All the World’s a Writing Space

Like many writers, I prefer to sequester myself in a room and write alone. It’s the best way to punch out a longer passage and really gather my thoughts. It’s also useful if I want to do the odder aspects of working through the writing process, like talking out the dialogue or acting out the motions. My one-woman performances of my stories are something to behold.

Some say that writing alone is the only way to write, or at least, the only way to write well. It’s preferred, for sure. I also think it’s unrealistic, especially when so many of us write on the side. As such, I think the emphasis on writing alone limits potential writers from getting into the craft. If we emphasize solitude and writing nooks, the fabled desk lit only by sunlight as the author hides from the world she writes about, we’re only giving her one way to write. I think that’s a disservice.

There are many times throughout the day that the story I’m working on pricks at my fingertips. I have access to my spare bedroom where I type on the bed because the desk is full writing corner during few of those times. When I was first starting to write, I’d make myself wait until I could both be alone and be alone for a solid chunk of time. I thought that’d be best for me and for the work, since that’s what others encouraged.

In waiting for the best space to write, though, I found my stress increasing. I’d try to remember things for later, along with everything else I had to think about throughout the day. I’d finally get to my writing corner, and I’d be juggling everything and trying to decide what to write down first, and how to get it down during my Designated Writing Time. This didn’t seem like the productive hour(s) of seclusion that was deemed best for writing — especially on the days where I just didn’t have that chunk of several hours.

I did, however, have minutes — pieces of time here and there that could be filled with smaller bursts of writing. So, I began to write in bursts. A free moment between work tasks, riding the train on my commute, waiting in line at Starbucks, flying on a plane surrounded by passengers — if I had a moment, and I had something to write, I’d write it. If I ran out of time to finish the passage, I’d either stop or leave myself a bracket note. It wasn’t the ideal of having a carved set of time in a carved piece of space, but then again, I think any moment where one can write is an ideal one. I think it’d be a better service to writers, especially writers today, if we emphasized that over finding the perfect time and space.

I’m not saying one should never write alone, or never try to find time to write alone. One absolutely should — and, if living with someone else, asking for that time alone is healthy and should be encouraged. But writing alone isn’t the only way, and may not necessarily be the best way. At the end of the day, the best way to write is to write. It’s about it happening at all, not where or for how long.

Outlining: A Necessary Evil

I’m an excellent planner. I remember dates, remember information, and love to be prepared for a project ahead of time. I bring that planning to my writing as well, right?

Well …

Writing is better than planning to write. However, I can’t write everything I’m thinking of at once. I usually keep stories in my head until I’m ready to write them, and at most, write a couple quick sentences and a title so I don’t forget the idea as I devote my head space to other projects. Writing down an idea is almost like giving yourself a pensieve — the idea waits for you while your thoughts tend to other things.

Still, even when my thoughts are focused on one story, I often can’t write fast enough to stop my thoughts from swimming in my head. When I have thoughts on chapters I’m not yet writing, I start to write notes. My notes are usually quick asides, but quickly become passages and dialogue, which is why I prefer to just write the story as opposed to notes.

When a story is bigger, though, those thoughts become dedicated to more than just the beginning, middle, and end. Dates get involved. There are sequences. I need to remember what order things occur in, or when it makes the most sense for something to happen.

And that’s when I realize I need to do something I can’t stand to do: outlining.

I don’t like it. It feels like I’m clamping down the story before it even has a chance to breathe. It’s too perfunctory. I think to myself, “How can an outline help me write? Only writing can do that.” And then I write. And then I stop, because I’m caught up in the details of how the story should occur.

When a story reaches a point where my swirling thoughts on what will occur, and when it will occur, preclude the writing, that’s when I know it’s time. This happened with Please Give, and today, it happened with my novel-in-progress (over 50,000 words now, yay!). I found myself juggling timelines and thinking, “Wait, should this happen here? What month is it?” — and thinking that more than thinking about what to write next. So, I forced myself to write an outline. And sure enough, I felt better afterward, like the weight of a thousand swirling thoughts had been lifted off my shoulders and into a Google doc.

Everyone outlines their own way. My personal favorite is also how I like to plan: in dates. I consult a calendar and write a quick list of what will happen, and designate it by the date. An exact day is preferred, but I’ll write Week Of or Month Of if it’s a general course of action.These dates don’t make it into the book unless relevant to bring up, and are also subject to change — one of the ways I make myself outline is writing a note at the top assuring me that these can change as the story evolves. But outlining by date helps me as a writer to envision the action. It’s how I plan my own days, after all, so it makes sense that it would help me plan the fictional days my characters go through.

How do you outline, if at all?

Summer Writing+Reading

Today is supposed to be the hottest day of the week (and possibly the season) in the D.C. area. It’s always hot here in the summer, but having grown up in the southern Mid-Atlantic, I don’t really heed my fellow locals’ complaints about the purported oppressive heat of July and August. In North Carolina, you could barely go outside between 12 and 5 PM; and don’t get me started on the 24 hours we spent in Savannah in August one summer. I do concede that it’s easy to scoff at heat complaints while I sit in an air-conditioned room in a sundress.

Though I’ve been out of school for years, I still like taking part in summer reading. My local library has a summer reading program for all ages, and you can log your books and win prizes. Adults get the grand prize when they read six books in the designated time. Last summer, I completed and exceeded that by the beginning of July. This summer … I logged my fourth book yesterday.

My reading is still slow thanks to writing, but things like the summer reading challenge keep my bookworm fed. I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which was excellent. Now I’m reading The Girls by Emily Cline.

I’m also still writing away. Most of my focus has been on what is steadily becoming my second novel. I’m at 47,000+ words — a few days’ work away from a NaNoWriMo length! It’s still scattershot, and the plot is still coming together, but I’m both pleased and surprised at how it’s formed over the past several weeks — especially when for months, I didn’t think I had enough material for this story to turn into a novel. We’ll see where it goes!

What are you reading or writing this summer?

Talk it Out: Thoughts on Dialogue

I’ve been writing since I was little. A lot of my drive to write came from encouragement from my teachers. One thing I heard from grade to grade, and class to class, was the following observation: “You write a lot of dialogue.”

While never framed as a critique outright, I took it as an observation of something I should scale back. There are books, and there are scripts. I prefer to write books (or short stories). While I adore a good screenplay, it’s ultimately a writing medium that I don’t feel is my forte – beyond my knack for a good back-and-forth.

Unlearning my interpretation of my teachers’ observations has been one of the trickier parts of getting back into writing over the past two years. As I write first drafts — always a tough experience — I find myself stopping when I fill a page with a back-and-forth between characters. “It’s a book, not a script,” I tell myself. Then I keep writing – and keep writing dialogue. Cursed habits!

Or maybe they’re not so cursed. Over the past two years, I’ve heard more and more from people who encourage my dialogue habit. The most common refrain is one I’ve discovered firsthand: it’s one of the best ways to show and not tell. This seems odd, since characters speaking a truth is somewhat like telling. But in my own writing, I find that telling sounds more natural when it’s shared in conversation, as opposed to spelled out in narration.

This was my most common revision in Please Give, a trickier story to navigate the “show not tell” fields because it’s written in first person. My first drafts often had the narrator, Beth, possess amazing psychic powers about what the other characters were thinking. If she wasn’t psychic, then she was a lengthy narrator, going on and on about people’s histories and what was what. Sometimes that worked in narration (well, TBD — I’m waiting to hear back from my editor), but most of the time, it was long-winded, clunky, and unnatural. All those adjectives were erased when I converted explanatory narration into dialogue. Why should Beth speak for these people? She – and I, and the reader – can talk to them.

Further, having the characters talk revealed more things to me while writing than I thought possible when trying to speak for them as a narrator. This is true of both my first-person and third-person stories. Conversation can reveal many layers of depth, in ways that narration sometimes can’t.

My editor gave me some sound advice that I’d like to close with. When reading one of my stories, she found it didn’t flow as well as the others. It was also a story with less dialogue than I usually include. She said she realized while reading it that my characters need someone to talk to. I’ve often repeated that to myself when I get stuck on a dialogue-heavy story, because when I move past my doubts and make my characters to speak, I find that she’s right.

I would encourage any of you struggling with dialogue to consider if your characters need the same. Write a bunch of one-liners. Get them to talk to each other. Get them to talk to you. Even if you go back and take out superfluous lines, or add some narration to make it less script-like, or even feel odd writing so many lines, it may end up being the practice that helps your story come further to life.

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.

Progress Report: Various Scribbles

My day-to-day writing is a bit more scattered than it’s been in months — not in terms of getting things written, but in all the different things I’m working on. As I wait to revisit Please Give, I’ve picked up projects that were waiting in the eaves, and started a few new ones.

I’ve worked the most on a new short story. Right now, it’s called Wither. It’s an end-of-days tale with a focus on nature, told from the perspective of a young girl named Katie who forages for food the way her parents taught her. As she looks for food, she remembers her parents bringing her to the woods to live, and everything they taught her about the earth sustaining those who sustain it (or her, as Katie’s parents would adamantly say). Her parents’ extremities reveal themselves in time with the earth’s shifting health, and Katie remains trapped in the middle.

It’s a shift from both Please Give and my usual chillers in terms of tone, but that’s made it all the more interesting to write. In its current form, the past and present are broken up by a poem; so both my fiction and poetry sides are at play. I’m a better fiction writer than poet, but I do enjoy writing verses every now and then.

I’m approaching the final third of Wither, and trying not to get distracted by the next short story I plan to start once Wither is done. Currently titled We Really Shouldn’t, it details a reunion between two lovers with conflicting ideas on whether or not they should do what they do when they meet. It is a romance, but in the way I would write a romance, which in my short stories at least, isn’t always so romantic. I’ve outlined the story to help scratch the itch I have to start writing it, as I have trouble writing two or more pieces in tandem and want to at least complete a first draft of Wither before moving on.

I’m also putting together pieces for The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales. Once Please Give is with my editor, I plan to focus my time on getting the collection … well, collected; and ready for self-publishing as an ebook. I’m excited to get ever-closer to sharing these four tales, especially since I’ve talked about them so much over the past several weeks. I also look forward to hearing what you all think of them.

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.