Giving up

I have some confessions to make. Some things to be held accountable for.

I have not been keeping on top of my revision.

I have allowed the momentum that I managed to generate at the beginning completely and utterly die out, and I am now in a horrible slump.

I did not take notes. I did not take my own advice, and it seems that this exception has proved the rule, because having not taken notes caused what revision I have managed to do, what critique I have forced myself to make, to be at best messy and at worst utterly worthless.

I have let it get to the point where I literally may as well just start all over again.

I have watched YouTube, written blog posts, moaned about my lack of progress to friends, and let myself off the hook over and over again, every time the thought of trying to do revision has come to mind, almost every single time, for the past month, instead of actually doing the revision.

I have forgotten that I’m allowed to do a bad job, and that the important thing is that it gets done at all.

I have forgotten that I am allowed to do other things and not stress endlessly about this one project and hinge all of my self-worth upon its success.

It has gotten so bad that I have actually stopped caring about this story, because I am so frustrated with my lack of progress, which is entirely my own fault for allowing to happen.

It has almost gotten to the point where I wish that I had never even started this story to begin with, because then I wouldn’t be here, hating the prospect of it, of committing to seeing it through, and how it’s holding me back from doing anything else.

I have established these kinds of ridiculous false dichotomies and allowed them to survive, instead of ripping them out at the roots and keeping my garden free of this brand of noxious hypnotism that only I can ever impose upon myself.

And I have done all of this …

I don’t know why.

And really, it doesn’t matter. The point is that I’ve done it. And it’s making me want to break my no-swearing rule for this blog, because I feel that if I could chastise myself viciously enough …

It wouldn’t do anything. It never does.

The only thing that works is, ironically, giving up. That’s what I’ve learnt. Time and time again.

If something isn’t working, if it isn’t fitting, then the only way to move forward is to give it up.

So I give up.

I give up on this revision of this draft.

I give up on all the insight I’ve had into this draft to this date, every note I’ve written, every critique I’ve leveled at it, every aspiration I’ve had for the second draft, every distracting plan for the hypothetical future that has come at the expense of observing what I currently have to work with and taking it seriously, like I said I would, like I advised other people to do.

I give up on all the effort I put into it, all the momentum that I gathered and then wasted, all the time I spent and allowed to go to waste.

I give up on caring about this whole thing.

I GIVE UP.

~~~

That does feel better.

It’s the idea. Ideas are really hard to deal with, you guys.

The idea in this case is that of ‘doing it right’ – not as in going and looking at textbooks or taking classes or whatever, not for me, but in terms of showing up every day and doing the work that I’ve assigned myself to do. And I do think that this is a good idea. I do think that this is an effective strategy. But I also know that thinking that ‘this is the only way it will work’ has totally killed my passion, because as soon as that becomes the focus, the actual work is no longer the focus, and so the revision, or the draft, or the storyboarding, or whatever it is – that ceases to matter. It becomes a technicality. And I realise that this is somewhat the point with the strategy of ‘just doing it’, because it – supposedly – takes the stress off thinking about how you’re going to do the thing, and puts it on doing it.

The only issue is that, for me, this came at the cost of what it was, and why on Earth I’d even want to do it.

And I have a lot of reasons to do it.

I love this story. I love the idea of what it could be, and I love what it is, even though it’s messy and inconsistent and it’s ‘rough’ in the same way that getting fired, dumped and mugged all on the same day is ‘a bit of a downer’.

I love that there are really, really good parts in it, and far more good parts than there have been in any other draft I’ve written through to completion; there are fully-formed ideas in it, for crying out loud! That’s almost unbelievable! There are motifs that work, lines that read really well and evoke the exact kind of mood that I’m going for; I realise that I’m talking about a work that I wrote and thus have a lot of bias towards, but I am capable of being critical, and aside from all of the distractions and muddling that I’ve partaken in, I can see something that is not simply potentially a good story, not just hopeful – I can see something that is very much worth continuing to work on and polish up, because there is guaranteed satisfaction to be had in getting it a bit more right than I did the first time around, stuff in it that is definitely worth keeping and building upon, and it’s so relieving and so vindicating, and it makes me really glad that I took a risk on this unutterably terrifying story that I never stopped thinking I couldn’t tell properly, and still don’t think I can, not really. But I think that if I don’t tell it, nobody else is going to at all, and that’s not good enough. Somebody should tell this story, even if it’s not perfect, even if the person who does tell it is not necessarily the right person for the job. That is how I feel about this story, and that is why I originally started writing it, and why I originally started revising it – because I don’t care who tells it, in a sense. Obviously I will be unspeakably angry if somebody steals this idea from me and does it before I can. But in terms of what the story is about and what it has to say, I just want it out there. And I don’t want to wait for somebody else to do it, because they may never do it. And I want the story told.

So I’ll let my decision to give up stand for now. And just sit on it. Just stop for a while.

Because the thing is, even now, I already feel that giving up is not good enough. It’s not right. It’s a mistake.

You gotta commit before you can understand. So commit.

And seriously, take notes. If you take nothing else away from my ramblings, take that. Notes are ridiculously important. They keep you from deleting things you should keep (which is everything); they keep you from starting over again from the beginning when you need to press on in order to fully understand why the big picture doesn’t work – or perhaps to discover that, actually it does – notes may seem like ‘cheating’ in that they take away the consequences of ‘getting something wrong’, but in truth, note-taking is proof of your commitment. It proves that you want to get your story right, so much that you will even ‘cheat’ in order to get it done, that you will favour pragmatism over impossible ideals. It proves that you care enough to get it right, whatever it takes, however easy you have to make things on yourself. It’s not something we think ought to be encouraged in our culture, but really, that’s stupid. Because writing doesn’t affect anybody else. Just you. So go nuts. Live in luxury. Commit.

Commitment, folks. That’s why you have to give up sometimes.

And then, hopefully, you’ll understand what specifically you need to give up, and what you don’t. I think I need to let this sit for a little while longer to ‘get there’.

So it’s good to have the option. I don’t want to think of what would have happened if I couldn’t give up.

I Am Not Your Wife, Sister or Daughter. I Am A Person.

I Am Not Your Wife, Sister or Daughter. I Am A Person..

So I know that this is a writing blog, but this is more important than that.

This article is a critique on the use of arguments used to try and get people to identify with rape victims that go along the lines of: ‘imagine if she was your wife/mother/daughter’, and argues that relying on the value of these social roles hurts efforts to make people see women as worthy of respect for simply being people. It’s a good argument, and I hope you will read it.

As for my opinion: while I do think that the ‘wife/mother/daughter’ argument can be a starting-point in terms of building empathy for people who might otherwise not be able to see why rape is wrong, I also think that the fact that the argument has to be made at all, the fact that this argument assumes that there are people in our society who can’t see women as people and worthy of respect unless they have a ‘respectable’ role in society, as a member of a family in this case, reflects an incredibly disturbing and, frankly, sociopathic trend with regards to how women are regarded, one that doesn’t care what happens to women unless they occupy these social roles, and doesn’t recognise their personhood without these labels.

So ultimately, I agree with the argument that this writer makes, because while the ‘wife/mother/daughter’ argument has its uses, that is part of the problem in and of itself.

PSA: Emergency Lampshading

Do you ever find yourself writing something that just doesn’t feel like it fits?

A sentence, a line, an action that just feels … out of place?

But because you’re writing a first draft, and first drafts are allowed – nay, meant to be awful – you don’t want to go back and change it, because it wouldn’t be ‘honest’?

But now you’re left with the problem of having put something into your narrative that simply doesn’t belong! What to do?

Have no fear; lampshades are here!

If you find your character has become a complete self-insert author avatar and have started copy-pasting your own thoughts, feelings and attitudes into a scene where they make absolutely no sense and realise that you have substituted meaningful character development for indulging in your own uniqueness and it’s breaking the immersion of your story – lampshade it! Make it so that the character knows that what they’re doing is strange, inappropriate, and just all-around weird.

Bonus points if you can explain that they don’t know why they’re doing it, and wish they could just be more normal/remain on-topic!

But what if it’s not just a line of dialogue here and there? What if your self-insert compulsions have defined entire characters, their key interactions, and have tipped your carefully-constructed story upside-down, and the only way to deal with it is to go back and re-write it, which you can’t do, because that wouldn’t be ‘honest’?

Oh, gentle reader. You underestimate the awesome, utilitarian power of LAMPSHADES!

Simply forsake your old plot – you know, the one you thought you were trying to write, you silly goose – and embrace the all-consuming void of pedantic, self-indulgent neurotic word-vomit.

It’s for the win!

Step one: retcon every single non-self-insert motivation and aspiration of your characters so that these are merely ‘flavour text’, something seemingly important but actually completely meaningless, to make that author avatar really POP!

Step two: transform the narrative landscape of your precious work of original fiction into a self-deprecating morass of hitherto unexplored tangential existentialism, and accept that your characters now only exist to help you better understand your own turgid psyche – and since they turned out this way, despite your very best efforts, take comfort in the fact that it was obviously what you had intended all along!

And step three: turn the entire text into a self-referential metacritique on the nature of writing itself, the relationship between an author’s biography and the content of any work they are able to produce! The fact that your story no longer makes sense is now the entire point of the story! Elegance itself. Stick in an intentionally self-parodying Mary-Sue instead of that stupid protagonist you’d had your heart set on ‘fleshing out’ from day one, so that you can get away with making them cruise through the story – because it’s satire, and thus now automatically counts as both clever and artistic! – and your work is done!

So remember, when you think you’re failing to be ‘creative’ or ‘original’ because you’ve ‘lost the plot’ and ‘have no idea what you’re doing anymore’, just remember: the lampshade hangs above us all! Now get to writing, you postmodern dynamo you 🙂

~~~

Yeah so this editing thing may be easier than I’ve built it up to be, but the simple fact that I do actually want to write something worth reading and am emotionally invested in that endeavour does kind of balance it out and make it soul-crushingly unbearable all over again.

And yes, first draft, it’s always horrible, I actually am glad that it’s so horrible so that I can see what doesn’t work, but still, it reflects back on me! That matters, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t, does it?

Yeah. It really doesn’t.

What it reflects – seeing as quality control really isn’t what’s important with a first draft – is that I was willing to write. I was so willing to write that I let myself write this hot mess that I’m wading through right now, not sure whether or not I need to hold my breath in the process. I was willing to get it wrong the first time, so that I could get it right the last time. And in the end, that’s what matters.

I’ll just keep telling myself that until I actually believe it. I know it’s true. I just don’t want to.

Writers really are messed up …

It’s been one week since …

Back in the saddle now though, and that’s all that matters! I’ll just keep telling myself that until I actually believe it. But I know it’s true. As long as you show up, you win.

Writing is really not as hard as everybody makes it out to be. It’s the identity that goes with it, the idea of ‘being a writer’, that comes with all the baggage. Writing is just … writing.

So the same must go for editing, I hope, and after actually over a week of being so self-conscious that I couldn’t bear to continue, I have now come to some important-seeming conclusions.

  • I can over-analyse little details and miss the bigger picture that is causing the problems
  • My main character does not suit the voice of what I think of as a stereotypical YA protagonist, and this is a good thing
  • My main character is showing me that she is, in all honesty, actually not a very good person in a lot of ways, and I am terrified that she might actually be so terrible that even I won’t want her to redeem herself by the end – though at the same time, this is ridiculously exciting as a writer, the prospect of trying to find that balance, because it’s something that could end up working really, really well and helping to tell a really compelling and dimensional story
  • This really isn’t as important as I have hypnotised myself into thinking it is

I think all writers do this self-hypnosis; they build up huge reservoirs of anxiety about their stories in order to tick that off the list, because that’s what is meant to keep a writer going – tension. It’s meant to be tense and difficult and a painful, emotionally turbulent struggle against your inner demons and trying to find a balance with life and all of this stuff. That’s the formula we all know, and don’t want to buy into because it is just as ridiculous as it sounds, and then, when you find that you’re not writing every day, you fall back on it, because it’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ‘a writer’.

Whereas, in reality, writing is just writing, and being ‘a writer’ is a load of offal.

The anxiety and the panic and the intensity – that all comes part and parcel with doing something you care about and want other people to validate for you. I’m not saying that it’s an act and that writers are just hysterical idiots following the phantasmal herd because they have no self-respect. That isn’t true. But I am saying that it can be an act, that these aspects of the whole ‘writer’ thing have been taken and turned into the only recognisable symptoms of being a writer, and I think that it’s probably responsible for about half of what makes writers so antsy: doing it to themselves, self-fulfilling prophecies, adopting the model because it’s the only one we’re familiar with, and we equate it with ‘success’, with ‘doing it right’. Perpetuation of things that we know, just because they’re what we know. Which is fine and natural, but also just one option.

When in the end, you just have to sit down and do it for it to ‘count’, for it to ‘work’. As long as you show up, you win, and it’s not that we’re ‘allowed’ to be happy about it – we just will be, regardless or permission. Or fed up. Or apathetic. Or upset. Or thinking about something completely different. Or whatever.

By all means, do the ‘writer thing’ if that’s what makes you tick, if that’s what gets you moving, but if it feels like it’s unnecessary – well, maybe that’s because it is. For you, anyway. So go with that. Just do the work, and the work gets done, and everything else is really quite irrelevant.

That’s what I’ve learnt today. So, back to work.

Muddle

Two days without revision, ugh. I thought this momentum malarkey was meant to be over and done with.

It’s proving very difficult to remain objective with this re-read. I may be open to the suggestion that this is because I’m reading it off of my computer rather than the physical page, or I may find the idea too sentimental and romantic to have time for. I’m not sure yet. All I know is that the first two chapters went fine, and then as soon as I started thinking: yeah, I know what I’m doing now, I forgot how to do it.

Either that, or this is, in fact, telling me something very vital about those first two chapters.

I spent two days going over chapter three. Two days. Two sets of revision. I got to the point where I was revising my revisions. And perhaps I should take this as a sign that there’s something off with the chapter, not so much in its content, but in its even being there, because I spent so much time picking it apart and commenting on every little thing that either I just can’t let things go, or there are so many issues with this chapter that it shouldn’t even be there to begin with, and I don’t know which.

And I know that I can nitpick and meander without realising it; I do that all the time while I’m writing after all, so it makes sense that this would spill over into other activities. But those first two chapters were gravy. It was obvious, it was clear-cut, and it made sense, which lends some credence to the idea that this third chapter just might not be worth the trouble of critiquing, because it shouldn’t be there. At best, this third chapter is looking like a victim of the combined forces of my own pedantic uncertainty and the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps it just doesn’t add anything to the story.

But it does. It actually provides something very necessary to the story. But maybe it’s there in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe it needs to come in later, maybe it doesn’t need to fill a whole chapter – or maybe the fact that I took so long in critiquing it is because there’s so much to critique – or maybe it’s because I’m getting tunnel-vision and have lost sight of the big picture, the overall arc of the story, which is not just in what happens, but in why it happens, and trying to find the bits that don’t fulfill a necessary function. Or some combination. And I just don’t know which.

The obvious solution is to just press on, which I will, because I want this thing done. But I still don’t know quite what I’ve taken away from this. Was my critique accurate? Was I on-point and the chapter is just so problematic that it may not even be worth saving? I can’t know unless I keep reading, obviously, but then what about the next chapter I critique? How am I going to handle that? Should I just limit myself to only making the least notes possible in any given chapter, and if there seems to be too much, to just take a step back and red-flag it for when I’m in a clearer state of mind?

Perhaps I was just tired or distracted when I read through this last chapter. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mindset – maybe I got over-confident, or was starting to rely too much on Tallulah ‘telling me what to do’. Second-guessing myself is pretty much a constant function of my brain, so it could very well be that. Perhaps I should never have written that post about how wonderful it was that I was starting to get to know Tallulah more as a character, as now I’m looking for it more and more and all I’m getting is …

Well, filler, actually.

Maybe that’s it.

Maybe it’s hard to critique because it’s just filler.

I DON”T KNOW ARGH

So either I keep going right now and just hope that I can get the job done to the level that I expect myself to do it (which could also be a problem, seeing as I am a horrible perfectionist), or I stop and recalibrate. I have learnt that taking breaks is a good thing with writing, so it makes sense that this applies to any intensive undertaking (although somehow it never actually feels like I learn that lesson, no matter how many times it proves itself to be true, truly the human brain is a fascinating device), and while I want to get this done quickly because I’ve done the math and it all adds up to being ‘less than two weeks’ and that’s very seductive, that may not actually be what I can handle. So I don’t know.

And I pretty much have nothing to add to that. I just have no clue what the correct approach is. If anybody reading this has had any experience with revising a first draft, feel free to send some tips my way and I will be most appreciative. But regardless, I do think that I can still do this. I did it with the first two, after all. Something – the amorphous ‘something’ – just didn’t click last time. I do think that at least part of it was the fact that I was ‘hanging out’ and waiting for Tallulah to come back and steer me in the right direction, but that’s like waiting for somebody to come and do my job for me. Then I got upset when she didn’t ‘show up’ and I think it affected my work.

But it is my work, and that’s what I have to remember. Analogies are just analogies; the metaphor-lust of the human brain is not a substitute for hard labour. Just saying that my characters take on a life of their own does not mean that I can take it literally, because if they had literally come to life, I wouldn’t be writing this; I’d be hanging out with them. Some of them. Others I’d stay away from or help plot the destruction of. And perhaps we’d make a documentary about these events, and they would no longer be fiction, and then I wouldn’t be having this kind of fun.

So much fun, guys, seriously.

So. Hopefully that’s enough to get me back on track – it’s up to me to do this work, and if Tallulah or any of the other characters ‘show up’, that’s just a bonus. A welcome bonus. But not a guarantee. I am the only guarantee, and so it’s all on me to get this done.

But yeah, seriously, very open to advice/anecdotes right now.

Authorial responsibility

After taking my own advice – well, after trying very, very hard and mostly succeeding in taking my own advice, which is still pretty good – I have now come to the point in my authorial career where I see just how much of a monster I am, and I start to feel genuinely guilty about what I’m putting my characters through.

Almost every story has that one character that acts as a hate-magnet, the one character that the audience just can’t bring themselves to like, even if they can sympathise or even empathise with them (indeed, that may be part of why they hate them so much). Mine is a character named May. I know this because every person who has read my draft has relayed to me just how hateful a character May is. Which is fantastic; I want her to be hateful, I want her to elicit rage, because that’s her role in the story, and that’s how I designed her.

But she’s also my character, my baby, and from the start I have wanted her to be more than just a hate-magnet – I’ve wanted people to be able to feel sorry for her and be able to understand why she does what she does, while not necessarily forgiving her for doing it. In fact that’s exactly what I don’t want, because she does some pretty bad stuff. But part of why I’ve wanted people to be able to, if not forgive her, then at least understand her and not just see her as an irredeemable villain, is because if I do get this thing published and people read this story, they may identify with May more than they’d like. And I don’t want to be telling those people that, if they’re anything like May, they’re doomed to be hate-magnets forever, or that they way to deal with the parts of themselves that they don’t like is to try and hate them away, because that never works in real life.

There’s this terrifying balancing-act, then, for me as a writer – I don’t want people to excuse May for what she does. But I do want them to be able to give her a second chance. And my greatest fear is that I’ll have to make her do something really grand in order to earn that chance, so great that it may actually end up excusing her for all the other stuff, which I don’t want. I don’t know how to tread that line or find that balance – and perhaps it isn’t up to me. Perhaps I just have to leave that up to the audience. Part of what I’m learning just by reading my own stuff is that I need to give the audience more room to interpret things their own way, and to actually have a chance to engage with the story, rather than just having it fed to them. To be fair, I wrote lots of the draft like that on purpose, so that I would get my own intentions for the scene down on paper, and also so that it would catch my eye during revision and I’d be motivated to do it more skilfully, which is what is now happening. So I guess it worked, which is nice.

But right now, I’m at a point in the story where I’m seeing May’s situation, and I feel genuinely guilty for putting her through what I’m putting her through, and I want the audience to be able to feel bad for her, while also not excusing her for all the horrible things she ends up doing – maybe I’m just too pedantic. Maybe I just want too much. Maybe I’m being too much of a control-freak. I do that sometimes.

The point is that I’m the one responsible for every single bad thing that happens to her, because I made them happen, and then I made her do horrible things so that people would hate her for them on top of that, and I’ve now put her in this non-negotiable position. She either has to be a hate-magnet, or she has to be a martyr, and neither feels just. Neither feels right. And I don’t feel like a skilled enough storyteller to find that middle-ground that I feel she deserves, and that someday, somebody who reads about her in this book may also need for themselves.

But I guess the important thing is that I’ve created a character that I care about. So hopefully other people will as well. And in the end, even if it’s only as a hate-magnet, maybe that’s enough. Having a hate-magnet is helpful for people as well – everybody needs to vent in some way, and so long as they can do that by taking it out on a fictional character rather than real people, including themselves, perhaps May will have served her purpose, for the greater good.

I still feel awful about it.

But in the end, some people want to see themselves in the characters in the stories they engage with, to have a chance to acknowledge certain aspects of themselves that they aren’t 100% sure of how they feel about perhaps, or parts that they absolutely know they don’t like, and to have a chance to reflect on them in a safe, private way. Other people want to see parts of themselves, or others, in characters, and just have the chance to hurl abuse at them, again in a safe, private way, where nobody real gets hurt. I suppose my feelings right now align with treating May as a real person, and she’s not, and I shouldn’t insist on my audience having to treat her as though she was one.

But I have to treat her as one. One reason for that is because I am of the ‘true to life’ school of thought when it comes to characters; I like realism, and that’s different to things being realistic – it’s evoking what’s realistic, while still making it compelling for an audience to interact with. It’s tricky. The other reason is that I’m a moral person, and I hate victim-blame, as well as letting people get away with doing horrible things, and May blurs the line between the two for me – like I feel most real people do. So I feel obligated to represent her as humanely as possible, to make her dimensional, out of respect for my audience. I do think that good stories are the ones that raise questions about how we view the world – probably not ones that then also provide a clear-cut answer, because I think that’s disingenuous and presumptuous. And it’s hard to do, or so I’m finding it as a writer, and so I’ve found it as a reader.

But the main reason why I have to treat May like a person is because I have to respect my audience, and if I don’t care about this story that I’m telling, then there’s no way I can ask anybody else to care about it, whatever their opinion on it ends up being. It’s not that, as a writer, caring about the story is enough to ensure that it’s good, but I feel that not caring about it is guaranteed to make it bad. So the fact that I care is probably a good thing.

And no matter how bad I feel for May right now, in the end, she does come secondary to the needs of the audience. I have no idea how people will react to her, or any of the other characters, if this book gets published and publicised enough that people will end up buying it. And I think that’s why I feel so bad right now; I can’t protect her from what other people are going to think of her.

And that’s good. I can’t know what people are going to feel about her, and more importantly, I’m not going to know why. Another reason to write her as humanely as possible; I don’t know what she might trigger in who or for what reason, or any of my characters for that matter, or just the story in general. I can guess, I can assume, but I can’t know. So I have to take very precaution to make sure that, if and when it happens, my story has enough substance to it so that people can also find something in it to fall back on, if they need to.

It feels like a lot of pressure. Maybe I’m over-thinking it. After all, I’m only three chapters into this revision process. Who knows what I’ll think of May and the others by the time I’m done. I am having real trouble remaining objective with this revision process; mostly I’m just being too harsh and nitpicky and I feel it’s getting in the way, one of those not being able to see the forest for the trees sort of situations. Maybe I just need to lightly skim over the draft once and then come back to do notes? I have no idea.

Just gotta hope it works out, I suppose, and again, trust that the fact that I care is a good sign that other people may also care.

I do still feel bad that May is the hate-magnet of this piece so far. But then again, I’m always grateful for hate-magnets in stories myself, so long as they’re done effectively. Like they die a horrible and satisfying death by the end or something; the catharsis that hate-magnets can provide is an invaluable public service, I feel, that storytellers can provide. I just don’t want it to be May’s fate as a character – but at the same time, I don’t want to rob my audience of the potential catharsis that she could provide them with – but at the same time, I don’t want people who sympathise with her (for the right reasons) to feel like she was treated unjustly if her role in the story is just to be the punching-bag that eventually splits open.

Yes, I am definitely over-thinking it.

Definite proof that I’m meant to be a writer.

I’ll take it.

Commentary off-track

You know how people always say ‘change is hard’?

I’ve found what is perhaps the prime example of a rebuttal to this assertion: reading back over your own first draft in order to make notes.

You see, it is so easy to look at something you’ve written, see problems with it, and suddenly think to yourself: ‘hey, what if I completely removed this part?’ or: ‘actually, what if I just added in this totally new bit?’ And while this may be a solution – although it’s kind of like time-travel, in that sometimes you will affect things in the future without intending to – and is also a totally viable option, when you’re trying to critique the actual thing that you’ve written, this is the biggest, most seductive and most disruptive distraction that you can come across, in my humble amateur opinion.

And the reason is simply this: you stop thinking about what you’re reading, and start thinking about it in the context of this new change that you haven’t put into effect. And the thing is, once you do put that change into effect, it requires the exact same critique anyway.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t change anything on this big-scale level, like adding in a new chapter/character/plot-thread – just not while you’re reading and critiquing. Make a note of it. Note it down and make it permanent so that, if need be, you can come back to it and harvest it for future use. But while you’re reading and critiquing your manuscript, stick to the manuscript. Stick to what is actually written, and deal with that. Get to the end. And then start seriously considering these plans for changing things that you’ve come up with.

If you skip what’s right in front of you, then you won’t learn anything from it, and you won’t understand fully why it does and doesn’t work, and therefore why big sweeping changes are or aren’t appropriate. So absolutely note down your ideas for radical reform, because it’s the smart thing to do, but do not treat them as the new canon. Treat your manuscript as the only thing that warrants your critical attention as a storyteller and, most importantly at this point, as a reader, and make every effort to find ways to make what you already have work the way you want it to.

And if, like me, there are things that as soon as you’d written them you wished you hadn’t and could just go back and fix them, make notes on that as well. You may well have been right, after all, and if you were, you want that option to remain open. But give your manuscript the most thorough, respectful analysis that you can; see exactly where it is strong and where it is weak, where it stands on its own feet and where it needs crutches. Only with that level of understanding will you be in any position to make actual, permanent changes, because only then will you understand why and where changes are needed.

This has been an issue for me already, and I’m only three chapters in. I feel like I’m selling my story out by doing this, like I’m snubbing it in favour of this new, hotter, younger story idea that has yet to prove itself, that hasn’t even been put to the page yet, and it’s so easy to run off with that one, because it’s full of open-ended possibilities, and no actual commitment – everything is an option. People are excellent at setting up these competitive dichotomies on a whim, and it’s important to be aware of this, because while it’s good to have options, if you can’t commit, then your options mean nothing at all.

Commit. You must commit if you want to tell a story all the way through, and drafting is part of the telling. Revising and critiquing is the first step to commitment to your story; stick with it, and see what it does and doesn’t have to offer, what it is and what it is not. See the story for what it is in this form, at this stage of its development. Note down your desires to veer off-course because it’s exciting and seems like the most obvious and dynamic change you could make; they’re probably good ideas, because they’re coming from your awareness of the manuscript and your storytelling senses. But they’re not important ideas. Not yet. Right now, the important thing is your manuscript, exactly the way it is, so that you can critique it on its own merits, to understand exactly what those merits are.

You may well end up scrapping the whole thing and starting over from scratch. But you need to know exactly why.

So just be aware of this while you’re doing your revision – revise the story you’ve got, and make notes on the one you wish you had, at this moment. Because that moment will pass, new ideas and new changes will come to you as you continue to read and critique. It is a very generative exercise, so notes are going to be a very good friend to you. Rely on them.

And stick to what you’ve already got right in front of you, and give it your utmost generosity. This does not mean ‘be nice to it’ or ‘go easy on it’, it means ‘take it seriously’. Because if you don’t, then what’s going to happen if you do just implement all of these changes right now? Eventually, they’ll need to be critiqued, too. Are you up to it?

Yes. You are.

Change can be hard specifically because it’s easy. Go with what’s right instead.

Getting to know you

For those of you who follow my Tumblr, you may have noticed that I’ve actually started reading Tallulah. (And apologising for the post that I announced this event in, because … well, let’s just say I’ll be drafting my posts on that blog from now on.) I was unsure about it to begin with, which is why I put it off for three days. But now that I’m into it, I can say two things definitively.

One: I am WAY too nitpicky. I will be lucky to get through this re-read in less than a fortnight given my current pace. But better too thorough than not thorough enough, however long it takes.

Two: I am SO GLAD that I wrote a horrible, HORRIBLE first draft.

I am absolutely sincere on that point; I cannot express how grateful I am that I have this dreadful first draft to work with, because it is SO OBVIOUS what I need to change. The bits that don’t work stick out like thumbs that are sore because they’re snapped in half and gushing blood from an artery that only Peter Jackson knew even existed before now, and therefore they are also easy to identify as being in need of medical aid, which I am very happy to give.

And the best part has been going back over scenes that I wrote in an over-protective state of mind, and almost literally hearing Tallulah’s voice amidst the rubble, demanding to be heard. I’m not one of those people who likes to think that characters take on a life of their own, because I’m just a bit too literal for those kinds of sayings to hold much appeal for me, but right now, it’s a pretty good analogy – it’s just so obvious what needs to change in order for Tallulah’s personality and characterisation to shine through, and as such I can see how to make this story so much stronger, so much more meaningful, and just generally so much better. And that includes finally getting to know Tallulah.

Again, I can’t emphasise how rewarding it is to write a horrible first draft, because the glaring mistakes are exactly that: glaring. You cannot miss them; and because you remember the kind of state of mind you were in while you wrote them, you know exactly what you secretly wanted to change about them all along, what the struggle was that made you lean more to one side than the other, and it’s just so easy. Particularly if, like me, you really enjoy critiquing things, because this is like a goldmine. I enjoy being creative, and I enjoy being critical, and as such I am loving this reviewing process so far.

I have yet to receive feedback on the manuscript from my beta readers, though most of them have given me a few choice notes here and there, and taking all of that on board is going to be rather interesting as well. I’m not going to even look at anything they’ve written, though, until I’m done with my reading. I feel that if I don’t have my own opinions formed beforehand, I won’t be seeing their feedback as an editor, but as a writer. I think it’s more useful to sort of compare notes with other critics than to only occupy the position of the one whose work is being critiqued. I feel it will be more emotionally and psychologically enjoyable for me.

For now, though, I just feel so lucky. I have this manuscript with really obvious problems, and the obvious solutions feel like they’re actually being made by Tallulah, rather than me. So much for being literal. It’s going back to that whole thing of having an idea in your head but, for whatever reason, just not being able to get it out on paper without it becoming altered in the process; this is coming back to that same page and filling in the blanks. It turns out that I did have the right idea, and just needed a chance to go back and complete it, and it’s coming so easily and naturally. So, again, writing the awful first draft is so important. And not just important; it’s helpful. Indescribably helpful. I’m seeing these mistakes, and the Tallulah I’ve had in my head but have not been able to put down on paper is now putting herself down on paper, taking charge of her story, as it should be, and it is absolutely wonderful.

And I’ve never been this far with a story before. This is all new to me. This is that sense of adventure and wonder and closeness that I first felt when I started writing. It’s well worth getting back to, even if it does take writing a 124k-word manuscript to get there – writing the manuscript was also enjoyable. Or fulfilling, maybe. That’s a better word for it. It was hard, of course, soul-crushingly hard, because there were so many points where I was faced with the possibility that I didn’t know how to tell my own story. But it was worth getting past, because now I’m here, filling in the blanks, adding on the extra layers – and, I think most enjoyably and gratifyingly, getting to know my main character so much better than I ever had a chance to before. It’s not about my story, now. It’s about being the person to tell hers, the way she wants me to tell it. It’s kind of like getting a commission.

And it is, actually, kind of like meeting somebody new, and wishing that you’d known them for far longer than you have.

This writing thing is intense, yo. Be prepared.

And it is also, absolutely, worth it.

Hurdle #1

This drafting thing is hard.

Last night, which spilled over into this morning (for those who may be confused due to timezones, I live in New Zealand), I wrote a summary of Tallulah. I had intended to write an actual accurate summary of the story, and instead what I ended up writing as a synopsis to a story that felt like it made sense – which was more or less just as good, because it still got me thinking about the weaknesses of the story on a ‘global’ scale specifically because I had written a synopsis of a very different story. And so it got me thinking about the things that I had changed or just completely left out of this synopsis, because that seemed like a pretty good indicator of specifically what I wanted to look at when I went back to edit …

There was just one problem.

I fixed the problems.

Now what?

Not as in ‘I just killed Count Rugen and have no idea what to do with my life’, but as in ‘I’ve identified the main problem already without even looking at the manuscript so what’s the use in even looking at the manuscript?’

The answer: because it’s the manuscript, and I fixed a synopsis.

I do think that it is very important to look at your synopsis, and very helpful, because it can help you to instantly identify the broadest, story-based problems with your manuscript, and subsequently some character problems as well – if there are any, of course. If there aren’t, then awesome! Look at something a little more ‘zoomed-in’, like specific characterisation or the exact sequence of events or whatever. But if you’re looking at the big picture, which is what I’m trying to do, then the synopsis is perhaps the perfect place to start.

However, the issue that I had last night, the sense of aimlessness that came over me, was because it seemed like I could find a solution for everything I wanted to without even looking back at the first draft at all. I had already come to my conclusion, after all – what was the point in spending another day, or even a week, I have no idea how long it’ll actually take to read through this thing, just to come to the same conclusion?

The answer is very simple, and it’s another question: given these ‘solutions’ that I have now, this nice, new, coherent synopsis, this contents page, this ‘big picture’ revision of ‘what should happen’ – does that feel like enough to go on if I want to write a whole story?

If it doesn’t – which it doesn’t for me – then you need to go back and read the manuscript. You need more than just a ‘big picture’ evaluation done with a 500-word synopsis (ideally a synopsis is around 300 words, from what I hear); you need to get critical at the ground level, to get into that mindset where, as an avid reader, you can see somebody else’s work and instantly identify what you would have done differently if it was up to you, and for that to happen, you need to see the whole thing all the way through, from start to finish, not just a synopsis. A synopsis-critiquing is helpful, don’t get me wrong; after I slept on it I actually felt downright excited to start looking at the manuscript and taking notes, because I had a clear sense of direction. But it is not the whole process, and it is nowhere near the whole solution – it’s a start, and a helpful start, but it is not an ending.

And neither is reading the manuscript. That’s the next step. It may be difficult to not feel like I’ve already come to my conclusion and therefore am wasting my time by reading it the whole way through, but I have to do it, because it’s an entirely different, more thorough and more taxing evaluation, and it’s also the most important one – I don’t want to publish and sell my synopsis; I want to publish and sell my story, so that’s what I need to give attention to, and make sure is in working order.

My current strategy to the ‘already know what I’m going to say’ thing is going to be the same strategy as when I write something down, a story-point or whatever, and then feel like, since I’ve already planned it out, there’s no point in even writing it, because there’s nothing new. That strategy is to basically pretend that it never happened.

Because it’s written down. I’ve written down my critique of my synopsis, I’ve made my plans; it’s all there if I need it later. But I don’t have to use it. In this case, I do actually want to use it, but not as a set of instructions – just as a diving-board, a starting-point to a much larger investigation. I know something of the course I want to chart, the theory, but now I have to actually go and walk it, and see what it’s like in practice.

And maybe my critique will be horrible and ignorant and lazy; maybe I’ll miss really obvious things. But that’s why the synopsis-critique has value – it’s a direction. I wouldn’t recommend putting it up on your wall to remind you of ‘what to look for’, but I would certainly recommend looking over it while critiquing your draft, which is what I’m going to try and do. I have a direction, and I am going to walk in it.

Hope it works.

Draft 2 Activate

So, as I’ve mentioned a few times before on this blog, I have no idea how to approach this second draft. Yesterday was supposed to be the day when I got stuck in and did my re-read of the first draft, or ‘zero draft’ as some might call it, and I just … didn’t.

I did not have the clarity of phrase yesterday, but basically my problem was that I did not know what it was that I was going to try and look at in order to fix it. I knew, and have known pretty much since I got halfway through the draft, what a couple of the biggest, broadest issues are: the characterisation of Tallulah, and the flow of the story and plot – it’s messy, it’s meandering, and the end feels a bit tacked-on as a result, because the journey from point A to point B does not make as much sense as it should, if it makes any sense at all.

As such, I decided to ask my mother for tips on how to approach this thing today – seeing as she’s a PhD and has had a book published, I assumed that she might have a couple of tips on how to crack into a second draft. And I started to see signs of what my specific block was as soon as I asked her about it, because my question was very vague: ‘how do you approach a second draft?’

So I got an answer that I wasn’t looking for, and we sort of talked for a while, and then she asked me for the synopsis. Now I’ve been giving what I thought was the synopsis to people who have asked me about the book for some time, and I even wrote a blog about some of the issues that I ran into in that regard a few months ago. This was the ultimate logical extreme of that problem: I know the premise, and I know the direction that the story goes in, but I don’t know how it resolves itself and also tells a solid story that feels like it makes sense. And I only realised this when my mother repeated my synopsis back to me, and I instantly realised all of the things that were missing from it, and at last I understood where to look.

And so my first step is going to be to write a synopsis.

Take notes, people. That’s what I’ve said from the beginning, and today I now know that it’s actually sound advice. For every chapter I wrote of Tallulah, I wrote a synopsis afterwards to sum up the chapter. I am now in the position to actually go back and use those synopses in the process of refining the structure of my story. I believe we call this ‘winning’.

And this is not just about writing a synopsis that makes sense; this is about writing an accurate synopsis of what has happened in my draft, and seeing what doesn’t add up, and using this template in order to critique the manuscript itself on a broad scale. In short, through critiquing my synopsis, I critique my manuscript, and then move on to editing it.

And yes, this does also mean that I’ve decided the first thing to look at in terms of ‘what to change’ is going to be the things that drive the story forward – basic things like drama, tension, motivation for characters to do certain things – and the most important thing of all is, of course, how and why the main character changes by the end.

Obviously if the main character isn’t supposed to change by the end of the story this is a different story, and not one that I’d trust many writers with telling particularly well, but for my and most other stories out there, this one is about change.

And my main problem is that, while I know what the Before and After shots look like, I have no idea how to get from one to the other.

Now I may find, upon reading the draft, that I actually managed to do something that kind of works and I’ve just totally forgotten about it, but if I’ve forgotten about it then that suggests to me that it wasn’t a very effective strategy. And I may just be in a mindset where I’m more prone to see my draft in a worse light than it deserves because there is a part of me that still equates ‘critical’ with ‘mean’, and also because of what my mother remembered of my synopsis, which was not a complete story. It may not reflect the story that I’ve written; it may just reflect what I think of the story I’ve just written – or, of course, it may be totally accurate.

Either way, I need to read it to find out, and I now have a goal to direct my reading, and subsequent editing, and so, at last, I know where to begin.

Another thing my mother says she does is to write a contents page before she even writes the manuscript itself – the one time that I managed to write a draft according to how I’d planned it out is when I did this myself, so I may also do that. Currently none of my chapters have titles – they don’t need titles, but they do need a reason to be separated into chapters, and while that reasoning was fairly clear to me while I was drafting, it can’t hurt to go back and reinforce it, and fix what needs fixing.

And, more importantly, use it to help inform how I can go about telling this story better.

Draft 2 begins. One small step at a time.