Has your writing ever taken you by surprise? For example, a positive and belated response to a submission you’d forgotten about or an ending you never saw coming?
For me, writing is full of surprises, mostly because my characters tend to take on a life of their own.
For example, with my current WIP, I told myself the mc was a girl because that story would be easier to sell than one with a non-binary main character. However, before I realized what I was doing, the character was telling someone that they use “they/them/their” as pronouns and thinking about being neither boy nor girl.
I thought I could control the gender of my main character, but that character decided they were non-binary (like me) whether I liked it or not.
The idea of characters I’m creating doing unexpected things always seems odd to me, even though it is something many writers have experienced.
I often find myself wondering why things like this happen. Why do my creations surprise me? Am I really surprising myself? How come I feel like I am not in control of these characters as I create them and make them do things? Shouldn’t I be more deliberate? What is the point of craft advice if my characters are just running around doing their own things with me putting zero thought into how that affects the story on some technical level?
I can maybe answer one of those questions.
Craft advice is for revision, not first drafts. At least, that is how it is for me. Other writers might be able to think about plot and scene and characterization while they draft. I can’t. I can only think of the characters as living entities and the story as something unfolding as it happens. If I outline, it’s because the story is unfolding in my head much faster than I can really write, and even then, when I start writing, I don’t usually stick to exactly what I outlined.
I think I get surprised because a lot of what I’m doing is not happening on a conscious level. It’s like dreaming. When I draft, my subconscious does the heavy lifting, so it feels like my creations have more agency in the creation of the story than I do.
When I was younger, part of me wanted to believe there was something supernatural about writing. I don’t think that now, but I do love writing about supernatural things.
I always surprise my self when I’m drafting.
My revisions, on the other hand, are far more deliberate and conscious. The biggest surprises there are how patient I am. In real life, I’m not known for my patience.
What kind of surprises do you find when writing?
Photo Credit: The back ground photo on the header was taken from Simone Scarano on Unsplash.
If you could use a wish to help you write just ONE scene/chapter of your book, which one would it be? (examples: fight scene / first kiss scene / death scene / chase scene / first chapter / middle chapter / end chapter, etc.)
For me, this would be the first chapter. However, I wouldn’t use the wish to help write it. I’d use the wish to help revise it.
Writing a first draft of a first chapter is a blast.
It’s like standing at the base of trail I’ve never hiked. The sun is out but there is a cool breeze. I have a map. I have ample snacks and water for both me and my dog. It is going to be an awesome day even if I am going to be gaining about 1,000 vertical feet per mile.
The first chapter is just that first stretch of trail when I am full of energy, when I’m practically running, wondering just how long it will be before the trail gets steep and I hit a scramble.
The whole hike up is the first draft of the manuscript. It’s hard work, but it is the kind that gets the adrenaline going and results with a breathtaking view.
I can’t stay at the summit forever. Eventually, I have to come down.
Often, when hiking in New England, the steepest scrambles are close to the summit. They’re my favorite part to go up and my least favorite to go down.
I can just see myself on my way down Killington. I’m a little ways down from the summit, standing on a slab of granite, staring straight down a ravine thinking,
“Did we really go up that? Do I have to go back down that way?”
I’m exhausted. My spouse is exhausted. The dog is exhausted. The dog, who was like a brilliant mountain goat on the way up, needs assistance going down the steep sections.
For a minute, I just stand there wondering what the heck I was thinking. I curse myself for picking an out and back trail and for being so obsessed with scrambles in the first place. But then I think about how much fun I had, how worth it the view was, and of how many times I have done this before on other mountains.
Then, after I’ve planned a way down in my head, my spouse and I slowly work our way down, helping the dog when necessary.
It’s the most difficult and nerve-wracking part of the hike. It’s the one part I would skip if I could magically do so. It reminds me a lot of revising my opening chapters.
As fun as the first draft was, I never start the book in the right place, and fixing that is never as simple as just deleting a chapter or several chapters. It’s deleting a whole chapter and replacing it with something else and then rewriting it, deleting it, and replacing it. Once I find something that works as a concept, then I still have to fine tune it over and over.
For current WIP, I haven’t revised the opening chapter four times. I’ve written four completely different opening chapters, and that isn’t counting all the false starts I had while trying to get the first draft going.
So if I could use a wish to help me write a book? I would use that wish to revise my opening chapter.
How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?
My answer is yes.
Major life events can affect how frequently I write, how coherent that writing is, and sometimes, even the content of my writing.
When I’m stressed, anxious to the point where I can’t even think about going to bed at a reasonable time, writing is the only thing that keeps me going. When my spouse goes to bed, I’ll sit up at the kitchen table with the cat at my feet, frantically writing until two or three in the morning. The sentence structure and punctuation might be more off than usual, but it is also when I can actually write emotion, show characters feeling things.
With Power Surge, the book that took a decade to finish, life events and revelations about my self shaped how I finished and revised the novel. In fact, one could say it was a major life event that lead me to finish it in the first place: I finished a different book. And I finished that book because it was the only way to get through a few months of very high anxiety.
Whether it was Power Surge, or one of my yet to be published manuscripts (Song of the Forest, Like Birds, or Earth Reclaimed), my novels, and my numerous short stories, have all helped me coped with anxiety, depression, or whatever my brain throws at me.
This summer in particular, writing helped me deal with a stressful neighborhood situation. The two people who live on either side of me both have dogs. One dog is female, yellow, and about 45 pounds (the same size as my dog). Tavi, my pup, was still a baby when the yellow dog came to the neighborhood, and I swear she thinks she is his mother, at least she protects him like a mother dog would protect her puppies. To the other side of me is an 8lb ball of yapping energy.
This was not a good combination. One day, the little dog chased Tavi out of my yard and into her driveway. I thought Tavi had been tied to the trailer of the boat I was cleaning, but I had never actually clipped his 15-foot training leash to anything, so as he ran, that dragged behind him.
Tavi stopped and play bowed, possibly oblivious to little dog’s ruffled fur and bared teeth. Yellow dog charged out of her yard and down the driveway, grabbed little dog, and pullled her away from Tavi.
Little dog got hurt.
And for the next month, neighborhood tension grew as yellow dog’s and little dog’s owners passive aggressively argued over whose dog should be leashed and who was responsible for the vet bill.
Literally and figuratively, I was in the middle of it.
It was summer, so I wasn’t working. Yellow dog’s human, also a teacher, wasn’t working. Little dog’s owner, a national grid gas employee, was on strike and eventually, locked out.
In one month, I wrote a 20,000 novella and revised it three times. It wasn’t directly about what was happening in the neighborhood, but in one scene, a similar incident occurred. The main character was dealing with the same kind of mental health problems as me.
I haven’t looked at the story in a while, so I can’t confidently say whether or not it was good. But after proof reading the third draft, I remember thinking it was fantastic, and that it was the most emotional piece I had written since Power Surge.
Pacing is important with any work of fiction, whether it is a novel or short story.
If it’s too slow, readers might get bored and stop reading. If it’s too fast, they might get lost and stop reading. However, thinking too much about it when writing your first draft won’t really help. Work on the pacing when you start revising.
Finding the right pace for a story is part of the writing process. I go through several rewrites and revisions before I get it right.
Back when I was drafting my first two novels, I thought I had to more or less write out every second of the character’s life during the time frame of the novel. Thankfully, with both books, the whole plot took place over a few days. As it was, I ended up with a 130,000 word first draft of a young adult novel, and over 200,000 words for my adult novel.
When I had a friend read the YA novel, she got bored quickly while following the character through 30 or 40 pages of school. Stuff only happened on maybe five of those pages. She told me the descriptions of every hallway, desk, and teacher really weren’t relevant.
She was right. Irrelevant descriptions and conversations bogged the pacing down so much that she lost interested before anything happened.
It took over ten revisions to get the pacing (and other things) right.
First, I went through and cut out scenes that I wrote for me as I was getting to know the character. I cut descriptions of places that appeared once and never came back. I made sure all the description and imagery I kept added something to the overall mood and revealed something about the narrator even if it was very subtle.
However, the most important step was making sure each chapter had a hook at the beginning and end, as well as its own complete arc. I did one revision that just focused on this. As I read each chapter, I summarized it in a few sentences and explained what it contributed to the plot. This helped me see the picture and plan what I needed do to each chapter.
I ended up cutting entire chapters, removing characters from the story, and moving the climax so it happened sooner and just scrapping a whole sequence of unnecessary fights from the end of the book.
To test my work, I asked critique partners and beta readers to let me know when they got bored or bogged down.
Eventually, I got the novel down to about 71,000 words. Each chapter had an arc. There was enough description for the reader to picture the setting without slowing the action. That description set the mood and even helped readers get to know the character. All that meant that the readers stayed hooked. They didn’t get too bored or too lost.
The process of starting with too much happening to slowly, then cutting back and changing things worked well. That novel is under contract with NineStar Press and scheduled to come out in October.
However, it was slow, tedious process, and I’m an impatient person. Now, I seem to have the opposite problem.
My last two novels started as drafts I banged out in four to six weeks for NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo. They short and rushed, skipping over descriptions and the types of scenes I thought I’d just end up cutting.
Having to go back, add more details, and slow things down was the same amount of work, if not more work, than having to cut thousands of words from the manuscript, and during the process, I was not nearly as invested in the characters and world as I had been with my earlier works.
Currently, I’m submitting pieces novel-in-progress number five to a critique group. Even though I go through each chapter and fill in the gaps I see before sending it, I’m still getting feedback from readers saying it moves so fast they struggle to follow transitions, can’t fully picture things, and don’t know the characters enough to really care much about what happens to them.
In early drafts of books four and five, the overall plot and arcs are much clearer than they were in books one and two, but that doesn’t matter if the readers don’t care about the characters and get lost in the transitions between scenes.
Thinking I learned enough from my first books to know what scenes will get before I write them was a bad idea. All it accomplished was producing a book that moved so fast readers couldn’t get into instead of one with fully fleshed characters moving at a snails pace.
After drafting and revising five novels, I’ve learned that pacing isn’t something that I should think about while writing my first draft. It’s something that happens in revision when I have a concrete grasp on the characters, plot, setting, tone, and story. The pacing develops as I examine each chapter under a microscope and then look at how it fits in the big picture. Seeking feedback from critique partners and beta readers, and then listening to them when they say where they got lost or bored hones the work’s pace.
In order to have a well paced novel, writers need to be patient. They need to trust their process and not rush it.
Good beta readers and critique partners are essential for writers, not just because they make individual manuscripts stronger, but also because they can make writers aware of problematic patterns.
My beta readers often comment that my characters don’t react or show emotion to big things – like finding out demons exits, losing a loved one, seeing someone get shot, or having some slightly mundane but life changing news delivered.
Despite the validity of these comments, I often get very defensive about them. It’s not that my characters don’t feel or show emotion; they just don’t do it right away.
There is a reason I write them like that.
I almost never have instant reactions to things unless that reaction is rage or something completely irrational.
I may have immediately dissolved into screaming and swearing that one time there were cars on a hiking (I may have had a staring contest with the car)but when my grandmother died, and when I got offer a contract for my book, I just kind of stared and went through the motions before I truly reacted.
When big things happen, I don’t react to them right away. I go blank and stare until my brain figures out how it wants to react, considers how people expect me to react and finds a compromise between the two. Therefore, in my first drafts, my characters seldom react the way readers expect.
I need to stop mentally fighting readers about this.
My characters are not me.
Maybe if I am writing a character that has the same not completely diagnosed flavor of mental illness that I have, the readers would have to deal with it. However, if I am writing a neurotypical character and/or one that is mentally healthy, then they need to react like one of those people would.
Without beta readers, it would be almost impossible for me to see this. Even with them, it has taken me far to long to figure it out. Even being aware of it, I’m sure it will still happen in all my first drafts, but I am going to work harder to catch it early revisions so that my readers can focus on other things.
This blog post should’ve been up a few days ago, but with storms, a family member’s health issues, and the start of NaNoWriMo, I neglected to write it. However, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, then you probably already know the information I am going to announce.
I signed a contract with NineStar Press to publish my young adult, urban fantasy novel, Power Surge.
Power Surge was the first novel I began writing with any amount of seriousness, but it was the second one I finished. It’s been revised at least about a dozen times, and if you put the first and final draft side by side, I’m not sure the two would have a complete sentence in common.
I started querying Power Surge to agents on Oct. 31, 2016. A little over 100 of them rejected it. I made a ton of mistakes, got some requests, but they all turned into rejections one way or another. Later, I switched my efforts to publishers with a fresh query and freshly edited manuscript. I got more requests, and eventually, I received to offers. On Oct. 30 2017, I signed a contract with NineStar Press.
I have not figured out my exact stats yet, but I had 72 outright rejections, 45 agents or editors whose lack of a reply was equivalent to a rejection, and 3 instances where I withdrew my manuscript because the deadline I set to respond had passed. Of all my submissions, I only had 6 full requests and two partials if I am counting right. However, many publishers, including the one I signed with, have authors submit the whole manuscript up front.
I kept tract of everything in a table in Microsoft word and am now wishing I had just used power point. Eventually, I will organize my data better and get better numbers. I’m going to do this with my other manuscripts before the amount of submissions gets out of control.
If these numbers are right, that means I sent out 120 submissions with a 6.6% request rate for agents and publishers combined. That rate was much lower than the 10% I was told to aim for, but in the end, it didn’t matter. I received not one, but two offers of publication with no agent.
I don’t have a release date yet, though I am assuming it will be close to a year before Power Surge is published. Even this early in the game, I am confident NineStar Press is the perfect home for Power Surge.
This is the first step on a long journey, and so far, it has taught me that without enough patience and persistence, anything is possible. Right now, I’m as happy as Tavi (my puppy) when he gets to run off leash.
Yes, but sometimes it is more intentional than others
While none of my characters are directly based off of my self, many of them share my non-binary gender identity. They struggle with similar mental health issues, like anxiety triggered by crowds or touch. Occasionally, they even like the same things as me, like Star Wars and vegetable gardens.
Of course, there are instances where I write characters that are opposite of me and have almost nothing in common. Sometimes I need to escape my world and truely become someone else while I am writing.
Yet more often than not, it’s hard to fully filter myself from my creations, and when the ones with bits and pieces of me sewn through are more authentic, why bother filtering?
Authenticity is important. Representation is important. My experience with mental health and gender may not quite be like someone else’s, but that is kind of the point, isn’t it?
People do read for entertainment, but they also read for education. Ideally, both happen at the same time. If my book can keep people entertained, make them feel things, keep them turning pages and teach them a little something at the same time, then it was success.
While writing my first two books, I didn’t pay too much attention to my word count until after I finished the first draft. My first draft of Song of the Forest came close to 200,000 words and my first draft of Power Surge was around 130,000. When I revised, I went through a cycle of cutting and adding. By the time I got to my final drafts, they were 83,000 and 78,000 words.
My third book, Like Birds Under the City Sky, was different. It was national novel writing month (NaNoWriMo), so I had set a goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. I successfully added 50,000 words to a document that started the month off as a 4,000 word short story. As I revised, I cut and added a few thousand words, but the changes were not as drastic as they had been for my first two books.
Initially, I didn’t see this as a problem. It was my third book, and in between it and my other books, I had written dozens of short stories and flash fictions. I polished the book up, and sent it out to agents and a couple publishers. I got about 20 rejections, but one publisher suggested I give the book a complete overhaul and resubmit. Afraid to make that drastic of a change based on one editors opinion, I sought out feedback from another beta reader and heard the same thing.
When time came to start Community Magic, a novel I had been dreaming for nearly a year, I thought Camp NaNoWriMo would be the perfect way to get it done, but instead of motivating me, the word count quote actually made anxious, and made me feel guilty about not writing. This would have been okay if the guilt motivated me, and/or it was the only problem.
The guilt made me write less. I also noticed other issues.
I was overwriting. I sent chapters out to a critique partner, and she kept pointing out all kinds of things that were not necessary and were just filling space – things I may not have written had I not been rushing to meet my quota of words for the day.
The word count was a distraction. Instead of living the story as I was writing it, my eyes kept drifting down the little numbers at the bottom of my document telling me how many words I had written. I was not as immersed in the world as I should’ve been, and as a result, the plot was rambling, the characters were a little flat, and the world contained inconsistencies. I decided that book wasn’t mean to be NaNoWriMo’ed and switched to a different work in progress – Earth Reclaimed – the story I just ran a rather unsuccessful Publishizer campaign for.
I’m waiting until I have a complete draft to start seeking feedback, but I can feel myself doing some of the same things – almost mindless typing to my word count gets closer to the one my campaign said it should be when the word count. At this point, I should be focused on building the word and getting to know my characters. If my word count falls short, I can expand the draft in revision. If it to high, then I can have a party cutting words while I edited.
Word count goals are great, but when they start to detract from the quality of the writing, then I know I need to revisit how and when I use them.
“I’ve spent like, a total of 12 hours on this essay and my instructor wants me to revise it again! This is the third draft! It has to be good!”
Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching
By Sara Codair
As a professional tutor working in a busy community college writing center, I often find myself repeating the same bits of advice to students over and over again. However, even as I am telling students “be specific” and “don’t procrastinate,” I am wondering if I follow my own advice when writing fiction.
After some careful, end of the semester reflection, I not only realized that the writing advice I doll is applicable to fiction writing, but also that many of those insights emerged from my experience working with students, not the workshops, MOOC’s and traditional classes I’ve been taking since middle school
1. You have to start somewhere
Many developing writers stare at blank screens for hours wondering how to begin. They type the first line, delete it, type it again, delete it, and repeat this process all night then show up to class the next day with nothing.
There is one student I worked with regularly throughout the fall semester. His process is something like this: Write a paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good. Write another paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good, repeat.
Others like to free write stream of consciousness style, make a few changes and turn their paper in, think it’s gold then turn it in.
The ones who get A’s are somewhere in the middle. The do the stream of conscious free write, then revise like crazy before letting someone else look at their essay. They get feedback from their peers and from a tutor, then turn the essay in.
Don’t let anxiety stop you from writing, but also make sure you revise before you let your friends and critique partners read it and revise more before you send anything out to publications.
2. Time is your friend. Procrastination is your enemy.
There are two common breeds of college student: the ones who wait until the night before (or morning before) the paper is due to start, and the ones who start it the minute it is assigned.While those who start early always write better than the procrastinators, starting early doesn’t guarantee an A, or in my case, publication.
My novel is on its 8th draft, and I’m still not happy with it.
I revised “Above the Influence” close ten times before submitting to Mash and getting shortlisted. Even then, my feedback report revealed the judges still found problems. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible, just that I may have needed 11th or 12th draft in order to have a winning story.
Revision takes time. You have to write the story. You have to let it rest. You have to revise. Let it rest again. Repeat. If you put off starting the story, or wait until a few minutes before a deadline, then you are not going to get a good draft.And even if you do all this, it still might not be good enough. Or maybe it might be good to you and your critique group, but not so good to the slush goddesses, because after all, writing is subjective. What works for one person may not work so well for someone else.
3. Your story is yours. Don’t write what you think people want you to say. Write what you want to say
One mistake I have seen students make over and over again is just writing what they think the teacher wants to hear. I get it – they want a good grade – but it doesn’t work.
Fiction writers do this too. They wonder if their story is marketable, and make the mistake of writing what they think their readers want. Let’s face it, we all want to get published and make money, but if we just write what we think other’s want and don’t stay true to ourselves, our craft will turn into our crap, almost literally, if you really think about it: consume suggestions, digest them, excrete them.
Your story should be your baby, not your shit.
A story I wrote called Costume Connection got six rejections before getting accepted by Centum Press. Two of those rejections came with feedback. The first feedback report had some rather helpful suggestions that helped the piece grow into the version that got accepted. The second had some comments that just didn’t make sense to me. I decided that the piece just didn’t work for those people, and I wasn’t going to change it because of them. I’m glad I trusted my gut, and am looking forward to seeing a story of mine published in a tangible print book
4. Let it rest, leave time to proof read, let it rest, cut clutter, let it rest.
Your draft is detailed and specific. You’ve revised several times. You are happy with the content and think you have caught most of the grammatical errors. Other people have read it, possibly more than once and most importantly, you are happy with the result.
You are note done.
You are note done.
Put it away.
Hide the file.
Just don’t look at for at least 24 hours. Try to leave it alone for a week if you can.
When you just can’t stay away from the thing any longer, that means it is time to edit and revise. Catch all those grammatical errors. Make sure you are showing, not telling. Restructure your sentences so you have minimal glue(words that don’t carry meaning). Replace as many adverb/verb pairs as you can with specific verbs . You don’t have to get rid of them all, but just remember a strong verb kicks ass.
Leave it alone for a few days. AGAIN.
Read it with a fresh eye. Make any changes you think of whether they are on the sentence level or the story level. Let it rest again. Revise again.
Whenever I talk to teachers who aren’t writers or English teachers, they seem to be under the impression that college students can’t write. This isn’t because the students can’t compose good essays. It’s because they don’t have time to let the draft rest. When they get a paper back they haven’t seen in a week, they could revise without seeing half of the instructor’s comments.
Even a night of rest would have made the difference between an B and A. There have been plenty of times when I have sat down in the writing center with a more who printed the paper out at night, and brought it to me in the morning, a couple hours before it is due. As we are reading through the paper, the student see’s all the sentence level errors she missed when she did her 2 a.m. proof read.
While different genres of writing follow different rules and styles, the process is more or less the same whether you are writing a college research paper, an article or a short story. Once you understand the style and structure of your genre(s), you can continue to improve your writing by studying and improving your process. Be mindful of what you do. Practice metacognition. Journal about your process. Read what other writers have written about heir process and compare it to what you have written about your own. Revise the process accordingly. Write on!