Editing My Novel: The Value of Taking a Break

When finished the second draft of my novel, The Perfect Traveler, I had a sludge of slow cooked emotions in my pot. Relief, pride, discouragement, frustration, embarrassment, achievement….never has the classic writing advice to, “put it away in a drawer for awhile and forget about it” felt like such a pressure value to me. I took it to heart. The print out was bound, set aside, and forgotten. The intention was 2 months.

I read other fiction, focused more intently on work and family, and when my novel occurred to me I’d jot down a note on a sticky pad, slap it to the manuscript, and close the drawer again.

Shirley Jackson has nearly become a patron saint. I discovered her writing during this season (how did I ever get this far in life without knowing her?) and am still devouring her canon. I wrote a short story to give away to friends, now an annual tradition of mine. I debated never writing again. For three of those weeks, I didn’t.

I didn’t wonder when to pick it up again. Whenever too much time passes without writing, a panicky anxiety presses on my chest. That rose in my throat the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I’ve read somewhere that anxiety is to writers what the wind is to a storm: all that churning spurs the action. It seems essential. I saw a phrase that goes, “write like you’re running out of time” and thought yes, that’s it exactly.

Blackwing Palomino sharpened and ready for the editing ahead.

Blackwing Palomino sharpened and ready for the editing ahead.

I have a new Blackwing Palomino sharpened and ready to go and clarity on the next few steps. Most importantly, the thing I was worried the most about– length and simplicity of plot– has been answered. Those aren’t necessarily hinderances, let alone the hallmarks of failure I feared they were.

It’s as if someone came and shoveled away all the snow that covered my path.

How Long Should a Novel Be? (and other anxious doubts)

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This weekend marked an enormous milestone for me: I completed the first working draft of my novel.

I did not celebrate.

In fact, I cried.

Here’s why.

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Set up and digging in for a marathon weekend of writing my novel, “The Perfect Traveler”

I’ve been working on this story for a year now and finished the first structural draft last fall. It had a different working title then- “Where Do We Go From Here?” but a friend of mine has a happy musical number of that same name and it threw off the sound in my head. My story isn’t necessarily happy. It’s a psychological love story between two travelers and it spins off an idea I got from the recent Amazon Kindle ad campaign #haveKINDLEwillTRAVEL. It sometimes gets quite dark. So I changed the title. I also scrapped the back half of the draft last May.

My goal was to get a solid second draft of, “The Perfect Traveler” crafted by the end of September so that I could have a cleaned up third draft ready to show to a professional editor by the end of the year. I hadn’t yet decided if I wanted to try and pitch it to Amazon or not (because it’s fun throwing a pebble into a gianormous ocean to see the ripple effect, right?) or if I just want to self-publish and consider it measurable progress towards my lifetime goal of being a successful novelist.

I take goal setting seriously.

I also take my family, full-time employment, friends and a host of other projects (like #100runningdays and #storyswatch) seriously. The calendar was racing past. I ticked off the squares. I saw the holiday decor hit the stores. Someone threw out there were only 12 more Saturdays until Christmas. I broke into hives of anxiety. I was getting close to a full-on freak-out of failure. And then, miraculously, this weekend opened up.

My kids went to see their dad for the first visit in a long while. My husband went to visit his brothers for a football fest. Three whole days opened up. It was the parting of the Red Sea of Obligations for me to be home alone and write. This. Was. My. Chance.

As you can see in the photo above, I was well fortified. Twizzlers, a bottle of Pinot Grigio, a meatball pizza from my favorite brick oven place, Sour Patch Kids, and coffee. I cleaned the house first (can’t write with a dirty sink) and I shut off all the social media. I hid my phone. As they say, I decided to, “put my butt in the chair and write” until that draft was complete, story told, ready to print and mark up.

6 hours on Friday, 14 on Saturday, 10 on Sunday. I could feel the momentum build. Then, my butt went numb. The deeper I got into the story, the more I was loving it. This is meaningful to me because a few years ago I abandoned a manuscript at the 75% mark after coming to loathe it. This one has good juju. I love my characters. I love seeing the progress I’ve made in cutting unnecessary words. My husband came home as I was finishing the second-to-the-last chapter and I hollered, “Baby! You’d better be ready to celebrate because I’m going to make this deadline!”

Context clue: I get frothy about celebrating milestones. I make them up and I make a big deal out of achieving them. My birthday lasts a full month, my projects all get hashtags, and I rejoice over baby steps.

And then, there it was: the final word at the end of chapter 22. I’d told the story from start to finish. Can we say I’d looked forward to that moment for my entire cognizant life? Yes, we can. It was after dark on Sunday night, the pizza and wine were gone, and I’d hid the rest of the Twizzlers from the kids. Everyone came home. Out of time, I told Scrivener to compile and took a look at the word count.

25,000 words.

Nanowrimo lathers writers into 50,000 word drafts in a month. Standard novels have a suggested length of 80,000. There are notable exceptions like Harry Potter’s bloated lengths and Hemingway’s brevity for Old Man and the Sea. But, for average Jo March’s like me, we have to follow the standard rules of publishing.

I’m really short on words. It’s probably the first time in my life I can say that.

Cue the tears and self-doubt. I wrote harder than I’ve ever written in my life this weekend on something I want more than almost any other life accomplishment. Writing comes right after my kids. Maybe I just don’t have the chops to tell a story well at that length. I have other stories that are long; Nano-drafts that sit near 100k of pure crap. But this time I was sparse on purpose, trying to write clean. An editor will still need room to chop. Doubling my word count is essentially re-doing the entire previous year. It’s like telling the marathon runner, “now turn around and run back.” Most would probably walk away.

Today I’ve worked on processing. My daughter sagely suggested that rather than try to overwrite scenes I worked hard to tell sparsely but completely, I should simply try to add in 25 more scenes. My good friends suggested I take note on the devastation I’m feeling and remember that it’s useful. They threw out titles that are beautifully told in fewer words. A few suggested its a novella. Another said maybe Amazon would even prefer a novella so it can be pitched as a quick travel read on the plane. (One can hope.)

I sent it to print. I’ll be taking Stephen King’s advice later today. My draft, which I still feel so proud and protective of, that I love so very much, will be put into a drawer and set aside for a few weeks. I’m going to read, ruminate, work, keep up my projects, and let some insight steep.

I want my story to be whatever length it needs to be.

Novel Notes: The End of Act 1

I’ve got a scene by scene plan for all of Act 1 and now I have a decision to make. Should I continue plotting acts 2 and 3 now? Or, is it better to write the draft for all of Act 1 and then plot the remaining acts?

It feels like I’m hiking and just came upon a fork. One way ahead is an immediate uphill climb when I’m already a little winded. The other, a loop back to the beginning with enough mileage to satisfy that I’ve put forward a good effort.

There it is: my answer. Finishing a novel means I’m in this for the long haul- not just the glory of being forever in the process. I can take the easy way out and never finish, or I can keep putting one word in front of the other and working my way forward.

Act 2, here I come.

Photo taken at The Dreamette, a Jacksonville favorite for dipped cones.

Photo taken at The Dreamette, a Jacksonville favorite for dipped cones.

Novel Notes: Creating a Scene Plan

5 scenes in I can already tell a spreadsheet scene plan is going to be a powerful tool for me to use.  I think I got the idea from Novel Writing for Dummies, though I’m not positive; I’ve got several help-books going at once. By using my 3 act summary in Scrivner and character list, I can now further break down each act into individual scenes, track who the characters are, and what needs to be accomplished within each scene to keep things progressing. One act in, I can already see how this illuminates the path ahead.

Photo taken at Clark's Fish Camp in Mandarin

Photo taken at Clark’s Fish Camp in Mandarin

Quote to Ponder: Ernest Hemingway

“You must be prepared to work always without applause.” -Ernest Hemingway

 

Lady Magnolia, as common a southern grace as sweet tea and afternoon storms, you know...the ones that snag the heat?

Lady Magnolia, as common a southern grace as sweet tea and afternoon thunder showers come to snag the curtain of jasmine scented heat and humidity. 

What Flannery accomplished in 2 hours a day, most of us won’t do in a lifetime.

“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”   – Flannery O’Connor

 

It reminds me of another quote I’m fond of, that I can’t remember who said, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

I’m currently enjoying a bit of a writer’s high. After pounding away for almost a year and a half on a novel that is progressing slowly, inch square by inch square, but by getting up per the habit anyway and inching along, I had space provided when this mysterious muse decided to plop itself down on my brain and funnel its words out of my fingers. I don’t even care that it’s for an entirely different story. The feeling of my fingers airily skittering over the keyboard as words fly out without effort is worth it.

Of course, I say “without effort” and that is the funny irony! I had to first cultivate the habit, which has taken a tremendous amount of effort, much of it not fun and with no promise of any reward but the satisfaction of having done it.

So, here’s to you, 5 am! In the hours I rarely knew waking unless nursing a baby, I now have a fully summarized plot outline, start to finish. I have a cast of 9 crystal clear characters with histories and layers and a part to play in the story. I have a title, a vision for cover art, and have begun a scene spreadsheet. I say weird writer-newbie things on Twitter and sound more like a word nerd than ever before.

The terrain of writing is gradually inclining. Fleshing out all those story scenes is no doubt going to have some arduous progress and probably a few slips and slides backward too. At least I have a plan and a habit. I also have experience with ant sized increments forward. I know I’m optimist by nature but I can’t help feeling I might have a winning formula there.

Incidentally, Jacksonville achieves connectivity through its many bridges over the St. John's River.

Incidentally, Jacksonville achieves connectivity through its many bridges over the St. John’s River.

Dreams as Plot Lines

I discovered something interesting about writing as a practice this week.

First, my disciplined habit: It’s my practice to get up early, usually around  5 or 5:30, in order to write in a quiet house before our days get started. Most days this hour will be the only hour where I am completely alone, which ups the ante of making sure I have it. Introverts need time alone to recharge their batteries. If I never write see commercial success with writing, I will still need to get up and write every single day. Most days, it feels essential to my survival.

Still, I’m not a morning person so how this practice came to be was the first series of steps. Coherent thought before dawn is not my forte. Getting up early hasn’t been productive enough in the past to make the lost sleep worth it. When I started working full time a year ago and my teenagers cranked up the velocity of their own trajectory into their wild beyonds, I started feeling out of breath and out of time. My waking hours are simply just very, very full. No two ways about it. Writing and time alone had completely vanished except for my time spent driving between the last carpool stop and the office and then again in the evening, navigating a hairy rush hour home.

When I got sick of rotating through loud pop music stations on my commute, it dawned on me that I could listen to books and podcasts that could at least keep the craft on my mind. And, one of the first themes I heard when I got this new habit underway was the value in setting a regular time slot in place in order to hammer out words. It’s a practice, a discipline…decidedly not inspirational or focused on a muse. It’s just getting up and grinding it out so that the muscles are trained and the space is created. When the muse does decide to show up, so goes the thought, there will be space available to inhabit.

Interestingly, I found that when I get up at 5 instead of 6, I’m actually more alert. I’m so enamored at the gift of this quiet time alone and the outlet to express that the words are pouring out. I don’t have many mornings where I’m sitting wondering what to say. My story lines are picking up seamlessly most of the time. If they don’t, I write on something else. No big. Just do it.

My rule is that I must be in bed the night before by 9:30, asleep by 10:15 and I must sleep in at least one weekend morning. If that doesn’t happen, then no getting up early. This is as much for health and sanity as the writing habit is. My life has too many demands on it for me to devalue rest.

So that’s the background. Last Monday night I slept fitfully, stuck in a reoccur-ant nightmare cycle. I kept crying in my sleep, waking up, going back to sleep, and falling right back into the same dream. I often dream in full color, with plots, characters, and even soundtracks. It’s not that dream was so frightening; the moment that kept replaying was the disastrous discovery of the protagonist. She was shocked, horrified, dumbfounded…then immediately surveying the damage. That one scene kept going without progressing forward. My alarm went off in the middle of it and I deliberately went back to sleep, thinking I could snap it into closure. Twice that happened. The scene did not progress and eventually I had to get up or be late for work.

But I decided to write it down. I still had 15 minutes in my practice time slot. Writing down dreams usually results in scenes of ridiculousness; some sci-fi fantasy mystery psychic nonsense that doesn’t seem nearly as coherent on paper as it did near midnight during REM sleep. This one was different. In a very Anne Tyler/Nora Ephron way, this one has an interesting arc with an even more interesting cast. I wrote it down Tuesday morning and have worked on it every day since. The characters are snapping into focus as clearly as if they were walking up and shaking my hand.  Title, outline, and cast were all there in the dream, streaming out through my fingers onto the digital page.

“Your job is to write it down” said more than one of my audio books. I think I get it now.

Photo taken on the dock of Mandarin Park @Julington Creek after a perfect summer rain.

Photo taken on the dock of Mandarin Park @Julington Creek after a perfect summer rain.