Oh, wait . . . you mean you really want to know?
Okay. Well . . .
I had a breakthrough back in December, and that’s a really cool feeling. No, it’s not the first breakthrough I’ve had since trying to write this novel. In fact, I’ve had several, and each time I start to think, “This is it. It’s finally coming together.” And then I hit another roadblock and I think it’s over . . . that it’s never going to turn into a book. And I ask myself why I ever thought I could do this at all.
But right now, things are going really well. Thanks for asking.
What’s that? You want to know what the book is about?
Hmmm . . . .
Well, I have a pretty strict rule that until a project is finished, I don’t talk about its plot or characters or theme or any of that stuff with anyone but my critique group, but I’d be happy to tell you about my process.
For the first couple years that I decided to really chase after this writing goal of mine, I recognized that I still had quite a bit to learn about the craft and process, so I focused exclusively on short stories. I worked on projects that acted as little petri dishes of study in which I could concentrate on a particular aspect of writing that I wanted to work on. Those stories were small enough in scope that I didn’t feel so bad if they didn’t turn our exactly on par with what I was hoping. So, yes, for two whole years, I wrote nothing but short stories . . . and most of them were crap.
Okay . . . all of them were crap.
But I learned a lot by writing them. The last one I wrote was the only one I felt good enough about to actually send out to magazines. And I did. Send it out, that is. To four different publications. (And since I know you’re wondering, I’ll go ahead and tell you that I finally got a response from all of those, and they were all a no . . . BUT two of the rejections were personalized and one of them was a really encouraging rejection, which felt pretty good.)
Anyway . . . after all that short story writing, I finally felt like I had enough of a handle on the writing process and craft that I was ready to try again on a novel. (I had written novels before, but they were such a mess that they sat in a drawer untouched and unrevised.)
I started my current project in September and spent about two months working on developing my idea and creating an outline.
I read several books on structure and plotting. I used quite a few exercises in K. M. Weiland’s workbooks Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel and found them really helpful in getting the ideas flowing. I also found several helpful articles on her website, Helping Writers Become Authors. In my reading on structure, I also loved Blake Snyder’s book, Save the Cat.
This post on Ingrid Sundberg’s site is an excellent summary of Archplot design. Sundberg condenses the information I had read from so many different writing teachers and presented it in a way that I could see the overlap of information and vocabulary. It was really helpful for me in pulling it all together. The graphic in her post is amazing. I printed it and put it in my writing binder and referred to it quite often during the initial planning of my novel.
In November, I knew I had some plot holes–that my outline wasn’t quite finished, but I was so excited to participate in my first NaNoWriMo that I hopped right in and started sprinting on that first draft.
And things were going swimmingly. . . . for a while.
And then I hit another roadblock. My teacher and classmates from a UCLA class I was taking at the time gave me some feedback on the first chapter, and they made some really wise suggestions for changes. My teacher referred me to John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Oh. My. Goodness. This book. (I talk more specifically about Truby’s book in this post.) It made such a difference in my planning and outlining of this story.
Truby’s book is NOT a structure book that repeats exactly the same thing that a hundred other writing teachers have already stated before. His ideas are unique (although sometimes so incredibly complex that they totally fly over my head). And rather than trying to force-fit all my beats into a predetermined structure, I approached all my scenes in a different way and used what he calls a more organic nature of plot development. It was another epiphany. So when we came back from our Christmas travels, I dove right into the
garbage heap of words that I had written for NaNoWriMo and looked more carefully at the suggestions my teacher and classmates had given me. I decided to take their suggestions even though it meant I’d need to throw out the 22,000 words I had finished in the draft of my novel.
In January, I went back to the outline I had started and pulled out the main plot and all the subplots and looked at each one on its own and connected them the way Truby suggested in his chapters on Plot and Scene Weave (those two chapters alone are worth the price of the book). I stopped working in Scrivener on my computer and got out the old-fashioned colored paper cards (one color for each character’s arc) and arranged and then rearranged and then threw some away and wrote new ones.
After several days (weeks, actually) of working on my outline, I started from scratch on my draft. And that’s where I am right now–plugging away on my novel, writing about 1500 words a day, checking in with my accountability group once a week to share progress and cheer each other on, exchanging work with a critique group I’ve recently started with.
I have good days and bad days. Yesterday was a bad day. I’m pretty strict with myself about writing each day and meeting certain daily/weekly goals that I set for myself, but even though I managed to reach my word-count goal yesterday, I looked back at my work, and it was especially . . . well . . . awful. I mean, like, really bad. As in . . . if-anyone-were-to-find-this-file-on-my-computer-and-read-it-without-my-permission-I’d-be-mortified kind of awful. And I kept telling myself that even if those pages get thrown out, I had to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Believing that was enough to get me going again today, but I still ended the day yesterday pretty discouraged.
Other days I feel so blessed. Not because I look back over my work and think it’s amazing (it isn’t) but because telling stories is in my bones. I can’t not do it. It’s part of who I am and being able to have this opportunity to focus on pursuing this goal of mine . . . Well, I know that maybe nothing will come of it. Maybe this book won’t end up getting published after all. But that’s okay. Being able to try . . . I feel like I’ve been given an incredible gift. And right now, that’s enough. It keeps me going on the bad days. And every so often, I have days like today when I got to chat with my new critique group.
My new critique group has six different ladies, each of us located on three different continents and across six different time zones, but we amazingly found a time for a group phone meeting to discuss our first round of critiques that we did for each other online. No, none of us had perfect writing or perfect stories. Each of us had problems with our manuscripts we were trying to work through, but we were struggling together. Encouraging each other together. And that felt really, really good.