Monday, February 25, 2013

Writing This Novel IV

The end is near! 

The last two chapters took longer to write than the rest of my novel. Usually, writing the ending is easier than the beginning because as you near the final chapters the story should be converging on the event horizon, collapsing on itself like a black hole, and the ending should be inevitable. Right? It will seem that way to the reader. It isn’t that simple for the writer.

What if you didn’t end up telling the story you meant to tell? That isn’t always a bad thing, but that means there are choices to make. You can follow through with the ending that seems to flow naturally from what you’ve written or you can force the story back on track in the final chapters. I’m not a big fan of forcing for the sake of plot, but if you feel strongly about it, do it. (because later you're going to rewrite the novel in such a way that the forced ending seems to flow naturally, but more about that next month.)

For Night Creatures, I chickened out and wrote a weaker, albeit happier, ending. My beta reader wasn’t impressed. He felt cheated that everything pointed to a darker conclusion. I should have known better. Considering the extremes of the rest of the story, the end was no place to play it safe. I promised to fix that in the next draft.

If you’re a complete pantser, you might not have any idea how your story should end. But as a storyteller, I’m sure you have an instinct for the natural conclusion. Quest completed? Goal achieved? Character transformation complete? Congratulations, you’ve reached the end of this tale. Don’t linger too long after the big climax but do give the reader a sense of closure.

Please, don’t wrap up all your loose ends in the final two paragraphs. Those should have been woven into the story as you were nearing the ending. Twist endings take a deft hand so be cautious with them. Have you ever seen the play/movie Murder By Death? At the climax, the protagonist yells at the assembled detectives, “You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.” Don’t be that writer. (On second thought, since he was accusing parodies of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, maybe you should. Even the Doctor carries an Agatha Christie book with him in the TARDIS.)  

So… Now you have a completed first draft. Congratulations! That’s a huge accomplishment. Be proud of yourself. What’s next, you might be wondering. Send it off to a publisher?

Don’t. Don’t even think about that yet.

I used to think that if I were any good at writing my first draft would be perfect. *rueful chuckle* Then I read a quote that changed my mind. I wish I knew who to attribute it to. “Even F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald in the first draft.” Wait! What? Stories didn’t just flow from his fingers perfect and wonderful? He didn’t type The End at the bottom of his first draft then drop the manuscript on his publisher’s desk?  Holy smokes! So the work of writing isn’t simply the physical act of typing the words? Who knew? 

Apparently everyone knew except me. Ernest Hemingway stated, “The first draft of anything is shit.”  That might be a bit harsh, but I’m not about to argue that succinct comment with him. (I’m aware that he couldn’t win a debate with a flower at this point, but I meant hypothetical him. You knew that.)

You’re going to have to write a second draft. Even if you didn’t force the ending. Even if you never made a typo. Even if you ruthlessly polished every word before you finished your first draft, you’re going to have to do a second one. I can hear you groaning from here. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. And I sympathize. I truly do. I’ve always hated reading my work once I finished writing it. Telling the story is fun. (Let me dream here that the first draft wasn’t a pain in the butt.) Fixing the first draft is the same work without the creative fun. This is the craftsmanship level of writing. This is where you put in your time.  

So – onward to the second draft, right?

Sorry. No. I have some advice that I hope you’re ready to hear. This is one of the biggest secrets of writing. It’s probably the most important trick up a writer’s sleeve. Are you ready for the big reveal?


Boo. That’s no fun. I know. It sucks. It’s a virtue, fer chrissakes, and I’m not exactly a virtuous person. I hate it and part of me wants to rebel against it, but I’ve learned how important it is.

My novel needs all the breathing room I can give it. Yours does too. A couple months is ideal, but at least give it a few weeks. The longer the work, the longer the break. Don’t open the file and don’t touch anything for a while. Time will make you more objective and you’re going to need that distance.

Do you have problems bringing your story to a close? Do you know before you start how it will end? Has the ending ever changed while you were writing your novel? Share your tricks for wrapping it up.

Next month, we’ll talk about the second draft.

(This series originally appeared on ERWA blog, where there's discussion about the post, but I will answer any comments here too.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Writing This Novel - Beta Readers

If you aren't familiar with the term, beta readers are people who read your novel or short story before you submit it to a publisher.

Beta readers don't have to be writers. Don't look to them for copy editing (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.) although they'll often point out the problems that jumped out at them. I only ask my beta readers about story-level issues. Most of your beta readers are going to come from your circle of writer friends, so build your community.  

Beta readers were important to me as I wrote my first few novels but with each novel I use them less. It isn't that I don't want the feedback. My writer friends are busy working on their own novels, editing anthologies, or have real life issues that make it hard to find time to read.

The relationship isn't all about my needs. My writer friends know that I will drop everything to read their work if they need a beta reader. It's community, not a fan club.

I had four beta readers for Night Creatures. Only one was someone I've used before. The other three, well... Two never got back to me so I have no idea if they read it. Telling me you read it but didn't like it is fine. Telling me you got busy is also fine. You're doing me a huge favor. I understand if things don't work out and I really understand that real life has to take precedence. Silence, however, isn't nice. One reader did get back to me, but obviously wanted to rewrite it from erotic horror to erotic romance.I was somewhat relieved when the suggestions to "alpha male"ize my character stopped. Perhaps the part about him not being a nice guy underneath it all (and that being the point) finally sank in. Fourth reader said the ending wasn't dark enough. It wasn't. I lost my nerve and tried to soften it a bit but he said he felt cheated by the tepid ending. That was great input and it gave me the courage to go for the ending I originally intended. (And oh, how I'm laughing at myself for bitching about how Thomas Hardy's books always make me want to slit my wrists because his stories are so bleak, and here I am doing the same thing.)

So, beta readers. They can be helpful, or not. You won't know until you hear what they have to say. Be grateful for their time, but don't feel that you have to take their advice.           

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Writing this Novel - Characters

As I only post monthly to the ERWA blog, my series on Writing This Novel left out a few interesting topics. Luckily, I can address them here as they occur to me.

I've mentioned many times that I'm not much of an outliner, but some things I know before I wade into a novel, and one of those things is my characters. Or, at least, I've learned that it's better to start that way. And me being me, I learned it the hard away.

I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel writing month) that I actually outlined. Except for one character. I couldn't get a fix on him. So as I wrote the novel, he behaved in a scene as the plot required. I figured he'd reveal himself to me over the course of the story, but he was a slippery sucker. Hard to pin down. What I ended up with was a two-dimensional character with no consistency. I also finished NaNoWriMo with a 60,000 word novel and it was total crap because of him. Oh wait. it's unfair to blame the character. it was total crap because I didn't know who he was. (and for other reasons, but that was the huge glaring mistake) But I didn't realize that. So I rewrote the entire novel and once again ended up with crap. At that point, finally, I figured it out. After a long think about him, I sketched out his character and rewrote the damn thing a third time. Much better. (the novel will be published under a different pen name in a couple months)

You'd think I'd know these characters pretty well since they're in a series now, but as I've learned my lesson about characters, when I wrote the second in the series, I created a one page tear sheet for each of the important characters.

It goes something like this:

Name of character
What does character want?
How can they get it?
What stands in the way?
Where is the character physically/emotionally/economically/etc at the beginning?
Does the character get what they want?

You don't have to write it down, but you do need to know who your characters are before you start writing - unless you want to rewrite your novel three times. (HINT: You don't) Knowing who they are will help you write them acting in a way that's consistent with who they are. All actions should flow from their 'natural' behavior, not because it fits the plot. You know what I mean. You've tossed a book across the room with the disgusted cry, 'Oh come on George would never do that!'

While you're writing, if you're stuck and have the time for a little exercise, try creating a new tear sheet for your characters that sums up where they are now. They should have changed over the course of the chapters. Maybe their goals changed or their circumstances or even their feelings. That could help you figure out what their next move is, confirm that you're on the right path, or make you realize that somewhere a few chapters back you headed down the rabbit hole.