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.

[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.

Progress Report: Novel + Stories

Good morning! It’s been a busy past couple of weeks, both in real life and the fictional ones I get to escape to through writing. Here are some quick updates on each project I’m working on, both for your information and to hold me accountable to finish them amidst the hubbub of everything else.

The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales: all of the stories I wish to include are back from my editor. I’ve gone through and made revisions on most of them. I plan to start piecing the collection together and prepare it for publishing once the novel is with my editor, as the novel takes up a great deal of head space right now. I’m keeping the short stories in mind, though, by submitting some to literary contests and journals as I find them. It’s good practice in terms of putting my stuff out there, getting used to feedback, getting used to receiving rejection, and conceptualizing them for other audiences. Plus, on the chance they win or get accepted, it would be a great experience.

Please Give: my master draft now has less words, but is more complete. I’ve found that the best way to write the pieces I have left is to remove or change the pieces that aren’t working as-is, putting me in an odd overlap of both writing and revision. It’s an odd feeling, but a satisfying one, especially since the changes and additions help me see the story from beginning to end as a cohesive whole – more than I have yet, and seemingly more each day. It’s exciting, and I look forward to replacing my [bracket] notes with actual pieces.

In between those two projects, I’m also writing down lines and ideas for my next pieces. I can’t help but write, and it’s an awesome feeling. It’s a feeling, though, that now needs to reverberate through the stories themselves. TTFN!


Letting Your Characters Fail

One of the hardest parts of writing is knowing when you have to let your characters fail. I’ve been working on Please Give, the novel I detailed on Tuesday, for several months. These months have flown by because it includes characters I really like. I like all of my stories’ protagonists, to an extent; even the ones that are less savory. I like them enough to tell their story, yet also think they deserve exactly what happens to them.

What’s more difficult, though, is writing situations where I know they’re getting what they deserve, and yet it breaks my heart that it has to be that way. As I mentioned on Tuesday, the protagonist of Please Give, Beth, has trouble opening up to people. She worries that if she opens up, she’ll say the wrong thing — and many times, she does. She often has such high aspirations that she either gets overly proud, or else places so many expectations on herself, that she falls hard when she thinks they haven’t been met or acknowledged. Her worst tendency, though, is her tendency to close up even when those around her want to know what she’s thinking, or want to be there for her. All of these things lead to various conflicts throughout the book, especially with the people she loves.

I care about her, and as such, I find myself getting in the trap of trying to fix her mistakes for her after I’ve written them. I’ll read something, and see what more she could have said to make the situation turn out better, and I’ll add it in. Sometimes it’s a necessary revision, as it removes unnecessary conflict, or is genuinely something I forgot to include. Usually, though, I force myself to take it back out. It’s the story that’s there, and while I have the power to change that, it’s not a power that should be abused. It’s my job as the author to tell her story, not to fix it for her so that she’ll never fail. Sometimes she has to, and usually, she needs to.

As I’ve written and revised, I have to remind myself repeatedly that a story where no mistakes are made isn’t a story at all. It’s difficult watching my characters stumble, and admittedly, I’ve helped myself move past that by writing down notes or even passages where the conflict is later resolved, just to assure myself and the characters that things will turn out okay. There are other conflicts, though, that don’t see a happy resolution. They’re mistakes, and they’re mistakes that my character feels guilty about; but they exist, and sometimes they don’t disappear with a magic wand, just like in real life. Real life, though, goes on, even without a swift conflict resolution or an author going back and pressing “Delete.” It moves on, as does the story, and as should I.