Calling Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

This weekend, I’ve started writing out very basic scene cards, in prep for doing my own kind of Nano-Y first draft of a MG novel.

I say kind of, and I say Nano-Y, because I doubt I’m going to get where I want to go in a month of writing, at least not if the temp job I have continues at a mostly full-time pace. I know there are writers out there who manage, and maybe I will be able to some day, but I’m allowing myself some gentle space as this all falls under a big life-transition umbrella for me, too. I also say kind of, because I’ve never DONE NaNo, so I don’t actually  know the process/guidelines. Instead, I’m basing the process on one I did a few years ago when I, yes, wrote a book in a week (150 pages of wonderful dreck in five days). I won’t be doing it in a week again, either. (For more information about the Book in a Week idea, see April Kihlstrom’s BIAW site. For more on NaNoWriMo, check out their main page.) And I’m starting by creating a very basic card in Scrivener for each scene.

Here’s the info I put on each scene card:

  • Protagonist’s Scene Goal: The ACTION they want to accomplish in this scene. The action part of it is important to me, because without reminding myself about it, I can easily end up in some nebulous sloshy place, a lot like when Milo stalls out in the Doldrums in The Phantom TollboothYes, character layers and theme are critical, but I’ve gotten so slogged down in those lately, in early drafts, that I’m trying to push them away for now. They’ll come out as I draft and they’ll deepen as I revise.
  • Obstacles: Some of these are from antagonists. (And I’m noting those specifically this time around. The last time I did this, I was really weak in the main antagonist’s story line and had to kluge it in. Which I think worked (no complaints about this in the rejections), but it was a lot of work. So I just want to keep the antagonist stuff further up front in my mind, even in this early dump. Other obstacles will come from the protagonist himself, some from his allies, and one or a few from the environment around him.
  • Response: The basics of what my hero does in reaction to the obstacles. This helps me make sure he fails, fails, fails for a while, the starts to gain strength and fight back with more power.
  • End Scene: The action/moment on which the scene ends. This was a huge help last time when I was trying to blast through from scene to scene, because it gave me a rolling momentum to keep going, keep going, keep going.

And that’s it. Just dipping back in to this method felt so good. I’ve gotten very bogged down in some mix of plotting and drafting in the last couple of years, at least on my longer projects. (Possibly one of the reasons I’ve fallen so in love with the picture book form.) Somehow this tangled mix of needing to just write and needing to know where I’m going was, I think, partially responsible for the historical YA ending up in a drawer for now. (The other responsible parts being the historical and the YA!) And then I’ve done a few false starts on the MG, which make me feel like the YA tangle is looming over me again.

So I want to do it differently. I want to step back to the process that worked so well for my last MG. While I’m not shooting for a whole first draft in a week this time, I am shooting for that same just keep swimming writing technique. The one where I don’t take a break at the end of a scene, but click on the next scene card and write more. The one where revision ideas about past scenes get scribbled on a sticky note and attached to the print out. The one where questions get tossed into Scrivener’s Notes section. The one where I use a LOT of brackets around phrases like [MAYBE A SAMURAI. MAYBE A MIME]. The one where I recognize and remember that THIS DRAFT IS AND SHOULD BE ABSOLUTE GARBAGE, and all the little changes I might even consider making will be totally irrelevant, because AT LEAST 99.99999999999994% of the words will disappear or change. Seriously, last time I did this, when I sat down to read through the first draft, I didn’t even get halfway through, because I realized almost instantly that I’d written my protagonist as an observer and given all the take-charge stuff to his sidekick. Who needed to stay a sidekick. So I started plotting and writing again, making sure I kept my hero active, active, active, and THAT became the so-much-better “first” draft I took through my critique group. And THAT flowed so much more smoothly and effectively, because the garbage came first.

I want that again.

So what does this all have to do with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? Well, mostly, she’s on my mind, because I was talking to a friend whose little girl has fallen in love with Amelia Bedelia, who for some reason makes me think of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Maybe because, in my world, as goofy as Amelia is, she has huge doses more of common sense than do the people for whom she works. Kind of like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. And, today, I’m thinking of Mrs. PW because she had all those wonderful cures. Remember? “The Won’t-Pick-Up-Toys Cure.” “The Answer-Backer Cure.” “The Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker-Cure.”

I think I need an Unsticker-To-It Cure. Oh, I’ll stick to my story. I’ve proved that to myself, in a good way, on these picture book revisions, as well as in a not-so-good way on the YA. What I need to stick to is this process, the rapid pacing, and the pushing through all the distractions and doubts.

So, you know, if one of you could turn to your partner and say, “What are you going to do with this child?!” and then go off to work and totally abandon the other one, who would then call a friend and says, “What am I going to do with this child,” and could listen when the friend says, “Call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She can fix any child,”  well, this child would be very appreciative. Meanwhile, she’ll keep writing.


Let’s Talk about 1st Drafts: A (Hopefully) Gentle Post-Nano Pep Talk

A week or so ago, I blogged about progress–thinking about what people would be feeling as they came to the end of NaNo. Now that NaNo is over & authors everywhere are actually looking over what they did produce in November, I’m feeling the need to talk about things a little bit more. Actually, this post is prompted in part by the disappointment an online friend was (hopefully, not is, anymore) feeling about her 1st draft. So this may turn into a bit of a rant.

Qualifier: I very much like the idea of NaNo. I did a variant in Book in a Week a few years ago, and I was thrilled with the results–with where that week got me, in terms of understanding my story and in terms of having actual material to move forward with.

Note that I did not say I was thrilled with the draft.

That first draft was–well, let’s just call it an Anne Lamott-approved 1st draft. I sat down to read it after the week, and started scribbling notes and thoughts, and then I stopped reading. Because it was just that bad.

I did not stop revising. By maybe 1/3 of the way through, I’d seen that my hero was being a totally passive observer, letting his sidekick drive the choices and actions of the story. I didn’t have to read the whole manuscript to find out whether he continued that way; I knew he did. And I knew that, before I could do any other revising, I had to tackle this major problem.

So I wrote a second draft, in which I pushed that hero to the front. I made the story goals his goals, and I threw the obstacles in his path. Did I work on other, smaller issues as I went through all the chapters? Of course, I did–I’m human! But that was the revision focus. And when I finished that draft, I had something I thought I could work with. Something I thought I could pass through my critique group without too much humiliation and embarrassment.

What’s my point? That first draft–whether you wrote it in a week or a month–is supposed to be bad. REALLY bad. How could it be otherwise? Unless you have the brain of, I don’t know…Stephen Hawking? Albert Einstein? William Shakespeare? ______________ ? (Fill in the blank with the name of any famous author you’ve heard say they DO write a beautiful first draft!), you cannot write a manuscript that fast and THINK about it at the same time. Yes, I know, you did think. So did I during the Book in a Week process. But I thought for seconds and minutes. I did not think for hours, because I had none of those to spare. And neither did you.

What do you have, from your NaNo work? Do you have crap? If you answer anywhere near “Yes,” I want you to step away from the computer, give yourself a hug and some chocolate, and do the happy dance. Because you’re supposed to have crap. And you got it in a month–many of us take a YEAR (or more) to reach that point! You get to start turning that horrible stuff into something better 11 months ahead of schedule. Are you on Twitter? Did you see all the tweets from agents and editors, in varying degrees of tact, asking you NOT to query them about this manuscript on December 1st? The fact that you recognize how bad your first draft is proves you have the skill level and the knowledge of the craft to see that.

Okay, rant finished. But seriously, if you’re feeling disappointed or discouraged or–please, no–like you’ve failed in any way, well, just don’t!  Is there something you particularly hate about the story so far? Wonderful! Take that element and fix it. Figure out what you hate about it, why it makes you want to take the whole manuscript and use it to heat the wood-burning stove this winter, and revise around that problem. Save the AL-approved 1st draft, if you want to reassure yourself that you’re not losing any treasures (but really so you can show yourself how much BETTER that next draft is–and the next, and the next…).

I love NaNo and BIAW. I love the idea of tackling this big a project in such a short time, of riding an adrenalin wave, of producing more words and ideas than you ever thought possible. I browsed through NaNo’s website before writing this blog, and that’s really what the month is supposed to be about. I do not like all the bad feelings that come to some NaNo writers when the adrenalin leaves, and the crash comes. No matter how bad those words look on the page, you have achieved something wonderful.

Let yourself believe that.

Thankful Thursday: What IS a Writing Path (Part 1)

This month, I came up on my 1-year blog-versary for this website and blog. I’d been blogging at LiveJournal for a while longer, but started this site when I got the contract for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. I decided I wanted a blog that was more tuned into my professional self, a blog that might, hopefully, be a bit more helpful to other writers.

Since then, I’ve let go of the LiveJournal blog, because, well–TWO WAS CRAZY, but also because I realized I can’t really split off the personal and professional parts of my writing path. Not very well, anyway, and definitely not helpful.

Anyway…in mulling over what I do here, etc, I took another look at the title and thought, okay…what does that mean? I have a sense; we probably all have a sense, but I realized I’ve never talked about the title here and what it means to me.

Until today.

Off the top of my head, there are two elements to my writing path–the craft lane and what I call the profession lane (not much liking to get into success/non-success talk!). Today I’m going to talk about my craft lane. Then another day, maybe next Thankful Thursday, I’ll move to the other side of the road and talk profession.

Because, it is, for me, about being thankful. My writing, wherever it came from, is one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received.

Here are some of the steps/stages I’ve taken on the craft path. See if any of them sound familiar to you!

  • Writing what I read.
    I’m not talking here about writing in the genre we love, but rather that all-important first step of mimicry, flattery-by-imitation, derivative work. For me, this stage started when I was young and mostly took the form of starting a different fantasy story every week, pretty much based on whatever novel I was immersed in at the moment. You can see more about that here. This is a stage I think most writers go through, at some point, and it’s not a matter for embarrassment or shame. It’s part of learning the craft.
  • Writing for assignments.
    This is what I did in school. I chose a college that had a concentration in Creative Writing and I wrote short stories and novel chapters and poetry. A teacher would assign a topic, and I would write. This was the stage in which I found out about writing for deadline and writing on task, and when I learned that I could do that. Creatively.
  • Committing to a project.
    For many, many years I was a mystery writer. I was writing a mystery. I started it when I was living in Los Angeles, brought it with me when I moved to the Bay Area, added a toddler character after my twin nephews were born, and dumped that character when they were teens. I took this mystery to critique group, I revised and rewrote, and I honed my skills on writing scenes, developing characters, planting clues, and creating tension. And then I got a better idea.
  • Falling in Love.
    I took a workshop from April Kihlstrom about writing a Book in a Week. While I was there, I was jotting notes about a new idea, a kids’ mystery with a hero and a sidekick that kept interrupting my focus being inspired by April, and telling me to write about them. Which I did. That book got written and revised and dispatched to look for a home.
  • Stretching and Growing.
    Up until this stage of the path, I was a one-idea writer. I had one idea, I wrote about one idea, and I pushed down the panicky voice telling me that this limit said something bad about my creativity/my ability as a writer. Then, I got a chance at nonfiction, a young woman told me she HAD to have a fictional role in a certain historical moment, a mythical creature said it was finally time to put him into a picture book, and that old fantasy love reared its sweet head again. And I find myself wondering not just when I’ll fit it all in, but–more importantly–about where on the craft part of my writing path all these projects will take me.

Because I do believe that I could not be taking any of these steps without the ones that have come before. Maybe path isn’t the right word. Maybe bridge would be better. (I’m SO not changing the site title!). As much as we want the superhero cape and powers that would let us leap those tall buildings and smash through the brick walls, we don’t have those. Thankfully, though, we have brains–incredible tools that grow new synapses and zap out new electrical connections and let us grow in ways that are, frankly, unbelievable.

Think back. What have you done that’s led you to today? What steps on your writing path have brought you to this curve, this fork in the road that you’re just starting to peer around?

To quote one of my favorite heroes, “The road goes ever on and on.”  Thank goodness.

Getting a 1st Draft Critiqued…Yes or No?

And of course, my answer is…it depends.

PJ Hoover, author of The Emerald Tablet, had this to say about her first drafts. It sounded very familiar, and it got me thinking.

I’m working on the first draft for my WIP and know, very firmly, that no eyes but mine shall see the actual words. I’ve finally realized that I have so much to figure out & understand about this story, that the draft is truly exploratory only. I chose this path, also, on my last book–the middle-grade mystery. That was the first draft I wrote via Book in a Week, the system I heard about from April Kihlstrom, and I was able to dive right into the second draft, with a lot more structure and a more active hero, and pass those chapters onto my critique group. At this point on my writing path, I’m just more aware of how rough these early stages truly are, and I have more confidence in my ability to do some of my own work with this mud clay I’m trying to shape.

For years, though, in my earlier writing and critiquing days, I did submit first-draft chapters to my critique group. There are days when I really miss doing things that way. And I think, depending on the writer, there are definite pluses to this kind of sharing.

  • You are not writing in a vacuum.
    When you are writing a first draft, it’s just you and the computer. While this can help you keep a flow going, it can also leave you with plenty of doubts and worries about the progress you’re making. Okay, the computer isn’t going to tell you that your plot line (what plot line?) is weak or that you’re wrong about how a circus tent smells. But neither is that computer going to reach out and give you a pat on the back, tell you that a character is getting interesting, or hand you some dark chocolate for getting all the way to Chapter 10. The support of a critique group can be just the encouragement a writer needs to…keep writing.
  • You have a “soft” deadline.
    A meeting every two weeks can be a great motivator. Sure, if a group’s critique schedule is too strongly enforced, that schedule can translate into nothing but pressure, which–if you’re like me–is about the greatest shut-down device ever invented. In a good group, though, a meeting on the calendar can be a reminder that you’re in this group because you want to write. Because you want to get some pages out. Two chapters a month for a year adds up to 24 chapters. Sounds like a first draft to me.
  • You may get some fodder for that learning curve.
    In a first draft, you think while you write. Well, there’s nothing to say that a few other people thinking about that writing has to be a bad thing. Yes, your critiquers must remember (and they will, because you’ll remind them!) that this is a FIRST draft. They need NOT to be marking commas or rewriting your description of the Cannes Film Festival that they just happened to visit last month. They can, however, talk to you about that hero you’re developing and make suggestions about his or her strengths and flaws. They can point out the places where you’ve written tension to make them crawl out of their skins and the places where…you haven’t. You can look at this comparison with pieces of your own work and start to grow a skill.

Obviously, when you’re writing and when you’re critiquing, you need to make the decision about what stage is right for you to share your work. You need to recognize whether a critique will frighten you off from your own story, stalling you out, or whether it will help you give weight and value to that story, providing a supportive audience that is not the black hole of your CPU. You need to be very careful about going back and revising too much from this early feedback, rather than using it to propel you forward.

However, I hear a lot of authors saying, however, never to show a first draft, never to get it critiqued.

And I say, well…never say “never.” Sometimes, it’s more than a little okay to say “yes.”