If your revised manuscript still has the same events in the same order, then what was the point?

Custom-Jigsaw-Puzzle.jpgOkay, I think line-editing is great. Lines should be as information-dense, melodic, and insightful as possible, and you can’t get there without a lot of work. However, I don’t think a line edit is rarely the difference between selling and not selling, or pleasing and not pleasing your writer.

Too often I see people get a bunch of comments back on their manuscript, whether from editors or agents or other readers, and all they do in their revision is they shift the words around a little bit. For instance maybe the editor says, “I didn’t know why the character was doing this thing?” so the writer puts in a line where they explain why they’re doing that thing. Or people were like “Huh, this motivation felt weak” so they put in a few lines where the character is like, “I did this thing because I am angry, and I am angry because the tyrant killed my people.”

And at the end of the revision, you’ve still got the same events in the same order. Which, to my mind, means you’ve fundamentally got the same book.

I’m not saying that the words on the page don’t matter, but…wait a second, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

When a person reads a book, they’re not experiencing words on a page. No, they’re experiencing a “living dream” (as John Gardner put it) that is conjured up by the words on the page. Now of course the tone and texture of that living dream are affected by the words on the page, but when you revise a book you need to be very clear about what you’re doing. You’re not trying to alter words, you’re trying to alter the experience of the person who reads those words.

If viewed this way, individual lines and paragraphs become much less important. You don’t remember individual lines (except the most beautiful and insightful) of a book. Still less do you remember the details of their thoughts and backstory and motivation. What you remember more is the voice, the tone, and the events. Voice and tone are, to my mind, a complicated thing to change, but I do think they’re more dependent upon the events in a story than anybody might like to admit. Your work has a certain voice, but the deeper layers of the voice only come out when your characters are placed in fresh and surprising situations. Tone, too, is the result of expectations, set at the beginning of the book, that are then either undermined or reinforced by subsequent events.

Which is all to say: I strongly believe that a story is composed of things that happen.

They don’t need to be huge things. I think a conversation is an event. In fact (at least in my stories) most events are nothing more than conversations. But the things that happen in those conversations matter: they are the result of characters with differing goals who want different things from each other.

And when I get feedback on my books, I don’t go in and tinker with the dialogue or the descriptions, I go and think about those conversations: I delete scenes, move them around, and add new scenes. I alter characters’ motivations, which results in scrapping some scenes and rewriting others. And when you read one of my revisions, you often know exactly what I did: “Oh my god, in this draft he accepts her proposal instead of refusing it!” or “In this draft her parents threaten to ship her off to reform school!”

I am not tied to any specific outline or plot. Nor am I even tied to any particular story. What I am tied to, if anything, is my search for the spirit of the story: the thing that compelled me to write it in the first place. Oftentimes, finding that spirit means scrapping almost everything I’ve already written.

In the case of my current book (which I’m exceedingly pleased with, as you may be able to tell from the tone of this post), the plot has changed drastically at least seven times. And each time meant revising the book to add new events and take out old ones.

If this is true in a book that contains no violence, no adventure, and consists mostly of conversations (it’s a love story, more or less) then think how much more true it ought to be for plot-driven works: for fantasy or science fiction or thrillers.

 

Feeling a tiny bit on edge about this novel revision

My revisions are going really well. Yesterday I reread the opening and was like, “Yep, this has soul.” Which is to say I feel very good about the book.

But I also feel a little stressed. I know this is the last revision before I send it to my agent, and I know I want to send it out in two weeks. There’s still a lot to do. All very achievable stuff, of course, but a lot.

I think the problem is that writing a novel isn’t something you can just sit down and do (no matter how much some people might like to pretend otherwise). When you’re creating something that’s original, you need to think, and you need to listen to yourself. It doesn’t happen automatically. Almost every time when I’ve had reluctance to write some part of this book, I’ve put it down for the day and, like magic, within a day I’ll have an insight that’ll dramatically change what I would’ve written. And without fail I am happy that I didn’t just bull through the point of resistance.

Because resistance tells you something. Or rather it tells me something. It tells me that the logic of the story is snarled somewhere, because if it wasn’t, the next part of it would be clear to me.

However it can be hard to trust in that. And it can be very hard to sit back and wait for the answer when you really really really want to be finished.

Well, my debut novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, is officially out in the world

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If you’ve preordered my book, it is on its way to you. If you ordered it on the Kindle, then you should already have it. If you go into a bookstore tomorrow, the book should be there (I hope). After two years of waiting, my debut novel, Enter Title Here, is finally out.

And, you know, initial signs aren’t bad. Publisher’s Weekly called it “mordantly funny story of an overachiever who takes ‘write what you know’ to new extremes.” And Bookpage said it was “a definitive metafictional experience.” And the Barnes and Noble teen blog said, “Reshma is a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

Nor is the game finished! A majority of the review outlets and trade journals haven’t put out their takes on the book yet. However, just in the last few days it has hit most-anticipated lists in Bustle, Teen Vogue, Epic Reads, Book Riot, Rich in Color, and others.

So I’m not saying that you should buy this book. All I’m saying is that buying it is a thing that people are doing.

For those of you who are in the Bay Area, you could also come to one of the two events I’m having in the next week!

The bigger one is my launch party. It’s at Berkeley Central Library (2090 Kittredge St, Berkeley) on August 6th from 6:30-8:00 PM. It’s an after-hours event, so don’t panic if the library appears closed: it is not. There’ll be books for sale, refreshments, and I’ll answer some questions. It’d be great to see you if you can come out! Here are a mess of links concerning my launch: LocationFacebook EventEvent at Berkeley Library Website; Add to Calendar (iCalGoogle)

I’m also doing a smaller event in San Francisco on Thursday, August 4th from 6:30 to 8:30. It’s called InsideStorytime, and I’m going to be reading with some great speculative fiction authors: Vylar Kaftan, Effie Seibert, Na’amen Tilahun, and S.G. Browne. There too, although the focus isn’t as exclusively me-centered, there’ll be books for sale, and it might be easier for some of you to make it, since the event is at the SF Armory Club in the Mission. Here’s the event listing.

I just want to close by saying thanks for being a subscriber. Thanks for being interested in my career. This has been a long journey, and I’m really happy not only to be able to share a book with you, but to share a book that I believe in so strongly. I can’t overstate how much my heart still lies in this book, and I’m so excited that the world can now read it.

Engaged in a really delicate, painstaking revision process

man-outline-drawing_40186.pngRight before coming to Maine to spend a week with my parents, I finished a revision on my work in progress. Certain types of revisions, I find, tend to recur again and again. In this case, the revision was the sort where you make small changes to the first third of the book, moderate changes to the middle third, and completely rewrite the last third. This is basically the kind of revision you engage in when, during the drafting process, you had a decent start and then went completely off the rails. It’s the opposite of the kind of revision, also common, where you completely rewrite the first act and leave the last two acts untouched. In one case, you lost track of the soul of the book and need to find it again, and in the other case you found the soul of the book but you only found it partway through the drafting process so now you need to go back to the beginning and pretend like you had it all along.

I was pretty happy with this revision, and I thought I’d make just a few corrections throughout the text and then I’d send it out to readers (right now nobody aside from me has read the book). However I realized as I was reading through the book again, literally as I was reading the first two pages, that there are things I’ve never liked about the main love interest. I’ve tried to handwave these flaws in my conception of her (she’s too perfect, for one thing), but they’ve never run true. She’s just not what she could be.

So for the past week I’ve been doing some brainstorming, trying to reconceive her. And that in turn meant reconceiving the third major character (not the protagonist, but the second most important male character). And now that those two characters are different, all their relationships with all of the other characters are different.

And this is a type of revision I’ve never done before. A relationship-oriented revision. I mean, I did a version of this for Enter Title Here, where I spent a lot of time working with my editor, Kieran, to make sure Reshma’s relationship with the best friend character, Alex, rang true. But ultimately that was a fairly small part of the book, and this is not. This is the core of the book.

think I know what I’m doing. Or at least, I understand these characters to a much better degree. And I think I can start at the beginning and systematically rewrite all their interactions, and then, I don’t know, see how that affects the rest of the book. I actually don’t think I’ll need to change much of the plot.

What’s interesting is that as you write a book you often have, on some intuitive level, a sense for what needs to go in each place. And even if you aren’t quite able to craft each element correctly, you’ll end up creating a void that is perfect. Oftentimes in early drafts of books you’ll have people acting irrationally, and it’s only when you go back and tweak something that you find that they were rational the entire time: it’s simply that you hadn’t yet put onto the page the reason that your subconscious knew needed to exist all along.

In the same way, in the current draft I have characters reacting in certain ways to other characters–feeling a strong connection to them, basically–that is not merited by the text. As written, the characters just aren’t compelling in the ways they need to be. But because the book acts as if they are, the process of revising them is much simplified.

I hope.

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as laziness

so-procrastinate_1330673033_epiclolcomI’ve gotten better in recent years at listening to myself, and one thing I’ve noticed is that whenever I find myself frittering away my time on pointless, mind-numbing activities (computer games, iPhone games, idle Internet browsing, binge eating, etc), it’s not, as I used to think, because I’m feeling lazy, and I need to pull myself together. It’s because I’m avoiding something.

Today I spent a significant portion of the day playing Shadowrun, and after a few hours I realized why: I’m afraid of the revisions I know I need to do on my book.

Over the past few weeks I’ve slowly put together a sense of the changes I want to make in the YA novel I wrote earlier in the spring, but they haven’t yet cohered into a full and concrete plan of action. And now it’s time to stop thinking about it; I know I need to get in there and play around and see what happens. But it’s frightening. When you work on something, you’re brought very close to the idea of failure: both aesthetic failure–maybe this will never look the way it ought to–and business failure–maybe it’ll never sell.

And when you procrastinate, you’re able in some way to avoid thinking of failure. It’s such a simple thing. Procrastination makes failure more likely, but because you’re not confronted with it in the same way, it feels safer than actually trying to do what needs to be done.

Maybe that’s all laziness is: the effort to avoid unpleasant thoughts. And willpower is the ability to force ourselves to do things that are unpleasant. But perhaps there’s some other quality we can use in these situations: some way of either confronting those bad thoughts or of making them lose their sting. Honestly, I think naming them is a large part of the fight. It makes me feel better to know that I’m wasting time for a reason. That it’s not something inherent to my character, but rather it’s because I’m facing a particularly difficult challenge. It elevates the moment somehow, whereas the idea of laziness does the opposite: it makes the moment seem hollow and worthless.

When they’re starting out, many writers are trapped in procrastination for years. And when that phase passes, those writers look back and say, “I’m so glad I finally learned some discipline.”

But I wonder if that’s what actually happened. Was it discipline? Or was it that the fear lessened and became not quite so overwhelming? We pretend as if writing your first story is the same thing as writing your hundredth story, but how can it be? Perhaps writing your first story is a challenge that needs to take years. Perhaps the procrastination went away because the subsequent challenges were not as great.

Damn, can’t wait to put the first draft of this novel to bed

3233-101413-gs3233Am at sixty thousand words with this YA romance, and I’m experiencing a terror that I had heard about but hadn’t quite believed was real: third act problems.

That’s when you get all the way to the two thirds mark and maneuver all the pieces into place, and then you’re like, well shit, how do I end this book?

I hadn’t quite believed this was a thing, because generally speaking, the number of possible endings gets smaller and smaller as you write a book. And by the time you reach the end, you’ve only got two or three viable options, and probably you’ve long since decided which of those you want. Because of that, almost all my novels have accelerated as I got closer to the finish line, often getting to the point where I finish the book without any effort at all. For instance, I wrote the third act of Enter Title Here in one mammoth twelve hour day of writing in which I put down 14,400 words.

But this novel less plot-driven and more character-driven, and I hadn’t fully envisioned the ways in which this complicates the third act. I know exactly what I want the characters to do. The lovers need to break up and then get back together. And the protagonist needs to have a decisive final break with his former best friend. And I know, generally speaking, the reasons why they do those things. But all the proximate plot stuff–where they are, what leads to what, etc–is up in the air.

That’s a problem I’ve faced a fair bit with this book, and each time I’ve solved it by going back to the characters and thinking about what each one would do at this moment in time. This is not a typical thing for me. Normally I operate from a plot-level and try to think of some sort of sensational event. But in this book, the sensationalism rings false. In fact, most of the times I’ve been stuck it’s because I had my heart set on some big event, and I kept trying to write my way towards it, only to realize that I needed to constrain my book and make it smaller and more personal.

Which makes me think that the ending of this book is going to be different from any ending I’ve ever written before. Smaller. Less final. More open-ended.

But on the other hand I want to avoid anti-climax. Although the events might not be as big as in a plot-driven book, the emotions still need to be huge. So it’s a tough thing.

I’ll get there eventually though.

Two years out, my MFA workshop doesn’t seem nearly as important as it once did

For the last few years I’ve been lugging this huge document box full of workshop comments everywhere, to DC, New Orleans, Oakland, Berkeley, with the intention of someday sitting down and going through it and revising all my old MFA stories.

Well, over the years I’ve revised all the stories that felt like they really had potential, and now I’m left with a few promising ones, but I still have this huge box of paper. So a few days ago I went through the box, being as ruthless as possible, and got rid of the comments for every story I’ve either already revised or will never revise.

And in the process I ended up reading a bunch of the comments again (or at least bits and pieces of them), and it was strange how little I cared about what my classmates and professors had to say. The comments were good–nothing wrong with them–and they’d certainly made the stories better, but I remember that when I first got them, they seemed so important. The reaction of workshop to my stories was something that mattered: something that affected my status in the eyes of myself and the world.

But now I can see how trivial it all was. The comments changed nothing, and meant nothing. Even in terms of learning, the comments were of far less value than I thought. The real value of the MFA was that I was held to a higher standard: that I couldn’t half-ass things or allow myself to ignore problems in my own writing. Three times a semester I’d turn in a story that I thought was perfect, and each time I’d see that it wasn’t. That was the lesson: there’s always something to learn; there’s always some way that you fall short.

I don’t think workshop is good for writers. It puts too much emotional weight into something that doesn’t matter. Who cares whether your instructor likes your story? Editors certainly don’t, and neither do readers. Furthermore, what does your instructor’s approval even mean? You interpret their praise as “good story” when what they’re really saying is “good try.” And as a result you learn the exact opposite of what you ought to learn. You learn that praise matters, and that the point is to turn in something that’s beyond criticism, when really the lesson ought to be that nothing matters aside from your own judgement. Instruction in writing is only worthwhile, I think, insofar as it teaches you to see what your instructor can see. If you get a comment, and there’s a sizzle in your brain and you think, “Oh my god, I knew that. I mean…I didn’t know it, but now I see it” then you’ve gained something.

But those moments were very rare for me, and I think it’s because I was too focused on parsing out “Is this comment good for my self-image? Or is it bad?”

If I could do it again, I hope that I’d be a better listener, but in my heart I know I wouldn’t be. When you’re in a grad program with other talented writers, there is too much that depends on your maintaining the illusion that you are, in some way, better than them.intimidation

 

Finished a draft of a new book

Just typed the last word of the first draft of a new book. It’s an MG fantasy novel whose working title is A Sword Named PERHAPS. Not sure if that title will stick. I’ve literally gone through 400 titles (well, actually 393, according to my notes), and I still haven’t found one that really captures it.

I think that’s because the book itself is a really difficult one to summarize. It’s about an eleven year old boy who takes an instant dislike to the new kid in class: a bearded kid, with yellow pointy teeth, whose name is Satan. The hero, Nick, becomes convinced that Satan is, well, Satan, and starts a campaign to defeat him, but Satan seems to think he’s just a hapless nerd, and after awhile the rest of the world starts to think of Nick as just another bully who’s decided to pick on the new kid. But then some weird stuff happens. There’s a mysterious illness. Some wildfires (the book is set in Northern California). And Nick is forced to decide: Does he really believe in himself? Is he willing to stand up and persecute this kid even though nobody else believes that there’s a problem? Or will he accept society’s judgement?

The book is good. It’s sixty thousand words. I started on October 25th, so it’s not quite a NaNo novel, but since I finished on November 24, it must still count, right?

The process was odd. It’s the most constructed book I’ve ever written. All throughout it I was writing down scenes on slips of paper, and I was constantly laying them out and discarding some of them and then laying them out again. At any given point, I always had a pretty decent idea of what every chapter would be (although that idea did change a few times–my stack of discarded scenes is many times higher than the stack of scenes that I actually used).

This did lead to a certain loss of excitement. Laying out the scenes and working on the outline was really fun. Writing was less fun (though still not a chore), since I knew basically what was going to happen.

I’ve never done a novel this way. Previously, every time I outlined a book I’d lose interest in it midway through and abandon it. This time I think that didn’t happen because now I actually know a little something about how novels work and so am able to analyze it a little more.

Still, I don’t know. When I’ve written other novels, it’s been so intense: Enter Title Here felt almost like a manic episode.

This time was not nearly so emotional. I just sat down and I did it. And that makes me wonder if the book is good.

I think it might be, though. The evidence in its favor is that it’s the first book I’ve been able to finish in sixteen months (during which time I’ve abandoned maybe ten novel projects). All of those books bored me by the time I got halfway through. This one never did. I always believed in it, and I always felt like it was a challenge. So we’ll see.

Good to finish something, though!!!

 

Really liking this ‘Stop when I’ve hit 3k for the day’ way of writing

shutterstock_58785163For me, it’s really rare to actually be fully in the swing of a project. Most of the time I’m writing my way towards a project, or I’m trying to revise it. In both of those cases, it doesn’t make sense to set a word count goal, since I don’t really have anything yet. Word count doesn’t help me at that point. All that helps me is to sit with the project and see what simmers up.

But right now I am in the swing of things: my ‘NaNoWriMo’ novel. I’m about 43k into it (looks like it’ll finish at about 57k), and it’s going really well. Writing this book has been very different from any of my other books. In my other books, I let instinct take over and guide me. But with this one, it’s all been intellect–with every chapter I’m asking myself, “What am I trying to accomplish here? How is the character’s story arc being furthered?”

And in plenty of cases, the answer has been, “I don’t know” or “This character doesn’t have a clear arc.” And in those cases I’m often forced to go back to the drawing board and look through my plan for the book. I’m still not sure about this way of writing. It feels very unspontaneous, and maybe a bit lacking in magic.

However I do feel like I have a lot more control. I know what every scene is doing. I know why every character is in there. And I know, on both a thematic and character level, why I’m making the decisions I’m making.

In some ways it’s unsurprising that my first speculative novel in three years (this is a fantasy novel) would be the one that brought out the planner in me. In recent years, I’ve been a bit dissatisfied by speculative fiction. A lot of the narratives seem a little bit naive. They’re about heroes and strange monsters and fantastic worlds, and there’s a lot of vivid imagery and raw emotional power. But the author rarely seems to be asking, “Why?”

Why a giant cockroach monster instead of a dragon? Why an island archipelago instead of a mountain kingdom? Why this sort of magic instead of that kind? What does it all mean? Why am I telling this story? Is it just so I can make people feel the same way that Tolkien made me feel when I was twelve? Or is there something more? Do I have something new, on a thematic level, to add? Or am I just dressing up Tolkien in different clothes?

I felt like I couldn’t write a book unless I could answer some of those questions, but for a long time I didn’t really have the understanding or the tools to do that kind of analysis. Now, though, some things have finally come together for me (maybe), and work is going well.

Which brings me to the point of this post! Which is that normally I try to write for 4 hours on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. But during four hours, I can write alot of works–6k, easily. However, since I’m writing this book so purposefully, I don’t know that it makes sense for me to push myself to write 6k words a day. I feel like towards the end, my inventiveness runs dry.

So for this book I’ve only been trying to write 3k words each day, and it’s been pretty awesome. There’s finally an incentive for me to sit down and do the work, because the faster I work, the sooner I finish. I’d forgotten the feeling of being able to bank your efficiency gains and use that time productively in other pursuits.

Oh well, this novel could still fall apart (like every other book I’ve tried to write in the last sixteen months!), but with only 15k left, I feel like that’s unlikely to happen. We will see…

I really, really, really hope that all of this struggle is actually leading me somewhere…

robotWorking on some new stuff. Chipping away. But still finding it difficult to write. I feel like I’m floundering, a little bit.

I hate it when people talk about how hard writing is. It’s not hard. It’s about as difficult to do as it is to achieve at a high level in any profession. I think it’s just working that’s hard. Caring about something very deeply is hard.

It’s hard to work. Hard to be an adult. Hard to know that effort isn’t enough: you need to actually produce. And, moreover, that you have so little control on so many levels. You have no control over whether your output will be good. But even if it is good, you have no control over how well it’ll be received. That’s not a writer problem, it’s a problem in any field where there’s competition. There are only two kinds of fields: ones that’re only moderately difficult, because no one wants to be in them; and ones that are incredibly hard, because they’re so desirable. And most people are going to end up trying their hand at one or the other of the latter.

But things do happen, and the wellspring of inspiration does start to flow once again. It’s hard for me now to remember, but I’ve had lots of trying times as a writer. After I sold my first story to Nature (which I count as my first real sale), I went another two years before making a second major story sale. And after selling my second and third stories, I went eighteen months before selling my fourth. After selling my second story to Clarkesworld, I went more than two years without an equivalent sale. The entirety of my MFA program, I sold very few stories. I was in this program that was focused on writing short fiction, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with it.

I’ve powered through novels that weren’t working. I’ve gone to work on them day after day, trying to figure out why each moment was agony–telling myself that when I got to THE END, I’d realize that it had all been worth something–only to realize, when I started revision, that the whole project was ill-conceived and unsalvageable. That’s not just one novel, either. It’s my 1st, 3rd, and 5th novels. Even after I wrote novels that I considered excellent, I still went back and pounded away, writing ones that were terrible. If anything, my current predicament is because I refuse to mistrust my instincts–I won’t finish something that I know is not working.

But it all ends. I know it does. The dam breaks and something comes out and in the end you realize that this difficulty was because you were struggling for something.

I do feel that struggle. For all that I love Enter Title Here, I don’t think it’s the best book I can write. I think there’s something more to me–something more to my worldview and to my interests. I have different stories in me. I can do something that’s different and unique. And I have to believe that all of this agony is because I’m striving for something new. Hope so, anyway, because right now I feel stuck. I’m exactly where I was at this time last year–pacing the floor, writing chapters and scenes, assembling books, and then throwing them out.

I have written 20 short stories since then, so at least that’s something (although 12 of them were awful).