Category Archives: Writing

Shelving Automaton

Years ago, I embarked on an ambitious quest: Make my 1920s clockwork-meets-Frankenstein novel ‘Automaton’ into something I’m not embarrassed to have people read. I planned to accomplish this via Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise Your Novel” (HtRYN) on-line, self-paced course, and started the manuscript’s transformation from sad lump of coal to shiny diamond. Sadly, it was a slow-motion disaster.

First, the book was fatally flawed—the MC was a passive kite, tugged to and fro by every ally and villain who entered the story. Stuff happened to him, but he never had any agency. I wrote one hundred and twenty thousand words of him bouncing from location to location, never making a decision of his own. The book is excruciatingly boring.

The second, third, fourth, and a few other lessons from HtRYN required a full read-through, most of them requiring that I take notes about people, objects, settings, plots & subplots… it was a Sisyphean undertaking. I was nearly crushed under the weight of it all.

By the time I had gone through the first fourteen or so lessons of HtRYN, I had produced more pages of notes on my novel than I had pages of my novel. One of the last lessons I finished directed me to create a “revision outline,” which was supposed to help me re-use my existing scenes, rewriting portions of them as needed. I was to color code these scenes on index cards, with each color representing how much “new” work I expected to do for each of these scenes. I ended up with eight “blue” scenes (I’d have to rewrite at least 75% of the scene to pull it into line with my desired revision), and over seventy red scenes. The red color meant I was writing entirely new material, with no previous work to base the scene on.

My revision outline was essentially a plan for an entirely new novel.

I haven’t touched the manuscript since about a week after my last blog post on the topic, so very long ago. The notes and marked-up manuscript just sit there, taunting me.book-406806_1280.jpg

I’m tempted to burn it all.

With some time away from the manuscript, I’ve learned a couple of things. First and most importantly,I have to push character motivations and conflicts to the foreground of each scene. She must want something and be working toward it. People and events have to be preventing her from accomplishing those goals, most of the time at least. Secondly, I need to stop “pushing through” as they encorage you during National Novel Writing Month. I need to be excited about each scene at some point; if I’m not—if it’s a dud and I’m bored while writing it—then I need to figure out what’s wrong then and there.

Another thing I learned was that I need to plan a thorough outline, one that I’m excited to write, one that uses character motivations to push the story forward, and personality flaws to make them stumble. Without that detailed map (aka: an outline), I’m too focused on the logistics of getting characters from a to b. And that makes for some really flat story telling.

So you’re unlikely to see much more about Automaton in the future. Sorry if you were hoping that it would come to something (I know I was). I’m going to work on some character designs, write some flash fiction to see if I can bring those characters to life on the page. I’ll be seeking out advice and lessons on how characters create and drive plot, and I will avoid fleshing out any idea that doesn’t have a compelling personality at the center of it.

I’ve wallowed in that disaster of a manuscript for long enough; it’s time to apply what I’ve learned.

It’s time to start making better art.


A revival, of sorts

Wow, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it? The intervening year has not yielded any appreciable progress on my Automaton novel (more on that in a later post), and I’ve discarded dozens of writing related ideas on account of my not being any kind of authority on authoring; it seems bad form for me to be doling out advice on writing at this stage.

But today I have decided to refocus the Ambiguous Antecedent. There will still be posts about the editing lessons that I’ve been slow to pick back up this last year, but I’m also going to cover things that I hope are helpful to those who are on a similar path to my own. I’ll be trying out a variety of topics, ranging from grammar tricks that I’ve learned, to my growing awareness of sexism in the spaces I hold dear, and a range of things in between.

Stay tuned.


Lesson 2

About a week and a half ago (that long!?) I finished lesson 1 in the How to Revise Your Novel course work. I’m terribly far behind. While it’s not uncommon for lesson 1 to take a month or more, the lessons are doled out once a week. I’m now about 22 weeks in. The whole course is effectively within my reach, if I want to peek ahead, but I’m determined to keep focused on what’s in front of me, and that is Lesson 2.

 

Lesson 2 requires that I read through my book for the second time, but now I’m looking for “promises” that I’ve broken to my (entirely theoretical) readers. These promises take the shape of objects or minor characters, who by the way they’re introduced/described, carry far more weight than I intended them to. They look, to the reader, like something that’s going to recur in the story, or that’s going to be used in a key point later, while looking like window dressing to me. To do this, I assign points to descriptors for each character or object as they’re being introduced for the first time, and then weigh that against a scale that tells me if I’ve over done it, or sometimes even under-done it.

Also in there are examinations of how strongly or weakly I introduced the handful of truly main characters that I have. Around page 100, I introduced a main character of my story, who sticks by my real main character for the rest of the book.

I’m moving quickly through the lesson, as I don’t apparently describe that many objects or introduce a lot of main characters for ten to twenty pages at a time. Not sure if that’s a good thing.

My feelings on the quality of the lesson are mixed. There are some very specific examples of how to score each thing at first, but the further along I get in those explanation, the more muddy the scoring gets. At one of the very last categories of scoring, related to the unusualness of the number of an object, the example is so muddled with other kinds of points-earning description, that it’s unclear what the ‘number’ of that object contributed to the tallied score. Imagine that a character enters a room, and there is a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting in a chair, staring at the entrance. That might score as a significant object that you’ll have to do something with later. But it’s completely unclear what I should add if there were 3 identical dummies in the same kind of arrangement. Or 10. Or 100…

This might not be a big problem if the scale by which these things is judged was more expansive as the scores increased, but it’s not. Typically, 15 is the number at which you just stop counting, as there’s little point to continuing to add numbers at that point.

I do, however, see the value in the lesson, and the scoring. It’s a potent technique for revealing what might catch a reader’s attention, so that I can evaluate if it should have caught their interest.


Progress report: The half-way mark

I haven’t done much on the writing front these last couple of months. I am planning a big post-wedding party thing that may be the death of me. I’m also finally recovered from a nasty cold that had me lying on the couch for about 4 days, and feeling generally crappy for a handful more before and after that. But last week, I re-started my stalled attempt at getting through Lesson One of Holly Lisle’s on-line novel revision course. I’ve been averaging about 12 pages a day (weekdays only), and have just reached a mile-stone: I’m 50% of the way through my manuscript. Here’s what that looks like:

281 pages down, 280 to go!

 


Nothing to see… moving along

I’m finally at page 100 of my first pass through Automaton, about four days later than I’d have liked. I think this mostly has to do with my being past the part of the book where I was still finding my story. Sixty pages where two mostly boring people acting like stars instead of the supporting cast that they’re meant to be, while my main character has very little of interest to do but to observer and sometimes to react. Oh, the agony!

But all that is past. Now I’m almost one fifth of the way through my manuscript, and about a quarter of that was done today!  I know it’s going to bog down later, but I’m finally at the part of the story that I care about, and it’s all a big romp from here on out. Whee!

For the next month or two, there aren’t going to be a lot of updates since my current page number will be all I have to report.  But I promise to stop by from time to time and comment on something, even if it’s completely unrelated to writing.


Editing Automaton

I’m just beginning to edit Automaton, but I thought I’d give you a peek at Holly Lisle’s system, and how I’m using it.

The bottom ring binder is my manuscript. You can barely make out some red squiggles in the left margin of the left page. Those are a code that tells me which page in my notes to go to in order to see what I had to say about the passage of my book at that point.

My notes are in the ring binder above my manuscript, as you have no doubt guessed. The notes are worksheets that ask particular questions regarding my story, most of them are “what went wrong here, and why?” though a couple of them are set aside for noting what when right.

At the top, stuck to my magnetic marker board, is a flow-chart, reminding me not to just look at my plot problems, but also to consider characters, world building and other aspects that I’m supposed to be taking notes on. There are five categories, so it behoves me to address them all as I go, rather than running through my story five times over. It’s quickly becoming clear to me that I just need to remember what the questions are; I don’t really need to follow the lines through the process, since most of it is: Read; find something to note; mark it in the manuscript, flip to the correct worksheet; write your thoughts down; if more pages are to be read, continue at the top. It was helpful at first to see the whole process, but it’s actually pretty simple.

My biggest issue is that I’m having to not just read, but to look for specific issues while I’m reading. I was never any good at picking out the plots of stories in my English classes in high school, and I think the focus I bring to bear on stories is partly to blame for that. I enjoyed reading, and didn’t necessarily want to pick apart a good story. Now however, I think I am enjoying seeing the structure of stories, of noting how I might have changed the particulars of someone else’s work. It’s educational, and kind of fun, like seeing back-stage at a theater production.

That’s it for now. I’m on page 18 out of 561, so I don’t know if there will be many in-depth thoughts to share while I work on Lesson 1 of How to Revise Your Novel.

 


Chapter One, Page One

Since last you heard from me, I was in the midst of NaNoWriMo. Between then and now, I got back to my life, while still devoting a few nights a week to finishing that book , which I did in early March. Solomon’s Key (working title) finished up just north of 110,000 words, and while I felt kind of disappointed with it, but I did finish. Perhaps next year I’ll read it and consider if it’s worth salvaging.

That was all just prelude to what I was really looking forward to doing: editing the previous year’s project, “Automaton”. The first thing I did was to run spell-check, which I had turned completely off while I was writing. I don’t mind telling the world that I’m a bad typist (there are likely typos lurking in this very blog post), but sweet zombie Jesus did checking 120,000 words take a while! Three evenings of constant clicking and looking up words to make sure I was choosing the right homonym or puzzling over an odd series of transposed and accidentally doubled letters. And don’t get me started on trying to find words that I thought I knew how to spell, but which didn’t show up in any of the dictionaries I searched through. I can’t for the life of me remember what that word is, so I guess I’m doomed to misspell it again, but I do remember that it started with an unexpected letter. Maybe.

But enough about spell checking! The big thing I did recently is to print out the entire 120,000 word manuscript. On paper. Like it’s 1985, all over again! Yeah, baby, yeah!

As a standard manuscript format (double-spaced, 12-point font), it ran about 561 pages, which I printed front-and-back. It still comes out to be a huge stack of paper.

Manuscript

I can't believe I wrote the whole thing.

I didn’t just do this to see how many trees I could kill – I did it at the behest of Holly Lisle. See, the other major step I took toward learning to write was to finally enroll in Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise Your Novel” on-line course. Lesson 1: Read through the entire manuscript, making notes about specific passages and how they failed in the categories of world building, character development, reader interest, etc….  She has a whole system for noting down your observations in one place with only a minimal cross-reference mark in the manuscript itself. I’ll be doing this for the next 561 pages; so far, I’ve done 3.

Her system appeals to me, though I am only seeing the tip of the iceberg. I feel like Daniel, washing Mr. Miyagi’s cars and sanding his decks, though I’m not about to throw a tantrum (I am only 3 pages in, after all), nor am I being bullied by karate hooligans.

Since I’m only just getting started, I can’t judge how successful it’s going to make my editing process, but I’m sure I’ll learn a huge amount over the course of the next several months. Check back over the next few months as my understanding of HtRYN grows. I’m sure this is going to be helpful though. I love me some organizational tools and methods. This you will no doubt learn as you read my future blog entries.

Looking at that stack of paper, I feel odd abandoning my beloved Scrivener during the editing process; it was designed to be an excellent tool for that purpose, and I’ve been looking forward to using more of it’s potential. But instead of ignoring the directions of my instructor, I’m going to be good and follow instructions. Hardly anything of the process has been revealed to me, and until I’ve been through it all, there’s no point in wasting brain power trying to supplant the tools I’m supposed to use with the one I want to use.

Once I’m done with the course, I’m sure I’ll already have adapted the system to Scrivener, and will be ready to use my new skills in combination with the best electronic tool for writers since the word processor.

Until then, I hope to keep you appraised of my progress.

Wish me luck.


Can’t write; I’m doing NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo 2011 participantI’ve been remiss in updating the blog, and there is much that I’d like to write about, but I just haven’t found the time. Also, my inner editor is relentless when it comes to the blog. Hopefully, I’ll get over that sometime soon.

In the mean-time, admire my awesome 2011 icon. If you’re a participant, click on it to be taken to my author page on the site and say, “Hi!”


A Cart with no Horse in Sight

For as long as I can remember wanting to be an author, I’ve struggled to focus on my journey, rather than my destination. I forget the feel-good aphorisms about the journey being the worthier part, or it just doesn’t seem to resonate with me. Maybe that’s because I don’t feel “worthy” of any part of authorship. But there is a way of putting it that makes more sense to me. It’s a statement of fact shared by every published author whose blog covers the topic, rather than a piece of advice you can follow. In one form or another, they all say, “you have to enjoy writing to be a writer.”

Well, if you’re like me, then this bit of wisdom will elude you from time to time. Just like every kid who was ever in a garage band, most people who try their hand at novel writing (or hope to get to it some day) have this image in their head of a successful author sitting on piles of money with adoring fans lined up around the block at book signings. I’m no exception. Day-dreaming about my as-yet un-earned mega-success is a favorite form of procrastination from writing.

Of course I know better than to write to become rich and famous. Not only will I probably never be a professional writer, but fame and fortune are supposed to be a by-product of chasing your own shooting star. Focus too much on what you’ll do when you find it, and you probably never will.

My dream is to have a book published by a real publishing house, complete with an editor who argues with me about cutting chapter five. But that’s just one carrot to reach for. Scratch that, I hate carrots. That’s just one cookie that I’m reaching for; there are so many reasons to write.

I want to hear enthusiastic things from my friends, like “When are you finishing the next one?” or “May I become your wealthy patron?” But even that won’t get me through months of first drafts, and many more of revision. Every published author tells me that I need to forget about what is trendy now, or what seems to be a profitable genre, or how much money the movie deal might make, and just write the books that I’d like to read. And while that advice has it’s own pitfalls, I see what they mean.

I’m going to be pouring my heart out ainto a story for upwards of one hundred thousand words, and then cutting them and writing more for a ungodly number of hours sitting behind the keyboard. If I don’t get something out of that experience, then I might as well stow my metaphorical typewriter on the top shelf and get on with another hobby.

Luckily, I do enjoy the actual-writing bit. It’s kind of a thrill to think up the next chain of events, and the struggle to keep my self pointed toward that next touchstone. There’s a certain quixotic joy in typing some really awful dialogue, knowing that later I’ll cut it with a feral, some might even say “crazy” grin on my face.

This isn’t to say that I’ll have a grin on my face the whole time. The fun can fade as you keep trudging along through what feels like necessary drudgery to set up the good bits. But I’m learning a little more about the craft every time I put hand to keyboard, and overall it is fun. If I’m not lining up words, one after the other, I feel like something vital is missing from my week.

Which brings me to Automaton. I’m eager to start on the editing phase of my book, though I feel there needs to be a little more distance between me any my scribblings. But there are two more partly-finished books that need my attention, and likely a fourth come November (I have yet to fit an entire story in anything close to 50,000 words). I’m looking forward to giving those two a proper ending, and a big part of their middles too.

Yes, writing is fun. And it’s hard. It’s revelatory and it’s monotonous. Kind of like a very long journey. Or perhaps there’s another word for it. Maybe novel writing is like and adventure. A little bit. Except for the peril. I’m glad to do without the peril.


Phantom Manuscript Syndrome

It’s been two weeks since I wrapped up the mess of a manuscript I’m calling Automaton. The absence of a writing routine has left me feeling a bit out of sorts, having open blocks of time after work. I’ve considered getting to all of those household projects I put off while I devoted my evenings to writing, or avoiding writing, but the motivation for fixing up my house has mysteriously evaporated. Strange.

What’s Automaton about, you ask? In broad strokes, it’s a story about a man who wakes up one day to discover he’s been enslaved. The servant to rich people who think he’s nothing more than an amazing mechanical curiosity, he does what any reasonable man-in-a-metal-body would do: he freaks out and runs.

Set in the twilight of the Roaring Twenties, it has elements of the steam-punk science fiction sub-genre, an “Undertown” below the city of St. Louis, gangsters and Irish coppers in the city above, a driven lady reporter, revenge plots, mad science… Wow, that kind of sounds like a good book!

This is what I will pick up as my first attempt at making a horrendously unreadable rough draft into a readable, and hopefully entertaining novel. It’s many months away from being ready to hand to the first-readers who impulsively (some might say foolishly) offered to critique for me. Until I start on that though, I’m kind of at a loss for what to do.

I guess I should build a fence or something.