Writing Problems :: Letting Go and Moving On

I have a hard time letting things go.

I get attached to things where I made a start. My worn out Monchhichi I’ve had since a baby still sits on my shelf. Moving out of the condo my husband and I lived it depressed me, even though we’d outgrown it (before miss baby even came along).

Stories are hard to let go of, too.

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Writing Problems: Keeping Inside of It

During this time of editing my current story, there are times — when I’m actively working on it, when I’m not in it — that I find myself thinking about it. Not just what I can do, where I can take the story. That’s fine. That’s productive to me. No, instead I find myself obsessing over how impossible the whole thing is.

I start to worry that the whole thing, it just won’t work, that whatever plot problems I have are unfixable. I’ll never hit the right tone, I’ll never make my character complicated but understood by a reader. Really, I just can’t do it.

I still make myself pick it up. I read over the chapter, find the parts I marked for rewrites. I edit, and I create new scenes. And I love it. I love my character, I love the place I put her in, I love the challenge of twisting the dialogue and narration just enough so that I get those moments where I feel like my words actually sing. I straighten out the plot, sew in my new words, and suddenly everything feels a couple of steps beyond what it was before. I’m filled with the idea that this story will eventually work.

Sometimes things just don’t work. The plot wasn’t going the right way, or you just weren’t at the skill and experience level required to bring that idea to life. But if the story feels right to you, then maybe you need to keep inside it, work on it, until you feel you’ve actually exhausted all your possibilities.

 

Writing Problems: Stitching It Together

I’m still chugging away, reworking the middle of my novel. I’m at a portion where I’m not just rearranging or redoing parts, but entire chapters have been chucked out and are in the process of being rewritten. None of this changes the beginning or the real outcome of the novel, but some motivations are different, reasons for doing things, information that the characters have going in has shifted, and as I go, trying to write the entire thing through, I keep changing my mind about where things get revealed, and how.

Thread and needle by liftarn - Converted to SVG from clipart on “PC för alla” CD 3-2003.Every now and then, I realize a scene in one part is better if a character does or does not already know something, which was or not revealed in an earlier chapter I just finished tweaking a few days ago. So I either have to go back and change, disrupting the writing momentum, or I have to make notes, fix it when I type it all together, and what with my fantastic memory that makes things a bit risky.

So, basically, after writing out dozens of new pages, I have a bunch of scenes that don’t exactly match together anymore, that I have to tweak and stretch and cut, so I can line them up and stitch them together like pieces of a quilt. And then I have to hope that after I’ve typed, tweaked, read, and rewritten, that the scenes move smoothly together, and don’t take on the appearance of some awful stitched-together monster.

Writing Problems: Middles

Often I go into stories knowing how my characters start out, and how they end up. Even if the beginning and end eventually change, through drafts that tends to be the more solid part of the story. It’s the middle that remains wobbly, unfocused, languishing.

In a story I hoped to be done with for now (but deep down I knew I really wasn’t) I’d had some problems in the middle, with what the characters were up to, how quickly things happened, how dramatic I made the story. I thought I’d fixed that. Then I got some helpful comments back on it that pointed out my big problems, which took place…yup…in the middle.

I’ve been working on it, and I think it’s improving. I’m trimming some fat, replacing some parts (hopefully not mixing metaphors like that). I’m going to send it out to friends, and hopefully, after their comments, I’ll craft a middle that comes out less like Jell-O and more like semi-dry cement. And then off it goes again.

 

What part of the story gives you issues?

Writing Problems: Beyond the Limit

Thanks to some encouraging news, I’ve been pushing myself over the last few days with some of my writing projects. I’ve reread, edited, and plotted for more hours than I usually dedicate to projects in one day, and now I’ve gotten into rewriting. Generally, a decent day of writing a story for me involves 3 or 4 handwritten pages. Rather than a stopping point, though, I’m trying to make that number a minimum, something I only finish the day at because there’s too much other life happening that there’s no real time to generate more than that. Hoo boy, is that hard.

The reason 3 or 4 pages is usually the limit is that by that point, my brain feels stretched, an elastic I’ve pulled and pulled and I can’t tug on anymore because then it will just snap. This is the point where I actually jump on the chance to do chores around the house, or leave for my job, because my brain doesn’t have the capacity to write any more.

But I can’t think of my brain as something that I’ll just break apart if I push it too far. It’s a muscle, and just like how every yoga class I’m a little bit closer to touching my forehead on my toes, if I keep pushing myself to my limit — and then a little bit beyond — I’ll be able to write more, and more, and maybe one day even pump out a dozen pages over the course of the day without feeling as if I’m about to collapse.

Horrible Past (Writing) Mistakes

I mentioned earlier that my current main writing project is rehashing a novel I completed a few years ago. Thinking it was done 5 years ago, I sent the story out to a handful of agents and got a less-than-enthusiastic response. Tepid is even too strong of a word. “Practically nonexistant” probably best describes the replies I received.

Frustrated, and also feeling like I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing, I pushed this story aside, started work on the novel for whom I’m currently searching for a home, and enrolled in my MFA program. While I did use the first couple chapters of this old MS to get into my program, I haven’t touched it in years.

As things tend to do, this story haunted me, and when it came to be too much I copied the thing into Scrivener, opened split screen, and started retyping the story. I’m just about done with my initial go-through, and I am proud of what I’ve managed to cut and alter. But I am disappointed, and sometimes horrified, at what I dared to send out to agents even a few years ago. Some are big things I might not have noticed that time and a bit of schooling have helped me notice. Others…I don’t even know. Here are a few of the problems:Editing Marks

  • Slow Plot. It takes a while for things to get truly interesting. Which is why most of my big cuts take place in the first third of the book. It’s no wonder I never got any personalized email responses, the agents probably slept through my sample pages.
  • Whiny MC. I wanted my main character to have some realistic 11-year-old life issues, but I really overdid the last time and she turned into a real Debbie Downer. A bunch of that got cut, too.
  • Distant MC. It took me two years of Lesley to figure out that this was my problem and how to fix it, so it’s no surprise that an old MS was practically disease-ridden with distance.
  • Lengthy Conversations. I still gotta cut some of these down, even at my ending. It’s kind of a bummer when you realize you said the same thing three times in rapid succession.
  • Passive voice. This thing is chock full of it, and it probably bleeds back into my distance issue.
  • Overuse of words/descriptions. Everyone is snarling, like, constantly. And I think I used the word “just” about 4 million times.
  • Typos. Oh my god! The typos I left in there! Forgotten quotations, misspelled words, inconsistent apostrophe use. Did I even proofread this thing before I sent it out? I can’t even remember now.

Really, this is a great case for giving yourself time and distance before you dive into edits. Hopefully I’ve learned enough now that I won’t have to wait it out for half a decade before going back to something. Also, get a bunch of critique partners to read it before you send it out, seriously.

Writing Problems: I Can’t Focus

So I’ve queried off my manuscript, which means I’m going to abstain from poking and prodding the story, at least until I start to actually hear back from people. That leaves me with a dilemma: what do I do in the meantime?

061206_lmb_a_01The obvious answer to that is: WRITE. But what, exactly, should I write? I already write reviews, and without the hours of editing everyday I have more time to dedicate to that. But that’s still not enough to fill in the gaps. I have old work I’ve been wanting to fix up, a couple of novels that got shelved since I couldn’t think of how to make them better at the time. I’ve tried a rewrite on one of them, but I haven’t been able to get myself to sit and work on it for quite as long as I ever did with my submitted piece. This novel is something I wrote a little as an experiment, and now every time I go back to look at it I keep getting the sinking feeling that redoing it is a bit of a waste of time. I worry about that with the other novel, too, that I just don’t know how to go back and completely fix something like that.

The next logical thing would be to just start something new. I have a couple of ideas bouncing around in my head, but nothing that’s too super concrete, and all I’ve done so far for either of them is scribble notes on scraps of paper I may or may not have lost. It’s not like anything else I’ve ever worked on has started with more than that, but it’s literally been years since I started a new LONG project that, honestly, I’m a little nervous to dive right in.

There are also essays, poems, and even short stories I could fix up or attempt to start, and I could try sending some of these finished shorter pieces out to magazines. I could do all of those things. But I can’t seem to focus on one for very long. It’s not that I want to write — sometimes I’m squirming with the need — but I don’t know WHAT to write, and I wind up jumping around from thing to thing. It’s like I’m stumbling around in a cave, feeling out the different paths: without that faint light at the end of one of the tunnels, I don’t know which way to go. Guess I just have to grab onto something and go with it, and see how far it takes me.

Or, I’ll just let my new knitting hobby take over my life.

What do you do when you finish a project? How do you know what to start next?

Writing Problems: Back to the Beginning (Again)

I recently received my response from my Lesley mentor, and once again it has been suggested to me that I leave the last half of my novel alone and that I concentrate on making my beginning really work.

“But that’s what I keep doing!” I mentally yelled at my screen (I have neighbors, don’t want them to think I’m too crazy). I reworked the opening my first semester, edited it over and over again second semester, concentrated on my beginning chapters third semester… Meanwhile, there are plot issues in the second half that I’ve been aware of for months that have been getting neglected.

But after knocking my forehead on the keyboard a couple of times, I, of course, agree. I have some problems that appear consistently throughout my manuscript, one being that I never get quite close enough to my main character’s point of view. If I want my story to work later, I have to make it work now, at the start. If I can nail down my character, the motivations, the voice, right at the beginning, it will be easier to carry it through and make it work as the plot goes on. And those plot issues aren’t really being neglected, I know — they’re turning in my head, almost constantly, so that by the time I do get back to them I’ll come up with some sort of solution.

Also, there is a big bonus to this constant editing: I’ve probably reread my beginning chapters a couple hundred times by now, so I’m taking the fact that I’m not sick of it yet as an exceptionally good sign.

Writing Problems – When and Where to Rewrite

Having basically “finished” the novel I’m working on, my main task for the past year has been on editing and polishing my manuscript. Most of the time this consists of cutting things out, changing words, and rearranging sentences and paragraphs for a better flow, a clearer plot, a more enjoyable read. Of course I come upon parts that cannot be fixed by mere tweaks. The whole sentence, the entire paragraph, has to be thrown away and begun from scratch. Sometimes its whole scenes and chapters that I discover need to be scrapped and rebuilt.

My story is absolutely littered with bits like this, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an author who doesn’t feel the same way, at least in the early stages of editing. But a problem I have, I’ve found, is that I become fixated on fixing a certain part of the story. I lock myself in place, insisting that it must become perfect before I can move on. It’s when I get like that, that I’ve found I really reap the benefits of my MFA program.

For my first submission of my second semester, I rewrote my beginning, rearranging the first few chapters and redoing whole bits of it. Still, I was not entirely happy with it, and mentioned to my mentor that I wanted to rewrite it again for my second submission. He advised against it, saying I’d just be “spinning my wheels” if I kept focusing on the same spot. So I moved on, worked on other parts of the book, and now when I go back to those pages I can’t remember what my big problem was.

This semester, my issue is with the ending. In my workshop, my fellow students pointed out that the way my villain is defeated doesn’t make sense for the characters I’ve built up. Since they shown the light on that, I’ve been DYING to figure out my problem and fix it. But even though my mentor wholeheartedly agrees with the workshop’s assessment, she continuously steers me away from reworking that part. Her reasoning? Together we’ve been working on polishing up the first half of the manuscript, getting the characters and their motivations down. As I’ve been doing this, parts of the story have been evolving with the characters, and my own perception of how they’d act in different situations has changed. My beginning still needs work; things continue to change, and my mentor pointed out to me that if I work on the ending now, I’ll only have to go back and edit it again when I’ve gotten everything else down pat.

So what have I gotten from these two situations? First, I know that if I focus for too long on one part I’ll just wind up grinding it away to nothing. I to distance myself, let my anxieties fizzle out, andthen go back to see what I have. I also have to make sure I don’t get ahead of myself; if I jump all over the place in my edits and rewrites, I’ll just create more work for myself in the end. And, while I’m learning how to figure these things out on my own, I think I really do need someone to help point out where my focus should be — right now it’s my Lesley mentors and workshop buddies, but it could be anyone, friend, family, writing group member, who’s willing to read my rough drafts to help me figure out when it’s not working, where I need to focus, and when I’m just spinning my wheels.

When you rewrite, how does it work for you? Do you have someone to help? (Or does the thought of revisiting your work make you want to tear out your hair?

Rewriting

I’ve been working on Speaksong, the story for my NaNo; this was something that I had actually planned out ahead of time, and unlike everything else I’ve ever done for NaNo I think it actually has potential. The problem is, most of my NaNo writing is awful, since I’m spitting it out so fast. So going over the early chapters isn’t just editing–for most of the story, there is complete re-writing involved. This makes it a little easy, since I already have most of the story out of my head and on the computer in detail. But it’s also a pain, since I don’t know what to keep sometimes, and it also feels a little like I’m just redoing something I’ve already done. Maybe this will work, though, and I’ll end up with something of higher quality.

Writing Pen