Kill Your Darlings

Earlier this year, I finalized a short story that I really adored. Quite often the process of drafting a story can be painful, but this one was a joy from beginning to end. I hand-wrote the first draft, and it had a lyrical quality to it. I loved the main character. I felt passionate about the themes explored. The story had a deliberately slow pace, an unfolding and unveiling. It was a quiet story with a good emotional payoff.

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Unfortunately, this all meant it was looooong. Which, in itself—not a problem! If the reader is willing to go with you on that journey, awesome. But from a practical standpoint, a long word count can be a challenge. Most literary magazines have a word-count range they’ll accept. For a lot of them, the max is 6,000. Your options for submission dwindle as the word count rises.

But there are options, and I loved this story, so off it went on its submission rounds.

And then, a few weeks ago, I ran out of places that would accept that many words. I had to make a choice: retire the story, or hack off over 2,000 words.

2,000 may not sound like a lot. But that’s anywhere from a third to one half of most short stories. The task seemed impossible—or if not impossible, unpalatable. Taking away that much would ruin the deliberate pace I had set. It would alter the methodical voice. It wouldn’t be the same story.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a short story she wrote that was accepted by a major magazine. It was a story she loved, one she’d polished and tightened to perfection, and she was ecstatic it was going to be published. Then, prior to publication, she got a phone call. There wasn’t as much space in the magazine as originally planned. She had two options: drop the story from that month’s issue and hope it got picked up for a future one, or edit it down.

Gilbert chose to edit. She wasn’t sure how she was going to do it, but she started hacking away until it was done. And to her surprise, the story was ultimately better for it—and yes, it was published.

So I printed up my story and grabbed my red pen and I started editing. It took about a week (and a final edit from Byron) but I was able to cut out close to 3,000 words.

And it is a different story. It has a totally different pace. It leaves you with a different feeling. I had to kill so many darlings, sentences and entire sections that I loved and desperately wanted to keep. But the heart of it is still there, still beating.

While it’s true that stories are art, that writers have a vision and they should stay true to it, there’s never anything so precious that it can’t be revised. My story now starts its second round of submissions—a different story, yes, but one I’m still proud of. It wouldn’t have had that chance if I decided it was perfect as it was.

What I Learned at Hedgebrook

The last week of June, I attended a Master Class at Hedgebrook. For seven whole days this was my home:

Hedgebrook_Cabin

An adorable little cottage under the cedar and maple trees, all to my own.

When I returned to the real world, everyone asked, “How was it??” And I replied, “Amazing!” Which was the truth–but not the whole truth. Being there WAS amazing. It was also surreal and difficult and kind of like being on another planet. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap up the experience with a single word, one wise thought, one feeling.

It seems easier instead to make a list. Things I learned at Hedgebrook.

  • I need structure. I arrived at Hedgebrook ready to WORK, to WRITE, to get down ALL THE WORDS…and whoa that did not happen the first few days. I wrote a bit, but mostly I kind of flopped around, trying to find my footing. By the end of Day 2 I realized what was missing: a routine. Every day I woke up, started a fire in my wood stove, drank coffee while writing morning pages. Then it was time for a meandering walk in the woods. After that I was able to settle down and get to business. Creating my own structure gave meaning to the day and made it easier to focus.
  • Fawn are really loud when they’re crashing through the brush. Like, “I’m maybe about to be eaten by a cougar” loud.
  • I start losing syntax VERY quickly after several days of solitude. My thoughts start floating, drifting. I focused on the sounds of words, repeating them over and over in my head. I had to consciously pull it back together before class, before interacting with other people, to ensure that I could form normal human sentences. Re-reading my journal from that week is like some trippy day trip into another dimension.
  • I can’t write for eight hours straight. Supposedly some writers do this? They probably have elfin blood in them.
  • I got surprisingly lonely. I’m an introvert by nature, so I definitely don’t mind solitude. But the first few evenings alone in my cabin were rough. I missed my routines, I missed my people. This got easier as the days went on.
  • Some scenes really do need to be handwritten. One chapter of my book was not working. I stared and stared at the laptop, trying to fix it, before finally picking up my notebook, heading to the cozy overstuffed chair and rewriting the scene by hand. And YES. That did it. That broke the spell. The chapter went in a totally different direction — what it had needed all along. That connection of pen to paper fires up some different synapses in the brain.
  • Writing makes me HUNGRY. Dear lord I ate so much food. Raspberries and pot pies and cherry-cornmeal cakes and mounds and mounds of homegrown vegetables. The brain is a big ol’ organ, and I apparently had to sustain it.
  • Left to its own devices, my mind turns toward the fantastic. Every time I wandered through the woods, my thoughts drifted to Narnia, to Hansel and Gretel, to the Sidhe, to children and young maidens being flitted away, never to be seen again. Maybe these seem like scary thoughts, but they weren’t. They were comforting.
  • On Day 3 I started saying good morning to the banana slugs. So there’s that.
  • Writing? It’s a process. Some days I racked up the word count, knocking it out of the park. Some days I stared out the window for hours, doodling and noodling. Those days seemed frustrating at the time…but in hindsight, they were necessary. There’s ebbs and flows and that’s ok.

That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to keep with me post-Hedgebrook: focusing on the process rather than the product. Because if not for the process…why do this? Why write at all?

I no longer feel ragey when I think of my 2nd draft. I’m working it out, smoothing out the kinks. It’ll get there. I’ve broken through the block and that’s what matters.

(PS: Women writers! Hedgebrook is currently open for residency applications. DO IT.)

Rage Against the 2nd Draft

Last week I attended a talk by Daniel Handler at Hugo House. Handler was witty and intelligent and generous (and the topic, “bewilderment,” fascinating). During the Q&A, someone asked how many drafts he typically writes. If memory serves, he said three or four. What stuck out was his quip about second drafts:

You think, I’m just going to fix this crown molding. And then you step back and realize you have to burn the house down. –Daniel Handler

I laughed at the truth of those words; simultaneously, I wanted to cry and rage and despair at the truth of them.

I usually try and maintain a “glass half full” outlook, but here’s the truth: writing a second draft is really effing hard. At least, writing MY second draft has been really effing hard, and if that’s not a universal truth I don’t want it acknowledged because it’ll make me feel like shit.

I am actively angry at the words that blink back at me from the computer screen. I tweak them and move them and delete them and add them back in. Every once in a while there’s an “ah ha” moment of pieces clicking into place–that one chapter, that one scene, that one sentence finally doing what I want it to do.

More often than not, the words spit back, “That’s all you got?”

I have not met any of my deadlines for this draft. First I was going to have it done by the end of December. Then January. Now here we are with daffodils pushing dirt and the final chapters remain in their untouched state.

At this point I just want to be done. Every cell in my body craves to be done, to no longer have to think about narrative arc and character development and scenery description. And of course the irony is that it won’t be done until I sit down and finish the damn thing. Until I wrestle this untamable, obtrusive, offensive second draft into submission.

I could make excuses about being busy or sick or bored but really it’s just every time I open the project I am angry at the lack of progress, the lack of perfection. I am angry just thinking about it. “Burn it all down,” the back of my mind says. Burn it all down.

But for better or worse, five years of metaphorical sweat and (some) literal tears are not something to just throw away.

Sometimes we just need to acknowledge that this is really hard, what we do. It’s also a blessing and a lark and a joy, but writing is also really damn hard.

No glass half full–that’s just the truth. And like so many writers before me, I will shut up and push on and someday, somehow, finish the second draft.

Then I can move on to the third.

Walk, Read, Write

The way I see it, if I can manage to do these 3 things every day, I’m doing alright:

  1. Walk
  2. Read
  3. Write
The first one clears my head. The second two feed me.

I’m not adding any time limits or stipulations. One thing I figured out from 2015 was to be a little kinder to myself. If I just get in a 10-minute walk, a bus ride of reading, a page of prose…that is so much better than nothing.

Full disclosure: I did not finish the second draft of my book by the end of year, like I had planned. And while I’m a bit disappointed (and mostly like OMG WANT TO FINISH THIS STUPID THING), I’m not beating myself up about it. The ending of the book is…rougher than I had remembered. A lot had to be totally scrapped, a lot written anew. The main point is I’ve been working on it, almost every day.

Austin Kleon has a blog post about how we spend our days. Ultimately, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. It may seem small, but focusing on just three things every day adds up.

Last week I was tired. Eyeball-ache tired. I hadn’t slept well, had a 9am meeting I was stressed out about, slept on my neck funny. I farted away my morning writing time on the internet and really didn’t want to walk the dog. But I pulled on my super-stylish safety vest and headed out.

A small sliver of crescent moon hung above the neighbor’s house. Towards the end of the walk, I noticed that the horizon was turning the most vibrant shade of cerulean blue. Only a week ago, it was still pitch black at that time. The days are slowly creeping longer, and I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d stayed inside.

Walk. Read. Write.

Writing Process Blog Tour

A little back story: I met Margaret on the second night of AWP, in the Sheraton hotel bar in downtown Seattle. The entire bar was filled to the brim with writers and other literary-minded folks — a surreal yet dazzling experience. I “knew” Margaret through our mutual friend Lauren (via the internetz, naturally), and we spent a fun hour or so drinking and talking about writerly things (two activities that go together so well).

Last week, Margaret emailed and asked if I’d like to participate in a “Writing Process Blog Tour” — a set of questions that have been making the blog rounds. The idea is this: a writer gets “tagged,” and then “tags” other writers to answer the questions in turn. At the end of the day, we’re all talking about the creative process in one nerdy gabfest. Um, SIGN ME UP.

Margaret’s responses can be found over here (her talk about “non-process” is wonderfully honest). And mine? Well…

1) What are you working on?

In theory? Edits to my book (I finished the first draft in December). In reality? I haven’t touched it in several weeks. I’m rapidly realizing I’m not going to hit my self-imposed July 1 deadline, and that is… a bummer. BUT. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself. I got a new job a few months back, and it’s taken a lot of time and energy to get up to speed. Which means other things fall by the wayside. Including, in this case, book edits.

That isn’t to say I haven’t been writing — I just haven’t had the energy for that particular project. I wrapped up a short story a few weeks back, a wild little romp set in backwoods Louisiana. Short stories aren’t typically my forte, but I’m feeling good about this one. Besides, it’s good to write in different formats from time to time — strengthen ye ol’ writing muscles.

2) How does you work differ from others of its genre?

Oh boy. That’s a tough question, isn’t it? First I’d have to figure out what my “genre” is. Lately, I’ve been drawn to speculative fiction (I don’t really count my writing as science fiction, because the science is… well, nebulous at best). In the past, I’ve written historical fiction and dabbled in literary fiction (a genre I don’t think I’m particularly good at, and have since largely abandoned).

How does my work differ? Well, this is the obvious and cliché answer, but I’d like to think my voice. Every writer has a distinct, evolving voice, and I’m growing into mine. I also hope that my stories are easily accessible — you don’t need to be a speculative fiction fan to pick them up and enjoy them. But I guess that largely remains to be seen.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because it’s fun! Because I enjoy the stories I tell. Look, most of us are NOT doing this for fortune and fame, so we should damn well enjoy the writing itself.

Another way of saying it — these are the stories I have to tell, the ones that bore into my brain and refuse to move. When you have a story like that,  you can’t ignore it. Try if you want, but years later it’ll still be there, waiting to be put to paper.

4) How does your writing process work?

If I’m good about it (aka, consistently producing work), I have a strict writing schedule. When I was finishing up the first draft of my book, I got up at 5:30am every weekday morning to get in an hour+ of writing before work. For me, a set schedule is the only way to add up that word count.

Other than that — my process is not really all that consistent. A lot of times I prefer writing first drafts by hand; for me, handwriting unlocks different parts of my brain. Of course, this doesn’t work as well with longer pieces. For writing large chunks or revisions, I work on either my iPad or desktop (everything syncs up to Dropbox, so the files are always updated no matter which device I’m on). When I sit down to write, there’s a good 10-15 minute window where I sort of dawdle, re-read what I did the day before, get my brain back into the game. But once I’m in, I’m in. Poor Byron knows this well — it’s hard to get my attention once I’m in the middle of writing.

That’s a wrap! And now that my questions are answered, it’s my turn to play tag… and the torch is going to Tayler of The Awkward Olive. Tayler and I were in the same creative writing program in college, and I was lucky enough to go on two study-abroad trips with her (one where we studied expatriate writers, and the other where… well, essentially we wrote in pubs. It was glorious.). Tayler currently lives in Oregon, eating delectable local food and working in her envy-worthy garden. At her blog, she writes honestly and eloquently about everyday life — look for her answers to the Writing Process Blog Tour soon!

And if you are a nerd like me and really enjoy reading about writing processes… might I recommend some other folk who have played the game?

  • Lauren (yes, the Lauren who introduced me and Margaret) answered in regards to writing both creatively and professionally.
  • Brian Benson, who I do not know personally or even via the internetz, but I found his answer to the “How does your work differ” question quite intriguing (and now I totally want to pick up his book).

When the internet connects diverse and widely spread groups of people over one common interest — well, that’s clearly why it was invented, right? (I mean, aside from cat gifs. Obviously.)

Getting Back to Business

Well.

January sure flew by fast.

When I finished my first draft in December, February seemed a loooong way away. Taking off January from all things writing seemed like a huge luxury. I would do ALL THE THINGS. Watch ALL THE TV. My brain would relax and veg out and come February be totally blank — a clean slate, ready to work.

Didn’t quite happen that way. Don’t get me wrong — January has been an awesome month. I read good books! I worked on some new projects! I traveled to Sweden and Denmark!

But at the back of my brain it lurked. The ever-present story. Characters and plot and questions. It never truly left. It’s taken up residency and ignores the eviction notices.

Byron is currently reading the first draft — the first person to read it in its full, complete form. I am dying to ask him questions, ask him where he is, what’s happening what does he think — but I resist, because that’s not really fair to him as a reader. On the flip side, he doesn’t get to ask me questions at this point — he just reads it as it is. Any inconsistencies or errors or gaping holes can be pointed out after “The end” is reached. (Although he did tell me I somehow mixed up the first chapter of another book in there. Oops.)

So here we are, with February just around the corner. I said that come February 1 the revisions would begin, and I’m sticking to that. I realized the other day, though, that I don’t really know what I’ll be doing come February 1. I mean, editing, yes. But I’ve never undertaken an editing project this large before. The last book I wrote, I edited under the time crunch of NaNoWriMo — 30 days of intense editing — and while I do think the second draft is better than the first, it wasn’t enough. That editing job was haphazard and hacked together and clearly the work of someone without a plan. Hindsight makes clear that I had no idea what I was doing.

This time, I want a plan. I want strategic editing — I want revisions that enhance the story, make it tighter and leaner and strongerSo I’m doing my homework. This past week I’ve been reading up on editing from the pros — professional authors, published authors, the ones who’ve done this in the past and (in theory) know what they’re doing. I’m gathering up the best of the best, and on Thursday I’ll share my finds with you — with the hopes that I’ll get some clarity out of it, too.

Part of me doesn’t feel ready — part of me says I should take more time off, that my brain needs to decompress more. But another large part of me calls bullshit. It’s time to get back to business.

 

The Letdown

From my experience, there’s always a bit of a letdown after you complete a big project. You’re not really depressed, but you’re not really as happy as you feel like you should be. There’s this moment of euphoria — OMFG I DID IT I FINISHED — and then you’re just kind of… there. Staring at this thing you’ve created, blinking, and saying, “Huh. There it is.” It happened when I finished my senior thesis, it happened when I completed NaNoWriMo, and it’s happened again now.

This time I knew it was coming, though. I was burnt out from the mad dash that was December and needed a break. I told myself, “It’s ok to feel a little lost for a couple weeks. You just watch as much bad TV as you need to fill the void.”

(Let me tell you, guys. I’ve watched a lot of Scandal over the past few weeks. A lot.)

I set a plan: take January off from writing, and then come February 1, start revisions. This seemed smart — a finite chunk of time, but still long enough to recuperate. I could still putter around a bit, write some blog posts. But no serious writing projects. No serious writing, period. I need the break, a time to regroup my thoughts and energies and feel ready to tackle revisions come February. I need time and space so when I go back to that first draft, I’m able to see the forest for the trees.

But it’s lonely, letting go of a project and suddenly not having that nagging obsession, that storyline running through your head. Not bad, per se. Just a drastic change in pace.

And then one night when I was lying in bed, reading, I remembered. “I had that new book idea I wanted to work on. I’m not writing anything now. I could start work on that.”

And I got so excited about the idea of working on the next project, flushing out these new ideas, feeling that rush once again — and then I shut it down. I mean, let’s be honest here — if I start work on yet another project, I am not going to start revisions in February. Or if I do start revisions… well, that’s not fair to the book I will have just started. It needs its own time, its own devotion.

So I reaffirmed my plan to take off January. No serious writing. Just let my brain relax, drift. Let the fingers lose their cramps and the writer’s slump uncurl.

That is, until I woke up this past Sunday with a full-fledged short story kicking in my head. I got out of bed, went into the office, and started typing. And I was happy. Oh so happy.

Part of the letdown of having finished a big project is one underlying fear: will I have another idea? Will I ever be able to top this? Will this be the last story that ever comes out of me?

It’s good to know the fear is unfounded. It’s good to know the well is not yet dried up, that ideas still spawn in the dark recesses of the brain. The letdown is still there, but there’s a flicker at the end of the tunnel, something beckoning and calling onward.

I’m still not starting revisions until February. But as for January being a total break month… well, sorry, fingers. You may have to get typing once again.