Monday Musings: Trials of an Anxious Planner

I’ve spent the last several weeks coordinating this post. There’s a draft of this post written that I am right now in the process of revising. I don’t like the first draft so I’m trying something different. I’m trying to give you a glimpse into my thought process.

Since I didn’t think the post was up to snuff, I set it down to let it rest in the draft section. I busied myself with other projects. I have a major fiction project with a very involved outline. My chapters have bullet points and side notes of things to keep in mind. It’s so obsessive about the details that, after a certain point, it’s hard to look at because of how busy it is. I reference it for broad strokes and then write. New details pop up unaccounted for in the outline. I have to retroactively think about how this impacts the narrative.

I step away from writing. I start thinking about dinner: the food in the cupboards, the food in the fridge, and how do I make these things into a meal? But dinner is a long way off. There are work responsibilities, family responsibilities, and self-care responsibilities. I sketch out all these things into a planner that I sometimes adhere to.

I can spend minutes, hours, days, and weeks, silently thinking about things. I’ve made it an art form. From the mundane like waking up wondering what I’ll eat for dinner to the particulars of work training to my very own fiction outlining strategy—I plan.

I see my dedication to detail as an admirable trait most days but my tendency to perfectionism means most projects stop short. I get really excited about something and then drown in the details. Previous to this year, it’s what killed many a project I’ve been excited about. I consider what it’ll take to make something “perfect,” try to sketch out a plan, and lose steam because of how anxious I get considering the avalanche of minutiae.

Thoughtful planning can be the driver of creation but getting caught up in it can also suck the fun out of the very thing you’re trying to create. I’m in the valley between the peaks right now. I’ve spent so much time and energy planning things that the execution already has me exhausted.

And that’s okay. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. I truly believe it but that driver to create makes me feel guilty for not wanting to do so.

I’m trying to slow down and roam the valley. The work isn’t going anywhere.

Revision: Rewriting by Another Name

2021 was the first year I participated officially in NaNoWriMo. It was a fantastic experience and I ended up completing the first draft of my novel, “Divided Loyalties.” Towards the end of it, I started looking into resources on how to keep the momentum going and start the revision process.

I’m good at completing first drafts. Just before starting my current project, I finished a whole other 90,000+ draft of a sister story. There were highs and lows, but the initial outlining and drafting are my favorite parts of the writing process, when an idea is so new and full of potential. I trip up when looking back because that shiny, new idea wasn’t as polished as I initially thought. Confronted with the enormity of what it’ll take to make it a cohesive story, my motivation quickly fritters away until the next shiny new thing comes along.

I believe all writers can relate to this struggle.

I wanted to take a more steady and thoughtful approach to revision. Here are some takeaways from my (ongoing) journey.

  • Let it Rest

Upon finishing Divided Loyalties, it was locked in the furthest depths of my hard drive for at least two weeks before I touched it again. My heart was still emotionally tied up in the story. I knew it needed improvements. I knew a lot about it needed to change but it was still the perfect story to me. I needed some time away from it so that I could develop a more objective perspective.  

  • Then I read it. Oh God, I read it.

This was a very painful process, but it needed to be done. While I read, I took notes and highlighted passages that needed expanding or complete revising. I broke possible expansions down to character development, plot development, world-building, action scenes, and repetitive details that may need clarification or excising.

  • Rewrite it, don’t revise

I heard often enough that for the second draft, rather than opening and editing within the document, it’s better to open up another blank document and rewrite the whole thing from the beginning. After reading completely through the first draft and making extensive notes, I saw the wisdom of this.

The story was rather bare-bones. That couldn’t be helped as a first draft. The thematic elements didn’t present themselves really until closer to the end when I had a better idea of what I wanted to tell. I knew a part of the revision process would be weaving this throughout the story in the second draft. To work harder at making the story a story, rather than a series of events that happen to the characters.

Keying in on these issues, I employed a more disciplined revision strategy. Rather than writing another detailed outline from beginning to end and then drafting (like I did for Grim Hollow), I decided to break up the process in several narrative chunks (ie, the end of the war chapters, the travel chapters, etc).

In these chunks, I zeroed in on character development and plot threads. In first drafts, I’m bad about making my main characters passive in their own story. Again, events happen to them to get them to one narrative point to the other. Though Jalmekion was conceptualized as a man of action, a lot still happens to him rather than him affecting the plot. He goes from a prince to a prisoner so it’s understandable to a point, but I needed to do more to center his actions in the story.

The first narrative chunk I’ve tackled are the Sumar chapters. The story starts with a siege of  Loryn’s capitol, Sumar. This is the climax of a war between the Satinos and Simaya kingdoms, a war that’s taken place for the last 10 years and a good portion of Jalmekion’s childhood.

Here are my principal goals for the Sumar chapters:

  1. Flesh out Jalmekion Simaya’s character and his relationship with others, namely his parents, his betrothed and the people he fights alongside
    1. To establish Sumar as more of a place
    1. To introduce Aerula’s magic system
    1. Coordinating action scenes
    1. To offer some version of the history of the Simaya family and the road that led to this point

Writing Inspiration:

Gang of Youths was hugely influential in conceptualizing Jalmekion’s character throughout the writing process. This was one of the songs I played whenever I needed to think through his emotional journey.

Monday Musings: Writing on Empty

I love writing. It’s an essential part of my daily life and my life would be incomplete without it.

At the same time, it burns me out.

Starting in late September, I’ve experienced a writing high that I haven’t experienced in years. I had my mojo back. In between then and January, I completed two novel-length projects and started revisions on one.

That hasn’t been the case these last few weeks. There’s a frenetic energy that accompanies a first draft. You get caught up in a story first written, get excited by its potential, and it’s a precious thing that gives you purpose every day. The initial drafting is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

With a revision, however, you’re forced to examine the flaws of the first draft up close and correct them. My process is rewriting whole chapters: expanding scenes, questioning dialogue and character motivation, throwing in more flashbacks, putting a little more effort in worldbuilding, and the like. It’s fun at times, soul-crushing at others.

And these last two weeks, I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle with motivation. My work has taken a toll on my energy after an extra-long week and, with the news being the news, my emotional reserves have been uniquely depleted as well. I have a schedule I’m trying to keep to maintain momentum but I’ve fallen behind. But I’m trying to be gracious with myself. I’ve learned that burnout is the mind’s way of telling you that it needs a breather.

Rather than force the issue, I take a break. I try to relax.

It’s easier said than done though. I fear not being able to pick up the pen again. I fear losing the momentum. I haven’t written like this in years (plural with an s!). That fear is always there. Even though I know from experience that a break is the best thing I can do for my creativity. Even though I know some of my best ideas come when I’m not thinking about my story. I recently read a Joan Didion quote that an author’s greatest fear after writing their first book is that they can’t write another and that this fear remains after the second, third, or fortieth book. It was more talking about ideas but I think it’s applicable here as well.

Regardless of my mood, I still try to write. Even on days I wake up and think that writing is the absolute last thing I want to do that day.

So here is what I do. I stick to my routine. I get up to dedicate my weekend mornings to writing. I open my story and see where I left off. I tentatively start writing something, give myself 25 minutes to find a groove. If I get into a rhythm (like on Saturday), I write until 1 and manage to crank out 2000 words (a win!). If I find myself unable to concentrate and looking for distraction (like on Sunday), I put the story away and promise myself I will try a little later after giving my head a rest.

The important thing is I never try to force it anymore. It shows in the work when I’m writing on empty. It’s painful to read and a nightmare to edit.

I’m trying to emphasize being kind to yourself when you lack the motivation or stamina to do things, especially when it comes to things you love. Breaks are a necessary component of the creative process. Never be afraid to indulge in them.

Thank you. I’ll step off my soapbox now.

The Monday Review: History, Pride Month & A Little Steven Universe

Hey Friends! 

Monday is here again. I wish you all luck in this week’s endeavors. 

Last week I’ve been consumed in reading and digesting histories. The 1619 podcast, Code Switch, Planet Money, and the Youtube channel Overly Sarcastic Productions with their summaries of history and mythology. Due to that, my focus in writing has shifted in that direction. I’ve been journaling more and finding ways to engage in it here. 

To that end, I’ve dedicated Thursdays to historical topics that I’ve found of particular interest. Since June is Pride Month, I’ve steered towards icons and topics in LGBTQA+ history. Last week I researched ACT UP and their contributions to AIDs awareness. I’m now reading articles and watching documentaries on other possible topics like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Stormie DeLarverie, and the Mattachine Society. It’s been a ton of fun and I can’t wait to share what I learned on my research journey. 

In fiction news, I have penned a couple of short stories. I hope to share one of these by week’s end. I’m also trying to shift my focus back to my Grim project. After finishing its draft back in March/April, I set it down for a bit which ended up being two months longer than I meant. I just need to get my head right for the revision. 

That’s all I got for this Monday. 

I’ll sign off with a song that’s been my favorite for a few weeks now. I haven’t really divulged this here but I’m a huge fan of Steven Universe. Here’s one of my favorite songs from the 2019 movie. I hope it gives you a little smile:

In the Event of Distraction

In the event of distraction, we prescribe the following: First, barricade yourself in a quiet room. Then, turn off all music, hide your phone, put a pen in your hand and begin writing and pray something good comes out of that brain of yours.

Admittedly, this has been a week of distraction. My life and the life my mind invented has taken up a lot of attention. I work two jobs; both in books, both I love, and both physically and emotionally taxing. And I couldn’t help but let this and a whole bunch of life things suck up 90% of my energy. Writing included.

So what have I done this week? I’ve stared at blank docs and counted the number of times my cursor line blinks on the screen. Mid-week I was able to eke out some words, butcher some dialogue, and hate it passionately. But it was something so it’s a victory. Other times, I imagined what happened next and listened to music to make it more real. I pulled my computer closer, opened Word and then couldn’t summon the energy to act on inspiration. Like they say, the holy trinity of time, energy, and inspiration in art usually step in as a twosome.

Earlier this year, I promised myself that I wouldn’t beat myself up on weeks like these. I highlight the good. This week’s good is finishing one chapter and carving a small path into the other. No matter how I got there or how bad I think it is at the moment, I’ve done something and that’s enough.

Helpful Writerly Links

Happy Monday, everyone!

It’s a fresh week and a fresh start. And to start off the week I’ll be sharing helpful links to writing, history, and other things I found interesting. Hopefully, they’ll be as informative and/or entertaining to you as I found them.

As I get closer to finishing the first draft of my story, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching ways to explore characters and story structures for a more engaging narrative.

Enjoy!

8 Character Development Exercises to Help You Nail Your Character by Reedsy

9 Writing Prompts to Move Your Story Forward by Leigh Shulman

Thoughts on Writing Serials by J McCrae aka Wildbow

Use a story structure to make writing your novel a lot easier by Susan L Steward (Writing Cooperative)

Revisiting the 7-Point Plot Structure by John Berkowitz (Critique Circle)

Becoming a better editor through reading by Kelly Lauturner (ACES- The Society for Editing)

Add, Delete, Rearrange & Re-imagine

Let’s begin with a sentence.

The first sentence gives you a direction. It may not always be the first sentence. Revision could take it from its pedestal, maybe even erase its existence entirely with a few careless keystrokes. Add, delete, rearrange and re-imagine.

Right now, the first sentence tells me that I needed to start somewhere and made itself the star. It made me choose between first and second person with the tumble of thoughts afterward making the decision for me. But where does this go now? How do I structure my meandering? How do I give logic to something that was one in the stream of my consciousness?

So let’s begin the process anew: add, delete, rearrange, and re-imagine.

 

This week, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the structure of narratives. The process of digging through trash to unearth gold and working in enough spit and polish to make it shine. The more I write, the more I think. The more I think, the more I see myself as a butcher in a dark room readying my knife for the first hacking.

Structure, in my head, is the method by which you connect the plot by a cohesive string. That line might run through every way in loops and dips and over the edge in zigzag patterns but when you step back to connect the dots, you should see the whole picture. As I near the end of my first drafting, I keep asking myself where’s the string. I’ve written a lot of words, made a lot of snap decisions, and used the line of my pen as my guide as I navigate through a world that I’m building up and tearing apart. I’m trying to make sense of the surreal horror of thought before me so that I can carve it into something others will understand. Maybe even enjoy.

As I’ve often heard, the first draft is you telling yourself the story; giving the initial structure to the jumble of words and images in your head. Revision bakes in the themes and allows you to experiment with storytelling, or at least allows you to imagine such things: First or third? This setting or that setting? Beginning here or beginning there? This action or that action? And as the writer, what is my role? As a narrator, am I the same person?

So much to think about and so much more still. And I’m still at stage one.

Revision, History, and Other Things I’m Trying Not to Think About Right Now

It’s been a pretty productive week for me. Consequently, it’s also been a terrible one for my characters. I managed to push through the spot I was stuck on last week. I’m in the middle of putting the pieces together for the main crux of Grim History’s first arc. They’ve gathered in one place, now I have to keep pushing them along.

The story is rough at the moment. Despite being on my mind since 2017, Grim History is still a first draft. Everything is new, uncharted territory. Often imagined, never dedicated to words. It has a ton of issues. I’m painfully aware of it but I’m resisting the temptation to look back and start editing. The last time I started to do edits before finishing the story, I decided the whole thing needed to be reworked. I started at square one again. I’ve got a nasty habit of throwing the whole thing away when I get hung up on one issue.

I’m getting into the habit of writing down perceived issues in a separate document and then moving on. Maybe a note or two on improvements but not too much else. And trust me, there’s no shortage of them. In the document, they’re broken down into the following categories: Setting, Characters, Plot, and Structure. Pretty self-explanatory, right? I plan on going into more detail about each in other blog posts but “Setting” has been especially on my mind this week.

Though Grim History isn’t strictly a historical fiction, I still want to ground it in a specific time and place in American history. Admittedly, I’m not a puritan for historical accuracy. Historical accuracy is hard to judge in fiction (or media in general) especially as our understanding of the past keeps evolving. And also, that concept violently lunged itself out the window since this particular story is teeming with spirits, vampires, and other supernatural creatures that influence the events on this make-believe historical setting. But I do want enough information that a reader can believe its in a specific time and place. The time is more or less set—the early 1840s–but I’m starting to flip flop on where it takes place.

First draft wise, this isn’t important. The details will come in through revision and tons of research. Two things that I won’t commit to until after the first draft.

So that’s where I am at the moment. I’m currently 15 parts into the story and still going strong. I predict the climax is a good three parts down the line though. My goal is to get Arc 1 finished by mid-July.

We’ll see how that goes.

Oh, the Joys of Outlining (again)

I was never much of an outliner.

Being the candy addled 10-year old that I was when I started writing, I wrote what felt right. I followed my heart and my imagination and let that take me wherever it wanted. This energy led to a lot of ideas but nothing that ever got finished.

I look back fondly on this era in my life. Oh, all the ideas I had. The confidence I had in committing every one of them to paper. But I also realize that a lot of them were (oh, how should I put this) really, really awful but still cute in their own way. And in those days, I dismissed outlining. I absolutely hated the idea of it because I viewed it as a constraint on stories. Getting bogged down in the details wasn’t really my thing then and I held onto this belief until about three years ago.

Now I realize how essential outlining is to creating a roadmap to a story and continuing its momentum when you feel lost.

And I’m feeling really lost at the moment. I’ve been revising my Festival of Shadows novel for the last year now and I’m still navigating its fraught waters. I have an outline but after six chapters of pushing through it, it doesn’t feel right. So, these last few days, I’ve been returning to the outline and doing some long overdue research on outlining strategies.

And you know what I found: Premise statements! In fiction, this is a succinct line or two about your story. I know most of you are slapping your foreheads at me wondering how I missed something so basic but this blew my mind. Again, keep in mind that I shook my fist at outlining yelling that it couldn’t contain me.

The premise statement gets at the narrative heart of your story and it’s the very thing I’ve been struggling with FoS. I had scenes, I had twists, turns, and some motivation here or there, but I couldn’t very clearly explain what my story was about. And now I can (sorta).

It’s a work in progress (when isn’t it, honestly) but my Festival of Shadows premise goeth thusly:

“In a town filled with ghosts, witches, and other miscellaneous members of the undead, stubborn reporter Mariela Hudson seeks answers to the uncanny disappearances of her fellow citizens and to also uncover the mysteries of her past with the reluctant help of an intern who sees spirits and a cynical coworker. Their efforts draw the ire of a monster in the shadows that threaten the town.”

I’m still tinkering with my story outline so I would really love to learn your favorite outline strategies in the comments below. For those who don’t outline, how do you craft your stories?

 

 

How NOT To Open A Story [An Analysis]

I’m currently reading C. B. Lee’s Not Your Sidekick, a YA book where  Jess, born to metahuman superhero parents, tries to discover her natural talents by taking up an internship with a villain (unknowingly so, of course). It has an interesting premise and an inclusive cast of characters.

I’m only 50 pages into the story and…I already have opinions. It’s still too soon to judge the book by its story but the opening checks off a number of boxes for what NOT to do in an opening.

I just wanted to get these thoughts out there because it gave me a visceral pang. A bad opening can turn a reader off to a story. This is such a good premise but its execution doesn’t bode well if these mistakes creep up later in the narrative.

I’ll also preface this list by stating that I’VE COMMITTED THESE MISTAKES.

guilty

The first draft of my Festival of Shadows story is a great example of some of the worst things you can do at the beginning of a novel. Hopefully, this will help an aspiring writer who wants some tips in revising their opening chapters. I know it helped me!

So without further ado…

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

Nothing turns off a reader fast enough than burying them under a mountain of information. The book started out promising enough. It kicks off with some excellent opening lines illustrating a moment of action:

Jess grits her teeth, going for a running start. The gravel on the trail crunches under her feet, the wind rushes through her hair, and she can taste success. This time. This time, she’s gonna make it.

But as the story continues, so much is thrown at the reader. I feel like in the first fifteen everything about this post-apocalyptic world is thrown at the reader, including but not limited to: solar disaster, the onset of World War III over resources, initial nuclear destruction, Jess’ family dynamic, Jess’ parents status as superheroes, her personal insecurities with her lack of powers, how class differences influence driving habits, and a whole host of other things.

It’s hard to get truly invested into a world when the writer gives you so much to digest. It slowed down my pace as I tried to keep track of everything.

INFORMATION REPETITION

It’s one thing to have to take notes on the story you’re reading due to the volume of information. It’s a whole other beast when you see the same information explained to you again later. Sometimes within the same chapter.

One example I found was how the narrative keeps relaying the fact that Jess’ parents are the “C-list local superheroes, Smasher and Shockwave.” This wouldn’t bother me so much except that it’s constantly stated within the first few pages in a similar manner.

Smasher and Shockwave are the two resident superheroes of Andover. C-list as they may be, they’re celebrated here. Jess knows them as Mom and Dad. [5]

…but her parents were good C-list heroes, constantly working for the greater good of the country, and their home reflects that. [8]

Jess flops on her back and spots the framed photograph of her parents, dressed as Shockwave and Smasher, vibrant and powerful, the pride of their small city. [10]

Playing devil’s advocate briefly, this repetition could show how present their reputation is in Jess’ life and how her initial lack of demonstratable abilities compounds how inadequate she feels next to them.

But note the page numbers. See how frequently the writing reminds the reader of this so early on. It became a real issue for me as I found myself rolling my eyes muttering how I already know this.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

Okay, so you’ve all heard this one before.

To top off the other issues, most of the information is told. Sometimes shown, then explained needlessly!

I know that when world-building, it’s tempting to just explain how the world works especially if it’s very unlike our own. Some things have to be explained because not doing so may leave the reader confused. But if something can be shown, do it. Certain scenes in this story could’ve been redone and shown later.

There was one really glaring example of this in the first 15 pages.

The context: Jess has just returned home. She reviews the messages on her Data Exchange Device (DED) all the while saddened by the possibility of not being a metahuman when…

Warm fondness for her best friends distracts her from her disappointment.

Did she smile at the messages that her friends sent her? Did her heart feel lighter? Why not show this through character movements? This sounds more like a vague stage direction than narrative.

As I said before, I’ve been guilty of all of these. Everyone has. As I was reading, I kept thinking back to my own stories where I just threw all the information I could think about the setting in the first few pages. I was still ironing out the details myself. Still discovering different aspects of the world that I didn’t want to forget as I was writing.

Revision is a good way of catching these. If this helps in any way to the aspiring novelist, I’m happy about it. And, I must state that despite my griping, I still fully intend to continue reading. The premise is good and I can’t wait to see what happens (hopefully, after the initial hurdle, it’ll get good!)

But now I want to know…

Were there any books with good premises ruined by awkward writing? Did an opening chapter almost turn you off to a good story?

Or are there any fun little writing misadventures that any of you had with your opening chapters? I would love to talk about them.