Sunday, July 22, 2012

How to Cut and Edit

Cutting is probably the hardest part of editing. A first draft is quantity over quality, but all the preceding drafts are quality over quantity, which means that editing may involve cutting some of what you've written.  If this task makes you think, "Hey, I worked really hard on this! I like it. No way am I cutting it!" here's how I've gotten through it:

The first story that I wrote for my college fiction writing class was much longer than what we were supposed to hand in. When I told my friend that I might have to cut a subplot, she advised me to keep a copy of the original story because I might want it for myself. Her advice taught me that this was only one story - if there wasn't room for all the subplots in this version, I could always use my original story another time.

I always polished the stories I brought to fiction writing class as if they were final drafts, which made it difficult to revise them. Sometimes revising meant barely touching the original documents. But whenever I was hesitant to slash what I had worked hard on, I remembered my friend's advice. My material was never gone forever. I could still keep my original drafts.

When I finished my first novel, I knew that I would need to edit if I wanted it to be a finished product. Using what I had learned from class, I slashed 50 pages from my first draft. It sounds hard, but here's what made it easier: First, I set my goal length higher than it needed to be so that I could cut pages without worrying about the book being too short (looking back, I should have set it even higher). Second, I saved a copy of the original that would stay as it was, while I edited a second copy. Second, I made a document entitled "cutting board," which was a temporary storage for pieces of the story that I cut but thought I might include somewhere else. Lots of sentences and paragraphs never left the cutting board, but knowing they would be  saved somewhere made me more willing to cut them in the first place.

The point here is, it's okay to be attached to your writing, and it's okay to hold onto things just for yourself. When you have a hard time cutting, imagine that your story is a castle of Legos. When you build anything with Legos, you normally knock it down when you're done and then rebuild something new from the pieces.  A story may sound better without all of the pieces you used, but keep in mind that you own those pieces.  Whether you build the bricks yourself or steal them from a house you've always admired, they are yours.  Whether or not you use every piece in one story, the pieces are yours to keep forever, until you build something new.

Fiction Writing: The First Draft

My fiction writing professor told us that the number one rule of writing a first draft is to just write it. Whether you outline beforehand is up to you, but focus on telling the story and don't worry about how it sounds (you will edit after you're done). It's hardest to go from nothing to something; it's much easier to edit once you have something written.  If you get stuck on a detail like how to say something or which word to choose, fill something in temporarily and move on. I often use brackets when I can't figure something out, such as [name of city] or [description of room] and fill in the gaps later.  It's very hard to get through a first draft if you're trying to edit as you go.

That said, sometimes there are details that you need to iron out before proceeding. I've taken this first-draft advice to the extreme - I once had a 7-year-old jump out a second floor window without getting hurt and travel 20 miles in a few hours.  I've overlooked a lot of "technicalities" and figured I'd edit them later, only to realize that the foundation of the story was unrealistic, that there was no easy way out without changing the rest of the story.  It's one thing to do this with short stories, but when you're writing a novel, you don't want to be on page 200 and realize that your story has no basis in reality.

To avoid this problem when I wrote my book, I assessed the importance of everything that was questionable. I would ask, if I had to change this part of the story, what else would be affected?  If I could change that part of the story and still continue forward, it was a detail to deal with in the second draft, but if the foundation of the story depended on it, I would research whether or not it was realistic and figure out alternatives.

Here are two examples:
1. In my novel, a group of kids at a summer camp were doing things that wouldn't be allowed.  I had to figure out how the characters got away with it during the first draft because the entire book centered around these activities.
2. The story originally took place the summer before senior year of high school, but the characters progressed, they acted more like it was the summer before junior year. I thought about what would change if I made them a year younger and realized that the differences wouldn't affect the plot, so this decision could wait until the second draft.  But if it had been the other way around - if the characters were acting their age but I wanted to make them younger for the plot, then that would be something to decide earlier because the characters would have to change.

Finally, if you're working on a novel and decide to change something that has already happened, it's better to change it going forward and then go back when you're done.  My mom gave me this advice when I changed the plot 60 pages in, and it really helped because it's much easier (e.i. less discouraging) to go back and fix things when you've completed a story than when you've just started.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing a Novel: It's Hardest the First Time

I wouldn't say that I know how to write a novel just because I've written one. That's something I'm still trying to figure out. But after editing my first book for the fifth time, I've realized a lot about what worked well and what I should do differently in the future.

One of the newest things about writing a novel was just working on such a long-term project. It took me a year and a half to finish the book. Before that, the longest I had ever spent on a project was a few weeks. I have daydreamed and played around with the same idea for years, but in terms of actually working on something, I had never focused on one project that long before. One of the hardest parts was just figuring out a schedule and how to get the book done. Giving myself personal deadlines (even though I missed every single one) was probably the best choice I made. With all of the unfinished projects I have accumulated, I was really worried that my first novel might turn out the same way. I gave myself unrealistic deadlines because I was worried about not finishing. Looking back now, there was never question of not finishing my novel because having a deadline was what set my novel apart from everything else that I have tried to write. My unfinished projects never had deadlines - they were stories that I had fun working on when I had the chance, that I figured I would eventually finish, but that I never set a goal of finishing. Unrealistic or not, having deadlines made me take my novel more seriously than any other project and helped me finish within a reasonable amount of time.

That said, the reason that I missed every single deadline I set for myself was that I didn't take my writing pace into account. I want to finish by the end of summer vacation, before graduation, by the one-year anniversary of when I started - dates that meant something to me, but had nothing to do with when I could logically finish the book. One of the reasons that I didn't take my writing pace into account was that I didn't want to accept how much slower my writing pace was than what I thought it should be. I had yet to realize the major difference between writing a short story and a novel.

I spend a lot of time daydreaming and playing around with story ideas before I write anything down. When I wrote 20-page short stories for fiction writing class, I usually had the entire story mapped out in my mind already, including dialogue. I remember one time in particular, I had spent so much time ruminating about a particular story that when I sat down to write it, I felt like I was just typing the story from memory. All those times I had written 10-15 pages in one day, I was really just editing an unwritten first draft.

The trouble with writing a novel is that it is very difficult to get a grip on the whole story. It seemed like no matter how much planning and character development I did, I couldn't get the entire story completely straight, let alone walk around with 250 pages of dialogue in my head. I got frustrated when I couldn't keep up what I thought was my normal writing pace.  But this time, I had to actually decide what would happen next as I was writing rather than copying the first draft in my head.

I can daydream about something for years without ever writing it down, but once I begin outlining on paper, I get really anxious to start writing the book for real. I think the best thing for me to do would be to write and outline at the same time. For my last book, I had the first 20 pages or so mapped out pretty clearly (which made me in a hurry to write them down), but then I hit a wall and proceeded without really knowing where I was going. But planning doesn't have to end just because you've already started. Maybe what would work the best would be to write out the parts that I do have planned, and then plan out the rest. Some writers write scenes separately and then paste them into the right order in the end. Perhaps that would be something to try.

For my next book, I also want to keep a running outline as I go along, meaning that I will keep a list of events and scenes that matches what I have actually written (which is usually different from my original outline). When I was editing my last book, I had a very hard time keeping track of the order of events, and just remembering every single thing that happened. I could remember individual scenes clearly, but I couldn't give a detailed summary of everything that happened in the correct order. I couldn't tell you what happened in chapter nine because I didn't remember where I had put the chapter breaks. This made it difficult to change the order of events when I needed to. It was also challenging to make sure all the details were consistent. In a short story, it's much easier to add or remove a detail or subplot. But when I added or removed something from the novel, it was hard to find every single sentence that would change as a result of the addition or deletion. Looking back on it, I think that keeping a running outline would make editing much easier.

It's been a while since I've discussed my writing process on this blog, but when I learned that writing a book is the second most popular goal on 43 Things, I figured it might be a topic of interest. If you would like to write a book, my best advice is to start. Start outlining or start writing, and figure out a reasonable schedule and deadline. But most importantly, don't be afraid, and don't stop writing if you feel like the story isn't working.  It's hardest to go from nothing to something, but once you get something on that page, you can edit. You can make it better.

Like with most things, the first time you write a novel is probably the hardest. One of the greatest obstacles you may face when trying to write that first book is the question, "Can I actually do this?" And answering yes to that question is essential for writing. If you sign up for the school musical even though you aren't a good singer, you know that the show will go on - that whether you're scared or not, whether you're good or not, you will have to perform. But if you decide in the middle of writing your book that you can't do it, then there won't be a book. Writing requires you to believe in yourself and to know that you can write. Every bestselling author had to start with a first book. Your book may not be brilliant. You may not have the entire process figured out by the time you're done. But you will know that you can write a novel. And from then on, you'll always know.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Internet Community

I had always heard that internet communities were a great way to connect with people with whom you share a common bond, but I had never found the right one for me. Anytime I felt alone about a problem and went searching for other people who were going through the same thing, I often felt more left out after reading what I had found. I figured internet communities weren't all they were cracked up to be. But recently, I joined a forum site for one of my favorite authors and to read about some of my favorite shows,  I felt instantly connected to a lot of people. I knew that this must be the internet community that everyone was talking about - but why didn't I find it before? What made this time different?

People like all kind of communities, and there's not right or wrong type to join. But I think for me personally, I need to bond with people over something that we like rather than something that we don't like. On the internet anyway. The reason is because whenever I searched for a forum on, say, homesickness, there would always be some people posting invalidating comments in response to a question that I would have asked myself. Then a lot of responses would be like, "Hang in there, you'll get used to it," when I was in my fourth year of college and still not okay being away from home. I guess when I'm upset enough to go searching for support on the internet, I really don't want to see anything even the least bit unsupportive.  But when I'm looking to talk about a favorite book or TV show, I don't care as much if someone didn't like it because I'm less emotionally attached, it's not as important for me to find exactly what I'm looking for, and there aren't as many negative comments on a fan site to begin with.  People are just less prone to personal attacks and less likely to get their feelings hurt when they're talking about common interests rather than personal issues.

When it comes to bonding over disliking something, the reason that you dislike it matters (ex: someone who hates college because they're homesick is different from someone who hates college because their parents keep calling every five minutes.) But on a fan site, disagreements aren't as important as the common bond that we are all on the fan site, discussing our theories.  Everyone doesn't share every interest with their friends or social circle, so when you enter this world of people who are as obsessed as you are about something, you can just feel a really strong bond with people you've never met.

Personal communities do function as support groups and help a lot of people - I've just realized that they're not for me. But when I find a ton of people talking about the book I just read, or writers posting fanfiction that I've actually imagined myself, I understand what my friends were saying about the internet community. I feel so connected.