Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why Do We Torture Ourselves?

Ever since I finished my mega revision last week, I've been TIRED. The day after Christmas tired. The just got home from Disneyland tired. The sleep for twelve hours and still take two naps during the day tired. (Yes, I did that today.)

I've thought a lot about why we writers do this to ourselves. Writing a novel isn't a picnic in the park, a dreamy thing you do while sitting in a flowered meadow while the words come flowing to your brain. Like any form of creation, it is a violent act. Light ripping apart from darkness. Division in the mind, the heart. It makes you question everything you thought you believed in. It exposes all your weaknesses. Sometimes you feel like you are everything. Sometimes, like nothing. These fictional characters have a will as fierce as your own. They demand their stories be told, no matter how busy you are, how sleep deprived.

So why go through with it when writing is, in fact, a very effective form of torture?

I started writing this novel during the busiest, most stressful and inconvenient time of my life. I had just donated a kidney and, though I'd finished recovering physically from the experience, my emotions were still working their way back up. It didn't helped that I'd just moved across the country. Everything was different. My husband was working a job where he was gone night and day. I felt like a single mother raising three young children. Nothing "bad" was happening, but my mind was exhausted to the point where I was crying like a leaky faucet for several hours a day. Not sobbing...not even sad...just overwhelmed. Drip, drip, drip. I couldn't turn it off.

Then I got that crazy idea. The one that said, "Hey, you should write a book." What was I thinking? I have absolutely no idea.

But guess what? In the act of adding something new to my insane life--more importantly, of CREATING something, something I could control (or so I thought until I met my characters)--I began to feel...better. Because I was doing something. Yes, I'd been doing plenty of things, but now I was doing something that spoke to that part deep inside me that seemed to be wondering if I'd forgotten all about her.

So I got to know her more.

She's a bit of a beast, that deep-buried Katie. She's wildly sensitive, quick-tempered, emotional and curious. She frightens me sometimes. But we're becoming better friends. I think I can live with this girl.

She is why I push myself beyond my seemingly impossible limits. Why I crash and burn after imposing crazy deadlines on myself. Why I agonize over perfecting pages, sentences, word counts, verbs.

Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it...all the torture. I will think I need a long relaxing break. But then after a nap or a bowl of ice cream, that inner Katie pokes her head up and says, "All right, girl. I'm ready for some more. Let's do it." I smile and sigh and say, "Okay."

So, dear writer friends, tell me, why do you write? What drives you to push through the madness?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I Conquered the Beast

(And when I say beast, I mean my wickedly long but beautiful baby--my first novel.)

I've spent the last two-and-a-half month's, several hours each day, cutting and polishing The Rowaness of Shalott.

Have you ever stared at a computer screen for so long that your eyes start crossing? I have and, let me tell you, it's a little bit freaky!

What I learned from this mega revision:

  • I may have thought my beginning was brilliant, but I didn't really understand how well it worked (and that it needed lots of fixing) until I wrote the end of my novel.
  • I may have thought my ending was brilliant, but I didn't really understand how well it worked (and that it needed lots of fixing) until I finished this long revision.
  • The best way I learned what was and wasn't working in my book was to read it. (Duh, I know, but I'm talking about reading--and not editing--it in as little sittings as possible. For me, that was four days.)
  • MCs get sassier with more attention. Villains become more sympathetic.
  • It is possible to love two fictional men at the same time (okay, I already knew this).
  • My characters can still surprise me (yes, Arthur, I'm talking about you).
  • I still believe in and love this story--more so than ever!

Some stats about my drafting and revision process so far:

  • Started writing the first version (contemporary, two POVs, set in Alaska, no Arthurian stuff) in December of 2009
  • Bagged the earlier version and started writing the Arthurian version in the summer of 2010
  • Finished my first draft in November of 2011 (two-thirds of it were written in Oct. and Nov.)
  • Finished this mega revision YESTERDAY (April 24, 2012)!
  • Original word count: 141,320 (not to mention 4,000 words I cut before drafting the last two-thirds)
  • Revised word count: 98,972
  • I cut 42,348 words! (almost as long as a NaNo novel)
  • Original page count: 490
  • Revised page count: 362
  • I cut 128 pages! (That might not seem like a lot, but it SO is.)

Anyway you do the math, I feel awesome! And I've totally owned my writing process, which is overwriting to draft, and then cutting to revise (though, I did have to rewrite sections of the beginning and end).

I know there will still be revisions to come with new beta readers, and hopefully one day an agent and editor, but for now I will breathe a big fat sigh of relief because I did one of the hardest things by hacking this book to below 100k.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fourteen Years and Still Going Strong

I spent half of the last week on an anniversary trip with my husband to southern Utah. We've been married fourteen years now, people! One thing I found so refreshing about Jason when I first met him was how he appreciated and totally got my goofy sense of humor. So he surprised me on our trip with some things he'd prepared to make me laugh. First of all, he had me listen to four songs he'd recorded for me. Most were super silly, like an overtly cheesy rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" from Oklahoma, and a crazy take on Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson's "Relator." He even did an 80's remix of a song I wrote in elementary school. I cried through my laughter when I listened to it because it was so embarrassing (for me) and so funny! Later, Jason showed me some pictures he Photoshopped of us. On the back he wrote why we are JUST like these couples. (His reasons were pretty hilarious.) I had to share some of the pics...

Peeta & Katniss (This is from a pic of me blowing out birthday candles. I look cross-eyed!)

Ron & Hermione

Aragorn & Arwen (This one's my favorite. Look how smug Jason is.)   

Elizabeth & Darcy (This one frightens me!)

Edward & Bella & Jacob (Did you notice Jason used the same pic of himself four times?)

Friday, April 6, 2012


Yesterday I watched/listened to a song about Guinevere on YouTube. It was awesome, but that Guinevere wasn't my Guinevere, you know? And I got it into my head that I could write my own song about her. I love to sing and play guitar, but I've only written one song...and that was back in my high school days. So I started messing around and came up with a melody that I liked, but no words. Then in the middle of the night I woke up and the first line popped into my head, and then the next line. I thought, I'm just going to write these down so I don't forget, and then I'll go back to sleep. But the words kept coming. I finally gave into the muse and finished the song. Here it is! Please forgive the buzzing strings and the occasional off-chord. I haven't played guitar in a while. :-) The lyrics are below the video.

Take my hand
Take me for what I am
Knowing what I've done
Knowing the road I've walked on

Starlit leaves
Rowans and willow trees
Pain that can cut so deep
Love that can fill me, haunt me

I'm waking, I'm shaking
I'm bleeding, I'm breathing
I'm falling

Come kneel down
Take off your golden crown
Weave yourself into me
Before I fade

I'm moonstruck, I'm flying
I'm unveiled, I'm dying
I'm wide-eyed, I'm yearning
I'm spinning, I'm burning
I'm falling

Turning and turning and turning around
Head underwater but feet on the ground
Tethering, surfacing, lost but I'm found with you
Never believing that I could be free
Hoping for someone who'd understand me
Waiting to sail on an uncharted sea, alone if must be

And I know, and I see
Your weakness beside me
But I feel who you are
Your stronger than your scars

Uncloak me, eclipse me
And hold me, forgive me
And we'll cross a new sea
And we'll last and we'll dream
We're falling

Take my hand
Take me for what I am
Knowing what I've done
Knowing the road I've walked on

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Variety & Sound in Writing

When my writer dad read the first draft of my first chapter over two years ago, he was quick to point out many flaws that largely boiled down to two things: variety and sound. I've never forgotten his advice. Since then, the first thing I do, after writing a new chapter, is read it back for these two important elements. And when I revise, I check my words again and again and again. I'm never satisfied, but the combing through really helps to strengthen my story.

So let's talk about variety and sound.

Variety is our friend! If sentences are all constructed the same way, our reader brains start to feel like they're stuck on repeat. The regular rhythms disengage us, or worse, put us to sleep.

Here are some tips for adding variety to your writing. (Disclaimer: It's okay to break any of these rules if you're waxing poetic, but do so sparingly.)

  • Start sentences with different words. Make sure they don't all begin with the same pronoun (I, he, she) or word (the, someone's name, etc.). I occasionally let two same starting words in a row slip. But three in a row is a definite no-no.
  • Mix up your sentence structures. Don't write all of them in noun-verb order. Try starting with a verb, a prepositional phrase, or some other kind of dependent clause. Use fragmented sentences where appropriate and not confusing. Sometimes use a question, rather than a statement. (A word of caution: Don't go too crazy. About two-thirds of the time, you'll want to stick with noun-verb structure and not beginning your sentences with a dependent clause. But often, perhaps every three to four sentences, you can mix things up. It depends on the intensity and context of the scene you're writing. Try to feel out what's right.)
  • Vary your sentence lengths. If all your sentences are long and comma-ridden, your pacing will suffer. In contrast, if they're all short and basic in structure, your prose will be simplistic and lacking in feeling. Sentence lengths should reflect the rhythm and emotion of your scene. Fast-paced action scenes generally need shorter sentences. Your character is moving quickly, whether physically or emotionally, and they don't have time or capacity to think about things in detail. Likewise, scenes with drawn-out tension or reflection justify longer sentences. Your character is probably over-analyzing and absorbing everything. In both instances, however, you'll want to break up the cadence and add an occasional sentence of different length to add variety.
  • Don't get stuck on the same word. Every writer is guilty of this, especially in first drafts, but I often see published books where a noticeable word is used more than once, and too close in succession. For very unique words or phrases, once in a book is enough. But anything beyond a basic word (the, in, to, was, etc.) shouldn't be used twice on a page, or sometimes the same chapter. Read your work aloud, just looking for overused words. Your beta readers are also good at catching these for you. If replacing a word becomes too long-winded or unclear, don't fret, just repeat the word.
  • Vary your dialogue tagging techniques. "Said" is not invisible. Don't overuse it. Try replacing dialogue tags at least half the time with beats. (Ex: Mary twirled her hair around her finger. "I would love to." We know Mary is talking.) If two characters are talking back and forth, dialogue tags or beats are unnecessary after the initial setup. But don't exhaust your reader by omitting dialogue tags altogether. Just use them with care.
  • Vary your emotional intensity. Make sure all your chapters aren't at the same emotional pitch. It's overbearing if your character is always crying (or laughing or whatever). Even when your character is in anguish, a moment of wry lightheartedness is appreciated, and vice verse. Create an emotional arc over your whole book, then do so for each character, scene, chapter--and even within the chapter, down to the paragraph and sentence level.

Sound goes hand-in-hand with variety and has to do with the feel and flow of a scene. I believe if you follow the suggestions above, then read your chapter again and lose yourself to its emotion, you'll be able to detect if the sound of your writing rings true to your character's experience. This is my ultimate test when polishing a chapter. Does it fall right on my ears? You can also read your chapter aloud or have a friend read it to you. Do whatever it takes.

A caution about sound: Be careful not to lose yourself completely to the beauty of your words. My first drafts are always guilty of this. I go back and cut out at least a fourth of what I've written. It may be pretty or poetic, but it often doesn't serve the overall story and makes the pacing drag.

So these are my tips for variety and sound. How do you handle these elements in your own writing? I'd love to add your suggestions to my bag of tricks!