Posts Tagged ‘writing workshop’

Pushing past half-way…

Monday, February 23rd, 2015
emotional stages of writing a novel

Yup, I’m somewhere between “Old man lost at the mall” and “Destroy Boredom with a Hammer”…

So right around Valentine’s Day, I hit 50,000 words on The Ghost Story! **confetti cannon**

This is a big deal to me because:

  1. It means that in theory I am half-way through the novel, according to my word count goal. 
  2. 50,000 words is also the word count goal for National Novel Writing Month, something I’ve attempted several times and never completed. So even though this was more like National Four-and-a-Half-Months-Of-Writing-Half-a-Novel, I still won.
  3. It means I’m in it to win it. In other words, I can’t back out now.

And ooooh boy do I sometimes want to back out. Like, right now.

As I mentioned in my last post, plotting is not my strong suit. The thing about getting to the middle when I don’t know how the story ends is that I feel like I’m trying to push through one of these six foot snow banks in my front yard. Nothing but cold, cold resistance. I have a vague, half-formed plan. And I feel like every scene I write that moves the story forward, requires all manner of revisions to things I’ve already written. Sometimes I go back and make those revisions. But generally I try to just keep writing and tell myself “No! MUST PLOW ONWARD!” And grind my way through another chapter.

What I’m finding is that I can’t wait to be finished. Not just so I can say “I wrote a novel!” but also so I can go back and fix the damn thing. I need the whole picture and I’m just not there yet. There’s at least another 50,000 words to go. I want to finish so that I can go back and fix it so it’s less of a hot mess. Then I can give it to a few beta readers who can ask me pointed questions so I can fix it again.

Case in point: The first line of my novel (as it stands) is “The trucks arrived at dusk, as usual, bearing the Dead.” Just last week someone in my Novel in Progress class asked “What do the trucks run on?” and I thought Yes! That is a hugely important question. It seems so simple because readers bring to it so many assumptions that you wouldn’t think it needed explaining, but when you’re building an alternate world something like a truck can either feel natural or anachronistic. It’s really easy to drill down into the details too much but it’s right there in the first line. The trucks better be friggin’ important and I need to know everything about them if they’re going to be there right out of the gate. There are tons of basic things like this that need fixing, I know this already, even as I write something and think huh, that sounds good, I better figure out what it means. But I need to be done to ask those questions effectively. So that in answering them I can make sure all the puzzle-box pieces of story slide seamlessly together.

I’ve been asked how I can write a story not knowing how it ends and honestly, I don’t know. So far I’ve been muddling my way through with a scrappy, unconvincing list of plot points. Mostly, I just try to muster confidence in my storytelling abilities, that enough reading + thinking = writing. That something alchemical occurs between the ideas and thoughts combining and recombining in my imagination and the words I put to paper.

I did put together my W-plot, for anyone who’s reading along. It was mostly “I know all these things happen… (downward slope, beginning of first upward slope) and then here are a series of other things that will happen, maybe in this order.” Mostly I got a sense of the emotional trajectory of the novel, which is helpful. Now I just need to figure out what my characters do to get there.


Big Story Questions or What’s So Hard About Writing a Novel?

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

My W is a little lacking...

I’ve started my writing workshop through Grub Street and last week was my first opportunity to bring a piece of writing in to share with the group. Typically, one brings or email copies of one’s piece to other members of the class who then read and makes notes on it at home for discussion the following week. This class is a little different; we bring in copies for the class but instead of getting to take it home and ruminate on it, we read it aloud and discuss it right there in class. And we only get to bring in five pages. I can already tell this will be an adjustment.

The benefit to this on-the-spot kind of workshopping is you get immediate first impressions: this works for me, this confused me, etc. But it’s also a challenge because sometimes it can be hard to get at the root of why something works or doesn’t work in the ten minutes we have to discuss the work. Is it just something is phrased awkwardly? Or is there something fundamentally problematic with the character’s motivation or conflict? Perhaps that’s the point: it makes the writer do the work of sifting through the questions to figure out which speak to larger issues in the novel, which are scene specific, and which are irrelevant without the context of the rest of the piece.

(In classes like this I tend to talk to much as it is, so it’s a little bit of a challenge for me to have to whirl out a thoughtful critique on the spot without just babbling stream-of-consciousness style at the author and sucking up everyone’s time. So clearly a skill I need to develop.)

The positive feedback I received for my five-page scene: “Evocative, loved the descriptions, great tension, really felt pulled into the world.” Constructive critiques: “Was confused about the protagonist’s age; the characters give in too easily; dialogue on the final page falls apart; confusion about the mechanics of going to the Valley [the land of the dead].” But the biggest question was: “What ties the characters to this place and community when their life is so hard? Why don’t they leave?”