Category Archives: Writing

Writing is hard

The title says it all.

I think we’re done here.

But seriously, writing is hard. For me, the initial drafting is usually the easy part. Especially if I’ve done some planning and outlining, the writing flows pretty well. Or so it always seemed. But as I’m continuing my way through my writing exercises, it’s bringing up so many additional things that I’m conscious of, but not quite sure I’m being purposeful about.

For example, one of the exercises was titled “Hemmingway’s Iceberg,” a prompt where you write a detailed character description, then try to convey information about the character in short sentences, showing instead of telling. That’s usually one thing I’m pretty keyed in to when it comes to my writing, and something I usually catch when I’m editing. But following the advice of everyone for writing is overwhelming. Should I outline my whole entire story in immense detail? Should I write detailed character sketches for everyone? Or just main characters?

I’ve always been a little bit more of the “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of writer. I’ve adapted some, and in my last few projects I have done moderately detailed outlines, which has truly helped in the process. But I’m afraid of getting so bogged down in the planning that, when the times comes, writing the story has lost the joy of creation and discovery, which is what has always drawn me to writing in the first place.

So what’s the answer? For me, it’s just doing my own thing. If I’m having a hard time with dialogue or my character doesn’t feel real, I’ll take it as a sign that I need to do a sketch and compare words and actions with who my character is. If I’m stuck with writers block, I know I need to sit down and map out where I’m at and where my story needs to be.

Best practices aren’t for everyone. Writing is a very personal endeavor, and as such, what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. But, writing is also about having various tools to use when you need them. And with that in mind, it’s good to know some of those best practices, and have a plan in place for when you might need them.

 

So, after all that blah, blah, blah,  I’ll share a personal bit of writing, from the last exercise I didn’t do a few weeks back, the one on getting inspiration from the art world. It took me a little bit of time, but once I thought of it, it just flowed. Maybe you can guess what painting inspired it.

Sometimes, the most beautiful things emerge from individual strokes of chaos.

In a painting, a million wild strokes swirl to form a starry night. The swirls lead your eye across the piece, drawing you into nostalgia, remembering your favorite starry nights.

But when you’re down in the trenches,where the swirls become a maze of canyon walls, you don’t always see the beautiful, just the chaos.

I was in the trenches, to say the least. I was 24 years old, married, living independently, making my own appointments, and utterly overwhelmed by anxiety and stalled dreams.

It wasn’t that I hated my job, I worked hard, but the constant human interaction was draining. It was more that… I was more. I had a degree, I had career goals and dreams, and as the years ticked by and graduation faded, it was hard to believe someone would hire me with barely any experience, so long after school.

And my personal dreams–don’t even get me started. I loved writing, but I was lazy and didn’t always like to edit. I didn’t have any left over energy for another full-time job. All my other hobbies I essentially gave up when I moved. So if my life wasn’t intended to be what I wanted, what was it to be?

I wonder if painters ever feel this way, like their just throwing strokes onto canvas and waiting to see what emerges–art birthed from chaos.

But then, isn’t that what life is all about? Finding beauty in our own personal chaos. To keep painting until the picture emerges, and we can see what we’ve made.

“If at first you don’t succeed…”

There’s a couple ways to end that saying. My favorite is “fry, fry a hen.” But, when it comes to writing, frying chicken isn’t nearly as useful as trying again, and that’s what editing is all about.

In my last post I went on and on about how I was going to go through my story and look at the dialogue to make sure my characters use authentic voices. Well, I didn’t get very far into my story, on account of being lazy and actually having time to spend with my husband this week. I got about a quarter of the way through my story though, and I think I can confidently say, all my people may sound the same, but they sure don’t sound stiff and fake (and believe me, after the book I just read [I feel obligated to state that I’m ahead in my book reviewing, so the book I’m referencing is not Steph Davis’ book, the review of which you’ll see on Friday], I’m quite keyed in to stiff dialogue).

What I did accomplish this week was yet another revision of my first chapter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the first chapter isn’t golden, no one will keep reading. Here’s what I started with:

“First, that scientific achievements and breakthroughs were the only thing worth pursuing. Every person, upon graduating high school, was expected to step into the professional world and begin working on something great. The rate of stepping depended on how smart the student was, but society dictated that anyone older than 27 who wasn’t doing something to make the world a better place wasn’t worth the time and effort. Such a person could only expect to do the manual labor the great minds thought were beneath them.”

Obviously, that wasn’t my whole beginning chapter, but the chapter was only one page long, so that was probably a third of it. And it sucked. So I made myself try to show instead of tell, and here’s what I ended with:

““You’ve got to be thinking now about what you’ll do with your life,” his father would tell him. “After high school, you’ve only got a few years before you reach 27, the age of expectation. But each year between 18 and 27 that you spend on anything other than your chosen focus is a waste. It will only hurt your chances of really making a big contribution.”

In third grade, Mason still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and his parents were getting anxious.

“If you don’t start now, you’ll end up doing manual labor with the rest of the lower class people who aren’t smart enough to do anything else,” his father said. “We aren’t raising you to do that kind of worthless work.”

A week later, when they found out Mason was playing with the janitor’s son at school, Mason realized it wasn’t just the work his parents thought was worthless, but the people as well.

“But he’s my friend, why can’t I play with him at school?”

“Some people are better than others, son. It’s important to know where you fit in the social hierarchy. Upward movement comes in small steps for most people. Some people never move up. And if you are friends with those people, you’ll only move down.”

“But, dad—”

“No, Mason. My word is final, you’re not to associate with that boy anymore. If I find out you’ve so much as made eye contact with him, I’ll give you a hiding you won’t forget.”

Mason grew up, struggled with school and graduated with average marks, to his parents’ chagrin. Ad year upon year passed after graduation, Mason’s relationship with his parents grew more and more strained. His parents, successful scientists in their own rights, were ashamed of him, anxious for him to prove himself or disappear—with neither option being necessarily preferable.

Yet as his 25 birthday came and went, Mason saw his future stretching before him in a bleak stroke. With little chance at a significant scientific job, Mason’s only hope was to find some menial task and hope the project leader would allow him to work the job as a career, letting Mason save face and avoid a lifelong career as a janitor or garbage man. Mason never fully bought in to the idea that janitors and garbage men were somehow lesser people, but he wasn’t chomping at the bit to join their ranks, either.”

It might seem obvious that showing is better than telling, and we all know that it is, but still we fall into the trap of getting words down on paper and dealing with the rest later. And some portions end up needing a lot more dealing with than others. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I rewrite my first chapter. I’m still not 100 percent sold on it. But I’ll keep trying until I get it right.

Also, I expect that soon I’ll have to hunt for someone to do some critiquing for me, and that will, hopefully, open the door to whole new levels of editing that I haven’t even noticed yet.

The Creative Writer’s Notebook: authentic voices

Because I don't always keep up on my editing, and don't always have something here and exciting worth sharing, I decided to come back to my book of writing prompts that I bought almost a year ago.
This week I did the lessons inspired by William Faulkner (ok, I did two out of three, the last one was hard and I couldn't think of what to write). They were mostly focused on allowing your characters to speak in a real voice, allowing punctuation, grammar and vocabulary to show what your character is like. I've always thought that would be quite easy, but as I sat down to do it, I realized just how proper my dialogue must be. When I'm writing, probably my most authentic language is the use of contractions.
The first prompt I did was inspired by one of my nieces, who wanted to make sure her papa didn't "lost" her hat instead of returning it to her. I tried to write a little scene about a small child who had a bad dream about an upcoming zoo field trip. I tried to think of the kinds of things that trip kids up, often tenses. My little girl would sometimes use the present tense if a word because she didn't know any better, and sometimes she would add an extra "ed" on the end of a word.
As challenging as that was, it was harder to try to write a scene about two people trying to cross a river using only dialogue to portray what kind of people they were. That I as what really made me notice how proper I am while writing.
So this next week, I have two goals in mind for editing: I want to work on the first chapter, making it something that grabs your attention and makes you want to know more. But I'm also going to read through my story and pay close attention to my dialogue, and ask myself if my characters sound real, or if they sound stilted and stiff. I'll have the answers for you next week!

One more lap down

The reason I tend to blog about my editing every other week is because I usually only get two or three days a week where I get time to edit.
That said, this weekend I was finally able to get through the last 20-30 pages of my story. This part of the story tends to move faster than the rest of it, which is to be expected, because it's what everything else is building up to. This weekend my focus was weaving in two elements that I thought of after I wrote the first draft: the family that stepped forward to claim Mason as their missing son, and the psychological turmoil Mason deals with as he's faced with people telling him that everything he believes is made up.
For the most part, I think I've got the family's involvement woven in pretty well. The psychological turmoil probably needs another scene. I think I rushed my timeline a little bit and didn't have time for it, but I need to add it in. I've also got some research to do now, mostly on HIPPA laws, like whether police could access medical records as part of an ongoing investigation, and whether it's believable that a person who experienced trauma at a young age would invent an alternate reality in their mind to deal with the trauma. Luckily, the research part goes pretty quickly.
I'm excited to read through my story now though, to see how far it has come. I know the plot is stronger and the details of it are much more intriguing. I know it's already a better story than when I first imagined it, much less wrote it.
As I read through it again, I'm sure I will uncover more problems and things that need ironing out, but it's exciting to have finished one solid round of hard-core editing, and encouraging to know that it's easier than I thought.
Now on to another round.

Keeping motivated

I’ll confess, the hardest part for me, when it comes to editing, is keeping motivated. I’ve probably said that before.

It’s also hard to write blog posts, because I feel like I’ve written it all before. But here goes.

I pushed myself this week and I got a big chunk done in the first half of my story. My young rebels have a much better scheme for their civil disobedience, and I like it a whole lot better.

I’ve now started working through the second half, which will be more challenging. This is the part where I have to work in the people who claim to be his parents, and Mason’s struggle to grasp what is true. I think this part will require more than just a couple scene edits and additions, but that’s ok. I’m excited to be working on it.

What made a big difference in the last week or two was just editing when I found a note or spot that needed work, instead of trying to add a note or details on what to change. When I make notes, I end up using that as an excuse to “work” but not really accomplish anything, so I’m glad to be getting past that.

So this week it’s moving into the psychological part of the book. I’ll need to dig out my notebook and see what I had planned for it, then, as Nike advocates, “just do it.”

Planning to edit versus editing proper

I lost some steam the last week or two, and I didn’t even touch my computer for editing. But this week (OK, so like three days), I’ve pushed myself to get back to it. This story isn’t going to edit itself.

My story, when I left it, was filled with notes on what to do in certain spots and things to fix, and how to fix them, and just all sorts of would-be scribbles, if I were doing this by hand on paper. What I’ve noticed as I’ve started reading through the story yet again, is how many of those notes took as much effort to write as it would have required to just make the change and move on. I have to confess, I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in planning the edits and, consequently, allowed myself to neglect the actual editing process.

But the actual process can be hard. When you write something, or at least when I do, I get attached to it. And when it’s something that I’m revising, or an idea I’m moving somewhere else, I’m not convinced I won’t need that first attempt anymore. It’s hard to erase, to delete words that you spent time on. There’s the sneaking suspicion that once you delete them, you’re suddenly going to need them again, but you won’t be able to remember them. So then the challenge becomes allowing myself the freedom to recreate things. If I erase something that is bad, then can’t remember the idea I was going to use, did the idea belong there in the first place?

This whole process right now is for me to learn how to edit my own work. I have no deadlines, no demands for when it needs to be done. I have the luxury of taking all the time in the world to work my way through. And if I have to stop a time or two to think hard about where my story should go, that’s OK. Better now than when I’ve published or self-published it and there’s no going back, right?

So I’ve got some big pieces to edit, the ones I mentioned in my last post, the new plot ideas to weave in. The goal I’m setting for myself is to hurry up and wrap up the little things, and choose one big piece to work on. Because then I’ll have something good to write about next week, instead of something boring like how I changed a passive sentence into an active one. It’s important, but most of you don’t really care.

So as I’m wrapping up this week, I’m prepping my editing for next week. As I go through, I’m making notes of places where I need to work in something about the student’s civil disobediences, or key places to start implanting the people who claim to be his family, and the questions surrounding his mental health. That way, when I get to strapping in for the big editing, I’ve made it a little easier for myself. Maybe then I’ll make a dent in the proper editing.

Stories are like onions…

Seeing as I’m no expert in editing, I’ve been mostly making it up as I go for the past month or two. I feel like I’ve had some measures of success, and now that I’ve put on an editor’s hat, I’ve been looking at my story with a different kind of gaze.

First, as I’ve read through it a few times, I’m discovering some inconsistencies. Like which mental hospital the first rumors of Vale originated in. I’ve got it both ways in my story, so there are several comments in the margins of me asking myself where exactly this has taken place. But the inconsistencies aren’t the exciting part; what is exciting are the new layers of intrigue I’ve developed just in the last few days from rereading my story and asking myself if they way I have things happening is really believable. For some cases, the answer has been no, and since I’ve put in time to solve those problems, I’ve come up with more interesting layers to add.

I don’t want to give too much away, but who knows when, if ever, this story might see the light of day. So, here goes.

Because the story is about a man who escapes from a sheltered society and no one on the outside knows it exists, it’s entirely plausible that people think he is making it up and believe he is mentally ill. I thought it would be an interesting psychological twist if Mason himself begins to question what is real and what isn’t. In my first draft, I didn’t even really get there. But as I’ve read through it again, I’ve been struck with a new train of thought. In order for someone to begin to question whether what they know is real, something would have to happen to be a catalyst. Enter a couple whose 5-year-old son went missing 20 years ago. Now here pops up a young man of the right age and physique. If given a nudge or encouragement, a bereaved mother might claim a stranger to be her son, because she believes it to be true.

So now Mason has people claiming to be his parents and a psychologist who is prodding his brain trying to uncover what hidden trauma has made him create an alternate reality to hide from his past. And if everyone believes it to be true, and tells him it is true, it’s now possible and plausible that Mason–unable to prove the truth of his story, and distanced now from it–begins to wonder if they are right, if he did make it up.

This then leads me into creating a more plausible background for a fairly crucial, albeit small character. Fisk originally was the director of the Mayfield Asylum, where Mason stays when he first leaves Vale. However, even as it wrote it, it didn’t quite make sense to me why the director of the hospital needed to be in on the secret of Vale (not to mention some serious issues with medical files, the same ones that I’m not sure where they belong. There is a serious thread here that makes things fall apart). But now it comes to light that Fisk is perhaps just a government contractor linked with Vale in some way, a handler or supervisor, perhaps, and he is friends with the couple that lost their son 20 years ago. So when someone who fits the bill needs to be reintroduced to society, Fisk has the perfect plan ready to go. He tells his friend that there is a man, approximately the same age as his lost son, who needs a home. The man (Mason) is confused about his past. Perhaps Fisk convinces his friend that it’s possible it’s his son, or perhaps the friend knows it isn’t, but takes the opportunity to try to ease the burden and pain for his wife. Whatever the case ends up being, Fisk is now the catalyst, the encouragement behind the couple coming forward to claim Mason as their son.

This, now, is more solid footing for my journalist to reach out to Fisk. Instead of randomly calling the director of the asylum, who may or may not know anything, she can interview the “parents” and get Fisk’s name from the wife, who naively tells Callie the journalist that Fisk brought their supposed son to their attention.

And finally, with this as grounds for Callie getting on the trail of a conspiracy, if need be, it eliminates the need for those pesky, ever-moving medical records that probably wouldn’t still exist in the first place–especially not if they were top secret and the hospital was run by the government people controlling the top secret project.

I don’t know if it’s that I didn’t write as solid of a story this go around, or if I’m using a new mindset, or if it’s just the result of more experience and knowledge, but the times I’ve tried editing before, it was never this easy or exciting. I’ve never looked at my story before and seen pools of potential instead of plot holes. Maybe I was too young the last time (admittedly, probably 7ish years ago), or maybe I was naive and thought my writing was really wonderful (highly likely, I think). In any case, all my whining posts about how awful editing is are now moot. The only thing awful about editing is that I wish I could do it all by hand on paper. But printing 90 pages off for editing is a little excessive, and I’ve got bills to pay. Can’t be wasting all my money on ink and paper if I don’t absolutely have to.