Getting Stuck, Reimagining, and Moving Forward

The African violet budding on my kitchen windowsill; these flowers, like my novel are growing but still hidden in their potential state.
A couple weekends ago, I attended a half-day novel workshop with Kij Johnson in San Antonio, and it was wonderful! Kij is a wellspring of writing knowledge. The format of the workshop was inspiring. After going over some general principles, each attendee presented a summary of our novel-in-progress, then described the problem or difficulty we were facing. Kij offered specific, actionableadvice to each of us, then opened the conversation up so that we could all brainstorm solutions for each other.
Just hearing the breadth of problems that a dozen writers are wrestling with was weirdly inspiring. Maybe it was the simple affirmation that most of us (certainly everyone in that room) struggle with this complicated, wonderful, maddening thing called a novel.
Writing a novel is an endurance event. They are so much larger in scope than a short story and truly different in kind. Short stories can rely on, and often benefit from, leaving much unsaid, and encouraging the reader to discover the meaning on her own. Alternatively, you can aim directly at the target and that can work too. Novels, being longer, can be more meandering, more inclusive, more complex. After spending so much time writing short stories, I’m finding that a challenge.
I’m about a quarter of the way into my novel, Izzy Crow, which means I have now arrived at the very beginning of the dreaded middle. Many elements of the events that I so cavalierly put in the opening are now coming due. Because a novel is so much bigger, I feel like I’m learning to juggle or spin a dozen plates, and I can’t quite keep everything in the air yet.
After running my troubles through the patented Kij Johnson wringer, I can see that I will have to trash my beloved first scene (kill your darlings), but that decision allows me to re-envision the whole story in a way that suggests more layers. So, I’ll be throwing some words out and repurposing many more, but I believe I’ll have a deeper novel when I’m finished.

Kij Johnson teaches a two-week version of this workshop at the Gunn Center for Study of Science Fiction. If you’ve been working on a novel and are not sure how to proceed, I would highly recommend it. She’s taking applications right now!


In other business:

You can read my thoughts on the excellent Vestal Review at The Review Review.



Flash Fiction Online included my Diorama story included in their Annual Anthology along with over 30 other amazing flash fiction stories.


My story “Cattle Futures” is forthcoming in February at the lovely 99 Pine Street Literary Journal. I’m delighted that this story found such a lovely home. I will post a direct link as soon as it becomes available.


End of the year Potpourri: Rocking the Writers of the Future, Izzy Crow, and Surviving December


 
Izzy Crow

I’m currently writing Chapter 11, as soon as I finish, I’ll be taking a some time to reoutline. I love outlining. I need to outline, but my outline is not a static document. The first draft is full of discoveries and course corrections – everything is fluid. So, at about the 25 percent point, I’m going to take a step back and look at the big picture again and redraw my map a bit. I still don’t think I’ll have it outlined all the way to the end, but that’s okay. Maps of undiscovered territory are always a bit sketchy.

 

After skipping a few quarters, I sent a story to Writers ofthe Future this fall and it received a Silver Honorable Mention, which is the category just below Semifinalist! Essentially, this story made the top 50. I am quite jazzed and have already sent this story off to a pro market. Hopefully I’ll have publication news for it before too long.

The last story I sent to WOTF, by the way, was Futile theWinds, which garnered an Honorable Mention and was published in Interzone.

December is a tough month to write through, what with the crushing amount of errands and non-negotiable family obligations joyful Christmas shopping, decorating, and precious family time.*

Returning to my outline will be a relief from pushing the narrative forward on my novel. Seriously, a novel is an endurance event. In the afterglow of my WOTF success, my December writing assignment is to rewrite a novelette that I’ve been tinkering with and send it off to the contest. I just keep repeating to myself, “write a little every day to keep the holiday insanity away.”

 

* Precious family time is the one part I unironically love. That and time to knit.

Novel Progress and Other Irons

The Novel
I’ve been working my way through the first draft of what I’m calling my first novel. I have written a couple other long – um – things that, while technically novels, well, let’s just leave them in the drawer filed under “experience.”
Izzy Crow is the working title and the name of the protagonist. Here’s the proto logline: 
Freed from a powerful spell after centuries, a fairy tale princess must learn to live in the modern world.

I have a lot of irons in the fire, so I’ve set what I hope is a reasonable goal of completing a chapter a week. I’ve added a word count progress bar to the sidebar in order to keep myself accountable to y’all. 

Other Irons
I’m about halfway through the University of Iowa’s How Writer’sWrite Fiction mooc and really enjoying the experience. The syllabus is well thought out and the lectures have been useful and thought provoking. While I have not spent a lot of time on the teaching team discussion boards there are plenty of opportunities to interact with both teachers and students

The writing assignments are thoughtful and challenging enough to have me stretching my writerly muscles. It’s genre friendly but literary over genre, which for me who writes in both, is a refreshing change, and just the thing I needed to shake up my writing.

The feedback/critique element is a bit hit or miss, but I expected this. (All of the feedback on the writing assignments is student on student. The teaching team is in place to support the lecture discussion threads.) This is a “massive” and “open” course, so there are all kinds of people participating for all kinds of reasons and at all levels of ability.

I think what I am enjoying the most is connecting with writers from all over the world. I hope to not only generate some material that will be converted into complete short stories over the next few weeks, but also to form some budding friendships with other writers who I would have otherwise never met.

My story, The Silva, will be appearing in Ecotones, SFFWorld’s  fourth annual anthology.

The table of contents has been announced, and boy howdy am I in some amazing company: Ken Liu, Tobias Buckell, and Lauren Beukes!

The kickstarter for this anthology will be debuting next week, so you’ll be hearing more about it and all the great stories within soon!

I’m Back and I Promise to Stop Neglecting You!

Photo by Matthias Haker
Hello poor neglected blog. While I’ve been away planning and now writing this novel, I’ve missed you.
No, really!
So, I’ve decided to try to come by a little more often, albeit for short visits. No long think pieces for now.
As if I’m not busy enough, I’ve also decided to participate in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program’s MOOC “How WritersWrite Fiction.” I’m posting today because it’s not too late for you to sign up.
MOOC stands Massive Open Online Course. It doesn’t cost anything and there is no obligation to complete assignments. But, I believe there will great rewards for participating in the course. “How Writers Write Fiction is currently in its welcome week. The first official class will be Thursday, October 1, so there is still time to join. Writers, both aspiring and experienced, from all over the world are participating. I audited their poetry course earlier this year and while the video lectures were awesome and the writing assignments looked well thought out, one of the biggest benefits is a chance to meet and interact with writers from all over the world.

I’m looking forward the experience. I think it will be useful for my writing in general, and hopefully, for my current novel in particular.* 

If you decide to join in you can do it here. Once you’ve signed on, be sure to find me on the message boards and say hi!


* More about the novel-in-progress next post, which will be soon. I promise!

Story Fail, Critique Win! Or, My Story Will Rise Again!

Red Bleed by Jon Coffelt
Another post about failing and just how awesome it can be!
I brought the first half of my novelette, Izzy Crow, to my local critique group on Tuesday night where it pretty much totally fell down. While everyone agreed that the writing was fine on the micro level (I like to think that I’ve achieved some competency in that area), the most consistent reaction overall was confusion. I want to elicit many emotions in a reader, but confusion is definitely not one of them.
While writing, I had hoped that I was pulling things off brilliantly. Yet I’m not surprised by my writing fail. Whenever I’m drafting I’m working hard to create the best story I ever have (my goal with each new project). I believe that you have to go into the first draft with a little hubris. A hubris born from an original idea so awesome that it inspired me to undertake the whole mad project in the first place. Hubris is also fuel for the engine that powers me through the thousands of words it takes to get the mangled corpse of the brilliant idea down on the page.
Another other thing that informs my first drafts is a piece of advice that I remember from last year’s Armadillocon. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who said it. It was during the opening session, when all the authors, editors, and various experts were arrayed across half the room, firing all their words of advice at us acolytes like so much buckshot. The advice was:
Don’t be afraid to fail.
A lot of things have to happen if you want to continue to get better. You have to show up and do the work and you have to learn the craft, but you can’t just keep coloring inside the lines. Failing is all about putting yourself out there. Trying something crazy, untenable, something nobody’s ever tried before, because if you always stay safe inside your zone of competency, you’ll never really breakthrough. I believe that to create something great, something transcendent, you have to keep making that leap. Or as Robert Browning put it:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
And that leap guarantees failure. That’s why failure is my friend. I really believe that you can’t find out what doesn’t work – until it doesn’t work. You can’t skip failing, just like you couldn’t skip falling down when you were learning to walk.
As for as the critique: I don’t bring a piece of writing to the group until I feel like it’s at a point were people can at least see what I’m trying to achieve. But by the middle draft, it’s been just me and the story for so long and I’m so deep into it that I can’t judge it any more. I really can’t tell if it’s great or terrible. And honestly, I’m usually a little bored with it too. Hearing everyone discuss what they saw – and didn’t see – in the story, can both reset my compass, and get me fired up about it all over again.
The group was able to tell me where they were confused and why, and what they were (and mostly weren’t) getting out of it emotionally. This is invaluable. They tossed around a lot of ideas that really got my brain cooking. Instead of coming home depressed that this piece of writing wasn’t working, I was excited and stayed up way too late restructuring, reoutlining, and sketching in the scenes that will make this into a different, but definitely better, story.

When do I get to read it, you ask?

Detail of man reading “The Three Kingdoms”

After reading my post about finishing the first draft of my novelette Izzy Crow, my brother asked, When do I get to read it? I’m afraid the answer is, not for a while. I think of a story idea, sit down and write it out, and that’s really where things are just getting started. I followed my own advice with this story and wrote fast and let it be a big, bountiful mess, which will need a lot of taming before it resembles a finished story. 

One of my favorite short story writers, George Saunders talks about about his approach to story being an iterative process. He explains that even if he doesn’t know exactly what a story is about when he starts it, if he keeps returning to it over and over again through revisions, the true meaning of the story kind of accretes (Check out the article and listen to the whole interview here). I think this is true. In any creative pursuit, it becomes apparent that while you can work faster, there are no shortcuts.

Here are the steps in my process as it is today. It may change and evolve as I continue to push myself to become a better writer.

    First is the idea of course, usually followed by a little preliminary research. I don’t factor this into the time it takes to produce a finished story. I keep a collection of ideas simmering in my journal, and when I have a spare minute or two I’ll poke around the Internet for information that will help grow a particular idea until I’ve got enough to start writing. For example, for the story I’m working on this week (remember a story a week!): I’m reading about the different kinds of environments tidally locked planets might have. I am actually doing this concurrent with writing the first draft.

    • First draft. “Ground Zero” can mean either the point directly below an exploding nuclear bomb, or a starting point for some activity. In writing, I think both definitions are apt. This set of half formed characters and events have to go from my brain to the page and even when I start with something, it feels like starting from nothing. The process can be quite disfiguring, in that what you end up with can be pretty unrecognizable when compared with the original idea, but that’s not always a bad thing.
    • First read through with notes for big changes. This is where I assess what I got with my first attempt. Theoretically I could abandon a story at this point, but I haven’t done that yet. I usually do a little additional research here, filling in missing information and searching for specific, vivid details to add.
    • Second draft. Here I implement all the stuff I got from the first read, making big changes. Reshaping by cutting big swaths out and chunking in new material including said detail (from a hopefully brief trip to the land of research). At some point around here, my understanding of the themes of the piece usually come into better focus, which may cause another sub-round of cutting and chunking.
    • Third draft. These are smaller adjustments, smoothing it all out, paragraph and sentence level work, style, tone, tweaking metaphors and language to highlight said theme. This can take a long time. Writing a good sentence is hard.
    • Critique. Now I’m ready to let a few people see it. Slugtribe, my in-person critique group meets the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of every month, or I can send it off to the Online Writing Workshop, crits usually take about a week to come back from that site. I find getting feedback from others essential to the process. This is also a chance for me to step away from this story for a few days. It’s amazing what I’ll see when I look at it after a break. 
    • Final revisions. Assessing all the critiques and incorporating the useful comments AND a final proofing read through (yup, still finding typos).
    first read through

    Each of these six stages can take a week or more, and that’s a minimum, what with hubby and kids and the dog and life intervening and all. Some stories are harder than others, they put up more resistance, require more revisions to really get at the nut of the thing. This year I am trying out drafting a NEW story every week, so I am working on the new thing in the morning and revising older stories in the afternoons and evenings. I expect I will be writing more flash fiction (stories under 1,000 words) and probably some poetry on weeks when I want to devote more time to revising a longer story.

    So, finally the story is finished. Time to start submitting it.

    Notice I didn’t say “time to submit it” I said “time to START SUBMITTING it.” So far, all of my published stories have been submitted to a minimum of 3 markets and a maximum of 15. That’s 15 rejections before an editor said yes. Some markets will respond very quickly, within a week, but many take a month or two or three. Zombie Envy, just published this month, and another one that is forthcoming (which I will get to announce soon!) were finished in EARLY 2012. Maybe as I get more story-writing skillz, I’ll get on a faster track here. But I know that plenty of great stories also get rejected because they don’t fit the theme or aesthetic of a given publication. The only thing to do is send it out, forget it, and get back to work on the current story.

    So, I hope to finish Izzy Crow by the end of February or early March, then I’ll start sending it out. When it gets accepted for publication, believe me, you’ll be the first to know!