December 22, 2011

As The Year Turns

At the beginning of this year, I expressed optimism. I boldly predicted that in 2011, I would move beyond being an amateur writer who sits at her desk talking to herself in obscurity. I declared that this year, I would finally become an agented writer who sits at her desk talking to herself.

I made this prediction with the fully admitted knowledge that for quite a few years now, I've been telling myself that this year, this time, really for sure now, I'm going to get my big break. So I'm neither surprised nor especially disappointed to realize that once again, I was mistaken. This wasn't the year.

It was still a good year. I started with a manuscript that I thought needed a little more work, and I discovered how much better I could make it. I continued to have the wonderful luck and support that allow me to pursue writing full-time. I read many great books and learned more about the craft. I connected with writers and readers around the world. I carried on having a pretty terrific life.

I'm still optimistic. 2012's going to be the year, for absolute positive sure.

Now I'm off to spend time with some of the important people in my life, while I think fondly of the other important people who I'll be missing. The days get longer from here on out. Happy new year to everyone.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Julie Wu writes at Beyond the Margins about overcoming her Fear of Revision: "[I]t has taken me ten years to write my first novel. I have revised it countless times--a little when it first didn't sell, then more and more. Eventually, I changed its structure, its point of view, its tone, its style. With each revision I received comments and started over, page one. Each time, I learned more, until I could revise without fear. And it was then that I sold the book."

December 16, 2011

Important Irrelevant Details

Sometimes in the interest of realism in my fiction, I get hung up on these details, and I don't know if I'm being ridiculous. Today I was worrying about whether readers would notice or care how much time passes in the story without a visit from the grandparents.

The storyline I'm working on involves a couple with a baby, and it takes place over several years. Sometimes in the gaps between scenes, months pass during which the characters go about their lives with only the most relevant occurrences reported to the reader when the story picks up again. This is convenient for me as the author, because it means I can safely assume that while I'm ignoring the characters, they have time to take care of things that are important to them but not the story. Things like getting in some quality time with that grandmother who lives in another state and doesn't do anything in the story until the kid is a year and a half old.

But today I became concerned about the fact that there's no mention of this grandmother between soon after the baby's birth and that one scene she stars in. I'd been imagining that a visit or two happens off the page somewhere and that the reader could imagine that as well, which is fine, but I figured that for my own peace of mind, I should decide when those visits are. But there's also the other out-of-state grandmother. She's more important to the story and has more scenes, but they still might be spaced farther apart in time than this character would believably go without making sure she saw her grandchild. So I needed to schedule visits with her for my own reference, too.

Having arranged all these imaginary travel plans (which, thank goodness, didn't involve the headache of searching for imaginary flights), I saw a way to relevantly mention these grandparental visits in the story with a few words of summary, so I went ahead and did that. Now I can stop worrying that any reader will note the sparseness of grandmotherly visits during the baby's early life.

But now I have to wonder whether there's any chance that any reader would have spared a moment of thought on this issue. What do you think? Am I being thorough in crafting a believable world for my characters, or am I wasting time obsessing over pointless details?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mary Kole explains what is and isn't involved in Big Revision: "She'd been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a 'tinkering revision.' Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she'd just been mucking around with what she'd already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere." (Thanks, Becky Levine!)

→ Chris Abouzeid at Beyond the Margins shares thirteen opening lines he tried for different drafts of the same manuscript.

December 14, 2011

The Pace of Progress

My challenge to myself last month resulted in serious progress on my novel. I set my goal high because I wanted the motivation to work more hours than usual, and I was successful in that regard. As far as I can tell, revising for longer hours didn't result in any loss of quality, and that's good news for both the work I produced in November and for my future writing.

The unstated goal of last month's experiment was to help me figure out some new methods for working more productively. Should I give myself a revision hour goal every month, or set up some other kind of metric to reach? How many hours of writing are in my optimal working day? Since last week, I've been trying out a couple of ideas, and the results are good so far. I'm going to wait until I've had more time with them before going into detail here.

When I reviewed the stats on my November progress, I also consulted the record of my time and output in the preceding months. I was happy to discover I'd been keeping these records since the start of this round of revision. I was even more happy when I realized that my overall progress hasn't been as glacial as it feels.

At the beginning of this revision, I had some thoughts about how long it might take to complete. Reviewing the stats, I saw that my actual progress hasn't been so far off from my guess -- if you take out all the long and short breaks from writing. Some of these breaks were anticipated and valid, such as vacations. Others were the unanticipated but unavoidable interruptions of real life, some of which legitimately prevented me from writing and many of which were convenient excuses. And I'm sure there were a lot of days when there was no good reason that I only wrote for an hour.

So, on the one hand, it's nice to know that I am revising this novel at a pace that feels reasonable to me (however arbitrary that acceptable rate is), and that I can use that pace to estimate when I'll be finished. On the other hand, wow, I've wasted a lot of time, and that's disheartening. I'm hoping that my latest "This Is How I'll Be Super-Productive!" scheme means I'll waste less time in the future so that I might have a chance of meeting my estimate this time.

But, you know, now it's the middle of December, and nobody can get anything done in December.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund crafts exquisite Italian fig cookies and ponders the connection to writing: "I love taking the time to get each cut just right, just as I love taking my time with writing. Why would I rush a first draft when it -- and future drafts -- can be stronger if I step back and think about things more, instead of racing to the end?"

→ Kim Wright at The Millions tries to figure out what constitutes genre: "My conclusion: if genre was once a signal to the reader that certain things would happen in a certain way and at a certain pace and to a certain kind of character, that definition is dead. As dead as a Scottish warrior turned zombie searching the criminal underbelly of modern day New York for the only woman he's ever loved."

December 6, 2011

December Reading Plan

Here are the books I have lined up to close out my first year of monthly reading lists:

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I've been reading this a lot during the past week, after setting it aside for a while, and I'm excited to see how the rest of the story is going to unfold. I expect to finish this month, completing a year-long read of the trilogy.

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan - All the book people were talking about this book at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. It won a Pulitzer Prize and a bunch of other awards. I've been intrigued because I understand it features a variety of narrative styles and gimmicks, and has sections set in different time periods, which are two of my literary attractions. I didn't read it earlier because I also understand it might qualify as linked short stories rather than a novel, which doesn't appeal to me. Okay, yes, and maybe I also didn't read it earlier because everyone else was. But I picked it up at a bookstore the other day and decided to give it a try. Despite hearing about this book for months, I have no idea what it's actually about, so I get the relatively rare treat of starting a book with no story expectations.

MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer - I hadn't heard of the book or the author until the recent rebroadcast of a Fresh Air interview that intrigued me. This book starts with an ordinary man who takes an ordinary walk through the woods and ends up doing something terrible and unexpected that he has to decide whether to cover up. I was particularly interested because the basic premise has a lot in common with Will Allison's LONG DRIVE HOME, which I read recently, and I'm curious to see where a different author goes with a similar scenario.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Becky Tuch at Beyond the Margins discusses a writing problem I've struggled with in Zen and the Art of Withholding Information: "Perhaps your protagonist is not the kind of person who blabbers about every feeling he's ever had to anyone who will listen. Still, in order to convince your reader of his/her pain, in order to get your reader to empathize with him/her, you will not want to withhold key facts about your character's life. Nor will you want to withhold major aspects of your character's emotional experience. Take it from me--your readers will only feel cheated and confused."

December 5, 2011

November Reading Recap

Now that I'm rested and recovered after completing my November writing challenge, it's time for a report on last month's reading list before I get back to revision.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - I like and recommend this book, but it's not going to be for everybody, due to both the content and the style.

The premise of ZONE ONE involves zombies, but don't base your expectations on that, because you might be either disappointed or unnecessarily turned off. For a zombie book, there aren't that many gory, action-packed encounters with reanimated corpses -- but there are some. The story is perhaps more accurately described as a detailed, plausible exploration of a civilization trying to rebuild after global catastrophe. It's just that the catastrophe happens to be a contagion that causes the dead to shamble around seeking human flesh. You'd be better off deciding if you should read this book based on whether you like post-apocalyptic or survival tales, rather than whether you like zombie stories.

The narrative style is a prominent feature, with meandering passages that often halt the advancement of the plot. I became irritated by how often the protagonist lapsed into memory right as something exciting was about to happen, but overall I liked the slow and nonlinear way the story unfolded. You'll need to judge whether a book in this style is likely to appeal to you or get on your nerves.

Without giving anything away, I want to especially praise the ending of ZONE ONE. It's hard to end a novel, and I'm often disappointed by endings, but I found this one satisfying and fitting.

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys - To explain this book, it's necessary to provide a spoiler for JANE EYRE, so if you aren't familiar with Charlotte Brontë's classic and don't want to know its big secret, skip the next paragraph.

The 1966 novel WIDE SARGASSO SEA is Jean Rhys's imagining of the life of Rochester's first wife, from her childhood in Jamaica to her sad fate as the madwoman in the attic. It's not a retelling of JANE EYRE -- the events of that book are compressed into only a few pages of madness at the end. For that reason, it's not necessary to be familiar with the source material before reading this book, and I can understand why I was assigned it in high school without reading the Brontë first. (Even though I'd read this before, nothing was familiar during my rereading.) The book is a beautifully written, but sad and disturbing story.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - Still in progress. Until last week, I don't think I'd opened this book since mid-October, so it took some reorienting to get myself back into the story. But now that I'm back in, I've been reluctant to put the book down. The characters and situations in the third book of the trilogy are just as fascinating and compelling as in the first two, and I'm glad to be engrossed in the world again.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black tries to figure out the minor characters in his manuscript (as I did recently) and talks about swimming to find your characters: "You cannot see the rest of the iceberg until--and unless--you get into the water. You must swim down, under the cold water, to see the whole thing. The water, in this metaphor, is the writing. I will also argue that you cannot truly come to know who your characters are, in all their multi-dimensional glory, until you plunge in and get wet."