Killing Your Darlings Part 2

If you write at all, sooner or later you’ll come across the concept of “killing your darlings.” It’s inevitable that as an artist you will also eventually create something that you love dearly but that doesn’t work in the grand scheme of your story or is at best self indulgent. And then you will have to kill it. Dead. But like most things it’s a hell of a lot easier to talk about than it is to do.

Before I started writing seriously—that is, before I started writing on a regular basis instead of, say, once a year—I used to think that revision meant moving words around on the page. I blame poetry for this. When you are obsessed with language you cannot help but get lost in the words of a story and forget about everything else. Or at least, that’s been my experience. I could easily spend weeks doing nothing but fixate on the words of a story, trying to get the sound and the rhythm just right. You know that Hemingway quote, the one where he talks about rewriting the end of a book 39 times just to get the words right? That is me. I will do things like that until I can’t stand the sight of it anymore.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But it does pose a huge problem for me at a certain stage of the writing process because, let’s face it, if that ending doesn’t make sense/doesn’t fit with the rest of the story or what have you, why waste all that time and energy on fixing the words when there is obviously a greater problem there? It doesn’t matter how pretty the words are. If the structure is falling apart sooner or later the story will crumble. And the danger of fixating solely on language is that it can blind you to the larger, overarching problems. After all, it’s much easier to change the words than it is to rework the story itself. (Suddenly, I find myself wondering if some writers are better at focusing on big picture stuff than others).

So that is what has been happening to me in the past few weeks. I was busy working on backstory. I was all set to write a bunch of new backstory scenes. I’d done all this work sketching out characters and setting. And then I realized it just didn’t make sense. The backstory was too complicated. It was like I had two character/plot arcs instead of one (Tim, if you’re reading this you were absolutely right) and I couldn’t think of any logical reason why it should be that way other than the fact that I wanted it to be that way. Why, you ask? Because there were all these cool magical scenes I wanted to have in there that I would probably have to cut because they just wouldn’t work if I picked one of those arcs and stuck with it. In other words, I really really really didn’t want to have to kill any of my darlings.

It’s a difficult thing to do, cutting scenes or characters you love, and I think because I often start a story with a concept and a bunch of cool images in mind, instead of a character, it’s much harder for me to do. Those images might be the reason I started the story. Or maybe they’re just really cool, magical scenes that I hate to let go of. But when you keep things just because you like them even though they don’t fit into the story or make sense you really do yourself a disservice and you’re probably giving yourself more work in the long run.

Anyway, in terms of my own work I’ve merged the two arcs (before, I had an arc when my protagonist was a child and one when she’s a teenager. Now everything takes place when she’s a teen.), I moved a bunch of the backstory up in time so those events are more recent, and scrapped most of what I’d written, though it’s still floating around in my head. I think it works better now. It still needs a lot of tweaking, but it feels more like a story than a bunch of disconnected events. And I’m desperately trying to focus more on the overall structure and keep from obsessing about those damn words! But even now I do ocasionally hear that siren call: maybe I can fit this scene in here, if I change it just a little, maybe I won’t have to kill it, please please please…

Killing Your Darlings Part 1

Okay, okay! So I was supposed to post something once a week. But I had this crazy idea to scrap most of what I had written of my novel and start over again so I’m currently in panic-and-chain-myself-to-the-computer mode. Therefore a real post will have to wait. I will try to actually write something useful when I’m done killing my darlings. I will even try to give you all the gory details so you can gasp in horror with me or something. And I will, of course, try to keep myself from wallowing in despair.

Hasta luego,

Your humble blogger.

The Trouble with Backstory

I spent most of last semester alternating every other chapter of my novel between the past (backstory) and the present (the actual story, I guess) and in the process lost any semblance of logic. Characters would do things for no particular reason I could think of other than that I didn’t know what else to have them do. Or they would become my plot bitches and do really stupid, nonsensical things just to further the plot I wanted the novel to have. I have a problem with that in particular. So I finally decided to put my foot down and rearrange everything in chronological order.

There’s a lot of stuff that happens to my protagonist in the past that affects the present day story and it’s been phenomenally helpful to explore that past, but I think—for me, at least—writing the draft chronologically is the way to go. Otherwise it’s too easy to get lost in chains of events or actions that don’t make sense. What amuses me is that I had to do the same thing with the last novel I was working on. I kept trying to write from whenever the “actual” story was supposed to start and just couldn’t figure out what I was doing, so I ended up writing the protagonists’ stories from their birth to the present day. So maybe this is just my writing process. Maybe I just need to write out my characters’ pasts before I can get anywhere. It does make me wonder about non-linear novels in general, though. Do most people write them chronologically and then make them non-linear in revision? Or do other writers have a greater capacity for organizing things in their heads than I do? I don’t know.

The thing I worry about is (once I have the whole draft written out) trying to figure out how to work that backstory into the rest of the story. Do I tell the whole story in chronological order? But then how would it fit into the genre of YA? Are there any YA books that start with the protagonist as a young child and then work their way up through adolescence? If I don’t keep it in chronological order, then do I go back to alternating every other chapter between the past and the present? Do I alternate in chronological order or mix up the flashbacks so that they come up at relevant times? One of my classmates in my workshop this residency suggested I could use a particular image to tie chapters together. So for example, a key might show up in the flashback and then reappear in the present day scene. I love that idea and I think I’ll definitely have to try it once I have the whole draft written and can reorganize it. But for now I’m trying not to stress out and just focus on writing the draft in whatever way I need to write it. Still, I think it’s interesting to ponder these questions…and perhaps interesting to know that a novel can be written in one way, but ultimately structured in a completely different way.

Back to Work

I have returned at last from the frozen wasteland that is Vermont and its below freezing weather ready to launch into my fourth (and final!) semester at VCFA. *Weeps* I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. Fourth semester is when things get serious. We have to complete a publication worthy manuscript of at least 75 pages and prepare the lecture that we will give our final residency. After hearing the graduating students read their work this january and attending a number of fascinating lectures I’m feeling slightly intimidated. I have never written/given a lecture in my life. I don’t even have a completed draft of a novel (although most of us fourth semesters don’t either, so I really shouldn’t worry about that). Still, I get the sense that I really need to go deeper than I ever have before this semester and I’m excited to see what I come up with.

So with all that said, here is what I’ll be focusing on this semester:

The novel: I’m going to continue working on the novel I’ve been writing the past two semesters and right now I’m trying to cement as much of the backstory as I can. I also plan on drawing maps of all the important locations real and fantastical, a floor plan of the house so I don’t get lost, and descriptions of all the important places events unfold. I think I may even break out my sketchbook and draw *gasp*. I am super excited about this. I’m also going to spend some time focusing on all my main characters so I can get a better sense of who they are and what they want. I really struggle with this sort of thing, so I’ve got a bunch of character worksheet templates I’m going to fill out to get me thinking and I may sit down and interview my characters again.

The reading/research: Since my novel is about a family of Iberian (Spanish) origin and the fantastical elements draw on Spanish folklore (duende) I’m going to focus my reading on the culture and history of Spain. I’ve found very few YA or MG books actually set in Spain or dealing with Spanish American families from Spain so I’m probably going to be reading a number of adult books by Spanish authors. The exciting part of this is that many of these books I can’t find in English so I get to read them in Spanish. Yes, that counts! I’m also going to explore magic realism and other sorts of fantastical genre-bending books. And finally I’m hoping to read more books about non-anglo american characters because I think there are some aspects to the immigrant/“outsider” perspective that are universal.

The lecture: And finally, for my lecture I’ll be doing something on characterization. Right now I’m not sure how broad or narrow my lecture should be because I’m fascinated by the different tools various writers use for characterization (character collages, interviews, worksheets, free writing, etc), but I only have 45 minutes to talk about this and I don’t know if it would be more helpful to give a broad overview of various techniques or just focus on one or two. So I guess we’ll see how that goes.

I’m going to be working with Julie Larios (so exciting!) this semester so I’m hoping I’ll get to do some poetry, too. I’ve been neglecting my poor poetry! As for this blog, I’m going to really try this time to post something once a week, so I’ll probably be going more into depth on some of this stuff in the next few months. That’s all for now. If any one has any book suggestions or character development techniques I’d love to hear them 🙂

Off to Residency and Some Advice From Anne Lamott

Tomorrow I fly off to Vermont for my fourth residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts! I can’t believe it! This will be my last semester and then I graduate in July. And it has gone by so fast! Just a year and a half ago I thought: two years? That’s going to take forever! Apparently time flies when you’re working your butt off and having fun.

I’m also trying to mentally prepare myself for working on my creative thesis (which will probably be the YA novel I’ve been working on the past two semesters) and my graduate lecture (which is very up in the air at the moment but might involve characterization and how writers create compelling characters). In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying lectures and workshops and (maybe?) some snow 🙂 So I will leave you in the capable hands of Anne Lamott who has some pretty clever things to say about finding more time to write:

http://www.sunset.com/travel/anne-lamott-how-to-find-time-00418000067331/

Writing Through Hard Times

Note: I actually wrote this a few weeks ago, but my computer died so I couldn’t post it. I’m feeling a lot better and a lot more inspired, but I still think this is an interesting question to examine so I’m posting it.

I was trying to come up with a really clever title for this post, but I guess this will have to do. Suffice to say, I have been going through a hard time lately, the details of which I will not be getting into in this post. But the reason I wanted to bring this up is because it’s effecting my writing, which is kind of what this whole blog is about, right?

I have never really believed in writer’s block. I’ve always thought of it as a lack of imagination and I have lacked many things in my life, but never imagination. I’ve never had the feeling that the well was dry. If anything, I’ve felt that I had too many ideas, more than I could ever possibly write down or do justice to. Of course, now that I’m saying all this I’m thinking, “Just wait, Shawna. Wait until you’ve written fifty books and then see how full the well is.” I’m sure there is someone older and wiser out there who has experienced writer’s block and is probably cackling at me behind my back, but whatever. This post is not about writer’s block. This post is about what to do when you don’t feel like doing anything, least of all writing a novel that the critic in your brain assures you probably sucks anyway so why bother?

Anyone who writes seriously is familiar with the age-old arguments from the ranks of more inexperienced writers: I just don’t feel like writing today. It’s Thursday, I can’t write on Thursdays. I’m not in the mood. I’m too tired. I’m not feeling inspired enough. I’m not wearing the right underwear, blah blah blah, I need a marionberry muffin. Anyone who feels this way should try doing an MFA program and see just how far inspiration gets them.

Moving on, Peter Beagle tells this story—which I think is the best description of what it really means to be an artist that I have ever heard—about his uncle who was a painter. Everyday this guy would get up, go to his studio and do the work, just like…wait for it…IT WAS HIS JOB! In other words, he didn’t wait around for inspiration to strike. He would paint and sometimes it would go well and sometimes it wouldn’t. He didn’t lock himself in a garret and wait for a full moon to rise while wearing a spotted undershirt and holding a purple balloon (who does that?).

Still, being a pretentious pseudo-artist, being uninspired, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. What do you do when for lack of a better word you are simply depressed?

I’ve often been amused when going through hard times in the past by the well-meaning advice of friends who insist that I use my pain as inspiration in my work. I am not too embarrassed to admit that I love the romanticized notion of the despairing poet/writer who spills his soul onto the waiting page in heartsick despair, and I think everyone does use some of that pain in their work to some extent, but in reality it is really difficult to be in any sort of mental anguish and manage to write something coherent, much less powerful and moving and true. Pain is a raw emotion, especially recent pain, and those who try to make instant art out of it mostly get melodramatic, maudlin poetry that should probably never see the light of day. I have only ever managed to write one thing that I thought was beautiful when experiencing a great amount of raw pain and that was when my cat died and I still have no idea how I managed it.

It’s much easier to write about pain you can think about than it is to write about pain you don’t want to think about or that paralyzes you. So anyway, you’re in pain and you’re stuck and nothing seems very magical or meaningful and you’re pissed off at the universe because you had this whole word count goal you were aiming for and life so got in the way of that and what do you do? How do you get up every morning and pretend like nothing has changed? My answer so far has been: you don’t. You take a break from the angsty YA novel that is driving you insane and you write a new short story full of silliness and Christmas and a very depressed Norse god. And you don’t feel guilty about it. Because sometimes you need to push through a story, sure, but sometimes you just need to stop and take a break. Do something different. Do something fun and silly and lighthearted and not care if it sucks because it’s your Christmas present to yourself!

And the crazy thing is it seems to be helping. I’ve actually got ideas about going back to my novel and shaking things up. Like moving all the chapters around (thank you scrivener!) so they’re all in chronological order and I can actually try to build the story from the ground up instead of getting all confused cause my story has no foundation. Or even just allowing myself to daydream about it and play with all the what ifs. The hardest part has actually been starting, but once I get into a chapter (if things are going well) I actually do get a little swept up in it so it’s not such a slog. And I do feel bad still about not getting very much accomplished, but sometimes shit happens and it makes you realize, “I’m not writing for a word count goal or to impress people or get a publishing deal. I’m writing out of love. And what I need the most right now, after everything that’s happened, is love.”

So what about you, denizens of the interwebs? How do you manage to write through hard times and pain? Any advice?

In Which I Reveal My Not So Secret Secret Plan

So I thought now would be a good time to talk about what I’m doing this semester, besides the critical thesis. If all goes as planned I am going to write an entire first draft of my novel by the end of the semester. The goal is 15,000 words every month through December.

Current WIP word count: 15,029 words!

I can’t believe I’ve managed to get this much done in one month. Basically what I did was work on my thesis until the 15th (the due date) and the second half of August I tried to write at least two single spaced pages a day. Now that I met my word count goal I’m going back to working on the second draft of my thesis and then I’ll have to write another 15,000 words of my novel by the end of September.

So far it’s proving to be a pretty amazing/helpful journey. I spent so much time last semester trying to figure out what I was writing, what this story is really about, and because I’m a perfectionist I spent a lot of time revising the first fifty pages. After workshopping the beginning this summer at residency I realized there was so much I was ignoring–backstory, character motivations, the rules of the fantasy elements/magic, etc–that I decided to step back and dig deep into these issues. I haven’t figured out everything yet, but I feel much closer and I’m really excited about what I’ve got. Unfortunately, it does mean I’m mostly rewriting everything.

Anyway, sitting down and just writing out the story without worrying about making everything pretty, or getting every detail exactly right, is so freeing. I have such a hard time looking at the big picture with my stories. I love to focus on the intricate details, ie., all the pretty words. Writing out large chunks at a time gives me more of a sense of the arc, of pacing, of who my characters really are outside the pretty words. In other words, I feel like I am figuring shit out. And I am well pleased. Hell, I’m even letting my characters TALK to one another. A minor miracle! They have conversations. They interact. They do things!

My current advisor once told me in my first workshop at VCFA that when we are writing a rough draft we are telling ourselves the story. That’s what I’m trying to give myself permission to do. What’s nice about this attitude is that I know that if there is too much backstory in the beginning, if I give away too many secrets or mysteries too soon, I can always go back and move things around. It’s not static. And once I have the whole story I can look at the whole arc and see what needs to change, and only at the very, very end focus on all the pretty words 🙂