Summer Writing Goals

Since I’ve finished my internship at the Disabilities Rights Center as well as my grand road trip of visiting law schools and the grand tour of the northeast with Stefania and Bruno, I’m taking summer off before law school. With the exception of a trip to Florida for the National Federation of the Blind’s annual national convention this week and the changes to the Braille code I need to learn (more on both those things later), I’m staying home, playing, and writing. After this year, I won’t have another full summer off again for who knows how long. So why not?

 

On the other hand, I don’t do well with no goals or deadlines. I just sort of flop around. In fact, writing-wise at least, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been flopping around a bit for a while. In college, I was part of a writing group that met every week and shared pages from continuing stories. There was pressure—not a ton of pressure because we were pretty laid back about it—but there was pressure to keep writing on the same project and to make progress on that project, because everyone wanted to know how things turned out. It was lots of fun, but it was also great for keeping me focused. And since college, I’ve been finding that I’m missing that focus. I’ve been having a hard time staying focused long enough to actually accomplish anything—or even to feel like I’m accomplishing anything. I feel so scattered, working on so many projects.

 

Here’s the thing. I probably have been making progress on all these projects. It just doesn’t feel like it. And it’s too easy, with so many projects, to avoid any problems I’m having with any of them, because the minute I get stuck, I can switch to something else and not actually address the reason I’m stuck.

 

I think it’s probably okay to be working on multiple projects at once, but I think I would be more productive if I was at different stages in each story—the planning stage in one and the writing stage in another, for example, or writing one and revising another. But when I have three or four things going, and I’m in the beginning of writing all of them, it’s hard to feel like I’m moving forward on any of them, even if I am.

 

Complicating all of this, I’m starting law school in the fall. Everything I’ve heard about the first year of law school is that you have no time to do anything ever. I don’t know how true this is, or how true it will be for me, because I’ve always found time for writing no matter what else I’m doing. But if I’m going to get any writing done in law school, I need to be organized about it. More than that, I need to feel like I’m moving forward, or I won’t be motivated to do anything.

 

So this summer, my goal is to clean up my writing desk—figuratively speaking. Right now, I’m in the middle of four pretty major projects. By the end of the summer, I want to be done with or at a different stage in three of them.

 

The first is a set of seven linked short stories set in my Phoenix Song universe—what I’m calling the world where “Dissonance” is set. I’ve written and revised three of these stories, and I’m partway through a draft of the fourth. By the end of the summer, I want to have a rough draft of all seven.

 

Second is a fan fiction novel I’ve been working on for fun. I’ve never written fan fiction before this. I don’t have anything against fan fiction, I just have so many story ideas of my own that I never had time for it. But I had this great idea and my friends really wanted to read it, and I was sort of blocked on everything I was writing last year, so I thought I’d give it a spin. It’s been a lot of fun, but I still have a ton of my own stories that have been taking a backseat to this, and if I have limited writing time in law school, I want to use it to work on my own original stuff. So by the end of the summer, I want to have completely finished that and gotten it off my plate.

 

Next, I came up with an idea for a sequel to my upper middle grade fantasy novel—the one I’m querying agents about. Actually, if I go ahead with the sequel idea I have, it will be a trilogy. Friends who have been published have advised me that it’s not always a good idea to write a sequel for a book that hasn’t been published, because there’s no guaranteeing that a publisher will want to publish a sequel, and you will have put a whole bunch of work into something that will go nowhere when you could have been working on something else. And again, upcoming limited writing time. My novel could definitely stand on its own, but I have an idea for a sequel that I love. So I started an outline to clarify my idea and make sure it is in fact a viable story—and assuming I get that far, I’ll need to pitch the idea to people with a reasonable amount of coherency. I don’t have any intention of writing the sequel yet, but I want to finish the outline and then outline the third book by the end of the summer.

 

This leaves my memory-wiping academy novel, which I decided earlier this year that I want to expand and split into four books. The first draft, which I finished just before I graduated college, was designed as a test to see if I could write the plot of a young adult trilogy into one book. The answer is yes, I could, but the book was one hundred sixty thousand words—which is way too long if you didn’t know that—and that’s when I glossed over a lot that I wanted to explore deeper. Plus I had a lot of extra plot I left out because I started panicking about the length. And also there were a bunch of plot holes that come from being one of my first drafts. So I started on that around Christmas but didn’t get very far (because of all the other stuff I’ve been working on). This revision will be my project in law school.

 

It’s a lot to get done this summer, but I write fast, and I’m pretty sure I can accomplish most of it. But I better stop talking about it and get writing.

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Here We Go Again: The Dreaded Revision

I am currently in the middle of some major revisions. In fact, I’ve been doing almost nothing but revisions for the last few months, first short stories to submit to the Dell Award and now my small-child magician novel. So I thought I’d take a moment to talk about how I revise. Over the past several years, my writing style has changed significantly, and so has my process for revising, but my goal has always been the same: to tell a good story.

 

For me, revising effectively has a lot to do with understanding how you write in the first place as well as how you read. Because once you’ve finished a first draft, you have to step back and look at it not as your baby that you slaved over but as an editor and as a reader. It’s an oft-repeated bit of advice, but revision does mean reseeing, looking at the work anew with time and perspective and then, of course, changing what you see to make it better.

 

So first, before I do anything else to a draft, I put it away. This is partly because I am a firm believer in writing shitty first drafts—it’s better to get the words down on paper and worry about making them the right words later—so I tend to hate most of my first drafts—sometimes unreasonably so—and I need time and perspective to see what is truly terrible, what needs to be fixed, what is not as bad as I thought it was, and what is actually really good.

 

But before I even look at the project again, I ask my writing buddies to look it over and give me some feedback. I am a very social writer. I do better writing in a group alongside others—even if that group is convening over the internet—than I do writing in a room by myself. I need the ability to ask questions and bounce ideas, and my ability to help others with their own stories can give me insight into my own work. The knowledge that I am not working alone, in short, helps me work more efficiently. And I have to revise in a similar way. I’m working on getting better, but I’m not so good at finding flaws in my own projects, especially when it comes to plot. I need feedback from other writers and readers to point out the things that need to be fixed, and once I know what needs to be fixed, I can usually come up with how best to revise on my own.

 

I am getting better at finding problems myself because I’ve started paying more attention to how I read. When I finish reading a book, I either loved it unconditionally, loved it with reservations, only thought it was so-so, or just didn’t like it. But I don’t just leave it at that. I try to analyze why I feel this way about the book. Why exactly do I love it unconditionally? Or what makes me have reservations about loving it? How come I thought it was only so-so? What about it was so terrible that I just didn’t like it? I examine a book from a writer’s point of view, looking at the choices the writer made and why I think they made them, contemplating what choices I would have made if I was writing it. To give an example, I recently read a book that I really loved, except after everything the characters had done to get this far, the ending fell kind of flat for me. When I thought about it, I realized that any other ending wouldn’t have been right for the characters, but it still felt wrong to me, because after so much excitement, this ending felt anticlimactic. So if I was writing this book, I wouldn’t have changed what happened in the ending between the characters, but I might have changed the setting or the events to make it fit better with the tone of the rest of the story. And by examining books and short stories that I read like this, I am practicing the skills I need to see the flaws in my own writing.

 

And once I see the flaws, I revise. Sometimes the revising is big. I have completely rewritten several stories several times. Sometimes the revisions are small tweaks that change the tenor of a character or a scene. Sometimes, I start at the beginning of the story and revise from there, but sometimes I jump around. There is advice all over the internet about how best to revise and rewrite. Some authors have detailed, step by step processes, complete with questionnaires or color coded outlines, that they use to revise every time. Personally, I try to listen to the needs of the story and the needs of the reader and find the place where those needs intersect and balance.

 

One thing I almost always do before I submit a story, however, is go through it and cut all unnecessary words, because I know that I tend to overwrite my first drafts. I set a target word count that I think the story should be based on its genre and what I accomplish in the story, then I do the math to determine how many words I should cut per page in order to reach that target. Then I use an abacus as a counter, and I start cutting words without actually changing the story. And I can almost always do it, and it almost always becomes a better story.

 

Revising isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it’s downright hard. Finishing a first draft of a project is not, in fact, the hardest part, and sometimes the thought of plunging back in, armed with my trusty toolbox of revising tricks, sounds like a drag: “And here we go again.” But whether I want to delete the file and burn all existing copies and pretend it never happened or else revel in the glory of finishing, there is always more work to do, and it is always worth doing. I try to view that work—revision—as a chance to get back inside my characters and my stories, to discover again why I loved this idea and why it was worth writing in the first place, and to make the changes that will turn my clumsy first draft into a story that shines, a story that others will want to read.