Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The stress factor of critique

I sent my entire rough draft off to my writer's group to read and critique late last night. I am so stressed that even in my sleep deprived state of meeting my submission deadline - self imposed so there is enough time for them to read the whole thing before we meet to discuss it - I still couldn't sleep. What if no one likes it? What if they think it is total crap? What if their critique makes me cry? These are the thoughts going through my head.

The reality is, this is a rough draft in every sense of the word. There is at best cardboard cutouts for characters because I haven't added all the layers and depth that need to be there. Description is very lacking in lots of places. But that's because at this stage of the project, all I've done is gotten the story down from start to finish. Now the daunting process of editing for content and pacing and characterization and all the other things that I don't have at this point will begin.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Writing is hard work! Wish me luck that my fellow writers like it enough to invest their time and effort into helping with that editing and revision process so that others may someday read it, too.

Monday, February 18, 2013

I wrote a book... now what?

I wrote a novel. Holy shit! I. WROTE. A NOVEL. Or more accurately, the first draft is finished!!

And it only took me four and a half years...

I started 'writing a novel' back in 2008 when I first participated in NaNoWriMo.And while technically I've been working on the same basic idea I had for that first book, nothing is the same in the finished draft as it was when I started.The character names are different, the character who's point of view the story is written from has changed, even the scope and focus of the story shifted.Then there are my writing skills themselves. I trashed so much writing in the past four years to start all over when I learned another skill in the writing process and realized everything I'd written was now shit.

Let me tell all the aspiring writers out there some basic truths that I discovered along the way to my first completed rough draft of a novel-length work.

Just because you read a lot doesn't mean you'll have an inherent talent for writing. This was a hard one for me. I thought I could just sit down and write a novel. I've only thought about being a writer since I was in junior high. Sure it was going to be a lot of work and sure it was going to take some time. But surely I had what it took because I've been reading novels since I was in elementary school. Then I found all these things that I didn't know - point of view, tense, showing vs. telling, plot structure, character development, voice, narrative voice... The list goes on and on. And all these things have rules that work and things that you can't do and ... and ... and, yeah. It took me several of those first years stumbling around all that unknown territory realizing there was far more in the "things I don't know I don't know" column than there was in the "things I know" one. I still remember one of my very first chapters I ever wrote where the point of view shifted between two different characters as quickly as the dialogue they exchanged. There was a whole lot to learn that I understood subconsciously as a reader but that I had no real idea how to do as a writer.

Writing is hard work. I have a full time job, I'm a wife and I'm a mom to growing girls - one with a schedule all her own to keep up with. Part of me - not the overachiever part of course - wonders if it is even possible to write for a living on top of all that I'm already doing. This past year I've watched my friend and writing group partner sign with a publisher and embark on what comes next in the road to publishing. She doesn't work outside the house and she thought some days it was more than a full time job commitment to keep up with the editing she had to do. Deadlines up until now have been of my own doing and could come and go with zero consequences if I happened to miss one. What happens if I do publish a book and I don't have the luxury of writing at my own pace. If it has demands like a job will I still love it? And would my psyche rebel if someone told me I had to do something I didn't want to do - because that is never a good thing for me. Plus, writing is not the quick way to fame and fortune - you have to sell many many many books in order to make enough to quit your day job. Frightening!

Writing is humbling work. You put immense effort and emotion into creating characters and worlds and this story and you shed blood, sweat and tears to make it the best you can. Then people want to read it. And you want people to read it and tell you how much they love it. And sometimes they do say that. But most often you hear more about the things that don't work or that could be improved. And even when you trust and love these critique partners that you've asked to tell you these things it can hurt to hear them. If you can get past the initial sting and instinct to defend your work to the death, you can learn from what others see. But getting past those things can be very, very difficult. In the four plus years I've been writing *this* novel I think I've let my writer's group see a total of six measly chapters and not even that much of this current draft. I'm both sorry for that and not. They are my biggest supporters and I owe it to them but somewhere deep inside where I don't go very often, I am super scared no one will like what I wrote.

Writing a book isn't the same as publishing a book. The first thing people want to know when they hear I've written a novel (my daughter included) is 'when can I buy it and read it?'. Most published authors write countless novels before they are ever picked up by a publisher. Brandon Sanderson - who is such an amazing writer that Robert Jordan's widow picked him to finish the Wheel of Time series - wrote close to ten novels before he ever got published. (I only know this because my other friend and writing partner is his biggest fan so I might have the facts wrong...) Regardless, there are probably hundreds of unpublished writers for every one that gets a break and gets to publish a book. Then there are even fewer published authors who sell a ton of books and whose names are nationally recognized. Those are staggering odds and I know there is still no guarantee on where I go from here.

Writing a first draft isn't the end, it's only the beginning. I didn't even take two nights off from writing to celebrate before I was busy with revising. Key parts of the story morphed in the middle to make the ending work which then made the beginning inconsistent with the ending. And since I have a submission deadline for my writing group to read and critique the entire thing, I have to fix it right away. After they get a crack at it, there will be edits and revisions based on what they give me feedback on. At some point I need an editor to go over it and figure out all the things none of us have seen. Then beta readers for a look with fresh eyes, more revisions. And THEN I can hopefully find an agent who likes it enough and thinks he/she could sell it through the querying process which I haven't even wanted to look at details of because it is like having a full time job, plus a writing job PLUS a querying job until you find an agent. In the meantime, I will move on to the next idea and write another first draft and start the complete process over from the beginning. I've heard of published authors who are editing two books at the same time they are writing a third. Another argument in the 'writing is hard work' area.

While I know this is one of the more important steps - finishing a story all the way to the end - I know I am still on a journey of discovery. I'm having a blast and learning new things all the time. For today, I'm trying not to be overwhelmed by everything there is still left to do and instead taking this time to revel in the fact that I have done what I set about to do all those years ago. Or the first step of it anyway.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Lost Art of Organization

One of the keys to being an overachiever is being able to juggle a million responsibilities and commitments. After not having the energy or the drive to keep up with my life for a couple of months while I was recovering, I'll never take this skill for granted. This week I've attempted - again - to instill this skill in Big Sister.

At eleven, she is failing miserably to keep up and meet commitments. She dances three nights a week and fifth grade homework is far more brutal than any year prior. She - again - is missing so many assignments that with two weeks looming before the end of the semester she's in danger of failing fifth grade. Even with the looming threat motivation of knowing if she can't keep her grades up she doesn't get to keep dancing competitively, she struggles.

This must be one of those parenting lesson things because I'm at a loss. How can my kid - MY kid - not get it? She has a planner provided by the school and part of her grade this year is based on how much she uses it. Yet days go by that it doesn't even make it home, let alone have notes in it to remind her of what she needs to do. Worse, I'd been lulled into happily believing everything was under control. After all we nipped this in the bud last semester and she's been getting her math finished at school so there's much less to do at night. Imagine my distress when I checked her online grade book - just to be sure - to find nineteen missing assignments. NINETEEN. Half of them math.

In true analytical style, I took a step back from the yelling mommy ledge and wondered if there was something bigger at play. Using a planner effectively assumes there is a foundation of organization already in place. And as much as it pains me to admit it, my kid is not organized. Her room looks like a tornado unless I've been mean mom and locked her in it for days and told her she can't play with BFF until it's clean. And then it only lasts for a couple of hours. Partly I blame myself and my OCD where until I got pregnant with Baby Sister I cleaned up after her and when the mess in her room got too big for me to handle I helped her by telling her where everything went. It was very hard for me to admit that I have anything to do with this issue but there it is. The queen of organization never taught it to her kid. *sigh*

So, we had a great talk - she cried a lot and I yelled less - and I explained the nuances of being organized. Where you have to find your own system of keeping track of things and your own little tricks to remind yourself to use your system until it gets ingrained. Reinforced by the knowledge that homework never goes away and as much as she cries and says 'I wish there wasn't such a thing as homework' now is the best time to figure out how you're going to manage it. Six words I fear I don't say enough really hit home to her: 'I know you can do it.' I'm sure there's a whole series of posts I could do on how I'm motivated to action by the exact opposite of my kid but that's for another day.

Amazingly, I think at least part of it sunk in. I just looked up and saw her checking off a missing assignment on the list in the front of her binder after she filed it in the folder she's decided is where completed work goes. Of course she's been at the homework for two and a half hours with only two assignments completed because I have to keep reminding her that she's supposed to be doing homework and not daydreaming/complaining/chatting/eating. But I'll celebrate the baby steps and try to overlook the rest. This parenthood thing is hard!