Hello, Unfinished WIP, My Old Friend

Let the record show that as I am writing this– on the fifteenth of April in the Year of our Lord 2018– I am currently stuck in my house in the midst of what could reasonably be described as a blizzard. Or, at the very least, a snowstorm. A STORM. OF SNOW. IN APRIL. WHAT KIND OF WESTEROS NONSENSE IS THIS.

But enough about the weather! Or at least, enough about the weather that isn’t also about writing, because this is going to be one of those really fun metaphor-heavy blog posts! Get hyped! (Please don’t leave.)

Real talk: I am in no position to roast the weather for this on-again, off-again, tease-you-with-spring-and-then-slam-winter-back-onto-your-head behavior. Because that wishy-washy nonsense is exactly how I am with my writing projects. In particular, a project we’re going to call DD has been started and abandoned so many times I’m surprised the main characters haven’t come to life and physically attacked me. (“Get your sh*t together, writer lady!”)

Based off of my deep-dive investigations into my Google Drive (because I seriously don’t remember at this point) I first started writing DD in January of 2016, and got about 70 pages in before abandoning the draft. I then revamped the story and completed a brand new draft of it for NaNoWriMo in November of 2016. That draft cemented the personalities of the characters for me, but the plot was a mess, and I realized I was using the wrong character as the MC. In July of 2017, I began a rewrite of the story for Camp NaNoWriMo, with some major plot changes and a different character as the MC. I once again got about 70 pages in before abandoning it. Cut to this month, when I decided to give DD a whirl for Camp Nano YET AGAIN. I got 7-8 pages into it, realized it was the wrong starting point, started over, and now have 13 pages of a shiny new draft.

ARE YOU EXHAUSTED YET? BECAUSE I SURE AM.

The thing is, I do think stories should grow and change over time. I’ve learned that I really need to write a draft of a book before I even start to understand who my characters are. I know that DD has gotten a little closer to what it needs to be with every attempt and false start.

But damn, am I sick of myself. JUST GET IT DONE, GIRL. I’ve been working on this book for over two years, but it really hasn’t progressed beyond a first draft, in terms of “quality of the work and how much rewriting and editing needs to happen next.” Also, despite all the time I’ve spent on it, I’ve only FINISHED a draft of it once. I know progress isn’t always linear and art is an eternally spinning tilt-a-whirl of complicatedness, but I am tired of not finishing things.

Or, IN METAPHOR TERMS, I am sick of snow/unfinished projects! I hate being cold/lazy! I am ready for spring! And since going outside and physically melting all of the snow with a hair dryer requires too many extension cords and too much effort, I should probably just go back to writing (and FINISHING) this book. Actually, that might require equal amounts effort and greater amounts of coffee, but like, it doesn’t require me to get out of bed, so it seems like the better option.

Besides, there is something very satisfying about the nitty-gritty work of shaping my hot mess of a book into the story it needs to be. No matter how many seasons it takes, I’m going to keep at it.

WINTER IS ENDING. TAKE THAT, NED STARK.


If you’d like to see more of my screaming about writing, books, podcasts, and Lorde, check out my Twitter.

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JOIN THE PARTY and the Art of Storytelling

Hello friends! In addition to my new obsession with nonfiction books, I’ve recently fallen  in love with audio drama podcasts. This didn’t really come as a surprise– I love stories in pretty much any format, and there’s no reason audio dramas should be any different. But what did come as a surprise was how much I found myself loving one particular show called Join The Party. 

Join The Party is described as “a collaborative storytelling and roleplaying podcast”,  meaning it’s created by four friends who get together and play Dungeons & Dragons– while recording themselves. It’s hard to describe, and given that I have zero experience with D&D, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to enjoy it. Happily, Join the Party is structured in a way that’s very welcoming for D&D newbies, and is insanely fun to listen to regardless of how much experience you have. Just a few episodes in, I found myself loving the characters and the story– but I also found myself loving Dungeons & Dragons in general.

D&D has always seemed to me like something I might enjoy. It’s a way to place yourself inside fantasy worlds that’s more flexible and less motor-skills-based than video games (which I readily admit to hating and being terrible at.) Though I’ve never gotten the chance to play an actual game, JTP has convinced me that D&D is something I would definitely enjoy, and I am now desperate to try it sometime.

It has also shown me that D&D is a masterclass in the art of storytelling. By taking characters with a clearly defined range of abilities and weaknesses, placing them in challenging situations, and forcing them to individually respond to those challenges, D&D builds a story that is inherently character-driven. Because the DM controls the basic situations characters face, but not how they respond to those situations, and because each character is controlled by a different real-life person with different perceptions of the game, conflicts and startling turns within the story blossom naturally.

This sounds so simple. But it’s something I think a lot of writers forget. A good story is not “things happen to characters”, it’s “characters respond to things that happen to them.” JTP is the second kind of story because that’s how D&D works, and some of the best moments in the show take place when the players, responding as they firmly believe their characters would, take their DM by surprise. The combination of players who truly understand their characters and a DM who’s willing to be flexible propels the story forward in ways that are both surprising and believable.

Join the Party reminded me that if I want to write compelling fiction, I can’t just have characters do the things that will move the plot from Point A to Point B. Instead, I have to consider who my characters really are and how they would respond to each individual situation. Instead of writing journeys for my characters to follow, I have to write characters alive enough that I can see how they would shape their own journeys, and build my stories around that.


I ramble about my favorite audio dramas more frequently on Twitter.

You can (and should!) check out Join The Party here

So I’m Madly In Love With Nonfiction (whaaat?)

Hello friends! I am writing this blog post to inform you that I, Lilly, lover of high fantasy, having semi-actively avoided nonfiction for years, have been kidnapped and replaced by an alien creature with a wild appetite for memoirs.

How did this happen? Well, I read 59 books in 2017. Most of them were Young Adult fiction, and many of them were… underwhelming? Disappointing? I’m not sure, exactly, but at the end of the year, I found myself disappointed with both the amount and the quality of the reading I’d done throughout the year. Simultaneously, as the year was coming to a very stressful, tearful close (for boring and irrelevant personal reasons, December was not a great month for me) I was reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which 1) Reminded me that your life is actually wonderful, Lilly, calm down, and 2) Made me realize that wow, nonfiction can actually be… compelling? Interesting? Good?

I know that this whole post is making me sound like a bit of an idiot. But seriously: up until that moment, I’d never really experienced the powerful joy of nonfiction. And it was wonderful. I’ve never been great at New Year’s Resolutions– I have this bad habit of setting ridiculously unattainable goals for myself– but this year, I found a good one. I resolved to read more nonfiction. And I have! So far in 2018, I’ve read 17 books, and and 7 of them have been nonfiction, meaning I’ve already read more nonfiction in the first two months of 2018 than I did during all of 2017.

Why do I suddenly love nonfiction so much? A couple reasons. First: I am no longer in school. Like, for the first time in 12 years, I am not actively pursuing an education. Being the huge nerd that I am, I always liked school, and because of my homeschooling background, the need to continue my own education independently is ingrained in me. Reading nonfiction is the easiest and most enjoyable way for me to continue Learning Stuff despite not being in any kind of school.

Second: writing. One of my greatest struggles when it comes to fiction writing is my tendency to subconsciously copy– or, to put it more gently, “borrow”– elements of my favorite books and apply them to my own writing. Lots of people make the case that this is inevitable and a natural part of writing. But personally, I kind of hate it. I don’t want to subconsciously re-write my favorite books. I want to find my own voice, my own style, and my own stories. Nonfiction presents an elegant solution to this problem. By distancing myself a little from genres similar to the ones I like to write, I’m less likely to subconsciously “borrow.” Furthermore, nonfiction is also a great source of inspiration, all on its own. (For example, my short story Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was inspired by the widespread culture of conformity and self-repression in 1950s America, which I read about in AP U.S. History. See how seamlessly I pulled off that self-plug?)

So its seems nonfiction and I are friends now. Whatever the root of my own tiny reading revolution, I’m enjoying it. Sorry that I ignored you for so long, nonfiction. I’m making it up to you now by singing your praises in this blog post.

 

Free Time Is Terrible & I Am Very Cold

Imagine a world where, for one quarter of the year, the sun becomes elusive. The days are dark and short. You can’t leave the confines of your house without experiencing immediate physical pain. Everyone around you walks with their head down, their eyes blurry and unfocused. Or, in other words: welcome to the Midwest! It’s dark, it’s cold, and everyone is bunkering down in preparation for that good ol’ seasonal depression.

For those of you who don’t know, I live in the Midwest’s icy heart, Wisconsin. If you don’t know anything about Wisco, just think of it this way: it’s like Minnesota, but more people here voted for Trump. Delightful, right? You also might not know that I’m not currently in school. Instead, I am partaking in a weird and elusive phenomenon called the “gap year.” Let’s not talk about that. I am so tired of talking about that. (If you are considering taking a gap year, please be prepared to answer the question “So what are you doing with your gap year?” with a frequency that will make your head hurt.)

Anyways. Dramatic posturing aside. Here I am, in a cold place with very little sunlight, without even the structure of the Public School System to get me out of bed every morning. Needless to say, it’s not going so great. I do have a job that I like (in true struggling-artist form, I work at a coffeeshop. If I ever get good at latte art I will provide photographic evidence. Stay tuned!) which provides some structure to my weird life. Otherwise, I am ostensibly Focusing On My Writing.

How is that going? Well. I think there’s a fundamental flaw in the concept that a person should take a year off from Other Things to focus on One Particular Thing. (I mean, in the artistic sense. If you want to take a year off from school to focus on wading through the jungle collecting poisonous frogs, that strikes me as a very valid use of one’s time.) But like, when it comes to writing, I think the idea that you’ll get more of it done when you have more Free Time is a myth. An evil, evil myth. Honestly, the last time I felt super positive about my writing productivity was my senior year of high school, when I just barely won NaNoWriMo by squeezing writing time into bus rides.

There’s this song lyric that I love, from millenial music icon and goddess Lorde: “In my head, I do everything right.” That’s very #me. In my head, I am single-mindedly devoted to my writing. In my head, I write for an hour every day, minimum, and I do it while sitting at a beautiful desk with great posture, sipping my coffee and loving every minute of it. In my head, I do writing right. But my head is not realistic. In real life, I drink coffee all day, not just while writing, and my desk is usually covered in clothes, and my posture is pretty bad. More importantly, I am easily distracted, have trouble committing to one main project, and am often frustrated with myself and my work.

The thing is, all that has always been true. I’ve always struggled with commitment, with caffeine intake, and with organization. But somehow I fooled myself into believing in that magical elixir, the cure-all, the panacea of writing: free time. I imagined that just having more time in which to write would help me solve all my writing problems and bad habits. Well, guess what? That’s nonsense. 

Free time does not solve writing problems. In many ways, it enhances them. I think the reasons for this can be boiled down into three main points. First, more free time just makes the amount of work you’re doing feel minimal. Like, if you have twenty minutes to write per day and you write a page every day during that twenty minutes, you’re a rockstar! But if you have four hours to write every day but write one page during that four hours, you might feel like a failure. Second, more time = more procrastination. Like, give me twenty minutes to write, and I’m probably going to write. Give me four hours to write, and I’m probably going to spend 3.5 of those hours surfing Tumblr and, like, building a yacht or something.

Third, and most importantly: I don’t think free time is good for creativity. Sounds sort of weird, I know, but I just don’t. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that creativity actually arises from busyness, that more time spent doing non-writing things will spur creative, writing-related bursts. Yes, it can be hard to squeeze writing time in if you’ve got a tight schedule, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe this is just me, but I think a tight non-writing schedule helps keep my writing time focused and my creativity sharp and fresh.

(By the way, I know this whole post is very First World Problems from beginning to end. Middle-class Annoying Artist First World Problems, even. But I solve my writing problems by rambling about them semi-coherently into typing boxes, so. Here we are.)

The question then becomes… how do I create that for myself? Like, can I really force myself to be busier in order to give myself less writing time in order to make myself write more? Is that a thing? Like Taylor Swift in her 22 video, I could totally and very accurately rock a “Not A Lot Going on at the Moment” shirt, guys. Maybe I need to… take a class? Acquire a hobby? The possibilities are endless and endlessly intimidating.

TL;DR: Winter in Wisconsin is terrible, writing is hard, and I am going to go eat some pasta now.

5 Things I Learned in November

Happy December, everyone! NaNoWriMo is over, Oh-God-I-Have-to-Buy-People-Presents-Ahh-Help season has begun, and I am in the midst of college applications! In other words, it’s the perfect time for some light introspection, existential crises, and the like. So I did some introspecting and made a list (don’t you just love lists, folks?) of five things I learned during NaNoWriMo/November.

  1. I work best when I’m busy. Too much free time? Absolutely terrible for my work ethic. I am much, much better at getting writing done when I’m forced to squeeze it into short increments than I am when I have long, totally free blocks of time in which to write. Counter-intuitive, maybe, but so, so true. This year, I had more time to spend on Nano than I ever have before… and my productivity was at an all-time low.
  2. First drafts will always suck. This a thing I am forced to re-learn every single time I begin a new project. I always go into it thinking “Now, THIS project will be different from the rest. This idea is so absolutely brilliant that it will not turn out any way besides brilliant.” Guess what? FALSE. FUTURE LILLY, I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING, BUT YOU’RE WRONG. THE BOOK WILL STILL BE GARBAGE THE FIRST TIME AROUND. WAIT AND SEE.
  3. Inspiration will not always show up for you. I know everyone loves that Stephen King quote about how you have to show up every single day for your muse in order for them to reliably provide you with inspiration or whatever, but for me, that’s just not always true. Sometimes you show up for the muse and the muse stands you up and leaves you alone at a table for two with a wilting bouquet of roses (ideas? I don’t know.) It sucks, but it’s okay. I am trying to make peace with the fact that there will always be some days– maybe even many days– when I do not like writing and writing does not like me.
  4. The best ideas come when you’re already working on something else. This is something else that I am forced to re-learn every single Nano, without fail. No matter how much I like my current idea at the beginning of the month, by the end of the month, my head will be crowded with at least two or three other brand-new ideas. I always have Shiny New Idea Syndrome, but it always gets worse in the middle of Nano.
  5. The good moments are still worth it. You know, there were probably only two days this November when I genuinely, wholeheartedly enjoyed writing and was delighted to be doing Nano. The other twenty-eight were a drag. But guess what? Those two days were worth it. No matter how many days I have where I sit down and writing feels difficult and frustrating and makes me want to bang my head against my desk and cry, it’s all worth it for those days and moments when everything clicks and your fingers start to fly.

What did you learn this November?

5 Things I Learned In July

You: It’s almost September!
Me, constantly two months behind on everything: Here, have this blog post about stuff I figured out… in July.

  1. Preparation Is… Get This… Actually Helpful. Wild concept, I know. Thank you, self, for your brilliant observations. But seriously, sarcasm aside, July’s Camp NaNoWriMo was really the first time I began writing a draft of a book with an outline that was well-thought out and took MAIN CONFLICTS and CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT into account. And shockingly… having a good outline made writing both easier and more enjoyable. Revolutionary.
  2. Prewriting? Also Helpful. Not only did I have an outline this July, I also began doing this super fancy thing called “prewriting.” Or, in other words, before I sat down to write a scene, I considered in greater detail  what should actually happen in the scene. Furthermore, I also considered what the main conflicts of the scene were, and what important change would have taken place by the time the scene was over. This was my way of ensuring that every scene actually had a point, and it was shockingly helpful. (Pictured below: a scene card and a tragically empty coffee mug. Also, the only pen I own that I haven’t lost yet.)20170704_151607
  3. Slow The Hell Down. Look, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo since the age of 12. It’s one of my favorite things, and it’s been super important to me and my writing. But I have to admit that it’s also taught me some unhealthy writing habits– mainly, writing first drafts super quickly and then never writing second drafts. But this July, I not only began a second draft of my 2016 Nano Novel, I also slowed down. My word count goal for the month was 25,000 words, half of what it usually is. And what I found is that while there is glory and exhilaration in super speedy writing, there’s also something undeniably peaceful and lovely about taking your time.
  4. All Time Is Writing Time. This is a Golden Fact of Writing that I knew as a kid and somehow forgot along the way. It remained forgotten until I watched one of the author V.E. Schwab’s writing videos and a metaphorical lightbulb lit up inside my head. I don’t have my best ideas sitting at my keyboard. I have my best ideas when I’m riding my bike or gardening with my mom or rollerskating in my basement while listening to Lorde at midnight. The time you spend doing whatever it is that helps you think is just as valuable as the time you spend physically writing. Not typing =/= not writing.
  5. Rewriting is Glorious. As I mentioned before, July was sort of my first-ever attempt at a second draft. And dear lord, it was so fun. When I write a first draft, I’m still struggling to figure out who the characters really are. But writing a second draft wasn’t like that at all. Although of course I was still working out some things about my characters, I also felt like I really and truly knew them, and I loved them.

TL;DR: Putting time and hard work into stuff 1) makes stuff better, and 2) makes stuff more fun.

(Pssst. Another super cool thing also happened in July. One of my short stories was published with the online writing collective Dear Damsels. Check it out here!)

Ideas, Like Pasta, Must Boil

A couple months ago, a friend and I were talking about our favorite graphic novels (Nimona, Saga, and Giant Days, if you’re looking for recs.) I told her that I’m really interested in writing graphic novels, but that unfortunately even my stick figures are woefully pathetic, so I’d need to find a co-author with art skills. She gave me a look and was like “Hello, yes, remember me, your friend who DOES ART.” So now we’re writing graphic novel together.

As always, working with someone new on a writing project has been interesting, and pretty eye-opening. When we first started brainstorming ideas, my friend said something to me that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. She told me that I have so many ideas.  

I never really stopped to consider this before she pointed it out, but it’s true. I have a lot of ideas. Character ideas. World ideas. Story ideas. Novel concepts drift into my mind while I’m studying, while I’m gardening, and while I’m riding my bike. I can come up with an idea, brainstorm different possibilities for it, mentally write a synopsis for it, and get bored with it in the space of a single afternoon.

My friend seemed slightly frustrated when she told me that she doesn’t have half so many concrete I-should-totally-write-that-thing story ideas. What I told her at the time was “Yeah, but remember that I’m terrible at actually sticking with an idea.” Which is true. I start and subsequently abandon a whole lot more stories than I actually finish.

Thinking about this, I began to wonder about my own mental process when it comes to actually finishing stuff. I realized that I wasn’t sure why I abandon some ideas two pages in and stick with some until the cold, bitter end. And somewhere along the way, I developed a beautiful metaphor: my method of developing ideas is like cooking pasta.

I start my pasta-cooking, idea-developing journey by going to my pantry. Now, there’s a whole lot of packages of pasta in there. But do I pull out every single package of pasta and cook all of them? No. No, I do not. I pick a single package of pasta, a unit containing one collective hodgepodge of ideas for a potential project. Because the truth is that some ideas are never going to go anywhere. They’re just going to sit in the dark, cold pantry FOREVER AND EVER. We can consider those the ideas that I develop and abandon in a single afternoon (because seriously, that even I got bored of it that quickly is probably a sign.)

Now, do I take tender, loving care of my pasta? NO. I SNAP THE PASTA IN HALF AND I DROP IT INTO A POT OF BOILING WATER. That is what I do with my ideas– at least, the ones I think have some sort of merit. I toss them into the pot of boiling water that is my writerly brain. I stir them, mix them up. If those ideas are any good, being boiled in other thoughts and the busyness of life events does not ruin them. The best ideas thrive in the chaos rather than vanishing into it.

At a certain point, I’ll fish a piece out of the pot and bite it to see if it’s cooked yet. Often, I’ll do this three or four times, discovering each time that the pasta hasn’t completely softened yet. In metaphor terms, that’s me plucking an idea from my brain, sitting down, trying to write a story based around it, giving up on it quickly, coming back to it later, trying it again, and giving up on it again. (Yes, this is a common occurrence.)

Eventually, the pasta really will soften, and I’ll pull a piece out and throw it at the wall. In metaphor terms, that’s me writing a full draft of a book based on the idea. Often, the piece of pasta will slide pathetically down the wall, indicating that it’s not ready to be eaten. Metaphorically, that’s me realizing that not only is the first draft of a book garbage (as all first drafts are), but also that I am completely exhausted and don’t want to think about it anymore. I leave the pasta to boil some more and read a book or overthrow a government or something.

But eventually, after lots of stirring and boiling and hoping, I’ll toss a piece of pasta at the wall, and it will stick. At that point, I know that my pot of pasta has finished cooking, and is now ready to be drained and buttered and seasoned and covered in sauce. In other words, I’ve written the draft of a book that deserves to be rewritten and revised.

I’ve eaten a lot of pasta in my life, and I’ve written a fair amount of first drafts– 14 or 15, I think. Of those drafts, only three have stuck to the wall. Only three remain in my brain, needling at me, asking to be rewritten and revised. Those three are Demonic Dilemmas, Reckless, and Glass & Gold. Those are the ideas that have stayed in my head, the ones that are waiting to be covered in alfredo sauce and chopped parsley. (THIS METAPHOR IS GETTING WEIRD BUT I ALREADY SPENT A LOT OF TIME ON THIS POST SO WE’RE STICKING WITH IT, SORRY.)

So yes, I have a lot of ideas. Yes, I write– or start writing– a lot of drafts. But at the end of the day, only a few of those ideas stick. And the whole point of this long spiel, and this weird and probably unnecessary metaphor, is this: it doesn’t matter if you have two new book ideas per year or two hundred. All that matters is that you have a way to weed out the ones you really love from the ones you only sort of like, and that once you have, you keep working on those ideas until they become the most delicious bowl of pasta you’ve ever eaten.

Books are not instant Ramen*. They’re not quick, easy, or cheap. They take time, effort, dedication. You have to write a whole bunch of terrible drafts before you write a good one– call it developing a recipe, or learning the skills of the chef. But a dozen bad bowls of pasta are worth it if, in the end, you MASTER the art of pasta and your pasta-making skills make you a really popular dinner party host.

So go write some words, go eat some pasta, and remember that no matter how hard it can be to find an idea that sticks, it’s worth it when the final copy of your book turns out as fantastic as THIS BOWL OF PASTA.

pasta

*Not that I have anything against instant Ramen. I love the taste of MSGs and the satisfaction of a meal that takes 6 minutes to prepare.