Things To Do When You Finish A Novel*

Writers do it old school.

1. Get Your Cake On. You finished a book. That’s a big deal. It might be a sucky book right now, but that doesn’t matter. We’ll talk about editing later, after the post-coital glow has faded. For now, celebrate.

I used to be really bad at this. I’d finish a manuscript and not tell anyone, and if they found out, pretend it was no big deal. I have no idea why I used to pull this crap, but it wasn’t helpful. Acting like it wasn’t worth celebrating made damn sure it wasn’t, and didn’t make me feel good about getting further than 99% of the wannabe writers out there. Which made it harder to do again. Don’t worry; eventually I pulled my head out of my ass and scored some Scotch to celebrate. However you do it—cake, dinner, wine, that thing with the chains and the feathers—mark the occasion. You can get back to the grind tomorrow.

2. Take A Break. At least from that story. Working on something else—particularly something small, like an essay or a short story—is a palette cleanser for your brain. Then you can come back to that first draft with fresh eyes and a clean brain, ready to fix the hell out of it.

Of course, sometimes you can’t take a break. Deadlines exist. In that case, feel free to skip this suggestion and do the first one twice. Twice the cake! Twice the scotch! Twice the chains and feathers!

3. Get Back In The Saddle. Sooner or later, that first draft you churned out is going to need editing. Wait until the idea doesn’t fill you with dread if you can. Then you can look at the inevitable mistakes, wrong turns, and general WTF-ness with more equanimity and less bowel-loosening horror. Relax. It’s not that big a deal. You can fix it. In fact, keep repeating that to yourself over and over again: I can fix this. It will help. If it doesn’t…well, there’s always the leftover Scotch from step one.

Who out there has a finished novel now that November is over? Who’s still working? Who has given up in a flurry of despair and soggy Kleenex? I’m firmly in Category Two**: still motoring along with my eyes on a January-February finish date, but I’m keeping Category Three open!

So: where you at?

*Note for those of you fresh off NaNoWriMo: finishing NaNo is not necessarily finishing a novel, unless your novel happens to be 50,000 words. If it is, cool. If it’s not, I’d advise continuing to work until such a time as you can definitively type The End and mean it. Stopping in the middle just because you hit 50,000 is a great way to accumulate a pile of unfinished manuscripts.

**At least two levels below my Kaiju Rating.

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Kill The Queen: Fixing Plot Holes

This may be a bigger problem than I–hey, is that China?

I found a plot hole in my story the other day.

It’s okay. I fixed it.

But fixing it led to another plot hole.

And then another.

And another.

I’m starting to think there might be a breeding colony at work somewhere. I may need a flamethrower.

But that’s the thing with rewrites: all that shit that you said you’d fix later? Well, guess what, motherfucker: it’s later. And you can’t skate past it twice.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes you don’t realize something is wrong until after it happens. Oh, you might have an inkling. A tingling in your Spider Sense*. A feeling.

Later, the feeling is stronger. Something just doesn’t seem right. You can smell it. And, by going back, you find it: a plot hole.

It is tempting, especially if you’re a no-outline writer or pantser or whatever the hell people call themselves these days, to just let it slide for now again. To fix that later as well. But I caution against this. Why? Because it’s a slippery fucking slope.

When you’re zero drafting, you can get away with that shit because you legitimately don’t know what the hell’s going to happen. You’re a wanderer in the middle of your own story, as lost as a tourist in the Thai red-light district. So those incongruities and problems…they’re a problem for Future You.

But during the rewrite…you are Future You. And Future You doesn’t have the same excuse.

There’s a world of difference between ‘this might work, I just need to think of how and I can do that later’ and ‘this doesn’t work in any incarnation of the story but I can’t be arsed to fix it’. If you know something is wrong, you should fix it before it spreads its diseased tentacles of wrongness throughout the story. One bad thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to six more…and before you know it, the story has gone off in entirely the wrong direction.

So, when you find them, fix the plot holes. Smooth things out. Make it as seamless as possible so that you can then focus on other stuff: the voices, the pacing, the mood, the tension. And, of course, the other plot holes that your beta readers will inevitably find.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a breeding colony to find.

*If this is not someone’s nickname for their genitals, I am very disappointed in all of you.

Turn Your Head and Cough: Diagnosing Writing Problems

DOOM IS NOT THAT KIND OF DOCTOR.

Symptoms are the things that make you realize you’re sick. The cough, the runny nose, the sudden breakout of blue pustules that sing the national anthem at night.* They’re signs, some subtle, some not. They indicate that something, somewhere, is wrong.

But the symptoms, no matter how annoying or unpleasant or off-key they are, are not what’s wrong. That’s the disease. But when you’re stuck in the middle of it, it can be damn easy to treat the symptoms and ignore the cause of the sickness entirely. 

Problem is, that doesn’t fix anything. That’s like taking more and more pain pills for that hamstring tear you gave yourself without bothering to rest and repair the leg itself. Unhelpful and you’re going to be limping for a long fucking time. 

To move from dubious medical metaphors back to equally-dubious writing advice, the problems you’re having in your writing on a particular day might be indicative of something else entirely. And if you just treat the symptoms, you won’t fix it.

Example: you’re writing a scene and hit a T-Rex sized roadblock in the middle. It’s not working. You don’t know why, so you rewrite the scene a bunch of different ways, but it’s still not working. You go away and come back only to find that, lo and behold, still not fucking working. You bull through. You cut it entirely. You try it again.

Still nothing.

You’re mistaking the symptom—not being able to finish the scene—for the disease. Which is probably a bigger problem, and, significantly, is probably behind you. Maybe you didn’t set this up enough. Maybe you know there’s something off about the character’s reactions. Did you take a wrong turn recently? Go back and read. Does it make sense? Did you not give that scene the time it deserved? Did you make a mistake in motives? Is one of your characters acting strangely? Or are they being so gratuitously stupid they could star in Expendables 4: The Attack of Sly Stone’s Arm Veins

Or is this a world-building problem? Are you trying to explain something that you don’t fully understand yourself? That’s like a toddler trying to explain thermonuclear dynamics: it might be cute as hell, but it’s not getting us anywhere. Sometimes the problem is that you started writing before you were done thinking.

And, yeah, you can bull your way through and move on. But, in my experience, if those sorts of problems crop up once, they’re going to again. Just like that tweaked muscle, if you don’t repair it, it’ll cause problems down the road. 

So, when you’re stuck, take a step back and look behind you. Sometimes a problem sneaks up on you like a coyote ready to rip out your hamstrings. 

*Bare Knuckle Writer: still better than WebMD.

The Ghosts of Past Drafts: Rewriting A Manuscript

“BITCH GET BACK DOWN THERE.”: St. Michael exorcising demons with the help of of his pretty floral bonnet.

Rewriting is harder than people think. I mean, you have the story down, in one form or another. You have the characters. Now it’s just a matter of taking out the bits that don’t work and replacing them with ones that do. Easy-peasy, right?

Imagine I’m pressing the world’s largest error buzzer right now.

See, it would be easy if the pieces you don’t want were happy to go away. If they would die, quietly and peacefully somewhere out of the way, like a gerbil that crawled into the wall and was never seen again.

But they don’t. They want to live. So they claw and scramble and pester, trying to get back into the story.

This is a problem I call the Haunting. Old drafts can haunt your current one, trying to warp it back to a mirror of themselves, flaws and all. 

Most of the problem is pure authorial laziness. Cutting and pasting without really—and I mean really—examining whether that scene works? Then get your bell, book, and candle, lads, because you’re going to have to exorcise something out of it in the future. 

Rewriting is like fighting the old draft for control. 

I was trying to rewrite a scene. A pivotal one, one that had been in the story since its very conception, when it was but a story fetus. I was fine with how it started and ended in the original, but the bits in the middle didn’t work with the changes I’d made. This will be easy, I thought. After all, the end points are the same. It’s just a matter of joining them up in a new way. Simple.

But every time I tried to rewrite it, the old scene wanted to intrude. Dialogue that I liked tried to work itself in, despite the fact that none of those characters were present any more. A fight kept trying to go a certain way when it had to go differently. Even setting details kept creeping in. The ghosts of those old drafts were doing their damnedest to hang on. 

When I realized what the problem was, I closed all other windows, including the old drafts I was working from, opened a new document, set my computer to block all incoming notifications, and started rewriting that scene again. With nothing to refer back to, it went easier. Not easy, mind you. I still had to claw for every sentence. But at the end of that day, I had a scene that was no longer haunted. 

A note for those of you embarking on the journey that is the rewrite: watch out for ghosts. Because they’ll drag you back every chance they get. 

Prime Cuts: Carving Up Your First Draft

I didn’t need those paragraphs anyway. Or that chapter.

My zero drafts are a mess. Too many words, too much explaining, some really obvious character slips, the occasional monologue*…it’s not pretty.

But it doesn’t have to be. That’s why it’s a zero draft: so I can edit it and make it pretty.

Most of the energy in making the second draft–or, as I call it–the Working Draft–goes into cutting. Getting rid of the crap so I can see what I’ve actually made. Making the writing flow better so that the story comes out without the writing getting in the damn way.

If you want to picture how I edit, imagine a sentient woodchipper and Edward Scissorhands had a mechanized baby that loves red pens and slash-and-burn deforestation.

But how do I know what to get rid of? What gets tossed into my whirring mechanical maw, and what passes by, unnoticed for today?

Simple. There’s a list.

Here are my top picks for how to make your writing go down smoother than the Skittle vodka your cousin made that time.**

1) Kill the passive voice. For a refresher:

“The sundae bar was burned by the fire-breathing velociraptor.” (Passive) [edited: thanks for the catch, sucoletta!}

“The firebreathing velocipraptor burned everything in sight, including the sundae bar.” (Active)

A good hint to discern whether you’re writing passive voice is the use of ‘was’ and its confederates. Changing to active not only makes the writing smoother–less crap to get in the way–it also wastes less words. Which is important if you’re writing to spec.

2) Murder the qualifiers. Here’s a partial list:

very, kinda, sort of, massively, intensely, insanely, a small amount, a vast amount, partially, a little, a bit, a lot…

God, I could just keep going.

In 99% of cases, these add nothing to the sentence they infest like ticks on a monkey’s ass. Degrees can much more elegantly be conveyed if they’re necessary. Leaving you with nothing but clean, useful monkey ass.

However, I’m not from the school of thought that says you should never have adjectives. But only use the ones you need. “Glanced quickly” is not only redundant, it’s wasteful. CUT.

3) Suffocate your desire to explain everything. Go back and read Wednesday’s post (bonus: contains strippers) and remember: showing is generally better than telling. And explaining, whether it’s done by the narrative or by a character, is boring. Not to say that you shouldn’t explain anything, but do so with a light hand.

Note: this doesn’t just apply to the alternative world stuff you’ve made that your are very proud of. Think twice before having characters explain their motivations. One, it should be evident already. Two, no one likes to listen to a bunch of self-justifying crap.

This is the biggest one for me. In the zero draft, I’m generally working out the reasons for things as I go, and they end up coming out of some character’s mouth. On the next pass, I edit that crap out. After all, I already know it, and, for the most part, the reader doesn’t need to. And what they do need to know can be presented in a far more subtle way.

I’m always looking for that new edge, so: what are your tricks? What do you cut out of your zero draft?

*I’ve started leaving a line from The Incredibles as my editing comment: “You caught me monologuing!”

**Taste the rainbow. The burning, chemical rainbow.

 

The Bride of Frankenstein: Making Your Own Beta Reader From Scratch

“What do you think? Why did you laugh? Do you liiiiiiike it?” “For fuck’s sake, Clarence, shut the hell up and let me read.”

There comes a time in every writer’s life cycle–shortly after shedding the cocoon of old Dorito bags and scotch labels, but before growing the carapace and fangs that mark a fully developed member of the species–when s/he wants to share the product of their labours with another.

It’s a very special time: the search for a beta reader.*

But, how, among the scads of online critique groups and meatspace people, do you find The One?** Is there a questionnaire? Can you sign up for online manuscript dating?*** Do you just pick one at random and hope for the best?

Here’s an idea that I don’t see much: you can make your own beta reader.

No, not from parts. Put that brain in a jar down.

What I mean is that, if you know someone who is willing and able, you can teach them what to look for.

But they should meet a few criteria first. Here’s your checklist for a trainee beta reader:

1) They should be literate. Or you will have a buttload of other teaching to do.

2) They should be willing to read your stuff. And ‘willing’ here means ‘enthusiastic’. Not ‘will do it because otherwise you might withhold sex/friendship/the necessities of life’. Subtle difference.

3) They should be willing to be honest. And you should be willing to accept their honesty without going batshit, even if you don’t agree with it.

4) They should be willing to put in the time. Because what you’re asking is not small. You’re asking them to do for free what professional editors do for a living. Respect that.

After that, it’s a matter of showing them what to look for. In the case of the Husband, one of my beta readers, I asked him to note where he got bored, and why. And where he had questions: ‘who’s this chick? what happened to that guy’s head?’ It helped narrow down problems because it showed me what goes through someone’s head while they read my work.

Final note: opening yourself up to beta readers is hard. Not like digging ditches hard, but still fucking hard. Krys likened it to telling someone that you like like them: you’re letting all your messy bits hang out there in the hopes that it’s reciprocated. And it might not be. But that’s a risk you have to take.

Because if you can’t open your work up to someone you know, how the hell are you ever going to open it up to a submissions editor?

*There’s some disagreement over whether it should be alpha reader or beta reader. I prefer beta because, of course, you are the first reader of your story.

**Or, depending on your needs, The Two. Or Three. Or Dozen. Whatever, I’m not judging.

***Actually, this is a good question: can you?

 

Coffee, Create, Repeat: Planning Chaos

My schedule is not that different from this. I even schedule a nap some days.

I have a daily routine: get up, read articles, drink coffee, get dressed*, write, exercise, lunch, shower, edit. Nearly all of the aforementioned activities are accompanied by music and the occasional caffeinated beverage. It sounds boring. That’s because it is. And that’s by design.

The less random daily shit I have to devote brain power to, the more space gets freed up for actual creativity. In other words, every second I don’t spend deciding if I’m going to read articles before or after my run is a second that I can use to think of reasons why my main villain seemingly devoted his entire life to being a giant douche. You know, the important stuff.

People think creativity is all about chaos: the endless swirl of energy that moves ideas around in your head and makes you spew them out on the page or the canvas or the eight-track**. And, you know, that’s part of it. But only part. Because the secret is to balance chaos with order. Very little gets created when you’re standing in front of the open fridge, wondering if you should have lunch now or later.

And then there’s the matter of time management. If your writing routine consists of ‘sitting down whenever I feel like it and scribbling down a few words before not looking at it for a month’, then you’re not going to produce as much work as someone with a more regular routine. Because of that, what you do produce will likely be of lower quality as well. Not because of talent, but because in order to get better at something you have to work at it consistently. I started a routine a couple of years ago, and the improvements I’ve seen in my writing in that span of time have kicked the living shit out of the improvements I saw in the years before when I was flailing around and figuring things out.

Now, what ‘consistently’ means to you is variable. I have to write five days out of seven, but I often do more because I want to. A lot of weeks I write every day. But not everyone likes to do that, even if they can. Maybe you’re a Saturday writer. And that’s fine. Maybe your routine involves getting up at 2 am to paint yourself with chocolate frosting and run naked through your neighbour’s backyard. And that’s fine, too.*** Whatever your routine is, just make sure it works—i.e., it makes you write.

And don’t forget to break your own rules every now and then. It’s a routine, not a prison sentence.

* I don’t like working in my pyjamas, though since I work from home, I totally could if I wanted to. That’s right: I’m just throwing that opportunity away because I can.
**I know there are artists out there who record on vinyl; is there anyone who’s doing eight-tracks?
***Just stay out of my backyard. I’ve placed bear traps.