Friday, July 31, 2009

The Gift of The Axe

I want to talk about the little blessing in disguise known as word count guidelines.

When I finished TM and fixed it (or so I thought), it was complete at 112,000 words. The average YA book is 80,000 to 90,000 words for a new author (or somewhere around there). For those of you who want to object with "But Harry Potter books were NEVER that short!" I am sorry, but you are wrong. The first Harry Potter book was around 80,000 words long. The second one was also not very long. It wasn't until the third HP that you could start measuring the thickness with a ruler, and that was after JK Rowling was established, had a fan base, and could do pretty much whatever the heck she wanted.

I don't know why I got it in my head that cutting 20,000 words wouldn't be that big a deal, but as it turns out, I'm kind of dumb. Here's why: 20,000 words equates to about 80 pages. What? Yes. 80 pages. I was at the writer's conference when I discovered that horrifying fact. How am I supposed to cut EIGHTY pages, I wondered to myself. Can I seriously lose that many? Won't caving to these word deadlines ruin my masterpiece?

The answers are: Yes, you can lose that many. And no, losing them will not damage what you've written, in all likelihood. It was only when I thought about condensing TM that I realized how much extra STUFF was in there, just floating around doing absolutely nothing but slowing the plot down. It took me eighty pages to get to the first real incident. Eighty pages of setup is TOO MUCH SETUP.

When I revised, I was able to shorten those eighty pages of setup to something like 25 pages of setup. For those of you who aren't so good at The Math, 80-25 is 55 pages. Of extra crap that no one needs to read.

The thing is, it's good to write everything down. Writing those first 80 pages helped me figure out what was going on and where everything was headed. My mistake was not writing them; it was refusing to acknowledge that after the whole thing was finished, I didn't need them to be there. I don't care what epic creation you have spent a year constructing. If it's YA and it's over 90,000 words...get out the scalpel, because it's time to trim the fat. And there is fat. There is always a shorter way for your plot to get where it's going, and if you feel like you're losing valuable information or character development, you should probably learn this lesson that I'm still having trouble grasping:

Trust. The. Reader.

They will put the pieces together far better than you think they will. I know this because I've had people read it. And they get it. And they sometimes feel like I'm repeating myself. Because I am.

This whole process has forced me to be far more economical. I think that's the right word. Never use a paragraph when a sentence will do. And never tell when showing will do. I didn't need to tell the reader that my main character was lonely. The fact that no one sits next to her in class and she's always dodging other people's elbows in the hallway is enough. Why did I not realize this the first time around? I have no idea.

Also: I didn't figure out what the book was really about until the last twenty pages. Which is a problem. Now that I'm revising and condensing, I'm weaving that information I crammed into the last twenty pages into the rest of the draft. Honestly, if this partial manuscript gets rejected, I will be sad, but I won't be heartbroken. Because this process has made TM ten times better than it was before, and it will finally be in good form to send to other agents.

As I reread what I've done in the last few days, I actually find myself thinking that the writing is good. It took me like ten tries, but finally I found this balance between short and long sentences, between high and low language, between seriousness and humor. Let's hope I can keep it up, because I really believe in this draft and that's important. If I don't like it, how will anyone else like it?

So if you're like me, and you always write more than you should: embrace the word count guidelines. Even if you don't have them...tell yourself to cut 20,000 words, and if you can find a way to do it. If you can find a way, even if it means dramatic restructuring, that means there were too many words to begin with.

I forgot who it was that said it, but: "There are always too many words at first."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fist? Meet Face. Maybe.

I am so bored.

Do you want to know what kind of bored I am? I am not just "look at the clock every two minutes" bored. Nor am I merely "so bored I think I'm hungry" bored. I am officially "considering punching myself hard in the face just to have something to do" bored. I just got up, washed out my water bottle, filled it with water, fixed my hair, went to the bathroom, and moseyed back to my desk and only four minutes had passed. Why do I move so quickly? It's probably the tall thing.

I don't know how much I can talk about what I'm proofreading right now, because it isn't published, but suffice it to say it relates to business and my mind is numb. If this book was a class, I would not even consider taking it for a moment. Therefore, proofreading what seems like a textbook about this topic is pure torture. And here's the worst part: the more bored I am, the more tired I feel. The more tired I feel, the slower I work. The slower I work, the longer it will take to finish. And the longer it takes to finish, the longer I have to wait before someone gives me something interesting to do.

I have forty minutes to go before I can haul butt out of here. Don't get me wrong: this publisher is awesome and I'm happy I'm an intern and it's been a great experience and whatnot, but this project in particular might cause my brain to spontaneously combust. Especially since the partially written revised draft of TM is sitting there STARING at me as I work.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Narrative Momentum

I've wanted to toss some thoughts out since the conference, but I have so many it's been tricky. I'll just go with one today. In one of the sessions, Dennis Hensley was talking about plot momentum, and he went on to discuss the basic eight priorities we have as humans. Read them, and that will make more sense:

1. Preservation of life (or the survival instinct)
2. Good health
3. Sense of security (financial, family, etc.)
4. Status (social, mostly)
5. Sensual stimulation
6. Mental stimulation
7. Altruism
8. Suspended action (or "rest")

You can debate the order of those all you want, but it doesn't really matter for my purposes. Dennis said that you get narrative momentum when you switch the order of those priorities, because something about that intrigues us or creates problems for your characters. In Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein puts his desire for mental stimulation above his sense of security, and that's where all the trouble comes from. In Harry Potter, Voldemort sticks "status" right there above "good health". In the Iliad, the warriors tend to put "status" above "preservation of life." Reordering these priorities makes a story.

The hero of my story is the quintessential 7-and-1 switcheroo-- that is to say, he places altruism over his desire to preserve his own life, and that, I think, is what makes him intriguing to me. I had to write it out to figure out why on earth someone would do that, and what sort of person he would be because of it.

Nifty, huh?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Goal

I am going to state my new goal here, on the off chance that writing it will make it happen:

The quality of the writing will transcend the limitations of the plot.

Now it's time to chop this thing to bits.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Day Two: Decisions, Decisions.

The decisions I have made today:

(Dramatic pause)

1. I will create a device that wraps around my wrist that fires sticky business cards at people like Spidey webs.

2. I will cut 20,000 words from my manuscript in order to fall within the word guidelines of the YA genre. Plus, if you look at your manuscript and you discover that you probably CAN cut 20,000 should. 80 pages don't just fall out of a book unless they're supposed to.

3. I will not take it personally if I am rejected by an agent. Or several agents. Perhaps when I reach the "dozens of agents" stage, I may begin to feel a little blue. But at that point, I will buy some Half Baked ice cream and watch a stupid chick flick until I feel better, and then I will get up and keep. writing.

4. I will not say anything to the effect of "I don't know anything" or "I don't know what I'm doing." Because anyone who has completed a manuscript, regardless of how terrible or craptacular it is, knows something. Even if it's just about how to cope with carpal tunnel pain.

5. I will not fall asleep while driving home at night tomorrow.

6. I will figure out a domain name close to "" (because someone ELSE has that domain name, turns out) and purchase it, on the off chance that I one day have enough content to put on a website, per the advice of Jane Friedman.

7. I will remember to check out of the Ball State University hotel tomorrow so they don't charge me for an extra night.

I'm pretty sure that's it. Plus, I just remembered I have to go pack.

Midwest Writers has been good to me. I hope it continues to do so.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Prince Charming, Meet Wal-Mart

Okay, Wal-Mart. We need to have a conversation about your new "I'm taking my daughter to college!" commercial.

For those of you who have not seen this short segment of ridiculous, let me fill you in. I haven't memorized the specifics, but basically what it amounts to is a calming voice-over talking about change and growing up or whatever, because Wal-Mart ads are just a CAN of cheese wrapped in more cheese and fried with other cheese. Anyway, the mother and the daughter enter an empty dorm room, the daughter gives the mother a look of sad desperation, and the mother says something reassuring, whatever. Here's the thing.

That dorm room? Spectacular. Huge. It's like the size of my current bedroom. And it has very large windows overlooking a lawn of some kind. And the walls are this bright, gleaming white. And it's CLEAN. At least, it looks clean. And she gets it alllll to herself.

When I walked into my first dorm room, I walked into a place with yellowish walls (there were so many layers of cheap paint that it was starting to bubble and peel) that smelled like an old lady's shoe mixed with rotten crackers. The windows were the size of a large textbook and there were only two of them. And one of the walls was slanted such that half the room could not accommodate my six feet of height. And I was sharing this pit of gloom with another person.

I don't think Wal-Mart has ever been to a college dormitory.

Granted, it's a commercial, so I really shouldn't be so whiny about it. But when I was seventeen and terrified at the prospect of moving away from home, I was desperate for an idea of what college life would be like, so I would watch those commercials very carefully. Imagine my disappointment when my first room was shaped like a submarine. I have this issue with things on television that get teenage hopes up.

That's why I wrote my book, actually. Because I was tired of those movie and television love stories that set you up for disappointment. Here you are imagining that when you find love, it's going to be like a Disney movie, and when you get it, it's hard and requires work. You mean "happily ever after" doesn't exist? You mean a pumpkin can't turn into a carriage? You mean sometimes Prince Charming turns out to be a huge butthole? Shocker.

I'm not as jaded as I sound. I don't have much experience, actually. I've been with the same guy since I was fourteen, and he is wonderful. But that's what convinces me more than anything that there's a problem, because my relationship is pretty kickass but it's still nothing like a Disney concoction.

Okay, so for awhile I didn't think this was a big deal, and compared to a lot of things, it isn't. But ever since I was five years old, movies and books and television and music were telling me what to expect from love. They told me to expect a relationship that would complete me as an individual-- who is Cinderella before she meets Prince Charming?-- and that would give my life meaning. Let us examine, for example, a few lyrics...

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I'll be watching you

Prior to someone pointing out that this song is actually kind of creepy and not at all romantic, this was considered a love song. And the message of this love song? Love = obsession. How...sweet?

Also, take Romeo and Juliet. Most people consider this to be one of the most romantic plays ever ever ever. I take issue with that. Romeo learns that Juliet is dead, so he kills himself? Juliet sees that Romeo is dead, and does the same? The message is that life is not worth living without your respective significant other. Never mind that both Romeo and Juliet had families that loved them and the potential to do something with their lives. Suicide is preferable to losing your high school sweetheart-- didn't you know?

What BS. I don't want anyone killing themselves over me. Love is important and having a boyfriend or a husband or a lovahhh can be life-changing and good. But if you don't have it, there is more to life. And if we could change the way love is presented in popular culture, we could change the expectations that people have for love, and we could prevent a lot of messed up relationships.

Relationships do get screwed up because of expectations. If I go into a relationship defining a "good guy" as one who opens doors for me and gives me flowers, rather than as one who is interested in what I have to say and makes me laugh, I'm going to dump a lot of fantastic people in the search for a Prince Charming that doesn't exist. And if I find a guy who gives me flowers and opens doors for me, he might turn out to be a complete and total jackass. I think girls (and boys, actually) should adjust what they're looking for and focus on what's really important. And it would definitely help if what they were exposed to was...healthy.

How did I go from Wal-Mart to this?

Anyway. That's my rant. I'm going to go read chapter 4 out loud.


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