Posts Tagged ‘novel’

This afternoon (it is Wednesday when I type this), I finished the rough draft of my current novel.

Obviously after typing THE END, any further productivity for me for the day went straight out the window.

It’s a really weird sensation, typing THE END and being finished. Even being finished with the first draft, which isn’t actually being finished finished. (Revision is my friend.) There’s a sense of confusion and a sense of surprise. Don’t get me wrong: I was fairly certain I’d finish the book either today or tomorrow. But even with that knowledge, the moment of completion is still just the slightest bit unexpected.

There is a part of me, when I’m writing a novel, that kind of thinks I’ll be writing that novel and living in that world forever.

Writing novels is such a weird experience. It’s a solitary endeavor, especially the rough draft, which I share with ABSOLUTELY NO ONE, and yet I am so focused upon it, and it becomes so real. It’s hard to leave it behind and move on to the next thing, even if the next thing is only draft two of the same book.

Anyway, this time around, I figured I might as well live it up, so I proceeded to spend a couple of hours being very excited and chatting with lots of people to celebrate. I knew I could persist in the kind of numb, kind of confused state indefinitely unless I deliberately broke through it and allowed myself to celebrate hitting a milestone. So I danced to my favorite songs and used a lot of capital letters and exclamation points and tried to let the fact of THE END sink in and begin to feel like some kind of reality I can understand and work within.

And now I am both very happy and very tired. Tired because I just flung out an outpouring of celebratory energy and because I put as much as I could into this book. I think most of us do. Even books like this one, that are more rollicking and fast-paced and plot-driven. There is something that used to be inside of me, and now it’s there on the page, for better or for worse.

I don’t know what I have, of course. That will be the work of the second draft. I don’t know how much works and how much doesn’t work, but I already have a list of things I want to change and fix. What I do have is the experience of writing the book, and overall I had a lot of fun with this one. I reveled in the chance to be writing fantasy again, after quite some time away. I was surprised by exactly how much this pleased me.

What else can I tell you about the book? Well, it doesn’t have a title yet. It technically has a couple of working titles, but they are both really awful so I am not sharing them. When I talk about it, I say that it is a YA contemporary fantasy that is a cross between Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. For those Buffy fans out there, I was also really inspired by the Season Five episode “Forever.”

But when I think of it in my own head, I think of it as my London book. And this book has been a long time coming. London has been my favorite city since I was twenty-one, and I’ve been wanting to write a book set in London since before I started writing books. This is that book, or at least the first of those books. It is a love letter to London, albeit a somewhat strange, magical, and dangerous mirror version of London in the Underworld. And getting to write it has made my inner writer sing.

Me in London last summer, with my favorite statue, which inspired one of the characters in my book.

Me in London last summer, with my favorite statue, which inspired one of the characters in my book.

And now these few days are for celebrating and resting and catching up with the rest of life that isn’t writing this novel. Thank you so much to all of you who have been and will be celebrating with me. Writing novels can be a lonely business, so my friends and readers and colleagues really make a huge difference. And celebrating all the milestones makes the entire writing process both more enjoyable and more sustainable.

And now? It’s time for some more celebrating!

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My friend Danielle suggested that I write a post about my novel revision process, and since I just completed revising my most recent novel, now seemed like a good time. And while I’m at it, I’m going to talk about the submission process too. And then you will understand more about how my life works.

I revise very little while I’m writing my rough draft. My main goal is to keep writing and finish the draft. Occasionally I’ll go back and fix some little thing because it’s distracting me. And if something major breaks, then I might have to do more (like add a few scenes or even start over). But in general, my rough draft is not revised as I go.

Once I have the rough, then I print out the entire manuscript and read it to see what I’ve got. While I’m reading, I make a new chapter-by-chapter outline of everything that happens and how many pages each chapter is. (I do this when I’m reading a novel for critique as well. It makes it so much easier to keep track of everything.) I also take a lot of notes. I’ve also probably taken a lot of notes while I was writing the rough draft of things to check on and things to change. So I take care of all those notes and clean the prose up a bit (enough so it won’t be completely embarrassing) and that’s draft 2.

This is the point where I give it to my first reader. He reads for larger scale issues; he is a structure genius, and he also reads for plot, character, world-building, theme, voice, etc., etc. I use his notes to generate a third draft.

Then I hand it to a few more readers. They too read with the big picture in mind, although they also give me more scene-scale notes (and sometimes even smaller scale stuff). They also sanity check how my changes worked out between drafts 2 and 3, which is super helpful since I can’t always tell if I’ve gone too far or not far enough with changes (or nailed them, which does occasionally happen). From their notes, I plan and execute draft 4.

If I’m feeling unsure of draft 4, I will give the novel to a few more readers and make more changes. Once I am confident about the strength of the book, I do final clean up. This involves a novel-wide search for adverbs and another search for the word “that.” I sometimes search for other overused words as well. For this novel, I read the entire book out loud to assist my search for errors and check rhythm, especially of dialogue.

While I’m doing this last clean-up pass, I’m also starting my query letter and my synopsis. The query letter is basically a sales pitch of the novel, sometimes similar to what one would find on the back cover of a book, one page or less. The synopsis summarizes the entire novel, also ideally in about a page. I’m also updating my agent spreadsheet.

Once I am finished with the novel, the query, and the synopsis, I begin querying agents. This means I email my query package to agents (which depends on the agent’s guidelines, but usually includes a customized query letter and perhaps some sample novel pages and/or the synopsis) and keep track of submissions and responses. Depending on how things go, I could spend many months doing this. At the same time, I am beginning my next novel project, generally by doing whatever work I need to do to select the project, and then brainstorming, researching, and outlining.

The length of time all of this takes can vary a lot depending on the length of the manuscript, the extent and number of revisions, the schedules of readers, and how smoothly the rough draft goes. I do have some target dates in mind by the time I begin a rough draft, based on the premise that the project will go fairly smoothly. And since I don’t write a huge amount of words every day, I can generally adapt as I go when there are snags. A lot of my writing time is actually spent thinking.

So this is my writing, revision, and submitting process. Each writer has their own process: some revise a lot as they go, some have readers as they go, some use a lot more readers in the revision process, some use less. The important thing is figuring out what works.

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I made a hard decision on Friday.

I decided to abandon my current novel-in-progress.

Currently at 61,000 words in length, this novel represents a large amount of my time and effort. It is about 75% completed.

It is also not working. And I don’t mean that in a rough-drafts-suck kind of way, but in a there-are-several-deep-systemic-problems-here-and-most-of-this-needs-to-be-thrown-out kind of way. So I am putting it aside. Maybe at some point I’ll know how to fix these deep systemic problems and I’ll return to the project. Or maybe I won’t. It’s hard to say.

Scott Adams had a good point in his widely shared article about failure: that there are people who focus on goals and people who focus on systems, and it is the people who focus on systems who tend to do better.

Don’t get me wrong; I think having goals is important. I’m a planner, and goals help structure planning. But ultimately, we want to have goals that support our system. When the goal no longer supports the system, it is time to change the goal.

My system is to be continuously improving myself as a writer while looking for opportunities to advance my career. My goal was to complete this novel. When I started the novel, the goal was in line with the system, but that is no longer the case. Being aware of the broken aspects of the novel, at this point I’ve been going through the motions, which isn’t teaching me all that much. (If I didn’t know how to finish projects, or if I felt I could learn a lot about endings by finishing, this might not be the case. But neither of those applies this time.) And finishing a novel this broken won’t do anything for my career except take time I could be using elsewhere.

That’s not to say I haven’t learned a lot from this project because oh wow, have I ever. I’ll take all of that knowledge and experience with me to the next project, where I’ll put it to good use. But sometimes it’s important to be able to figure out when to cut your losses and walk away. My own personal tendency is to hang on too long. This is another opportunity to practice not doing that.

If you’re wondering how I’m feeling, well, I just put 61,000 words into a drawer, which is not the most pleasant experience ever. But at the same time, I do feel good about this decision. I am excited to have more time to work on other projects that I believe in. I’m happy to be moving forward.

Failure is hard, but it’s also necessary when we’re trying to push our limits and become better. So this is not a horribly discouraging thing. I’d feel a lot worse if I no longer believed in my system, but I do. Nothing fundamental has changed. I’m just moving on to the next stepping stone.

What is your system? Are your goals in line with it? How do you feel about failure?

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You know that novel I’ve been talking about all year? The Academy of Forgetting, a riveting (I hope) YA psychological thriller set in the near future and full of awesomesauce?

Finished. Done. Kaput. Complete.

I’m having trouble believing it. But I am also very, very happy!

Celebratory pie! (Photo by Poppy Wright)

So what’s next, my non-writer friends ask me? Will we see your book on shelves soon? (Writer friends, bear with me here, as I’m sure you’ve received similar questions.)

The answer is NO. In fact, the book isn’t truly finished, as in it is not yet ready for publication. It is ready to be seen by agents, which means it is as good as I can make it. However, if an agent were to be interested, and if I were to sign with said agent, and then if said agent were to sell the book to a publisher, there would most likely be several more rounds of edits between the version on my computer right now and the version that would show up in bookstores.

This entire process can be remarkably time-consuming. And there are no guarantees at any particular step. The trick, I think, is to focus on what I can control, which is writing a novel that I can stand behind and be proud of.

So what’s next? I am updating my agent spreadsheet, I am working on short summaries for a potential book 2 and book 3 in the trilogy, and I am revising my query letter and synopsis. Then I will start sending queries to agents on the spreadsheet. And meanwhile, the fun will start:


Which realistically means I will spend the month of December brainstorming and fleshing out various novel ideas. If I’m really, really lucky, I’ll also choose one of those ideas and outline it. If the brainstorming goes more slowly, though, I won’t be doing the outlining until January. If the brainstorming goes very slowly, I might squeeze a short story or two in there somewhere too. (And for those wondering, no, this new novel will not be book 2 to follow The Academy of Forgetting. I’ll only write that book if AoF sells. Or if I get an agent, and my agent believes that starting book 2 before selling could be strategic, and I agree with him/her. Or if I have another particularly compelling reason.)

I am very excited about this, and it also feels weird. It feels weird to get ready to let go of this novel project that I have focused so much of my life on for the past ten and a half months. It feels strange to contemplate starting something new, with characters I don’t know better than I know my real-life friends and no limits at all until I lay some down in the outline. Soon I’ll be having new entirely made-up adventures instead of the familiar old ones.

It’s also interesting to see how finishing this novel, my third, feels different from finishing the first two. When I finished my first novel, there was this sense of euphoria because until I crossed that finish line, I wasn’t completely one hundred percent positive I could actually write a novel. When I finished my second novel, there was a sense of relief that the first one wasn’t a fluke.

But with The Academy of Forgetting, I feel more of a quiet satisfaction that I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell and grow as a writer. I already knew I could write a novel. And I know I’ll be writing another novel in the not-too-distant future. This is my life now.

And that is a truly wonderful thing.

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“So how’s the revising going, Amy?” you might well ask.

Do not be alarmed if your question is greeted with me pulling contorted faces and making strange, growling noises. But never fear; my joy in being asked about what I spend most of my waking hours thinking about will outweigh my need to do an interpretative dance to express my varied ambivalence, sheer joy, and “what was I thinking?” reactions to my current revision process.

To catch you up: At the end of April, I went to Seattle. (Did I already tell you this? I can’t remember.) Bolstered by the excellent company of my comrades-in-arms for many adventures and meals in Seattle, I resisted the urge to play tourist 100% of my time and instead read through the rough draft of my novel The Academy of Forgetting. I took copious notes, rewrote sections, and tried to make sure it was more or less coherent. Then I sent it to my most trusted novel first reader for an opinion.

The magic of revision…oh, who am I kidding? I am totally using this as an excuse to use Trey Ratcliff’s awesome Walt Disney World photo on my blog.

A week later, Daniel sent me his critique, which ran almost 4,500 words long. This was obviously not going to be a small revision pass.

So for the last month, I’ve been thinking. I haven’t wanted to dive headlong into revisions because these changes are complex enough that there is a fair amount to be figured out ahead of time. Plus a few weeks were mostly lost to injury (but oh boy, did I have a lot of time to think) and then I went on vacation, and you know. Life. But I am about ready to start writing new words and begin the simultaneously delicate and destructive task of fixing this book. The prospect fills me with both excitement and dread.

Let me give you an example of one of the changes I’ve been thinking about. There’s a plot twist at the end of the book. It is, in my opinion, a fun plot twist, and one that I looked forward to revealing the entire time I was writing the first draft. Daniel suggested that the twist doesn’t work as it currently stands. It’s not foreshadowed amply enough, for one, but he also suggested the book might be stronger if I completely cut the twist.

So now I have to decide: keep the twist or cut the twist? At first I thought I’d cut it. But then I realized that if I cut it, I’d also be cutting a key bit of information about the narrator and the narrative, which would, in my opinion, take away a large bit of the narrative depth. So then I thought, well, what if I keep it and make these foreshadowing changes, etc.? And I thought about that possibility for a while, but something felt slightly off. And then I had an exciting idea for how I can cut the twist but retain the key insight into the narrative, and I was bouncing up and down in my chair. But then I realized this idea brings up a whole new problem in terms of the plot and how I can make it work…. And on it goes.

I love the revision process because it’s challenging and interesting and convoluted and requires thinking about many things at the same time. But while I think it’s one of the most exciting things ever, it looks like me sitting in a chair and staring into space, with perhaps the occasional spurt of typing or scribbling sentences in my notebook. The writing life is often glamorous in a completely invisible way.

So that’s what I’m doing: getting ready to start a new draft, trying to resist biting my fingernails at the thought that I might demolish something that I actually needed intact, or that I might keep something that turns out to be just an old eyesore. Either of these would be fine in an isolated case, of course, but they can add up so quickly into a manuscript that simply does not work. And I’d like to make this manuscript work, if I can.

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I am happy to report that a week ago today, I finished the rough draft of my latest novel, The Academy of Forgetting. It clocks in at a little less than 77,000 words, which is ideal for a YA novel with a speculative element, and gives me a little breathing room in both directions as far as final length is concerned.

Some of you may remember that I started this novel as part of Theodora Goss’s YA Novel Challenge last summer. I wrote the outline, banged my head against the beginning, and stopped after having written 10,000 words. In retrospect, I believe I wasn’t ready to write the book: my skills weren’t quite at the right level, my concept of the setting and main character weren’t clear enough in my own mind, and some of my ideas regarding the plotting of the beginning of the book needed to be rethought.

This photo makes me want to read my own book by candlelight. Or really just any book.

I started again this January. I threw out the 10,000 words. I kept most of the outline but made some key alterations. I began writing in first person past tense instead of first person present tense, and I conceived of a narrative structure that was very exciting to me. I had some different ideas about the tone I wanted to start with as well. With all these changes, the novel began to form itself in my mind in a new way. And three months later, I have a complete first draft. I am so relieved to have finished!

This novel is definitely the most complicated of the three I’ve completed to date. It’s a psychological thriller with a vastly unreliable narrator that plays around with memory, so it had to be quite twisty and involved by its nature. I really don’t think I could have written it pre-Taos Toolbox, which is a testament to the excellent teaching of Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress.

So what happens next? Revise, revise, revise. I’m going to do my own pass first, addressing all the notes I took while writing it, replacing brackets with actual decisions, and adding a soupcon of description along the way (I tend to go too light on description). At the same time I’ll be writing my own scene and chapter summaries for future reference. Then I’ll send it to my amazing friend Daniel, who is the ultimate plot whisperer. And I’ll revise it again. And then I’ll send it to more amazing writer friends. And I’ll revise it again. At some point I’ll write a query letter (which, if I do it well enough, will be somewhat similar to the copy on the back of a book) and a synopsis (which I really detest doing). The whole process will take several months.

But this week, I’m resting and enjoying the feeling of satisfaction that accompanies typing the words “The End.”

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My head is in the clouds. Actually, my head is in a fictional boarding school in a remote location in the Canadian Rockies.

In other words, I am obsessed by the novel I am currently writing. And when I’m not completely lost in my obsession, my mind invariably turns to the novel I want to write next.

This makes everyday interaction a bit…problematic. Because there’s a part of me that wants to spend all my time at Lincoln Academy because my god, the amount of tension and drama in the plot right now! I want to find out what happens next. (I mean, I kind of know what happens next, but it’s not the same as when the words are written. Words can be surprising.) There’s a part of me that never wants to leave my house. On days like today, when I don’t have to, I am suffused by a sense of well-being because I can just let my mind go on its haywire creative journey all day long. And I am deeply, deeply happy…even when in the depths of misery because the book will not cooperate, the book is not as good as it should be, the book is making my brain hurt because dealing with an unreliable narrator is even more mind-blowing for the writer than it is for the reader (or so I am learning).

Of course, I can’t spend every minute of every day writing. For that matter, I spend very little time actually writing, and much more time thinking about all things novel-related. But I can’t even do that all the time. However, I am finding it increasingly difficult to clear my mind enough to think or converse intelligently about other topics. I can do it, but it takes significantly more effort than usual. So when I wrote about how writers shouldn’t talk about writing on their blogs all the time, maybe I was being a touch naive. Because right now, what else could I possibly want to talk about?!?!

When I need a break from the novel, I do turn to Downton Abbey...

The blog is a particular problem because I choose the topics and the original post is just me talking about what I’m thinking about. In person I get along a bit better, because in general people are quite happy to take over most of the conversation, and I certainly have enough brain space to nod and smile at the correct intervals. I can even make vaguely relevant comments. The people who know me best can still strive for total engagement with strategic introduction of proven Amy-enticing topics: Disneyland, travel, theater, books besides my own, bridge, a sufficiently interesting intellectual topic (with extra points for neuroscience or social trends). Sometimes politics is shocking enough to dart pass my defenses, although this is invariably unpleasant.

But in the end, I am living breathing dreaming and otherwise immersed in my novel. So if I seem somewhat distracted here on the blog, or if you notice a certain, dare I say, sloppiness creeping into my thought processes, well, that is why.

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“Anyone can write popular fiction… You just tell a story that everyone likes.”

Does this quote make anyone else’s blood boil? This type of talk makes me want to be alternately scathing, snarky, and pitying. I got it from an essay by Kat Howard, about her chance parking lot encounter with some fellow who made light of her post doc position in medieval and speculative literature.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, and that most (if not all) of my readers understand how truly challenging and difficult it is to write a novel, whether it be mainstream or genre, adult or children’s, an epic tome or a light-hearted romp. And I don’t want to get into the genre/literary question, so let’s please not go there.

Instead, I’m going to break down this statement. Anyone can write popular fiction, can they? Let’s take a look.

Writing Fiction — Lifestyle — What It Takes

1. Hours upon hours of sitting by yourself doing the writing. Not to mention the research. Not to mention the revisions. Not to mention the nit-picky copy editing.
2. Avoiding the lure of Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Farmville, MMORPGs, Solitaire, Minesweeper, etc. so you can actually do said writing.
3. Carving the time out of your already busy life, in which you’re also expected to have a day job, take care of your family, clean and do chores, and deal with life’s multiple disasters and time sinks.
4. Smiling and nodding when people say patronizing things to you. Explaining kindly and gently that building a writing career takes a long time, and no, it won’t make you rich. Alternately, getting into a lot of arguments.
5. Thinking about your story in the shower, while walking the dog, while doing the above-mentioned cooking and cleaning, while driving from point A to point B, and while you should be sleeping.
6. In your copious spare time (ha!), reading tons and tons of books, both in and out of your genre. Not to mention your nonfiction research materials.
7. Dealing on a daily basis with rejection and maintaining a positive upbeat attitude, a can-do spirit, and continued forward thinking to the next project.
8. Reading unpublished work from other writers of roughly your same level (at least in theory), learning how to both give and receive critiques

Writing Fiction — Craft — Required Understanding

1. Characters. This includes understanding every character in your book, knowing their back story, knowing their mannerisms and how they speak (word choice, etc.), knowing what they would know, knowing their motivations (what they want) and making sure you’re consistent about it. You need to keep your POV consistent over the course of the book, whatever you decide (first, close third, omniscient, etc.) Your protagonist needs to be sympathetic in some way. He/she/it needs to be a driving force in the novel, not a passive character who is only acted upon. Also your protagonist and probably other characters as well need a moving and well executed character arc, in which they grow and change and react to events and are different by the end of the novel.
2. Plot. This includes knowing how to structure a novel, making sure there is interesting conflict, making sure the stakes are periodically raised and the conflict builds over the course of the novel, knowing what your main narrative engine is, as well as keeping track of subplots and planning the correct number of them. Also the plot needs to hold together and make sense (no plot holes, please), you need to know the purpose of and conflict in each scene. You’ve got to keep the pace up (make stuff explode or whatever) or it will get too boring. This would also include making sure the continuity is sound and that the scenes happen in the correct order. You must make sure you create a hook at the beginning to draw the reader into the novel, and you aim for achieving emotional resonance and a certain closure at the end of the novel (unless it’s in a series, in which case you’re busy thinking about the overall series arc as well as the novel arc as well as deciding whether the novel needs to stand on its own or not).
3. World building. This is understanding how your world works. This includes the magic system, which needs to have rules and costs; geography, especially of a secondary world or another planet; economy; political system; social structure and mores; religion; technology level as well as any invented tech; magical creatures and/or aliens and how they differ from humans; and various existing infrastructure. Then once you’ve created your world, you have to get it across in the novel without over-utilizing info dumps or slowing down the pace.
4. Prose. This is being able to use the English language passably well, which is surprisingly difficult, even for native speakers. This includes knowing as many grammar rules as you can cram into your brain and then knowing when to break them. Points to remember include the following: eschew adverbs and speech tags other than “said” and “asked” and minimize speech tags in general. Vary sentence structure. Try really, really hard not to overwrite or use too many adjectives for your really shiny setting. Remember that you do have to say something about the setting, though. Try not to overuse words such as “that” or “really” or the “to be” verb. Use active verbs, but not too many weird verbs or it’s distracting. Spelling skills also help as spellcheck won’t catch all your mistakes.

Writing Popular Fiction that Everyone Likes — Good luck.

1. In order to make your fiction popular, you have to sell it. Unfortunately, being able to sell something is not necessarily the same skill set as being able to create something.
2. Ability to write and deliver pitches, queries, synopses, and basic summaries of your book that will make random people on the street want to read it instead of getting on with their lives. Also organizational ability to keep track of it all, including short story submissions, workshop/conference deadlines, and market research.
3. Social media and promotion! Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, keeping up-to-date on the latest trends, recording a podcast. Being interviewed for blogs, radio programs, and podcasts. Writing guest posts, being active on forums, making a book trailer, always presenting your best possible face to the public. School visits, public readings, convention and conference appearances.
4. Being lucky enough to write in line with the current zeitgeist and have your novel come out before it ends.
5. Having your publisher decide that your novel is SO AWESOME that they’re going to pour big marketing dollars into its production and promotion. Getting good bookstore placement. Getting into many bookstores at all. Having your cover not suck. Getting big names to blurb the novel. (Please note that many of these things are outside the writer’s control.)

What did I miss? Feel free to kvetch below. Even being incomplete, I think my list makes it clear that writing a novel is never easy, and writing a really good novel is even harder than that. I rest my case.

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