Yep, I crashed. I had a good flow powering through post after post, but reality caught up to me and I missed a deadline, then another deadline, and then all of the deadlines. I have been inundated with . . . let’s face it, laziness. But when I’m actually feeling productive, I’ve been cranking out book after book. I’m scrambling to get a 5 book series done by the end of the year (or as done as possible). Get this, book 5 began today, and I still have unrealistic expectations that I’ll make it on time.
Book 1 is done, I just need to fiddle with the acknowledgements, blurb, and extra text, but the manuscript itself is done. Book 2 is almost very nearly done, it requires one final polish. Books 3 – 5 are lurching towards the finish line, so who knows when I’ll be able to get to those.
Anyway, I really have to get back to writing, because I’m way, way behind.
I write books. I bounce from one to the other without really finishing one in a single stretch. It’s not the greatest way of writing, or even the most coherent, but it’s something that I have fallen into and, somehow, it kinda works for me.
I get fatigued with stories quickly. I power through the early stages of a book as though I’m on cocaine. Then I start to mellow out and after about three weeks I’m bummed out that it’s taking too long to write, that I’m not writing as quickly as I was at the beginning, and the story isn’t fresh any more, and I’m starting to see the flaws in the story. I know exactly what I need: a distraction, something that is the opposite of what I’m writing right now. Conveniently, I have a half-written book that was put on pause last year because I didn’t know how to finish it. But, now I do know. So I should go and work on that for a bit. Nothing too serious, just a couple of days if I can manage it. Maybe a week. Or two weeks.
And then I run into a problem. The ending I originally had is no longer appropriate. The characters have evolved and wouldn’t fall for such a simple finale as what I had in store for them, and I’m stuck. I don’t want to go back to the story I started last month, because I still don’t know how to finish it. Luckily, I have another half-written story lying around, and I just figured out some key element that would make it read a lot better. I should work on that for a couple of days. A week, even. Maybe two.
Somehow, this process continues, until I have the most epic of awesome ideas, and I must right this new story NOW NOW NOW. And I do, because the now now now story is so intoxicating that I get carried along in the rush of things. And because I don’t actually have a career yet, I can write for my own pleasure, so I have no penalty against me if I drop a half written book in favour of something that excites me.
Believe it or not, this time last year I had eleven works in progress. These were not short stories, but full blown novels. I have managed to complete five of them, but having eleven in the back of my mind was something of a juggling act. I knew exactly where I left off with each of them. I remembered the characters and I remembered the problems I had in dealing with a resolution. I bounced between all eleven, writing here and there, and managed to get the ball rolling enough to finish seven of them in the year, and begin two afresh.
Like I said, it’s not the ideal way to write a book, but it stops it from becoming a struggle of impending doom. If I focus on just one thing, nothing would get finished. If I allow myself some options, then I’m not concerned if I’m stuck on Book A, because I have a pretty good idea for how to move forward with Book B.
I know it’s nuts. But, writer’s rarely choose how they are able to write, they just stumble onto a process that works for them, and they are usually aware of how ridiculous it is (like only being able to write in a café, or only while standing up, or in the attic during a thunderstorm). This is just how I write – in complete chaos!
Editing, though, is a much smoother process. I start editing a book and I see it through to the end with no distractions. I can sometimes see the jumps in writing as I’ve taken a year or two off between one chapter and the next, and it’s up to me to now polish them as though I wrote the whole book in one sitting.
So if you’re ever curious, I tend to write the first draft in 40 – 50 days of actual work. That would probably be 15 days straight, then a few months off while I’m working on something else, then another 15 days straight, then more months off, then a final push of 15 days to reach the finish line. The first draft may have taken a year to finish, but the actual daily count isn’t too shabby. It’s also good to know that I can write four or five first drafts in a year. The downside is that now I have to edit four or five first drafts, twice, before I can let other people read them, and while I know I can write a gargantuan number of books in a year, I tend to forget to include the editing process in my thinking, which bums me out because I end up either with two or three good books a year, or five shitty ones.
The best thing I ever did to improve my writing of fiction was to read other people’s works in progress. Weirdly, the worst thing I did was to learn another language.
I have a couple of other writer friends who send me their manuscripts, which are as tightly polished as they can make them. Likewise, I send out my works of perfection. We then comb through them picking out every single error, like an English teacher, while keeping an eye on plot, character development, and overall entertainment value of a hundred thousand words. Most friends who want to read some of your work won’t give much useful feedback, only “Yeah, I liked it,” or some flimsy answer like that. I’m not looking for compliments with my beta-readers, I’m looking for the flaws so I can crush them before I’m ready to publish the book. So to find another writer who picks apart your book the way you want them to is awesome.
Why is it so awesome? Because when you’re reading their manuscript you quickly become aware of their faults as a writer. You notice their clumsy metaphors, their repetition, the way that every single character cocks their head to one side when speaking. You’ll notice that most of the characters sound the same. You’ll know when you’re bored. At some point you’ll realise that your beta-reader is feeling the same sense of boredom with your work, and after a while you apply the same editing tricks you use on your friends’ manuscript for your own.
When you see a faulty metaphor in your own work, you’ll just delete it because you’ve seen how it makes your cringe when someone else tries it and fails. And, best of all, now you’re writing as though someone is actually going to read your book, and not just some far off fantasy where you’ll end up out-selling JK Rowling. The more you edit other people’s work, the more refined your own editing will become. Now, I’m by no means perfect, and I’ve been editing other people’s stories for eight years now, but I can see that I’ve improved, and they can see that I’ve improved.
It’s the one thing that helped me the most in tightening up my stories: editing someone else’s book.
So how did learning another language trip me up? I learned Spanish, and it jumbled my sense of grammar. I wrestle with the word ‘that’ a lot. In Spanish, que is used all the time. I am still surprised by all the times I see an unnecessary ‘that’ that appears in one of my everyday sentences, that I’m caught out and can’t remember if I should leave it in or take it out. I’m a native English speaker, and I learned it through osmosis, but I was formally trained in Spanish. I say ‘formally’ lightly, it’s not like I went to Julliard to study it. I simply listened to the teacher who said “Say it like this.”
I’m also easily swayed between the British and American sense of grammar and punctuation. The differences are minor until you notice something glaring. For example: “I need to go to hospital,” and “I need to go to the hospital.” “Metallica are coming to town,” and “Metallica is coming to town.” In both cases, the first sentence is British, and is 100% correct. The second sentence is American. Both times leaving me banging my head in frustration because I’m sure one is more correct than the other, but since I’m a British speller, it makes more sense to stick to Britishisms, except sometimes they are downright stupid! The word ‘manoeuvrability’ irks me to no end, because no one in their right mind would spell it like that!
It goes on. ‘Momentarily’ in British means ‘for a short time,’ whereas in America it means ‘soon.’ “The plane is landing for a short time,” and “the plane is landing soon,” both mean two very different things, so ‘momentarily’ is another amusing issue.
There are thousands of differences between the two tongues, and if you stick exclusively to one you won’t have a problem. But, if you mix the two up you’re going to fuck with a lot of people, and you’ll start to mis-read a lot of your own writing, over analyse it, and be left with a bizarre feeling that you really don’t know how to use the English language, despite trying to bend it into a career. It doesn’t look good if I have an American character, in America, using British understandings of words. It makes me look like I have no idea what I’m talking about (which, to be fair, is why I often write horror stories, because the protagonists can be easily confused with their lexicon).
All of that was made worse when I learned Spanish, because it fucked with my spelling and sense of grammar! I’m sure I was taught English grammar in school, or rather, I’m sure I was in the classroom when grammar was being taught, but I tuned out because I knew it already. I just picked it up from, you know, actually reading. There’s nothing quite as embarrassing as forgetting basic grammar in your own language, and I blame Spanish for that.