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Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.

How to Cut 40,000 Words

I find myself staring at Teasdale’s Zeffirelli poster where an animal Romeo clutches a buxom Juliet; she’s looking serene as Mary, mother of God, while he looks like he might squeeze her to death or kill the next thing that moves. Tell me why I can relate to him more than her.
– Wendy, in my novel St. Michael, Pray for Us: How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought

(This image courtesy of the film Supersize Me.)

The above quotation is what one might call a “killed darling.” Specifically, it’s a nugget I added with Draft #4 or #5 to better describe setting and better characterize Wendy in all her rage and confusion.

In the course of writing a novel, some authors generate a lot of words. It’s how we purple prosers find the story. Sometimes, with as many as 100,000 too many.

Right now, I’m in the process of applying some very good advice: cut a 125, 000-word novel down to 85,000 words. This is because the YA market prefers slimmer models, not the supersize version I’ve created.

It’s on. Let’s do this. These last two weeks, I’ve cut 22,000. 75 pages left to cut to get to my goal.

When I began, I tried to sweeten a challenge quite daunting. Only 80 words per page–that’s not so bad, right?

I also respond well to this self-coaching: Cut the detour scenes, those descriptive moments with lots of characters but no one seeking any particular goal, or scenes that repeat prior moments with different dialogue. Revising with this pair of eyes has probably yielded the most fruit, or rather, pruned back the riotous growth.

Or I can put on my Soapbox Lens. That’s for commentary sounding more like Lyn on a soapbox than Wendy holding forth. We all identify with our characters and sometimes speak for them in strident, overbearing tones.

The two toughest revision methods are a) finding the essence of each scene and cutting all the rest or b) grappling with that global question, the story’s structure. Somehow I have to see all the novel’s pages at a glance and lift from them the narrative thread–the through line of Wendy’s heroic journey. I wish I could say I already have a perfect outline sitting on the shelf, waiting to aid me in this very process, but alas, the story did not create itself that way.

My friend and author Bob Mustin gave me this encouragement as I embarked last week on my own hero’s journey, facing the beasts of revision:

“Remember the upside down checkmark? Rising action that reaches the climax, then a short bit of falling action and the denouement?”

Of course I do; I’ve taught that for years, should know it by heart, right? But why all of a sudden in the context of my own challenge did these bits and bytes of plot data suddenly take on a whole new meaning?

I’ve berated, cajoled, encouraged my students year after year to revise, but the advice only hits home when an author is ready to revise. Why did Bob’s reminder about story structure strike a chord? Because this boot camp is about the agents and market waiting on the other side, and I suddenly hear them loud and clear.

In even those negligible 58 words I cut, I really liked how Wendy expresses her sassiness, irreverence, sexual frustration, and anger. But I cut it because it slows the narrative momentum and repeats what’s been said before. It doesn’t matter if I find the image striking or clever; it’s gotta go.

My last tactic to outwit my wordy self? An Out-Takes folder. There I throw every slain darling, every rejected scene. There will be a day when readers want to see what hit the cutting-room floor, because by God, I’m making Wendy so real, her story will go on, and on, and on–just not within the covers of my novel.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

— When you teach, which subjects or activities send you into Long-Winded Land? Why? Are your lectures effective, or, do they wax poetic yet purple?
— If you write fiction or nonfiction, pull out a piece you haven’t looked at in at least a month. Read with an editor’s eye, seeking fat. Identify a line or two that could go. Then write about what type of line you wished to cut. Give it a category or name–a purple-prosey tendency you have–and meditate on how you can keep an eye out for it next time.
— What’s the largest amount of words you’ve ever cut from your writing? How did you do it? Why did you do it?
— How do you encourage students to revise their work? How do you encourage “less is more”?
— The 20th century fiction admired the Hemingway and Carver-esque modes of minimalist prose, and 21st century fiction, while too new to be categorized, is being created in a Tweet-saturated world. Do you think writing is getting more expressive or less expressive in its 140 character bursts? (Though apparently technology has yet another workaround if a Tweet size doesn’t satisfy you and you feel the need to super-size: meet Twitzer.
— Find the preferred word limit for the fiction genre you write and list strategies you can use to keep your story in line.
— Are your favorite writers lengthy or concise in style, or both? Argue the merits of either style and why you admire a certain author’s approach to storytelling.
— Attempt a short story of 500 words (or Three-Minute Fiction), of 750, of 1,000, of 2500, and 4,000; in other words, write five versions of this story. Which is the best?

Writing Prompts for Students:

— Make an argument to your parent or guardian, your teacher, or some other adult in your life for something you want or need. Write a 25-word persuasive argument, a 50-word, a 100-word, and a 250-word argument. Which is most effective? Why?
— Do you write long or short? If you write long, why do you think you do? What do people tell you to cut? If you write short, why do you think you do? What do people tell you to add?
— Find a piece of writing you haven’t looked at in at least a month. Identify a line or two that could go. How did you know this line should go? Do you see any trends in your writing that make sentences worth cutting out?
— What’s the largest amount of words you’ve ever cut from your writing? How did you do it? Why did you do it?
— When you Tweet, text, IM, or update your Facebook status, are you a long writer or a short writer? Which types, the long or the short, get the most feedback from others?
— Whose writing do you most admire? Would you characterize this writer as lengthy with description and plot or more concise? Why does this type of writing appeal to you?
— Attempt a short story of 500 words (or Three-Minute Fiction), of 750, of 1,000, of 2500, and 4,000; in other words, write five versions of this story. Which is the best?

Just Read It

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I’m reading a heck of a lot more.

Instead of generating a new set of 50,000 words, I’m reading others’ thousands of well-crafted phrases, sentences, pages. Not only does reading help me edit those reams I’ve already generated, but I’ve decided it’s time to go old school and finish a novel sooner rather than later. I have to think tough and act tough like a coach and say, “GET IN THAT CHAIR AND START READING, HAWKS!”

Sometimes I fear Philip Roth is correct in his assessment that none of us are finishing novels anymore. He’s famous for his recent assessment of our reading habits: “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore.” He claims “multiple screens” command our attention. And the only way to truly grasp a novel is to read it over a short period–not a year, as I have sometimes done.

We know Roth is right about the state of things, but I think he forgets who’s in charge here. Sure, multiple screens blather, cajole, blink at me every day, but I’ve got access to power button, remote, and all accompanying cords. HAL does a hard sell but I still know how to turn the thing off. I also have the power to physically remove myself from the room with the flat screen and find my office or bedroom and that waiting book. I’ve also returned to reading as the last thing I do at night. Sure, I’m tired, but that never stopped me as a child, and there’s nothing more peaceful than absorbing a few pages of well-written prose.

It’s in this spirit that I finished James Baldwin’s Another Country. This amazing book is worth its own post, so more on that coming soon and how authors explore an idea via frames and subplots.

Now I’m rereading Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, I’m reading Dance of the Happy Shades, an Alice Munro short story collection, and Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. Yet I’m reading Ellen Foster a bit differently than the other works: I’m gobbling it in an hour here on a weekend, a half-hour there before bed, and should even finish it today, as I believe and agree with Roth is the way novels should be read.

Then I’ll return to it to make sense of it. Roth is right that novels need “the concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence”–and one way I will give Another Country and Ellen Foster and other works of art their deserved attention is to use technology. Here’s where those “multiple screens” come in handy: I will blog about these works, book next to the keyboard, and study them in old-school manners of lit analysis. These exercises will hone my craft, sharpen my eye, and educate myself and perhaps a wider audience that there’s beautiful method behind the seemingly effortless prose.

Now I must leave this screen and the books behind because I have other modern, hectic things to do, but just as I have a craving for the charms of those multiple screens, I also crave the quiet and beauty that those reading moments allow me. Before this day is over, I will slip into the world Kaye Gibbons has created. I will bring my whole, quiet self, and I will be a better human for that focus and time alone with another human’s mind.