Seven Things to Remember about Finishing a Novel

1_29The waxing moon was setting into an oncoming blizzard just at sunrise this morning. Amazing, swirls of cloud and color. I wish you all could have seen it.

Last week, B.E. Sanderson, frequent commenter here, had a post on her blog about finishing manuscripts. She’s been doing a lot of interesting posts lately aimed at aspiring writers. This one caught my attention because, hello! Star Trek and science references. I ended up commenting, too, which I don’t seem to do all that much of anymore. 

I’ve become the blog-lurker your marketing-advisor warned you about.

At any rate, the discussion was about what to do when you hit that point in your novel where you just don’t want to write it anymore. Every writer has a place where this tends to happen – and for a lot of writers, it’s somewhere around the 30K mark. Worse, it’s very likely that you’ll be tempted at this point to pursue the New Shiny. You’ll get this Fabulous Idea for an even better novel. The temptation to ditch that 30K brick and write the New Shiny will be extreme.

And, if you do this, the New Shiny will be all kinds of rewarding. Until, oh, around the 30K mark. Then guess what?

Exactly. This is why so many hopeful authors have half-finished novels lurking on their hard drives.

I make this distinction, between a hopeful author and a publishing author, because – and I know this is simple logic, but here it is, just to be clear – in order to be a published author YOU MUST FINISH THE BOOK.

Yes, yes, yes – there’s a whole lot more to getting published than that. But we all know this is the first step. Nothing else happens without it.

So, here’s a little list of things to remember about finishing the book.

  1. The New Shiny is an illusion. That idea is the greener grass on the other side of the fence. It’s the nubile young girlfriend. In the end, it won’t make you any happier than the manuscript you’ve been married to. Write it down and save it for later.
  2. Apropos of that? Ideas will keep. It may not feel like it, in the rush of inspiration, but once it comes to you, it’s yours. Write down whatever you need to so that you can reconnect with it again in the future. You know what they say about True Love – if he really loves you, he’ll wait.
  3. There’s a reason why it’s always the same place for you. It comes out of you and how you deal with the world. This is like the guy who always dates women who need rescuing or the gal who ends up in dead-end jobs where she’s treated like a doormat. Growing as a person means solving this problem. So if you have trouble getting started, look at what else in your life you have trouble starting. Other people can never finish stuff. Then practice overcoming this barrier – your own personal three-minute mile. Train, persevere – know that you can do it.
  4. There’s also a reason why it’s so often the 25-30K mark for so many writers. If you figure a typical novel is 80-120K, then 20-30K is the first 25%. In story structure, even if you think you’re not using it, the first 25% is Act I. In the classic Boy-Meets-Girl/Boy-Loses-Girl/Boy-Gets-Girl-Back scenario, you’ve finished the meeting. In the hero’s journey (get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down again), you will have gotten your characters into a major predicament. It’s a natural ending spot. Intermission. Now what?
  5. There’s the rub. The “now what?” part is one of the hardest parts. Thus the oft-referenced “sagging middle” of many stories. See, in classic story structure, Act II takes up a full half. It stretches from about the first 25% up to around 75%. It is the bulk of your story. That’s a lot of rock-throwing. We’ve all read those books that start out great and then, somewhere in the middle, we get bored. We might put it down and never finish. We kind of wonder where the whole thing is going. But then (hopefully!) it starts to pick up again and it gallops on to a rollicking finish. This is why.
  6. So, what do you do? Reference #3. Practice. Keep going. Yes, it’s a slog. Complain to your writer friends and they will nod in sympathy and offer you cookies. Then get back to work. For me, if I understand why I want to stop, that makes it easier to keep going.
  7. Now here’s a cookie for you: once you get through the long slog, you will start to have fun again. All that promise and joy the New Shiny offered? This is EVEN BETTER. The ride to the end will feel like that last downhill swoop on the log ride with a huge splash of water at the end. So much so that, as you hit that final save, you’ll want to get right back on and do it again.

Now, get back to it!

Song Mash-ups and Fun Ways of Looking at Story Structure

Isabel 1_22_13Tomorrow is Isabel’s 7th birthday, so this is her birthday portrait.

I’ve been working diligently on the Phantom story, laying down the words, working up the story. (I feel really hip saying it like that, like “laying down the tracks.” I’ve been kind of obsessed with Pitch Perfect and how songs mash-up. That, however, is probably a different, but related post.)

It’s been interesting because, as you may or may not recall, this will be an eSerial. The story will be broken into six parts, released 2-4 weeks apart. I’m surprised at how much this feels like a new form to me. Normally I set up my story according the classic three-act structure. If you aren’t familiar, that means the Act I climax occurs around 25%, the midpoint or story hinge around 50%, the Act II climax at 75%, Act III climax at ~90% followed by denouement and assorted wrap-up. The simplest explanation I’ve heard for the three acts is: get your protagonist up a tree, throw rocks at him/her, get him or her down again. With the Phantom story, I figured out my overall arc and then set up mini-arcs for each episode as well. It makes for an interesting rhythm.

Lest you think I actually plot things out ahead of time, however, let me disabuse you of that notion immediately. I don’t. I can’t, really. I’m a write-for-discovery kind of gal and I seem to be unable to figure out the story any other way.  I’m at peace with that. The writers who extensively plot and outline ahead of time usually call this “pantsing” as in “flying by the seat of your pants.” I don’t much like this term. I think it says more about their fear of being out of control than anything salient about my method.

I was realizing, as I worked up this new structure, that this is like stretching canvas for me. I have painter friends and I love to watch them prepare canvas. One taught me how, so I could easily transport one of his paintings home and re-stretch it. They assemble the wooden frame to a particular size, choose the type of canvas they want, pull it tight over the frame and staple or nail it on. Then they add various gessos or other foundations, depending on their plans. (At this point I get fuzzy on the details.)

This is how setting up the story is for me: choosing the size, the foundation, with a sense of how it will eventually look. Then I paint the picture.

The other really cool thing I discovered is how my structures interweave. Oh look, I’m back to the mash-up thing. Guess it IS related. See, if you don’t know, a mash-up is when they take two or more different songs and weave them together. They might share a rhythm line and then the melodies work around each other, playing in counterpoint and blending, creating an entirely new song. Forgive me if I’m getting terms wrong, because I’m just not very good at understanding music. I *want* to understand, so I listen intently to this kind of thing, wanting to organically GET how this works.

An old boyfriend once cited the fact that I listen to the same songs over and over again as one factor in him dumping me. I can see that. But I also see how my tendency to get fixated on something like this also contributes to my understanding of other things. I didn’t get why I’ve been listening to the Pitch Perfect mash-ups on iPod over and over until just now.

My story is working the same way. Okay – if you hate math, leave now. But this is an example of what I found out. If I do 6 15K episodes, that’s 90K, give or take. That’s my overall frame. The Act I climax of the overall story takes place then around 22,500 words. That’s in the second episode. By the end of Act I, I should have my protagonist thoroughly up a tree – all the story clues and components should be in place. If I look at the internal structure of Episode 2, the midpoint, the story hinge, where things really change direction, occurs at 7,500 words into the 15K episode (halfway), which is at 22,500 words overall. Do you see? The overall Act I climax will be the SAME EVENT as the Episode 2 midpoint!

Isn’t that cool??

Just me?

If it were a musical mash-up, it would be that point where the two songs spiral up together and hit that came climactic note, for one harmonious moment.

We’ll see if it works like I hope it will. Off to paint in some images!

Another Reason Writing More Books is Better

1_10One of my Twitter friends mentioned how worked up she is about her new release. She asked if authors get used to it and how long the excitement lasts after release for more-established authors. A week? Two?

I replied to her and we had an interesting conversation about it. Then, yesterday, I saw on Goodreads that – overnight – over a hundred people had added Platinum to their “To Read” lists. This is a really fun thing to wake up and see. I Tweeted about it, wondering why the sudden surge. Several people suggested possibilities – very likely that it was cited on some high-traffic list – but I haven’t figured it out yet.

Then I went back to work on the Phantom book.

And this, I think, it what makes all the difference between authors of one books and authors of multiple books. The more books you have out there, the more books you’re writing, the less ability you have to obsess over one.

For example, with Goodreads, when I log on – and it’s one of my default pages for when I open Firefox – I have a sidebar that shows my stuff. At the top is my Author Dashboard, which shows my most recent publication. That’s Platinum right now, which is why I immediately notice the numbers. It shows me the cover, how many people have added it, how many rankings and how many reviews. To see more detail than that, or my other books, I have to click and go to the page. I rarely do this, because I think it’s putting my attention on the wrong things. (The main reason I have Goodreads on default is to remind me to update my status on whatever I’m currently reading – also in the sidebar.)

Now that Platinum pops up on that home page, I don’t see the Rogue’s Pawn ranking and review numbers anymore. It makes me move on, regardless of how well a book is performing.

The other thing I notice, now that I have seven fiction publications out there, is that different readers like different stories. We all go into this *knowing* that, but it’s difficult to keep in mind when a reader doesn’t like YOUR book. The perspective gets infinitely better when they don’t like this one, but do like that one.

So, all those times industry folks say the best thing you can do is write more stories? This is yet another reason why.


Why It’s Important to Separate Validation from Creation

Platinum_finalI’m sure you guys knew this already – I mean, what else do you have to keep track of?? – but Platinum is coming out February 25.
It’s up on Net Galley now, if you’re a reviewer type. So, because it is up for reviewers, I’m starting to get feedback on it – which is always fun. People seem to be enjoying the story in the ways I hoped they would. But it’s kind of difficult for me to get as totally revved as they are. It’s several stories ago for me now, so it’s kind of old news.

Which is a weird place to be.

It makes me think of this interview I saw with Barbara McClintock when she won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983. She was 81 when she received the prize and I remember the interviewer was someone much younger and full of enthusiasm. The interviewer asked if Barbara wasn’t just SO EXCITED about the award. For Jumping Genes! (Transposable elements in DNA) Everyone was just *so* interested in this amazing discovery!

And Barbara looked at her kind of funny and said something along the lines of, “Well, it’s always nice to be recognized, but I did that work forty years ago and I was excited about it then. What I’m working on right now is what’s most interesting to me.”

Which deflated the interviewer a bit.

Interestingly, she had stopped publishing her work on the transposable elements in DNA back in 1953, because she encountered so much skepticism about it. I could really see how being awarded an unshared Nobel prize (the only woman to ever receive an unshared Nobel prize in that category) thirty years later might be a little…anti-climactic.

Not that the incipient release of Platinum compares in any way to the magnitude of McClintock’s discovery. I just think it’s important to remember that the joy of creation – or discovery – remains forever a separate thing from other people’s validation of it. Usually it comes much later and often after they gave you all kinds of shit for doing it in the first place.

Then, later, when they tell you how great this thing you’ve done is, they never remember that they were skeptical, just that they love it now.

Which is okay.

After all – enthusiasm is always to be treasured.

Why Everybody Advises Newbie Writers to Be Persistent

waiting for mouseThis is our master bathroom – and Jackson waiting for a mouse.

All night and all day.

See, the bathroom cabinet there has a space in that overhang at the bottom. I can just fit about half of my hand in there, before the pinch stops me. I know this because I’ve tried. Just a few days after we moved in, I dropped the lid to a little sparkly beaded box from India that I store my belly-button jewelry in. The lid hit the floor, bounced exactly right (what are the odds?) and went up and into that space under the cabinet.

Gone forever, unless I want to tear out the cabinet.

See, the inside of the cabinet is all solid-state – even if you pull out the drawers, etc., there’s no access to the space beneath. That bottom panel is firmly affixed. Short of using a crowbar, I’m not budging it.

This also makes it a perfect escape hatch for mice being hunted by the cats.

The kitties diligently stalk and capture any mice so foolish as to steal into our garage to nibble on our valuable stuff, which is great. They then bring their prizes into the house, possibly as tributes for us, but more likely to extend the very fun game of mousehunt, which is less great. Jackson, in particular *loves* to let them go, so he can chase the mouse again. Sometimes they escape.
And this is where my point comes in.
Jackson is the most persistent cat I’ve ever known. It’s amazing to me that cats can have such different personalities – and all cats are patient hunters – but Jackson’s primary trait is persistence.
If he wants to be on my lap, he will jump on my lap, over and over again, no matter how many times I scoot him off, until he wears me down.
He fully believes he should be able to walk on the kitchen counters. He’ll sit there and cringe, hating that we squirt him with the spray bottle, but refusing to move. If we physically move him, he’s back there again as soon as we turn our backs.
I woke up in the middle of the night to visit the facilities, as one does, and found both kitties in there, watching the cabinet. In the morning, Isabel had gotten bored and was napping, but not Jackson. He remained fixated and alert. Not one to miss breakfast, he took a quick break and returned to the bathroom where he remained all day. He napped sometimes, but lightly, ears up to catch the slightest sound. He never gives up.
And he always catches his mouse.
This is what we mean, all of us writers, when we are asked what advice we have for newbies, when we say “be persistent.”
I know that this likely seems like empty advice. After all, pretty much everyone says it. It sounds like we’re saying “Yeah, you’ll get rejected fifty-thousand times and it will be like the pain of diving into a swimming pool full of razor blades, but suck it up and quit whining – you might get lucky some day.”
It sounds like that because there’s some truth to it. We all know that pain.
But, in truth, what we’re trying to tell you is: that goddam mouse has to come out at some point. If you’re not there to catch it, then no mouse for you. Doesn’t mean you won’t get other opportunities to catch mice – there’s always more opportunities. What it means is, if you have a mouse cornered, stay on it. It’s right there.
Yours for the taking, if you don’t wander off.
Never surrender!

How to Play Marco Polo Day

1_4 freezing fog 2Did you know that today is Marco Polo Day??

Oh, come on. Yes, you did. You celebrate every year, don’t you?

So, fellow author Voirey Linger came up with a little game for today. Here’s the repost from her site:

January 9, 1324, Marco Polo slipped the bonds of this world and drifted into history. He explored Asia, established trade routes with China, and launched a summer game loved by millions.

To celebrate his life and his game, we are launching Marco Polo day on Twitter. The rules are simple. Follow the players listed below from your Twitter account. When one of them yells MARCO you hit reply and @ them with POLO. First to respond will win an ebook. If you’re not following, you can’t win.

You can see a list of participating authors here.

As for me, three times today I will yell out MARCO! on Twitter. First to reply with POLO gets a digital copy of any of my books – including PLATINUM, which isn’t on sale until February 25.

Sounds fun, yes?

Let’s Play!