Category Archives: Writing Endeavors

Writing Update No. 6

Since my last writing update I’ve accomplished: the piano accompaniment of the Cheers theme song. Just kidding. I mean, I did learn to play that song, but I also have some notable writing progress to report–just not as much as I was pushing for.

In my last update, I said that I wanted to push myself to finish all of the new-content-adding that I had left of my book, tens of thousands of words that I would then only have to edit down. I did not accomplish that goal. I did, however, make some solid progress on the new content. I’ve written the rest of section four, and a good chunk of section five, as well as some more pieces here and there to fill in gaps I left in the chronology.

But the biggest step forward these past couple weeks is that I’ve started having someone read through it all for me. Which meant going back to the beginning (again) and making sure each section was ready to be read. This pushed me to make some hard edits I’ve been hesitating about, and to actually come up with a finished project as far as I could at the time. I’ve printed out the first three sections for my reader to review, which is my first time printing any of it at all and means I’m pretty happy with where those parts stand. I’ve only talked through the first section so far with my reader, and we’ve got plans for the second section chat coming up, and by the time my reader is done with the third section I’ll have the fourth section done with its final round of edits and ready for printing, and the same for section five, at the rate I’m going. That’ll be more than halfway through the book, which is exciting, and while I still have some work to do on the latter half, I do have two full sections of those remaining four done except for a final round of editing, and most of a third one written and saved but not all put together in order yet. It’s all on the near horizon, though. The end is in sight. Originally, I planned to finish a full solid draft before I started sharing it with anyone, but one day last week I decided all of a sudden that I was ready to start collecting second opinions, and that maybe if I had any major problems in the part that was finished it would affect how I was carrying out my work with the rest of it. Although I’ve only talked with my reader about the very first section, about 12,000 of my eventual 90,000 words, a lot of my big questions about what was working or not have been answered positively from the content and layout of that section. I’m pretty confident that with all the editing I’ve been doing as I go, I won’t have any major changes left to make at the end of this draft.

My goal for next time: by the time I update again in a couple of weeks, I want to have finished editing and printing sections four and five. How much I’ve gone through with my reader by that time will depend on my reader’s schedule, but I think there’s a possibility of getting through all or most of those sections with my reader by then. I also want to keep moving forward into section six, which is really the biggest empty gap I have left to fill. After that the end will really be in sight.

My eventual goal: I started working on this book at the end of last June, and I want to be finished with it before I hit the year mark. I feel like that’s a reasonable time frame, and still an attainable goal. Since I’ve been working so slowly, aiming for quantity and quality at the same time, and have been dealing with various other events, I think that by the time I get through the whole thing once, and have my reader get through it, all I’ll need to do are some small changes at the sentence level, and maybe give the completed product to a second reader after those, just in case.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I’m going to be focusing on sections four, five, and six, the middle third of the book, for next time. If I can get close to finished with that (which is already almost halfway done), the biggest writing tasks remaining at this point will be complete.

I feel like I’m a little all-over-the-place with my writing right now, but it’s like when you start cleaning your room and at first it just looks messier but then in the end it all comes together. Everything is a mess, but I can see how it will start coming together, and I’m going to keep pushing myself to work hard and finish within the deadlines I’ve set.

Is it normal to really only have one full draft before I’m finished? (Is there any such thing as “normal” in the writing process?) Do you edit as you go, or finish a whole project and then go back and make changes all at once?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Writing Update No. 5

Last time I updated about progress on my novel, I talked about working on other writing exercises outside of my manuscript. This time, I have to admit I’ve been doing that again. Part of the problem was that my reading slump eeked into my good intentions to catch up on my writing.

My goal for this writing update was to be able to say I’d satisfactorily finished section 4 of 9 of my book. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it did turn out to be a productive switch), I had barely started working on section 4 when I decided to go back and make some further changes in section 3. So I’ve re-edited section 3 (again), but made no further writing progress in the half-written section 4.

However, during my trash-writing/slump/blocked days in the past couple of weeks, I did an insane amount of non-manuscript-related writing. I was turning out thousands of words per day, and while it was first-draft stuff, the ideas were flowing, the words were flowing, and I didn’t hate what was coming out. It made me more confident about moving forward with my novel, and it reminded me that all the careful, slow attention of editing can be put on hold while I work on finishing laying out my content.

So I have a new goal. When I first started going through my novel again this year, section by section, I thought every couple of weeks I would just move on to the next at an orderly pace and I wouldn’t have much of excitement to update, except “I reached my goal this week” or “I didn’t reach my goal this week, but I’ll keep going for next week.” And yet, here I am, deciding to go back to those awful cramming days from college when I’d wait too long to start a paper and then force it all out at the last minute, probably in the middle of the night. I’m going to stop editing for the time being. I’ve reached that middle section of my book that’s mostly only outlined, and I’m going to just sit at my computer and make myself type, even if it’s crap at first, because that’s what all those awful, slow, rewarding rounds of editing are for, right? So in the next two weeks, I’m aiming for 40,000-50,000 words. I’ll edit it down, but I want all the words to be there. I think even the editing will be so much smoother going if I’m less worried about lacking content I thought I would have by now.

It seems like an impossible task, considering how slowly things have been going this year, but I’m happy with the progress that I have made, and so I’m going to be ambitious and push myself to make a lot more progress. Middle-of-the-night paper writing in college was pretty miserable, but it won me some good grades; maybe that’s the way to go again, for now.

My goal for the next two weeks: to finish all of the empty spaces in my book, sections 4-9. Some of those parts are already written, but I’m endeavoring to write all of the rest now. Right now. Hopefully by the time I update again in a couple of weeks, I’ll be able to say, “I have a whole first draft,” and all that’s left will be editing.

I’m not usually one of those people who can force themselves to write every day. If I’m not in the mood for it, it can be painful to write anything substantial, and I don’t see much point in writing insubstantially. But for the next two weeks, I will be writing every day. Like crazy. (I’ll also be setting aside some reading time and reviewing time to keep up with my normal posts in the meantime). See you on the other side.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: History of Wolves

I’ve recently finished reading Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, a new adult literary fiction book. This one is set in northern Minnesota, which is rare for a novel and personally interesting to me because I’ve been to that part of the state and have spent a lot of time in other parts of Minnesota, as well. Also, one of the cover blurbs calls the book’s pages “haunted,” which was all the encouragement I needed for a book about a teen finding disaster in “Nowheresville.”

FullSizeRender (7)About the book: Madeline (Linda) is a fifteen year-old girl (in the central thread of the book’s mixed chronology) struggling through school. She lives deep in the woods where even the snow plows won’t go, sometimes taking an hour or more to walk straight home from her bus stop after classes. Her parents live in a cabin on the site of a disbanded commune they once helped found and have a very hands-off approach to parenting. Then there’s the fact that one of the teachers who works closely with Linda is arrested for child pornography. But most importantly of all, the biggest event in her life is the tragic death of 4 year-old Paul, the son of the new neighbors who move into the fancy house across the lake from Linda. She babysits him all summer between ninth and tenth grade, and maybe she could have done something to save him; but the fact of the matter is that he’s dead by fall, and Linda will never be the same.

Linda states early in the book, during narration of her History Odyssey competition in middle school, that the history of wolves doesn’t really have anything to do with human history–and it doesn’t, at least in the way the judges mean. And yet, the wolves and the general wildness of northern Minnesota have everything to do with what happens to the humans in this book. Linda’s life, like the wolves’ lives, is about instinct and survival. It’s about the fine line between predator and prey.

“I wasn’t scared, though. I didn’t need to think of myself as a walleye drifting along in a current somewhere, just waiting for my hook. I was yearning for it.”

The thing about teenagers is that they’re eager for motion–their lives are on the verge of becoming their own and they’re waiting for something to happen that’ll tip them over the edge into adulthood. Linda finds herself inexplicably drawn to the story of her arrested history teacher and the girl in her class who spoke against him. She’s almost obsessed with the story, following their lives after everything happens at school and writing letters even years later. She was so close to it all, and there’s so little she has to be close to. The woods are isolating for Linda, and for everyone in her town.

“Heaven and hell are ways of thinking. Death is the false belief that anything could ever end.”

I liked the relationships in this book. They felt awkward and uncommon, not the storybook kind of love that lots of books seem to strive for. There’s something unusual in the relationship between Linda’s parents, for starters, apparent in the fact that they helped found a commune but also in how they continue their lives and behave around their daughter as she’s growing up. The relationship Linda sees between Leo and Patra (her new neighbors) is strange, as well. First, there’s the fact that Leo is largely absent although he’s a big part of their lives. Then here’s Linda’s infatuation with Patra. Linda doesn’t have many good adult role models in her life, and her respect for Patra, combined with Patra’s interest in Linda’s approval, leave Linda with an almost romantic attachment to Patra. They’re close friends in an odd way for young women eleven years apart in age and Linda doesn’t quite seem to know how to categorize her regard for Patra. Then in the latest parts of the timeline, Linda shows bits of her relationship with Rom, which is also an unexpected sort of love. Linda thinks he isn’t quite right for her, and maybe that’s true, but they make an oddly compelling pair. These relationships reminded me of relationships in reality–they’re often more one-sided than fictional romance, or crop up between the wrong people, or happen without intent from either party.

“It’s weird how joy goes through a grown man’s face, so that for a second you can see him the way he was as a kid: all smooth faced and unguarded.”

The narration in this book is always focused on Linda’s life and observations, but it skips around between years in her chronology to focus on different players and events. We mainly see Paul’s fate in the summer of Linda’s fifteenth year, but mixed with it we also see what happened earlier with the arrested history teacher and later the fate of Linda’s own family and childhood home after she’s grown up and tried to move on. The timeline skips around, and while everything connects, I did find the later details of Linda’s life less interesting until the causes and affects of Paul’s death become more clear in the fifteen year-old part of Linda’s story.

“Everything she did, she did when she should have known better.”

This quote (above) shows the aspect that reminded me most of Emma Cline’s The Girls. There’s that awkward period in growing up when a person starts to realize how the world works and that they have responsibilities in it but they aren’t quite ready or sure of how to handle things. There’s no smooth transition between cared-for child and responsible adult in reality–at some point, the child sees the burden of responsibility waiting there to be picked up, neglected and accumulating on the ground where no one else can reach this particular bundle. Stories like History of Wolves explore the possibility of a burden of responsibility presenting itself before the child is grown enough to spot the burden and lift it him-/herself. Linda might have saved Paul’s life, if she’d been a little more equipped to deal with that task. Sometimes in life we fail, and we blame ourselves even though there was nothing else we knew to do to prevent that failure. That is where the sadness resides in this book.

“Dawn is a free pass. I’ve always thought that. The hours between four and seven belong to a few fidgety birds and maybe a last bat charging mosquitoes.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was in a mild reading slump with this book, so even though it was short it took me about a week to finish. I don’t think that affected my opinions of the story itself and I don’t think it was at all the fault of this book. In any case, while the plot moved slowly for me at points, I did find the emotions of the story particularly moving and I’m glad I finally managed to find my way through to the end. I’ll be interested to see what works Fridlund might publish in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Cline’s The Girls would be a great choice for readers who find Linda’s character and situation compelling. This one is centered around a cult rather than a commune, but features the same sort of inquisitive, inexperienced girl who’s trying to find her way in life by following people who shouldn’t ever have been leaders.
  2. Alice Hoffman’s Faithful is a novel for the reader who devours stories of unstoppable tragedy and its aftermath. This one has the same gritty sadness as History of Wolves, with a bit more redemption discovered before the final page is reached.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, a collection of retold myths about the infamous Odin, Thor, and Loki, among other mythological Norse characters. This is a book about power and destiny, rebuilt from the ashes of ancient lore and culture. I loved it, and can’t wait to share.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Writing Update No. 4

Today I want to talk about trash writing. What do I mean by that? Well, trash writing is what I call the product of days when I write things not related to my manuscript or any other specific goals–writing that doesn’t even pretend to be good and isn’t intended for anyone else to ever see. Sometimes it isn’t even worth saving.

Why do I want to talk about trash writing today? Because I’ve been doing it when I should’ve been working on my manuscript, and I’m not (entirely) sorry about it.

Some days, I’m just really in the mood to write something that doesn’t matter. When there gets to be too much pressure on a manuscript I want people to read someday, but I’m still in love with writing. Those are trash writing days, and I’ve been finding them surprisingly useful.

I have hundreds of pages of this junk saved, small unimportant stories with plot holes and stereotypical characters and passive voice and and more boring backstory than action. I start with one character, or one plot point, and just see where it goes. With my manuscript, I have a whole outline and pages of notes to keep me on track with main points and significant characters and dates and whatnot, but when I break for “trash writing,” I don’t worry about those things. I just pick a starting point and go with whatever ideas strike me, at a much faster and more careless pace. It’s a bit like a self-prompt, I suppose. A purge of words and thoughts that I don’t have to think so hard about so that I can go back to writing more important things with renewed focus.

This kind of writing, while it doesn’t seem to lead to any direct progress, can be a helpful exercise when I just need to take a step back from the writing I’ve been immersed in more seriously. I can look at it more critically because it’s less important to me. If I go into it with the mindset that “this is junk” (although I save a lot of it in case any grand ideas or pieces for future manuscripts might arise from the muck), then it’s easier to see common problems that my writing has been sporting lately. Like using the same words or phrases over and over. Starting every paragraph the same way. Using the same sentence structure repeatedly. Adding too many commas.

It also helps me look at my characters more closely. In the short (usually 20-50 pages) segments of trash writing I produce, it’s easier to see when I’m providing too much or too little backstory, or falling into tropes. Oftentimes I plant the same characters I’m already familiar with from my manuscript or other projects into new situations (or alternative universes if there’s a lot of conflicting overlap and I can’t fit it logically into their chronology at all), and using them this way helps me spot problems with their habits or background or motives that I might not notice when I’m looking so closely at my manuscript. A lot of the lessons I learn from trash writing are things that can be carried over and applied to more important writing; lessons that help me become a better writer.

So my goal for last week was to go back through my already-written section three (of nine) and make edits, update the layout to match my changes from the earlier sections, and add in any extra ideas I thought seemed necessary. My ultimate goal is to work through each section on this same minute level, one at a time, and then give it a final read-through after all these revisions and edits have been made; this way, I’ll get a close look at each part, and then a broad look at the bigger picture. Did I reach my goal of a satisfactory completion of level three? Yes, but it took me an extra week because I spent several days writing trash instead of editing. Do I regret that? Well, considering I wanted to be finished with a full draft of my manuscript by the end of 2016, any delay is a little annoying, but no, I don’t think my trash-writing-vacation was a waste of time. Not only is it fun to pick a different genre and escape the headspace I’ve been stuck in while looking so closely at one part of my manuscript, but it reminded me why I love writing, and it helped me set the precarious tone in section three just right for my purposes. I came back to my section three edits with renewed vigor and worked all the way through easily, making changes that I was happy with when I reached the end and went back through again. I’m much more satisfied with this section now than the last one, and I’m excited to keep going.

About keeping going: my goal for the next two weeks will be to complete and edit section four. This one will not necessarily be harder than the last, but it will be different because I know this is one of the sections that I left only half-written the last time I worked at it. I’m very excited about the content that’s already there, though, after I left off at the end of section three, and I think adding the new content will also be more enjoyable than all these small edits I’ve been focusing on with previous sections in the last month and a half. I will still need to go back through the whole section to do those edits once all the necessary plot points have been included, but this should give me a variety of tasks for section four, which feels like a good place to be rather than the one-task rut I fell into with the last section. I’ll check back with you in two weeks and let you know how I fared.

How do you feel about writing outside of your manuscript? I’m not one of those people who can have two big projects at once (two manuscripts, say), but I definitely require a break from my big goals. Do you also save writing that you worked on for fun but don’t intend to share with anyone? Where do you stand on its usefulness?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Writing Update No. 2

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I’ve been writing a book. (If you missed that post and want to check it out now, I’ll link it here.) Here’s how it’s been going since then:

Editing is drudgery.

Last time, I mentioned that I don’t write in strict chronological order. The book will be in chronological order, but I write different sections based on what I’m in the mood to work on. I decided for the new year, though, to start from the beginning, go all the way through, and see what I’ve got. I planned to work on the incomplete parts and the parts that needed editing along the way so that by the time I got to the end I would more or less only have editing left. So far, I’ve gotten through the first two sections, and then gone back through the first again. The beginning, I feel, is the strongest point of my book right now. I wanted this run-through to clean up the first section, to make some final changes, and send that bit along to a couple of trusted second-opinions so that I’d have extra incentive to keep working hard at it and come up with a complete draft.

Progress: 90% satisfied with the first section. 70% satisfied with the second.

My biggest change in editing the first two sections has been cementing the format. This is something I’ll continue to match now throughout the book, but I’ve finally worked out a good system. When I started writing my book, I divided it into 9 sections for my own convenience–I wanted to be able to navigate different parts of the narration without having to load and sort through one giant document every time I was looking for one specific part. These sections are too big to be chapters, but they’re pretty complete in themselves and separate from each other, so in the final product these will be labeled as “Part I, Part II,” etc. They will also have names. Inside these parts, the narration is further divided into chunks that I have begun labeling as numbered (but unnamed) chapters. Inside these chapters, the narration is further divided into perspective shifts.

I’m following three main characters in this story, all through third person narration, but a close enough narration to reveal each character’s thoughts, one at a time. At first I was using one stream of narration with no division, and it focused primarily on broad observations and then dipped into the different characters’ thoughts when that was necessary, with no break in the narration; but I think the reader can connect better to the characters by focusing on one at a time. I’ve been making little tweaks to even that out. The character switches within chapters will not be numbered or labeled in any way, they’ll simply have one empty line break between characters, usually without even a scene shift. These are pretty smooth transitions, but the space calls attention to the fact that something is changing. Shifts between chapters usually switch scenes, and some of them are short newspaper articles. All of the chapters are relatively short, and they all drive toward the main theme of the part. This has been my largest task in going back through my book so far.

My second point, of course, has been editing what’s already written, and either adding or making a note to add any pieces that I know I need but haven’t written yet. I wanted to start from the beginning and fill out everything that was missing, smooth every part, every chapter, down to the last sentence, but I’ve decided to save some small edits that I’m just not in the mood for until my next run-through after I’ve gotten all the content. I changed my mind about that because editing is tough and I can’t do it all at once. Editing is the most annoying and satisfying part of writing, for me. I can tell when it seems a sentence just isn’t working, but sometimes it takes so long to say the right things in the right way. It’s indescribably rewarding to find the right wording and look back through a section that feels really complete, as good as I’ll ever be able to make it, but it’s so difficult to reach that point sometimes. I was doing a great job of pushing through and making a “final” version of the first section (about 11,000 words total), but then somewhere in the middle I was sick of those small edits. I hit one middle chapter that had the right content, but it just wasn’t exciting enough to read. I want every chapter to have a spark. I just couldn’t find all the sparks this month, so I read the section to keep its content in mind moving forward, but made a note to come back and edit that bit later. Luckily, as I moved forward, I realized it wasn’t the whole second half of the part that had that problem, it was only the one piece in the middle. At this point, I’m very happy with the first part, all but that one chapter that’ll still need some time-consuming edits. That’s on the back-burner for now.

You may have noticed I mentioned going through the first section twice. See, the first time through, I thought I was pretty satisfied with this part already and only needed a content refresher. But as I got past it, I found a missing spark. I had a great idea for how to start it off and let the reader into the characters’ heads and lives so much quicker; as I went back to the very beginning to rework the opening scene, I decided to keep going in the same vein and add in some small details that would hark back to that scene, to keep the whole part cohesive. I got into a great editing mood and worked hard at fixing things on the smaller level, and was going good with that then until I found that awkward middle chapter. I did start reworking it, but I couldn’t quite finish this time around. Hence the 90% satisfaction with the first part.

The second part is where I’m at now. The first couple chapters of this part (which is about 10,500 words total) is the area that needs the most work, so it’s been slow slogging through that. I’m not so much in the mood for working on those scenes, but I was doing such productive editing and I did want to work through in chronological order, so I’ve been fixing the formatting and pushing through. Still, it’ll need some more work, hence the 70% satisfaction level.

I want it to be perfect, and perfection is more than plot.

Is there such a thing as an editing slump? This week I feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff, looking down at it.

I’m still happy with my plan, and I feel like I’ve made some solid progress, but editing… it’s drudgery.

My goal for the next two weeks: I want to keep going with the second part until I’m up to at least 90% satisfaction (I wish there was a less subjective way to measure that, but basically I just want to feel pretty good about where it’s at, even if there’s a spot or two that’s tough that I make a note to come back to). By the time I share my next update, I want to be at least at this same point in the third part. After that, I know there are more gaps where I’ll need to do some actual writing, so I’m hoping having that on the horizon will help me power through some more edits in the meantime.

Are any of you struggling through an awesome book draft?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

A Life Update in the Literary Realms

There have been so many changes in the last year or two of my life in regards to books. Great changes, and important ones.

Mainly, I’ve been reading and writing more than ever and absolutely loving it. Posting reviews of books I’ve finished and lists of what I’ve read or what’s next have been keeping me motivated and accountable to completing the tasks I set myself in those areas; I’m hoping to do more of that this year with my writing so that I’ll be able to finish the book I’m working on and see if I might be able to move it along toward publishing. There are victories and struggles in writing it, and I’d love to share them here to keep me going and to read any advice you wonderful readers and writers might have for me at various points of the process.

About my reading: A year ago I finished my BA in English literature, and while I loved that experience and appreciate many of the books I read for my classes, in the three and a half years I was studying I fell woefully out of touch with the sorts of current and popular books I normally enjoy reading for my own pleasure. Reading is an important part of who I am, so I’ve highly valued the time I’ve had this year to reconnect with the world of new releases and delve further into the reading community than I ever have before. I read 73 books this past year, and am planning to read even more in 2017. I want to read everything, and am truly depressed that I won’t possibly live long enough to read all the books. But I’m determined to make a good dent. 🙂

About my writing: I’m working on a science fiction book in the NA age range (full of monsters, battles, politics, and a bit of romance), and I’m currently over 50,000 words. I’m aiming for about 90,000 so that’s a little over halfway. I’ve been writing somewhat out of order–working chronologically but from three different points in the story–so tit’s a little hard to judge exactly how much of the plot is left, although I do have a decent outline drafted of main points to keep me on track. It’s just hard to guess how long what’s left will take me. I’ve also been editing as I go; on days when my writing is stuck I revise instead, so parts of the book I’m nearly ready to say I’m completely finished with, while other parts obviously remain entirely unwritten. If you’re a writer, feel free to weigh in–in what order do you write your story? I have to revise/edit in chronological order, but I like to write different points of the story based on my mood.

I hope to post weekly (or ever other week, maybe) about my progress, as I plan to work hard on my writing and finish within a month or two at least with the first draft. I think this will keep me on track without becoming too repetitive (“well, I wrote another chapter today,” etc.). I don’t want to go into a lot of specifics or spoilers, because I’m afraid talking about an unfinished book too much jinxes its chances, but I do want to talk about the process, and I don’t mind describing the layout a bit.

Right now, my biggest struggle with my writing is the pressure I’m putting on making it work for me. Becoming a published author is my ultimate dream goal, and while I believe the number one rule of a successful book is to write for yourself first, it’s hard not to look at it and think about what the rest of the world will see and want it to be perfect for more than myself. It’s hard to write in such a critical headspace. How do you deal?

Thanks for reading this far. I’d love to hear some of your advice, or even just stories about your own writing experiences.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant