In the Trenches: Tips for a First Draft

So I’m writing again, which is… awesome. Scary, always, but awesome.

But, as always, it means I’m in my head too much, constantly analyzing and worrying and working to psych myself up. I won’t say that writing is more of a mind game than any other creative endeavor, since I simply don’t know, but it’s definitely up there. From a skills perspective, it’s just being able to sit and type or move a pen… All that’s left is the thoughts.

Beyond the raw ability to create characters and settings and plots, which is a whole other topic, the ability to draft is all about the mental process.

And with this, my second major project, I’ve figured out a few tips and tricks that can help… and how much things will always be difficult.

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Choosing a Kind Target Audience

As I write, even a first draft, I am constantly thinking about two things: quality and reception. These are absolutely the WRONG things to be thinking about while drafting, for all sorts of reasons, but they happen beyond my control. The best I can do is just continually dismiss them, moment after moment.

Issues of quality are most easily dismissed by thinking about revision. The length of that scene, the quality of that dialogue, the cliche in that description–when revision rolls around, all of that can be gone. For now, it’s just about staring into the face of your inferiority and screaming, “I don’t care! I’m writing anyway!”

Issues of reception–audience reaction–are the most ridiculous thing to think about early on in a draft. Whether people you know will like it, whether the main character is likable, what publishers and reviewers might think of it… They are so far from the reality of what you’re writing now that it’s like worrying about how you’ll afford hover-fuel to get to your space job.

But, again, sometimes these thoughts pop into your head no matter how hard you try to avoid them, and the skillset worth learning is not how to block them from your mind (impossible) but how to deal with them once they are there.

And one trick to consider with issues of reception is to choose the right target audience.

I am blessed enough to have lots of people around me who are supportive and excited to read my work… except that none of them read the kind of books I most want to write (especially the exact subgenre I’m aiming for). That means that no matter how good my work is (and no matter how much they love me), they can never LOVE my work with the same passion that someone who enjoys the genre can. They won’t get the in-jokes or comparisons; they won’t find certain things fun or entertaining; and they’ll be holding up the work to completely different genres with different expectations and parameters. Especially for non-fantasy fans, dealing with worldbuilding and made-up crap can be like forcing someone to watch an opera in another language–if it’s just not their thing, they’re not going to enjoy it, no matter how well done.

There’s nothing wrong with different people liking different things, and there’s nothing wrong with not having anyone I know in mind who will like (let alone love) exactly what I’m doing–or aiming to do, once revision has its chance. But I find myself thinking about these real-life readers as I write, and possibly making adjustments for them. Downplaying certain elements, over-explaining, avoiding the more embarrassing factors that I view as fun, worrying about tone or character… I can usually stop myself, but that doesn’t mean the doubts aren’t there–and doubt is like a disease in drafting.

So I’m going to make an effort to create an imaginary target audience who loves my genre and could possibly love my work. Some writers suggest writing for yourself; others recommend crafting one specific imaginary reader; others may picture a particular demographic. Whatever works for you, try thinking of potential readers as the kindest and most embracing audience for your specific kind of work–and don’t worry about the rest.

Once the work is actually out there, you never know who might like it or what might happen. But it has to be written before it can ever be out there, and you have to fight through the doubts before you can start writing.

And the people who love you? They’ll still love you–even if they don’t love what you write. 🙂

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Permission to Fail

I always thought finishing a draft was everything. Not just because that’s the only way to even get close to publication–because I figured that all my doubts and insecurities about writing were just because I didn’t know what I was doing, and that once I had done it, I would know the way.

Well… not so much.

I started the draft of my first (and only successfully completed) project with zero expectation of success. After all, nothing I’d tried had ever worked before–no bribes, no willpower, no deadlines, nothing. And yet, somehow, this time it worked. It didn’t mean I didn’t have to push myself sometimes, but I made it.

Now I know I can do it… which, of course, means I’m expecting myself to succeed. And so far, this subconscious pressure (combined with real-world pressure, all of which I have placed upon myself) has frozen me entirely.

So I need to relearn how to have permission to fail–not just at publication (which is hardly in my control anyway), but even in drafting. Yes, I should push through. Yes, I should fight. Yes, I should have hope. But if all that doesn’t work, it’s okay. Really.

Much of my obsession with analyzing every option and developing the “perfect” story before I even start is because I feel like I need to succeed, and that failure will mean so much more now that I know it’s not a guarantee… counter-intuitive, perhaps, but so true (for me, at least). Whereas I was willing to take risks and make the leap in my last project because if it didn’t work, oh well–after all, I’d been doing nothing but that for years.

Now… I feel like I should be better. But maybe I only made it the first time because I wasn’t better. I need to go back to that place where I can try and fail, because otherwise I won’t even start.

So I’m giving myself permission to fail. And then get back up.

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Analysis Paralysis: Killing Your Novel Before It Dies… Or Even Lives

[So there were zero votes in last week’s poll… which I take as the entire internet choosing the secret fifth option: “Don’t care, nobody reads this crap anyway.” Which is probably for the best of humanity, so… For now, I’m going to make an effort to update every Friday, and we’ll go from there. 🙂 ]

I wrote a couple weeks ago about the “mental gallery,” and as a part of that post, I described my process of developing ideas as playing with a Rubik’s cube. When an idea presents itself, it never appears fully-formed; instead, I have to twist it and examine it, try (and fail) at different versions, and keep shifting and challenging it to try and find the right form.

The upside of a process like this is that I truly believe I get better, more thought-out, and more interesting ideas out of it. It usually means my first draft is a lot stronger and needs less major revision. And it’s something I have to do, because if I just opened a blank page and started writing, I wouldn’t get anywhere (that’s a personal quirk, not something all writers experience).

But the downside is that it’s very easy to get stuck analyzing an idea over and over again, weighing different versions with infinite pros and cons lists, never finding the perfect option because perfection does not exist. Unlike a Rubik’s cube, there is no one single solution you’re working towards; it would be like if the only goal of the Rubik’s cube was to create a colorful pattern of your own design, but you just kept twisting it because you were never satisfied where you left it.

Ultimately, this neverending process is a defense mechanism—as long as the idea is still trapped in my mental gallery, I can imagine that it will be perfect. I know that once I take it out and start actually writing it, very quickly it will show its flaws and imperfections, and it may never recover (in fact, it most likely won’t, since nothing is perfect).

There’s no easy cure for this—as my long stretch of inactivity proves. Even after managing to write one novel, I’m just as stuck on a second as I was in the long years before the first.

But I know that my current project is something I want to write, not something I think I should be writing. I love the world and the characters, and I want to share them. If I squint, I can see the book that this could be, and I want to read that book. These things tell me that this is a good project for me, something that’s true to who I am and what I want to create.

The plot, as always, is what’s holding me back and challenging me—but it always will. I’ve written before about how we talk about writing a “shitty first draft” and think it means crappy sentences and cheesy dialogue (and it does), but it also means writing silly and bad plots. That’s harder, because it’s harder to see how a plot can get better—while it’s easy to see how language might get better. But if you wait for your plot to be perfect before you start, you never will.

So, again, I ask what’s better? Perfection trapped forever in your mental gallery, or imperfection you can share with the world?

Once you decide, there’s nothing left to do but try.

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Update Poll!

Hi All,

As you might have noticed, my update schedule has been a bit random lately. I do think that the quality of the posts is, on the whole, better for the fact that I’m only posting when I actually have something worth posting.

That said, if I do have any regular readers out there, I’m not sure if this inconsistent updating is turning you off, or you don’t care, or most likely of all, you don’t exist. 🙂 For me, knowing when to expect an update can help me return to a site, so I want to know if that’s the same for anyone else.

Whether you’re a repeat customer or just floating by with an opinion, please let me know what sounds best for you (ideally, what would make you most likely to follow or keep up with a blog):

Thanks for your help!

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The Draw of the Alpha Hero: Cognitive Dissonance and the Modern Woman

I consider myself to be an independent, intelligent, feminist woman, and am proud to call myself these things. While not romantically inclined in my personal life, I find myself attracted to romantic fantasies in my reading habits—sometimes I struggle with a bit of cognitive dissonance over that, but I maintain the right to engage in a healthy imagination however I please.

But lately I’ve uncovered a pattern in my reading habits that suggest something troubling, particularly when I consider using my reading preferences to come up with writing preferences… A lot of the books I enjoy the most feature “alpha heroes.”

For the uninitiated, an “alpha hero” is a dominant male, usually physically strong, socially powerful, occasionally wealthy or famous—always protective. “Good” ones cherish and take care of their heroines, while “bad” ones control and manipulate them. The exact line between them is a whole other post

So why is this troubling? Romanticizing an alpha hero and his actions can sometimes err dangerously close to glorifying abuse, which permeates the mainstream culture to a point where actual real life abusive relationships are identified as “romantic.” This is definitely a hot topic for debate with the Fifty Shades of Grey movie about to debut, though it’s been discussed ever since Twilight broke out into the mainstream several years ago (you could argue Edward isn’t fully alpha, but I digress…).

I’ve written before about how writing off these mainstream publishing phenomena as problematic trash that should be destroyed is ignoring a more important and complex conversation—about how millions of women find these stories romantic, and it’s not as easy as just shaming them and moving on. I also think it’s important to add that not all alpha heroes are inherently abusive or problematic… but I agree that the very idea of a dominant male (and thus potentially submissive female… more on that in a bit) taps into a problematic pattern in society.

But I’ve seen several comments about Fifty Shades and its related phenomena that boil down to: “Women can’t have it both ways. Either they want to be equal and powerful, or they want to be submissive. Why can’t they make up their minds?”

And, um, no. Here’s why:

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The Feminist Baseline

I think there’s a fundamental conversation that we tend to skip over when we talk to someone—anyone—about feminism, and I think the lack of that conversation causes untold problems in the way we talk about these vital issues.

The very first question we should ask when talking to someone about feminism is: Do you believe that men and women are equal in society now?

It’s true that women in America are at the peak of social, economic, intellectual, and personal freedom that history has ever shown us (I am quite far from a history expert, especially worldwide, so feel free to correct me, but this is at least common knowledge). And it’s true that even in a society of complete equality, tragedies and violence and insults and differing levels of success will never go away.

But I think a lot of people believe that we are in that society of complete equality right now—or pretty darn close to it.

The point of this post isn’t really to talk about whether or not we’re equal (I think my own opinion on the matter should be fairly clear from the fact that this post exists at all). My point is that when you open a dialogue with someone who believes things are, more or less, fine—you will never get anywhere with them. At least not until you can get them to acknowledge that a fundamental inequality exists in society.

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Random Thoughts on Writing Romance

Exactly what it says on the tin. 🙂

Romance plots come in three types:

  • Major plotline (sometimes only plotline)—the conflict generated by this romance, as well as the scene time dedicated to resolving the conflict, makes up a major portion of the book
  • Subplot—the conflict and resolution of this romance consists of a handful of scenes (or scene parts), but is a minority portion of the story
    • Sometimes could be removed without the major plotline changing
    • Although if it plays into or adds to a minor element that affects the main plotline, this may not be the case
  • Background—the romance has no conflict (or none lasting longer than a scene) and is simply a part of a character’s daily life/background
    • If there is running conflict (such as a wife waiting at home), it is either played as an obstacle of a different plotline (and thus conflict in that plotline) or so minor it is never resolved (it may play as a joke)

Romance scenes come in two types:

  • Romance scenes—these are scenes dedicated entirely to the romance/couple; usually both are involved, but if only one, they are actively thinking about or acting for/against the primary romance; the majority of the scene and its entire purpose is the advancement or conflict of a romance
  • Romantic scene part—the main purpose of the scene is something else (fighting a bad guy, arguing a court case, a lavish party, etc.), but a few lines of dialogue, a single action, even a glance indicates some level of romance—it could contain romantic conflict, it could advance the romance, or it could simply indicate the romance exists; the key difference is that if you took the romantic element out of the scene, the scene would still have a purpose and exist

Both romance scenes and romantic scene parts can play into a romance plotline (either advancing or conflicting with the romance).

Romance scenes come in several flavors:

  • A purely happy romance scene is rare:
    • As a short establishing element prior to the introduction of the conflict (they meet and date and are happy—until her ex comes to town, etc.)
    • As a relief scene between plot scenes (most common in a romantic subplot or background)
    • As a release at the resolution of a conflict but before the introduction of another (they think they’ve solved all their problems, but…)
    • Or as a release at the very end of the story, when the conflict truly is resolved
  • A scene which advances the romance may seem happy, but still have conflict:
    • Perhaps only one partner is aware of the conflict (is hiding it, etc.)
    • Perhaps the conflict is external (on the run, unhappy families, etc.) but the lovers have found a short solace for this scene—or are deliberately ignoring/avoiding the conflict for the moment
    • Perhaps one or both partners is unwilling to commit to a full romance but is spending time together happily (perhaps surprisingly?)—thus the conflict of not committing remains in place (common in romance novels, or early on in stories before commitment is expected/desired)
      • This is actually really common—for example, early in Twilight, Edward is still resistant but spends time with Bella (thus advancing the romance)
    • Perhaps only the reader is aware of the conflict, thus tense that this happiness is only temporary (bad guy approaching, ex still alive, etc.)
  • A scene with direct romantic conflict is one which threatens the romance itself:
    • External conflict may not threaten the romance so much as the individual partners themselves (though this is more common with romance subplots, as the resolution of this external conflict is not romantic in itself)
    • External conflict which would end if the romance ended is part of a direct romance plotline, in which continuing to pursue the romance in spite of this external conflict is the plot (the resolution is often external, but is still a part of the romance since they’re doing it purely because of that)
    • Internal conflict is when one or both partners directly attempts to end the romance because of personal conflict between them (it can be more subtle, such as small fights that suggest larger issues to come; or as is often the case in romance novels, when only one partner has a strong reason to end the romance but isn’t fully sure, thus the other partner persists)
    • Seemingly external conflicts can play on internal conflicts to thus become more dramatic—someone with a trust issue will react more strongly (hence more conflict) to a suggestion of cheating
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How Being a Pack Rat Can Kill Your Writing

There’s a myth out there—perpetuated by images of lightbulbs popping overhead and final pages being set upon tidy piles beside typewriters—that books arrive fully formed, like babies delivered already cute and bundled by the stork. Oh, sure, it may not come all at once; but if you do have to find it, it will be like uncovering something from the ground, or finding your way through a labyrinth to the center—everything already there, the map already written for you to follow, just waiting to be discovered.

But excepting those rare gods of story who walk among us, this is a myth. Stories are not found, they are made. Every single part of a story is a choice—every name, every place, every plot twist. I will admit there can be a bit of mysticism as to where the options come from sometimes, when they appear suddenly in your mind, but you still choose to use them or not.

For me, story is a process of trial and error. It’s like a Rubik’s cube that I pick up, turn around, twist here and shift there, trying again and again to inch towards the right picture. Every new twist opens up a new version of the cube, a new side of the puzzle, which may either lead to the solution or may only open up ideas for more twists. Along the way, I am shaping a story.

But I realized the other day that this slow, painstaking process can produce an unintended result—I tend to get a bit sentimental about my ideas along the way. Sometimes an idea isn’t working but pieces of it are so great that I don’t want to let it go. And, more heartbreaking, sometimes an idea looks wonderful and perfect… but I don’t want to write it, simply because it’s not me.

Unwritten ideas can look beautiful, like pieces of art to place upon the mental shelf. But I find myself filling my mental galleries with more and more cold and lifeless art, and bringing nothing out to show to the world. Instead, even if it kills me, I have to throw the art onto the ground and let it shatter—and use whatever shards I can to build something new, something that has a chance of becoming real.

For someone with a pack rat mentality (like me), it’s far too easy to argue that the idea needs to stay there, pristine and preserved, waiting for its time. That even if I do manage to recycle parts of it into something real, I will always mourn the perfect “perhaps.” And there’s really no way to know for sure that a certain idea in this particular form will never work…

Yet I find days and weeks and months slipping away from me, and no work to show for it. I’ve examined the idea from every side, I’ve imagined its success, I’ve admired every piece of its beauty—but for whatever reason, I’m not taking it out of the mental gallery. So I have to break it, mine the pieces for the few fragments of gold, and start again.

The simplest way to argue against the pack rat is to remind yourself that even if only a tiny sliver of your original (beautiful) idea remains, it was still worth it. That creative energy helped lead you to where you are now, so it was not a waste, even if everything has changed.

And remember that, ultimately, it’s about what you write, not what you think. If you just love to think about things and keep them to yourself, that’s fine—but if you don’t want to take your thoughts with you into the void, if you want even the slightest chance of your flawed but beautiful mind being seen by the world—you have to bring those thoughts out of the mental gallery and into reality, one painstaking choice at a time.

And sometimes, the first choice in creation is destruction.

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Blog Update

Anyone who actually tries to follow this blog regularly (bless you) may wonder where I’ve been and if I’ve abandoned this blog. The answer to the latter is definitively no, I have not and will not abandon this blog. The answer to the former is also quite simple: I’ve been in the same place, doing nothing–and therefore, blogging nothing.

Is a bad and repetitive blog post better than no post at all? I don’t know enough about site traffic or regular readership to answer that question, nor is high readership my primary goal (it would be a cool perk, but I’m not holding my breath). My main goal here is to discuss, explore, and ultimately someday promote my writing, and express myself along the way.

But lately… there hasn’t been much new to express. On the “official” front, I’ve sent out my query letters and am waiting to hear back (or rather, waiting not to hear). And I’ve come to peace with that, with the idea that publication may not happen right now or in the way that I’d always imagined for this project, and that’s okay. I still have to just wait, though.

In the meantime, I’ve been attempting to start a second project, though as I’ve mentioned ominously before on this blog, with little success. It’s the same old crap as always–multiple version of ideas competing, uncertainty about plot or character, doubt and false starts and abandoned outlines. And to blog about that process of trial and error again–and again, and again–I think that would probably be worse than not blogging at all.

Yet I do not want to let this blog sit idle and blank for too long, and so I will work to try and post something as regularly as possible–I can’t promise I’ll get back to three times a week right now, but at the very least once a week. In the meantime, feel free to explore my archives–some of my earlier posts (when I was still a fresh wee blogger) remain some of my best.

My current slump could change any day now, and I’ll have tons of fun new drafting posts to write! (Ah, delusion, my old friend.) So for anyone willing to stick around–I appreciate you. And for anyone new poking around, you don’t want to miss this train wreck! 🙂

Thanks for reading!

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