"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, November 28, 2010

As you may know, for the past month or so I’ve been reworking the beginning of the current draft of my current novel to get it ready to submit to the McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, which has a deadline of December 1st. I managed to get the first 30,000 words (a little over 100 pages) ready in time, although it’s not as “ready” as I would have liked. I did the best I could given the time constraints, and a nice thing about this particular contest is that they allow you to send two polished short stories along with the work in progress to give them a feel for what your final drafts are like. I’m sure I won’t win, but the deadline was effective motivation to get back to work on the novel, and now that I’ve reworked the beginning I feel revved up and ready to finish this draft.

I had planned on continuing straight ahead with the draft after sending in the McSweeney’s submission, but on the same day the submission went out in the mail, I received the proof for my book, which I needed to comb through and return with my corrections by Monday. So while you and yours were spending a relaxing (I hope) holiday weekend surrounded by family and friends and lots of good food, I was eating ramen and fried chicken from a box while carefully reading every word of my proof, trying to make sure no errors made their sneaky way into the published book.

I complain, but actually, it was kind of an interesting experience (and to be completely honest, I did have a nice dinner with friends the day after Thanksgiving). When I was sent the proof, I was instructed to just proofread; at this stage, there’s no time to make any content revisions. This is the first time, then, that I’ve ever been able to read something I wrote without looking for things that aren’t working, things that I should cut, add, or otherwise change. Even published pieces I read with an eye for revision, because I’ve always figured I would compile into a book-length collection many of the stories I had published in journals.

In essence, I was able to read my own work as a reader, or at least, I came the closest it’s probably possible to come. And the truth is—I really liked the book. That may sound cocky, but just hear me out. This book represents a lot of hard work. This entire collection was over five years in the making, and even though my name is on the front cover, a lot of feedback (from workshop peers and instructors, from friends, from my husband, from my brilliant editor, Sharon Dilworth, who pushed me to do better and who educated me as a writer just as much as my MFA instructors did) went into making these stories what they are now. As I was rereading the stories, I kept remembering things that had been cut from previous drafts, and while in some of the cases it took a lot of convincing to finally sway me to cut them, I was so excited to read the final versions one more time and see how much better they are this way.

I was also excited to see how truly beautiful this book is going to be. The cover art, taken from a work of art titled “Mirror” by an amazingly talented young artist named Ashley Gibson, is exceptional and PERFECT for the stories in this collection. The overall design of the book is gorgeous, too, and I just about cried tears of joy when I saw the font they used for the title page and the story titles—it’s ideal for this collection, and I would never have thought I would even care about something like font. Autumn House Press prides itself on putting out books that are physical pieces of art as well as artistic from a content perspective, and I just feel so lucky to have my first published book put out through them.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Last week I talked about how much harder it is for me to work on full novels than it is to write short stories. As I was working on the second draft of my current novel today, I figured out, at least partially, where the trouble is coming from. It seems that my writing process is very different when I’m working on shorter pieces than full novels.

When I write a short story, I often have only a very vague idea in my head, or a line, or an image that I want to put into words. When I sit down and begin typing, I rarely have anything even remotely resembling a plot in mind, but that never worries me. I know that it will either come or it won’t. If it does, I’ll end up with a full draft of a story, if it doesn’t, I’ll chalk the experience up to practice.

When I work on novels, though, for some reason I seem to feel less comfortable with the vast question mark lying before me, and before I even begin, I try to map out the plot. This, I’ve realized, is a very bad idea. For me, anyway. This is just not the way I write.

My first attempt at a novel—the first one I actually finished and revised—was stilted and contrived; it was overwritten, overplotted, and thoroughly unoriginal. When I was writing the second novel I ever actually completed, my MFA thesis, I was able to sort of break free of these boundaries. I did map the plot out before the first draft, but when I wrote the second draft I threw it all out and started over from page one, with no clear idea of where it was going to go. I ended up, I feel, with a much better novel than I could have written if I had tried to plot it all out in advance.

On my current novel, though, I have a pretty clear idea of the overall plot in my head. This is partially because this is the second draft, and in the first draft I kind of hammered out all the kinks of what I want to happen in the story. But this is causing me problems when I sit down and actually write. What’s happening is that the pace of the novel is going all wonky. Because I know what’s going to happen next, and what’s going to happen after that, I’m racing through each scene, not taking my time and reveling in the details like I should.

If I don’t know what’s going to happen, see, the only way to find out is by writing it. I have to inch my way blindly through the story by spending a lot of time in the details of each scene. If I look closely enough, they’ll begin to form themselves into something meaningful, and the next key plot point of the story will reveal itself to me. If I already know the next key plot point, though, I tend to get antsy and move too quickly to it, ignoring those details and kind of deflating the entire story in the process.

For future novels, the resolution to this problem is obvious: stop trying to plot them out in advance. If I let my novels evolve organically instead of trying to mold them into something specific, I’m sure I’ll end up a better novelist. For my next novel, I’m going to make sure I begin without a plot in my mind. For my current one, though, the resolution is a bit trickier. I already know the plot of this story, and I like the plot. I think it’s good. I don’t know whether I should chuck it out the window to free up my more organic writing style. Maybe I should. Or maybe there’s some other way, some way I can keep the plot but force myself to revel in the details anyway. 

I’m a little over halfway through the novel right now. For the past few weeks, I’ve been going back through the first 150 pages to revise them as much as possible to enter them into the McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award at the end of the month. I’m trying to flesh out the scenes, making changes as necessary but also adding details all over the place. It’s much more forced than it would be if I had written the details in to begin with, and I’m not really sure whether it’s working.

Once I get through the beginning again, I’ll work on finishing this second draft, and my goal is to try to forget about the plot as I’m working on each individual scene; I only want to think about the plot when I finish with a scene or chapter and am again looking at how the pieces fit together as a whole. It may be difficult to force the plot out of my mind as I’m actually writing, though, so this is likely to be an ongoing learning experience for me. I’m nervous, but excited, to see how it goes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

As I’ve been getting back to work on my new novel, I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between writing short stories and writing novels. I’ve heard a lot of different opinions about how to know whether you have a story or a novel on your hands, or which craft techniques are best for shorter pieces and which ones are best for book length works. I’ve heard, too, people argue that short stories are more difficult to write than novels, and I’ve heard others argue that novels are more difficult to write than short stories.

Here’s my take: from my experience, it takes a lot longer—and I mean a lot—to write and revise to completion a novel than it takes to bring a short story from inception to publication. I’m talking the difference between a few months for a 20 page story to a few years for a full length novel. Just banging out the first draft of a novel takes, I’d say at minimum, a month—and that’s if you work on it for two or three hours a day. You can throw together a first draft of a story, though, in a day or two, if you really buckle down.

But time doesn’t necessarily equal difficulty. Just because it’s more time consuming to work on a longer piece, does that automatically mean that a longer piece is more difficult? Or is it more difficult to work on a shorter piece, since every word, every single detail, must be very carefully chosen?

The answer I’ve come to recently is perhaps not very satisfying: it depends. It depends on which length the writer in question has had more practice with.

I’ve been mostly working on my novel lately, and I can say with absolutely certainty that novels are much more difficult for me to write than are stories. It’s harder for me to hold 300 pages worth of plot and character development and key details in my mind at once, to keep track of the entire thing as I work on any individual section. I’m also a firm believer in the importance of plot, and I find it much easier to keep the plot moving at a steady clip in a short work. In a full novel, I have to slow the pace down dramatically, and not every second of the story involves a plot point. It’s much harder for me to know what details to include and what to leave out, what tangents are appropriate and what ones will lose the reader?

Many of these problems are problems of early drafts, of course. Part of the reason why novels feel so much harder for me is probably because I can spend months tinkering away on a novel and still know that the final draft lies very far in my future; if I’d spent that time working on a short story, I’d probably have something ready to send out already.

But I think even more than perception, the reason why I find novels so much more difficult is because I’ve had a lot more practice writing short stories. I’ve written countless short stories, many of which were awful and have long since faded into the past. But after writing all those terrible stories, I eventually started getting a feel for how to craft a strong story, and I started publishing the stories that I wrote not long after. I still have more to learn—every new story I write is better than the stories that have come before it, which shows that I’m still learning as I go—but even so, I’m at a point in my story writing career where, when I sit down to work on something new, I feel fairly confident that it will eventually get published.

Not so with novels. I wrote, when I was younger, a handful of unfinished novels, and when I was an undergrad I wrote a first and second draft of what I call my “practice novel.” In grad school, I wrote a novel for my thesis, and have revised it and revised it (and am going to probably revise it again this winter break). And then there’s my new novel, which I wrote a first draft of in between drafts of my thesis, and I’m currently writing the second draft. I’ve had some practice, sure, and I do believe my thesis novel and my current novel have the potential to get published. But I also struggle a lot more in this form than I do in the story form, and of course, I’ve not yet had any publication success as a novelist.

But the nice thing about it is that, once I realized that this was probably the reason why I’m finding it so difficult to make this new novel gel, it kind of took the pressure off a bit. If the problem is simply that I need more practice, then that’s precisely what I intend to get. More practice. And the way to get it is by plowing ahead, by just working on the novel and not worrying so much about how good it is, or how hard it is to make it good. Because the more I work in that form, the more practice I’ll get, and little by little, the better novelist I’ll become.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Once I got back on track with my writing habits (as far as I can tell, my block has officially been kicked—I hope I didn’t just jinx it by saying that!), I was able to write a few new stories, which I then revised and am ready to begin submitting. So, while I talked recently about how I’m going to cool it a bit with the goal setting, I think I am going to try to push myself to meet the 10 submissions a month goal that has become my standard over the past few years.  

I am not, however, going to put pressure on myself to meet any sort of daily time goal right now, nor am I going to push myself to pump out more stories at the moment. The stories that I wrote recently were not the stories I had decided to write. I have a list (as most writers do, I imagine) of story ideas. I had gone through my list and selected two stories to be my next two pieces. When I sat down to work on them, though, I really had to force it. If you were to look through the files on my computer today, you’d find about fifteen not-very-strong pages of each of these two new stories, and you’d also probably note that neither one of the stories seems to be heading in any worthwhile direction. Odd, because I’ve been dying to write these specific stories for some time now. I kept telling myself, “As soon as I have time . . .  I can’t wait until I have time . . .” Yet now that I do have time, these “great” ideas are just not gelling.

But don’t worry. If you were to look at the files on my computer today, you’d also find a couple of new stories that didn’t come from my idea list, and those stories I actually feel pretty good about. It seems that my brain, rather than allowing itself to be bullied to write the stories I wanted to write, decided that it would write the stories it was interested in. With both of these new stories, I was just minding my own business, living my life and not trying to write, when the words for a first line, and then a second, and then a third, just started bouncing around in my mind. I rushed to the computer to pour the words out, and then more came, then more, and by the end, I had a solid draft of a new story I hadn’t meant to write.

This is actually the way pretty much all of my best stories were written. Rarely do the ideas I jot down in the pocket notebook I carry around in my purse end up developing into anything very good. The really good stories are the ones that I write the second I have the idea—and to be honest, they often don’t even start as an idea; they start as a line, which, once I write it down, sparks another line, which sparks another. And pretty soon, I have a full story developing beneath my fingertips, a story I didn’t even know I had inside me.

I quite like my two new stories, and now that I have something to submit to journals, the pressure to be working on short stories is alleviated. I’m now freed up to get back to work on my new novel, which, I’m realizing now that I’m becoming once again immersed in it, is what I really want to be working on right now. No amount of telling myself that my previous novel is still unpublished, or that the best way to attract an agent to possibly sell that unpublished novel is probably to blanket the journal market with as many short stories as possible, is quelling my desire to put everything else aside and live, for a while, in the world of the new novel.

And so I’m going to stop fighting it. I’m not going to worry about writing short stories. If another story comes to me, like these recent two did, that’s great, but the two stories from my idea list that I was trying to force are going to have to remain unfinished for now. Right now I’ve got (to use a cliché) bigger fish to fry.