So now that my debut novel has officially launched (yay!!), and it’s even been featured in USA TODAY (what??) it’s time to finish the sequel. Caveat: I’ve been trying to finish the sequel since snow was on the ground, and have “worked” on said novel by baking brownies, vacuuming, feeding the birds, and—well, you get the idea. When I get stalled in writing, my house is tidy and full of baked goods. I’m near the end of the novel now, putting off writing the actual ending until I’ve done one more revision of the entire draft. This is how I operate. I’m a binge-writer. I write in fantastic spurts, for hours on end, during which I forget to eat, shower, cook, and do aforementioned vacuuming. Then I do my typical workweek and try to get a decent amount of sleep, go without writing for days (until it hurts) and the next time there’s a day off, I go at it again.
My plan was to have a finished revised draft by March 1. I was going to send it to my favorite beta reader and writing comrade, then do my final revision when I had her edits, and voila! Finished and ready to send to my publishers.
But then I got stuck. My writing partner Katie (have you read her books yet? You should do so immediately. Go here.) and I were exchanging chapters early on, and frankly I just pushed myself to write too quickly. I am NOT a fast writer. I daydream. I calculate. I play “what if” and map out the possibilities and drive myself bonkers with potential outcomes. All while trying to listen to the characters. All of this takes time. (Not that Katie doesn’t do these things, but I think she has the gift of doing these things WHILE writing, which explains her superpower of banging out a quality draft the first go round.) My first drafts are bad. Too lean, not enough layers. But I take Anne Lamott’s advice and power through them, because she’s right: you write your excellent, brilliant, dynamic book by writing the shitty first draft.**
Problem was, I hated sending Katie parts of that draft. I finally called for a time out. “Let me finish a good draft,” I told her. “Let me send it when I’ve figured it out.”
My books feel like puzzles. I see a lot of the pieces early on, but don’t always see the proper sequence of events. I was stalled in this “assembling” stage for a while. Like, through the whole winter. I knew how the book would end, but was having trouble getting there. The more I agonized over it, the more I stalled out. I used to agonize over the stalling out, but now I don’t. I’ve learned how to overcome it.
1. Watch TV. You may scoff, but it’s true. I watch TV shows I admire for their characters, plot structure, and dialogue (the same things I look for in a good book). I watch Justified and Dexter. I love almost every character in Justified (even the ones with cold, rotten little hearts.) I love the way they talk, the way they interact, the way they move scenes forward. Watching with a critical eye helps me think about what I’m doing with my characters. Have I made them alive enough? Have I maximized their potential? Have I made them real enough?
2. Listen to audiobooks. My temp job may be dull, but it leaves me time to listen. Listening to books is a whole different experience. It lets you pay attention to the language itself. I came into writing through a love of words: this reminds me to pay attention to the sound of everything— to the rhythm, the sentence structure, and the speed and pacing of my story. Favorite audiobooks thus far: You by Caroline Kepnes (read by Santino Fontana, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (read by David Tennant) and the Harry Potter books (read by Jim Dale).
3. Read (duh. of course!). I’m convinced you can’t be good writer if you don’t read. Reading a wide variety of books also helps me rethink what I’m doing with my own novel, just because every writer treats plot and characters so differently. I’ve been focused on story structure lately, which has helped tremendously as I plot out the missing events in my own book. (Did I revel key moments too soon? Do I need a longer chain reaction? More serious consequences to Character X’s actions?) Recent books: Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain, My Chinese America by Allen Gee, The Likeness by Tana French.
These tactics help me get a valuable shift in perspective. Watching how other folks master their craft often helps me think about my own books in a different way, just long enough to shake something loose in my head that lets more creativity in and pushes the mental editor out. The number one rule of problem solving, after all, is to get outside your problem and view it from a different perspective. If you’re a writer, you watch how other writers weave those masterful plots and create unforgettable characters. If you’re lucky, it shakes something loose in you, and then it’s full speed ahead.
Now I’m working toward a May 1 deadline, doing one more revision before sending it to my favorite reader on April 1. I’ve got my Netflix and my Audible ready, and week in April set aside to do a binge rewrite. Here we go.
BAYOU MY LOVE is now available on Amazon, and of course, wherever books are sold.
**Sorry Mom and Grandma. Mrs. Lamott is famous for her “Shitty First Drafts,” and I just can’t say it better than she does.
photo courtesy of morgefile.com