Pencil to Paper

The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

February 20, 2013

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 7:54 AM
Tags: ,

(Sorry I’ve been missing for a while. I had a rough week or two of exams and papers, and this fell to the wayside. I’ve also been contemplating changing this blog’s structure a bit, but I’ll wait on that until I have more free time.)

They say the best thing you can do to improve as a writer is to write. That is definitely true. It’s like anything else – practice makes you better. Imagine you have some kind of writing muscle in your brain. You need to keep that toned!

Reading is also a good way to improve your writing. It shows you what works, what doesn’t, what you like, what you don’t… we frequently learn through imitation, and picking up snatches of other people’s styles can help us discover our own.

There’s one thing I don’t see a lot of people encouraging that I think is really helpful: editing.

No, I don’t mean editing your own work (although that helps too). I mean looking over something by someone else. How can you do this? It’s easier if you’re in school. I’m in a creative writing class where we workshop each other’s stories. I’ve also become a reader for the undergraduate literary magazine, which means going through lots of submissions to find the decent ones. In both of these scenarios, I get to look at what writers do well and what they don’t. Even better, in discussion I hear other people’s opinions on the same things. Yesterday we debated the merits of a rather grating meta narrator and agreed that anyone using the phrase ‘a single tear’ needed to be thrown into the reject pile. Having disagreements over a piece is good too. Sometimes I can learn more about what doesn’t work, or sometimes we simply have different tastes. In the end, though, I pick up a lot about what makes writing ‘good’. Then I can take those lessons and apply it to my own work.

I’ll tell you one thing – I’m far less nervous about submitting to our literary magazine next year.

 

Editing by Omission August 13, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 3:54 PM
Tags: , ,

My editing process can be… harsh. Some days, I gently tweak a sentence here and there. Some days, I rain devastation upon all text in my path. No scene is safe. I delete in great swathes, certain everything is complete trash.

The worst part, I think, is when I spend long minutes on a sentence. I’ll adjust the order, mess with the diction, tweak, primp… and then decide to cut it altogether. All that time wasted. Here’s a visual approximation of the technique I use way too often.

Nah. Adverbs are the enemy. Cut it.

I think I mentioned the crowds earlier. Adjectives are bad. Cut it.

I made it clear that he’s on the street. Cut it.

Ok. Now it just sounds awkward. Cut it.

Perfect.

At this rate, I will only be completely happy with my work when there’s a blank page staring back at me.

Awesome.

 

Octopus Problems August 6, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 2:30 PM
Tags: , ,

Starting a work of fiction is never a problem for me. I have plenty of ideas – too many, really – all clamoring to be let out and acknowledged. I’ve jotted down hundreds of ideas and more than a dozen openings. No, starting is not an issue.

Finishing is.

I don’t mean finished rough drafts, although that can be tricky. I think of new projects to start, begin reading a book, or get distracted on the computer. When I’m really stuck, even chores seem preferable. If I force myself to keep going, I’ll eventually get somewhere. That’s why deadlines like NaNoWriMo are so helpful. Once I have a draft, though, the real trouble begins. For me, it’s always a draft. I can’t manage to mold my efforts into an acceptable final product.

I try. I really do. I nip and tuck, shaving off words and sentences and scenes. I tweak dialogue, fine tune call backs. I am, I tell myself virtuously, polishing. The story is done.

Then I have an idea for a new character, plot line, or chapter. I wrestle with myself for a while before giving up and trying to sneak it in somewhere. Sometimes it’s a better fit than others. Every time, it sends up ripples. Scenes must be adjusted. Plot reworked. Everything has to be shifted the perfect amount, or you can tell that element doesn’t belong.

Eventually, I work that out. I flick through again to primp some sentences and sit back to admire the finished product. I can’t see anything wrong with it.

Then I put it away and look back in a few months.

Clunky sentences accost me from all sides. Poor phrasing. Awkward dialogue. Jumps in character development (or no development at all). It’s a mess. It’s embarrassing. How could I ever have thought this was ok?

I don’t know how may people have this problem, but it plagues me. When I’ve been working on something too long, I can’t see it properly. I gloss over it and don’t register flaws, weaknesses, or outright errors. It’s like my brain threw up its hands, said “I’m done”, and left. If I manage to realize what’s going on, I take a break for a while. Only then can I really make an impact.

This brings me to my finishing problem. The errors never seem to go away. I’ll ‘perfect’ a piece, put it away, pull it out, think it’s crap, ‘perfect’ it, repeat ad nauseam. It never seems to end. I can’t get a piece to a place where I think it’s done and I always will.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says that finishing a book is like putting an octopus to bed. There will always be a tentacle or two hanging out. You just have to know when you’re finished.

At this point, though, I’m afraid my stuff has at least a dozen tentacles hanging out. So back to work I go.

 

Reviews: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly June 11, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 9:47 AM
Tags: , ,

There are good reviews and bad reviews.

I’m writing this because I heard (through the tumblr grapevine that I illicitly wiretap) that a swarm of bad critics have descended on a popular fanfiction site. They’ll gang up on a story, telling the author how terrible it is and how they ought to be embarrassed. Then they report the story en masse in an effort to get it removed.

These are bad reviews. Obvious, right? Tearing other people’s work down is not cool. When I was critiquing on Inkpop, I tried to avoid being too harsh. Even if a story is god awful, the writer is trying. They’re taking a huge risk and being brave by putting themselves out there, and an attack could end their writing career forever. They don’t need hate. They need help. Of course, these fanfic critics are trying to hurt people. However, there are some people who think overly harsh is helpful. It’s not, unless the writer in question has a self-esteem of adamantium. Typically, it’s closer to tissue paper.

The other type of bad review lies on the other side of the spectrum. It’s the peppy, 100% supportive one-liner that does no one any good.

But I just said writers had a low self-esteem, right? Yeah, but it’s not the reviewer’s job to patch it up. A comment like “This is perfect. No suggestions. Great job!!!111111111” might make us feel warm and fuzzy, but it doesn’t help. I got loads of comments like that on a project. Now that I’ve pulled it out again to prep for an incoming review, I can see loads of errors and issues. I wish someone had pointed them out.

So what is a good review? It’s a critique. It’s balanced. It points out what you’ve done wrong and suggests improvements. It also tells you what you’re doing right. I always search for at least one nice thing to say after a review full of corrections.

A format I often found useful was this:

Grammar/Spelling:

Style:

Hook:

Characters:

Story/Idea:

Overall Comments:

I’d fill in questions, comments, and corrections as I read. Being a critic taught me more about writing as well, showing me what not to do. Reviewing is a way for people to learn and help each other out – but do it right.

Next time I’ll talk about the good and bad of reactions to reviews.

 

Taking the Next Step March 4, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 8:13 PM
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve done the bulk of my revisions. I’ve gone through chapter by chapter, reducing 1059 ‘was’s to 432, which is quite an achievement. I’ve glared at awkward sentences and rewritten them until they sound awkward in a slightly different way. I’ve occasionally read dialogue out loud to make sure it flows right, even though my dialogue can sound pretty strange out of context. (A complete read through will have to wait.) I’ve messed with the story arc, forcing in extra scenes and hoping that characters don’t end up in two different places on the same Wednesday. The book is finally, to a great extent, done.

Now, naturally, I need it to be ripped apart again. And for that I need beta readers.

I’ve used my mother and brother for beta readers, and they’re… all right. But let’s get real. Your mother will never tell you, “This is awful. The plot is cliché, the conclusion is preachy, your characters are flat, and this should be used to line the cage of an ill-tempered gerbil.” She just won’t.

Meanwhile, my brother will occasionally begin “Oh yeah, my sister wrote a book where…” and I’ll have to throw something at him or rapidly deny everything. This has happened multiple times.

Inkpop served as a great place to get good criticism, but now that’s over. I thought about moving to Wattpad, but after seeing this in a guide to newcomers, I decided that I’d be better off on my own:

When you really want to leave an honest critique, it is better to ask the write…r if it is alright. Even after you critique their story they still might get offended. You haven’t done anything wrong and neither have they. They just don’t understand that you would be saying anything negative about their story.

Nice. I don’t do sugar coated, and I don’t like getting it either.

This leaves friends. Friends aren’t ideal, but they’re not blood relatives and I can at least hope that they’ll be honest with me. So now I’ll be considering candidates, typing up emails, and hitting send to the people I’ll feel least embarrassed to have read what I’ve written. This number is very small.

Then I’ll go to work on something else and probably forget all about it. I’ve been working on this manuscript for almost a year now. I kind of hate it. But someday – maybe a few weeks later – there will be an email in my inbox. My pulse will start racing. Potential criticisms will flash across my brain. I’ll realize that I care slightly more than I thought I did. And then the glorious, horrible process of revisions will start all over again.

 

Right Voice, Wrong Time February 12, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:31 AM
Tags: , , , ,

Line edits take forever. You know how you can read a word so many time that it loses all meaning? I’ve reread lines from my manuscript so many times that I swear they’re imprinted into my brain. What’s even worse is that I’m picking up bad habits.

For example, one of my MCs is quite foul mouthed. It got so prevalent that it turned into a running gag for me; I made sure that an expletive found its way into the very last line she narrated. Unfortunately, spending so much time in her POV started rubbing off on me. It was most obvious during one lunchtime conversation while we talked about healthy eating.

Healthy girl: You should eat a lot of greens.

Me: I eat peas and cucumber.

Healthy girl: I guess those are technically green.

Me: *mentally* Damn straight.

Not my usual response, that’s for sure. I’m well known for never swearing, a habit ingrained in me throughout childhood. I immediately cracked up, of course, and had to explain myself to Healthy girl and my other friends, who were naturally wondering why I’d dissolved into hysterics. Apparently the combination of overwork, college stress, and  sheer line editing boredom have lowered my verbal inhibitions.

Let’s hope I don’t start taking after any other characters. Turning into a homicidal maniac wannabe probably wouldn’t help me land any scholarships.

 

Life Cycle of a Novel January 23, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 7:24 PM
Tags: , , ,

I skipped Blogging the Bible yesterday, mostly because it’s gotten boring and I don’t think anyone cares anyway. Instead, I’m writing a potentially equally boring post that slightly more people might care about. Or maybe not, but at least it’s about writing.

Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I’m usually a first draft kind of girl. I write the book, turn up my nose at its craptasticness, and move on. My current project is the only novel sized piece of writing that I’ve really endeavored to polish. And let me tell you – polishing is a pain in the butt.

It’s rather interesting, though, to get a feel for how long a book really takes when you follow it through all the stages of its life cycle. Everyone does it differently, of course. If you follow a formula, novel writing can go pretty quickly. I’ve heard of one romance novelist who could write a book in five days, which seems like it would result in rather low quality offerings, but what do I know? Anyway, this is how the progression has gone for me:

April – mid July: First draft phase.  For me (again probably because of my NaNo practice) this is the easiest part. I can jot down anything and ignore how bad it is. First drafts are supposed to suck. Or perhaps ‘expected’ is a kinder word. This phase is when you experiment. I swapped POVs twice and added/subtracted the occasional character. At last, in mid July, I crossed the finish line with 58,000 words. The story was basically finished – the plot worked out, all main road marks set. The skeleton was in place.

Late July – November: Break. It’s important to take a break from your manuscript once it’s done, so you can go back to it with fresh eyes. I wrote the occasional scene or dropped in for a quick edit once and a while, but for the most part I left my novel alone. After all, I had school, and IB senior year has a way of catching one’s attention.

Late November – end of December: Broad revisions. Done with NaNoWriMo but still willing to write, I returned my focus to my current project. I rewrote the entire climax, added or tweaked plot points, and altered a few characterizations. My word count swelled to 72,000, even after my dramatic ‘was’ purge.

Where does this leave me? I took another break through January, but as the month ends, I want to start up editing again. Now, however, I’m returning to the finer brush I mentioned earlier – line editing. Basically, I plan to read it over, fix any minor details, and keep an eye out for awkward sentences. I’ll also read dialogue out loud to make sure it works, double check calendars, and all the other crazy minor stuff that’s so important.

With any luck, and schedule allowing, I’ll be done with line edits by early summer. Then I can finally grit my teeth and send the manuscript off to beta readers. And what after that? Well, I’m not sure. I’ll have spent over a year on this novel, which is a pretty crazy investment of time in itself. I don’t know where I want to take it from here.