Are You Writing a Novel in November? Really?!

There are so many ways to write a novel, or jump-start yourself from a state of inertia on your novel. The one of choice this month is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where some 300,000 writers have signed up to keep their word count honest, to keep their butts in the chair, to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

I have signed up before. I have tried NaNoWriMo. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really make me write a first draft. For one thing, I’m not compulsive enough to report my word count each day. (I am too busy actually writing for that!) Also, 50k words isn’t really a novel in my book, so a whole lot of editing, adding, subtracting, plumping, and excising would be required down the line. At the end of a frenzied flurry of work (if you wrote every single day of 30 (including Thanksgiving and Black Friday and the day you get that dreaded cold) you “only” need to get down 1667 words each day, about six or seven pages double-spaced, you are left with what? Months of organization. And frustration.

FullSizeRender-3Of course if you planned your November Attack ahead of time it wouldn’t end up such a pile of dreck. Maybe that’s how you’re doing it; if so, kudos to you for forethought. I confess to being a former pantser, that is, someone who writes from the seat of their pants, who doesn’t know where their novel’s plot is going, someone who wrote her first mystery not knowing who the killer was. [Note: this didn’t go well. Cue another 12 months of rewriting the book from scratch.]

I wonder how many of the NaNoWriMo crowd have outlined their novel ahead of time. This would make sense, if they did. Then you could actually write 50,000 words (if not a novel) in four weeks, by following your step by step breakdown.
Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMI have written out elaborate outlines, pages and pages of where I thought the story might go, sort of a short story or what they call in film, a treatment. “Might go” being the operative term, as these outlines rarely held up past the midpoint. Back in those days I knew where the novel started, the inciting incident, and how it would end, more or less. Definitely who the villain was after that first mess of a first draft. I almost always had to knock off a character at midpoint to get past that dreaded quagmire.

Now I use Scrivener, an outlining program with visual bulletin boards with note cards (you can do it yourself with real objects) and a template overlay that tells me basically where my plot points should be, where the midpoint is, keeps all my setting and character info and research in one place, and keeps me looking at the big picture of where my story is going. (I blogged about Scrivener and my love for it here.)

It’s easy, especially as a beginning writer, to get tunnel vision about your story. You fall in love with a character, with a scene, even though you have no idea what it means in the grand scheme of your story. Outlining really helps with this. You may think it takes the magic out of writing, and you may be right. It is less right-brained than the whole “the story came to me in a dream” thing (which does sometimes happen but usually goes nowhere.) But here’s the thing. You need both sides of your brain to write a good novel, the magicky-woo-woo side where deep emotional drama lives and breathes, and the cool, organized side that evaluates what level of crap you’re throwing down.

You can write a novel with only one side of your brain. But don’t expect fireworks. Just a whole bunch of rewriting.

I’m including these words of wisdom from Michael Crichton because I just read his last, posthumously published book, Pirate Latitudes. I’ve been on a pirate kick lately for some reason, and in general I find Crichton’s books fun, inventive, and well-written. But this book was found in his files after his death. It reads well, there is nothing glaringly wrong with it. But, as Entertainment Weekly said back in 2009, “If nothing else,  Pirate Latitudes is a reminder of the importance of picking an ironclad password for your computer.”

It reads like a young adult adventure novel, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m sure many 14-year-old adventurers-to-be will enjoy and have loved it. Crichton fans were thrilled when a last novel was found, no doubt, despite a sea of pirate sailing jingo like ”Mizzen top blown!”

But there is a reason Crichton never released it. And it probably starts with “re” and ends with “write.”

On (Not) Writing

“So, what are you working on?”

When people find out you’re a writer, they tend to ask this question a lot. Sometimes I’m glad to answer: “I’m working on my fourth Jack Keller book,” or “I’m working on my sci-fi vampire space opera.” Other times, the question makes me flinch, because the project’s at an early stage where I’m not really quite sure what the heck it is yet, and it feels like if I say something out loud, it’ll congeal into something unformed and unready, like an experiment that comes shambling out of the lab too soon as something grotesque and horrible.

Lately, however, I’ve had to answer that question “nothing.” Because I haven’t been writing any fiction at all. I’m writing my weekly newspaper column, but that’s about it. Looking back, it’s literally the first time I’ve been able to say that  in the last ten years. I’ve always had some project in the works. Oh, sure I might have been procrastinating on it, but for the past ten years, I’ve always at least had something to feel guilty about not writing. So why am I on hiatus now?

Well, every time I finish a book, I always say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written. This one, however, really took it out of me. To begin with, I accepted one of the shortest deadlines I’ve ever had, because I really wanted to work with Jason Pinter and his new venture, Polis Books. I saw that Jason was not only putting out some exciting new stuff, he was also doing reissues of great, neglected works like the ones in Dave White’s Jackson Donne series. So when he responded to my query asking if he would be interested in re-issuing the Jack Keller series by shooting back “would you be interested in writing a fourth one?” I said, “oh, HELL yeah.” After all, I’d had a fourth one in the works when I parted ways with St. Martin’s. So all I had to do was dust off the old notes and the 10,000 or so words I’d written as a starter and it’d be smooth sailing all the way, right? I think I may have even said the words that have gotten me into the most trouble of any throughout my life: “how hard could it be?”

As always, the answer was “harder than it looks.” Getting back into Jack’s head was more difficult than expected, especially since the events at the end of SAFE AND SOUND left him kind of a wreck. The other characters didn’t seem to want to come alive, either. But slowly, they did, and things proceeded as well as can be expected for a first draft.

Then, right before Christmas, my father died. I don’t want to go into too many details, but he did not go easily or painlessly. It was, in fact, thoroughly emotionally shattering for everyone concerned, and getting back to the computer after grueling hours at the hospital with my mom proved to be impossible. Then, when that was finally over, it was (oh joy) the holidays, and then at the first of the year, I launched into a busy trial schedule at the day job. But finally, I pulled it together, got back on the horse, pulled a lot of long writing and revising sessions, and managed to stumble to the finish line, or at least eke out a decent draft, which I turned in only three weeks late. It’s the first deadline I think I’ve ever missed. When it was over, I was drained, emotionally and creatively. I needed a break, and the rest of life wasn’t giving me one, so I took one from writing while waiting for my editor’s notes to get back to me. That process has taken longer than expected (for what turned out to be some very exciting reasons), so the hiatus went on longer than expected as well.

So what have I been doing while not writing? Well, I’ve read a lot. Watched a lot more TV than I usually do. Walked the dog. Played a lot of computer games I haven’t played in years. Probably drank more rum than is strictly good for me. Eventually cut back on that. In general, though what I’ve mainly been doing is feeling kind of aimless, restless, bored and oddly anxious, as if I’ve forgotten to turn the stove off or as if I can’t remember where my car is. I guess I’m one of those people who writes because not doing it is like having an itch you don’t scratch.  So I suppose it’s time to get back to it.

Thalians, guests, and others: how do you typically react to the question “What are you working on?” And while we’re on the subject, what ARE you working on? What’s your longest hiatus, and what are you like when you’re not writing?

This Is the End

“I hate writing. I love having written.” –Dorothy Parker.


I wrote those words today, and I have to ask: are there any sweeter words to a writer? Those last two words that signify that that’s it, the story’s done, th-that-that’s all folks!

For some writers, of course, that’s just the beginning. There are rewrites, edits, proofreading, and more rewrites. I do all of that. But my practice is not to put those magic words on the page until all that’s done and I’m ready to either start getting the thing uploaded (if I’m self-publishing) or send it off to my agent or editor (if I’m going through a publisher, as I am with the one I just completed).

But how do you know when it’s done? How do you know when to stop fiddling and fussing with it and put those fateful words on the screen, save the file with the word “FINAL” in the title, and release the monster on an unsuspecting world?

Sometimes, the question is easier than others, like when you have a deadline, or when (like me) you’ve blown said deadline because pretty much your entire December was an unrelieved personal nightmare.  But even when I know it’s got to go, my finger still hesitates when pushing the “send” button. I always feel like there’s one more thing that I should change, one more scene I could tighten up, one more line of dialogue I could have rewritten one last time in an attempt to kick it up from merely very good to awesome.

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about Bruce Springsteen and his classic album “Born to Run”. I’m a Springsteen fan, and I think it’s one of the best rock albums ever made. I’ve worn out multiple copies over five different formats. So I was kind of shocked to hear that Springsteen almost didn’t release it. He spent months messing with it, re-recording, re-mixing, chasing the sound he had in his head that he couldn’t quite seem to get down on tape. The title track alone reportedly took over six months to get right. Finally, in despair, Springsteen proposed to his producer, Jon Landau, that they scrap the whole thing and start again. “Listen,” Landau is supposed to have said, “you think Chuck Berry was in love with everything he ever released? Put the damn thing out there.” So he did, and rest was history.

I said I was shocked to hear about Springsteen’s travails in getting the record out, because I heard the story before I was writing on a regular basis. After the first time I spent weeks agonizing over whether the book was actually polished enough to let anyone who didn’t love me see, I understood.

So, is this next one my “Born to Run”? Who knows? One of the side effects of all this editing and rewriting is that I’ve spent so much time second-guessing that I can’t tell what’s good about it and what’s not so good. Quite frankly, I can’t even stand the sight of the damn book anymore, which is my usual criteria for writing “The End.”

As for the book itself, it’s the long awaited fourth Jack Keller novel, entitled DEVILS AND DUST.  I’m tremendously excited to be working with writer-turned-publisher Jason Pinter and his new venture Polis Books, which will be re-issuing the first three Keller books, then the new one, as e-books.  Look for them wherever e-books are sold.

So how about you, fellow Thalians? When do you know when it’s done?

In Praise of Pen and Paper

For years, I’ve said that if it wasn’t for computers, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I say this because I am an abysmal typist. Back when I was in college, writing any kind of paper (or story, or script) was absolute torture for me, because I simply could not make my fat, clumsy fingers go where I wanted them to go on the typewriter keyboard. (Yes, I’m that old).

You dad-blamed kids today don’t know how good you have it. I bought Wite-Out by the case. I spread so much of it on the pages that they’d be all stiff and crackly when I actually turned the paper in. People learned to cover their ears near my room if I was working on a term paper, because I’d be turning the air blue swearing over all the typos I was making.

Then my roommate brought home one of the first Macintosh computers and let me use it. When I started using the computer’s crude (by today’s standards) word processor, it was a revelation. Misspell a word? No worries. Just backspace over it and retype. No messy white stuff, no tiny stiff brush to muck about with. Decide that the third paragraph would work better as the first? No worries. Cut, paste, and there you go. When I entered law school, the school’s computer lab made writing briefs and other papers…well, not easy, but at least tolerable.

So, for years, all my writing was done with keyboard and screen. I usually had some sort of notebook nearby, but that was for jotting down thoughts, ideas, maybe a quick outline of what was coming up in whatever project I was working on. I read that other writers, like Neil Gaiman and Tess Gerritsen, do their first drafts in longhand, and I just shook my head. How tedious, I thought. Why make all that extra work for yourself, since you’re going to have to re-type it all anyway?

Round about the time I was writing STORM SURGE, however, I began experiencing real problems getting things out of my head and onto the virtual page. It seemed like I’d spend hours and have nothing to show for it but a paragraph. It wasn’t writer’s block, exactly, but ut was the next thing to it.

I tried a lot of things: writing in different places, taking long walks, taking long showers, even changing the font to try and jolt myself out of whatever malaise I was experiencing. All of them helped, a little. But the thing that seemed to work best was getting away from the computer altogether and writing in longhand. I’d picked up one of those nifty Moleskine notebooks (after reading that Neil Gaiman swore by them), and, like most people with a cool new possession,  I wanted to use it. As I began composing in longhand, I discovered some advantages of writing that way:

1. The notebook, obviously,  isn’t connected to the Internet. This keeps those pauses to reflect and imagine what comes next from turning into 15 minute sessions of checking e-mail, then checking Twitter, and so on and so forth.

2. When I’m writing in longhand, I don’t keep looking at my word count to see if I’m making my goal for the day. This helps keep me thinking about the scene and letting it develop naturally.

3. Writing on quality paper with a nice pen just feels good. It’s a very sensual experience, much more so that the mechanical rattle and clack of fingers on the keyboard.

4. I haven’t really done a whole lot of research on this, but it seems to me that writing by hand tickles a different creative center of my brain than typing does.

5. Not having the luxury of the backspace key knocks me out of the habit of going back and rewriting a sentence or paragraph, then rewriting, then rewriting again, until it gets to the point where I’ve stopped moving forward altogether. In longhand, as the poet wrote, “the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” If I’m not happy about something, I just go “screw it, I’ll get it in the rewrite.” Writing in longhand gives me permission to suck. Because make no mistake about it: what I write in longhand really sucks. It’s terrible. It’s clumsy, stilted, with word choices that run from the questionable to the laughable. I don’t care. I’m getting stuff on paper, and it’s easy to fix it after I’ve had a day or so to think about it and I’m ready to put it into the computer.

6.  It may seem like a paradox, but because of all of the factors above,  I actually write faster if I write a scene or a chapter twice: once in longhand, then later typing it into the computer.   When it comes time to do the re-typing, I’ve already thought of my revisions, I’ve already decided which way the scene should go (and it may be totally different from the way I wrote it the first time), so I just get on the keyboard and hammer it out. No pauses for reflection (well, not many), no temptation to turn away (well, not much).

I still haven’t gotten to the point where I’m writing entire manuscripts in longhand, a la Gaiman, Gerritsen, or Neal Stephenson, who wrote his mammoth Baroque Cycle in longhand on loose paper. Check out what THAT looks like:

Right now, as I said above, I’m doing a chapter, or sometimes a scene, at a time, putting it into the computer at the next session, then back to the notebook for the next bit.  I may get to the point where I divorce myself from the computer entirely for the first draft, but I’m not quite ready for that.  But if you’re wondering what to get me for Christmas…

So, who else writes the first draft by literally taking pen in hand? Who thinks they might like to try it?