Tag Archives: amwriting

The constant process of revision

Before I launch into today’s blog post: sorry. Yeah, long time since I last posted. It’s been a busy year and the blog has not been my priority, or anything close to it. I’ve got a few things to say, and I’ve read a few things I want to talk about, so that’s likely to change now. Starting with this.

In 2008 I attempted NaNoWriMo for the second time ever, and succeeded. The story I wrote was called Flame Undying, and it was about an immortal character with an affinity to fire who returned, after a decade, to the city he once ruled. That year, NaNoWriMo had a promotion with a print-on-demand service such that winners – people who successfully wrote 50,000 words in November – could get a free printed proof of their novel if submitted in time. I took advantage of that offer, and still have the proof copy.

The concept of immortals was one I had developed for a previous story, based on a sort of magical force being generated by belief, fear, awe, hope and other emotions about particular parts of the worlds – geographical features, human traits, concepts and ideals. My first immortals were the Four Horsemen – Death, War, Famine and Pestilence – but the concept quickly grew, to include River Guardians, Mountain Walkers, Fate, representatives of the four seasons, and, ultimately, Fire. Coupled with a couple of months hearing Coldplay’s Viva La Vida on the radio constantly at my summer job, I developed the story of Blaze, the immortal who “used to ruuuule the world”, to quote Chris Martin.

This was followed by a prequel story, The General’s Secret, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. I became obsessed with the story, writing literally dozens of versions of some scenes in my attempts to get it right. But ultimately, I had to drop it. I couldn’t make it work. And for years it sat untouched as I worked on other ideas, other stories.

I had a backstory for Blaze: he was a bronze-worker in the Bronze Age, who became immortal as a result of dying in a fire and being taken over by the magic. The fire that killed him, and all of his people, was started by raiders from a city called Caer, which later burned down too.

Gradually I returned to this concept, but I knew it was time for a major overhaul. For starters, I wanted a female protagonist, and I wanted her story to be closer to the start, not when she was two thousand years old. In 2015 I started working on Kell’s Adventures, set some ten years after the destruction of Caer. But it lacked something, and it didn’t get far. A few times in the two years that followed, I tried out one thing or another – a second protagonist as a travelling companion and ally, a series of short stories involving individual encounters, scenes I thought might need to exist in a novel. But it was still missing something. I worked on other projects.

Now to this year. This year has been an odd one. I got a full-time job, lost it without warning or explanation a week after my probation period ended, learned I was autistic, worked through a hell of a lot of baggage about that, then got another job where I am much happier. I’ve been there four months – longer than I was at the previous job.

In August this year I came to a realisation that, all this time, I’d been writing Blaze and Kell as a metaphor for autism. The affinity for fire as a special interest, the overwhelming effects of it causing an overload response, the discomfort of certain sensations making concentration difficult, the effect of immortality causing isolation as a parallel to my own social awkwardness making it hard to fit in. This wasn’t a product purely of my imagination, it was an embellished analogy for what I experienced daily and had no word for until recently: autism.

That realisation made it all click into place. It felt as though I’d been looking through a keyhole, trying to work out the story from what little I could see, for years, and now I had the key and could open the door and walk right inside. Since then, I have written tens of thousands of words of notes, and at least as many words of actual story drafts, each version building on previous decisions, revelations and calculations to make Kell’s story more and more real. Every day I get closer to creating a story, and every day I am excited by what I discover in the process.

It is a process of constant revision. A decision I make one day may be revoked or overwritten the next day when I get a better idea of how to approach the scene, think more about the implications of events on non-core characters and the world at large, or work out how a character is likely to behave or react. A small idea one day might grow and, a week later, become a significant plot point, a new character or an element of the world that makes it feel more real and lived-in.

There are still gaps. I focus on what interests me, and follow the threads until I am satisfied. There are still things I need to visualise – especially now I’ve realised that I’ve been picturing two events as being on opposite sides of the river, without having a river crossing happening in between them. Oops.

But I’m getting there. I’ve got an outline. Well, I’ve got several, and the latest one – written two days ago – already needs to be amended to take into account new decisions made today about the timescales in the final third. I’ve started on character sheets. I’ve got some ideas about family trees I need to write down.

Even when I start the next draft of the manuscript, the revision won’t stop. It never does; it can’t. Generally my process when writing a manuscript is to stick at it, start to finish, and not go back and change anything, but rather make a note where I’m at, stating the planned change, and continuing with the text on the assumption that the change has been made, then go back at the end to make the edits. It’s how I can revise without losing momentum on the story.

It’s come a long way. Over the course of more than ten years, I have created and refined a character and a concept until I’ve found a story that draws on my own experiences and tries to explore life through the lens of autism, in a fantasy world as alien and familiar to me as the real one, while still telling a story about a character with hopes and fears and goals. I have no doubt it’s still got a way to go – aside from the gaps I’ve yet to work out, the names I need to fix, I’ve still got the whole manuscript to write, after all. But I’m certain the end is in sight now. I’ve found what was missing before. I’ve revised my way to the story I’m trying to tell.

When the revision stops, that’ll be when I know it’s ready to be seen by eyes other than my own.

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Some more retrospection

At the end of last month I took a look at what I’ve been doing in 2017. This week I’ve been looking further back and reading some of what I was writing since the start of this decade. And I’ve come to realise just how far I have come in that time as a writer. I’ve gone from writing sporadically or when I am inspired to writing every day. I’ve gone from tenative to confident. I think my approach has become more mature and nuanced in that time too.

But there’s a lot that has stayed the same too. There are certain themes and tropes that I have returned to time and time again during the last eight years. I am a total sucker for a redemption arc. I’ve done them repeatedly in several different ways, both in fanfiction and original fiction, across half a dozen settings. Even my latest story has an element of it.

Though it’s a theme I’ve used repeatedly, I think the strongest use I’ve put it to is when I’ve turned it on its head somewhat. I said in my New Year’s Eve post that I wanted to return to the Horrible Monster project (though it really needs a better name than that). In that story, early versions had it as a straight redemption arc for the second main character: a criminal who ultimately helps the protagonist uncover corruption and becomes a hero. But I was never happy with that. It fell flat. It was too easy. It meant that my protagonist didn’t really develop much. She occupied a saviour role, in which her actions enabled the secondary main character’s redeption arc, of which she was the primary judge. And that was boring.

When I finally managed to write a full draft, the saviour element was gone and the protagonist’s arc was much darker. Her motivations were more selfish, her actions to help the secondary character driven by goals other than to benefit him. The arcs for these two characters became mirrors of one another. They were not lifting one another up, but holding each other back from the extremes of what they might have achieved alone or with other allies. There remained something of the redemption arc, but there was also an inverted version, a character development that went in a very different direction. And it made the whole story so much stronger and more compelling.

In a lot of what I have been reading of my old stories, I noticed the tendency to succumb early to the idea of a happy ending, even if there was a lot of plot to go. My favourite characters would join forces, reach a truce, and work together towards a common goal – even if those goals had changed radically for some characters to enable this teamwork. I was too eager to see concord, but it cost the stories I was writing because there is a lot of power in conflict to drive a story forward, to explore themes, and to develop characters, that everyone getting along cannot achieve so easily or at least so interestingly.

I often think about my favourite character arc in fiction: that of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I explored four years ago on this blog. What makes Zuko’s arc so powerful is that we, the audience, root for him, and specifically root for him to see that Aang is right and his father is wrong – but when he first is presented with a real choice to side with Aang, he doesn’t. And that’s not because he’s evil, because he isn’t. It’s because Zuko has spent so long working towards a powerful personal goal that he is incapable of making the selfless choice. All Zuko has ever wanted is his father to be proud of him. For three years he has lived in exile trying to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, and no amount of lessons from Uncle Iroh or understanding the impact that the Fire Nation’s attacks have had on the people of the Earth Kingdom or kindness from Katara can override that for Zuko.

It is not until he sees the consequences of his choice, and experiences the reward of it, that he can understand the context both of his original exile and of what Aang is trying to achieve. It’s only when he gets what he wanted that he begins to understand whose approval is really worth getting. If Zuko had sided with Aang in Ba Sing Se like so many of us desperately wanted, he couldn’t have completed his redemption arc fully, because he couldn’t have seen the harsh reality of what his desires really meant, and contrasted that reality with the way he had imagined it. He couldn’t have come to realise that his own opinion of himself is much more valuable than his father’s opinion.

A lot of what I wrote when I was much younger took the Ba Sing Se choice and closed the redemption arc too soon. I was focussed too much on the destination and not enough on the steps that needed to be taken to reach it. The endings fell flat. They hadn’t been worked for. The characters hadn’t been developed, I’d written wrongs into them and nearly instantly forgiven them, and then I’d written circumstances to help my other characters forgive them too.

Thankfully, I have got a lot better at this. My more recent stories, Horrible Monster in particular, have been more powerful because I have resisted the urge to indulge in the destination without making the journey.

The other pitfall I wandered into in a lot of my earlier stories, especially those that I abandoned quickly, was to make the redemption arc the centre of the conflict. It is an interesting arc that I am very much drawn to, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of making it the only arc I spend much time on. The stories I like the best now, months or years later, are those in which there are other themes involved too: grief, identity, coping with illness, friendship, community and so on. Those stories had different types of conflicts, nuanced relationships, changing contexts, and better opportunities for those redemption arcs that I am so fond of to go somewhere different and interesting.

A little self-reflection and analysis is a very good thing, and after spending some time looking back at my old stories I feel I’m a lot better equipped to move forward writing stories which have something interesting to say, featuring characters who are more human and more entertaining.

Progress Report: One Million Words, June 2016

A bit of a slow down this month, thanks to a number of factors, from catching a cold (in June! Damn weather.) to being very busy and being stressed about what I am now calling The Event (and doing my darnedest to ignore now).

I managed 16,159 words in June, for an average of 538.6 words per day.

This brings my total to 228,500/1,000,000, or 22.9%.

If I can hit 25%, or 250,000 words, by mid July, I’ll be on track to complete the entire million words within four years. It’s a bit of a stretch as there’s more to go to reach that than I have written in most entire months, but it does show just how much I have done – and how much there is to go.

The Story

I’m still working on Horrible Monster, working through towards completion of the novel. I had thought, this time last month, that I was on the home straight, but the story has taken a little bit of a turn and I’m uncertain about whether I like the new character, whether the story is best served by his inclusion, and how his presence is going to affect the ending.

I am seriously wondering if I’ve muddied the waters with some of the plot lines and whether it is quite how I want to tell this story, but I can’t quite see how the “extra” plot lines could be cut without significant impact on the rest of it. On some levels I worry that the story is too simplistic, too serendipitous even.

But at the same time I wonder if I am just worrying over nothing, letting the self-doubt creep in, and if I just need to finish the novel before I can make a true assessment of its merits and weaknesses. After all, when I took part in long distance hikes – a local charity walk of 22 miles – it was always around mile 16-17 that the pain was worst, my pace at its slowest, but once I got to mile 21 and the end was in sight I always had more energy and better pace, and the pain seemed to fade into irrelevance.

Looking forward into July

I don’t know if I will finish Horrible Monster in July. It is possible, especially if I speed up in the final mile. I’m nearly at 70,000 words, and with the amount of plot that’s left it might end up around 85-95,000 words total, so it is entirely likely I will finish it.

I will shortly have a lot more time on my hands. Today was my last day at one of my two part time jobs, and I haven’t got another lined up to replace it yet. By about the end of next week a huge number of outstanding tasks that haven’t yet been completed, or in some cases started, will be done. If it takes me a while to sort another job, I’ll have a lot more time to write and to engage in the kinds of activities that assist writing, like going for walks, reading, and taking the time to appreciate the moment – which, I’ll admit, I haven’t done much of lately. Then there’s researching, learning and blogging too, all of which I’ll have more time for.

So it may well be that July ends up a particularly productive month regarding writing fiction, blog posts and poetry; reading, researching and studying; and maintaining my flat to a standard that would pass a landlord inspection.

Poem: Shush, the morning whispers, pulsing

Shush, the morning whispers, pulsing.

Water on the window tracing.

Down through foliage rain hissing,

Earthy petrichor releasing.

 

To the ground the raindrops racing,

Stream abrimming with water coursing

Around the rock and branches, sluicing

Into hollows, swirling, massing.

 

Hush to hear the flowers dancing

And beside them, saplings waltzing.

Droplets pocking, leaping, glancing

On fat leaves, jumping, prancing.

 

All that’s past, the rain’s erasing –

Stuffy air, pollution, cleansing.

Its task complete, downpour ceasing –

Silence,

stillness,

now increasing.

 

Progress report: One Million Words, week 11

This week’s been pretty good for my wordcount. 5,747 words added this week – about a thousand words more than last week. The average daily output for this week is 821 words a day – quite a bit higher than it was even just a few weeks ago. I’m definitely getting into the swing of things now. The habit has been formed, and my sessions are being more productive than ever before.

My overall wordcount stands at 38,933/1,000,000, or 3.89%, so I’m fast closing on my fourth percentage point. I might even reach it tomorrow. My streak is at 71 days now.

Day by day summary

Monday: 814 words

Tuesday: 872 words

Wednesday: 712 words

Thursday: 1143 words

Friday: 1033 words

Saturday: 536 words

Sunday: 637 words.

Continue reading Progress report: One Million Words, week 11

Progress report: One MIllion Words, week 9

I’ve had a good week this week. Solid daily progress on the ongoing story I’ve been working on, and a prompt on Reddit’s /r/writingprompts board inspired me enough that I added another 1,400 words on top of that. This week’s total is 4,927 – almost 1,500 words more than my next best week so far. I’d have topped five thousand this week if I’d just started today’s writing a little earlier; I’ve had to cut it short.

My total is now 28,404/1,000,000, or 2.84%.

Day by day summary

Monday: 424 words

Tuesday: 611 words

Wednesday: 1,870 words (of which 1,401 was a standalone short story and 469 was on the ongoing story)

Thursday: 610 words

Friday: 565 words

Saturday: 572 words

Sunday: 275 words

Continue reading Progress report: One MIllion Words, week 9

Progress Report: One Million Words, week 8

My output has gone down a bit this week. I’ve written 2,450 words this week, with a daily average of 350. Still, I’ve managed to write every day even if not much, and my streak now stands at a milestone – 50 days.

My total wordcount is 23,477/1,000,000, or 2.35%.

Day-by-day breakdown

Monday: 476 words

Tuesday: 311 words

Wednesday: 201 words

Thursday: 305 words

Friday: 439 words

Saturday: 210 words

Sunday: 508 words.

Continue reading Progress Report: One Million Words, week 8

Progress Report: One Million Words, week 7

This week’s total is 3,241, not too dissimilar to the last few weeks. My average is 463 words a day this week. My streak stands at 43 days.

My total for the challenge is 21,027/1,000,000, or 2.1%.

Day-by-day summary

Monday: 366 words

Tuesday: 301 words

Wednesday: 591 words

Thursday: 304 words

Friday: 354 words

Saturday: 635 words

Sunday: 690 words

Continue reading Progress Report: One Million Words, week 7

Progress Report: One Million Words, week 5

This week I’ve written 3,145 words – a little less than last week – and I’ve worked on a few different things as I’ve been trying to find my next project.

My current total is 14,330/1,000,000, or 14.3%.

Day-by-day summary

Monday: 388 words

Tuesday: 119 words

Wednesday: 573 words

Thursday: 624 words

Friday: 442 words

Saturday: 637 words

Sunday: 362 words

Continue reading Progress Report: One Million Words, week 5

Progress Report: One Million Words, week 4

This week’s total is 3,246 words. This is marginally short of last week, but that’s mainly because today’s total was about half the average for the week as I finished my story. Yay! My streak is now 22.

My total words written is 11,185/1,000,000. This puts me over the first percent of the challenge, at 1.12%. That’s also the final wordcount of the first draft of “Mountain Story”.

Day-by-day summary

Monday: 538

Tuesday: 706

Wednesday: 351

Thursday: 413

Friday: 529

Saturday: 455

Sunday: 254

Continue reading Progress Report: One Million Words, week 4