Before and After

This summer, I’m trying to buckle down and get through a complete rewrite of my fantasy novel, Immortal Bond. It’s been slow going, not just because of our upcoming bundle of joy, but because of the growth I’ve experienced as a writer since last summer.

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I started my rewrite by analyzing my characters in each scene, noticing that I didn’t know some of them as well as I ought. This has made for countless hours of me just pondering them, their individual likes, dislikes, wants, fears, and any desires driving the current scene. I was forced to reconsider things I’d made them do before. The outcome of this exercise was twofold. First, I realized some of their previous actions and behaviors were too dramatic or extreme to be believable which forced me to cut countless lines of dialogue and whole chapters I used to think essential to the story. Second, characters that weren’t my favorite are beginning to feel more real and likable to me.

But all the cutting necessary to evoke this change hasn’t dropped my word count. My next task was to expand my scenes by adding more detailed descriptions of people’s actions and trying to utilize the environment to evoke character emotions instead of expositioning everything to death.

After meticulously implementing these changes in one particular key scene, I went back and compared my before and afters. The difference is dynamic. So much so that it’s embarrassing to look back at the writer I used to be. I keep thinking of all the manuscripts I handed out to people, hoping for feedback that never came, and wondering if I should just call them up and offer to pay them to burn it.

 

Yet, there are really no downsides to realizing this. Even those six or so query letters I fruitlessly sent out were not a waste.

For one, I needed to start somewhere. My inexperience with querying and the life of a writer couldn’t forever keep to my home. Each step forward was a step of learning, even if it required me to trip and fall.

Two, I knew in my heart back then that my novel wasn’t really good enough to be anything to anyone but me. I read too much not to see the difference between solid writing and someone who, though trying hard, is not exactly Random House material. (The difference I am now seeing makes me think I was barely brand-new-small-time-desperate-for-anything indie press.) That was one of the reasons I was such so nervous about handing out manuscripts to friends and family. I knew it wasn’t great, but I also knew I needed all the help I could get. I needed someone to help expose me to my blind spots. Most of those helpers ended up being my professors and classmates. I guess everyone else was too embarrassed to give it to me straight.

I don’t think I’m going to reach my goal of finishing the rewrite before school restarts. (I’ve spent too much of my summer staring vacantly into the void with narrowed eyes, wondering why or if a character would do or not do the thing.) What’s nice is that I no longer care. It doesn’t matter to me anymore how long this process takes, so long as the end product is something I’m truly proud of. Considering my growing love for my characters, and how impressed I am with the difference between my first drafts and my latest, I think I’m a lot closer to that end goal today than I was when I started this journey four years ago.

That, I think, is something to be proud of. 🙂

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To Turtle, or Not to Turtle?

I’m not accustomed to this level of praise from anyone but my husband. My professor is holding out my short story to the rest of the class, my √++ a loud red against the white paper. It’s screaming, “loved it” almost literally, because that’s what he’s written next to my grade.

“Look at the format. This is what you need to do. The heading there, in MLA. And it’s six pages, so now what? She just has to hand in four more and BOOM! she’s done with her portfolio.”

I can’t make eye contact with anyone, barely even my friends. I don’t know if I’m smiling or just red and blotchy. If I am smiling, there’s a good chance it looks arrogant and cockeyed because I can’t tell if I’m pleased or I want to vomit because I’m embarrassed. I thrive on positive encouragement. In fact, I can take nearly any criticism if it comes with a dose of hopeful praise or a sincere, “I love you.” I just get it so rarely that when it comes, I don’t know how to handle it. Usually when he’s reading my stuff aloud, even if nobody knows it’s mine, I turtle. This is when I pull the neckline of my shirt up over my face so the tip of my nose is covered, and stare vacantly across the room at some lonely piece of dust. And for a moment…we are one. Sometimes I throw shade and do this when somebody else’s stuff is being read, just in case anyone’s watching and has caught on to my tell.

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me turtling

I read my story to the group, that’s how it goes for the stuff in workshop. It’s the first piece of prose I’ve handed in for Creative Writing. I wrote it early in the semester, but it took me weeks to convince myself to hand it in for critique. I’ve LITERALLY been having nightmares about this moment since I passed it out. The windowless basement classroom becomes the ninth circle of hell, my professor is Virgil, telling everyone my sins of shitty writing while my classmates chew on what’s left of my hopes and dreams, like Satan on the head of Judas Iscariot. The only reason I didn’t have to come into class with a large consoling cup of peppermint tea (a necessity for my Sci-fi/Fantasy Class) is because I sneaked a peek into his stack of papers and already knew he’d given me an A. *crosses herself and looks gratefully toward heaven*

Just him alone, I can swallow the negative critique. He’s published about 6 collections of poetry and, obviously, knows his stuff. If he says it sucks, I cry a lot, pick up the pieces, learn and grow. But for some reason the critique of my peers just scares the crap out of me. I mean, there’s so many of them, and just one me. And I’m thirty years old for crying out loud! Most of them are barely legal. How freakin’ sick would it be for me to burst into tears in front of them. (“Don’t mind me. I just paid all this money to find out I suck. Thanks for making my Mother right. Again…”)

I finish reading (badly) and he starts up again. More or less, he had nothing negative to say. Just a few suggestions and pointing out of silly mistakes. He praised my use of figurative language, dialogue, alliteration, and verbs. He said my story made him laugh every time he read it. He even praised things that I thought I did poorly. I was worried that my story wasn’t deep or thought provoking at all. I was worried that my characters weren’t dynamic. He mentioned these things, but not in a way that made it sound like it mattered, that somehow my story was still “really good.” He said my piece was excellently staged, “like it could be a scene from a movie. Great use of senses so you feel like it’s real. Like you’re really there.” That’s something about my writing I’m constantly worried about, that my setting isn’t visual enough to draw in the reader.

I’m shuffling and glowing and want him to stop and want him to never, ever stop. I mean, I adored him from the first day. But now? Gosh. He’s on his way to being one of my all time favorites. Honestly, I can’t tell you how much his praise was needed. I’ve had so many down points since the summer. I’ve been fighting and struggling to find my purpose, my gift, what it is I’m supposed to leave behind me. I’ve been told by so many people for so many years that I am this and that. I locked them out, but they are the forever recording in my brain that tells me, You are not enough. You are not enough.

But maybe I am. I’m not Tolkien. I’m not Sylvia Path or Donna Tart or David Mitchell. But I’m me. And maybe I am enough of me to be enough.

Do I think I’ve arrived? No way. I mean, this is INTRO to Creative Writing. Maybe next semester I’ll have a Prof who hates my stuff. Writing is a thing that you’re always learning how to do better, and I’m still so new at it. I know my novels need a ton more tweaking before I should try my hand at querying again. But at least now I have some concrete assurance that I don’t completely suck at this. And sometimes, that little something can be everything.

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Not Ready Yet

It wasn’t the rejection letters that made me think it over, not really. I was expecting them. Honestly, I think it was the fact of my so definitely expecting them that made me really think it over, like I didn’t have a chance in hell.

It’s because my query letter sucks, I thought. I just need to rewrite my query.

And then I thought, No. It’s something else. It’s not ready. But what could be wrong with it? I have combed over it near to 1,000 times! I’ve checked on every comma, every line of dialogue; what else could be wrong? What’s missing?

That was the key to the puzzle, “What’s missing,” because the answer to that question is, “a lot apparently.”

One of my favorite writing gurus is Roy Peter Clark. He’s written a bunch of books about writing, most of which I own. I was reading Help! for Writers in conjunction with a book on query letters, The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt – Thomas. I think it was the combination of their advice that helped me pinpoint the problems in my manuscript.

In the section called “finding focus,” Clark discussed the need to cut your writing back to its essence. He suggested writing down the theme of your work, like a missions statement, so that you can chop off the unnecessary limbs. In conjunction with this, he mentioned deleted scenes in movies. He suggested watching the deleted scenes of your favorite movies and decide why it was that they cut that particular scene.

At first, this was all just information in my head. I could feel it mattered, but couldn’t pinpoint why or how it applied to my novel.

Then I picked up my query letter book. One of the examples of a good query opened differently than most of the others I’d seen, with a succinct statement of the major theme of the story, written in such a way that it tantalized you to read down to the pitch synopsis below. I’d read about these in other query books, but never before seen the tactic so well employed. I wrote one for mine:

“Told through a mixture of letters, poetry, and smatterings of cheeky dialogue, Through This Darkness is a novel about death interrupting the plans of the living and finding a new path of love through the darkness.”

I don’t yet know if I’ll employ this in my query letter and I’m not sure if the wording is right, but the exercise of writing down the theme of my book helped me put the rest into focus.

I was finally getting it.

Now I know what I’m missing. Now I know what needs to go.

So, I’ve cut a chapter of my novel (for the greater good) and I’m in the process of writing at least two more letters along with a slew of new dialogue. Plus, I’m now twice as thankful for those five rejections. Not only do they mean I’ve crossed over the threshold into the realm of those who tried, but also no one requested to see a full manuscript for a book that would not actually have been ready.

Sometimes your inner critic DOES know what they’re talking about. 😉

Reflections on NaNoWriMo

It was not my intention to dive into the sea of National Novel Writing Month. I watched swarms of writers on social media, flexing and stretching along the dock, waiting for November 1st, the starting pistol shot that would send them all plunging downward in a desperate race against themselves for 50,000 words and a brand new novel manuscript.

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I wasn’t wholly against the idea, but not wholly for it either. I have a rhythm to my writing. I put in about four hours of work every day on my manuscripts. Sometimes those hours are so beautiful and perfect that I write past my allotted time, in a fever of words and inspiration. Sometimes those hours are spent angrily poking the keyboard, writing anything, even if I know it sucks, just to stretch my brain. Other times it’s all spent in research or editing or outlining. I divide the rest of the day between query letters, reading books and articles, or performing necessary household duties.

I like my schedule. It suits me. I added more structure to it in September, when I started setting myself monthly goals. My goals for November were to finish the first drafts of two of my half-finished novels and keep working on querying agents.

Then my writing buddy Chandler, emailed me and asked me if I wanted to buddy up on NaNoWriMo’s website so we could encourage each other towards the goal. I thought about it for a few days. It isn’t like I was devoid of new ideas. I have notebooks full of stuff for new projects, but I also have 7 other novels at varying stages of development, that’s not including the 2 completed ones that need more love and proofreading, in preparation for (crosses fingers) a possible manuscript request.

But on a whim, I decided to slip into my bathing suit, and on November 1st, about 6 hours after everyone else was in the water, I held my nose with one hand and cannonballed in after them.

I started a middle grade fantasy novel called, “The Land of the Golden Raindrops.”

Here’s some of my thoughts and reflections, on what the whole NaNoWriMo process taught me:

1. Setting Goals for Your Writing is Key to Progress

I was beginning to figure this out on my own, but NaNoWriMo reenforced the lesson. I knew part way in that it was unlikely I would have an organized and readable first draft ere time had stolen sweet November from my grasp, but I was determined to get those 50,000 words. It gave me something to shoot for and I loved watching that graph tick slowly upward as my word count approached its goal.

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2. Plug in and Build a writing community

Usually if I need history help, I shoot a text to my history teacher friend, Steve. So when my Google searches brought up useless information on the burial customs of the poor in 19th century London, I sent Steve a text but also posted in the forum. In less than an hour, a fellow writer had posted links to 4 great articles for me to peruse.

It wasn’t just about how fast the response came, it was that another writer, a stranger under the same deadline as me, took the time to copy and paste those links into the forum for me.

We know how to commiserate and encourage each other in a way that a non-writers can’t. We know how it feels when your brain is constipated and you can see your thoughts leaking from your ears in tendrils of wispy pale steam like a fresh cup of tea. We know how confusing it is to wander the internet, in search of fact, to find nothing but opinion. It was nice to know that if I ever got discouraged, I could email one of my three NaNoWriMo buddies or tweet out my progress, and immediately get love in the form of a thumbs up emoji. Sometimes that’s all you need. It’s something I hope to retain now that this is all over.

3. Do What’s Best for Your Progress

I got a lot of good out of this, so I’m glad I did it. However, if next year rolls around and I have to choose between my personal goals and starting a brand new project, I will probably watch the swimmers from a safe seat on the dock.

Life ate up a lot of my spare writing time this month making NaNoWriMo the only thing I accomplished. Don’t get me wrong, I love the result. I love my new characters, Lilly and Rascal, and had a blast making new worlds for them to play in, but they would still have come in time. Then it wouldn’t have cost me a whole month of spending time with Rory, Graham, Renaud, and Kaeli. It wouldn’t have set back my query letters and copy editing of “Us”, things that I consider more important.

You have to do what’s best for your art. If that means that you have your own personal NaNoWriMo in December, then you do so with a nod and smile. Or, perhaps…

4. Sometimes It’s Okay to Miss the Mark

If I had been a little smarter, I might have just shrugged and said, “Well today I’m not going to increase my word count on NaNoWriMo. Today I am going to work on the first draft of ‘The Channeller.'” But there were those badges that you could earn if you updated your word count every day, and that cool graph that told you how many words you added, and, basically, I got a little carried away with the fever of the thing.

I did it. I finished. On November 25th, I verified my 50,078 words and immediately dropped the project. My first draft is a chronologically disorganized mess, with bits and pieces from every end and corner of the story all mashed together. This is usually how my first drafts end up. I could have spent the next 5 days in November putting it in order, knowing full well that this draft would be thrown to the back of the queue for the next project I attack. It’s there. It’s a first draft. That’s it. I immediately printed out a new copy of “Us” and spent the rest of the day editing.

But what if I hadn’t finished? What if I had decided to drop the project entirely in favor of my previous list of goals for November? There is no shame in that. There is never any shame in setting a high goal for yourself and missing the mark. Do the work and do it with all you have. If you get to the end of the month and your word count isn’t 50,000 or you haven’t sent out those 10 query letters, it’s okay. Don’t batter yourself bloody. Just try again tomorrow. It’s about the journey. It’s about the climb. It’s about the effort. If you keep trying every day, eventually you’ll get there.

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© Rachel Svendsen 2015

 

In the Early Morning

Most artists have a preferred way to practice their craft. Some people crank up the music. Some people head out to a favorite coffee shop, wrap their fingers around a warm cup ‘o joe and their feet around the metal legs of the chair. I recently read an article about a woman who decided that she should dress up like she was heading to work at an office, because sitting around in her sweats made her feel less motivated. Personally, I could work half naked as long as it’s quiet.

I’m a shut the door and don’t talk to me kinda girl. If you do attempt to talk to me, you’ll more than likely be half ignored or receive a sort of disheartened sigh before I respond with a half repressed this-had-better-be-important expression in my eyes. I need silence. I need to be uninterrupted. I let myself fall backwards into the embrace of the world and characters and I’ve created and despise that whiplash-like feeling of someone popping around to tell me it’s time for lunch (I’ll eat when I’m ready goshfriggindanggit!)

Since moving and all the chaos that goes with that, I’ve had trouble getting back into my daily writing routine. My body likes to set its alarm clock a half hour prior to whenever the alarm clock is set. My husband used to get up at 5, so that meant I was irrevocably awake by 4:30. At which point I would grab my cell to check twitter and CNN. Once Tim was up and about (which was usually after a half hour plus of snooze buttoning), I would flick on the kettle and boot up my laptop. I’d write until about lunchtime (whenever that happened to be) then curl up with a book and read until he came home. I loved this schedule. I accomplished a lot and it suited my low energy introvert lifestyle.

My change of location screwed my habbits. I began to wake up at 8 or 9. I’m not a night person. My brain shuts off around 5pm, so sleeping in screws everything up. I missed my morning pot of tea. I missed my quiet little room on my quiet little street. It’s all still an adjustment.

A few weeks ago, I randomly woke up at 3am, feeling more awake than I did during any of my waking hours that week. I picked up my kindle and read a little bit of “War and Peace,” all the while thinking, I am not going back to sleep anytime soon. My desire to read wained, so I shut off my kindle and laid back down. Everything was quiet. It was utterly heavenly peaceful, that same kind of blissful quiet that I had all day when I was home alone in my little apartment.

It took me longer to figure out how to properly use that time then it probably did for anyone who reads this. Around 3:30 I rolled out of bed, sat down on the floor and started working. I wrote until 6:30, then crawled back into bed and fell asleep from 7 to 9. I used the afternoon for editing and reading, and by the time I went to bed that night, I had that delicious glowing feeling you get when you know you’ve actually accomplished something with your day.11889972_10153131436677963_7610756653671727759_o

I’m super thankful for the ability to make my own schedule and it’s looking more and more like my working day can start as early as 3am. Since the construction workers start working on the addition at 7 and the dog invariably throws a fit around 5, it’s probably better this way. 😉

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

Movies and Pop Culture in Writing

Since moving in with my in-laws, one of my father-in-law’s new favorite things to say to me is, “You haven’t seen [insert movie title here]? Oh man, you have GOT to see it!”

The truth is I don’t really get excited about film or television. It’s rare that my husband and I will see an advertisement for an upcoming attraction and I say, “Ooo! We have got to see that!” More usually I say, “That looks interesting, but let’s wait for it to come out on video.” When it comes out on video, I wait in the hold line at the library to get it for free, then return it after a week, unwatched. And I’m just as selective with my television shows. The only show I regularly watch is Mythbusters and my husband and I have a subscription to MLS live so we can watch football till our eyes bleed (though studies show that watching copious amounts of football, aka soccer, can lower your cholesterol and help prevent cognitive decline.*).

This makes me entirely out of touch with current pop culture, which isn’t really a terrible thing most of the time. It only hurts me when people bring up movies in conversation or tell me that Mr. Hottie McHot is hot and I don’t know who they’re talking about. Trends are transient in nature so, most of what’s in vogue today will be tomorrow’s look of confusion and scorn while your children roll there eyes and say, “Gosh you’re so old!”

I recently read a book that spoke to me that way. It made me feel old, out of touch, or maybe even from another planet. On the whole, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I walked into it not expecting to agree with everything she said (and I didn’t), but her voice and writing style were fun and quirky. She had a cute, sarcastic sense of humor that made me chuckle rather frequently. The biggest thing I disliked about her writing style was the copious amount of pop culture allusions I had to slog my way through. I looked up a few then just sighed and rolled with it. It wasn’t until I shut the book at the end that I got to thinking
was that really a good idea on her part.

It fit her voice, absolutely without a doubt. She was cool and fun and tuned into what I assumed to be her target audience, but if I already felt lost in the bombardment of TV allusions, one after another after another, then what of the next generation of readers. All the poignancy of her writing could be lost in the years to come. She dated her work. That’s not the end of the world, but when I look at a picture of my mother or father from when they were teens, I usually have to snort back a raucous laugh. They thought they looked cool then. They probably did look cool then. But the photos don’t need to be yellowing around the edges for us to know that they’re old. Their style dates them.

In the classic “Elements of Style”, E. B. White said this:

“Youths invariably speak to other youths in a tongue of their own devising: they renovate the language with a wild vigor, as they would a basement apartment. By the time this paragraph sees print, psyched, nerd, ripoff, dude, geek, and funky will be the words of yesteryear, and we will be fielding more recent ones that have come bouncing into our speech
Most are, at least in their infancy, more appropriate to conversation than composition.”

A few paragraph’s later, he says:

“The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time. To suggest that a young writer not swim in the main stream of this turbulence would be foolish indeed, and such is not the intent of these cautionary remarks.”

It would be a shame to cut all current allusions and lingo from our writing. Not only would that put limitations on our art (which should by definition be limitless), but it would also hinder our voices from being unique and make future generations miss out on all the nuances of life and language as we live it now. I think caution is key here. We need to be careful how much and how little we include so that we don’t make our writing as obsolete as
you know that guy who played so and so in that show I watched when I was 15 that they cancelled in the middle of season 2.

 

* Results may vary. Author of this blogpost is not responsible for the varyingness of said results. The studies mentioned were conducted mostly on badgers**.

** No badgers were injured in the making of this blogpost.