A lot of the work of a beginning writer is figuring out what works for you–reading lots of writing manuals, and taking classes, trying things. This is how writers end up with very specific writing places, times, and habits, and all of those can be very helpful. Some of my rules and habits:
I outline by listing chunks that will be chapters in the future and figure out what happens in each chapter, and how it serves plot, character, and theme
I rough draft in fast chunks while sitting cross-legged, on a couch or in bed, with my laptop on a pillow in my lap
I revise at a desk with my laptop and a separate monitor
I never write more than 2000 new words in a day, since more seems to dip into my store of words for the next day
I don’t go back and edit what I’ve already written until I get (near) to the end
If I lose flow when I’m rough drafting, I write long hand, asking myself questions and answering them
I write every day if possible
But I’m starting to feel like the ongoing work of a writer is figuring out new ways to write, how to break the rules when I need to, and find new things that work when old ones don’t. Many writers have said that when you write a novel you learn to write that novel. When you begin the next novel you have to learn how to write that one. With The Golden Wolf, the third and final book of my viking trilogy, I’ve done all kinds of things differently:
A lot more editing as I go. I was nearly finished writing a big set piece that took up about 30,000 words and then realized that it was boring and there was nothing I could do to make it unboring, and I moved most of the action that had to happen to different places
A lot more detailed plotting of big set-pieces as I go
Recently I tried writing 3000 new words a day for a few days–kept it up for a whole 4 days, but I really do feel like it may be too much
And for the third time, I am now stopping before the end to go back to the beginning and bring the reality of what I’ve written more in line with what I’m imagining
I’m taking a couple days right now to ask myself all the questions I have about what needs to happen in the book, from details about how a battle that involves at least five competing agendas will play out, and serve all of the characters’ arcs and the plot’s needs, to more general questions like going over various characters’ arcs, and to write out all of these answers longhand.
I often find that as I revise, I add more drama, I combine characters, weave arcs and plot points together, and I give characters more agency. Now I have, again, gotten to the place where I need to make that happen. With all this rule-breaking though, I frequently wonder if I’m doing the right thing. I guess I’m just trying to do whatever keeps me moving forward, whatever keeps me making the novel better, more what it needs to be.
I’ve also raised the degree of difficulty on each of the novels I’ve written so far, at least with some aspects of craft. The Sea Queen definitely has a more complex plot than The Half-Drowned King, at least in terms of moving parts that have to line up, and it also has an additional POV character. The Golden Wolf raises the difficulty level again, with two new POV characters who have full arcs (rather than supporting arcs), more supporting characters, more complex politics, more settings, more battles, three different climaxes–at least. I shouldn’t be surprised that it feels like more of a challenge.
In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki
I think this is so central to what I find very shallow about so much pop culture. There is a lot to love about Lord of the Rings, though also a lot of racism, but what is interesting about it to me is not the battle against Sauron, but how different flawed characters approach that battle. In fact, the story ends up rising above a boring good vs. evil story at the end with Gollum’s decisive move, and no one emerges unscathed or uncorrupted by their battle with evil. (Except Sam, but that’s okay. Sam is the best.)
What is good? What is evil? Most humans, even humans who do awful things, are usually trying to do what they think is right for themselves, and even for others, though how they define the others they are willing to help, and the others they are willing to harm, can be incredibly dangerous. In fact, as this essay argues, good vs. evil stories set up an easy way to make the other side into faceless evils that we can kill with impunity. Defining people as good vs. evil is not only boring storytelling, it paves the way for atrocities done in the name of good.
What is good? Is it someone who has never done a bad thing in their life? That sort of thinking leads to purity politics, where we can never support or accept anyone who has done the slightest thing wrong, and so we are exempted from supporting anyone.
Should good triumph and evil lose? Stories where that is consistently the case lead to a dangerous belief in a “just universe”, which further leads to societies punishing those with misfortunes, and rewarding those who have already been given much. The American hostility to universal healthcare comes from this “just universe” idea, because if people wanted healthcare, they should have made every choice right and had enough money to afford it. Understanding that the universe is unjust allows us to be more charitable to those who have suffered.
I can see the attraction of good vs. evil stories, but they are a way of hiding from the complexity of the world. While I grew up on fantasy novels, I often do find the villains in them very tiresome. They are evil and proud of it, and sometimes sexual abusers of children as well, and, not to make light of such a difficult subject, but they are dull, dull, dull. The reason that people get away with doing horrible things is usually because they are “good people” as we judge such things in other parts of their life. People deny crimes happening in front of them for decades because of entrenched power structures, yes, but also because we’ve been trained to believe that people who do awful things are different from us in some fundamental and easily-recognized way.
This, I think, is one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to writing historical fiction. I don’t pretend that the characters I’ve created are anything like the “real” people from history who they are based on, but I have tried to be true to the idea that they all have reasons for doing what they do besides being eeeeeevil (or good). What I have tried to do, and I think mostly succeeded at doing, is giving (almost) every character in my novels, even the antagonists, recognizable and understandable motivations. And with the ones that don’t it’s because they don’t have enough screen time for me to develop complex motivations.
The essay above details the historical shift that led to giving almost every story and folk tale a good versus evil component, which came about with the rise of nations and nationalism. There was a strong nationalistic motivation to create a national mythology that held up good, national values, and led to the othering of people of different nations, and sub-groups within those nations, like Jews and Traveling People.
Literature, pop-culture, storytelling always has a political and moral component. I don’t think this has to be overt, and, you will not be surprised to learn, I think it’s dangerous and wrong to cast certain people as evil and certain people as good in literature. It seems inescapable these days, especially in “big” stories. It’s worth remembering that we come back to folk and fairy tales not because good is rewarded and evil is punished, though sometimes it can look that way, but because they tell us a story that uses symbols that resonate with psychological truths. (See The Uses of Enchantmentfor more.)
If there’s one thing that I am trying to do in my books, and hope to do for my entire writing career, it’s to show that different people have different perspectives, desires, and values. That everyone in a situation can have a good reason to do what they do, and still fall into conflict and tragedy. That perhaps we never fully understand each other, but there is good reason to try. That even with those differences, as humans there are basic things we want all, like love and independence, self-determination and safety, survival and meaning. It is the work of a lifetime to find the balance between those things, and it is always complex. Stories that tell us it is simple do us a disservice.
There have been a lot of twitter threads going around about how schools fail gifted children, and how gifted children can grow up to be adults who don’t have a lot of the skills they need because they were not taught much in school, but always told how smart they were.
I went to the excellent public schools in Ithaca, New York, and had parents who praised me more for hard work than for being smart. My high school honors and AP track was very challenging, and I excelled, but not without a lot of hard work. When I got to college, even Cornell’s Engineering School, I did not have to work as hard as I did in high school–at least not until I also started working 30 hours a week on top of a full course load. (High school and college were not super fun for me, but I did learn to work hard.)
In school I learned to think of myself as smart, yes, but I knew I wouldn’t succeed without work.
But where school and being tracked as “gifted” failed me, especially when I became an adult, was in teaching me how to fail. I hated failing, refused to fail, felt as though my reality was falling apart if I did fail in any way. And not only that, but I became convinced–and I still struggle with this to some degree–that whatever success I achieved was the bare minimum of acceptability. Tomorrow I needed to be better, and if I wasn’t better every single day, I was failing, and therefore worthless.
This is the very worst mindset for writing. Writing is never perfect. I spent my 20s doing lots of writing that was never meant to see more than a small audience, and learning how to turn off my internal editor when rough drafting. I learned to write rough drafts fast without looking back until later. It was very hard. I still have to read my early drafts with my hands over my eyes, sighing heavily the whole time, because it feels very Not Good.
I reached a real low point with my perfectionism in my late 20s. I had a lot going right for me, but I was depressed and anxious and full of self-hatred all the time. Therapy definitely helped, but so did learning to write. I also started doing Ashtanga Yoga, which gave me something to try and fail at over and over again. Later, I started Crossfit, and I cried about my failures at least once a week and dwelled on them after every single work out. But eventually I learned to be okay with failing, to pick and aim for little, achievable successes, to enjoy doing something I’m not very good at and will never be great at.
It was also the time I became a baseball fan, which is the perfect sport for understanding failure. So much of baseball never seems to come to anything: at bats that become strike outs, players who get on base and never complete a run. But at the end there is beauty and narrative and success. A very good batter only gets a hit 30% of the time. That’s an abject failure by any academic measure, but not in real life.
Without those early drafts that feel like failures, the finished work can never emerge. And without trying and failing at the various athletic things I’ve done, I wouldn’t get better and find the joy in them.
Most importantly, I got used to trying with the possibility that I might fail, but knowing that failure is not the end, and unless you walk away and don’t learn anything from it, it’s not even really a failure. Today I write many things I end up cutting from my novels, but in writing them, I discover where the scene does not go, the words that should not be there, and that points me to the words that should.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the year when I published my first novel, and it was the year when I lost and found faith in my fellow citizens over and over again. 2016 and 2017 were bad for a lot of people. In 2016 we had the worst presidential election season of my lifetime, and the worst election. In 2017 we saw the consequences of that election play out. Not since I went through a pretty serious depressed period have I been as hopeless as I was in late 2016.
But 2016 was the year I sold my first novel and 2017 was the year it came out.
I have a superstition I can’t shake about naming and enjoying my good fortune. I often have to remind myself that after years of dreaming about publishing a novel, now I have, with a major publisher, and in 6 other countries. Not only that, I’ve been able to quit my day job, and the novel I published is the one I dreamed about writing and publishing for my entire adult life.
One of the wonderful and frustrating things about life is that when you climb that big mountain, the final step to the summit isn’t that different from all the steps that have come before, and by the time you near the summit, you can see other mountains you’d like to climb. It is wonderful because it means that life is not over when you achieve something, and it’s frustrating because there is no sublime moment of completion, a moment where you win your badge and get to be forever happy.
I think the most purely joyful part of the whole experience was the offer for the trilogy, back in January 2016, though moments like seeing the cover for the first time have also been quite wonderful.
The election produced some deep soul searching for me. I’ve been politically informed and opinionated for most of my adult life, but never very active. I felt very hopeless after the election, but I decided that even if my worst fears came true, I would have rather spent this time trying to make things better than simply watching things go wrong. I feel good about that decision, and plan to continue in 2018.
I also decided that I would try to make my political reading and speech purposeful. Whenever I post something political online, I try to make it a call-to-action or something optimistic and hopeful. That is what I would like to contribute to the conversation–let others point out how bad things are.
Some important things I did in 2017:
I went to more protests and marches every month than I had gone to my entire life leading up to 2017: the Women’s March, the Tax March, many, many marches and protests for The Right to Know Act in NYC, a law that would help improve community/police relations.
I donated to many political campaigns and non-profits
I sprained my ankle the same weekend that the Muslim Ban first came down, so I watched on twitter and through the news as my fellow citizens impressed me with their patriotism and dedication to this country’s highest ideals, sad and scared and hopeful and angry and frustrated that I couldn’t go myself
I tried failed to sell my apartment and move–keep your fingers crossed for me for 2018
I stopped doing Strongman and got back into Crossfit. I always said I’d only do Strongman as long as it was more rewarding than not, and this year it really stopped being rewarding. I competed at Strongman Nationals in 2015, which was a wonderful experience, and after that, the competitions became less rewarding. I had gone as far as I wanted to go in the sport.
I went on book tour and met wonderful, supportive people from across the country
Leading up to and on my birthday, I went to Miami to help out with Operation Carelift, getting supplies to Puerto Rico in collaboration with Spirit Airlines. It was incredibly rewarding.
In 2018, The Sea Queen will come out. I will write several drafts of The Golden Wolf, and likely start the writing project that comes after that. Hopefully I will move. I plan to start freelancing so I can remain a (mostly) full-time author.
And I plan to be even more politically active. Happily, I think a lot of the country is with me.
In Part I, I talked about how I approach researching a historical novel through reading. Reading does make up the bulk of my research, but I like to do other kinds of research as well.
Online Courses and Podcasts
The Great Courses have particularly good coverage of European and Near East history, though they do cover some other areas of the world. I’ve also listened to some of their courses on the literature and philosophy of eras of interest. Podcasts covering various aspects of history can also be a good resource.
Interviews are especially helpful if you can find experts in your area of history, or people with experience of various aspects of that history. I hate bugging people, though, and their time is precious, so I try to read as much as I can first, and ask questions that I can’t find the answer to any other way.
But an interview with an expert can be a way to get started in a new area of research. For a novel I worked on while I was at NYU about various 12th century church conflicts, I talked to a medieval history professor who helped give me an idea of where to begin my research, and how to focus it a bit differently than I had planned.
Many writers talk to far more people than I do–I should do this more!
There’s no substitute for visiting in the place you’re trying to describe in a novel. In researching The Half-Drowned King and its sequels, I’ve traveled to Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and the Orkney, Shetland, and Faroe Islands. I feel very lucky to have been able to see all of those places.
In Norway I kayaked Geiranger Fjord, where some of the action in The Half-Drowned King and The Sea Queen takes place. In the Faroe Islands I tasted fulmar, which is a sea-bird and tastes like fish. In Skagen, Denmark, I saw where the North Sea meets the Baltic Sea, and was almost blown away by a winter gale. Pictures can help, but it’s nothing to the feel of being there.
Seeing the actual artifacts that your characters would have carried and used in every day life is a wonderful way to connect with them.
I love fiber arts (knitting, crochet, weaving, etc.) and during the writing of The Half-Drowned King, I learned to spin with a spindle and a spinning wheel. I also learned Nalbinding, which is a kind of needle-weaving done in Viking Age Norway. I liked spinning and kept at it. I did not particularly like Nalbinding, and I haven’t continued.
I am also into strength sports (lifting heavy things), and so I got into Strongman competition, which is practiced all over the world, but some events have their roots in Iceland–the Husafjell stone is an Icelandic stone that only the strongest men could lift. Now Husafjell stones are manufactured of steel and used in Strongman competition.
I helped crew a viking-style boat at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde Denmark.
I don’t know if I would have done the first two if I didn’t already lover fiber arts and strength sports, but they certainly contributed to giving the books more verisimilitude.
On the other hand, I didn’t learn card-weaving, which is another viking craft. I didn’t learn sword-fighting. I don’t know how to make cheese, except in the abstract. I’ve sat on a horse exactly once. So it’s good to have the experiences you can, but a little experience and a lot of imagination are probably a better combination than the other way around.
These types of research are best for getting a feel for the era (rather than learning specific facts), to create it in your mind so you can better re-create it in your readers’ minds.
I love research. I research so I can write, but I also write so I have an excuse to do research, and to focus my research. I think all novels need some research, but some do need more than others, and historical fiction needs a lot.
When writing historical fiction, it’s important for me to feel very comfortable in the period I’m writing about, to be able to visit it in my mind at will. I do think my lifelong obsession with earlier historical eras is helpful here–when I was in elementary school I was obsessed with the Little House books and tried to live as much like Laura Ingalls Wilder as possible. Hopefully if you are interested in writing historical fiction you also spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to live in a different era. It’s helpful practice, and it makes the research process that much more enjoyable. One of the amazing things about visiting Notre Dame in Paris for the first time was not just seeing it, but imagining a medieval French peasant seeing it for the first time, going from a rough one room house that they probably shared with their livestock to seeing a church that is still impressive to modern eyes.
Still, imagination can only take us so far. So, while I was writing The Half-Drowned King, I was also always reading a book about Viking Age Scandinavia, or Dark Ages Archaeology, or an Icelandic Saga, or something that would let me understand more about the era. While I want to get details right, I also want to get the feel of the era right, and this research helps me get my head into the era when I’m writing about it.
The nice thing about writing historical fiction instead of a history book is that I’m interested in what is plausible, not what is provable. I want to get as much right as possible, but I do not expect an academic specialist in my time period to be fully satisfied. If they have spent their lifetime studying it, they certainly know more about it than I will even from years of research. And even if it were possible for me to know as much as they do, they have spent so long thinking about it, they probably have a very clear idea of how they picture the era and the people in it–which may be no more or less correct than mine, but is solid enough that whatever I write has a good chance of ringing false.
Where to Begin
A reader asked me on twitter about how I research. He is specifically researching early christian communities. Since that’s an era I find fascinating, although I don’t have any plans to write a novel set then, I’ll use it as an example. If it were me, starting from scratch, I would literally begin by Googling “Early Christianity”.
In the first five links, I find:
A Wikipedia article about Early Christianity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christianity
A Wikipedia article about the History of Early Christianity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_early_Christianity (why two? I don’t know)
A PBS page about the diversity of Early Christianity: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/diversity.html
I would read the Wikipedia pages and follow all of the citations.
The PBS page has various professors listed–I would look for other books written by those professors. At this stage I would only be trying to get more context, to develop a familiarity with the era.
How to Broaden the Research
If you’re coming to research with a specific novel idea that opens up more ideas for research, particulars about the characters and problems you are tackling. In general, for learning about a place and an era, I would try to make sure I covered:
Daily life in the era
Life for women (hopefully but not always covered in daily life sources)
Are there any primary sources, i.e. sources written at the actual time and place? These are so important for understanding people’s way of thinking
The time’s social mores, laws, religions, politics, and conflicts
Local factions. Early Christianity had many splinter groups, and Judaism, paganism, and various other religions competed with it. Not only that, but almost no place is entirely homogeneous–what different ethnicities, nationalities, classes, etc. are present in my time and place?
What is the history of my time and place? Every era is informed by what came before it, so understanding the backgrounds of newly minted Christians would be helpful
I find these resources by reading books and following citations. It’s incredibly helpful to have access to a good library. In New York City, I have both the New York Public Library system and I pay to have access to NYU’s library. I definitely recommend looking into ways to access university collections. So many books are digitized these days you can even use a university’s collection if you’re not local.
Researching and the Writing Process
There is writing advice out there that says, “Do as little research as you can get away with”. And I agree with that, but with the emphasis on “as you can get away with”–the main point being, don’t let research get in the way of writing, and don’t use research as a procrastination tool, but don’t get big things wrong, and try not to get little things wrong either. (Ask me if I’m still bitter about the Viking novel I read that had characters consuming maple syrup and tea. Spoiler: I am.) I like to begin writing as soon as I can, and continue researching while I write. As I’m writing, if I run into something minor that I’d like to research, I leave a note to myself in the draft and come back to it later. Things that I can research later if I need something specific:
What flora and fauna is present in my era
What foods are available
Very specific dates
Place names, historical figure names
I do like to get those things right, but I don’t always need to get them right in the moment of writing my rough draft.
A Note on Notes
I record all of the books I read because I like to be able to cite them in articles and in my Author’s Note, but I don’t take very detailed notes. I read the books I want to read, and jot down things that might help with plotting, characterization, setting–anything that sparks an idea for my novel–but mostly I read to create the milieu in my mind so it is ready and there without too much conscious thought while I’m writing. I know a lot of writers don’t work that way, but that’s what works for me.
I keep notes from books in Evernote, and make lists of things I want to research in the future. I have an idea for a novel or trilogy set in medieval England, and I have long lists of individuals, social movements, religious movements, wars, and literature that I need to research for it. At the beginning of this process, every bit of research leads to more.
Next week I will talk about research through means other than reading.
Note 2: Going forward, I plan to update the blog every Tuesday, at least, to give myself a little more structure here.
Now onto the post! A friend asked:
“How to choose what to write a book on for those who want to write but don’t know where to start: is it just keeping a journal of ideas? Picking a few topics and starting to do more extensive research? Basically, where to even start.”
Excellent question, and one of the hardest ones for a writer to answer. One of the nice things about selling a trilogy is that I know what I’m writing at least until I’m done with Book 3.
A while ago I read a post on Medium or Lifehacker about how to find your passion (or dream job, or calling), and the upshot was that it’s probably it’s something you’re already doing. I was always a passionate reader, and frequent writer of diaries, stories, Livejournal posts, even before I started getting serious about fiction. I was always obsessed with early medieval history, the moments when history and legend blur, Norse mythology, Scandinavia, cold places. It makes sense, looking back, that the story I was able to finish would be about Vikings. It still required a great deal of work and research, but since I was already very interested in it, spending the time writing and researching it felt worthwhile for its own sake.
When it comes time to pick the next project, well, I have a bunch of ideas, some of which are mostly written, and some of which need a lot more development. I plan to re-assess them all and work with my agent to help figure out what makes the most sense to write next, but no matter what she says, it needs to be something I feel like I can write and finish.
I get ideas all the time, but few that I come back to and work on, at least mentally, even when I’m in the middle of other projects. When an idea keeps coming back to me, that’s when I know it’s worth pursuing, worth putting a bit of research into, and seeing where it goes.
Not everyone works that way–I have writer friends who need their ideas to be fresh, and who have to pounce on them before they get stale. But I find that if an idea sticks with me for a long time, it’s more worthwhile to develop further.
So if you’re thinking of getting serious about writing for the first time, I would recommend trying an exercise like this:
Make a list of all the ideas that currently call to you
Rank them by what you keep coming back to, fantasizing about, etc.
Can any of them be combined? Sometimes two partial ideas could be two parts of one idea. Don’t be afraid of using up all your ideas at once. More will come.
Try writing a synopsis of your top 3-4 ideas–and don’t worry if the synopsis silly. No one is going to read it besides you. Still, try writing at least a paragraph and up to a few pages, about the characters, plot, and ending. If you’re not writing fiction, the question might be what aspects of the subject do you want to cover.
Do you have an ending in mind for any of these ideas? I have learned through sad trial and error not to start a book or story without knowing what the ending is going to be. It may change along the way, but I need something to write toward. For a non-fiction project this might be: what do you want people to take away from the book?
Try listing some scenes or passages from some of them that you are excited to write. If you can’t think of any, it may not be the right project for you at this time.
Ask yourself: if I knew I was going to die in a year, what writing project would I want to complete? If I knew I was going to die in a year, what writing project would I want to spend my time on even if I might not complete it?
Hopefully something will stand out after that, but no matter what, it is a risk. That last question should make it easier to commit to a project and see it through–because the real test is not picking the right project but staying with it. There is no objectively right project, there is only the project that you can commit to.
I’ve been listening to The Adventure Zone podcast, thanks to an effusive article on it by Film Crit Hulk. I’ve never played D&D, but I had a lot of friends in late high school who played RPGs (Role Playing Games). Actually, they mostly played LARPs (Live Action Role Plays), some even with foam-covered PVC (polyvinyl chloride–sorry not sorry) pipes.
For those who aren’t familiar, RPGs are a sort of non-comedic improv game, where characters–that have to obey certain rules of construction–are guided through an adventure by the DM/GM (Dungeon Master/Game Master). I did once play an NPC (non-player character) in a local Vampire LARP, but if there was a GM, they were nowhere to be found, so I didn’t know what to do. And I suspect it was an excuse for a boy I had a flirtation with to bite my neck.
….Anyhooooo, I was always tangential to groups of people playing RPGs, but I never did it myself. I think a part of me definitely thought it was a nerdy bridge too far. I didn’t really see the point. But I think my biggest concern was always that I would do it wrong. I was painfully perfectionistic well into my 20s, and playing an RPG felt so exposed–what if I did it wrong? What if I was totally boring? WHAT IF I DID IT WRONG?????
(The world might end. My friends might think I was boring, which was like the world ending, but worse. I might have to fling myself into the sun.)
Once I started writing more seriously, I told myself that I wouldn’t want to play an RPG because (a) it wouldn’t produce any potentially publishable work, and (b) if I couldn’t control all the characters, and the ending, what was the point? But now that I’m listening to The Adventure Zone, which is a podcast of three brothers and their father playing D&D, I finally get it. Griffin is a strong DM who always has good scenarios for his players.
They make jokes, about the situation they are in, and about family pecadillos because they know each other well. The characters, especially Taako, the dumb-as-a-brick elven wizard, are hilarious and sometimes poignant. There are wonderful NPCs, even early on, like Klarg, the Oolong-tea-drinking orc, and Jess The Beheader, a professional wrestler, and poor, departed Jenkins (who put up with a lot of shit from the main guys, let me tell you).
I admire what they’re doing, and it doesn’t seem as impossible for me to engage with as it once did. I see how everyone works together to make it a good storytelling experience. It’s a totally different kind of storytelling than writing a novel, and wonderful in its own way. I think I finally get it now. Maybe playing an RPG wouldn’t be fraught, wouldn’t expose the fact that I’m a writer because I think much better in text that I can go back and fix than I do out loud, on my feet. Maybe it would be fun. Maybe it would be play.
When I solicited blog post ideas on Facebook, my mom asked me “Are there days that you just don’t feel like writing? What do you do then?”
Since I’ve become a full-time writer, those days come a lot less frequently, partially because writing is my job now, and I can’t just not do my job. I try to write every day, but sometimes, especially if I’m otherwise very busy, and really cranking through, perhaps one day out of ten I will feel too burned out to write, and I try to give myself a break.
But I always like to make sure that I’m not writing that day because I actually need a break, not because something is wrong in the story I’m writing.
Because the feeling of not wanting to write, for me, almost always comes from wanting to avoid approaching some story problem. When I’m really into a draft, like I am now with the third book of my Viking trilogy, The Golden Wolf, I think about it all the time. I woke up at 5:30 this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep wondering if I needed to make Ragnvald more proactive and less reactive in his arc.
When I’m really into writing, I feel like I’m engaged in an a wild, passionate romance with all of my characters. I love their flaws. I love their strengths. I picture them. I fantasize about them. I rush to the computer, or a notebook, to jot down snippets of conversation, scenes, which come to me at odd moments, though I also schedule a certain amount of writing each day.
When I don’t want to write, I need to figure out why, and usually I sit down with a notebook, and write questions to myself, and then the answers:
Why don’t I want to write today?
I am writing this scene with Character X, and it’s boring me.
Why is the scene boring me? What purpose does the scene serve? What is the conflict? What decision does the POV character make? How does the chapter fit into the story’s theme? How can this scene serve more than once purpose in the story?
I’ve written about these questions before, and I go back to them time and time again. If I can’t answer them, there’s something wrong with the scene, or the story overall. I write about these questions and their answers, and the questions they lead me to, and until I find the answers I need to keep writing.
Sometimes the answer is that there’s something wrong with the character. I have characters in this trilogy that are more and less interesting, and that’s okay. The nice thing about fiction is I can skip to the interesting bits, and slide over the times in between. I try to make every character at least understandable in her own right, if not interesting, but some characters just don’t merit POV chapters, or a lot of “screen” time. And every character can at least be made slightly more interesting. No one always reacts the same way, no one is just one thing.
I also frequently use the desktop app called “Write or Die”, where I set a time and a word count, and write until I hit that word count. Write or Die gives you unpleasant noises, a red flashing screen, and a giant spider if you stop writing for too long, and that keeps me composing without thinking too much. It might seem a little childish, but I’ve now written nearly three long novels using it, so it works for me.
My mom also asked another question: “At what point do you decide that something isn’t working? How do you fix it? When do you decide it cannot be saved?”
Those are harder questions, and while I do believe in finishing things, some stories, some novels can’t be saved, or at least not by me, at the time that I’m writing them. Sometimes the answer to “why don’t I feel like writing” is “I’m writing the wrong thing”.
I’m not going to answer those questions today, though, because right now I’m writing the right thing, and my characters want me back.
I’ve never “won” NaNoWriMo, though I have written 50,000 words in November before, but I think “winning” NaNo is actually completing a novel. Anyway, 50,000 words is a pretty short novel–The Half-Drowned King was somewhere around 145,000 words, and The Sea Queen is 157,000 as it heads for copy editing. (I find word-count a much better way to count progress than pages. Pages are quite variable.)
My other trouble with NaNo, personally, is that I have a strong contradictory streak, and the moment someone tells me to do something, I want to do the opposite. But I think NaNo is a great way to get into a regular writing practice. When I was writing and had a 50-hour-a-week job, I committed to writing a minimum of 500 words a day, 6 days a week, and tried to write 2000 words a day. I found that a helpful way to establish my practice, since 500 words doesn’t take very long, but kept my head in the game.
Now that The Sea Queen is headed for copy-editing, I’ve gotten back into The Golden Wolf, the final book of Ragnvald and Svanhild’s story. I had been having a good time with the rough draft before I had to leave it to edit The Sea Queen, but it’s amazing how quickly it fell out of my head.
Still, I believe in rough drafting as quickly as possible, so I didn’t want to review everything. I did a few days of interviews with myself where I wrote down my understanding of the arcs of the main characters, and major events, and made sure they still tallied with my timeline. I came up with solutions to a few plot problems that had been troubling me, and then I dived back into rough drafting.
I’m finding my rough drafts are getting rougher and rougher as I write more novels. I do have is a good idea of all the events that need to happen before I start rough drafting, but this is different than knowing all the scenes. As I’m going along through my outline, I’m thinking of the scenes I’ll need, and writing them down as quickly as possible. Sometimes just snippets. Sometimes I’ll put a lot of backstory in a scene, or a lot of explanatory text, knowing that later I will have to turn that into another scene, or cut it.
The key with a rough draft is to keep going–write the things that are exciting to me. The moment a scene gets boring, I cut it off, or change it midstream. I quit each day with some ideas of what I’m going to dive into the next day.
My general plan with this book, and what worked for The Sea Queen as well is:
Extremely rough draft–in some ways this is/will be a 120,000 word outline. I write all the scenes that I think need to be written, but no connective tissue, and those scenes may not even be complete. They are mostly written in order, but they are sketches. I have about 90,000 words of this written now.
First draft: in this draft, I go back through and connect everything, make the scenes into chapters, make the plot all connect. When this draft is complete, I should have something readable, with a coherent plot, and no major unresolved questions.
Full read through: this is the first time I am doing an end to end read through without trying to change things as I go. This was super painful for The Sea Queen, but at this point the novel was pretty fixable.
2nd & 3rd drafts: these are passes I will do on my own, getting the novel into as good shape as possible before showing it to anyone else.
Then I will show it to my agent, editor, and the editing passes with someone else begin. With this counting scheme The Sea Queen went through 8 drafts, with 6 readers.
I’m letting myself be even rougher with The Golden Wolf because I know that the first draft, that second step, is where it really all comes together. To use a sculpting metaphor, I feel like right now I’m gathering big mounds of clay, or maybe a bunch of found objects, and laying them out in a vague order of how I’m going to apply them to the finished thing, but they are just rough objects right now. But I also know that once I have those objects, then I can begin the real work.
So as this year’s NaNoWriMo starts, consider making your NaNo draft a fast and dirty rough draft. Consider not worrying if scenes begin or end, or if you’re writing them in the right order. It is almost guaranteed that your first draft will not be a publishable novel. It may not even be particularly coherent, and that’s fine. Think of it as the raw material you need to craft something.