Course Correction

I think I just changed my ending. Quite unexpectedly, and in a big way.

I was thinking about one of the decisive conflicts in the story and I started writing it down, just to get the ideas on the page so I didn’t forget them. When I got to the essential moment of choice….. I chose the wrong thing.

Not sure why. Looking back on it now, I can impose some order on the deviation. There are a few small ways this might make the ending feel better for the reader, and in terms of character moments it is probably an equal impact but in different ways. I didn’t have these justifications in the moment, though, I just went the other way.

Such a strange thing, writing.

This won’t have much of an impact on the book itself, considering it only alters the very ending. Unfortunately it does break the larger trilogy arc in a bad way.

I guess when I get there for real, I’ll have to see which way it goes, but right now I have to admit the new one feels better for reasons I can’t really explain.

Diagnosis vs Creation

I’ve just passed the one-year mark of my maiden voyage into the world of creative writing, and my perspective on the process has changed dramatically. A huge part of that evolution, obviously, is because I’ve cranked out about 160K words since then (and another ~250K in rewrites/revising). That is only part of what I’ve undertaken in the last year, however. I’ve also been an avid student of writing books, blogs and YouTube lectures almost every day for that year. A year’s worth of guerrilla education counts for something!

Some of the books covered good fundamentals, but for the most part every one of those resources sought to arm me with “tools” of the craft, to help me improve. Some were about pacing, some characterization and voice, others about conflict, or tension, or any of a hundred other things. I built up quite an arsenal over all those months.

And I’ve been using all these tools almost entirely wrong the whole time.

As a new writers, I fell into the trap of taking some of this advice too literally… or at least I put it to use too mechanically, the engineer within me shining through. For instance, consider Swain’s mantra of “scene-sequel.” This is held by many writers to be an absolutely fundamental means of forming paragraphs for optimal effect.

So when I sat down to write, I actually mapped out my chapters as a sequence of alternating scenes and sequels in advance. I stressed about the places where there were two scenes back to back, or when a chapter ended on a scene instead of a sequel, etc.

Another writing tool in my box is to vary sentence length in order to set the pacing of the story, speeding it and slowing it as necessary. Once again, I outlined the places where my pacing needed to change and set to work with a knife to shorten every sentence in those sections. Then I sprinkled in extra words in the slow section to further the contrast.

I’m sure you are starting to see the problem. I’ll just use one more example.

Somewhere else I learned that you should employ all five senses in your description, so in every chapter I made sure to include at least two non-visual senses in my descriptions, wherever I could find an opening.

…and with all that in tow, writing became a mechanical chore.

Not only that, but the output still didn’t feel right. So what is the solution? Throw out all the rulebooks and trail-blaze? Apply the rules in some moderation? Suck it up because this is how real writing works?

I think I have the answer, and it is none of the above.  It turns out most of these rules and guidelines are really excellent tools for diagnosing issues in a scene, rather than creating the scene itself. I’ve come to think of them as the features of my debugger, rather than my compiler.

What do I mean by that?

What troubled me so much before was that I was thinking about all these guidelines and rules as if they would help me to generate a brand new story. I was trying to lay down words only after thinking through all the relevant rules that applied to the situation I was crafting. All these restrictions and signposts did not make the writing better. In fact, I am far more effective when I don’t worry about any of that and just rely on instinct.  Granted my instinct is informed by the learning I have done, but the rules are implicit there — they aren’t considered specifically while crafting. I’ve come to understand that this is how it should be.

When it is time to write, use your instincts, and ditch the bag of tools at the door.

The right time to grab the rulebook is AFTER the first round of writing is complete. When I am going back and re-reading something, I may well find it isn’t working, and that is when I can open up my bag of tools and start looking for discrepancies.

If an exciting scene feels awkward, I can start framing it in terms of the guidelines to help me spot what might be wrong. Maybe I am missing a sequel-paragraph, which is making it awkward. And why wasn’t this character moment powerful? Well, the build up doesn’t invoke the character’s voice enough to stage the right emotions.

In this way, all these tools help in debugging the writing, where they failed in creating it.


Alpha Readers

It took me a couple of months of spinning my wheels and not really making any progress, but I have finally broken free from my writers block and pushed myself to a good place.  I have about 25K words down on the page, and a pretty solid outline (minus a few specific-specifics) up to the ~75% mark in my story, then again from 90% until the end.

Now that the hair-pulling and self-pitying is safely behind me, I can spot a couple patterns in the debris field when I look over my shoulder. As the dozens of spiders / bots following this blog know, I’m in the early writing stage of my second-ever novel. This means I am still basically new to the whole process, and every slight variation I attempt becomes my first ever experiment with that variation. Some of these experiments work to my benefit, others to my detriment, but until I blunder ahead I don’t know the one from the other.

My first story came into being from within a bubble.

I was well past the 80% mark (with a clear outline of the finish) before I broke that isolation and shared a single word with alpha readers over on FWO. This wasn’t by grand design… I don’t know any writers in my personal life, and my wife does’t “get” fantasy, so that is just how it happened. In the course of workshopping that manuscript, I developed a great group of peers, and my writing capabilities certainly improved. I got all the way to the end of the manuscript with one particular partner, the mid point with another, and a couple others worked with me through the first third of the novel. By the time I got that much input, I’d learned so much that I was no longer excited by the story. It was a fun first attempt with some elements done well, many lacking, but it didn’t have the fundamentals woven in to make it a really great story. Fine, no big deal. On to book number 2!

Eager to keep a good thing going, I wasted no time connecting with some old faces, and some new, over at FWO, and I began posting my new words almost as soon as they hit my Scrivener document. I sprinted ahead, full of momentum, and the feedback started rolling in.

Then two bad things happened at the same time.

First, I discovered that the “gardener” method of writing wasn’t really for me… I need an outline. So I sat down and started outlining. It wasn’t hard — I love planning out the story and world-building the features, then finding clever ways for things to intersect. In any case, it is another crucial part of storytelling I need to keep practicing to get good.

This change of gears slowed my momentum, and as I was etching out character arcs, feedback continued to roll in. I was a couple chapters ahead of my alpha readers, so I continued to post while I worked in the background. Then the second bad thing happened.

Already weak on momentum, I was hit with the realization that my story was not manifesting the way I wanted it to. I had things planned later in the book, but the seeds weren’t planting, the character quirks weren’t coming through, too many things weren’t working for too many people! WHAT TO DO!?

Well I did what any semi-panicked novice writer would, and immediately began rewriting what I already had, trying to “fix” things so that the story was setting up the grand impact I wanted it to have.  I couldn’t allow my alpha readers go read through the whole thing and be left scratching their heads and telling me, in the end, the story didn’t really have any punch to it!  Could I?

This began a very negative feedback loop, the escape from which took over two months.

Now that I am out, I’ve learned three very important things about myself.

Momentum is essential. I’ve heard this said by other authors as well, particularly Brandon Sanderson, so I had a hunch the same might be true for me. Well it is. Each time I had to second guess where I was going, or change gears for something technical/secondary, it became harder and harder to keep going forward.

Workshopping too early is bad. I made a concerted effort to file away my feedback into a folder, expecting to dive into it in earnest only when I finished the first draft. I read everything as it came in, of course, so I could make notes of things I should adjust on the fly. Something about a character wasn’t working? I can pivot as I went. A motivation didn’t come through? I better find a way to mention it again.

This turned out to be poison, and I just don’t have the personality to ignore what people are saying and what they think. I just have to start fixing things once I know there is an issue… which stops my forward movement, but leads me to bad solutions (e.g., why add another scene about motivation when I could just fix it in the first scene later during my revision?).

My writing is still novice, but that’s okay. This is a big one for me, and the one that will take the most self control to internalize. When I re-read my own writing, before sharing it with others, I generally hate it. I might like how it flows or what happens, but the prose itself… the descriptions, the sometimes clunky or confusing way I move around… it just irks me!  I CAN DO BETTER!

… well maybe I can, but the key is not to worry about doing it now. This ties back into #2, because I have a deep issue with sharing something that I am not proud of, which means before I can post anything for review I just have to give it a once- or twice- or three-time over before I can let it out into the wild. That energy drains directly away from my momentum, and it is poorly spent. I might bang out 10K words in a week, but 9K of them were rewrites to old material just so I could post it! And furthermore, when I still don’t land on prose that I really love, it just gets me down.

So back to the bubble I must go, at least for now.

This really upsets me. I enjoy the community I have at FWO, and I don’t want to lose connections with some of the people that I’ve been working with, but I have no choice. I need to be well ahead of the material I am posting so that I can be insulated from the feedback.  If I am just a chapter ahead (or less, as it was sometimes) the feedback has too direct a channel to influence my vector, to break my stride, or to otherwise get in my head. My plan now is to get to 60K words, and THEN start posting back on FWO.  I’ll do my best in the meantime to continue providing feedback to others, with the hope they will avail themselves to me when I am ready to try this again.

Well, with that — onward!