Sunday, September 15, 2013

Random Things I've Learned About Writing

That's right, a post not about being a nurse! My needles and nitrile gloves are safely put away for this one.

Right now I'm doing revisions/edits on my sixth novel. I've also been pretty sick recently, and also trying to keep myself on a less slingshot schedule, which equals me awake at night, thinking deep thoughts and exploring the bowels of the internet.

I'm not an expert at writing. I don't think anyone is, truly. We all hack it out the best we can, learn from our mistakes, glean information from others, and try to cram it all into our little addled writer-brains so the next glut of word vomit might be slightly more palatable than the last time. Like throwing up mashed potatoes instead of Taco Bell*.

Here are some things I've figured out:

1) You can finish a novel. It's not easy. It takes mountains of faith in yourself, in the process. Dedication, determination, and most of all, time. From the day I started penning (literally penning--I didn't start writing on a computer until much later) "stories," it was 15 years until I finished my first novel. Guess what? That was three years ago. Since then, I've written 5 more. That's almost 2 novels per year, including while I was in nursing school and also my first year as a nurse. Which leads to...

2) It gets easier with practice. Savor the feeling of finishing your first novel. You won't ever capture that same feeling. I didn't, anyway. When I finished the second, I was more like, "well, duh." The reactions have dulled for each subsequent book. But the "writing of a novel" is no longer a mythical beast. It's a given. You know that, like a math problem, if you add x and y (words and time), you will = novel.
    Since I finished my first novel, I have only given up on one since then. And it was a NaNoWriMo project, so I don't really count it.
    The more you write, the more you learn about yourself. You learn your process. You learn how much time you have to spend lying on your office floor with your feet propped on the wall, rubbing your dog's ears, to untangle a plot problem. You also may learn that the fastest way to end writer's block is to shave your legs (or maybe that's just me). You get a feel for the cadence of your own voice. For instance, once I'm about 10-15k into an idea, I already have a rough forecast for the completed wordcount. So far, I've been within 2-5k of that projection.
   What's good about this is that you can therefore accurately plan your writing schedule. Say you can, 99% of the time, write 2-3k in one sitting of a novelling day. Well, because you know your usual style of plotting and pacing, you know that 2-3k is going to be, roughly, one chapter. If you can devote 3 days per week to that writing, and you estimate your novel is going to come in around 90k, that's roughly 3 months, give or take some extra writing flurry days as you near the end.

3) At various points in your current project, you are going to feel like a genius and a hack. And honestly, as long as you can be objective and you have extra eyes reading your MS who are also objective--and you listen to their feedback--it's okay to spend more time feeling like a genius than a hack. There's plenty of time to feel like a hack. You'll probably feel like a hack for the entirety of your writing career, at some point or another. I feel like a pretend nurse at my job all the time, and I have the degree, the license, and the letters after my name to prove otherwise. Feeling like a hack is human nature. When do you ever "feel" like an adult? You don't. Simple enough.

4) The time to throw yourself off your own pedestal is during revisions. You may be fortunate enough to ejaculate decent rough drafts. Good for you. Pat yourself on your back, then go ahead and use a little extra force to throw yourself into the dirt. Dirt is where you belong. Because now is the time for gritty. Repeat after me: everything can be changed and probably should. Okay, so that's some hyperbole. Maybe you're a talented plotter, and truth be told, your first draft is only as holey as baby swiss instead of a fishnet stocking. Congratulations. Everyone has a special talent as a writer. Believe it. The point of revision is to look past your special talent at all the stuff you're not so special at. That's where the work comes in. That's where you need to really sweat. If you're lucky enough to have someone in your life who has a real brain for plots, use them. It's going to hurt. Believe me, it's going to hurt. Especially if that someone happens to be your spouse. But guess what? They're objective. They're smart. And they didn't write the thing, so they couldn't care less if you meticulously crafted that one sentence that throws the entire plot on its ear. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Listen. And if you are married to that person, it's okay to occasionally remind them that hey, you are married and hey, it's okay if you wanna sometimes maybe say some nice stuff too, okay? Go ahead and work on your dedication, and make sure that person, whomever they may be, is the star. You may be capable of solving many of your own problems, but chances are you wouldn't have had some of those problems in the first place if you could solve them on your own. Know what I'm saying?

5) Research agents with care. I mean this in two ways. 1) the obvious. Don't throw your query to the wind. More important, 2) Don't put the cart ahead of the horse. In this case, don't put the agent ahead of the novel. It's easy, and very tempting, to get carried away when you're somewhere around the 75% complete stage. You may think that's a good time to start grooming your agent list, making your fancy Excel spreadsheets, and stalking their Twitter feeds. And sure, doing this in moderation is fine. You're excited about your book. It's only natural to let yourself daydream, because at this point that is what you are doing. Your book is not ready. 75 percent? NOT ONE HUNDRED PERCENT. In nursing school, 75% is a failure. Would you want your surgeon to repair only 75% of your abdominal aortic aneurysm? Of course not. So why would you want to believe that your 75% book is ready to be seen by the world?
   This is the hardest part. Writing the book was not the hardest part. Revising is not the hardest part.
   The hardest part is being honest with yourself about your book's readiness. A lot is objective. The most important part is subjective. And we, as greedy writers with shiny book covers in our eyes, are more biased on our books than pretty much anything else in the world. And that's a good thing. If you don't think your book is the most shiny, beautiful dadgum manuscript to ever wend its way into the querysphere, then chances are things may not end so well for you.
   Don't be premature.

   Read all the archives of Query Shark. Seriously. It won't take very long, if you're a dedicated stalker of information. Absorb the advice. Go elsewhere on the internet and do the same. Do all of this after your book is "finished." Maybe while it's in the hands of beta readers/critique partners. That's a pretty good time. Even better, do it after you've revised it from their feedback, after you've given it the spitshine and are rabid to begain to query. Chances are, you'll get lots of good advice in your internet searching that not only applies to your query letter, but applies to your MS too. Nothing is worse than hitting send, then going "oh wait!"

    This is a long blog post. None of this advice is new. And most of it is aimed directly in the mirror. Especially the last bits.

   Go forth, fellow writers. And get a cat.

* This disgusting metaphor brought to you by my Thursday night. Except it was Taco Bell.


Saumya said...

Gah, this was incredible, from start to finish. It was like the kick in the butt I've needed for a long time. Thank you, thank you, thank you

Meredith said...

Amazing! Just what I needed to hear today. Thank you for the advice!

Sarah Ahiers said...

I wish i could get a cat.

Stephanie said...

Great post. My first drafts are horrible. I write fast and messy, my only goal to get the novel finished. Then I can revise, which is my favorite part.