Archive for September 2014

Baking a Cake, or, Why I Don’t Draft my Stories in Order

With tonight being the exception that proves the rule, I don’t burn our dinners. I have a good 20-some meals in my arsenal that I can pull out and make, many of them from memory. And they’re usually tasty enough to get by. At least, they’re tasty enough that my husband cooks less than once a month (feminists, don’t worry: he does all the dishes).

But while my cooking is passable, it’s baking that I excel at. I need numbers, measurements, precision. It’s how I think. It’s also why I get panic attacks at the idea of playing an RPG, but that’s another blog post. (Want to hear that story? Let me know in the comments and I’ll write it up. It’s probably not as good as what you are imagining.)

Tasty chocolate cake batter.

Cakes are full of things that are either 1) completely and utterly flavorless and kind of gross alone, or 2) completely and utterly unhealthy when consumed in large amounts. For category 1, see flour and baking soda/powder. For category 2, see butter, sugar, vanilla… But when they’re combined, they make something tasty like the batter above (and you’re not supposed to eat it, because eggs, but whatever). It’s then baking the batter that makes a cake.

When I’m writing, I like to work like I like to bake. First I combine the utterly flavorless bits: the flour, salt, and baking soda for a cake. This is the boring part: deciding on points of view, structure, character motivation, theme, what dramatic arc to follow, etc. I personally need all of that in place as a foundation before I can think about the creative things.

Then I mix the butter and sugar together. I have to admit, when I’m baking, I’ll sometimes sneak a taste after this part. It’s ridiculously unhealthy, but I love the taste of buttery sugar in small quantities. For writing, this is when I write the good bits, the scenes that were oozing out of my head that I just had to get down. They’re the reason I started writing the story in the first place. Those scenes are few and won’t hold the story together on the whole, but getting them written down gives me a taste of what to come.

Since my outlines, no matter how detailed, aren’t usually enough to get me through a first draft, I have to add in mechanical scenes, scenes that just get me from here to there. These are my eggs: in the batter, they’re completely inedible and at this point they’re not really adding anything. At this point in baking, eggs are both necessary for cohesion and the reason I can’t chow down on the batter without baking it.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar and eggs, and the story starts to take shape. Scenes are arranged in order, tension is reworked, and the whole thing is beginning to look very tasty. But cake batter is not a cake.

Not cake.

It’s in the oven where the magic happens. The chemistry from the boring bits mixes with the inedible eggs and allows the sugary scenes to rise. The whole thing becomes a cohesive unit: you can’t spoon it out anymore; it needs sliced in order to separate it. You have a story. For me, it can’t happen without this level of revision.

Unfrosted cake.

We’re left with something edible, like the unfrosted cake above. The eggs are cooked, the cake is cohesive, and it is now definitely called cake. But I’m picky. My cakes need frosting. This is the polishing phase of drafting a manuscript. Every word is questioned, rephrased, made perfect. Like I mentioned, phrases need accessories. They need dressed up and edited down before they can become something truly presentable.

Something like this:

wedding cake

Do you write linearly or do you combine ingredients?

Don’t forget to check out my line edit giveaway!

Thirty-Page Line Edit Giveaway

Coming soon! Enter to win from October 1 through October 8 Pacific time.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Premise Vs. Plot

About eleven months ago, I was feeling fed up with the manuscript I’m currently querying. I thought it was already done, and one look from a critique partner was enough to prove I still had a long way to go on it. I didn’t know how I wanted to go about changing it, and I felt overwhelmed.

I was about eight weeks pregnant, and morning sickness was starting to get the better of me. Even working 40 hours a week was getting to be too much, when normally I spend October through January working an average of 60-hour weeks, between my full-time job, freelancing, and writing. I. Just. Didn’t. Want. To. I slept all day on the weekends, took naps on weekdays, and pretended that I didn’t have a WIP hanging around and waiting for me.

Then, something hit me like another wave of morning sickness: a Shiny New Idea. I was thrilled. NaNoWriMo was coming up. I created a cover and a brief idea (we’re talking BRIEF, kids. One sentence. A character name.) and was sure I’d have a large chunk of a rough draft before the end of November.

Turns out, I’m a planner, and I can’t let that go. Also turns out: spending a week on the couch with the Sinus Infection From Hell where anything resembling movement (including moving my eyes to read) was painful and nauseating isn’t conducive to a productive NaNo.

Total word count on that idea on November 30, 2013? Zero.

I rested up, got past morning sickness, and returned to Damaged to keep re-writing. I didn’t even think about my Shiny New Idea again until April. I wrote down a few character names, messed around with some relationship complications, but the story still wasn’t working. I knew the idea was one I LOVED, but I couldn’t translate it to the page.

Finally, I diagnosed my problem: I had a premise, not a plot.

A premise is the what-if of a story, the foundation, the groundwork. What if there was an abused boy who finds out that he is not only a wizard, he’s the most famous wizard in Britain because he defeated a Dark Wizard as a baby?

That has nothing to do with the plot of Philosopher’s/Sorceror’s Stone, and yet it is the essence of Harry Potter. There’s no mention of the stone, the particular struggles Harry would face, Quirrell, Dumbledore… it’s the foundation those plot points (and the plot points of the following six books) stand on.

Premise is definitely not plot. Assuming that’s where JKR started her idea for Harry (it was similar, I think, but not quite that), she was still a long way from a mad, turbaned professor crying “Troll in the dungeon!!”

And that was my problem with the new story. I had a compelling premise that I really wanted to explore. I had a main character I vaguely knew. I didn’t have a plot. I didn’t even know what the main character wanted. (“To live,” I told myself. “Or maybe to die? IDK!!”)

Since revisions are wrapping up with Damaged, and I’m in The Waiting Game with queries and contests, and having a three-month-old is surprisingly easier than being three months pregnant, I got to work on my idea again.

I consolidated two characters I planned on keeping separate, gave the bad guy a motivation, worked on structure, and started writing down ideas for scenes. I even decided between the two options above about what the main character wanted! (No, I’m not telling, not yet.) I’m still a long way from a perfectly complete plot, but that will come with time. At least now I have more than a premise. Maybe I’ll even outline during October and finally complete NaNo with this Shiny New Idea. A year late. But better late than never, right?

And the best part? Since the Shiny New Idea has been fermenting for a year and I still love it, I know it’s a story I’ll be thrilled to tell.

An Agent’s Inbox

Hi, all!

I’m participating on Krista Van Dolzer’s “An Agent’s Inbox” this week, if you’d like to go check it out. My entry is here. It has my query and first 250 words, slightly changed from when I participated in The Writer’s Voice in May.

If you don’t follow Krista, you should. She has great posts and helps with a lot of writerly (and a few readerly) competitions that are awesome.

Editing Services

My blog looks a bit different now. It’s subtle, but there. First of all, I have a new heading image! This one I took myself during a senior pic shoot with my cousin earlier this month.

Also, I have new options in my menu: Editorial Services and Contact Me.

This is because I’m offering freelance editing now! I’m obviously really excited about this. I’ve been freelance editing academic work for about three years, and I’ve been waiting and gathering experience so I could be able to offer editing outside my alma mater.

If you’ve written a novel and need line editing before querying or self-publishing, or proofreading before self-publishing, I’m here for you. I’ll be taking book-length clients one at a time, for a three-week time block each. Smaller jobs (short stories, academic papers less than 20 pages, excerpts, etc.) I will work in along the way.

If you have questions about my services, leave a comment here or contact me, and I would be happy to answer you.

Dressing Up

Yesterday, I wore a white t-shirt and ripped jeans to work.

I loved the way I looked.

See, I didn’t just wear a white t-shirt and jeans. I also wore a moto jacket, ankle boots, and a turquoise teardrop necklace. I had my hair slicked back in a high ponytail. I wore eyeliner, mascara, and a hint of eye shadow.

In my opinion, I wasn’t wearing clothes. I was wearing an outfit.

Ever since I gave birth (to a healthy baby girl on June 22nd) and knew I wouldn’t be fitting into my size-2s pretty much ever again, I have been interested in cultivating my style. I wanted to take my vague appreciation for fashion and actually live like it. I looked at minimalist fashion blogs (I’m a huge minimalist in theory and a beginning minimalist in practice), created Pinterest boards, and went shopping. I knew I looked younger than my 25 years, but I also knew I could look my age if I tried. I didn’t want to get confused for a teenage mother. I didn’t want the looks of pity that show up when a too-young woman totes around a baby.

After a summer of curating, I have about 40 total articles of clothing (jeans, shirts, shoes, jackets, dresses, skirts…). I learned how to put them together, how to accessorize. I gave away my poor-fitting, over-worn tennis shoes. As a result, I am a new mother with extra baby weight who almost always loves the way she looks. It’s weird.

Now, since I have the habit of comparing everything to writing, here’s the tie-in: any words on a page is writing much in the same way that a “Team Building Exercise ’99” shirt and sweats are clothes. (Bonus points if you get the reference.) Add in metaphors, similes, resonance, and you have the accessories that make the outfit.

Hide the spit-up stains, replace the mis-matched shoes (seriously, do you know how much shoes influence the look of an outfit?!), do your hair. That’s what I’m doing to my manuscript right now.

I use way too many “it seemed like”s and “I feel like”s, even in my fourth draft. I stutter around statements that could be profound if I owned them. I make my dialogue too realistic–with “well”s and “um”s and false starts that look a lot like my daughter’s spit-up does on my brand-new shirts.

So as I continue to work on dressing up myself in everyday life, I’m in the middle of dressing up my manuscript. One example: “I feel like her wrinkles could tell me many stories and I have only heard a few.” When I wrote that line, I was really proud of it. I thought it was a beautiful way to describe her great-grandmother.

This is what it reads like now: “Her wrinkles are made of stories I won’t have enough time to hear.” Same idea, but without the stuttering and the qualifying that my first draft has. I replaced personification with metaphor, and made the sheer number of stories more obvious–it’s now not that she’s only heard a few. It’s that she’ll never get the chance to hear them all.

How about you? What do you do to dress yourself up? Your words?