allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
I’ve been disappointed lately in the books I’ve read by some prolific veteran authors. I won’t name names because I don’t want this blog to be about bashing, but it is a serious issue and I see it all of the time. How do you keep your writing fresh and viable after 15 books? After 30? After 100? I don’t think I’ll ever make the hundred-mark; I’m a consistent writer but I’d have to write, revise, and complete two to three books a year between now and retirement age to become that prolific. I do plan to complete a book a year, which, if I live out the average life expectancy for a woman in America and keep writing until I die, will mean almost 50 books.

So I need to keep this question in mind as I continue writing. How do I keep from burning out, or worse, going on auto-pilot?

At this stage I have two completed novels, one completed novella, and three works in progress. (And an uncountable number of ideas that haven’t made it past a brief sketch and maybe a chapter). Each one has taught me something about the writing process and about storytelling. The first step for staying fresh as a writer is, in my mind, to never stop learning about writing. Part of that is to never stop reading; a writer who doesn’t read is like a chef who doesn’t eat. There are always nuggets of possibility to be gleaned from other writers. How do they hook the reader at the beginning of each scene? How do they build conflict? How do they show (rather than tell) character motivation? Obviously you don’t take details from the story, but the methods they use are up for grabs. One of the professors at SHU (Seton Hill, I’ll talk about it often) calls this “field reconnaissance.”

The second step is to set goals for your writing. I’ve read on several author blogs that this technique has helped established writers keep that spark alive in mid-career and later. It can be a craft-oriented goal, or a theme you want to explore, or some kind of statement you want to make (don’t go overboard on this last one- you are still telling a story, not writing a manifesto). Basically anything that keeps your mind and heart engaged while you are writing.

I imagine that with a few dozen books under your belt some things about writing just come without thinking. It isn’t entirely auto-pilot, more like GPS that occasionally steers for you. But just because you can write that way doesn’t mean you should. Story decisions should be made actively, not automatically. I think that is a huge problem with some mid-career writers. They stop being active in their storytelling process. They go with what has always worked instead of trying new techniques. The problem with what has always worked is that, although you would think that creates consistent stories, what it actually does is create stale and unpalatable stories. Readers can tell when a writer is “phoning it in.” They can tell if the heart of the story is missing, if the writer wasn’t engaged and didn’t care while writing it.

Not every writer falls victim to this kind of storytelling slump. I don’t want to be one of the ones that do. I’m making a promise to myself that is twofold. One, I’ll never to let the writing become a chore. Writing is hard, hard work and sometimes it is painful, but what thing of value is obtained without effort? There’s a difference between hard work that fulfills and hard work that drains. I don’t want to lose my joy in the craft, in the creation. I’ll be happy when the process becomes easier, but if it ever gets too easy, I’ll know something is wrong.

On Revision

Jul. 6th, 2011 09:54 pm
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
I’m hip-deep in revisions for my thesis novel, so naturally that is what I am thinking about at the moment.

The first and most important rule of revision is that it can’t happen unless you’ve written something. That should seem obvious, but many writers get bogged down in the search for perfection in their first draft and then never get out of chapter one. Perfection is not a realistic goal in any case (you’ll never get there -- even after your book is published you’ll still find places you could have tweaked or rewritten and made better), and it is especially unrealistic in a first draft. Chances are, you’ll end up with anywhere between three and seven drafts of your novel (or many more), each one a little bit tighter and better than the one before. As you write more, you’ll get better at writing well the first time. But on your first (or even fifth) novel, it’s important to remember what SJ Rozan told my class at Seton Hill (this is a paraphrase): “You can’t grow flowers in air, but they grow very well in shit.” It’s ok if the draft sucks, as long as you have a draft. Go through it and find the flowers, then dig out all of the rest.

The second rule of revision is the opposite of the first. It states that you can’t be so in love with your words that you aren’t willing to part with them. I’m cutting out some very well-written passages because they don’t mesh with what I now know is the overall theme/plot/character arc of my book. I don’t delete them entirely; I stick them in a file called “Excisions.FeyBlood” so I can find them later and maybe bring them back to life in another story or the sequel(s). It’s kind-of like deleted scenes from a movie. Sometimes the material is brilliant, and sometimes it even helps with character development or plot but just doesn’t fit anywhere. So you take it out, and maybe one day you’ll post it on your blog and people will go, “so that’s what Character X was really up to in that scene.”

The rest of the rules deal with the “levels” of a story.

The bottom level is the mechanics level, where you tweak the words as words. You make your sentences active, clear, and concise. You check for weak verbs and adverbs. You check for errors in grammar and spelling (YOU MUST DO THIS!!!).

Just above mechanics is the plot level. This is the bare-bones frame of the story. Does the plot make sense? Do your scenes follow a natural progression, one after another? Do they lead into the next, or are any of them leading you off in a different direction?

The next level is about character and conflict. What are your characters doing in each scene? Every character should have a GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) in EVERY scene. Even the secondary characters. Even the characters who only walk on stage for a moment. They want something for a reason but can’t get it because.... You fill in the blank.

And outside of that is the meta-level. This is where you consider things like theme and tone. This should be one of the last things you look at, because you probably won’t know what your theme or tone is until you’re almost done with the book anyway. Sometimes you start writing a book knowing what your big theme is going to be, and if you knew, then at the end is a good time to evaluate whether you achieved your thematic goal or not. For me, even if I had a vague notion when I started, my themes always end up changing and evolving as I write the book. I end up changing and evolving, too, as I learn more about my world, my characters, my process, and myself.

Revisions can be grueling work, but they can also be fun and informative about your project. Sometimes looking at your manuscript with fresh eyes is enough to trigger a new flood of ideas and creativity.

It’s happening to me right now...so I’d better get back to it. :)

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allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
Allison Holz

October 2011

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