Writing in Seasons

Fall is my second-favorite season (spring wins because it’s warmer). One of the things I like about it is the sense of calm that comes after summer. Summer is typically busy — a good kind of busy, as it’s filled with trips and barbecues and movies and hours of light — but as evidenced by all those and’s, it’s still busy. As the weather cools, it’s easier to pause for a moment and sit in a chair with a cup of tea.

It’s also easier to pause and write. I write all year, but during the summer and spring, I find it more difficult to write anything long. I finished the first draft of Please Give in April, and sent it for edits in June. I thought I’d spend the time it was with my editor working on my next novel.

I thought wrong. It was a prolific stage, as I finished five short stories and started another, longer one between April and September. But it was prolific in a somewhat manic way, as I wrote in short story bursts as opposed to one long, lingering novel (though there were times when pounding out pages of Please Give felt like anything but calm and lingering).

Fall is back, and so is the book. I’ve been revising it for the past few weeks, and of course, I got ideas for my next novel once my current one was back in my inbox. And, I not only got an idea for the next one, but an idea that would turn the unfinished, longer short story into a proper novella — or maybe even a novel, once it’s done. Two novels to work on, and I’m still revising the first one. Thanks, brain, for having such a great schedule.

In all seriousness, I am starting to wonder if fall and winter have become my novel-writing seasons, while spring and summer are the seasons for short stories. Fall and winter do lend themselves beautifully to a book. It gets darker earlier, which puts me inside with my laptop. There are a flurry of activities with the holidays, but it still feels slower than the onslaught of Things To Do that comes with the excitement of the weather warming up and my winter hibernation coming to a close.

All year, there is a lot — and all year, there is a lot to write. It seems for me at least, the time of year dictates how much I’ll write until the story feels complete.

Friday Motivation: Done is Better than Perfect

The following was the entry on my desk calendar the other day. It came at a great time, as I was hesitating to continue some projects because I didn’t think they were perfect or ready enough to continue or finish. In a quick post to get the weekend started, I wanted to share it with all of you. I hope you spend your weekend – or any day, really – completing your pieces! Writing something is always better than nothing. 

Done is better than perfect
Have a good weekend, everyone. 

My Jar of Fireflies

I wrote the essay below a couple weeks ago, when I was feeling melancholy. Nothing particularly painful caused the melancholy, it was just a mood I was nursing. That mood extended into some doubts about writing, and the feeling I’m sure many writers have, where they wonder if the words they write are better kept to themselves. Writing the essay below helped me feel better, and in line with its thesis, I wanted to share those words with you. I also want to add a P.S. to other writers reading — I hope you’ll share your words as well. Have a good Tuesday, everyone.

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My Jar of Fireflies

When I was little, one of my favorite summertime activities was catching fireflies. I was fascinated by bugs that glowed neon green as they flitted by. I had to catch them in my hands, watch their wings unfold and shine their light upon my palms.

Like many little girls, I liked collecting bugs in jars. Fireflies were no different. I’d place them in a jar with holes on top, making sure my flying lanterns could breathe. I put the jar in my room one night, hoping for a night light. This didn’t work, as the fireflies began to climb out of the holes. I took them outside before they could escape in my room. I knew a holeless lid was out of the question, as the bugs would suffocate and not light up at all.

I accepted that the best way to enjoy the fireflies was to catch them, then let them go. They glowed their brightest when they flew from tree to tree, sparkling in the blue summer nights and cutting through the fog of humidity that defined July in the southern areas I grew up in. To this day, a wide smile will cross my face when I walk home and see the familiar green glow of a firefly cross my path. It’s the first sign of summer, and the beginning of nights warm with light and conversation.

I found myself remembering the jar of fireflies as I thought about my writing. My thoughts tend to float in and out of the air, and sometimes, writing is the only way I can catch them. I write them down, place them in a paper jar, then hold that paper jar with all my might, keeping it in my room and hoping the lid will keep them safe.

I know deep down, though, that that is no destiny for ideas. In order to glow, they have to be released. I can poke holes in the lid, and the ideas can seep out in bursts — a stray quote to a friend, reading a couple pages to my husband, discussing ideas with my editor. But in order to fly to their highest peaks, they need to be released.

It’s something I try to remember as two of my pieces approach completion. It can be hard to let go of something that brings me such personal joy, especially into a world where they’ll fly free of my own hold. But removing the lid, and learning to let them go, is what will ultimately help them glow — and make me smile when I see them flying by.

5.10.17

Watching Stories

In On Writing, Stephen King recommends that aspiring writers avoid television lest they slog their creative brains with drivel. One moment I remember clearly from John Irving’s The World According to Garp was Garp walking by a living room and sighing as he saw the blue glow of television shining through people’s windows because, he presumed, it meant that people weren’t reading. These passages were written long ago, and I would be curious to see what these authors, as well as (many) others who are averse to television, think of the state of TV now.

(I do follow Stephen King on Twitter, and he seems to be less averse to the glowing blue box than before)

The way television has grown as a storytelling medium has fascinated me. I was never averse to TV, but I never considered it a superior storytelling medium. I preferred film – especially as I grew older, and became more familiar with independent and arthouse films which told excellent stories in ways I never thought possible. I shifted almost entirely to film by the time I was in college. Television just didn’t do it for me.

Then television became more cinematic. Premium cable channels started making more of their own shows, which could push the limits that the FCC and advertisers alike placed on broadcast networks. Services like Netflix pushed those limits even further, taking series that wouldn’t see the light of day on established networks and were given chances through a medium that not only wanted to show these stories, but could afford to. I’ve loved seeing the increased diversity and story themes across shows on HBO and Netflix, to the point where broadcast networks announcing pilots with more of the same (cough CBS cough) makes me wonder how far you have to bury your head in the sand before you become one with the dirt.

Reading is classified as the best way for a writer to learn their craft. I agree, but I think the current state of television is a close second. The way a series can flow now, with strong connections from one episode to the next (thanks to us being able to watch repeats, and on repeat whenever we like), and without commercial interruptions, gives them not just a cinematic feel, but the feel of a book unfolding through cinema cells (or digital pixels, with the current state of film). The writing and content is also fantastic. Yes, there are still plenty of shows that are trash, just like there are plenty of books that are trash. But it seems in the past several years that there are many more shows which defy the limits of either the medium itself (such as Game of Thrones) or the ideas of the people in charge of that medium.

I think of Master of None. My husband and I just finished the second season. That show is so good that it makes me seriously question producing more content. Why try when this exists? (I still want to produce content) It’s a show that I believe never would’ve seen the light of day if it weren’t for Netflix. It tells stories that corporate boardrooms insist we don’t want to see, and does so in ways that are almost painful in how creative they are. I especially love how cinematic it is – the homages to Italian cinema this season were an especially nice touch – and also the way the dialogue flows. The series unfolds like a book, with one-off chapters and an arching theme coexisting nicely in a tale of one man’s life among many, and the many lives that make up the stories of our world. Stories that need to be told, and need to be told well. I’m glad that television has become a medium where that story can be told well.

I could write extensively about many television shows, those shows’ respective merits, and how they inspire me as a writer. I probably will, down the road (coming soon: an ode to Mystery Science Theater 3000). Television – at least now – inspires me to not only write, but to write better. It shows me many possibilities on how a story can be told, and how it can be written. Never get comfortable. Never get stagnant. Challenge yourself, and not just to write a story, but to consider how that story can be told.

Hello Old Friend: Visiting Old Drafts

In the process of writing Please Give, I did a lot of revising. I once went on a revision bender where more than 50 pages were removed from my master document. All these changes were for the better, even with the pain of removing weeks of work with the simple stroke of CTRL+X.

You’ll notice, though, that the removal came via CTRL+X, and not DELETE. I have a folder of lost chapters, and 90% of my removed pieces live there. At first, it was home to original versions of chapters that went through such a significant revision, the old version barely existed. As I progressed towards a finished first draft, I began putting more items in that folder, namely snippets and passages that I wanted to remove but didn’t want to delete. I subscribe to the “Kill your darlings” mentality, but rather than kill them, I prefer to put them in cold storage, where they’ll either find a new life in another book or stay preserved in my memories to remind me of where my pieces came from.

The value of the latter is quite great, especially when one is having doubts about their pieces. On a lark, I decided to revisit the first piece of writing I did for Please Give. It wasn’t in its original form, but it was close — it was the second-oldest document to be modified in the folder, and hadn’t been touched since November. If you recall, the first scene I wrote for the novel was the first date between Beth and her love interest, as well as a moment they shared where he revealed something about his past. As originally written, this was nine pages/4500 words, and very conversational in tone. As the piece stands now, it’s been divided into two chapters, and features more dialogue and a greater expansion on characters aside from Beth — namely in the lines they get.

I read it to remind myself how far the piece had come, and also with a bit of masochistic desire. First drafts are never good, and this one was no different. There are a lot of sentences and asides that, even in first person narration, don’t belong in a book. It also shows that while I knew Beth pretty well, I didn’t know anyone else much better; as she does all the talking and the other characters only get a few lines or, in Writing Don’t 101, get their thoughts explained or assumed by Beth. How would Beth know what they’re thinking? She’s not God, nor a psychic (though writing a story about a psychic may be fun someday).

While a few pieces made me cringe, I was pretty surprised by the lack of pain upon reading it. It was actually kind of fun, and while not good, it certainly wasn’t the worst writing I’ve ever done. As desired, I also saw how far the piece had come, and gained a new sense of confidence for when I revisit the book next week and read it from beginning to end. If reading that original draft wasn’t (completely) painful, then reading the result of months of work and revisions will probably be pretty good. I hope so, anyway.

My favorite part, though, was being struck by the lines that stayed. What started as nine pages, one chapter, and mostly Beth explaining things conversationally has grown into two chapters, Beth narrating as opposed to explaining, more words from the other characters, and a better connection between the ideas in that chapter and the rest of the book (something a lot easier to do when you actually have the rest of the book written down — who knew?). The text is very different now, and little has remained of what I first wrote down in September. That makes the little that has remained all the more rewarding. I found myself smiling as I read lines that were familiar to me, especially since I knew where they ended up: in a better home, surrounded by better neighboring words.

Store your darlings. You never know when you may want to visit them again.

Developing Characters: Imaginary AMA

I received a standard piece of fiction writing advice in an electronic media writing class during my undergraduate studies. While the class focused more on advertisements and nonfiction, our final assignment was to write a treatment for a fiction TV show. My professor encouraged us to develop our characters by talking to them. He told us how a past student said she had trouble doing this, but once she engaged with her character, the character “wouldn’t shut up.”

I think about my characters, and the stories which hold them, a lot, especially when I walk to work. I have a ten minute walk to and from the metro, which gives me plenty of time alone with my thoughts. I’ve often used that time to flesh out stories and come to some interesting realizations about my characters.

However, I don’t talk to them. I find this difficult to do, as I see the characters as separate from my world. They’re not people I engage with, even mentally and with the lens of pretense that “talking to your characters” requires. When I do get my characters to talk, it’s to each other. Sometimes that dialogue makes it into the story, but other times, it’s side conversations that take place off-page and help me write what needs to be there.

My most common method of character development, though, is engaging with myself. When I’m thinking about my characters, I like to pretend I’m being interviewed about them after the story’s been finished. I pretend I’m being asked questions about the story, and I answer them — usually in detailed, humorous answers that help to shape my own thinking about the story (rest assured, I do this in my head — I don’t make it a point to scare my fellow commuters by talking to myself).

I find this AMA (“Ask Me Anything,” for those who don’t know) format very helpful in discovering things about my characters and, subsequently, their stories. By explaining deeper motivations than what appears on the page, it helps me figure out why things happen and how I should write them. Sometimes it gives me better ideas to shape things that aren’t working as I’ve written them.

I also find it more helpful to do this in my head (or quietly mouthed to myself) as opposed to writing it down. Notes are handy, and the few times I’ve forced myself to write notes, I’ve gotten good results. However, the off-the-cuff nature of pretending I’m doing an AMA helps me capture ideas as they flit into my answers. Writing it down, for me at least, would take this aspect away, as I’d spend too much time trying to write the correct thing to really let the answers I seek flow through. Speaking is less structured but, in many ways, more truthful.

Be it through an imaginary AMA or an imaginary conversation with characters, I find it interesting that one of the best ways to write fiction is to engage in a fictional conversation. Perhaps that act in and of itself is what helps us write.

More Motivational Fortune Cookies

Awhile back, I got a fortune cookie which I held dear, as it pertained to writing, and I was in the throes of writing the novel. I carry the fortune in my pocket or my purse every day as a writing charm, wrapped around a lucky quarter I found on the metro. 

Now the novel is simmering, and I’m submitting my stories to contests and journals. While I’m still writing, I’m also trying to keep up my motivation to share my pieces, especially when I move towards self-publishing in the next few months. 

While having lunch with my husband, I got another fortune. It’s lofty, even by my high standards, but I found it encouraging all the same. Shoot for the moon, after all. 


Many thanks to all you excellent people who follow along with my writing adventures. That motivates me more than any charms or cookies. Have a great weekend!

Done with the Draft: 5 Stages of Feelings

I woke up this morning having dreamt about my novel. Not about writing it, or publishing it, or anything like that. I dreamed about the story. The characters were in a new scene playing out in my head as I slept.

Such scenes have been my waking dream for the past seven months. Those dreams manifested into pages, pages which I finished on Monday, and set aside so I could approach the draft with fresh eyes before sending it to my editor. For the next few weeks, Please Give is done.

Heh.

While I’ve shifted my focus to other things — books I’ve neglected, reading pieces for workshops, and working on a new short story, to name a few — it’s been difficult to keep Please Give in the eaves. I haven’t opened the draft, but I do have a document of notes I jot down, to be added when I lift my personal embargo for working on it.

This morning, the document stayed open much longer than a notes document should. I stopped myself when I realized I was writing a stream of dialogue while riding the escalator to the metro. I was doing what I’d been doing for the past several months — writing the book because my thoughts were crowded with how it should read. I put my notes away, and read a book instead. The second draft can wait. It’ll be there when I get back.

I knew it would be a shift to go back to a routine that didn’t include working on the novel. While not equivalent to grief, I found myself thinking of the experience in terms of the famous five stages. I see the time between a first full draft and the second draft as such:

The Five Stages of Post-Novel Draft Feels

Excitement — woo hoo, it’s done!

Anxiety — is it done?

Bargaining — I’ll write notes, but I won’t open the draft

Despair — it’ll never be done! I’ll never stop writing it!

Acceptance — it will be done. I’ll keep writing other things. It’ll be there when I get back.

These stages are fluid and can be felt at any given moment, returned to or jumped past depending on mood. I’ll sometimes run the gamut in the course of an hour. All are natural feelings to have when finishing any big project, especially one as personal as writing a story.

It’s important, though, to do one’s best to not stay fixed in the middle three. It’s hard, but it can be done. Write something new. Read something new. Do something new. If for no other reason, doing new things gives you new things to write about.

The Final Countdown

275 pages. 124,000+ words. Thus far.

This, my friends, is the final countdown.

I’m chugging along on Please Give, and feeling both scared and excited with each bracket note erased and each page added. It’s close to done. This may actually get done! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

Being done with a full draft won’t mean being completely done, of course. Once I have a finished draft, I plan to do a quick formatting edit, then leave it be for at least two weeks. That may seem like a short amount of time, and it’s certainly shorter than the six weeks that Stephen King recommends in On Writing (which I just finished). But, considering how much a part of my life this book has been, leaving it for two to three weeks will already require a great deal of discipline. Working on this every day for the past seven months hasn’t happened because I’ve felt like I had to. This book has been fun to work on.

But even fun needs to wait, and so do stories. During those two to three weeks, I’m going to work on things that have nothing to do with Please Give — though they’ll bring their own fun to the table. I have a few projects in mind. One is revising The Campus Coffee Shop. This was originally scheduled to appear in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales. However, my editor and I both agreed that it not only needed more revisions, but that it needed a different collection to call home. So, that story is still in progress, and will appear at a later date.

I also have a couple ideas for my next novel, and plan to spend the next two to three weeks getting one started. I plan to start small, in the form of notes, an outline, character lists, and the like. I may also start writing if I feel so compelled, perhaps in short bursts, as I did with Please Give. I’ve already done this, truth be told, with two different novels I’ve had swimming in my head over the past few months.

Finally, the timing of completing a first draft of Please Give is coinciding nicely with a writing contest I may enter. The 30 Day Collective will present a theme on April 21st, and participants in the contest must write a story that fits that theme within 30 days. Regardless of when I complete a first draft of Please Give, I plan to wait until at least May 16th to pick it back up and read from beginning to end. That’s almost 30 days from April 21st. A happy coincidence, and one that seems too good to ignore.

It’s an exciting time for writing, and I look forward to working on all of these projects in the days to come — and even more so, I look forward to sharing it all with you.

[put something good here]

The title of this post is not a mistake. It’s a note I make for myself when I’m stuck on a passage in my stories — mostly my novel, as my short stories were short enough to be written in sequence, and weren’t halted by my inability to write something as well as desired before moving on to the next scene.

With a novel, there are far more thoughts to be collected — too many to put down completely before moving forward. There’s always revision, but typing something I’m not pleased with is more difficult for me than typing nothing at all. Even when I remind myself that I can revise, or that a first draft is allowed to be bad — because let’s face it, they always are, no matter who writes them — I find myself staring at the cursor for several minutes, unable to type the sentences I have in mind to follow the one stubborn sentence that I just can’t write satisfactorily.

This happened in a passage where I was trying to come up with a good simile. It wasn’t even a whole sentence giving me trouble, but half of one. While I hemmed and hawed, typed and deleted, the sentences waiting to come next did just that — waited. I finally got frustrated, said “Screw it,” and typed “[put something good here].” I moved on, and finished the chapter. I eventually put something good there, over a week later.

It’s less difficult to type nothing, but certainly not better, especially if one ever hopes to finish their story. The current draft of my novel is filled with [ ] notes, mostly summarizing chapters, but also reminding me to write something good later.

[put something good here] [expand on this] [make this dialogue instead of narration]

It gives me something to write, which helps me move forward while reminding me that the passage will be there waiting for me when I’m ready to complete it. It’s a small gesture, but it helps the process — especially because I’ve often discovered what’s needed to finish that sentence is the ones that follow it.