilla Protagonist vs Antagonist struggle, there’s an extra force as well. Extra-tagonist?

There are three forces against each other in Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. There are three forces against one another in Rachel Aaron’s Legends of Eli Monpress. There is a clear protagonist and antagonist, but there’s a third party in each which must decide whether to team up with one of the others or grind against both simultaneously. Spoiler alert! They typically decide the protagonist is the lesser of two evils to team up with and take the antagonist out. Then the protagonist slips away before the extratagonist can pin them down.

I feel called to introduce a hate triangle into my own writing, and I feel like I could learn a lot from love triangles to make it work out in an interesting, fun way.

Balancing It All

I don’t know how common it is for writers who are hard-core plotters to be so disorganized at real life, but that’s how I am. While I plot, write, reorganize, and then plot my next move in a story, my desk fills up with odds and ends, dust piles up in the corners of my house, and laundry slowly gathers on the bathroom floor and behind the bed. I have some level of OCD, where this drives me nuts, combined with laziness that keeps me from fixing it.

Or is it laziness? Cleaning up takes time. Time is something I haven’t had enough of lately, between cultivating the nerdiness and intelligence of my children, going to school myself, working an evening job, spending time with my husband, spending enough time on the care of my bunny that I don’t end up killing it, and trying to get some consistent writing and reading done as well. It’s hard to balance it all.

That OCD I talked about? It’s just strong enough that whenever I start working on something I get really obsessed with that thing, to the exclusion of everything else. There are times I ignore my family and just write the whole day. There are times I drop everything else and spend hours planning lessons for my children. There are evenings I research and research and research for papers. Cleaning just seems…less important.

Finding some kind of balance is hard. Lately I’ve been better about reading and paying attention to my brilliant children, at the expense of paying attention to my husband and editing as much as I ought to.

Plus Twitter. Twitter makes things hard.

People think it’s weird I don’t have a Facebook account. The problem is, if I got on at all, I’d stay on for hours at a time. Twitter, at least, has such limited space for conversation that I get bored and get off. Facebook doesn’t have that limitation. Conversations can be as long as I want. And that’s dangerous.

You know what I should do? I should plot my life. I should write an outline for my days, where I say what all I want to accomplish and check things off as I go. That’s something I’m good at. I do it all the time in my stories.

How do you deal with balancing it all? How messy is your life?

Floating Dream

All the world was blue and black, save for the brilliant white of the moon and the stars. There lay before her a glowing city, sprawled out with twinkling, blurred lights. She was too far from the city to hear it; the air was hushed, the only sound that of her dress lapping against itself as it trailed behind her. She wasn’t sure how far up she was, or how far she had to go. But as she turned her eye up toward the moon, it didn’t matter. She was beyond worry.

The beauty of the moon entreated her to draw near, and she, full of anticipation, floated toward it.

I Feel Rusty

I’m not sure why, but it seems to me that my fresh writing is a lot more raw than it used to be, say a year ago. I used to spend a lot more time learning the craft. I also used to spend a lot more time trying terribly hard to get into and then put up with critique groups. But I haven’t been doing that much lately, and so I think my craft has suffered.

Today I unearthed my copy of “From First Draft to Finished Novel.” I’m going to reread it, and all the other editing books I’ve collected through the years. I’m going to re-watch Write About Dragons. I’m going to re-read Rachel Aaron’s blog posts on writing more efficiently. And I’m going to post this for the world to see to make sure I feel pressured to actually follow through on these decisions.

Also, I’m going to not spend so much time on Twitter as I have the past few weeks. Because seriously, it’s been a bit much.

New Website!

I’m not sure why I didn’t get a WordPress site earlier. I’ve been hearing about it for a while, but I just haven’t tried it out till now. It’s really cool; I’m excited.

Basically I wanted something that could mostly be static, but if I have something to say (that I don’t want to get lost in the jumble that is Twitter) I could say it. And if I decide to do a sequential-release story that I don’t intend to publish traditionally, I can do that here, too.

Welcome! Thanks for dropping by, and I hope to provide you with much entertainment as time goes on.