Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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Roughing It – 5 things I’ve learned about first drafts

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of creating, writing, bringing characters in your mind to life on the page. When the energy propels you to get the words out, that story in your head takes shape. You can see the unfolding of the plot, the characters, the setting, every bit that is part of the whole. You can’t refine your work until it’s in front of you. Enter the first draft, better known as the rough draft.

I’m working on the first draft of my next novel, and hitting a stretch of frustration that my mental picture of the story wasn’t complete enough to make the draft a smoother ride. It’s not the characters; the book my agent is shopping introduces the characters. It’s not the setting, though I think I’ll have to do a road trip (twenty+ years since I’ve been there). It’s the plot. The timeline. The guideposts along the way.

I tried to outline, but I don’t think I had a clear vision of the story. With most of my other projects, by the time I got to the point of writing the first draft, I had a pretty good handle on them in my head. This one, not so much.

It occurred to me as I was trying to hit my word quota last night that I’ve learned some things over the course of thirteen novel first drafts. I figured I’d share them (don’t worry, there’s pictures at the end–but not of my cat πŸ˜‰ )

In no particular order, here are 5 things I’ve learned about first drafts:

  • I’m a novelist. Not that I can’t write short stories–my first publishing credits were short stories–but the stories in my head tend to be novel-length: 80,000 words or more. It took me over five or six years to write the first draft of my first novel (not counting the trunk novel I wrote in elementary–jr. high school). I knew I wanted to write a book–actually, rewrite that first book–after my kids were born, but I didn’t want it to drag on until they graduated.

When I learned about NaNoWriMo (50k words in 30 days), I knew that was my ticket to finishing a book in a reasonable amount of time. The key to “winning” at NaNo? Kicking the inner editor into a cage and locking it (that’s besides the 1,667 words a day). I learned I need to treat a new project like I’m doing National Novel Writing Month, no matter what time of the year. It’s only with that 30-day deadline and a restrained inner editor that I’m able to put myself into the frame of mind to just write. It also seems to be the only way I can get back into the habit of writing every day.

  • I outline, in a loose-ish sense of the word. The outline is not the only route from beginning to end for me, but it gives me an idea of the journey. With my current project, I struggled with the outline. I came up with characters, conflict, and setting, but the path through from beginning to end was fuzzy, and it shows during my writing sessions. I’ve learned my draft goes much better when I have a good idea of the story (outline), BUT
  • I’ve learned the process of writing the first draft actually helps bring the story into focus. As I’m writing, I make both inline notes and off-line notes. This particular draft looks less like an actual book and more like a scriptwriter’s attempt to put a director’s vision into some sort of storyboard-in-words. The story is more clear to me now than it was when I started. Maybe that’s because my NaNo-style first draft method is a lot like free-writing. No takebacks, no revising, no editing, just inline notes and writing forward.
  • I’ve learned first drafts are called “rough” for a reason. It’s less like a rock you can polish into something to put in a ring and more like deadwood turned into a functional piece of furniture with class. Rough drafts are UGLY. At least this one is. I mentioned it to some online friends as “sucking like a lemon soaked in turpentine”. Yep. Pretty much. I will never be like George R. R. Martin, with a first draft that’s ready to publish right off the finish line. Then again, my draft takes 30 days to finish, not five or six or more years.
  • I’ve learned to trust my method (your mileage may vary). This project taught me that skipping steps in the beginning (I didn’t lay out a timeline, or figure out the major plot points (just thought about the general direction), or fill out my storyline worksheets from Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days) results in uncertainty and missing my word quota.

When I work through my process, I can often exceed my word count because I can just write. I don’t have to think about where I’m going next. I know I’m headed in the right direction because I plotted my course (heh, see what I did there) ahead of time. It’s like planning a route when you drive to a writers’ conference or retreat. You know pretty much how to get there, even if there are detours along the way. My process has changed over the years (more free-writing, less fill-in-every-entry-in-the-worksheets), but it works for me. This is the first time I got lazy (or uninspired) about planning/outlining, and boy, do I know it.

I’m on the home stretch. One more week (and I get an extra day this month because March has 31 days–heh), and I’ll have 50k words and a complete or almost-complete first draft for my next book. Then the scramble to prep for hosting the fam for Easter in — OMG — two weeks?! I’ve gotta get moving on that.

SO, I might miss my mark in the interest of not embarrassing myself with my in-laws. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a peek into my garden this summer.

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onion seedlings

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tomatoes and a few peppers

Have a great weekend!

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Writing and waiting

Today I use a green dry-erase marker for my writing office whiteboard. You know, for St. Patrick’s Day (even though St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish to start with). Three more publishers off the list as passes, but I add a new one to the bottom. The editor reached out to my agent, so of course she pitched my manuscript, and the editor asked to see it.

Yay! I mean, anytime another editor gets eyes on it is another chance an editor will love it, right?

My Muse arrives in full regalia: well-worn (in every sense of the word) jeans, tennis shoes, a bright green Guinness t-shirt, and a green hat with the requisite “Kiss me, I’m Irish” motto in shiny gold letters. I’m almost surprised he didn’t do a temporary dye job and go red- or green-haired for the day. Almost.

He hands me a mug of steaming coffee. “With Irish Creme, doncha know,” he says with a grin and a pathetic attempt at an Irish accent. “It’s too early fer green beer, but I’ll bring that along later.”

I feel my eyes narrow and a wince escape my control. “Dude, you’re Australian. You’re not even very good at American accents. Gonna have to work on your Irish accent.”

He sips his own coffee with a loud slurp. “So you say.”

“Seriously. When have you ever had to do an American accent? I mean, outside of a Southern accent, and you slip with that. I can’t think of one project, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen most of them.”

“You’re going to blow my cover, love.”

“Phhfftt. Like anyone’s going to know.” I sip the coffee, and suck in air. Woof. Cough. “Holy crap. Just how much Irish Creme did you put in here?”

“Enough. I added a little Jameson to even it out.” He takes another horrendously loud slurp and evaluates the board. “Three more passes.” He points to the new addition. “How does this one look?”

“They’re an independent. They’ve got a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and such on their list.” I wander to the window and look out.

A path covered with bark mulch wends into the woods. A white guidepost stands at the end just outside the office. Another appears beside the path around the first bend. Beyond it, fog hangs thick, obscuring the path and the next guidepost.

My Muse stands next to me. I notice now the rainbow and pot o’ gold motif on the mugs. “What’s up with that?” he asks, lifting his mug to point.

I brace myself for another sip of altered coffee and wonder if the caffeine will counter the Jameson. “My new draft.” I sidestep until I can see a guidepost beyond the fog bank. “I kinda know where I’m going, but I’m not sure how to get there. I’m missing a lot of stuff I’ll have to go back and add. I’m still a day behind in my word count because of it.”

“Or are you behind because you missed another day this week?” At my questioning look, he raises an eyebrow. “I’m watching you, love. Are you going to make your NaNo?”

“Yes, I’ll catch up. I’m taking Monday off from the day job.”

He tsks. “And how much writing do you suppose you’ll put in tomorrow? You’re going to be ‘out’ all day.”

I roll my eyes. “It’s a writers festival.” A local one I’ve never heard of before. Apparently the group has been doing an annual gig in Bloomington. This is their first year in Rosemount. I found out about it through the local Sisters In Crime newsletter. “It’s not downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul. It’s for writing. Not a substitute for the super-awesome UW Writers’ Institute in Madison, but it’s something.”

“Then you’ll have to buckle down, love. You’re going to miss your mark otherwise.”

Yep, I know. And I still haven’t started getting ready for the family Easter gathering. Sigh. I need to start getting the house cleaned (ugh) and organized (double-ugh), since we’re celebrating the weekend before Easter.

The publisher news is disappointing, but I expected to get passes. And there’s still nine publishers who haven’t reported in, including the new one. There’s still opportunity. I haven’t talked to my agent about what happens if none of the publishers like the manuscript. I expect she’ll pick another bunch of publishers to try. The feedback we’re getting is more “we like this part a lot, but this part doesn’t resonate with us” than “thanks but no thanks”. The brief critiques aren’t particularly useful, but it’s nice to know why they passed, and what they liked. It’s kind of interesting when one passes because of something they didn’t think worked for them but others really liked.

So, off to a writing thing tomorrow, then hammer away at the draft. Have a Happy St. Pat’s Day for those who celebrate. Also, Happy Vernal Equinox a few days early πŸ™‚

Write on!

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Don’t wake me until the weekend!


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Slogging

Here I am, ready to start writing my post, and WTF happened to my WordPress editor? Seriously. Did they bother telling anyone they were changing it?

So off to the WP Admin page, then to the Posts page, then the older editor. Whew! This I understand. Don’t get all fancy-schmancy on me. I don’t need pretty, I just need it to work without me getting confused.

Sigh. Okay, now on to the real post…

*crickets*

Ugh. Now I forgot what I wanted to write about. Figures. Oh, wait, I remember πŸ™‚ I was going to write about how cruel Mother Nature is by teasing us–in March, mind you–with temps in the 60s (F). Before St. Patrick’s Day. In Minnesota. Of course, she tempers it with winds kicking at 40 mph. It would’ve been really nice otherwise. Spring is here!

Yeah–no. Yesterday, high in the 20s Today the same. Actually, cold all week, and a snowstorm for tomorrow. Gotta love MN!

Okay, maybe not what I was going to write about, but I need some words. As in, here I am in week 2 of my NaNo and I’m about 3k wordsΒ  behind where I should be. Hell, I should be about a thousand words ahead. Ugh.

And then there’s my Muse, who has been conspicuously absent despite my request he stick around.

*door slams*

Speaking of the devil. Then again… “What the hell happened to you?”

My muse shuffles in front of my writing board. “Still only two crossed off.” He toes his sneakers off and kicks them into a corner.

He’s referring to the list of publishers that have my manuscript in their editor’s hands. “My agent didn’t pass along any news this week. I suppose she reached out to them last week, so next week she’ll check on them again.” He’s wearing a fleece-lined flannel hooded jacket, you know, the ones with the cream-colored sheep’s wool-kinda lining inside. His jeans are faded, with a long black smear on the back of a leg and dried leaves sticking to the flannel.

“Again, what the hell happened to you? Muse football game?”

He brushes the leaves off his jacket, then rubs the black streak. Now I see his jeans are actually wet–damp?–from the knees down. “Wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“So you what, slipped into the creek?”

He turns, hits me with a glare. “Yes, I slipped into the creek. Your point?”

“My point is you are goofing off in the woods when I need you here.”

He plants hands on his hips and snorts. “You need me here, love? Then you bloody well better sit your ass down and write. I’ve been here.”

“Falling into creeks?”

“No. Trying to inspire you to get the story moving. I keep tossing ideas at you.” He crosses his arms on his chest and rocks on his heels. “Somehow, you’re not quite catching them. You walk when you need to think, so do I.” He crossed the office to lean over me and read my laptop screen. “That sucks.”

The latest chapter of my draft is on the screen. “No shit. So, where have you been?”

“Not proof-reading.”

I shove the computer forward. “It’s a first draft. It’s supposed to suck. I haven’t written a first draft for a couple years–I’m trying to keep my inner editor in her cage.” Argh. “I’m finally getting to the next biggish plot point, so hopefully it’ll be easier to keep going now.”

My Muse shakes his head. “It still sucks. Let me change and we’ll try to get this thing going. You feeling it yet?”

Feeling it? Feeling the creative energy fuel my story? “Not so much.”

He frowns. Sighs. “I’ll see what I can come up with. But it’s the weekend, and damn it, you will catch up your word count.”

Yep. That’s the goal. And I need to get my ass in gear; we’re entertaining family for Easter on the weekend before Easter, so I’ve got to start organizing and cleaning. You know, like the annual refrigerator toss-out (toss out anything that looks or smells like a science experiment), and the why-am-I-keeping-this-stuff derby.

And now I can record these words for my count–yippee! I could drone on about something just for more words, but that could get kinda dull and boring and you’ve probably already checked out so I’m not sure why I’m still writing this post but I think I can claim about seven hundred and forty words now. Sweet!

Have a great weekend!


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Progress?

My Muse slips into my writing office. I don’t turn, but I hear him close the door with a quiet snick.

“I hope you enjoyed your break, because I’m digging in now.” I reach up and cross a publisher off the list on the whiteboard.

He grunts his opinion but doesn’t offer any snarky remarks.

I cross a second publisher off the list. “Two down, eleven to go.”

“I don’t see your word count thresholds up there, love.”

“I’ve got them on my computer. I’ll put my weekly counts up, just to remind me.” I cap the marker and turn to him. He’s wearing flannel today, a black- and red-checked shirt open over a white tee that has an odd blue stain on it. Looks like a portrait of a Smurf that had an unfortunate run-in with paint thinner. “Er, what’s that?”

He looks down. “Oh. Used to be a hand-drawn picture of the genie from ‘Aladdin.’ I think.”

“Uh-huh.” Ooo-kay. Didn’t know he was a fan. “I’m starting my NaNo for March, so you need to stick around.”

He narrows his eyes. “Oh, really? You wimped out last night.”

“I know, but it’s the weekend. I can catch up.” I head to my desk and open my computer. “Ready to get started?”

He settles into one of the recliners across the room. “Pretty lame blog post today, love.” A cup of fresh coffee appears on my desk, another on the small table beside his chair. An aroma of java, vanilla, and macadamia nut wafts from the mug. “You’d better get going on that draft. It’s going to be a long month otherwise.”

I’m getting a slow start on my self-imposed NaNo for March. I’m working on the next Sierra and Quinn book while waiting for a positive response from one of the publishers my agent submitted to. Two passes so far, but that’s to be expected. I look at it like sending a query to an agent, except all 13 agents asked for the full manuscript. You can’t expect all thirteen to like it because writing is subjective.

In the meantime, I’ve got words to write, a review to write, and another book to finish reading. Luckily today is still supposed to be windy and cold; tomorrow’s forecast is for upper 50s–woo-hoo!

And here you go, because we all like to see furry friends on blog posts πŸ˜€

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I think she’s telling me to get my ass to work!

Have a great writing weekend, all!