Category Archives: Writing

Revision Is Creative

In writing, the first draft gets all the attention. Writing a first draft is seen as synonymous with writing, while anything that comes after is just a chore that has to get done after the real writing is finished. Worse, there are writers out there who tell other writers not to revise at all, because all it does is kill the magic of a story’s initial inspiration. But in my experience, the first draft is only half the creative process. Revision isn’t an uncreative chore; it’s the other half of that process, and just as important as the first half.

Before a story is written, it’s nothing but a perfect idea. Maybe that idea comes with a couple of specific details, but everything boils down to that one grand concept, whether it’s a premise or an opening scene or something else. Where it goes from there depends on the writer. I expand on that initial concept in layers, getting more and more detailed, until I have the story nailed down well enough to put words to it. Some writers take that concept and start writing immediately, finding the story and the words at the same time.

But however that first perfect idea turns into an actual story, the more real the idea becomes—the more it turns into actual plot points and actual characters and actual words—the less perfect it becomes. It can never look quite as good as it did in the writer’s head. Not just because the skill of the writer is a limiting factor, but because the more specific details something gets, the messier it gets. A single concept isn’t messy; a single concept can look like perfection. But when it turns into a bunch of characters all making things happen for various reasons, that’s the definition of messiness.

That’s not to say that that kind of mess is a bad thing. It’s a part of the process, that’s all. Some people look at revision as a way of correcting that initial chaos, and fixing what they should have done right the first time. But I don’t think that’s quite right either. The mess isn’t a mistake or a shortcoming; it’s part of turning something simple into something complex. Everyone gets there differently—I work out a lot of the chaos before I even put words to paper, and I once read about an author who revises each page before he moves on to the next—but I would be willing to bet that every writer contends with chaos in some way, and that’s not because they haven’t mastered their craft yet. It’s one step of the process, and revision is just the next step.

In a way, revision is the most interesting part of the writing process. It’s all about trying to tame that mess, and make it approach what the writer envisioned when that single perfect idea caught their attention. But it’s not as simple as that. Because no matter how much you clean it up, there’s no turning a whole book into the simplicity and clarity of a single idea. And because a story changes as it’s written, and that’s part of the point. Breaking that first concept into different pieces, and watching those pieces interact, is going to change what the story is, until that initial idea no longer looks like quite enough.

Revision is almost like a first draft in reverse. You take all the bits and pieces of the first draft, and you twist and shape and change them until the story becomes something more cohesive, more like a single system. More like the original idea… but also something else, something more. Because it’s impossible to take all those bits and stuff them back inside a single concept. From the first brainstorming session, or the first page written, a story becomes more than that. It’s not a single perfect idea anymore, even after the most thorough revision. Nor should it be. Instead, it’s more that it becomes a sort of ecosystem, with all the different parts working in harmony.

It’s not about being a perfectionist, like some people will claim if you admit you spend a lot of time on revision, because the goal isn’t perfection. It’s also not about killing inspiration; it’s about shaping and directing it. And it’s not a tedious chore that comes after the process of real writing; it is real writing, and I’ve come to find it as valuable as—or more than—the first-draft process that most people think of when they think of writing.

Idea Playgrounds and Twisty Journeys (A Tale of Two Series)

Since publishing the first book in the Catalyst series, I’ve noticed some interesting comparisons between this book and my previous series. Some people think this series already a lot better than the Internal Defense series. Some people, on the other hand, feel like the Internal Defense series had something that this book lacks. And some people don’t have a preference, but talk about how different the two series are—which confused me at first, because they both came out of my head, so how different could they be? But after thinking about it, I realized there are some pretty major differences between the two, not in style but in structure—and it makes perfect sense that some people would prefer one and some the other.

(If it spoils the magic for you to know what an author was thinking when they wrote a book, you may want to skip this post. The post also contains mild spoilers for the Internal Defense series.)

In the Internal Defense series, I was playing with ideas. That doesn’t mean I was trying to teach a lesson or get a point across; I was playing with ideas, which is different. It’s not about making the reader believe something; it’s about experimenting and having fun. Primarily, I was playing with the concept of how the same person (or place or group) can have contradictory identities that can coexist while also contradicting each other. Becca was an ordinary teenager and the leader of the resistance. Her mother was a loving mother and a ruthless torturer. The world itself was the ordinary world we live in, while also being thoroughly dystopian. I was also playing with the concept of other-ness and dehumanization, and the dissonance of how someone who is very human to you (Becca’s mother, or her first love) can also be other and someone who, because of their role (torturer, dissident), she would ordinarily see as less than human.

All the concrete details in those books are there purely in service to the ideas. Most of what the supporting characters do is meant to highlight one aspect or another of their conflicting identities, or to make Becca confront her own roles and how they interact with each other. (Micah and Kara were exceptions, being fully realized characters in their own right, and I’m still not sure whether that was the right way to go.) Almost every detail of the world is there to express dissonance between its two aspects: to evoke a familiar detail from the real world, or a familiar totalitarian trope, or—preferably—both at once. It isn’t meant to be a real place; it’s meant to be an idea-playground.

The Catalyst series is different. Like the Internal Defense series, it began with the central premise (Internal Defense: a mother-daughter relationship where the mother is a torturer for a totalitarian regime; Catalyst: people making far-reaching small changes to the world in service of a divine plan they don’t fully understand). But where it led ended up being very different. The Catalyst concept, if done right, is inseparable from how the Catalysts affect the world. The concrete effects have to be important, not just the abstract concepts behind those effects. The premise has plenty of interesting ideas to play with—although that’s mostly going to happen in the second half of the series—but this world isn’t just an idea-playground, because for this series, with this premise, it can’t be. It’s a place in its own right. (Writing a world that just exists sounds like it should be easier than making every detail mean something, but it’s surprisingly a lot more difficult. I’m not a concrete thinker; figuring out, “What would express such-and-such concept?” is much easier for me than figuring out, “Given these circumstances, what would this place be?”)

In this series, I’m playing with other things. Things like: What does it mean to change the world in big and meaningful ways when you can only do so through small actions? What does it mean to devote your life to a cause you can’t fully understand? What does it cost? Where does it lead? It’s not about contrasts, like the Internal Defense series is. It’s about the journey. The people going through it, and how it breaks and rebuilds them. The places they pass through, and how those places change. Most fundamentally, it’s about change. And when you write about change, the meaty details of character and plot become the interesting and compelling parts of the story—because if they weren’t, the ways they changed wouldn’t matter.

I’m a better writer now than I was when I was writing the Internal Defense series, because a writer’s skill grows with every book they write. But it’s also true that in some ways the Internal Defense series is a better series, if your idea of “better” involves rich and complex idea-playgrounds. (And I miss that! But back when I was writing Necessary Sacrifices, I was wistfully planning the Catalyst series and its twisty journey. The grass is always greener.) On the other hand, if you prefer the concrete to the abstract, or find cause-and-effect more compelling than contrast, this series will probably look like the one where I finally got the writing thing figured out. it depends heavily on what each individual reader is looking for—which is as it should be. I’m strongly in favor of reading based on your preferences. Whether I’m a better writer now than when I wrote The Torturer’s Daughter shouldn’t matter as much as whether The Torturer’s Daughter is more your kind of book.

And if, like me, you like both… then a new series just means something new to play with, just like it does for me.

Inner Conflict in Series Fiction (and in life)

The worst part of reading a series, for me, is thoroughly enjoying the first book only to find that the subsequent books don’t hold my interest at all. It doesn’t happen every time—I’ve devoured many a series from the first book to the last—but it happens enough for me to have noticed a pattern. And now that I’m writing  a series, one that’s been planned that way from the beginning (the Internal Defense series was more of an accident, with a stand-alone novel turning into two books and then three, and each book was created with its own independent story arc), one of my priorities has been to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with my own books. Not only do I not want to inflict that experience on readers, I also don’t want to slog through writing the later books in my series, because if I can’t get invested in what I’m writing, then what’s the point?

Over the years, I’ve figured out that the main sticking point for me in a series is the characters’ inner growth. Typically, in the first book they resolve the major issues that have been holding them back—and then it’s time for book two, and all those issues have already been resolved. Then either the series starts focusing solely on the external plot (which is fine and all, but inner conflict is a necessary ingredient for me), or it starts going off the rails and loses the central elements that got me interested in the first place.

But making inner growth happen in every book is easier said than done, especially when writing something longer than a trilogy. After all, if you want the first book in a series to stand alone, it makes sense to resolve their issues—the thing from the past that haunts them, the flaw that’s been holding them back—in book one. Even if you don’t care about wrapping all your threads up in the first book, it can get ridiculous trying to stretch one inner conflict over the source of several books. Eventually both the author and the reader want to tell the character to just get over it and put those demons to rest already.

But once the demons are laid to rest, once the main character has come to terms with their past or taken that leap of faith or done whatever they need to do to be healthy and whole, where do they go from there? After all, once you’ve worked out that central issue, gone through your personal hero’s journey and come out the other side, you’re all set, right? Your issues are resolved, and you can go on with your life in peace.

Except that’s not how it works. That’s never how it works.

There’s always a new journey, something else to resolve, some new direction in which to grow. However serene and comfortable the new place you found yourself in was, you’re never going to stay there forever. Eventually it just becomes the starting point for a new journey. Your demons meet you where you are—whether they’re new demons or the old ones in a new form—and you fight them again and move on. And on, and on.

And that’s how it works in a good series.

No matter how important that first conflict they resolve, it will never be the last conflict, or even the most important. It’s just the first step in a journey that will take them a lot further than one book or one victory. That’s true for both outer and inner conflict, or it should be. That’s not a special writing technique—that’s just making stories true to life.

A Job You Love Is Still a Job

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

This platitude gets repeated over and over again. And as someone who turned my childhood dream into a career, I can tell you that there’s not a bit of truth to it.

When you do something as a hobby, you probably only do it when you feel like it. It’s what you do for fun, or to relax. I remember when I wrote purely for fun, before I was even thinking about publishing anything. I remember writing thirty pages in a day in a rush of pure inspiration, and waking up the next morning with an idea for a new story I loved even more. I remember dreaming up endless details for stories that never got put to paper, because the dreaming was the fun part.

When you start doing that same thing as a job, you do it every day, whether you want to or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re not feeling inspired. It doesn’t matter if there’s something else you’d rather do. Or maybe you really do want to write (or draw, or whatever else) but what you want is to work on that new idea that came to you overnight, not the overdue project that you’ve been stalled on for the past week. That doesn’t matter either. You have to write, or the book won’t get written.

It can be a difficult shift to adjust to, especially given the expectations around working a job you love (see the above platitude)—particularly creative work, and particularly if you’re self-employed. I’ve seen more than one person who turned a hobby into a career talk about how it ruined the thing they used to love. They say that’s why you should never try to make a living doing something you love, and should instead ruthlessly separate work and play. They end up quitting writing entirely, or art, or programming. For some, that’s the right decision. But for others, I suspect all they really need to hear is, “That’s normal. You didn’t ruin it, you just started doing it when you didn’t want to do it. Nothing is fun all the time when you do it on demand. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be fulfilling.”

Yes, writing is less fun for me now. I still have days when inspiration runs through my veins like lightning, and I can’t sleep because of all the ideas circling through my head. I also have days when my unfinished draft feels like a weight pressing me to the earth, and I don’t want to get out of bed because it will mean sitting down at the computer again and trying to wring words out of my brain for That Awful Book again. Most of the time it’s neither of those things. It’s just the thing I do every day. It’s a routine. It’s work.

But work isn’t a bad thing. Writing is less fun than it was when I only did it when I felt like it—but fun isn’t my number one goal in life. Everyone needs fun, including me. Sometimes I need a day off to just play video games all day and not think about the stupid book. But I’d feel better after a week of beating my head against a wall over a project that matters to me, and getting that much closer to sending it out into the world, than after a week of nothing but video games. I suspect most people would.

It’s not about fun. It’s about fulfillment. It’s about spending my life doing something that matters to me—and however I feel about the writing process on any given day, telling stories still matters just as deeply to me as it did when all my writing was for fun. Maybe more, because my years spent improving my craft have given me a deeper appreciation for what goes into a well-told story and what it can mean to a reader.

I didn’t ruin writing for myself. I don’t even want to go back to how it used to be. I finish my projects now instead of walking away when they’re not fun anymore; I do the unsexy work of revising and editing to make my stories into what I want them to be; and regular practice—however unwilling at times—has improved my skills enough to let me write a book that begins to approach how the idea looked in that initial burst of inspiration, instead of a pale reflection. I sit down at my desk every day and add something to the world that did not exist before. I have no regrets.

And I have friends who looked at what it took to be a professional writer and decided they only ever wanted to write as a hobby. As far as I know, they also have no regrets.

I’ve seen a lot of backlash lately against the idea of following one’s passion. I don’t agree with it. I think a lot of the people who turn their backs on their dreams to go for the smart choice are going to wake up thirty years from now and wonder why they didn’t even try. I believe in doing something with your life that matters to you, insofar as that’s possible, whether it’s how you make money or not. Which means, yes, I believe in chasing your dream and following your passion.

That is, I believe in following your passion as long as you know what you’re getting into.

Just don’t go into it thinking you’ll never work a day in your life. Work you love is still work—and that’s not a bad thing.

Summer Update

Now that 2015 is more than half over, just a quick update to let you know what I’ve been up to writing-wise:

With the Internal Defense series completed, I’ve been working on the start to my new YA series. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on the blog before, but you may have seen me talking about it on social media from time to time. I can’t say much about it yet – talking about a writing project before I’ve finished it is the quickest way for me to kill the project – but this is what I wrote about it on the Infinite Ink blog last year:

The new series will be longer than Internal Defense (think Harry Potter), and its futuristic world will be very different from the scarily-familiar bureaucracy of Becca’s dystopia. But it will involve a lot of the same core themes – tough moral choices, survival in a grim and dangerous world, finding hope in hopeless situations, and a heroine learning her own kind of strength.

(Oh, and parents who kill people. That too.)

I’m intentionally going slow with this project – the Internal Defense series brought me to the edge of burnout, and I want to make sure I stay mentally fresh while throwing myself into a project as big as this one. But I’ve been working steadily on it, and although I can’t give details, I can confirm that it’s going well.

If you’re interested in learning more about the new project as I work on it, I post periodic updates on my Facebook page… or if you just want to find out when the first book is ready, join my mailing list to get a notification when it’s available for pre-order.

After the Fire

When I first heard about the short-story contest and anthology that the moderators of Holly Lisle’s writing community were putting together, I almost decided not to submit anything. The theme just didn’t speak to me. “The Adventure of Creation” – it sounded much too light and fluffy for me, like I should be writing about somebody frolicking with the Muse. I have nothing against light and fluffy, but I can’t write it to save my life. The last time I tried to write, I ended up with a short story about some poor girl who was barred from the afterlife and didn’t know why. I shudder to think what Muse-frolicking would have turned into.

But it kept niggling at my mind. So I thought about it in the background, and tried to find some way to make it work, even though I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen.

And then I remembered something. I couldn’t remember the exact quote, or who had said it, but it was something along the lines of, “An adventure is someone a safe distance away from you having a miserable time.”

That was more like it. Yes. Maybe I could do this.

So I started thinking about creation. What was the opposite of creation? Destruction, obviously. So… what made the two different?

The answer to that made me realize that, just as with “adventure,” “creation” wasn’t so light and fluffy after all.

It also got me my story.

And that story not only made it into the anthology, it was a semifinalist in Holly Lisle’s contest. 😀

“After the Fire” is available now as part of the anthology The Adventure of Creation. It’s neither light nor fluffy, and there is no frolicking to be found, but it does explain what creation means to me – and adventure too.

See the Beginning of The Torturer’s Daughter Through Raleigh Dalcourt’s Eyes

A quick link for you: If you want to get a peek inside Raleigh Dalcourt’s head, you can read a scene  I wrote from her perspective here. It’s from the first chapter of The Torturer’s Daughter, where you meet Raleigh for the first time and Becca confronts her about what happened to Heather’s parents. (Don’t worry, there’s no actual torture in this scene!)

Readers and Writers

I’ve noticed a strange animosity towards readers in writing communities lately. Writers complaining that readers are greedy mooches who just want free books, or sneaky mooches who wait for a book to go on sale before buying it. (As if we haven’t all waited for something we weren’t sure about paying full price for to go on sale at one point or another.) Grumbling about readers who don’t write reviews, or saying that readers have no taste and just want to read something that doesn’t make them think.

Even when there’s no animosity, there’s still a divide. Writers spend countless hours fruitlessly trying to figure out what readers want and how readers discover books. I see writers talking about how sites like Goodreads are useless because they’re places to talk about books you’ve read, not places for writers to promote their books. It’s common, it seems, to talk about readers as elusive prey, with writers the hunters trying to capture them.

It can be easy to slip into that kind of thinking. All writers want more readers, and once you start thinking about how to get more people to read your book, it’s easy to start seeing readers as maddeningly wily creatures to be hunted with your release schedules and your marketing plans.

It can be easy to forget that you’re a reader too.

But writers are, presumably, readers. At least I hope I can make that assumption. After all, if you don’t love books and reading, why write a book in the first place?

I’m sure there are a few writers out there who don’t love books, not even their own – who see their books simply as a vehicle for their entrepreneurship. I don’t want to read these writers’ books. I’m of the opinion that these writers should go write for a content site (that plague of the internet) and stop pushing their soulless novels on unsuspecting readers. But I doubt this type of writer is common. I think it’s more likely that the divide comes both from a misguided marketing mindset and from the idea some people seem to have that you can either be one or the other. if you’re a writer, you’re not a reader, because you’re a writer.

But that idea is wrong.

I’m a reader as much as I am a writer. Being a writer doesn’t make me less of a reader. I didn’t start loving books any less the day I started writing, or the day I started writing stuff that was actually good, or the day I published a novel. My writing would have suffered if I had. My writing is built on a foundation of reading, the way all writing should be.

So I won’t draw the line between readers and writers that so many people do. I won’t stop thinking of myself as a reader just because I’ve published a book. If I did, I would be denying the very thing that makes my writing possible.

 

Finding Hope in the Darkness

Love and hope and the better parts of human nature aren’t the first things people think of when they think of dystopia. But I believe they can be an important component of the genre – and, if done right, these things can come across more strongly in dystopian fiction than in lighter and happier stories. Today I’m over on Justine Graykin‘s blog talking about hope in the midst of darkness and what makes it so powerful. Come read the post and share your thoughts!

The Little Things

A couple of years ago, a friend mentioned to me that when he got married, changing his Facebook status almost made it feel more real than signing the official documents did.

I thought back to that last night, when I told Microsoft Word to start using curly quotes.

Several years ago now, when I was first starting to think about getting published, I was researching manuscript format and learned that if you’re going to be submitting manuscripts online, you need to turn off curly quotes in Word. Otherwise the formatting could go wonky on the agent/editor’s end. I dutifully told Word to stop using them, and I haven’t seen a curly quote in any of my manuscripts for years.

But I’m not submitting anywhere now. And the things I’ve read about ebook formatting say that you should make sure curly quotes are turned on, so that they appear in your final book.

So I turned them on. Because that’s what I’m doing now. I’m not trying to get published; I’m creating ebooks. It took about thirty seconds to change the setting… but it felt surprisingly momentous.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make something feel the most real.