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Paving the Road to Hell

You’ve heard the saying about what those construction workers use to smooth out the blacktop between Yourtown and Hell. Good intentions. In my mind’s eye, I picture it looking like pyrite, fool’s gold, polished and smooth and false.

Pyrite xx. Elba

Pyrite xx. Elba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In spite of that, sometimes nuggets of the real thing get lumped in with the dross. Since I’ve been talking a lot about goals and dreams and sugar plums lately, I thought it might be a nice moment to draw a nice line between the pyrite and the gold when it comes to those paving stones.

Working on my Camp NaNoWriMo novel has diverged almost completely from the process I wrote with for my first two and a half novels. I’ve always been a solid “pantser,” making it all up as I went along, draft after draft, hoping to find at least a couple agates among all the rubble. But I realized when I had to scream a war cry and murder some darlings this spring that that process can work, but it’s ultimately like chucking a bunch of hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen in a Dyson canister and hoping it gives birth to new life.

I started my beloved trilogy with the best of intentions — I wanted to write a sweeping epic urban fantasy trilogy. I wanted self-actualized vampires who were dangerous and predatory, cognizant and diverse. I wanted magic woven from the earth itself. I wanted characters who got messy, had dirt under their fingernails, got knocked on their arses, and then got up swinging their fists into the evil noses of their antagonistic counterparts. I wanted antagonists who gave you chills, made you pity them, and stuck their greasy fingers into every pure, lovely bit of my story.

Road to hell, right?

As a beginning writer (of novels, I ought to clarify), there is very little out there in the way of a comprehensive “how to” when it comes to your manuscript as a whole. Sure, there are seminars and conferences with sessions on writing effective scenes and how to make your characters do the macarena, but how story works? How you make a story that adheres to the only accepted form of structure that sells? Not much.

It took me seven years to finally get my paws on three books that finally break it down and show writers what fundamental aspects make stories and how they really (I mean REALLY) have to work in tandem to create a serviceable manuscript, let alone one that soars to the top of the bestseller list.

Starting this new book has been an exercise in ditching the Fuzz Factor. For the first time I’m writing after I sit down and think critically about the development of my characters. After writing a logline for my book. After coming up with a concept, and after digging into not just what might be a fun scene, but what would be effective and logical progressions of plot based on my characters’ backstories and multiple dimensions of being.

This is that line I mentioned.

Good intentions are one thing. Without a plan, they’re just pyrite and cheap tricks. Intent is something else entirely. Intent is what makes you from a writer into an alchemist. It’s what takes that pyrite and changes it to real gold. Intent has a plan. Intent has focus. It’s a fine line, but it’s a necessary one. You can have all the good intentions in the world without being intent on doing something.

I’m finding that being deliberate in my writing process has improved the pacing of my novel. It’s made me ask myself hard questions about where things are going and the relevance of each and every scene and character. It’s made me ask myself over and over how I can show things instead of telling them, how I can slip in backstory instead of chunks of exposition. And I think all of this will result in a more cohesive first draft. I will likely still have to write a few drafts to get it right, but my goal for this is better. It’s to grasp structure, character, concept, and theme in order to play the right chords.

Between 2006 and now, I have spent almost 500,000 words just paving the road to hell. I dived in and pantsed my way to two and a half novels that will need to be completely overhauled if they’re ever to be publishable. And that’s half a million words that some people might call wasted. I’ve learned many expensive lessons in my life, but this one is a biggie. Being a pantser works for some big names — but let’s not forget that they’ve learned those fundamentals through often decades of trial and error. If intent and focus can help me master them sooner, I’ll take that straight to the bank. And you should too.

It’s been uncomfortable in many ways. There are some aspects of story structure that I can intuit, and others that I need forced down my throat with a syringe. I have had to admit to myself that, much like building a car, there are certain elements that must be in the right place if I ever expect to go anywhere.

Thus the intent.

Even though I’m still aiming for speed with this first draft (Camp NaNoWriMo is a harsh taskmaster), I’m using any spare time I have to learn how to better my craft and write with intention. I can fly by the seat of my pants another time — those last two books just resulted in a massive wedgie. It’s time to try something different and look for nuggets of the real thing.

English: Alaska Gold Nugget from the Blue Ribb...

English: Alaska Gold Nugget from the Blue Ribbon Mine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How are you trying to maximize your goals by utilizing intent rather than good intentions? 

And in case you are wondering which three books have so revolutionized my way of thinking about my novels, here they are:

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell

Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks

And for extra credit:

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass


Glass in a Minefield

Today is sort of my day off.

And yet the words seem to be stuck somewhere, jammed in my knuckles on the way to the keyboard. I could make a list of everything that needs to be done yesterday. (Cou-this blog-gh.) Somehow I have an inkling that it would be less than helpful.

My normally underwhelming life has taken a turn for the over, between finances and bills that line up with not-so-polite sniffs and a week without income during my job switch. Okay, so I made $24. That’s barely half a tank of gas. Hovering just behind my right ear is the rewrite of my novel. I’d like to think the last few maundering weeks have been ideas stewing in my head like a crock pot full of glory, ready to serve themselves up into bestseller history the second the timer goes off.

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland, Scottish castle

No, chances are a few more rewrites and a lot more tooth gnashing stands between me and any real changes in my finances, though this new job will help significantly. So what do I do? Buckle in and dig down? Mix up some metaphors? Nope.

Lemon Blueberry Muffins, Blueberry muffins, baking

I turn to the dark side.

I make muffins.

Sure, they’re really good muffins. Lemon curd and blueberry. They’re delicious. I already ate four. But unfortunately for them, they aren’t that inspirational. They sure don’t help my behemoth of a project. Now it’s already 1:20, and I have to go to work and take a test on beer and food that I feel 72% sure I will fail (the food part, not the beer part — four days isn’t much to memorize a menu).

So why am I spending my evenings watching Veronica Mars again instead of working on my rewrite? Maybe it’s because every time I sit down to write, every sentence ends up punctuated with, “Buffy! Easy!” as the puppy makes the cat squeak or “Willow, down!” as the kitten sticks her face in my breakfast. By the time they settle down, the puppy needs to go outside (or has gone inside), and I can’t remember for the life of all things fuzzy what I was doing.

Nah. I could blame them, but they’re just being babies.

It’s my own fault I’ve been so lazy lately. There’s a word for it, and that word is discouragement. If I were to scrunch my eyes shut and stick out a finger, that finger would land on an innocuous little sticky note with four lowercase letters written on it.

Yeah, that's the one.

I think I haven’t felt like working on my rewrite because of fear. I’m afraid of the mountain of debt under the carpet of our apartment. I’m afraid that this gamble I’m taking of working as a server while I try to get my writing off the ground will just make me into a 30-year-old with no real “experience” in a traditional field. I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide for my family. Those are harsh fears, sharp and cold and sterile fears. They’re fears I don’t much know how to address or conquer.

It’s  not just about the writing. It’s the other things that squeeze in on me. Each distraction, each new envelope that comes in the mail is a reminder that we’re just sprinting to catch up. Each batch of muffins seems to be made of lead. As much as I would like to believe that getting this rewrite done will change something, that belief is as fragile as looping blown glass in a minefield, and as I dance around it, I wonder which step will create the booming symphony of that glass crashing into shards.

I think I turn to baking and cooking because I have to believe that something I make with my hands can sustain us. There’s a power in that belief that can turn blown glass to diamond hardness, if I only knew how to harness it.

So for now, I’ll drink my Thai tea, eat my muffins, and fixate on the irony of the mug I chose quite by accident.

Murder, Tea, and Piggles

This week I began another rewrite for my first book. For the first time, I feel like my protagonist has something going for her. I’ve probably rewritten the same first chapter twelve times over the past six years, trying to reinvent the wheel over and over and over again. What I needed was for someone to come along, look at it, shake their head and say, “Nope. You’re facing the wrong way. Look over there.”

Last week, the lovely Julie Kenner did just that for me. The result has been oddly liberating. Not only do I feel able to better express a more fully-realized protagonist, but the new goals I wrote for her can be woven seamlessly into the rest of the book. Instead of feeling like I’m reinventing her, I actually feel like I was able to peel back her exterior to figure out exactly what it is that she needed to be. It works — she is much better this way. There are so many little Easter eggs to sprinkle through the book now, and I think that will ultimately make it a more satisfying read for people. I’d love to tell you about them, but as a whole one or two of you have actually read the thing, it wouldn’t make any sense. So you’ll just have to wait. Until I find an agent, sell the book, and it someday gets published.

Yesterday, Karen McFarland hosted New York Times Bestselling Author Bob Mayer on her blog for a great guest post about creating unforgettable characters. I would highly recommend that you check it out. There were some nuggets in there that I definitely intend to keep in mind when I continue this rewrite.

What struck me most about the advice and feedback I’ve gotten lately is that people need motivations for things. They may not be positive things — in fact, I think that often people are more motivated by the threat of something negative than the possibility of something positive — but they have to be present. Whether it’s trying to get your reader to accept why your protagonist is trusting that stranger or why she is so determined to keep something secret, the reader has to be able to say she understands even if she wouldn’t make the same choice.

So as I strike out on this new path (hopefully not in the baseball sense of the phrase), my protagonist has a few new things in her backpack, including a cat named Piggles. My friend has a cat called Miggles, and when I was thinking about her cat, I was thinking of him going hungry and being mad about it, and voila — Piggles was born. He should be an interesting kitty to play with.

A dog kitty

This is about how I picture Piggles. A dog kitty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The past few weeks, I’ve been acting as a beta reader for three friends. It’s been a really fascinating experience, both because it has shown me some amazing writing from three people who will certainly be big names in fantasy/paranormal fiction before long AND because it’s helping me to look more critically at my own work. All four of us are unpublished writers, and I think we’ve all felt the frustration of running into walls with our work. Sometimes you just get too close to something to be able to see what needs to be fixed. None of us are professionals, but we all have completed novels and all have the goal of being traditionally published. I think we’re all happy to have the chance to get feedback on our work from writers in the same genre.

I think we’re all guilty of getting too close to things, whether you’re a writer or not. Sometimes we get so focused on whatever goal is floating in front our faces that we get lost in that metaphor about seeing the forest through the trees. It’s hard to see the forest when your nose is stuck between a couple creases of bark.

Bark of a Pine tree showing normal sloughing o...

Forest? What forest? Bark of a Pine tree showing normal sloughing of plates of bark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes we can get perspective on our own, but other times we need that gentle readjustment in our thinking to come from the outside — or sometimes we just need a bap on the head with a yardstick. I’m setting out on a new journey with some new goals this month. Instead of completing book three by April 15th, my goal is to have a submission-ready book one by June 1.

What have you needed perspective on in your life lately? Yardstick or gentle turn? Have you had to reevaluate your goals?

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