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Revision Process, Phase 1

I’m in the midst of revising my second draft of The Thirteen Treasures of Britain.

Confession time: I’m not going to pay a professional editor. The reason I’m not is because I can’t afford it. Perhaps in time, once I’m selling oodles of books a day, then I can hire a professional copy editor. For now, I must rely upon my own skills.

(Side Note: I’m a high school English teacher during the day — and have been for five years — so I spend most of my time offering revision and editing suggestions to student-writers. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on critiquing other peoples’ writing. Hopefully, I can transfer this skill to my own writing.)

But even if I were paying a professional copy writer, I’d still do a lot of revision myself. Copy editors are going to help with cleaning up the prose and the continuity of the text, but they can’t help with the structure or characterization. Of course, a structural/developmental editor may help with those things, but that kind of editor is even more expensive than a copy editor, and I think at this point in my writing life, I know what needs to be done structurally to make a story work. I’ve had a lot of training in screenwriting, and my teachers hammered structure, characterization, and dialogue into me with repeated force.

Maybe I will hire a copy editor for this book, who knows. The more I think about it, the more I think I could scrounge up $500 for one. But if I can’t manage that amount, then I’ll just make sure to go over my manuscript with incredible attention to detail. It can be done; it just takes a lot of patience.

Right now I’m in the “quick read-through” phase of the revision process: I set the manuscript aside for a couple of weeks, then I pick it up and read it on my kindle just as I would any book. While I read, I make super-quick notes in a separate notebook. I use symbols instead of writing anything lengthy because the symbols are quicker to write down and don’t interfere with the quick read-through process. (N.B.: I stole this idea from James Scott Bell in his excellent book Plot & Structure).

The symbols I use are as follows (again, heavily borrowed from Bell’s book):

Checkmark: Dragging
Star: Sentence-level revision needed (in other words, the prose is wonky or I need to work on paragraphing)
Circle: Need to add material
X: Cuts (either because I’m over-explaining, something’s not working, or I’m telling and not showing)
?: Plot hole/inconsistency

That’s it. I don’t write lengthy notes while I’m doing the quick read-through. The idea is to get an overall sense of the story. One of the reasons for this is that sometimes when I’m doing a read-through, I see a “flaw” and immediately start revising. Then I get lost in the rabbit hole of “tinkering” which is not really revision but just endless shifting of commas and clauses. The quick read-through and symbol system help me avoid getting sucked into this trap.

The other reason for the quick read-through is because I don’t believe a fundamentally flawed book can be fixed in revision. Not to be too gross, but trying to fix a fundamentally flawed book is like trying to polish a turd. Better to just flush that thing and move on.

If the quick read-through reveals that my story isn’t working — that on a structural level, something is off — then I need to start over. Dean Wesley Smith calls this the “redraft.”

When I wrote the first draft of Thirteen Treasures, I didn’t like it. It had some good moments, but overall, I found it to be fatally flawed. So I put it in a drawer and started over. My second draft for Thirteen Treasures is a completely new story. I’ve kept most of the main characters and a few of the settings, but the structure is new, the themes are new, and the overall energy and tone are new. I’m in the midst of the quick read-through now, and I can already say that I enjoy this new story so much better than the old one. It would’ve been a waste of my time to try and fix the problems of the first draft. With this second “redraft,” I’ve got something inherently solid that I know I can work with to make better.

It’s a bit daunting to do a “redraft” because it feels like the time spent with the previous draft was all just wasted time. But honestly, writing a new draft is a lot more fun than struggling to edit something that is fundamentally not good. Sometimes we as writers need to exhale some garbage and clear our creative heads before we can get to writing the good stuff. My first draft of Thirteen Treasures was the stuff I needed to exhale. The second draft was the story I really wanted to write. The quick read-through that I’m in the midst of now has shown me that this second draft is revision-worthy.

After the quick read-through, I’ll move on to Phase 2 of the revision process. More on that later…

NaNo 2015: The Recappening

I made it to 32,154 words. Not bad, not great. I was able to write with more speed this year, but I wasn’t able to carve out enough time to hit 50k winner status. My goal going forward is to schedule my time better and find more time to write (while also not neglecting my family in the process).

I was a bit of a rebel this year — working on short stories that aren’t connected in any way — and doing things the rebellious way was hugely freeing. It helped me increase my words-per-minute speed, and it helped me keep ideas flowing. Whenever I got stuck or wasn’t “feeling it,” I’d switch to the story that had me most excited.

I think I will continue to have a couple of projects going at a time. It feels like a productive strategy. That means, right now I’m finishing up my collection of short stories and also completing my second draft of Thirteen Treasures. Doing both at the same time means I can always open Scrivener and find something to work on; I’m not chained to one particular story.

I didn’t complete my goal of blogging ALL of my short stories during NaNo. I got through a few parts of “Lightning in the Black Bottle,” a part of “Avalon Summer,” and a part of “Treasures Three,” but I didn’t come close to finishing any of those stories or even starting on my other two. That means, in order to make good on my promise of showing you my rough drafts as they are written, I will continue to blog the drafts as I go until all five of them are finished. I hope to have them all wrapped up by the end of December. So if you’re enjoying any of these messy and unbridled creations, stay tuned to the blog.

NaNo 2015 Planning: Stumbling Around

Am I Supposed to “Pants” This?

I don’t have a lot of experience writing short stories. Am I supposed to outline them before I start writing? Do I plan? What’s the procedure here?

Over the long course of writing Thirteen Treasures, I’ve discovered that I work better as a “Plotter.” If nothing else, when the plot is outlined, I know what I need to write when I sit down at the computer every morning. Even if I only manage to eek out a few hundred words, I’m confident that I’m on the right track. When I used to work without a detailed outline, I’d sit down and have no clue what to do or what to write next. I almost always ended up with endings that were ridiculous and unsatisfying.

But short stories feel different to me. Maybe it’s because I have Ray Bradbury whispering in my head to write from my subconscious dreamland and let the deep-seeded obsessions of my childhood be my guide, but writing a short story from a detailed outline feels like overkill, as if the weight of the outline will crush the delicacy of the story. Or maybe that’s hogwash. I don’t know; I’m new at this.

Title First, Story Later

So I’m gonna start with my titles and hope that story ideas follow on their heels.

Story #1: “Lightning in the Black Bottle”

Story #2: “The Treasures Three” (this one is going to be in the same universe as my Merlin’s Last Magic serial)

Story #3: “Song Child”

Story #4: “Things” (yeah, I’m getting real creative here…)

Novella Title: Avalon Summer

“Where do you get your ideas?”

I’ve been thinking about Avalon Summer and the story I want to tell for almost ten years. It’s part memoir, part fantasy, and it began life as an R.E.M. song. More specifically, two songs, which came out when I was eleven, and which always makes me think of summers at my grandmother’s and the melancholy that comes with growing up.

“Nightswimming” and “Find the River” have become¬† almost mystical songs for me at this point, telling the story and the mood of a time in my life that is at once real and unreal, actual and imagined, something that happened and something I dreamed would happen, the two¬† sides — memoir and fantasy — swirling together so completely that it’s hard to tease any of the threads apart. “Nightswimming” is about the past, about remembering; “Find the River” is about the end of something, of the river flowing, of the march of time — the bitter-sweetness that comes from searching. It’s hard to describe the effect these songs have on me, but perhaps the best way to describe it is to write the story. After all, “story” is what we create when we can’t explain. Stories are how we communicate the elusive ideas.

It’s pretty obvious from the description of my Merlin serial that I’m interested in Arthurian legends, and it’s an interest that began when I was a kid. Rosemary Sutcliff’s books about King Arthur were transformational, and much of my childhood was spent playing “knights” (i.e.: running around my grandmother’s four acres with wooden swords, pretending trees were dragons).

I know that Avalon Summer has to have a forest in it. There must also be an evening spent eating Chinese food and playing the Dark Tower board game. At some point, an iron-wrought gate must figure in. And a bookstore. These are my ideas, but I’m not sure yet how they hang together, how I thread them into a tale.

More to come, I guess…

The Rebellion Will Be Blogged

I asked my students this morning if they knew what day it was.

“October 1st!” (Yes, obviously. It’s written on the board.)

“Thursday!” (Thank you, Miss Wisenheimer in the back of class.)

“The feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux!” (It’s a Catholic school.)

Finally, one perceptive student:

“One month till Nano?”

Yes, one month until NaNoWriMo starts. A time for planning. A time for anticipation. A time for making grand plans about all the writing I’m going to do as soon as midnight hits on November 1st.

And then, of course, November 1st comes and goes and I barely eek out 100 words because… FILL IN THE BLANK (a. the Noodle has a terrible cold, b. *I* have a terrible cold, c. November 1st falls on my grocery-shopping day and I have to make dinner and grade a stack of papers and clean the house because my in-laws are coming over and the cats peed all over the laundry room floor, d. All of the above).

Or November comes and I start writing my brilliant novel and I’m hitting those word count goals — BAM, BAM, BAM! — and the world is my oyster and life is just grand. Until November 10th, at which point I HATE my novel and the words are dripping out like a tiny leak in the faucet and the world has ceased being my oyster and is only my half-eaten can of pickled herring that expired in 2008.

And so the cycle continues: Every October, I’m gearing up with fevered excitement for NaNo, and by December 1st, I’m crying into my stale beer.

So this year, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to join the rebellion. I’m going to be a NaNo Rebel.

And I’m going to do it all — unfiltered, unedited, unburdened by shame or regret — right here on my website. Every single one of my 50,000 words will be written here, on the blog, as I’m composing them, straight from my brain to you, the readers. No edits. No skipped days. Guaranteed, every day, for thirty days, I will write some fiction on this blog. (I can’t believe I’m promising this…)

“But what makes that rebellious?” (you might ask)

“After all” (you say), “blogging a novel is still writing one, and per the rules of NaNo, it still counts.”

But that’s just it. I’m not going to be writing a novel.

Noveling during November hasn’t worked for me. I’m tossing aside the task of writing a novel.

I’m taking on a challenge I’ve never really taken on before. I’m doing something for which I have had no practice and very little skill. I’m doing something that is (for me) slightly bonkers.

I’m going to write short stories. Four, to be precise.

And a novella. Because that’s what’s itching inside my brain.

All completely disconnected from each other. No shared universe. No shared characters. Each one separate.

Rebellion.

For the next 31 days, I’ll share my ideas and outlines and some world-building for these different stories, and then, on November 1st, I’ll begin writing.

Each day, new words. Five different stories (or maybe more). One month. All in real-time.

I’m pretty sure this is madness. But I’m doing it anyway. Stay tuned.

The Things That Shaped Me: The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander

lloydalexanderIf you asked ten-year-old me to rank her favorite fantasy series, I would definitely have put the Chronicles of Narnia at the top. But a very close second would have been the Prydain Chronicles. Not as well-known or iconic as the Narnia series, the Prydain series nevertheless felt as exciting, magical, and original as Narnia, especially for me, a kid who obsessed over knights, dragons, magic, and all things fantasy. The names, the mythology, the magic, the creatures — the Welsh-ness of Prydain made it feel different, a little bit stranger and therefore more wondrous than the typical English-y fantasy. I would later discover just how much Arthurian legend originated in the Welsh tradition, but as a kid, the weird names and Welsh flavor of the Prydain Chronicles made them seem exotic compared to the fantasy and medieval legends I normally read.

Of course, the real beauty of the Prydain Chronicles is in the story and characters. I LOVED Eilonwy and Taran. I LOVED Fluedder Flam. I LOVED the relationship between Taran and Coll, and wonderful Dalben, and yes, even (sometimes annoying) Gurgi. Each of the five books had a unique story that introduced unique and amazing characters. And the villains were creepy and truly dangerous. This was a world in which bad things can and do happen, in which characters can and do die. It was a fantasy world filled with menace and evil in a way the Narnia stories (and even The Hobbit) never were. I must have read and re-read the series at least half a dozen times when I was younger. And I’ve reread them since, as an adult, and still find them to be charming. This, to me, is the mark of a great storyteller.

Looking back on the series now, I’m most fascinated by book 4, Taran Wanderer. As a kid, it wasn’t my favorite. It didn’t have a strong, scary villain. Its quest wasn’t magical enough. It was just Taran going around learning crafts and meeting with ordinary people, trying to find his heritage. Where were the battles? Where was the epic struggle between good and evil? And yet, as an adult, I realize now how bold it was to make the fourth book in this action-adventure fantasy series into a somber, quiet quest for identity and maturity. Now, when I reread the books, I get so much out of Taran Wanderer. It’s a story that continues to resonate.

Is it any wonder that the book I’m writing now is based on Welsh mythology? Is it any wonder that my imagination is steeped in the world of Gwydion and the Black Cauldron and the kingdom of Llyr? It’s funny to me that the Prydain Chronicles don’t seem very well-known, and yet when I mention them to fellow readers, I find so many people who also grew up reading about Taran and Fluedder and Eilonwy and Doli and Henwen and all the rest. Why the series is not more well-known is a mystery. It’s kind of unbelievable that we haven’t gotten a live-action movie franchise out of them (the less said about the animated Disney movie the better). But then, would we be able to trust a movie studio to do justice to the darker elements, to the themes of humility and sacrifice, to the subtleties of Taran’s journey from pig-keeper to high king? I’m not sure what a studio would do with a book like Taran Wanderer. Probably add a lot of unnecessary action sequences.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to as a parent, is the day I get to introduce my children to The Book of Three. Hopefully, it will stir their imagination as much as it did mine. Two decades after I first read the series, it still stirs my imagination.

Bucket List Authors

My husband and I were discussing the concept of “bucket lists” the other day, and I have to confess, I don’t really have a bucket list of grand things I’d like to do before I die. I’m lucky enough to have traveled to Europe twice, and I’ve been to a bunch of U.S. states, and other than going to the British Isles, there’s nowhere I’d regret not seeing. I have no desire to sky dive, or run a marathon, or get a tattoo. I’ve eaten pasta in Italy, ridden in a gondola in Venice, been to Times Square, and I already play the guitar. So the popular bucket list items don’t cast any spell over me.

But in reading this interview with Neil Gaiman over at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog, I realized that I do have a “bucket list” of sorts. It’s not a list of things I’d like to do before I die; it’s a list of authors I want to read before I die. These are authors that I’ve always been intrigued by — that I’ve always planned to read — but for one reason or another, I’ve never gotten around to them.

Such as Diana Wynne Jones (who was mentioned in the Gaiman interview). She’s just the sort of novelist that I would want to read and it still amazes me that I never have. The titles alone are alluring: Witch Week, Howl’s Moving Castle, Dark Lord of Derkholm, The Ogre Downstairs, A Tale of Time City. Why haven’t I read any of her stuff??? She’s on the bucket list.

Next is Agatha Christie. I was a huge fan of mysteries as a kid — so much so that my parents got me a subscription to the Alfred Hitchcock Magazine when I was ten-years-old — but the grand dame of mystery fiction somehow never ended up in the reading pile. She’s definitely on the bucket list (and I just downloaded one of her books to my kindle).

Graham Greene is another bucket lister due to several reasons:

1. He was Catholic and wrote about Catholic themes (though in an awesome way, not in some lame, preachy, bad-art kind of way). I am also Catholic, so I’m keen to read him.

2. He wrote screenplays for The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, two of my favorite British films from the 1940s.

3. He also wrote film reviews, so I feel an affinity for him as a cinephile.

4. I need to read more non-fantasy/sci-fi fiction and his books all sound interesting.

Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books are also on my list. Mostly because my husband loved them as a teenager, and they meant a lot to him and I want to share that with him. But also because I once had an old copy of McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger that my aunt gave to me but that I never read. I started to read it once, but then I put it down (for whatever reason). And then I lost the book. And yet the cover art has always haunted me and seeing it takes me back to cold November days at my grandmother’s house (which is where my family lived for awhile) when I was only nine or ten, and I lived and breathed fantasy adventures, role-playing games, King Arthur, and Tolkien, and my aunt and uncle would come over and we’d order Chinese food and play the Dark Tower board game.

I wish I still had that copy of Dragonsinger. And I plan to one day read Anne McCaffrey. She’s on the bucket list.

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Finally, I feel like I really need to read some Tolstoy. Anna Karenina sounds more appealing, but I’m down with reading War and Peace too. I’ve often heard he’s one of the greatest novelists, so I’d like to see for myself. Plus, I like Russian stuff.

I’m sure I’ll think of more bucket list authors, but for now, if I died tomorrow, these are the ones I would regret not reading.

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