Babies project takes a step forward

I’ve been playing around with a specific project for several years. I’ve done two very different complete drafts for nanowrimo, a few years apart, and I keep coming back to it. I have a whole document full of news links that are relevant to my novel, and every time my interest dwindles another news story comes up.

This project is along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale – taking all sorts of stories and projecting the sort of world they are leading to. It started along the lines of thinking about Babies R Us, and imagining it as a kind of pet store but for babies – go along and choose your baby. Then it developed away from that. But it always suffered from lack of direction, and that was reflected in – and was caused by – the lack of a proper title.

So for years it was “that thing about the babies”, or just “babies”. But without that focus, the project floundered.

Then recently it came to me. I know what the title is, or at least one or two variations on what I want, and with that title comes the whole theme and purpose of the novel.

Ladies and gentlemen I present: A Perfect Childhood.

The novel seeks to explore the idea of state as parent, and how eliminating the variation in parenting quality, and providing a consistent, expert parent in the state, would theoretically solve the attainment gap and ensure that every single child would have the same opportunities in life.

Of course, being a novel, things don’t go quite according to plan…

So now I have a title and a focus, I really need to get on with a new draft. Although there’s still Abandoned to work on for writing group, and Life Lessons, my romance, is nagging at me. And Gods V Heroes will need another draft at some point soon…

If only I could get Dropbox working again on my laptop, I could get on with all of these. Otherwise I face the prospect of either carrying a memory stick around and running several different versions, or having to retire to the study rather than sit with my feet up in front of the TV while writing.

 

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New rules

I’m working to new rules. Instead of plugging away at my novel and getting frustrated by other projects that beckon, and then avoiding my novel and getting frustrated at the slow progress, I’ve decided to focus on quantity rather than quality. That nano message is taking a long time to sink in, but I reckon that if I focus on refining ideas and building them up, instead of working linearly with narrow focus, then by the time I’ve drafted out a few complete ideas I’ll have a lot more idea what I’m doing, more stamina for longer projects and a good base on which to build.

So I’ve currently got Gods V Heroes on the go and nearly at a complete draft, there’s my new nano novel coming up, there’s the romance, there’s a couple more fantasies in the pipeline and there’s always babies which is still simmering nicely and waiting for my attention. Not to mention a couple of non-fiction projects that are on the go. With that selection, there should be something I feel like working on at any opportunity.

Let’s see how many complete novel drafts I can create by the end of the year, shall we?

 

Resilience

It’s been a busy week. As part of my training for a half marathon at the end of March, on Tuesday I ran 11 miles, my longest distance yet. Tuesday afternoon I gave blood, after making sure I had a good lunch in between and plenty to drink.

Then I made a couple of mistakes.

I was due out at a social evening for the allotment society, so I cooked food for the rest of the family and as I’d had a big lunch I decided I wasn’t hungry and just had cheese on toast – I couldn’t eat with the others as they don’t eat until the time I’m going out, thanks to the wonders of the railway timetable. Then I decided I didn’t need to take my handbag – I avoid it whenever I can – and walked down to the meeting.

Halfway through the meeting, I started feeling decidedly woozy. I felt the blood drain from my face, to be replaced with a sheen of perspiration. My vision started blurring and swirling and I was not at all well. Because of where I was sitting, I would have had to walk all the way round the back of the group to reach the toilets, and as I hadn’t brought my bag, I didn’t have the snack that I always keep in there. So I sat it out and thankfully had started to recover a little by the end of the talk, at which point I sent a text message for hubby to walk down and escort me back home.

So when I set out for a short run this morning, only to find my legs felt like lead, I didn’t worry too much. I was kind to myself and allowed several walking breaks, while not panicking that my running days were over and I’d never be able to run again, because I knew from experience that there was a good reason I was struggling and that given a day or so more to recover, I would be fine again.

One thing I’ve developed over the past couple of years of running is resilience – I have experiences I can call on, where I’ve not felt well, or a run has gone badly, or conditions have been less than ideal, and I know better how to cope. I have memories of running when tired, running in the rain, giving up on a run, running while freezing cold – as well as memories of successful runs, fast runs, long runs, in beautiful weather, in pleasant surroundings. I can judge each run in a wider context, rather than on its own merits.

Now I need to transfer that to my writing. I’ve been thinking constantly about my fantasy novel, and working on it in spare moments, but I have to confess that I haven’t done as much as I would have liked. And sure enough, I’ve now reached the point where I start thinking can I actually do it? There’s so much that I want to include in there, so much that should be in there, and I wonder if I actually have the stamina and ability to complete it to the standard I would like. All it takes is a post from someone about a successful local writer publishing her first novel, and my confidence hits the floor and stays there.

So this is where I need to develop writing resilience – the ability to keep writing whatever the mood, and accept that some sessions will be good and others not so good, but they’re all moving in the right direction. The ability to brush off doubts and appreciate the process as desirable in its own right. To recognise that the fact I see the weaknesses in my writing is actually a strength, because at least I can see what’s missing, rather than imagining I’m writing a masterpiece when it’s nowhere near.

And one big reason I need to do this is because I’m reaching the point now where I’m lining up beta readers (or to be more accurate alpha readers) to help me out with the structure, and so I need to reach that point where I have a complete story that’s ready to be looked at. It’s nearly there, but not quite, and will only get there with work.

The other reason is that once again news stories are appearing that make me think of the other novel I have on the go, the speculative fiction novel, the one about babies, which really does need a proper title! So I need to get the fantasy novel to a point where I can set it aside/pass it on to readers and then let it rest for a while, and press back on with the babies.

Because these things won’t let me rest these days, and the least painful way to deal with them is to push on and get something done about them. Even if it does end up being a load of rubbish that’s not worth the effort of reading. Because apart from anything else, I’ll have learned what works and what doesn’t, and will be a few steps further down the line towards being able to finish something that is worth reading.

 

A final first draft

I’ve had attempts at this novel before: the first time I had the setting, and attempted the characters. The second time I had the setting and characters and attempted the story. This time I’m more confident that I have all three.

Each time I’ve started afresh, so it’s still really a first draft, but I intend this to be the final first draft, so to speak. I have some rules: I have come to a compromise with nano rules, in that I need to write every day, with a target of one scene/around 1000 words minimum per day, and the focus is on writing not editing, but at the same time I’m not allowed to add words for the sake of them, when I know I’m just going to have to remove them again later.

There are various challenges going on at the moment – there’s camp nano about to start, and another run of 100k in 100 days, and I see today that Della Galton has her own challenge going on via facebook, with the aim of 10k words by a week’s time. Regardless of those challenges, I have my own challenge, and that’s to finish this darn thing and get to the next stage before it drives me completely mad.

So main characters and main story arcs are sorted. I have a strong idea of where each scene fits in the overall arc, what has to be achieved and what has to be lost inĀ each. The next thing I have to decide is the relationship between my two main characters; the idea is to have their lives run parallel throughout most of the book, touching together occasionally, until they collide at the end. But in order to do this, I have to decide how they touch, to what extent, and who knows what. Then there’s all the extra characters who have to be there, and the extent of the part each of them plays, and minor issues such as how to weave background information and scene descriptions into the main narrative.

So far, I’ve found that a scene a day gives me a good focus for planning out as I swim in the morning, and then writing up in the evening. I just have to keep that up and ensure that I have not only a collection of words on the topic, but something that is vaguely readable and coherent.

Then begins the editing stage…

From world to characters to story

I’ve been working on my novel for a long time – in two different forms, it’s been the topic of two nanowrimo attempts, both completed, and I still wasn’t happy with the results. Yet the story refused to let me go.

So lately I’ve been writing about my story rather than trying to write the story itself. I’ve been trying to work out what I want to achieve with it, and how I’m going to do that.

You see, I started with a world. I had a situation that I wanted to explore, and a first idea, but not much more than that.

Then I figured out a couple of characters and situations to put in that world. I knew who they were, what they wanted and how they would get on in this world I’d created. But it still didn’t seem to work – I got bogged down, and couldn’t see the overall structure.

Going back to basics, back to thinking about the story, the message I want to get across, the situation I want to explore, I suddenly began to see my way through the maze, and feel the overall arc of the story, to the point where I’ve roughly sketched out the entire structure, including the ending, which had been hidden to me so far.

It’s not completely there, of course; I still need to get down into specific events and scenes, and then I need to get it all written down. But the point is that I know where I’m going with it now, so that I can consider the purpose of every scene I decide to add, and where it fits in that structure.

The next step is to start putting down ideas for individual scenes, and then I can transfer to Aeon Timeline and Scrivener, and start really putting the flesh on the bones. But it feels so good to finally see the whole picture.

 

Permission to write badly granted

As a child reader, I devoured Enid Blyton books by the dozen. My friend, whose father was a librarian, was banned from Enid Blyton as he considered it bad fiction.

Years later, I was still an avid reader, reading all sorts of things, while she hated reading.

The difference? Because I’d had the chance to build up my reading muscles, I could tackle much more, while she, trying to read only the meaty stuff, never built up that ability.

I mention this because last night I finally got back to my nano novel. It was that realisation that I’d forgotten what nano was all about. The focus during nano is quantity, not quality, on the basis that the quality will follow when it’s ready. So I faithfully wrote my 50k + words, and reached the end of November. Then I thought: Okay, that’s the first draft over. I know it’s rubbish, but it was nano, and that’s all about word count. Now I need to get back to it and do it properly this time.

So I sat expecting what came out to be more carefully formed and meaningful, grew frustrated and stopped completely.

Last night I decided that if I was going to get any further on the project, I needed to let go of this desire to write well, and just write. It worked. The words started coming, and as I relaxed and let go of the need to perfect every sentence before writing they flowed more smoothly.

So I’m going to continue building up my writing muscles, not expecting myself to produce any masterpieces until I’ve written loads and loads of rubbish. After all, we don’t expect any artist to pick up their tools and produce a masterpiece without learning how to use their tools and doing a lot of scribbling and practising first, and there’s no reason why I should expect myself to produce anything anywhere near publishable quality without outputting a lot of practice work first.

Does it matter what I write? Not that much. I’ll be completing a coherent draft of my nano novel – which means that the whole story follows continuity and makes sense, but not that it’s brilliant prose or detailed descriptions. Then I’ll probably put it to one side for a while and work on my fantasy novel until I have a draft of that. Then I can bounce back to the nano novel, which by then will have brewed for a while, and pick it up again with my slightly improved skills and continue to bounce between them until one – or both – is finished.

Thank you, nanowrimo – I’m sorry I forgot your lesson so quickly.

 

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When characters fight back

Since nano, I’ve been struggling to get back to my novel. I’ve tried editing the opening so many times but it just hasn’t felt right. I got to the point where I wondered if I’d simply taken the wrong approach to the story altogether.

So this morning as I took myself to the cafe for my usual Friday morning breakfast and writing session, I asked my main character just what her problem was. This is what she said to me:

The trouble is, you’ve made me too conventional, expecting to follow the norm, and then provided no justification for me breaking from the norm except one that puts me and my baby in danger. You need to think much more clearly – why do I go against the norm? what problems does it cause? Why would I be so stubborn and awkward when I’ve always been one to do as I’m told?

I thought for a while, and then answered her:

Because you were always like that. Because you followed the norm while hating it. That side has been squashed your whole life, and Matt brought it out. Matt made you feel alive, and now that he’s gone, his baby gives you the courage you needed to reveal who you really are. That’s why you want to hold on to him.

So now I guess I need to sit down with her some more and have her tell me some stories of her childhood, and meeting Matt. Stories that might or might not be used in the novel but will at the very least help me get to know her better and understand why she behaves the way she needs to in the story.

 

Like grains of rice in the carpet

I can’t even remember now how the rice got in the carpet. All I remember is that as hard as I tried to pick it up, it refused to gather together so I could get it all. I grew more and more frustrated, until I reached the point where I realised the only way I would ever succeed is not to try to get it all up at once, but to pick it up one grain at a time. By slowing down and doing it carefully like that, I achieved much more much faster than when I was trying to do it all at once.

It’s struck me that editing my novel is like that. I’m growing frustrated with trying to rearrange my messy, inconsistent draft into a coherent, logical whole, whereas what I should be doing is working on one area at a time. There’s no point in worrying what should happen at the end when I haven’t sorted out the beginning yet. My nano draft helped me to see my project in more depth than when I started, and the time I spend pondering different aspects (swimming is brilliant for this) brings in a deeper understanding of what I’m trying to do. Now I need to narrow my focus and start editing the opening scenes, to add the extra layers that are needed. Once that is straight (or at least straight enough for now), I can worry about the next, but not before.

Scrivener means that I can easily work on each episode/scene as I go through, considering what’s gone before and what needs to come next. I can make notes for myself on what needs to be done, and I can snapshot what I’ve got and decide whether it needs editing or completely rewriting. Once that scene is done, I can work on the next in line. That way, one episode at a time, I’ll get on much better than waiting until I’m completely happy with the overall structure – after all, the basics of that are already in, all that remains is to work out the details as I go through.

Unlike other projects, this one refuses to let me go. I’m starting to feel fond of the characters, and of their world. I’m trying to figure out the issues and implications. I’m constantly coming across news stories that feed into the topic of my novel. This one has a firm grip of me and it won’t let go.

So I guess it’s time I finished writing this and got on with editing instead.

 

 

and breathe…

I attended a mega write-in today, known as the day of writing dangerously. We started at just after 8.30, and by 11 there were 14 of us around a huge table in a hotel conference room, with coffee and tea on tap, a genie button to press if we needed anything and lots of sweets and chocolate.

Numbers were taken down, sprints took place and coffee was drunk. At noon we stopped for a buffet lunch and a natter, then back to the keyboards.

During the afternoon there were around three of us who hit the 50k mark, amidst much celebration, and by the time we stopped counting, at around 5pm, we had collectively written well over a nano’s worth of words. Prices, badges and stickers were given out, sweets were eaten and more tea/coffee was drunk, of course.

I finished the day on a massive 53,010 words, having written around 9419 words during the day (most of which were fairly rubbish by the end, I have to admit) and I’m now in a position to go back through and figure out which sections I can use as is, which are needed but have a lot of continuity problems and which need to be completely rewritten or replanned.

I think I’ll probably go back to the timeline first, and make sure I know the structure is completely sound and matches with the new version of the plotline. That way, I can make sure I know how old the children are in each scene, for example. I’ll also make heavy use of the notes and synopsis features of Scrivener to help me organise things.

But tonight – tonight I get an evening off writing. Although it’s tempting to try and make it a 10k day…

 

Draft zero

They say your nano draft is draft zero. I’m finding that to be accurate. 36k words in, I figured out where the plot should be going. At 40k my main character talked herself into a lot of trouble. In the swimming pool this morning, I/she finally figured out the solution.

Now I have a much better idea of what the main plotline needs to be: in some ways similar to my original plan, in other ways completely different.

This means that I have a clear path ahead of me: my first aim is to get to the 50k nano target. I’m at around 43k so far, with tonight’s contribution and an all-day write-in tomorrow ahead of me. By the end of that I should have done my 50k. In order to do that, I need to take a quick look at what I’ve written and figure out any major holes I can fill in to use the rest of my words wisely.

Then I’ll fill in the index card for each of my scrivener documents, figure out which ones to keep and which ones to discard and discover just how many words I’ve lost completely. I can fill in the blanks with cards, which will be expanded to full extracts, and the bits should go together to make a whole. I’ve got another all day write-in on Wednesday, and I should be able to spend a good deal of that on establishing the groundwork and moving forward.

By the end of that stage, I’ll have a first draft ready to edit, and can start worrying about quality rather than just quantity.

Will I always need to write a draft zero? Possibly not. Just as a painter has to learn to use his tools and to plan out his painting, but will grow more experienced with time and less reliant on the learning stage, so I expect that I’ll grow more experienced with structuring a plot, and will be able to dispense with some of the preparation. But it’s been an invaluable experience, just putting words together and seeing how it comes into a story. It’s like doing a jigsaw – how ever much time you spend staring at a photo, you’ll never know it as clearly as if you make it into a jigsaw and spend hours looking at small sections only.