Meh, title

All right, I’m gonna talk today like I wasn’t gone for four months.

I promise, the battery went dead, bro.

So we all agree that an important part of your writing is to edit. Incredibly boring and tedious, yes, but still important. But something that I didn’t realize for a long time is that editing something shitty doesn’t get you anywhere. Sure, you feel productive because you’re editing, but you’re not getting better. It’s frustrating, actually.

The key, Skywalker, is to get better (look at me using Star Wars names like I know what I’m talking about).

This is something I didn’t pay much attention to until I gave the rough draft of my thesis to Dear Sweet Gentle Jonathan, my own personal professional writer. I was desperate, for one, and I found myself having to send it to SOMEONE or risk it not being approved by anyone. And while his comments weren’t mean or made me question what I have spent two years of my life doing, he did make me think about one story in particular. It was a story I wrote during my first semester, in my first class, of this whole Master’s degree business. It was good for what it was at the time; a mediocre story written by someone who simply had no idea what the fuck was going on. I put it in the thesis because I thought it fit and it did, in theory. But it needed work. A lot of work. I didn’t see it because, I don’t know, I was lazy. Or I was forcing it to be something it wasn’t. Whatever the reason, when I did the overhaul of the story, it was so fucking much better that I could not even believe I was going to let the original version through. I was also extremely embarrassed that D$GJ read it, but he has seen me during worse moments, so, I got over it.

Anyway, my point is, sometimes in order to get better, you have to stop editing the crap, step back, and realize that you’re wasting your time. Maybe the reason why you’re editing so much is that you know, on some level, that whatever you’re editing just does not work.

It’s not a fun thing to discover, to be sure. I had a mini panic attack and a long swig of boozy coffee (in a TARDIS mug. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you don’t need a TARDIS mug in your life). It sucks because it’s actually a realization that you have the capacity to write something that wasn’t perfect the moment you thought of it. It’s admitting to yourself that you have, really, grown as a writer. Whether it be from taking classes or experiencing various things or even reading a bit more.

Trust me, though. If you’re stuck and don’t know why, maybe it’s an unwillingness to change. A failure to understand that who you were when you wrote a paragraph can’t possibly be who you are when you’re ready to be finished with that paragraph. What you have written in the past could be good, but that doesn’t mean it’ll reflect how good you actually are. The only one stopping you from being better is you. And a lack of boozy coffee.

A lot of problems could be solved if everyone sat back and had a boozy coffee.

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It has been decided

The city’s name is Dareford.

If you don’t like it, kiss the fattest part of my ass.

No, I’m just kidding (a little bit). Do you like it? I mean, if you don’t like it, you need to have a good reason why not and a better name lined up. Otherwise, pfft on you.

This is gonna be a thesis update, so those of you looking for advice can click away now.

Incepte'd!

Anyway, since my thesis first draft is written, I’ve just been handing the different parts in to my advisor. I gave her the second part (“Chapter”) last semester because that one was the only one completed at the time. She forced me (it was a good kind of forced) to finish my first part last month, saying that she couldn’t give the second chapter a proper evaluation if it was out of context. Which was true. The first chapter sets up everything. Duh.

It was a challenge for me because I am not, and never have been, good with setting or place. I’m an action writer. I’m the Michael Bay of writers. Fuck details, just tell me what the shit is going on. And throw in some hot girls and explosions. This is the main reason why I can’t write novels. I can’t meander. I can hardly read meandering, there’s no way I can write it.

Despite this erectile dysfunction, I finished it and I wasn’t altogether sure about the quality, but she told me that I’m apparently better than I think because she really liked the chapter. A few things need to be reworked, but altogether I’m on the right track. So she said. Sweet. We set a date for the next chapter, which is Monday, so that’s been all on my mind. Aside from the fact that I haven’t had power for about a week. Thinking about it was good, though, because I realized one part didn’t make sense and had to be fixed.

I just finished retooling the otherwise completed third chapter, the one I’m most proud of, but I’m a little unsure of this one as well. There are a few scenes that I can’t decide if they’re needed or not, so I’ll have to talk to her about them when we meet next.

The second and third chapters are the ones where I played around with the actual craft of writing and pushed myself to actually try to be good at it. The second chapter was written in first person. If you know anything about me, you know I don’t really like first person. (And you know I say fuck shoes.) In the third chapter I played around with present tense. It’s all probably more technical than it should be, but I feel like the point of the program should be more than write a publishable book. I should be learning.

So…that’s basically what’s going on with the thesis. Oh, the fourth chapter is a nice little wrap up that ends with death and maybe sex. Wait…no, no sex. Cockblock’d! I had the most fun with the last chapter, anyway, because it’s sort of disturbing. It’s from the POV of a pretty messed up character. The trick to this chapter was distancing: there are no feelings in the point of view. The character is very in the moment.

But! Here is where you come in! I need three profesh readers to approve this, yes, it’s true. However, I’m also going to want non-writers to read this, probably around the second draft, which won’t be until January or February. So if you have enough time to read what will basically  be a novel in length, let me know. I’m going to pick two of you unlucky SOBs, who will radically different from each other, to bother for a month or so as I perfect the story from a readership point of view. Think long and hard (lolzzz) before agreeing.

I’m gonna be all up in your grill.

Titles are overrated.

So I feel kind of bad because it’s been about two weeks since I said I’d close the poll and I never updated, those of you who were waiting with bated breath, about the results.

The results are, I still have no idea.

I think by now, I'm not fooling anyone about what I do and do not know.

 

Naming the city sounds like it wouldn’t be a big deal, but really the city is a central character. That sounds stupid but whatever, it’s true.

So the results are inconclusive. Daresbury technically won, however an equal number of people are for and against my naming it that. Ordinarily I’d say, fuck that shit and do what I want, yet in this case, I don’t know what I want. Well, no, I know what I want. I want the original town name. Whomp whomp.

I’m not going to lie, I’m not learning a whole hell of a lot in this class because it is a class for beginners. I’d like to think that with one semester left, I’m not really a beginner. But that makes blog posts difficult because I’ve gone over a lot of what’s been said in class already.

I will say this, though. Copy edit your fucking shit.

I understand that you believe that copy editing will be done by your publisher and whatever once you got a book deal, but you have to understand how much simple mistakes reflect poorly on you. It looks like you don’t care, both about your story and about wasting other people’s time. Get someone to do it for you before you hand it in. Read it 50 times yourself–I don’t fucking care how it gets done, just do it.

I feel like I’m a copy editor trapped in a writer’s body sometimes (except with my own stuff, I’m terrible at finding mistakes in my own writing. Hypocritical? Maybe.) and that’s how I read excerpts. So if you’re lacking an Oxford comma, if you use “was” instead of “were”, if you’re dangling clauses, then I’m going to point it out to you. Because it distracts me.

I brought this up in class yesterday and apparently we’re beginner enough that we have to put “said” after everyone’s dialogue, but advanced enough that we don’t have to pay attention to simple grammatical errors. Go figure.

Another thing that really grinds my gears is characterization. What I mean to say is, how realistic do we make our characters? And how do we convince people this is realistic?

I’ve been running across this problem with the story I’ve been using for this class. Originally it was just a story that I was using to get through this since I couldn’t use my thesis and I didn’t have enough brain cells to spare to create another story. But now I’m sort of using this story in defiance. The character is real, she’s very real, I’d go as far as to say she’s kind of me.

Usually, I’d be all “Noooo, don’t base characters off of yourself! That’s asking for trouble.” But in this instance, as I said, I didn’t have the time or energy to put a whole bunch of thought into creating a totally original character. So I made her, put her in a situation, and made her react as I thought I would.

And now I’m being told she’s not believable.

It’s confusing. Because on the one hand, not everyone reacts to situations in the same way. Even one person could react to a situation in many different ways. So telling me that my character isn’t grieving in the proper way is like, well, who the fuck are you? The grief police? Also, my professor is all about characters having sex or something, and she seems really confused that a boy and a girl would live together, even sleep in the same bed together, without having sex. I can’t count the number of times I’ve slept in the same bed as someone and have somehow resisted the urge to jump his/her bones. I’m sure it was difficult, but I managed it. Everyone I know is just so fucking sexy.

One of my classmates said, and rightly so, that my character’s lack of emotion is okay, there just needs to be a reason for it. So that’s another problem to deal with. How am I going to inject backstory like that into a story that really has not use for it. Maybe not no use, but no room. The story isn’t really about her and her lack of emotion, the story is about her dealing with grief enough to find out who the fuck killed her friend so she doesn’t go to jail. Taking time out to talk about her troubled childhood seems out of place. Also, I don’t have time to add these scenes.

So I’ve been told to give this character more emotion. It took a lot for me not to just be so fucking sarcastic and make her incredibly emo and crying all the time. We’ll see next week how the additional emotion plays out. Whatever. This is why you don’t base characters on yourself, everything that’s said about the character suddenly becomes personal and your immediate reaction, instead of listening and considering the critique, is to defend the character’s behaviors. Live and learn. 

I guess I did have something to say. Hot damn.

Begin at the end. Or some shit.

Today was all about where you start your story.

Buddy Christ's seal of approval.

My professor has a knack for asking a question or posing a problem and never really answering it. For example, she asked several people today where to start their stories. But she never stated why the individual’s proposed beginnings were problematic. My story started with the discovery of a dead body. She suggested I start later. I have no idea why. I thought a dead body was a good beginning to a story. Which is why I did it.

But anyway, deciding where your story begins is difficult. Mostly because you feel like everything you say is important to the plot. Sometimes that’s true. A lot of the time it isn’t, a lot of the time it’s what they like to call “throat clearing”. I don’t like that phrase (I don’t like a lot of phrases writers use. Like “show don’t tell”. The fuck does that mean? It’s a fucking story, you’re telling it. God that was said so much in class today I wanted to stab myself with my pen. But then I realized that it would ruin my pen.). But that’s what it is, it’s you getting shit out of the way that you want to put down on paper but you have no idea where it actually belongs.

So how do you know where the *shudder* throat clearing ends and your story begins? Well, you’ll probably sense it. But really it’ll be all in the rereading when you’re editing. Once you get to the end, once you know what is actually important to the conclusion, you can see how the beginning fits that. Since my story is a murder mystery, I figured the dead body was a good way to start. But if I get to the end and decide it’s a story about a girl and a dog, maybe I’ll begin differently.

It’s also an important decision to make depending on what you’re writing. If it’s a short story, you need to get shit going pretty fucking quickly. You don’t have time for meandering. I recently read a Jhumpa Lahiri story that basically follows a whole life in 15 pages. She didn’t have time for-UGH-throat clearing. Novels give you a little more leeway. But only a little bit. Because your reader invests more in reading a novel, you have to hook them and hook them fast. If you meander too much, they’re going to get bored. I feel sorry for novel writers. They have a lot of shit to get together.

This is also why I feel like editing when you finish is a good idea. Because if you don’t actually have the ending written, you don’t know how it’s going to work out, how the fuck are you going to know where to start? You won’t, that’s how. You’ll just keep editing and editing your beginning and never finish. Well, that’s what I’d do, at least. I don’t know you. 

 

Okay, so, yeah. Write better beginnings.

Descriptive excellence, part 1

So, while I was reading someone else’s story today, I got to thinking about my own work. Mostly because, for some reason, I kept mistakingly thinking that this story was written in the first person and it was not. Was that a problem with the story or how I was reading it? It was probably both. First person is on my mind like a heroin addict’s next fix. But, that’s not the point.

What I got to thinking about was, how the FUCK do you describe a character narrating the story if you’re using the first person?

When you look this good, the only one worthy of kissing you is you.

Part One: Characters

So, I didn’t know how to answer this question, but I decided to turn to what I know best: literature. Well really, I turned to my go-to first person narrative: The Hunger Games. My dear friend Florence has heard me talking about this series ad nauseum, because it has been on my mind. It’s the whole female first person narrative thing going on. Only reason. Okay, yeah, I mean, I loved it to bits, too. Whatever. Go read it and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s like an ultraviolent, YA version of 1984. Epic.

But yeah, so I looked to the Hunger Games for how to go about this. I’m gonna uses generalities because I’m currently too lazy to go digging around the books for exact quotes. Anyway, Katniss, the narrator, describes herself in a few different ways. One way is by describing someone who looks similar to her, in her case, her BFFL Gale. She says something along the lines of Gale having dark hair and light eyes like most of the people who grew up in her area, and then says something about how people think they’re related. This is then reinforced later on when they are forced to tell everyone that they’re cousins. Another way she describes herself is by describing her sister, pointing out the similarities and the differences between the two of them.

Now, there are trite ways of going about this, too. Your character could look into a mirror and say something like “oh hey, my usually brown hair looks limp and almost blonde in this light.” I’d use that as a last resort because really, why is your character looking in the mirror other than to kill time? Did you write yourself into a corner and your character is having some sort of weird revelation in the bathroom? Okay, I’m sure there are reasons why people could have their characters looking at mirrors that aren’t time wasters, but this is my blog and I’ll do what I want. WINNING.

My current favorite professor, Lou Ann Walker (fuck yeah, I’m name-dropping, when else am I going to get a chance to do it?) helped me with this question as well. She suggests some of the same things that Collins uses for Katniss; descriptions via describing someone else, etc. But she also said that you could do it via dialogue. Meaning, someone could go up to your character and be like “hey, is your hair really that brown?” or “have you worn glasses all your life?”

Lou Ann also suggests that your narrator goes for the gusto and just describes herself blatantly “I appreciated how my brown hair was plain enough that I could blend into a crowd.”

She did not use such lame examples, but you get the idea.

I suppose it really depends on your character and the tone you’ve set for the story. In my case, my character is naive and bordering on the annoying side, so I wouldn’t put it past her to blatantly say how she looks. I’m not going to go about it that way because that sort of feels cheesy to me, but my point is that your characters are supposed to be real people in your mind. So you have to tell the story the way a person of that type would tell it. If I were telling the story, I’d probably say something like “when I sneezed, a wad of snot flew into my hair, the pale green standing out against its otherwise clean blackness.” Right? I’d say that, wouldn’t I? Because I’m disgusting. And I have black hair. Mostly, I’d say that because I have a cold and I just sneezed (not into my hair…this time), but I digress.

The thing is, your reader is relying on your narrator to get a clear picture of the story. But if your narrator is central to the story, there has to be a way for the narrator to be included in that picture. Hopefully a seamless way. A self timer of sorts.

Descriptions are difficult. Writers throw around buzzwords like “show don’t tell” and shit like that (honestly, I’ll bet you half the time they don’t even know what they mean when they say it, it just sounds writerly) but seriously it’s your story. Your main goal is to get across to the reader who is telling the story, who the story is about, and where it all takes place. If you have to write a bunch of crap to get to that, then write the crap. It’s a lot easier to cut unnecessary shit out than to add good shit in.

When I’m not so sick and miserable, I’ll get to Part Two: Place.

Maybe I like it?

As I sit here in a gummi bear induced euphoria brought about by the completion of a story (a fairly difficult story for me to write. It was my first serious foray into the first person, but enough about me), I contemplate an important stage of the writing process: editing.

Who forgot the rum?

 

Though tedious and frustrating (and painful, if you take to drinking while you edit), no writer can stress how important it is to fucking edit your shit. And you’ve probably read something like this a dozen, two dozen, times before. That alone should tell you how important it is. If an amateur like me knows what the hell is going on, you need to get on it.

I know, it’s perfect the way you wrote it. All those adjectives completely encompass that two paragraph party scene. Or whatever. Everything that comes from your brain might as well have come from God’s ass. But dude, it has to be done.

Even now, while I’m patting myself on the back for a job well done, I’m already thinking about what needs to be cut. I have whole pages in mind, pages that I’m sure I really liked at the time. And maybe still like. Because, as I was told by the Great Roger Rosenblatt, sometimes you just have to get it down. Sometimes you just need to get the crappy shit out so you can cut away and get to the good bits. Sometimes you have to sit through the porno dialogue before the pizza guy takes his pants off to give the housewife his special delivery.

Okay, so you know you have to edit, you’re down with that. Good. But where do you start?

Easy answer: the beginning.

Think about it, what the fuck part of your story (novel, novella, whatever) is going to get people to want to read your stuff? All right, sometimes it’s that stupid blurb on the back that either gives away the whole plot or totally misleads the reader. And okay, yeah, your cover is going to play a part in it, too. But after all that marketing stuff is out of the way, when it’s finally you and your reader alone together for a little writerly hanky panky, it’s your beginning that’s going to draw them in. For the particularly ADD of the bunch, sometimes it’s going to be as little as your first sentence. So really, this is going to be the place where you should have your best stuff, the shit that’s really going to get them to turn the page or shell out the $15.99 to read more.

Each writer has his own unique way to go about editing, but I have found that it is much easier not to get hung up on one stupid passage in the middle if you wait until you’re done to go back and edit. And I say this because when you’re halfway through you might have an idea where you’re going with the story, but that doesn’t mean you know exactly how it’s going to end. And your end is going to influence your beginning. I know Colson Whitehead is rumored to edit as he goes along and that obviously works for him. But I’m at my slowest writing progress if I stop and go back to contemplate what I’ve already written. Sometimes I just have to tell myself to move on and worry about the plot holes later.

But going back to the beginning. Think about the novels (stories, whatever) that you really love. Then look at how they begin. Then think about how they begin. I tried this exercise on the 100 Best Novel First Lines list, starting with the first one on the list: Moby Dick‘s “Call me Ishmael”. I recently  learned that your beginning, your first line, has to tell the reader several things before he moves on. With “Call me Ishmael” the reader knows a few things, but more so the reader is left with questions. It’s those questions that’re going to keep him going. Why does the narrator want you to call him Ishmael? Is that his real name? If it’s not, why did he choose Ishmael? Will we find out? Am I about to embark on an epic journey about a mysterious white whale and the crazy old sailor man who wants to kill him?

Look at that. Just look at that. Now, if you were a reader and you had that many questions on the first line, wouldn’t you keep reading?

I can’t tell you what to cut, obviously, but I can tell you that if you’re really into your writing, you’ll know what has to go. You’ll just know it when you see it. You’ll read it over in your head and be like, “what the fuck? That came out of me? Did I channel Stephanie Meyer that day?” Or you’ll read it over and say, “shit that’s good, but I don’t think it fits there.” What I do with the good stuff, the stuff that actually impresses me (and I’m hard to impress) is I put it in a separate word document labeled “scraps.” I’ve gone back to those pages occasionally. I’ve never actually reused a scrap, but, I mean, I haven’t been writing all that long so I figure I have time.

I’m not saying every book has to be Moby Dick. And I’m not saying Melville thought of all that shit when he wrote that line. I’m saying that nowadays, with everyone so fucking rushy and on the move and impatient, you don’t have time to meander into your story. Gone are the days where families sat by the fire reading books aloud for entertainment. Gone are the days where the author got paid by the word. You need to have your shit together on the very first page, ideally the very first sentence. But you can work with the first paragraph.