Stars Will Fall Out 100,000 times: books are not babies

Between Vaffeldagen, taking care of a flu-stricken toddler, and subsequently becoming a flu-stricken adult, I forgot to brag about passing the 100,000 word mark on my current novel. Although this has been as frustratingly slow as walking behind someone at Walmart, and although I still have probably 25,000 words left to go, I want to mark this moment in my life. That I have been fixing problems in this manuscript for 100,000 words now, even after I might have killed it a couple times, is an accomplishment I’m immensely proud of.

There’s a common metaphor of writing a book being like having a baby–you gestate it for months and blah blah blah. But you don’t have to make time to be pregnant. You do have to make time to write a book. It’s not like you say, “Well, I have a couple hours to be pregnant on Thursday morning,” then shoot your fetus some nutrients via umbilical and go get an ultrasound. Pregnancy is only as active as you make it. But if you’re writing, you do have to set aside those Thursday mornings and whatever other spare morsels of time you can grab.

Also, once your book is “born,” it doesn’t then spend the first several months of its life requiring literally every spare minute of your time to hold it and breastfeed it and change it and sooth it down to sleep. Having a baby to take care of is the writing discipline equivalent of someone upending a table. In an episode of the Dear Sugars podcast (I don’t remember which one), Cheryl Strayed refers to writing with young children or toddlers as “writing on slow mode.” This is what I’ve been doing.

A stack of white and colored index cards.
My weekly writing timecards, which I kept from 2010 to 2017.

Like the secret stash of candy bars under my desk*, writing has become something I sneak in small bites. I no longer keep obsessive records of every minute I spend writing, because that itself takes too much time.

The novel will probably not be named Stars Fall Out or once I sit down and brainstorm a more fitting one, but it inherited the title from an earlier iteration of the story and from a Simple Minds song:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlWOu7iWq9U

Even without a toddler, this novel has had a hell of a lot of obstacles.

In fact, I have grown this story from the corpses of two short stories and two unfinished novels. Or five unfinished novels, but they aren’t all corpses, depending what happens when they get smacked with the defibrillator of future rewrites.

Here is the strange and cannibalistic writing timeline of Stars Fall Out:

Short story one
Barely more than a scene about a girl jealous of her younger sister and feeling trapped in relationship. Something about a unicorn. Something about stars falling out of the sky. No idea how to end it.

Short story two
One girl, living in a small town in our world, sees another girl sink into some river water, seemingly on purpose, and be snatched under the river water. MYSTERY. Who is the girl? What role will the dance night stoners play? No idea how to end it.

Stars Will Fall Out, first attempt, in 2007
I smash the two short stories into a single novel that I assume will solve the ending problems I was having. Now, the girl being sucked down the river is one and the same as Jealous Girl who feels trapped in her relationship, only now she lives in a secondary world and works at a bakery and uses a magic vial as a means of escape to our world. There is a mad professor of magic. No unicorn.

Abandonment of Stars Will Fall Out in 2008
Smashing the stories together didn’t work. I decide I will not be continuing to write my novel because it’s a mess, the worldbuilding is godawful**, and Small Town Girl has no business being the main character. But, hey, at least I learned something.

Circus of Thieves, in which I take on worldbuilding
In my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, I develop a secondary world (Fyaan and Kirosz) living in the realm of steampunk and fantasy, depending what time and place I’m writing in. It’s kind of a Moll Flanders type story but with a fake circus and a horned bear and a mystery machine.

The Remnant, a second trip into Fyaan and Kirosz
Five magicians with connected relationships take opposing sides in a war for a variety of reasons. One of them, a disgruntled ex-patriot, sides against her homeland. I write a bit of her backstory one day, and oh! She’s River Girl, also known as Jealous Girl, also known as Bakery Girl. I decide that I will go back and write her story in the Fyaan and Kirosz world without any of the stuff about Small Town Girl.

What I don’t realize at this point is that my first attempt at Stars, with the ill-fitting main character, was like dipping the story in egg dye. I took away every trace of that character, yet the story is a different color.

Bitter Machines, the reason I am writing Stars Fall Out now
I don’t go back to write Bakery Girl’s story yet because it’s too much work. Instead, in 2012, I write the second book she will appear in. There are spies and powerless royals and imperial occupation and a weird cult, and holy shit, every time I look at the draft I can’t believe I wrote it myself. I love it.

Stars Fall Out, second attempt
After a few years thinking that I need to write this story so I can get to Bitter Machines, I sit down and tackle Stars itself and figure out what would make it awesome for me to write. If I’m going to maintain the motivation it takes to write it, it can’t just something I’m getting out of the way.

I begin rewriting with new, better worldbuilding and Big Events and empires and some stuff about shadows, but maybe not stuff about stars.
I remove the word “will” from the title, which seems like a big difference at the time.

I take a break to publish Pumpkin Goblins and Spirit Notes Fading in 2016. When I return to Stars, I keep plugging away, but am miserable writing. That’s a whole other story. I stop writing for four months that feel like an entire year.

Stars Fall Out, third attempt
At some point, a question pops into my head: “Where do you go when you escape?”

In my rewrite with the bigger and better worldbuilding, I had forgotten what interested me about Bakery Girl in the first place: she has a stolen magic vial, an extremely powerful artifact, and she uses it only to escape her own life.

And so, on slow mode, I return to the story. This time, first and foremost, I’m asking myself where Tyatavar goes when she escapes. It’s been less than a year since my most recent start, and I’ve done most of the work in that time. But it’s been almost thirteen years since I wrote Short Story One. Nothing about this process resembles pregnancy.


*I guess it’s not much of a secret now that I’m posting it on the internet, but it was only a secret before because my partner repeatedly forgets about its existence.

**There was a character named Dwardley Gryphon, and he owned a tavern. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s lazy and default-ish, and more importantly, I didn’t love it. Also, the characters wear “timebands” instead of watches because, I dunno, that makes it different?


By the way, I decided that her girlfriend is not her mother.

What if her girlfriend is actually her mother?

I enjoy the sensational, daytime talk show-esque nature of this question. But as it happens, it’s neither an episode of Jerry Springer nor a mythological Kullervo* or Turin** situation. It’s a possible solution to a couple of my own fictional characters who are each either vitally important or completely extraneous, with cases to be made for either option, but almost no middle ground. In short: it’s a decision. And I’m bad at those.

All characters are potentially:

  • Expendable.
  • Replaceable by any other character.
  • Replaceable by wind-up automata, golems, and holograms; they all need to fear that their jobs will be taken by robots. Whether their purpose is emotional, logistical, thematic, or plot-devicey, they can be replaced by another character who fulfills the same role, possibly better.

One of my characters frequently runs away from the family bakery to meet her secret girlfriend in a shady part of town where they take care of a stray dog. The girlfriend sees and says things she isn’t supposed to, and occasionally threatens to hijack my entire story with her possible homelessness and constant spying on the main character’s family, until I turn from her power and write some other scene. Or this blog post.

My character also has a mother [OR DOES SHE?!?!!?] who has come and gone from different iterations of my draft, drifting away like vapor only to turn up again more vibrant than before: a woman as wise as she is muscular, kneading bread and doling out life advice. The father and the family bakery drive some important plots, so her conspicuous absence has become more and more irritating, like a hole in a sock that you keep putting through the wash only wear it again after forgetting about the hole. By unwritten rule, all first draft mentions of the mother must include a dramatic, bracketed, all-caps statement, a note-to-self for my revision.

“My chance had arrived. “You don’t need me, do you father?” I asked casually. Casual, with just a hint of sweetness. The lemonade of asked questions.


And sure enough, he waved a hand to the door. “No, no. Go see your mother.” [IF SHE HAS A MOTHER]

When combining the two characters occurs to me, I am typing away at an especially small and sunny Dunkin Donuts. I sit with a mess that has been made in seven minutes, although I only have an hour to write before work. My backpack on the table forms a wall defending a sprawl of index cards, laptop, bullet journal, project notebook, an iced cold brew the size of the Argonath, and a squishy croissant sandwich.

On this morning, the Dunkin is solely populated by pairs of old men. Two talking about the comings and goings of local businesses, two talking about music and the capo on a particular guitar. Another pair is made up of one talking sports to his companion as though he’s reading a bedtime story while the other frequently interjects with a hacking cough that sounds like a rottweiler.

WHAT IF HER GIRLFRIEND IN ACTUALLY HER MOTHER? The thought slams on some kind of mental caps lock, startling me into locking eyes with the man who is the living memory of failed northern Rhode Island businesses. Does it make selfish Vilari more sympathetic if she’s sneaking away to see her absent mother? Do I want her to be more sympathetic? What about the spying plotline—wait, is it more poignant if it’s the mother? Is it now appropriate rather than annoying that this character, Fya, has a name that rhymes with that of the main character, Tya?

Writing fiction requires a lot of decisions, and I can’t understate my awfulness at making decisions. I spent a week—fine, two weeks–refreshing the page for these reusable baggies every time I came across that tab in my browser, paralyzed and unable to decide what color I wanted. Would the smiling octopus make me unhappier on depressive days? Did I like the watercolor pattern or is it a little too suggestive of a girly floral? Should I spend the extra dollar to get the patterns I like best because they will make me happier, or will I stop noticing the pattern after a few weeks anyway?

My challenge with the story is to find the story’s true north in a sea of infinite choices. It’s like the old Lucky Charms commercial where there are suddenly a bunch of Lucky the Leprechauns, and none is obviously the real one until you acquire some gizmo from the cereal box. 3d glasses? But I don’t have 3d glasses to pick the right character, and there is no GPS to tell me my way—I would need to input a destination I don’t know. All I can do is squint at the horizon, try to figure out if the purple smudge is a mountain, and then try to figure out if I am full-on ready to go to a mountain right now. Which reminds me that I have lived my entire life in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and never earned a “This car has climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker.

All I have to go on is the strength of my own taste, and my own concept of what I want my story to be about.

An index card with
Why the giant flourish? No idea, but it clearly prevented me from effectively writing other things on the card.

Ultimately, I did the right thing: I didn’t let the decision derail me. I’m procrastinating on figuring this out so I can avoid procrastinating on the meat of the story: all the stuff with the bakery and the dreaded wedding and how my main character is basically using the most powerful magical item of her time as a poor coping mechanism for depression. I wrote my question on an index card to carry around in my pocket, in the hopes that this will be like a program running in the background of my brain, working on cobbling together a GPS out of 3D glasses.

________________________________


*SPOILER ALERT. In the centuries-old Finnish mythology collected in the epic The Kalevala, Kullervo falls in love with a woman who turns out to be his sister.

**DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT. In decades-old Middle Earth mythology written in The Silmarillion, based partly on The Kalevala, Turin falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a sister, and it’s maybe a dragon’s fault. I forget. It’s been seven years since the last time I read The Silmarillion.

The Quantum Nature of Blogging, Part I

I set out to troubleshoot my perfectionist blogging process and instead discovered the quantum nature of writing. While I enjoy blogging, I have difficulty posting often. My problem is that blogging is something of a struggle for me, in the way that climbing Mount Doom in a state of extreme dehydration with the weight of intense evil around your neck is something of a struggle. I wanted to figure out a way to minimize the struggle, blog faster, and still enjoy myself.

When I started this blog, I assumed that coming up with ideas would be tough. I bought Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb, which both discuss coming up with ideas for blog posts. Both books are helpful, both are written in a friendly manner that makes regular blogging seem less intimidating, and both aided me in coming up with post ideas. But post ideas weren’t what I needed. Turns out, I have no shortage of ideas: there are over four dozen unfinished posts in the Scrivener project for my blog, and that’s not even counting posts still in the idea stage.

"Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your compostion of yourself is at stake." --E. L. Doctorow

Yeah, that’s the problem. That’s perfectionism in a nutshell, but the nutshell also has a fuzzy outer husk of anxiety and the frustrating problem of “I don’t have a nutcracker due to impatience and the wide availability of pre-chopped walnuts.”

Perfectionism is a constant problem for me, but I’m also capable of writing very fast*. What ends up happening is that I’ll get down several hundred words of a blog post in fifteen minutes or so, but then I become mired in doubt while attempting to actually finish it. Or, I might set out to write a quick post about a haircutting youtube video I found helpful, but then I end up writing a treatise on everything I know about haircutting. This is where the Mount Doom analogy comes in. Writers are junkies for analogies about writing. Even that last sentence verged on analogy, because I didn’t mean “junkies” in the literal sense.

Blogging requires the opposite of what I’ve been doing: frequency, speed, and often brevity. If you want your site to have good SEO (search engine optimization), you need to post often. Blogging is fast. A blog post can do the same things any piece of writing can: inform, persuade, entertain, or tell a story. But it can also function as social media, open a dialogue, or pass on something interesting from another site. It’s ok to share something (such as the haircutting video) and start a conversation without making a post an exhaustive monument about everything concerning that topic. I read and enjoy plenty of blogs that do this, and many blog posts tend to be shortish. I do read some blogs with posts regularly going over 1000 (and maybe even 2000 words), but I aim to write 300-700 words because that’s the length I enjoy reading most. It’s short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to expand upon a topic.

I’ve tried a lot of strategies to finish blog posts faster. Timeboxing was one, and I made a flowchart last year to accompany my brand new timeboxed blogging method. After spending an unnecessary amount of time choosing color schemes and type faces for this flowchart, and in the process re-encountering my old nemesis Procrastination (he has a twirly mustache and a fencing sword and a velvet cape as dark as his evil deeds), I ended up failing to use my timeboxes for more than a few weeks. Timeboxing works great for brainstorming and editing, or anything else that doesn’t have a definite end condition. But writing? You can say you’ll spend only 30 minutes drafting an aimed-for 600 word post, but the reality is that you’ll keep writing until you reach the end, whether or not you stayed in the timebox.

It should have been obvious from the beginning that I have a functional process for fiction writing, but not for blogging. After starting, but not finishing, two posts** the other day, some magic combination of unfinished blog posts, funky coffee drinks, and driving a borrowed car that I’ve been fat-shaming***, lead to the lightbulb moment that I don’t finish or revise a blog post the way I would any piece of fiction. I suspect that most other writers and artists geek out**** on this type of helpful self-revelation. So if it seems weird that I was super-excited to get home and construct a new writing process for myself… well, it’s probably still weird, but I’m sure I have a kindred spirit somewhere. (Kindred spirit, if you’re reading, let’s be best friends and trade colored index cards and braid each other’s hair if we even have long enough hair for that, which I don’t.)

Here is what a working fiction-writing process looks like: make an idea-mess, tame it into a summary sentence, expand that sentence into a more useful idea-mess, then write. After that you get to revise, and revision is where you sleight-of-hand your draft so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Not everyone writes that way, but I came by some of my process through the How to Think Sideways writing course (highly recommended, more so than my actual creative writing degree), so I know there are others out there. When I decided to fix my blogging process (which comes down to typing out mental narration), I turned to the How to Think Sideways lessons that had helped me so much.

But I also ended up digging into the nuts and bolts of my own writing process. And after spending a few hours pacing and scribbling diagrams, I discovered the building blocks of all written matter. And that’s what Part II will be about.


*I’ve written over 2000 words per hour in the past. I just didn’t enjoy them.
**One is about my recently-deceased Chevy Prizm and the other is about why the phrase “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bunch of crap. I try to limit the number of rant-based posts I write, and so the latter may not see the shining light of the internet.
***My recently-deceased Chevy Prizm is smaller than a Subaru Forester, which I accuse of being a fat beast when it won’t go into a parking spot the way I want.
****This is way too many footnotes for one post, let alone one paragraph, and I’m going to have to start using superscript numerals instead of asterisks that, taken in a group of four, make it appear that I have some choice words I’m not using. But, rest assured, I would use them.

Brainstorming Story Conflict

In my last post, I went over some of the issues with trying to plot an entire novel in an hour, when you don’t actually need to. That’s kind of a niche problem to face, but I help run National Novel Writing Month events in my region of Massachusetts, and we have a planning workshop with limited time. While I think the Random Rapid Plotting exercise has its uses, I didn’t want to use it for our NaNoWriMo group’s Novel Planning Workshop a second year in a row.

Last year, I created a second plotting exercise. This one has been a lot more useful to me, and went over well at our group’s Novel Planning Workshop. It also combines three of my favorite things: lists, index cards, and rolling dice. While it is designed to be done in an hour, to fit into the workshop, it’s also a good exercise to pick up during the writing phase to generate more conflict.

IMG_20130215_210058

Index cards multiply like gremlins, except that throwing water on them also makes them soggy and useless.

Our group’s twelve-hour Coffee Crawl and Writing Marathon is tomorrow. I need all the conflict I can come up with to get through that, so I’m going through the exercise again in preparation.

The Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You quickly write down lists of characters, attributes, places, and events. You brainstorm them if you don’t know them already. Then you roll a die a bunch of times, and do some freewriting about potential conflicts. Some things won’t stick, but it’s still a handy way to find conflict from all areas.

This year, I found out that the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is also good for finding where you have holes in your story. I’m rewriting my very first NaNoWriMo novel (from 2007!) because I know there’s a story I love buried under a bunch of nonsense with a useless second protagonist who had no business being in the story. Stars Fall Out is now also the backstory of a character I’ve written a lot about elsewhere. That means that the world and the antagonist both changed. Trying to write those lists in three minutes showed me where I needed to do more thought work.

If you want to try your hand at the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise, download it here.

Random Rapid Plotting

Why would I until the end of National Novel Writing Month to share a plotting exercise with you? Mostly because things happened, and I didn’t get around to it earlier. But also because there’s room for plotting and planning towards the middle and end of the month. At the beginning of NaNo, there’s always a lot of talk about planning versus pantsing: do you plan before you write, or do you write by the seat of your pants? Most of us are in between. I like to start off with solid character and setting details, and I can wing it for quite awhile before I have to stop and figure out how things come together.

DSC02698

Why this picture? Do I need a reason? Can’t we just be happy I didn’t attempt to use it to create an extended metaphor about seeing where your plot is going?

Every November is National Novel Writing Month, a time when thousands of people all over the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. If this is the first you’re hearing of it, fear not. There are twelve days left. You can take two days to stock up on index cards and candy bars, one hour to do some Random Rapid Plotting, and ten days to become a writer-hermit.

I created this plotting exercise for my local NaNoWriMo group to use at our Novel Planning Party in October. Since we also go over character and setting, there’s about an hour to do the plotting exercise. The first time we ran this event, we used Holly Lisle’s “Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure,” which is also found in Mugging the Muse. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve used it successfully for three of my favorite November novels. When I printed it out for the first time, I realized that the instructions are lengthy, which is tough with the time constraint of the planning party.

The problem with having an hour to plot a novel is that any method comprehensive enough to be good is going to take longer than an hour. And since the event is in mid-October, we all have longer than an hour to spend plotting. So while we need to have a plotting method that can be done in a hour, it’s also unnecessary in the larger scheme of things.

Two years ago was the first time I tried making my own plotting exercise, and this is what I came up with. It basically involves throwing whatever random stuff is on your mind into a chart, linking things together in a more cohesive, scene-based form, and extrapolating from there. Drawing on the chart in colored pencil to make connections was fun, as well as a nice visual change from my normal novel notes. I think it’s a decent enough exercise, and I came up with a fun plot when I did a test drive on it. It was a contemporary fantasy with an electrician-wizard tracking down a spirit in the power lines, but there were also subplots with a sinister pet groomer and delinquent teenagers, which are my favorite type of teenagers.

However, I didn’t actually use it to plot my own novel that year. The thing is that doing a one-hour plotting exercise when you actually have several weeks to work things out at a more reasonable pace feels slapdash. There’s a such thing as overplanning, but if you’re starting plotting with a few weeks before November, there’s time to let plot ideas percolate and come together naturally.

There are two things I think Random Rapid Plotting would be awesome for.

The first, and the reason I still decided to post this so late in the month, is planning middles and ends. Ends are tougher than beginnings. Everything has to come together and make sense at some point. I had interesting results when I tested this with my current work-in-progress. It helped me think of new ways to put my characters in different situations and connect seemingly unrelated events. It’s a nice way to tie in bits and pieces I came up with in the earlier part of the month.

The second is deciding, at the very last minute, that you don’t want to go into NaNoWriMo with zero planning. Maybe it’s 11:00p.m. on October 31, you’re in the middle of a horror movie, and you remember that NaNo is starting in an hour. You don’t want to fly seat-of-your pants, but if you take your time to plan, you’ll be 10,000 words in the hole by the time you start writing.

That’s what I would use it for, anyway. Last minute plotting, and fast. So I guess the name was appropriate.

Download “Random Rapid Plotting” here.

NaNoWriMo Retrospective

This November had so many issues that if it were a person, it would be waist-deep in therapy, hopped up on dubious psych meds, and answering a lot of kind-yet-probing questions from well-meaning-yet-irritating family and friends.  Despite this, I managed to pull out a National Novel Writing Month win by writing 12,000 words this past weekend while also finishing moving out of my old apartment.

Here are some of my NaNoWriMo highlights:

Accidentally naming a character “Feta.”

Yes, like the cheese. This came of fiddling around with random syllables to name characters in my fantasy world. It worked out in my favor because writing her name “Feta” eventually made something click in my head and I thought, “Ooh, what if she isn’t using her real name?” Thus, a sinister plotline was born.

BTW, in 2010, I accidentally named a character Sean Astin. Yes, like the actor.

Successfully writing a jump rope rhyme

Poetry ain’t my thing. Saying “ain’t” ain’t my thing either, because that felt awkward and self-conscious. I’ve always envied fantasy with Tolkien-esque rhymes and songs, so penning a creepy little jump rope rhyme for my fantasy world was a milestone for me.

The Coffee Crawl and Writing Marathon

Not only do I participate in the online aspect of NaNoWriMo, I also co-run events for my local region. This was our 4th annual writing marathon, a 12-hour event that we spend hopping between coffee shops and writing all the way in a state of gleeful, caffeinated madness.

Writing in my new office

November was also the month I moved to a bigger apartment. I now have an office, which was probably meant to be a mud room.

Soap opera conflict

For all the faults of soap operas, I can’t help but enjoy gloriously convoluted soap opera plots. Like: Stanley is marrying Nancy but he slept with her twin sister Valerie, only it was actually Nancy pretending to be Valerie because Sasha blackmailed her and meanwhile Dirk is embezzling money from Stanley’s brother, Cal, who has a secret in his lake house that Dr. Van Shrubbery discovers when he pays a house call to Nancy who only called him to make sure he wasn’t home so Barbette could search his files for evidence of Sasha’s secret younger brother who was adopted by a family in France and is looking for money but only so he can use it for revenge on Valerie, who went to France once and broke his heart.

I didn’t manage anywhere close to that level of soap opera conflict, but the much smaller dose I added to my novel was a lot of fun.