Writing Quote: I’m Not a Good Writer…

Today’s writing quote comes from well-known historical fiction writer James Michener.  Let’s dispense with the formalities, and get to the quote:

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.

~James Michener

Yeah.  What he said.  This quote interested me this week because I was thinking that, although I’ve gotten a little better at my first-draft, first-pass attempts at writing stories over the past several years, where I’ve really improved in my skill is in rewriting.  I’ve developed a more critical eye.  I can better diagnose what’s wrong with a story.  And I can prescribe a viable solution.  And I can write it.

This, I think, will be the skill that will most contribute to the potential I have for an eventual career as a writer.

Take, for example, the short story I will (hopefully) be sending off to a publisher in a few days for editorial consideration.  I wrote the original draft about three and a half years ago, give or take.  I thought it was a pretty good story, at the time, but I never sent it anywhere.  I picked it up again when Dear Wife encouraged me to take a story that I thought was in good shape and give it some revision to spruce it up a little and send it off.  We both expected this could be accomplished in the amount of free time I might have over a holiday month between semesters.

But upon actually rereading and considering the thing, I realized it needed a lot of work.  And I’ve put a lot of work into it.  It’s like a whole new story.  There was very little from the original draft that was immediately salvageable.  But that draft provided a good starting point, and new ideas fleshed the story out and made it much better, in my opinion.  The story I wrote 3-ish years ago?  It was unpublishable.  The story I have now?  May be the best piece of fiction I’ve ever completed.

This worries me a little about the new story I hope to start work on soon, “What Happened in August Valley”.  I’ll be writing this one from scratch, not working from an old draft.  (I have several old drafts of stories that I want to work on and rewrite, but I feel strongly about doing this one, first.)  So, whereas the story that’s going out this week went through 3 or more drafts (depending on how you count) this one is starting brand new from rough draft, and may only get a single revisionary draft, depending on my ability to get some good feedback.

Regardless… I think there’s a lesson here for my future.  I’m excited to be developing this skill, and hope to be able to continue to put it to good use.

Happy writing.

Short Story Update

I haven’t talked much about my current writing project, of late.  I’d put the short story aside for a while in hopes that I’d get one more critique on it before starting in on major revisions in earnest.  Well, late last week I got that critique in.  So, three total critiques (that is, two critiques plus my wife) isn’t many to go on, but I’ve noticed the emergence of a couple consistent themes. 

Both non-wife reviewers remarked heavily on the world the story takes place on, with generally positive comments in regards to that.  The first reviewer, a friend of mine, explained that he thought there was a lot of unexplored potential in the world I’d set up.  It seemed to me he liked the idea of it, but that I didn’t take it to as deep a level as he’d have liked.  The second reviewer commented that the world was his favorite part of the story, contrasting that with the action at in the final few pages of the story where I spring out all the plot twists.

Frankly, this sentiment was surprising to me.  I didn’t consider that the world I had created was exceptionally original.  It was really the result of a pretty simple formula.  All of my cool ideas, I thought, were in the plot twists I built around this fairly simple central premise.  In fact, I guess, that was my first reviewer’s point: he saw through to the simplicity of the formula, and felt that there was more unexplored depth in that formula than I was using in the story.  Combined with the second reviewer’s contention that the focus of the story ought to be shifted toward this, that suggests that maybe I do need to spend more time developing the world of the story.

But at almost 10,000 words, this piece is already past the length limit of most of the online markets, which effectively cuts them out of my market for this story.  That salability limitation has me a little worried.  I’d planned on the reviews and critiques helping me to cut out some 500 to 1,000 words.  But to follow the advice of my two reviewers, I’m likely going to have to add word count (even if I’m simultaneously taking out stuff that becomes redundant or duplicative).   It’s an interesting challenge.

My first reviewer also mentioned specific weaknesses in characterization and dialog, which I’d mentioned before.  Added to that are the second reviewer’s comments: that there is a minor plot hole that I need to patch, that some of the plot twists near the very end of the story seem a little tacked on and possibly extraneous, that they (the twists) get a little confusing to follow, that one major plot point remains unresolved at the end, and that it all (the conclusion) happens very fast after a fairly leisurely set-up.

So, that’s a bit to chew on.

I only have the two reviews, besides my wife’s comments, so I take them very seriously.  And I’ve been thinking hard about what the common themes are, and how I can address the problems mentioned by both.  For instance, I wonder if the second reviewer’s suggestion that the story focus more on its world is perhaps related to my first reviewer’s comment on the weak characterization.  If the main character of the story, through who’s eyes we interact with this world, doesn’t capture the reader’s interest or keep them emotionally invested, then the twists at the end, which are based on that character’s limited perception, will lack any emotional impact or story-telling value.  It’s also possible that the twists make a dull thud because they aren’t foreshadowed enough.  And considering the number of twists (there are four, by my count) it’s quite probable that I need to take more time to unravel them.  Still, it’s hard to know if I’m on the right track here.  Ultimately I guess I have to go with my gut in how to tell the best story I can.

So, here’s my plan on how I’m going to revise this story.

  1. Strengthen Characterization – I have to create some reason for the reader to become emotionally invested in the main character.  That’s a tall order.  One way to do that, which I’ve been reading about recently (particularly in Dave Farland’s “Daily Kick in the Pants”, incidentally, which you can sign up for on his site, if you’re interested) is to give the character internal conflicts and a duality.  My problem is my main character’s primary internal conflict is essentially resolved before the start of the story, as it’s part of the central premise of the story.   So, I have to give him a current conflict, something that drives him and makes him relatable.
  2. Improve the Foreshadowing – I’d worked hard to try to make sure that the plot twists at the end are logically consistent with the world and story I’d set up.  But it’s pretty clear I didn’t quite get the effect I was intending.  If I’d done my job right, the final twists would be less confusing and more emotionally resonant.  Part of the extra foreshadowing I will have to do will likely have to tie back to the stronger characterization.
  3. Flesh Out the World – The common theme from the two reviews really is that I need to spend more time fleshing out the world the story takes place in.  Suggestions from the first reviewer include more consideration of the ramifications of the central premise of the story. 
  4. Tighten up the Dialog – There are a few spots, in particular, where I realize the story would benefit from me reading the dialog aloud to myself, to hear what it sounds like.  I imagine that I should be able to hear where the speech rhythm is off, or where I word things in ways that most normal people wouldn’t, when speaking.
  5. Revisit the Final Act – Here’s where my challenge really lies.  The first reviewer liked the twists, but felt they lacked the emotional impact they could have had.  The second  reviewer disliked the twists, possibly because they had no emotional impact for him and were just too confusing, or possibly because he just didn’t like them, and was expecting a different sort of conclusion.  I personally kind of feel like the twists are pretty central to the main theme of the story, so I’m banking on the idea that the reason the second reviewer didn’t like them was the former, rather than the latter.  To make it a little less confusing, I’m going to have to give the final act a little more room to unwind itself, and give the main character a little more time to stop and think about “What It All Means©” before rushing like a freight train toward the final conclusion.
  6. Fill the Plot Hole – It’s a fairly minor plot hole, but it ought to be filled.  It revolves around why a character takes one action instead of another, perhaps more logical action at a certain point in the story.  There ought to be some reason why he doesn’t take the ostensibly more logical action.
  7. Resolve the Unresolved – I think it’s okay to leave a few loose threads in a story (or at least, it’s actually kind of important in a novel), but in a short story, to leave such a major thread unresolved is perhaps not a good idea.  Mainly, this thread went unresolved because I’d been indecisive as to what, precisely, actually happened.  I’m okay with ambiguity, but I was frankly nervous about resolving this thread because doing so, and deciding what happened on this particular thread, would entail a lot of extra work, potentially making the story longer.

 I have other options to consider as well.  If the world of this story is really as interesting as both reviewers suggest, it makes me wonder if it’s one that ought to be revisited.  If so, can I do only a tiny little bit of fleshing out here, then do more fleshing out in a follow-up story?  I hadn’t previously considered it because the story resolves with a certain amount of finality.  And no matter how interesting the world, I don’t know that I could return to it unless I had an equally compelling story to tell that happened to be set in it.  I guess it’s a matter of… we’ll just have to see.

I have my work cut out for me… Happy writing!

The Tale Up-to-Date

I’ve been telling the story of how my novel-in-progress, such as it is, came to be: how I was inpsired by first reading the novels of Lloyd Alexander, and how my skills improved over time, and I continued to write.  But into every good story must enter some struggle.

As I recounted last time, I had been writing a new draft of my novel throughout my college years, and into the first years of my post-collegiate career.  The highest numbered chapter I wrote in this draft was the 28th.  It was just about as far into the story as my first version ever got – roughly two-thirds.  At the same time as all this, I’d been working on and developing my background material.  Some time in college, I started keeping my “Idea Journal”, which I titled The Book of Ideas, in a mostly unused notebook.  The first filled up rapidly with ideas – mostly touching on my book – and I quickly started working on a second.  Not long after I started my first job after college, I was looking for ways to transfer this idea book into an easily searchable digital format.  I’ve mentioned this before, but after struggling with typing those notes up in Word, I later tried the program wikidpad (which is open source).  I also began writing a semi-poetic telling of the ancient history of the world the story occupied.

At that point, I experienced a significant one-two punch that put a setback in my work that has lasted a long time.  I kept all of my work on an external, USB hard drive because the hard drive in my desktop was too small for the volume of material I had collected (including music and inspirational art).  It so happened that I also used my hard drive to store a lot of music to use for a Church dance that I was helping to organize – which I took with me to the event.  After the dance was over, I took my hard drive with me and in the parking lot, it slipped out of my hands.  It didn’t shatter, and it wasn’t until a few days later that I experienced the true nature of the problem: the drive heads had physically crashed into the driver plates.  Some of the data was destroyed.  But my work was everything to me.  I took the drive in to a local computer-fix shop, and they retrieved some 80% of the data on the drive.  Sadly, some of the chapters in my book were not included.  My latest chapter, the 28th, was among those – and that chapter was the one chapter that I had not yet printed out in hard copy.

The second setback came about six months later.  I had moved to Atlanta, I had copied most of the information from my idea notebooks into my sister’s laptop (which I was borrowing).  And I had recovered most of the chapters in my book.  I’d been taking the laptop to work with me on certain days of the week (I went straight from work to a Church function on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, I can’t recall which day, and I usually had free time to work once I got there).  On this particular day, I’d left the laptop in the car, along with my completely filled notebook of ideas.

I got a call in mid afternoon – I was told by the parking deck security that some belongings of mine had been found: a bag holding a book of scriptures (and, coincidentally, my name and contact information) and a bag with a change of clothes (so I’d be appropriately dressed for the Church activity).  Horrified, I left work and rushed to the parking deck.  It was indeed my bag of scriptures and my change of clothes.  But my car window had been smashed in, and the laptop – along with my notebook of ideas – were gone.  With it, the majority of the work that had survived the harddrive crash.  I was devastated.

It was a long time before I started writing again.  But the true spirit of a writer  remains undaunted in the face of every challenge.  I still had the disk with the recovered contents from the crashed drive and reams of other handwritten notes, maps, and hard copies of the old draft of my book.  More importantly, I still had my heart and my mind.  At last, I resolved to start again: this time, from scratch.  I questioned everything, rethought everything.  The name of the main character, for instance, was just an anagram for the name of one of Lloyd Alexander’s characters.  What sense was there in that?  Did the geography of the world the story takes place in make sense?  What about the history of the world?  Who are my characters, really?  Are they people readers – other real people – will care about?  And my plot.  Was anything in it unique?  Any part of it new?  Anything that’s not trite and clichéd?

I  started a new book of ideas, and I switched to using ConnectedText to record my notes and create an interlinked encyclopedia of all my knowledge about my story and my world.  And I decided to start writing some short stories again, to refine my craft and keep my edge sharp.  I was almost on a roll.

And then I got accepted into Grad School.  And I got married.  Both very happy events for me.  But they seriously changed the paradigm of my life, and where the focus has had to be.  Those two events, which happened within a fairly short time together, have significantly altered how I spend my time, and what my priorities are.

But that pretty much brings you up to speed.  I’m still working on background details – in those five-minute cracks between things of greater import – and still working on a short story.  But I won’t start writing a new draft until I’m confident I’ve figured out all the details (or enough of them) about the background and characters and the direction of the plot.  Honestly, I have a long way to go.

Happy writing. 

Deadlines

As I feared, the self-imposed deadline for completing a short story and sending it off to a publisher for consideration has come and passed.  In the aftermath of that missed deadline, I feel it appropriate to muse on the entire experiment, and consider what my next steps are.

In actuality, the entire affair was the idea of my wonderful wife.  The fall semester was proving particularly challenging for me(I got my first plain-vanilla “pass” grade this semester, instead of a “high pass” or better; it was more reflective of the professor’s largely arbitrary grading mechanism than of my performance, though). I’d taken both a May and August “ACE“, so I’d been in school almost non-stop since January.  And it had been ages since I’d written anything substantial.  Writing was important to me, personally, but I just didn’t  seem to have time for it.

I was already anticipating taking a break from class between Fall and Spring, and my wife suggested, “why not take one of the stories you’ve already written and, over the break, polish it up, revise it, and send it in to a publisher?”  It sounded like a great idea, so I took up the challenge.  This gave me a sort of deadline, right from the beginning: by the start of the Spring Semester.

I thought I had the perfect story for the revision and editing treatment.  It had a clever premise, and would be the most salable, I reasoned, once polished up.  But, as I discovered (and blogged about) what I had written, even if based on a clever premise, was woefully and unexpectedly bad.

My wife tells me, then, that I shouldn’t feel bad about missing my deadline.  When she had suggested the idea, it had primarily been for a quick edit and revision and then printing and mailing the thing.  What I did instead was rewrite the thing practically from scratch.  I created a more detailed backstory for a cast of characters twice as large as the original (which had only three named characters).  I added new depth to the plot, adding in conflict right from the beginning, and more fully delivering on the promise of the premise.  And, I didn’t quite make it all the way through to the end, but that was a lot more work than a quick revision.

In the end, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I’m now certain that this story is the on the road to being the best I can possibly write it – making it the first story I’ve written that I really believe has a decent shot at getting picked up by a publisher.  Once I send it in, it’s out of my hands (until I hear back), but I’m committed to sending this story off.

So, I’ll just have to set a new deadline.  Deadlines are great, because they motivate us to put in the effort to meet the deadline – even if we set them ourselves.  But, to work, we have to honestly commit to them, and they have to be both realistically achievable but challenging.  The Spring-semester deadline met those criteria (if the work had only been a revision as opposed to a total rewrite).  Now, I need to come up with a new one that does the same.

But as I alluded on Wednesday, I anticipate that I’m in for a very challenging and demanding semester.  And, of course, there’s the baby to consider, for which I have no personal precedent to truly grasp how that will change the demands on my time.  That change will likely occur sometime at the beginning of May.

With those two challenges in mind, I believe that June 15 as the new, arbitrarily invented deadline is sufficiently challenging, but still achievable.  So, unless and until new information changes my current perspective, that’s what I’m going with.  It will allow me to dip my toe in the new semester, feel out where the gaps in free time occur, and learn how to make use of them while pursuing my rewriting and editing goals.  It will afford me the opportunity to find willing participants in my grand scheme to read and review the finished draft, and hopefully time to incorporate their assessment of the stories weaknesses into my finished work before mailing it off. 

I’ve already selected the market to which I want to offer the story to, first, because it is a market I’m familiar with (and whose tastes seem to include this type of story), so once the writing work is done, I’ll be ready to go.

Next stop: a new semester and a finished story.  Happy writing!

The Character’s the Thing

I’m still working on the character studies to help me in rewriting this tale.  How I’ve approached this is to take each character and write a short paragraph (about 250 to 300 words each) written from the point of view of the character’s subconscious mind (so that the paragraph is written in a way that it’s voice is aware of motivations that the character himself may not be) that reveals the salient events that came before the start of the story that will influence what the character does during the story.  Were this a novella, or a full-fledged novel, I would likely need a more robust character study – and one that was evolving as the story progressed, so that I could keep track of how the character changes over the course of the story.

Because this story is a contemporary tale, I’ve also been doing a bit of research to try to give the setting a little more verisimilitude.  For instance, if I’m writing that the main character got an education in a certain field, the next question I had to ask myself is “where did he go to school?”  Was it one of the top schools in his field?  What are the top schools in his field?  Little bits like that, I believe, if layered in with a certain tact and craft can make the story come alive all the more for the reader.   At this point, then, I have two options: make up a school, or research real-world institutions that may have a reputation in this field.  The latter will more likely produce results that ring true to the reader.  The former, to my way of thinking, will be more valuable at points where the story intentionally diverges from our contemporary reality.

Beyond that, I’ve already figured out a new opening line that more clearly lays out the tone of the story and sets the hook.  I’m also playing the opening scene in my mind, with new characters and a better explanation of the opening impetus that’s driving the plot.  But I haven’t written any of this down, yet, because I want to make sure the scene I have in mind is in line with the characters I intend to populate it with.

So, the work progresses, albeit slowly.  I expect the holidays may put a minor damper in progress, simply because I’ll be spending more of my free time enjoying the company of my wife and family and less of it on writing.

For you and yours: happy writing, and happy holidays.

Write, Rewrite, Edit, Proofread, Repeat

Rewriting, Editing, and Proofreading are sort of like the red-headed step-siblings of writing.  Or perhaps like Cinderella’s step sisters.  It’s something writers don’t want to have anything to do with, but without them the story isn’t complete.

In preparing to edit and proofread the story I have decided to try to prepare to send off to a publisher during my break from class, I thought I’d look up some editing and proofreading techniques.  There are some very good guides out on the web.  Much of this good advice (though not all), however, is geared toward students preparing term papers.  Of course, everything I learned in school about editing and proofreading my written work is still largely valid, even now that I’m focusing on fiction over academic papers.

One commonly offered piece of advice, and I can vouch for this, is to put a little time and space between you and the work you are editing and proofreading.  In my experience, for the first week or two after I have finished a story, or a chapter in a novel, I find that I’m so enamored of my work that it’s very difficult to find the errors and problems in my writing.  Given a few months, I’ll be able to approach the story with fresh eyes, and will be a little more objective.  For some people, this may only take  a week or so to get to an appropriate level of objectivity, for others, I imagine, it may be somewhat longer.

The story I am working on now I first wrote in March of 2007.  Yeah, there’s a bit of time and space between us now.  And looking at it now, I’m learning a thing or two, not only about revising and rewriting and editing, but about writing good stories in the first place.

The story was based on this “good idea” I had.  It was  neat twist, something a little unexpected.  And I still think the basic idea behind the story is a good idea.  When I tell people about the premise of the story, I usually get a positive reaction.  And yet… the story lacks something.

You see, a good story needs more than a good idea.   The problem is, when I wrote it – when I write short stories in general – I am usually high on this good idea I have and how it will make for such a great story.  But I miss out on the two really important elements that are the foundations of a good story: interesting characters and interesting conflicts.  A good idea is something that hooks your readers and gets them in the door.   But you need interesting characters with interesting conflicts to keep them in your story until the very end.

That said, I have a lot of work ahead of me.  The opening paragraph is relatively weak – it quickly lays out my “clever” premise and sets the tone for the story, but it lacks dramatic impact, and the story quickly gets lost with a lack of interesting conflicts and motivating impetus.   The main character is essentially the only character for most of the first half of the story. 

Without other characters to interact with early and frequently, the reader doesn’t develop any connection to the main character.  And without other characters, the conceptual conflict set up by the opening premise starts to stretch thin and fall flat.  Good conflict generally flows from interesting characters with opposing goals.

So, before editing and proofreading are even relevant, I need to spend a little time diving in deeper, peppering my story with a cast of interesting characters, some of whom are saddled with mutually exclusive goals.  That’s enough work that at this stage, I can hardly call what I’m doing editing or proofreading.  Instead, I’m rewriting for now, though I should  hopefully be able to keep some decent chunks of my original work.

My writing lessons for today, then: first, make sure you set your story aside for long enough, before editing, that when you pick it up again you can do so with fresh and objective eyes.  Second, for your story to have dramatic punch, you need to make sure it’s filled with interesting and compelling characters and an exciting conflict that forces your characters to make difficult choices.  And, wherever possible, hit the readers hard and fast with both characters and conflicts to keep the reader hooked and invested in the story.

Happy writing, and good luck with your own stories.