Midpoint Check-In

Two weeks ago, I finally hit the midpoint in Highness’s second draft. There are things I want to adjust in the first half, but instead of putzing with it forever, I’ve sent it to my dear CPs for some much needed macro-level feedback. Now that it’s out of my hands for a good month, I wanted to reflect on my current thoughts and feelings before the feedback begins trickling in.

First, the facts. It’s hard to believe, but a year has passed since I last shared the story. I bounced scenes off my CPs occasionally, and my darling/brutally honest fiancee always had a look at a chapter’s first attempt, but other than that, the story has remained locked away on my laptop. Currently, the book clocks in at 77k (which will be whittled down to 60k when it’s all said and done). I’ve revised the first quarter (including overhauling the first plot point and completely changing the story’s trajectory) and drafted new scenes up to the midpoint. 1.5 notebooks are filled with scribbled outlines and charts, and I’ve put another 80k words of work into the story. While it’s crazy to think I’m only halfway through the book, it’s still been a productive year.

Aside from making progress in Highness, I’m continuing to learn a ton about writing and what works for me. I feel like I finally have a process for how I draft scenes. Handwritten micro-outlines and dialogue exercises are my methods of choice (and appeal to my tactile side) before I take to Scrivener. I’ve learned that I struggle to immediately jump from one scene into the next. I have to sleep on it, let it marinate. The bulk of my drafting is done on the weekends, then I spend the post-workday, post-practice weeknights layering in emotional beats and detail. To think I’ve got another 60k of work ahead of me is both daunting and exciting. Every pass and edit brings out more of the story’s heart, sheds another layer and reveals some unexpected, deeper truth. Highness still has a ways to go, but it’s closer now than it was last September, and I’m pumped for what’s ahead.

Since I’m forcing myself not to work on the book, I’m being intentional about filling my creative well. I’m halfway through Jay Kristoff’s Darkdawn and am chipping away at Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Finally started watching Breaking Bad (only a decade late), and that’s been a total treat. I’m continuing to steep myself in craft books and podcasts, and spending as much time as possible outside biking and rowing before the throes of winter are upon us. Have some traveling out east to do over the next month as well. In other words, plenty of things to both keep me distracted while I wait for feedback and reset my lens before I tackle the book’s third quarter.

Perhaps the biggest lesson this break has taught me is just how much I genuinely enjoy writing. I love the challenge of puzzling through arcs and plot threads, and the relentless quest toward making the story as strong as I can. It engages a part of my brain that is separate from my career. Having such an immersive project that I gleefully give entire days to is a blessing.  People talk about passion all the time, but how often do people find that healthy obsession and pour in. Perhaps the real question is how often do people commit themselves to anything, really.

The book is sure to change over the next year. I’ll draft the back half, and while I know where it’s headed, how my characters arrive there remains a mystery to be solved. Part me of is eager to finish, part of me hopes it never ends. This whole writing thing – this labor and passion and blessing – is just too damn fun.

 

For the Love of the Well

In reviewing the last few years, it’s easy to identify particular moments that made a massive impact on my writing. There was when my awesome friend, Ellen, shared it was possible for me — no MFA or English study outside of a few courses in college — to be published, and that Wattpad should be the last resort, not the goal. Or when I finished my first draft, then immediately decided to make a significant structural change that would require a rewrite of the entire manuscript. And, of course, when I signed up for the AbsoluteWrite July 2017 Camp NanoWrimo cabin with zero expectations, and came out with two of the best critique partners I could ever ask for. There are some books and podcasts which totally shaped my lens as well – Writing Excuses, First Draft, 88 Cups of Tea, Lessons from the Screenplay, Story by Robert McKee, Into the Woods by John Yorke, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass and so on. They helped build my confidence and belief that I too could be a writer and an artist. But beyond all the study and reading and constant dissection of media, some of the best lessons I’ve learned about crafting story have simply come from play — or, as we like to call it, The Well.

During one late night word wars session last November, I was neck-deep in rewriting the second draft for Highness and struggling to get anything on the page. Now, my dear CP, Kira, has this fantastic sci-fi story featuring one of my favorite characters in all of fiction and a world that I was chomping at the bit to play in. In an effort to have a positive word count for the wars session (#notnegative), I closed Scrivener, opened Word, and started writing what was essentially crossover fanfiction between our two unpublished manuscripts. It was totally goofy, drafty and so damn fun. Once Kira and I agreed we were the biggest dorks of all time, we proceeded to fire up a Google doc and go all in. Over the next three months, we wrote another 50k words on top of our normal manuscript work, spawned a badass idea to co-author, and shared hours of giddy laughter at whatever ridiculous trial we were putting our characters through. It was all excellent fun, and to my surprise, full of unexpected lessons that would help shape my writing and process. Here’s a short list of a few things I’ve learned in the Well.

1. Writing Fast

I’m not a perfectionist by nature. I’m a bit of a risk-taker, I make decisions quickly, and I’m not very detail-oriented. All these things are evident in varied aspects of my life, whether it be at work or rowing or figuring out what to cook for dinner. But then I open Scrivener, and suddenly I turn into this technical, methodical (read: slow) writer. I tracked my word count per hour this month, and I average around a whopping 180 words/hour. Woof. Fortunately, this is far from the case in the Well.

Speed is part of the deal in the Well. Usually, my contributions happen while I’m eating Greek yogurt before my morning commute, or I’m sneaking a quick update in before lights out. There’s no time to agonize over word choice or question if what’s going onto the page is “right”.  While my wc/hour ratio is low, my drafting speed has certainly increased. There are a lot more “[big emotional reaction]” and “[some slick worldbuilding element]” notes riddled throughout my drafts than ever before, and having the ability to continue past these bits that used to stop me entirely has been super productive.

2. Crafting Organic Storylines

Nothing has helped me embrace my inner pantser more than the Well. If the label is necessary, when it comes to my process I’m more of a ‘headlights plotter’. I have a general vision for the endgame, can see a few beats ahead, but haven’t entirely worked out how the characters are going to get there. What the Well has taught me is how to find inspiration in the open doors established earlier in the text. How to build block by block and allow character to dictate plot instead of an outline. It forces me to get deep with character emotion and reaction, and gives me permission to skip writing worldbuilding codices or a detailed outline before I jump into the story. Two years ago, I was more plotter than pantser. Now, it’s quite the opposite, and I’m having way more fun.

3. Trusting Your Internal Sense of Structure

When I started writing seriously, I realized that I’d retained little of my academic understanding of narrative structure. I couldn’t have told anyone a damn thing on the difference between three-act and five-act, and hell, I remember one time totally flipping the climax and resolution when discussing a film I’d recently watched. Nowadays, I’m a bit of a structure junkie. Say the phrase ‘value transition’ or ‘character arc’ and I get excited. My notebooks are full of graphs and scribbles that look more like circuits homework than plotting. I read about structure constantly and am always on a quest to deepen my understanding of how to wield it in effective ways. But still, even with all this study and analysis, I oft question whether I’m hitting the proper beats, if my plot is a strong external metaphor for internal character change, if my scenes are truly fractals of the overarching acts, and so on and so on. It’s enough to do my head in. John Yorke talks about how story form is inherent to our human nature because it’s based on how we process information. For something that’s supposed to run deep in my bones, I sure worry about it a lot.

Again, in comes the Well. Pure pantsing. Only partial control over story direction. And nothing remotely close to notes on theme or arc or central premise. Yet, the farther we get into the story, the clearer it becomes that these plot beats exist, and magically enough, they hit at appropriate times in the story. That our characters have needs and wants not by any particular design, but by playing them out as people. This ties in with the organic bit above, and also validates that we have some clue about how structure works. It’s a good reminder to stop trying to shoe-horn plot and theme and whatever else, and to simply trust the story.

4. Play, Play, and Play Some More

Sometimes, when an element of Highness isn’t working quite right, or I want to test out a character or idea, I’ll toss it in the Well. It’s crazy how toying around with different pieces has either helped me solve a story problem or kept me from spending time on an idea that wouldn’t have worked.

More importantly, the Well is a good reminder for why we put ourselves through this crazy thing called writing, because it’s so much fun. There is little in my adult life that lends itself to the same innocent excitement that comes from drafting stories in made-up worlds with a friend. Waking up to new words gets the creative juices flowing first thing in the morning, and there’s always this lingering anticipation of wondering what will come next. And for those days I’m feeling down about my writing, I’ll go into the Well, because it always, always reminds me of all the good that has come from embarking on this journey.

Good characters. Good stories. Good friends.

🙂

Happy Birthday, 88 Cups of Tea!

One of my absolute favorite podcasts, 88 Cups of Tea, is celebrating its four-year anniversary, which means I’ve got a perfect excuse to write a love letter for this awesome community.

I’m a complete sucker for interview podcasts. Intimate, one-on-on conversations are how I spend most of my day job, and I have wicked respect for people that ask good questions. Yin and her team have truly created something special with 88 Cups of Tea. In her interviews, Yin builds an atmosphere that invites meaningful conversation, and while I love technical craft advice as much as the next writer (seriously, I do, but that’ll require a separate post), it’s the deep dive into vulnerable topics that resonates the most. Storytelling brought me to the podcast, but the thoughtful dialogue on many of the topics closest to my heart — identity (especially as a queer woman of color), mental health, family, and personal definitions of success, to name a few — continue to bring me back. Layer the heartfelt essays on top, and you can’t keep me away.

The community surrounding the podcast continues to impress me. Honestly, it’s frickin awesome. There are so many different avenues to connect with other writers, and a quick scroll through the Facebook group reveals just how positive and supportive everyone is. I’ve met some incredible people, and having the podcast to bond over is so damn cool.

A quick plug for my favorite episode, since I can’t think of another three-hour, uncut conversation that I’ve found so impactful elsewhere. I had never read any of Victoria Schwab’s novels before I first listened to this interview, but it blew me away. I have so much respect and admiration for both Yin and Schwab, and this conversation truly makes you feel like you’re sitting there with them. Listen to it here.

To Yin and the entire 88 Cups of Tea crew, thanks for all that you do to keep this community running. Wishing you the happiest of birthdays, and can’t wait to see what the next year brings!

 

Been a Minute

To say this post is overdue is far too kind. Nearly nine months have passed since I checked in, and honestly, things have been wild. Coast-to-coast travel for work and rowing in the fall, another round of heavy travel in the spring (which I remain in the thick of), way too much snow, another CampNano, our rowing team qualifying for nationals. And I got engaged! Crazy. However, while this blog’s been neglected, my silence here should not be mistaken for a lack of progress on the MS or a break from studying craft.

My last update occurred during a turning point in my process. In early September of 2018, I’d sent off the first 40k or so of Highness’s second draft to my beloved CPs. The next six months, I tackled revision based on their feedback, and man, I learned so much. Not just about what worked and what didn’t (which don’t get me wrong, is super helpful), but how to approach the story through a different lens. How to go one, two, ten levels deeper into character and perspective, how to lean into what made me both excited and uncomfortable. Heartfelt criticism can lift a manuscript, and I’m forever grateful for my friends, who are beyond wonderful and willingly spend their free time with the story. The second draft continues to be an entirely different animal from the first (t god), and at the current stage, I’m back to stripping out massive chunks of text and drafting the story anew. There’s plenty more writing to be done and changes – so, so many changes – to be made, and I’m pumped for all of it.

Amidst all the revisions and rewriting, my dear CP/favorite Aussie, Kira, and I had the grand idea to goof off and write cross-over fanfiction of our WIPs, because, well, why not? More on this later, but long story short, having a writing sandbox to play and collaborate in has been incredibly valuable. Even better when they spur totally new side projects to co-author. 🙂

So, not a ton of work on the blog, but plenty being written in other places. I’m still listening to storytelling podcasts everyday, reading (just finished A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab and am currently in the middle of The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo), and trying to do at least one thing daily to develop as a writer. Staying busy and having a blast. Now, just need to update this blog again before March 2020, and things will be all good.

The Second Draft Thus Far

Holy smokes. Time flies. Fall is certainly upon us. The athletes have returned to school, leaves are browning, and Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back at Starbucks (super basic of me, I know, but can’t deny the PSL). Summer ended up productive on all fronts – writing, rowing, work. I’m on the cusp of tackling the second part of Highness, so wanted to share my feelings on the revision process thus far.

Everyone says your first draft is simply a matter of getting the words down. Everyone says your first draft is about figuring out character, plot, theme. Everyone says your first draft will suck.

They were right. And that’s an incredibly satisfying admission.

I don’t think I hit my stride with the first draft until the last 20k words. The final 20k of 109k (and let’s not discuss Draft Zero, which was 60k of slapping random scenes down back in December 2016. That has now been entirely cut). Frankly, “hitting my stride” still may be a generous self-assessment.

I’m about a third of the way through the second draft, and it has been less editing and more gutting of the entire manuscript. “Killing your darlings” has never been an issue for me – I liberally brandish the axe of revision. Multiple subplots were cut. POVs have disappeared. Character attributes got ratcheted up. Massive structural changes were implemented. This book is an entirely different animal than what I spent all of 2017 writing. The core elements of the story have remained, but my second draft isn’t revision. It’s a full-blown rewrite. The story is stronger for it.

I’m totally one of those people that enjoys writing the second draft more than the first. I like revision.

If you can’t tell, I’m a metrics nerd, so bear with me. Over the last twenty months, upward of 300k written words have resulted in 38k that’s in decent enough shape to go out to my critique partners, and that bit is still far from perfect. But the story is moving nearer to actualizing the vision. It’s closer than it was six months ago, and I can’t wait to see where it will be six months from now. Plugging away, plugging away.

Camp NaNoWriMo Halftime Report

This summer is flying by. When you live in a place that spends seven months of the year under the threat of snow, every warm weekend is filled with trips, weddings, rowing races, and just about anything else people want to do before Milwaukee returns to being a tundra. Although it’s been a busy few months, the writing goals haven’t changed, and I’m still laying down words in the second draft. One of my ways of staying on track is by participating in Camp NaNoWriMo.

This is my fourth time in a NaNoWriMo session (three camps and a rebellious November). I prefer the Camps for two main reasons – custom goals and the cabins. Unlike November NaNoWriMo’s 50k word grind, Camp goals can be set for words, pages, time, whatever. I’ve tinkered around with different metrics depending on where I’m at in the WIP, and though I do find myself most productive with tracking word count, I appreciate the flexibility. The Camp Cabins, which act as more of a chat room than anything else, are a great place to share ideas, commiserate, celebrate, and build a sense of community throughout the month. I’ve met some awesome people through the cabins, and the extra layer of accountability is fantastic. Plus, I’m a geek and love all the charts and graphs.

We’re halfway through July Camp, so time for a progress report. I set my goal to 12k words, since that aligns with what where Act I should wrap up in the second draft of Highness. I’m about 7k in now, so pacing along just fine. I’m fairly disciplined when it comes to writing consistently, but the nice thing about Camp is that it pushes me to crack open Scrivener everyday. I’ll still take a day or two off when I need to mentally transition through scenes, but otherwise, I’m putting new words on the page at a quicker clip than usual. The month has been fun, and I’ll be pumped to have an entirely rewritten Act I by the end of July (writing the second draft has been an experience in itself, but I’ll save that post for another day). Two weeks left to go!

 

Ode to Libraries

Libraries are nostalgic places for me. Growing up, my mom used to take my siblings and me to the library regularly. We’d compete in summer reading challenges, and I remember being super pumped as a kid when I finally could elevate to the ‘Gold Readers’ card. When I moved from Illinois to Virginia in middle school (talk about crazy adolescent transition), the library in my new town was walking distance from our house and one of the first places we visited. I’d always leave with more books than I could feasibly finish before the due dates (which naturally lead to fines I had to pay off with my piddly lawn-cutting money), and the innocent excitement that comes with holding heaps of new worlds in your hands.

Throughout college, I’d check-out an occasional book, but mostly I was in the school library to study. I didn’t peruse the shelves or chat with the librarians. As a freshman, I opened a new public library card when I moved to Milwaukee, but only went there once, maybe twice. Back then, I went to the library to attend overdramatic club meetings or Friday night study sessions with water bottles of gin.

Once I started reading more as an adult, the financial advisor in me promised myself I wouldn’t go broke buying every interesting book. Instead of shopping for more shelves, I marched ten blocks west from my office to the city’s main branch for the bookish. Milwaukee’s Central Library is gorgeous. Mosaic tiles covers the floor, and pillars stretch toward the high domed ceiling. The entrance alone was spiritual, sacred. Eventually, I stopped drooling at the Renaissance architecture and headed to the service desk to renew my card, which to my surprise (ahem, horror) had been expired for eight years. Eight. Years. I couldn’t believe it. I quickly updated my card, picked up a few books, and left with that same excitement I had as a kid.

mkelibrary

Entrance to the Milwaukee Central Library

The library is even better than I remembered. Now that I’m able to place holds on the app and download audiobooks to my phone, I’m checking out all sorts of titles that I wouldn’t have wanted to buy before. I recently read an article from the Pews Research Center that millennials are the most likely generation to use public libraries. Though that might say something about the millennial financial situation in the US (which is an entirely separate topic I’ll refrain from soapboxing about), I still think it’s a pretty dope statistic. The library is awesome, and though I still occasionally return my books back late, paying that fine doesn’t bother me like it used to. Such an amazing public institution is worth so much more.