Monday, August 30, 2010

That Thing You Dread

It’s such a common phenomenon that we’ve even got a name for it. Of course, not every writer has one, but I’m willing to bet that those folks are few and far between.

My trunk novel—which I saw crumble into unpublishability before my very eyes as the joy of finishing it faded—was an eighteen-year-old’s attempt at emotional, literary Southern Gothic.

And it was crap.

But it’s the best crap in the world. You can read all you want about novel-writing and structure and plot and character. Go for it. That’s what I did, and it really does help. But there’s nothing quite like writing a novel for teaching you how.

And, at least for me, this is where I can’t tell you much more; because what did I learn from writing this glorious piece of trash? Nothing you’d be able to find without taking the plunge into novel-writing-dom.

I can tell you this: Don’t be afraid of the trunk novel. Embrace it. Hold on to the lessons you learn from it. I’m not saying your first novel will have to be trunked, but the fear that goes along with embarking on such a perilous quest can be debilitating. Don’t let that happen.

My trunk novel actually has a place on my bookshelf. Once I resigned myself to the nature of the beast, I made my way over to and published the novel privately. It’s not for sale. It doesn’t have an ISBN, it doesn’t have a list price, and it will never be seen by eyes other than mine.

But it’s in hardback, wrapped lovingly with a shiny dust jacket, and every once in a while, I’ll pull it down from my shelves and lose myself in it.

Trunk novels are alright. And, let’s be honest—you could do worse, right?

You could just sit there and not write anything at all.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Trunk Novels

If you've been writing for any length of time, chances are you've got a trunk novel - the first, or maybe the second novel you actually completed, that novel you love but maybe are a little embarrassed to mention in polite company, that novel you'd never show anyone else now that you know better.

Believe me, I've got them.  After all, my first "novel" was a college drama starring thinly disguised versions of myself and my older crush.  Would I ever dream of inflicting this story on an unsuspecting reader?  Lord, no.  What about my second novel?  Well, it was a 90,000-word talking animal epic.  My mother had a copy bound for my 13th birthday, and it's the only 'published' copy that will ever exist.  Do I love that book?  Of course.  But is it fit for public consumption?  Perish the thought.

There are more - I won't force you to suffer through plot summaries.  We all write them, books that offer a snapshot of the gawky adolescent phase of our writing careers.  Trying to publish these books would be like trying to pass your 3rd-grade violin recital off as a masterpiece.  Every respectable author should probably go through multiple trunk novels before producing one that's publishable.

So what's the point, then?  Why not quit writing as soon as you realize something is destined to be a trunk novel?  I'm on the brink of that realization now, struggling through a rewrite of an old novel.  Personally, I believe that trunk novels are how you develop your craft as a writer.  Part of the reason I love my old trunk novels is that they so clearly showcase each stage of my writing development.  "Aww, it's Nora's first lengthy descriptive scene!"  "Look, Nora just learned how to give a character flaws!"  "Hey, some of this dialogue sounds kinda real!"  They'll never be worthy of publication (if you ever see a novel for sale that says "written by Nora Coon at age 9", please direct angry letters to the fantastic agent I will have at that point in my career).  But I love my trunk novels just the same.

How do you know if something's a trunk novel?  First of all, if you're not writing with the hope of eventually selling your novel, it doesn't matter.  Write whatever you want, and enjoy.  But if you do dream of someday getting a phone call from your agent saying "Good news, Random House wants it and they're offering a mindblowing advance", read on.  If you have a critique group, it's relatively simple - ask them to read it, and see what kind of feedback you get.  If it's legitimate criticism, you've got something to work on.  If it's a lot of people saying "I don't understand why you asked us to read a 110,000-word book about one day in the life of a talking sock", it may be time to re-evaluate.  If you don't have a critique group, find a few people whose opinions on literature you trust (a creative writing professor, an articulate friend with similar taste in books) and ask them to read it.  

Personally, I believe that you should finish a novel once you've started it, if only because you'll learn something from every novel you write.  I am also a huge hypocrite and have about seven unfinished novels sitting on my hard drive.  Most would be called trunk novels, because there are gaping flaws.  Eventually, the choice is up to you: keep working, or leave it and start something else.  After all, you can always dust it off in a few years, once your writing has matured, and if the idea is still good - well, that's when you yank out the plot and characters and start rewriting.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Drafts

First drafts are kind of amazing.

Imagine this: It’s like being given three hundred sheets of blank paper and told to fill them—daunting, overwhelming, and powerful all at once. You get to create. You get to mold and reshape and mold again. You get to know your characters, to thrust them into all kinds of trouble, and pull them back out again.

You get to make mistakes.

Here’s how I do it—I have a rough outline. Very rough. I usually imagine certain stand-out scenes and add those first. I move them around, try to see where they fit, and add more as I go. It actually takes me a while to get writing, but when I do, I wrap myself up in that world that I’ve created, into those blank sheets that are suddenly alive with color and emotion and people.

And I write outwards from that feeling of immersion, because it’s so exhilarating to feel the story as I write it.

And I can’t stress this enough: You get to make mistakes.

First drafts aren’t meant to be perfect. They aren’t even meant to be fun, really. They can be, of course, and they usually are. But what I really think first drafts are for is authorial enrichment. Learning who your characters are. What their story is. Sometimes what their story isn’t.

And I think, to some extent, first drafts help you learn a little about yourself. How you relate to this thing you’ve created. This beautiful, reckless thing. Because while it may not be ready to be seen by any eyes but yours, it’s all you. It’s you when you’re sick and tired. It’s you when you’re brilliant. It’s you when you’ve had the shittiest day at work or school and you want to quit everything—even the writing.

That first draft is imperfect and glorious. Embrace it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Heh, despite last week's helpful posts on discipline, I still failed to post this on time.  Life is a learning experience, yes?

First drafts are my favorite part of writing, without a doubt.  Forget the agony of revision, the pain of rewriting and trying to fill plot holes; I like the rush of pure creation.  It used to be that I agonized over first drafts too, wanting every sentence to be a polished gem (or something) before I moved on to the next one.  Then I started doing NaNoWriMo, and, well...things changed.  My first drafts are great rambling messes now - but I actually write them, instead of staring at the page and trying to decide whether to tag a line of dialogue with "she said" or "she exclaimed".

I've mentioned outlining, but I don't usually outline before a first draft.  I've mentioned discipline, but I'm very undisciplined when writing a first draft.  I put off writing until the words are literally spilling out of me - until I'm scribbling down phrases and paragraphs on nearby scraps of paper and my comp sci notes and the grocery list - and then I lock myself in my room for hours at a time and blurt the story out, either by hand (if it's short) or on my computer.  Eventually, either I finish or I have to go do something else (like go to sleep).

Once I have a first draft, that's when the real work begins.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

That Ever-Elusive Cornerstone of Industry


Let’s be honest—who among us is truly disciplined? It’s the bread-and-butter staple of the writing world; it’s the butt-in-chair philosophy that keeps our little vessels afloat; it’s making yourself eek out words and plunge through the raging surf of life to pull our work into being.

It’s a pain in the ass.

A while back, we talked about time management. Most people think that’s the hard part. It’s not.

See, it’s pretty easy to garner some time for yourself—a half-hour here, twenty minutes there. Shorter showers. Whatever.

But the real trick is to sit yourself down at your desk and write something during that time.

It’s a scary thing, because there are those days where you get 5,000 words and it feels like flying, and then you run into other days where just 500 feels like smashing your head against the keyboard. It’s all too easy to throw in the towel on the days that the words are slow and bad and stupid (at least to you), and figure that, “Oh, tomorrow will definitely be a 5K-word-day!”

Because it won’t be.

It won’t be, because you’ll still be tired, the words still take a while to get rolling, and you’ll decide to throw up that white flag again. You’re setting yourself up for failure, this way.

That’s where discipline comes in. Discipline is both a martial and a saint—it keeps you in the chair, writing, even when you’d rather not be there and all your words sound like despair. But write, you will. You’ll form habits, you’ll sit in that chair, and before you know it (people always say that about things that take forever), you’ll write straight away as soon as you sit down.

In all seriousness, though, it takes discipline to write. It takes discipline to sit down every day in front of that blank page and put cohesive, thoughtful words on the page.

They won’t always be good words. They won’t always be bad, either. But I can tell you this: without discipline, you’ll never write any words, and that’s the worst travesty a writer can condemn herself to.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Gosh, Wednesday again already?  Guess that means it's my turn to blog about something near and not-so-very dear to my heart: discipline.  I should admit up front, I'm not a very disciplined person, especially when it comes to writing.  In fact, my usual approach is about as follows: "Ooh!  Cool idea!  Better write it down!"  Then I write until I lose interest, and then I stop.  This has led to an unbelievable number of ten- to fifty-page chunks of writing - I have an entire folder in my documents titled "Novel Beginnings".  It's 29 megabytes.  Considering how small a single Word document is...well, you get the picture.

My self-discipline, therefore, is almost nonexistent.  But I've found that even un-self-disciplined folks like me can create the illusion of outside forces to make them be disciplined.  Case in point: NaNoWriMo.  Is anything actually going to happen to me if I don't make it to 50,000 words?  Of course not.  But every year I toil away diligently, devoting energy (that would otherwise be directed towards very important television) to writing.  Most years, I make it.

Sadly, NaNoWriMo only happens every November.  When that's the case, I find contests to be the most effective way to whip myself into shape: make a bet with someone that, say, you can finish rewriting your novel by October 31.  Just for example.  Come up with whatever dire consequences will motivate you.  Instant self-discipline!

Oh, I guess I did forget to mention why discipline is important.  Sure, there's always the off-chance that you'll vomit forth an entire perfect novel, sell it, and never have to work hard.  For most of us, though, getting published involves an awful lot of tough writing, re-writing, and editing - and that takes discipline.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Plot Thickens

I have to be honest: I'm terrible about plotting things out.  I tend to just sit down with a few words or a phrase in my head - or maybe some idea of a major overall conflict - and then write, and occasionally I emerge with some semblance of a cohesive plot.

If you follow my example, well, there's still hope.  Every once in a while, I do manage to make myself plot things out.  Not in too much detail - I think half the fun of writing is discovering the story and the characters as you write - but just enough so that I have a rough idea of the sequence of events.  Then I write those events down on a scrap of paper and promptly lose it.  This way, I've actually thought through the entire story - helping to avoid plot holes - but I don't feel like I've confined myself to a single possibility, or like I'm rigidly filling in the gaps between scenes.

If you don't have quite the same issues, I recommend a more detailed outline.  A scene-by-scene outline can be immensely helpful because it allows you to write scenes out of order - very helpful if you occasionally find yourself with writer's block.  Writing a one-paragraph or one-page synopsis (like you'll have to do if you ever submit a query for a novel) is an excellent way to get a long view of the story without trapping yourself in details.  And every once in a while, I find it very helpful to outline with an eye to how many pages I want to spend on each event - this can work wonders for your pacing, or it can drive you insane.

Or you can just write without thinking about it.  When it comes time for revision, though, serious plotting and a detailed outline will save your life.