The Merry-Go-Round

I finished editing Wandering Soul recently. Again. When I reached the end, there were a few concerns I needed to check (such as, I thought I might have removed too many dialogue tags – nope, it’s all good). During that final check, I noticed more things I could fix.

A very dangerous thought presented itself.

I had edited another book. Which meant I was now a better editor. If I went back and edited the book again, it would be even better. But at that point, I would have edited another book. Which would have made me a better editor. It didn’t matter that it was the same book. The experience would still fine-tune my editing ability. I could edit that book over and over again for the rest of my life, never writing another word.

At what point do I stop?

I have been on that merry-go-round before. There will always be things I can fix (or think I should fix) in my novels. Wandering Soul is ready for my editor’s red pen. If I keep working on it now, I risk being too familiar with the words to see further things that really do need to be fixed.

I realized that I could keep polishing the same shiny bumper, or I could go design and build a new car. At that point, the decision became obvious.

I’ll be in the garage.

Time

The most insidious form of procrastination for my writing hides in plain sight. “I don’t have time to write.” And yet, I have time to check my email, play a video game, or look at cute cat pictures on the Internet. I think we’ve all slid down this rabbit hole before.

I’m doing my best to fight it, and have started by testing what I can actually get done in a set amount of time. I recently told myself I didn’t have enough time to write because I only had fifteen minutes available. But I made myself get out my laptop anyway and closed off all distractions and wrote. Fingers to the keys, I wrote as hard and fast as I could. The word count was close to 800.

800 words in fifteen minutes. Let me put that another way. I aim for most of my novels to be 80,000 words. That’s 1/100 of a novel in just fifteen minutes. That might not seem like a lot. I’d have to do that a hundred more times to reach my goal, right? But the time is going to pass anyway. I could spend it on a video game (and sometimes I do – we all need to recharge), or I could spend it creating something, getting something out of myself that’s sometimes clawing, sometimes whining, sometimes singing to get out.

When I tell myself, “I don’t have time to write,” I see it for the tactic that it is. What I’m really saying is, “I don’t have as much time to write as I want.” That’s just one of the challenges of a writer’s life. Building skills, practicing, and seeing through my own diversion attempts all help me to become a better writer, a better person, and to live the life I choose.

Trust

There is a tiny voice inside every artist that tells us what to do with our works. “Change that line. This isn’t in character. This scene doesn’t belong here.” The more we create, the more we listen to that voice, the stronger it becomes. The easier it is to hear.

I first became aware of it when I started obsessively drawing one particular actor over and over. I started out spending two hours on a piece. By the tenth or eleventh portrait, I was spending two days. Long days. Hours spent hunched over the Bristol paper with pencils of all different graphite densities. Toward the end of the later pieces, I started to feel something new. “A few changes here and there and then… It’s done.” I had never experienced art that actually felt finished before. I knew there were parts of the piece that weren’t perfect, things that I could fix. But my muse was satisfied. It was giving me permission to move on.

With writing, I’ve started experiencing the same thing. Finding the particular moment in the story to start a piece, knowing when to introduce characters, figuring out the best order for the scenes and which to tell or leave out. It doesn’t all happen in the first draft. The editing process is still long and hard. But the more I listen to that inner voice, the better the pieces end up. I’ve learned to trust it.

When I speak of my muse now, I’m talking about my writer’s intuition. It didn’t suddenly appear one day. I educated it through a lifetime of stories. Learning from my successes and mistakes and those of others as well  (sometimes the mistakes are even more enlightening). Watching as other artists broke the rules in a way that somehow worked. And always practicing, integrating the craft skills that are leaned through the curious phenomenon of osmosis.

Read and write. Read and write. As much as you can. And then, learn to trust, to listen to that tiny voice inside yourself that tells you when a piece is ready to edit, to share with your beta readers, and finally, to send out into the world.

Shoes

I am not a person who is overly fond of shoes. I own maybe half a dozen pairs and only actually wear three of them (everyday sneakers, sandals for rare skirt appearances, and hiking boots for muddy days at the park). I’m usually most concerned about comfort when I search for clothing, so I have trouble relating to characters who are defined by a near-obsessive love of attire. That might have ended with my latest pair of sandals.

They’re cushy and they’re mostly flat, they fit my feet better than most shoes, and I actually love the way they look. Strappy in a Romanesque style, they fit my list of criteria and my personality. And that brought on my epiphany. People (and characters) can use shoes to communicate. Whether it’s something as fleeting as a mood or as deep as their personality, shoes and clothing tell a lot about a person. This is probably obvious to many people, but I’ve never given it much thought (as my wardrobe attests).

This revelation has come with a new writing exercise I’m eager to try. I’m going to go shoe-shopping for some of my characters. Whether online or in a store, I’m going to peruse the shelves while thinking of my characters and ask myself, what would they wear? Would they be excited about these shoes? Is there an event in the book that might make them want to go out and buy a special pair of shoes?

I might never use the actual shoes in the story, but it will definitely inform the character and that will come across in my writing. When my writing helps me to understand the people around me better, that is a very good thing.

Chiaroscuro

When you write shorter pieces, the good and the bad can be more sharply defined. You don’t have time or word count to soften the edges. Maybe this is why my weaknesses become so much more apparent to me in shorter works. If I’m repeating the same phrases or words in an 80,000 word novel, they have more room to hide. But in a 10,000 word piece? It becomes obvious pretty fast. It’s hard to look at weaknesses without giving fodder to the inner critic. I try to keep it at bay by reminding myself that I can always edit those things out. And with each thing I notice and correct, I become a better writer.

Limiting my word count forces me to give even more thought to my choice of words. If you have a paragraph describing a character, then decide you need to cut it down to one sentence for pacing, imagine the difference in the words you would choose. Experimenting with word counts can sharpen your skills, expand your vocabulary, and increase your awareness of pacing.

Shorter pieces are like chiaroscuro. The light and the dark stand in much starker contrast and can show us where our strengths and weaknesses lie.

20 Questions (or maybe 10)

When the urge to write appears, I want to be ready to take advantage of that early fire to the fullest extent possible. The first flush of creativity makes the words fly forth from my fingertips and I’m on top of the world (whichever world I happen to be writing in). Inevitably, the words slow, my plot strays, and I’m left wondering, who are these people that I’m writing about? Sure, they reveal themselves while I’m writing, but I’d rather not have to rewrite an entire piece because halfway through a novel I realize that the hero is claustrophobic or the heroine’s overbearing father is the real root of her fear of commitment.

Moments of revelation serve me better when they deepen characters that I’m already familiar with instead of derailing the whole story. To help prevent those moments of, “I wish I had known that earlier,” I’m considering doing the following exercise before each piece. I’m going to take my hero and my heroine, and I’m going to interview them together in a room in my imagination. I’ll ask them the same questions, and let them hear each others’ responses. And I’m going to write the whole thing down.

Maybe they’ll hit it off. Maybe they’ll hate each other, but have an undeniable attraction. Maybe we’ll all realize that these two were just not meant to be together (that has happened to me before). I’d rather know before I begin to write their story. Seeing the characters’ reactions to the questions, and even more important, their reaction to each others’ answers, will give me key information in developing them on the page. And writing down the whole scene, well, that’s a pretty good warm-up for writing the piece.

It’s important to me that there are reasons that my characters fall in love. I want to find the seeds of that love somewhere in this exercise. Here are the questions I’ve come up with so far:

  1. What sort of locale did you grow up in?
  2. Was/is your family close?
  3. What do you do in your spare time?
  4. Do you want kids, and if so, how many?
  5. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  6. What is your favorite trait in yourself?
  7. What is your favorite trait in others?
  8. What are you looking for out of life?
  9. What do you want to avoid?
  10. Who has been the most important person in your life up to this point?

What questions would you ask your characters?