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.

On Outlining

“To outline or not to outline” has been one of my constant refrains for years now. I was a non-outlining person for years, mainly for two reasons: one, I didn’t know how to outline, and two, I thought that outlining would drive me up the wall.

At this point, I’ve pretty much accepted that writing is going to drive me up the wall no matter what I do, and I’ve found that outlining can actually help me… climb down the wall a little? (I really should have chosen a different idiom.) However, Problem #1 remains: I still don’t know how, exactly, to create an outline.

Different writers have different methods of outlining: some follow a Hero’s Journey-type formula, while others use the Snowflake Method, or a three-act structure, or a beat sheet. My method of outlining thus far has pretty much been “here’s a list of things that are going to happen in the story”, but what that leads to is the development of a plot that has basically nothing to do with the characters. A plot that has nothing to do with the characters is only slightly more interesting than a grocery list and the opposite of what I want.

Okay, so I need to find a new method of outlining. Easier said than done? Pretty much.

There are two books that are on my Oh-God-These-Desperately-Need-to-Be-Outlined-and-Rewritten radar: Reckless, which I wrote during July 2016’s Camp NaNoWriMo, and Demonic Dilemmas, which I wrote for regular NaNoWriMo in November. I began both of these projects with my terrible, plot-heavy outlines. The outlines were definitely an improvement over having no outline, but the fact remains that both books need to be rewritten, and that both rewrites will require new outlines.

One method I’m considering for Demonic Dilemmas is a zero draft, which is basically a messy outpouring of thoughts, scene snippets, character ideas, and keyboard smashes as the writer tries to figure out what in God’s name their story is supposed to be. (Similar to the majority of my  blog posts, come to think of it.) It’s sort of like a very, very terrible first draft that turns into an outline.

Part of the reason I struggle with outlining is that my stories never, ever come together in a neat, linear way in my head. A zero draft would let me start halfway through the story, or 9/17ths of the way through the story, and then work my way from there. Since I have a hard time with structured outlining, maybe I need to move away from that and try a more fluid approach.

At the same time, I’m also thinking about a very different approach: using a screenplay as an outline. This doesn’t seem to be a super popular method, but apparently, some writers prefer to write their stories out in script form– just dialogue and action– before actually writing the novel. I’ve never written a screenplay, but I have learned how to format one, so I’m considering that as well.

Essentially, what it comes down to is this: do I need to give myself more freedom when it comes to outlining, or less? Or, in other words, what it comes down to is this: it’s time to try both and see which works better and probably end up extremely frustrated with both and end up stress-baking cookies because AHH OUTLINING IS HARD NO MATTER HOW YOU DO IT.

Anyways.

What’s your preferred method of outlining?


You can find me on Patreon and the NaNoWriMo website

On Female Characters, Strong and Weak

I grew up surrounded by strong female characters.Even before I understood the meaning of the word ‘sexism’ or knew that I would one day grow up and shout “You do not get to slut-shame Margaery Tyrell just because she’s a female character who has sex!” at my older brother, I was getting a pretty cool feminist education– an education that took place mainly through literature.

Easily the most influential people in my life, both then and now, my mom and big sister introduced me to a wonderful amount of female-led literature. My mom read Pollyanna, Mandy, A Little Princess, and Laura Ingalls Wilder aloud to me probably dozens of times. Meanwhile, as I grew older, my sister introduced me to her personal favorites, such as the Song of the Lioness Quartet and His Dark Materials. And of course, I inherited a love of Harry Potter from every member of my family and thus added Hermione, Ginny, and Luna to my long list of female heroes and inspirations.

As all this reading and being read to happened, something strange happened: a rift appeared between my Pollyannas and my Lyras. My sweet and kind girls who ran through flower-filled meadows and my fierce, snarky warriors became separated. The concept of a “strong female character” emerged, the idea being that the belligerent– and, generally, tomboyish– girls were “strong” and the sweeter, gentler girls were not. This became a pattern of thinking that I feel into and stayed stuck in for a great number of years. These also became the sort of characters I wrote– fierce and snarky girls with little interest in traditionally feminine pursuits.

Flash forward to March of 2016, when I started watching the HBO series Game of Thrones. Going into it, I already knew a lot about the series and the characters, both from spoilers on Tumblr and listening to my mom and sister talk about the show. Because of that, I was fully expecting Arya Stark, the sword-carrying twelve year old girl who doesn’t want to be a lady, to be my favorite character. And she was one of my favorites, at first. But then a strange thing happened. The more I watched, the more attached I became to a very different female character: Sansa Stark.

Sansa Stark, the young, vain, somewhat selfish girl who just wants to get married and have beautiful blonde babies, was not my usual “type” at all. She did not carry a sword, and probably never will. She wore dresses and sewed things and really wanted to be kissed by a boy with pretty hair. It seemed absurd for her to become my favorite… and yet, as the series went on, that’s exactly what happened. Sansa suffered and struggled and, in the end, underwent one of the best character arcs on the whole series. She emerged from all her suffering vengeful and determined, but still kind, still, in her own way, soft. She’s still not “strong” in my traditional arrow-shooting, dragon-slaying sort of  way, and yet she is a character I adore, a character I find inspiring. She is a hero.

And why shouldn’t she be?

We see female characters who pursue things stereotyped as masculine and call them strong, but when a female character wants to wear dresses and kiss boys, she’s considered weak, or boring, or bland. The characters I relate to most are probably the Pollyannas, and even I used to discredit them. Why? Because somewhere along the way, it got hammered into me that girls have to act “masculine” to be strong, interesting, or feminist. That’s absurd.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love my other girl heroes just a much as I used to. Lyra Silvertongue and Alanna the Lioness will always be some of my favorite characters. But I’ve also started to realize that I was pretty unfair to all my Pollyannas.

Take Anne of Green Gables, for example. Anne is one of my all-time favorites, and she’s an impulsive, whimsical girl who loves romantic daydreams and wants to wear pretty dresses and dance with dryads. She’s not the sort of character one would call “strong”, and yet she truly is a wonderful female character: she’s complex and three-dimensional, learns from every one of her many mistakes, and is very kind and loving. In fact, she’s a character I relate to in a lot of ways, and it’s a bit unnerving to think that I’ve spent so much time discrediting characters like her and Sansa just because they didn’t fit into one female-character mold.

We call any female character who carries a weapon “strong”, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that some of those acclaimed strong female characters are actually sort of one-dimensional and underdeveloped. I don’t want to read or write about characters whose only defining quality is “strength.” I want female characters with more than one personality trait. I want girls who have flaws and vices as well as virtues, who cry and get angry, who are strong and brave in lots of different ways.

There’s not just one type of woman in this world. In fact, there aren’t any “types” at all, because we’re not ice-cream flavors or paint samples. Women are human beings, diverse and messy and flawed, and as I continue to write stories filled with lady heroes, I want all of my  characters to reflect that.

Things Are Getting Better

Writing no longer comes easily to me.

When I was maybe nine or ten years old, writing my own stories was the easiest thing in the world. I sat at the desktop computer in my kitchen and I wrote. Distractions– cute videos of kittens, Facebook notifications, the fact that I probably should have been learning how to multiply fractions– had no power over me. Back then, I didn’t doubt myself (or, y’know, edit things) and so the words just flowed for me, water from a faucet.

Then the inevitable happened: I grew up, and things got more complicated. (Really, growing up is probably the worst thing that ever happened to my writing.) These days, I expect and want more from myself. I get frustrated and disappointed and sometimes hopeless. Every sentence I put on the page is a struggle. The faucet has grown a little rusty.

But there are still moments when writing abruptly gets easier. Every once in a while, I’ll sit down to write and find that the resistance has disappeared. My fingers will speed up, and for a little while, I’ll feel that same ease I used to take for granted. Because I now realize how hard writing is, I don’t count on or expect it to be easy. Still, those moments of clarity do wonders for self doubt. They reassure me that writing is what I’m meant to be doing, and that I’m not totally deluding myself by saying that I’m a writer.

Unfortunately, clarity just keeps getting more and more evasive. Going into 2016’s July Camp NaNoWriMo, I was plagued by the feeling that I hadn’t really enjoyed writing a book in a couple of years, and I was praying that my new project, RECKLESS, would be different. I was terribly afraid that somewhere along the line, I’d taught myself to hate writing, and that I’d never enjoy it again. (It sounds ridiculously dramatic, but it’s also true.)

Like with all Nano events, I had good days and bad ones. I definitely didn’t hate my story, but I wasn’t sure I was really enjoying it either. And then, somehow, it got to be the last day of Camp, and I was still 5,000 words behind. Worse, I didn’t have until midnight to finish. I was packing up for a car trip and leaving around four in the afternoon. If I wanted to finish my book and win Camp, this really was my last chance.

So I did it. Fueled by coffee, donuts, and pure determination, I sat down at my computer and I wrote. I didn’t stop to hesitate or criticize myself. I wrote, and like magic, the resistance disappeared and the words flowed easily. I finished the book with exactly 75,000 words and Icarus by Bastille still playing on repeat.

And sitting there, trembling slightly from excitement and caffeine overload, I realized something vitally important: RECKLESS is the best book I’ve ever written.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t good. It’s hundreds of rounds of edits and rewrites away from being good. But it’s better than THE WITCH’S APPRENTICE and THE SEVENTH CITADEL and all the rest of my books that came before it. I didn’t enjoy writing TWA or TSC, but clearly, I’d still learned some things from both of them.

It’s so easy, as a writer, to forget that everything I write is a lesson. I don’t just write to tell stories– I also write so that I can become a better writer. All of my books are lessons and tests. I’ve been overwhelmed by dislike and lack of enjoyment towards my own writing for so long, but I think maybe, maybe, I’ve finally passed that test. I’ve learned that even if I hate every single one of my characters, I still have to keep writing, keep trying. So long as I keep going, I will keep improving. That was what I learned at the end of July’s Camp NaNoWriMo: even if I’m not enjoying myself, I’m still learning. 

There’s a little piece of paper at the top of my bedroom wall that reads THINGS ARE GETTING BETTER. It’s been there for several years and has become a part of the landscape of my extremely cluttered walls. Nine times out of ten, I look at it and don’t think anything of it. But sometimes, like the morning that I finished RECKLESS and actually felt happy with my first draft, I look at it and get a surprising jolt of recognition. Because it’s true. I don’t always see it, but things are getting better– and so am I.

Dear Minor Characters: WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?

Friends, I have a problem. I’m pretty sure my minor characters are trying to take over the world.

Or, at the very least, they’re trying to take over my story. I’m currently working on outlining my sci-fi/space opera novel, RECKLESS, for July’s Camp NaNoWriMo, and the minor characters just keep appearing. I started with four significant minor characters (major-minors, I guess you could say) and now I’m up to six and creeping towards the possibility of a seventh.

The way I see it, there are two types of minor characters: insistent and enigmatic. Insistent minor characters are the world-domination type. They’re the ones who become more and more interesting and gain bigger and bigger parts of the story until suddenly they’re not so minor anymore. Insistent minors insist that they’re important. They like to whisper stuff like “But what if this story was actually mine and not the so-called main character’s?” and  “Ooh, or what if you wrote an entirely new story just for me?”

Enigmatic minors, meanwhile, are even trickier. They’re the ones who show up and are all “Hey, can I join the party?” but get antsy when you start to question what their actual purpose in the story is. They want a place in the plot, but they’re not about to tell you where that place is.

Usually, I have a bigger problem with insistent minors– I love my minor characters and tend to give them complicated backstories, which in turn leads to me wanting to give them stories of their own. With RECKLESS, however, I’ve been having more of an enigmatic-minors-issue. Characters keep showing up, but I’m not sure how necessary a lot of them are to the plot.

The sad truth is, even if I’m fond of their personalities, characters that don’t have an actual purpose have to go. I think it might be time for me to revisit my cast of characters and send some of them off into the Great Character Void of Nonexistence. Hopefully they don’t crawl their way out and come after me seeking revenge (although, now that I think of it, that would actually make for a pretty interesting story.)

-Lilly.

Here We Go Again

Fun fact: I’m terrible at keeping track of time. Like, so terrible that Lilly-never-knows-what’s-going-on is a running joke in my family. The other day, I had a five-minute conversation with my brother before he said “Isn’t there anything you want to say to me?”, which was followed by me staring at him and saying “What would I want to say to you? What’s going on– WAIT, IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY.” Just a few days later, I thought “Oh, my birthday is in like two and a half weeks!” only to look at the calendar and realize that it was actually in six days.

In other words, if you need to know what day of the week it is, I am not the person to ask. However, I’m not totally inept. For example, I know that it’s currently May and the month is almost over, meaning it’s very nearly June, which means we have just over one month to go until July’s Camp NaNoWriMo! (You’re not at all surprised that this post is suddenly Nano-related, are you? I’m sort of predictable with this stuff.)

If I’m being totally honest here, Camp Nano and I have a bit of a rocky history. We started out okay in April 2015, when I wrote a 75k novel, Innocent and Heartless.  While the novel I wrote during that Camp was a complete mess and I really struggled to get it written, I did finish it and meet my word count goal, so I think it could be called a success.

Flash forward a few months and you get to July 2015, when I attempted Camp for the second time, aiming to write 50,000 words. What actually wound up happening was that I wrote about 23k, completely restarted my story, wrote 12k, and then gave up. It’s the only Nano event I’ve ever failed (something I still don’t really like to think about, if I’m being completely honest here) but I also refuse to be unhappy about it. Though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, my writer’s block that month was caused by depression, and not finishing was definitely the best thing for my mental health, despite how difficult giving up was for me.

And finally, in April 2016, I wrote 30,000 words of a novel entitled The Witch’s Apprentice. This year’s experience with Camp wasn’t especially satisfying, mainly because I didn’t actually finish the book I was writing, but I did meet my goal and manage to study for AP tests at the same time, which I’m happy about.

Now it’s very nearly June, and Camp is swiftly approaching once again. I’ve been juggling a few ideas, and I think I’ve finally settled on one. It’s a space-opera-ish sci-fi thing (no title yet) which can basically be summed up in the question “What if a bunch of angry space orphans teamed up to take down a powerful intergalactic gang that ruined all of their lives?” I haven’t written any sci-fi in quite a while, but that’s part of the reason I’m so excited about the story.

The truth of the matter is that I’ve been having a really hard time mustering enthusiasm for my own writing over the course of the past year or so, and I’m hoping that a totally different sort of story will help me feel refreshed and enthusiastic. As much as I love writing, it just becomes more and more frustrating and difficult for me as time goes on, and I really miss being able to just have fun while writing a first draft. I think (I hope, at least) I’m getting a little better about that, but it’s a tricky thing to overcome.

Of course, I always go into a project hoping that this one will be the one that makes me feel super enthusiastic again, and there’s never a guarantee that any of them will. Still, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t at least try. Despite the varying levels of success from past months/years, I’m excited to give Camp another go.

-Lilly.

A Strange Sort of Self-Doubt

I am constantly amazed by other writers.

Seriously. Their determination, creativity, and simple love of writing astonishes me. These people– who I mainly encounter on the NaNoWriMo forums– are so passionate about their stories. It’s delightful and inspiring and, if you’re me, slightly terrifying.

Here’s the thing: I’ve wanted to be a published author since the age of seven. (Before that, I wanted to be an English teacher, and, before that, probably a ballerina– even though I completely sucked at ballet.) Writing is what I do. That is, I do lots of things– I read, I volunteer at the library, I swim, I bake cookies– but writing is my main thing, my most relevant thing. It’s how friends of my parents categorize me: “This is Lilly. She’s the one who writes!”

Yet sometimes, I feel like I don’t have a right to the word “writer.” Or rather, I feel like I don’t have as much of a right to it as other people do. Those writers who are so passionate and dedicated to their stories… I’m not one of them. I don’t know how to be.

Some of my writerly friends have been working on the same book or series for years and are still so excited about their characters, but I’ve never finished a series, and I’ve never been super devoted to one particular narrative. I write, yes, and I love writing, yes, but I’m terrible at sticking to my projects, and I’ve never felt that deep, powerful connection to one particular story or character that other writers describe. Sometimes I’m afraid that I never will. It’s not a happy feeling, and it’s one that leads to a lot of guilt and doubt. If I don’t care enough about what I’m writing, who will?

One of the most common pieces of advice in the writing world is “Write what you love.”  I can’t count the number of times I’ve read that the most important thing is to write your story,  the one that matters the most to you. “If you don’t really care about this story, you’re not writing the right one!” is a constant refrain, and it’s one that often drives me into fits of despair and makes me want to close my laptop and never write another word.

Of course, I don’t do that. I keep the laptop open. I keep trying. But at this point in time, I still haven’t found my story, the one that I truly and deeply need to tell, the one with the characters who feel real to me, and I’m not sure if I ever will.