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3 Underrated Books on Writing You Should Check Out

If you do a Google search for the best books on writing you’ll see the same titles pop up time and again—The Anatomy of Story, On Writing, Save the Cat! etc.

Don’t get me wrong, these books are essential reads for a reason, but today I want to share with you a few books on the craft of writing that may have flown under your radar.

Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative, Chuck Wendig

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Hook Your Audience with Unforgettable Storytelling!

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common?

Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Times best-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling. In Damn Fine Story, you’ll explore:

  • Freytag’s Pyramid for visualizing story structure–and when to break away from traditional storytelling forms
  • Character relationships and interactions as the basis of every strong plot—no matter the form or genre
  • Rising and falling tension that pulls the audience through to the climax and conclusion of the story
  • Developing themes as a way to craft characters with depth

Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, comic, or even if you just like to tell stories to your friends and family over dinner, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.

If you’re an aspiring author and don’t know Chuck Wendig you’re doing something wrong. His blog terribleminds.com is a treasure trove of tips and tricks for aspiring authors and as well as writing a whole bunch of novels and comic books, he’s also found the time to publish several books on the craft of writing as well.

In Damn Fine Story, Wendig mixes personal anecdotes with tangible examples from some of the world’s best-known stories to explain the elements of storytelling and, most importantly, why these elements work.

It’s funny and irreverent and honestly, I got so much out of it! It really helped me think about the mechanisms of story and how I can apply them to my own work.

Fair warning, Wendig swears A LOT (and very creatively might I add) so if you’re the kind of person who gets offended by that sort of thing this one might not be for you.

2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, Rachel Aaron

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“Have you ever wanted to double your daily word counts? Do you sometimes feel like you’re crawling through your story? Do you want to write more every day without increasing the time you spend writing or sacrificing quality? It’s not impossible; it’s not even that hard. This is the book explaining how, with a few simple changes, I boosted my daily writing from 2000 words to over 10k a day, and how you can, too.”

Expanding on her highly successful system for doubling daily word counts, this book offers practical writing advice for anyone who’s ever longed to increase their daily writing output. In addition to updated information for Rachel’s popular 2k to 10k writing efficiency process, 5 step plotting method, and easy editing tips, this book includes all new chapters on creating characters who write their own stories, plot structure, and learning to love your daily writing. Full of easy to follow, practical advice from a professional author who doesn’t eat if she doesn’t produce good books on a regular basis, 2k to 10k focuses not just on writing faster, but writing better, and having more fun while you do it.

Rachel Aaron (who also writes as Rachel Bach) is an absolute powerhouse. She’s a hybrid author who has been both traditionally published and who’s recently taken to self-publishing. It’s safe to say she knows her stuff.

Her book on writing efficiency, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love is a little different from most writing books because there’s a strong focus on the act of actually getting the words on the page as quickly as possible.

The first section breaks down the method she used to maximize her writing output and take herself from writing 2,000 words per day to over 10,000. She explains everything so well and gives real, concrete advice on how to implement her method to increase your own output.

The second section includes more traditional advice on plotting, writing memorable characters, and editing your own work.

No matter what stage of novel-writing you’re at, this book has something for you. And honestly, the eBook costs about as much as a cup of coffee so it’s an absolute steal. Highly recommend this one.

On Writing and Worldbuilding: Volume I, Timothy Hickson

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Writing advice tends to be full of ‘rules’ and ‘tips’ which are either too broad to be helpful or outright wrong. In On Writing and Worldbuilding, we will discuss specific and applicable ideas to consider, from effective methods of delivering exposition and foreshadowing, to how communication, commerce, and control play into the fall of an empire.

ON WRITING
Part I: Prologues
Part II: The First Chapter
Part III: The Exposition Problem
Part IV: Foreshadowing
Part V: Villain Motivation
Part VI: Hero-Villain Relationships
Part VII: Final Battles
Part VIII: The Chosen One
Part IX: Hard Magic Systems
Part X: Soft Magic Systems
Part XI: Magic Systems and Storytelling

ON WORLDBUILDING
Part XII: Polytheistic Religions
Part XIII: Hidden Magical Worlds
Part XIV: How Empires Rise
Part XV: How Empires Work
Part XVI: How Empires Fall

EXCLUSIVE CONTENT
Part XVII: How I Plan a Novel
Dozens of sidenotes and extra thoughts on all these wonderful stories

My last recommendation for today is the newest release of the bunch, YouTuber Timothy Hickson’s On Writing and Worldbuilding: Volume I.

Hickson’s YouTube channel, Hello Future Me, is a fantastic resource for writers—particularly those of us who write fantasy and science fiction—and this book is basically an updated collection of Hickson’s video scripts along with some new material.

What I really appreciate about Hickson’s work is that he avoids using absolutes where possible—there’s no “you should/shouldn’t do this” to be found here. Instead, he lays out some best practices for everything from writing prologues to creating a fantasy religion and, like Wendig, he explains how and why they work.

He pulls from dozens of well-known novels and movies to illustrate his point and turn potentially abstract concepts into concrete and easy-to-grasp examples.

At $5 or so for the eBook, it’s another absolute bargain for any writer.

*****

There you have it, three of my favourite underrated writing books! I’m always on the look-out for great new writing resources. What are some of your favourites?

 

 

 

So you want to start reading...

So you want to start reading Science Fiction?

Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself…Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about — Ray Bradbury

Science Fiction (or SF as its often abbreviated to) is one of my favourite genres, but up until I was maybe 20-years old, I thought I didn’t like it. I suspect it’s because (like many people) I had a very particular idea in mind of what constitutes Science Fiction and that vision often felt very exclusionary. 

In my mind, SF was a genre dominated by old, white men obsessed with (space) war. It was overly technical and focused too much on the nuts and bolts of intergalactic travel and advanced weaponry. 

This—and I cannot emphasize this enough—is so far from the truth! Science Fiction as a genre is so broad that there really is something for everyone to enjoy. And yes, while there is a certain subset of angry (and vocal) old white dudes who think they own SF, there’s also an amazing and growing body of work out there by women, POC, LGBT+, and other marginalized writers. 

But isn’t Science Fiction for nerds?

Well…yeah, but it’s not just for nerds. Science Fiction is for everyone and there is so much more to it than a bunch of space wizards shooting lasers at each other (although there’s plenty of that too and believe me, it can be a lot of fun).

To understand what I mean, let’s get some of the basics out of the way:

What exactly is “Science Fiction”?

Oh boy.

Listen, there’s no easy way to define SF… so let’s turn to our old pal Wikipedia to do it for us:

Science fiction (sometimes called Sci-Fi or SF) is a genre of speculative fiction that has been called the “literature of ideas”. It typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, time travel, parallel universes, fictional worlds, space exploration, and extraterrestrial life. It often explores the potential consequences of scientific innovations.

 By that definition, SF covers a lot of ground (a notion that’s hotly-debated among certain circles but we won’t get into that today) Some common subgenres include:

  • Hard Science Fiction: this type of SF leans heavily into the technology aspect, think the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clark. It’s concerned with scientific accuracy and logic and this can sometimes (though not always) come at the expense of character development. 
  • Soft Science Fiction: this is a little harder to define. Soft SF doesn’t typically place as much emphasis on scientific accuracy as Hard SF does, but instead uses common SF tropes to examine questions of morality, sociology, anthropology etc. A good example of Soft SF can be found in the work of Ursula LeGuin, specifically her Hainish Cycle of books.
  • Cyberpunk:  juxtaposes advancements in technology with a breakdown in social order (think the movie Blade Runner). Usually features lots of androids, AI, and Cybernetics. A seminal novel in this genre is William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
  • Steampunk: Science Fiction meets old-timey steam-powered technology! Stories are often set in an alternate Victorian Britain or American Wild West but there’s a growing body of work that looks beyond the typical eurocentric trappings of the genre. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are two of the best-known works in this genre.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: as the name suggests it’s fiction set in the period after a world-altering event. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood jump to mind.
  • Dystopian Fiction: related to but not necessarily the same as Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, Dystopias usually deal with societies where personal freedoms have been curtailed in some way. Famous examples of this include 1984 by George Orwell and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

There’s also Afrofuturism, Alternate History, Space Opera, Military Sci-Fi, Biopunk, New Wave…the list goes on (and on and on and on).

The point I’m trying to make is this—there is no one type of science fiction and in your reading, you’ll probably find that many novels lie across several different subgenres. Because of this, looking for an easy entry point to the genre can be overwhelming. Luckily for you, I’m here to help.

I’ve put together the following list of books that play with some common SF concepts to help you understand what kind of science fiction books you might enjoy. Some are more firmly entrenched in the genre than others, but I hope that even the most ardent space-wizard-haters will find something they can appreciate.

Without further ado, let’s go!

You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted — H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

Warning: A few mild spoilers ahead.

If you like stories bursting with character try…

1.jpgLong Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and The Martian by Andy Weir are almost exact opposites in a way. Chambers’s work features a diverse ensemble cast of characters while Weir’s book is largely told from the perspective of one person stranded alone on Mars with diminishing odds for survival.

In another way, both these books are quite similar because they’re both excellent examples of how to create memorable characters that feel utterly real.

Long Way to a Small Angry Planet tells the story of the Wayfarer, a “tunnelling” ship that travels across the galaxy creating shortcuts between two distant points. Its motley crew is made up of different alien species who live together for long periods of time, isolated from anyone else.

When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The ship, which has seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.

But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants.

Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years… if they survive the long trip through war-torn interstellar space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.

But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

Although there is a solid plot here, the thing that makes Long Way Down so special is the interplay between the various characters. Some beautiful relationships emerge and you’ll find yourself caring about the disembodied AI Lovey more than you thought was humanly possible.

My other pick in this category—The Martian by Andy Weir—is arguably the best-known book on this whole list, and for good reason.

When the bulk of your story centres around one person stranded somewhere all by themselves, you better be damn sure that person is someone your reader is willing to spend some time with. Luckily, Mark Watney is just that kinda guy. He’s funny and nerdy and resourceful and you’ll quickly find yourself rooting for him to survive. The Martian is such a good summer read, it’s suspenseful and entertaining to the last.

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

If you’re a fan of literary fiction fan try…

Untitled design.jpgI love a good slow-burning novel, the kind of book you can really sink into and allow the prose to wash over you. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a book that does just that. Set in a post-apocalyptic North America, this book explores what remains of humanity and culture after a disease known as the “Georgia ‘Flu” wipes out most of society.

One snowy night, a famous Hollywood actor dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend and a young actress with the Travelling Symphony caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame and the beauty of the world as we know it.

Fun fact—I read this back when I worked in Toronto General Hospital, which in the book was ground zero for the disease outbreak. So that was fun…

Station Eleven is a great example of why Science Fiction can be such a contentious label since the author herself resists the classification. Maybe that’s why it makes such a great entry point for SF-skeptics out there—it’s a classic post-apocalyptic story with literary overtones that’ll appeal to fans of Margaret Atwood.

My second pick in this section is one of my SF-hating sister’s favourite books, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.

Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.

Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.

Honestly, the less you know about this book going in, the better. It’s a beautiful and lyrical dystopian story that does what all good dystopias do—forces you to question what it truly means to be human.

If you like fiction that tackles the big questions try…

4.jpgThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut are probably two of the most important books I’ve ever read. Though they cover very different subject matters, both will leave you questioning fundamental aspects of the human experience.

The Left Hand of Darkness forms part of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle of novels, each of which is set on a different planet during a time when intergalactic civilizations are making contact with each other and setting up diplomatic relations for the first time. Each book in the cycle tends to focus on a different sociological or anthropological concern, e.g. The Telling explores religious and political conflict, The Dispossessed centres around two types of society—one founded on capitalism and one on anarchism, and The Left Hand of Darkness, well…

A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters…

Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

The Left Hand of Darkness is an extremely important book in the history of SF. It’s considered one of the first feminist SF texts and though it hasn’t been without its share of controversy, no one can deny it sparked conversation around established and outdated ideas of gender and sex.

Though Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five also tackles weighty subjects—the futility of war and whether or not free will exists—it goes about it in a very different way.

Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous World War II firebombing of Dresden, the novel is the result of what Vonnegut describes as a twenty-three-year struggle to write a book about what he himself witnessed as an American prisoner of war. It combines science fiction, autobiography, humor, historical fiction, and satire in an account of the life of Billy Pilgrim, a barber’s son turned draftee turned optometrist turned alien abductee. Billy, like Vonnegut, experiences the destruction of Dresden as a POW, and, as with Vonnegut, it is the defining moment of his life. Unlike the author, he also experiences time travel, or coming “unstuck in time.” Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.

It’s irreverent and surreal and is the kind of book that even your biggest book-snob friend can get on board with because besides being funny, it’s also deeply profound. Reading it made me want to go out and get “so it goes” tattooed somewhere on my person and as a giant needle-phobe that’s saying something. I’m legitimately jealous of anyone who gets to read this masterpiece for the first time.

*****

So there you have it—my picks for gateway books to allow the genre-curious out there to dip their little toes into the Science Fiction pool.

Whether you’re totally new to SF or an old hand, I hope this post has given you some food for thought and let me know what SF books you would recommend to a newbie!

 

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How to push past a first draft (or, how I finally managed to write a book!)

Ok, confession. The title above is slightly misleading. When I say I managed to write a book I don’t mean that I am publishing said book or that it’s in any state to be read by other humans. I mean that, after years and years of trying and several failed attempts, for the first time in my life I have a completed draft of a book that contains a definite beginning, middle, and end. Quality notwithstanding, if someone stumbled upon it tomorrow they would recognize it as being recognizably book-shaped. That might not sound like much but for me, it’s a huge accomplishment.

My problems started early

Like basically every aspiring author who ever lived, I started writing from an early age, typing up stories “inspired by” (read: plagiarized from) my favourite books on my mother’s typewriter. I would fold them up, and place them in sealed envelopes that I would never again read but would instead destroy several months later in a fit of artistic despair (I particularly regret destroying a series of Babysitter Club fan-fics I wrote when I was 10).

When I was 11 or 12, I managed to write a “novel” (I say novel, but it was probably 12 typewritten pages long). I was reading a lot of WWII stories (think Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier) so naturally what resulted was a very melodramatic story called War of the Heart about a Nazi fighter pilot who got lost in a storm and crashed into a field in Ireland and was later discovered by a 12 year old girl. That novel was another casualty of my need to destroy everything I ever created so I no longer have a copy but I’m pretty sure it was resolved by the girl telling her parents and the fighter pilot being sent to prison. A thrilling tale indeed.

This pattern of creation and destruction continued until my early 20s when I decided that I was going to take writing seriously for once and finally write a damn novel. I had not one, but two English degrees under my belt and a whole bucketful of ideas. Surely it would be a breeze.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

When you can’t even finish the first draft

I want to jump into the stuff that might actually be helpful so I’m going to make a long story short. I didn’t finish a novel in my 20s and I truly believe that the reason it took me 10+ years to finally do it comes down to two simple things—crippling self-doubt and a need to make everything perfect. 

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Basically

It worked like this: I would get an idea for a book and cheerfully start writing it. I would hit maybe 15-20,000 words when suddenly, I would realize how far I have to go—probably 50-70,000 more words. That’s a lot of writing. I would be hit by a crushing wave of despair and doubt. Did I have it in me to write that much? Was the idea good enough to sustain interest for that long?

I would then go back and reread what I’d written, tweaking a few words here and there (“I’ll just work on this chapter a bit more”) until eventually, I got caught in a cycle of reworking the same chapters over and over, never moving on and never satisfied with what was on the page.

I think that we can all agree that this is not the most effective way to write a book.

The worst part is that I’m actually an editor too. I’ve coached several people through early drafts of their work and whenever they got stuck I would always give the same advice: keep going, you can’t fix a blank page.

Sick and tired of being a hypocrite, I decided to finally heed my own advice.

Step 1: Drafting

You’ve probably all heard that there are two types of writers—plotters and pantsers. According to The Write Practice:

Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little. Some people, like me, call themselves “plantsers,” which means they’re in a little of both.

As you might have guessed, for years I was a pantser. I would think of an idea, open a Word or Google doc and simply…go.

Typically, I knew what the start of the story was and roughly where I wanted to end, but the middle? That was a mystery to be unveiled as I went along.

This method worked for me…until it didn’t. As I said above, I would invariably hit the 1/4 mark of a novel and realize that it had completely fallen off the rails and I had no idea how to course-correct.

I knew I needed a guide, but chafed at the idea of a strict outline—I still liked learning about my world and my characters as I went. In the end, I decided to find a happy medium and try the plantsing approach. Here’s what I did:

I knew I wanted to write a scary story for children like the books I devoured as a youngster so I spent some time with a good old-fashioned pen and paper brainstorming some ideas. The premise came to me pretty quickly. In fact, here’s the original “pitch” I wrote (it’s changed quite a bit since then but this will give you a rough idea of what it’s about):

It’s almost Samhain and the walls between worlds grow thin. That means one thing – the trooping fairies have come to town. All the children of Clonbridge know three things: If you hear the music of the sídhe, block your ears, if you hear a scratching at your window, do not look out, and once the sun has dipped below the horizon, do not go outside. Cat knows this better than most—she has inherited her grandmother’s gift of the sight—but when her baby brother is stolen away she knows she only has one chance to save him because, when dawn breaks on November 1st, he’ll be lost forever.

From there, I started to ask myself questions:

  • How did I want the story to start?
  • How did I want it to end?
  • How would Cat’s brother be stolen away (i.e. what was the inciting incident)?
  • Why does she go after him alone?
  • What are some obstacles she might encounter along the way?

Once I had answers to these questions, I began to list out all the major events and things that need to happen (e.g. how Cat discovers her brother has been swapped for a changeling) and all of the important information a reader needs to know (e.g. that Cat’s mother is a single, working mother and her granny takes care of her most of the time).  When I was relatively sure I had a comprehensive list, I began to order them into scenes and chapters.

I now had a roadmap that I could consult. It still had plenty of gaps to allow for random creative flourishes and bouts of inspiration but it gave me a direction to work towards.

Step 2: The Vomit Draft

With a plan in place, I set about writing my very first draft. For this, I employed the vomit-draft (sometimes called the zero-draft) approach.

What is a “vomit draft” you ask? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You sort of…vomit out words. The idea here is to just get the story down on the page. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done.

As I said above, you can’t edit a blank page and, for me, having something—anything— to work with is far easier than getting the story out of my brain in the first place.

The key to making this work is to not look back over what you’ve written until the draft is complete. Seriously, don’t do it. The minute you look at the word-soup you’ve created your inner-editor will rear her ugly head and want to start tinkering (“I’ll just fix up this one little bit…”). You must silence this voice by any means necessary.

I managed to quell my inner-editor in two ways:

  1. I gave myself a deadline: last year I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. Knowing I only had 30 days to write 50,000 words was extremely motivating for me. I really, really wanted to win and managed to bust out some epic wordcount days near the end.
  2. I summarized what I had just written: at the end of each writing session, I would summarize everything that just happened in my story. This way I could quickly remind myself of what I had already written without having to read back over the draft itself.

Step 3: Making it all make sense

I won’t lie, this step was daunting. Once the vomit-draft was finished I had a big pile of something that wasn’t quite a draft and wasn’t quite an outline but something mushy and in-between.

The first thing I did was pour myself a cup of tea (read: a glass of wine) and read through my summary, not my actual draft (it was too awful and I knew I would be disheartened). While I was happy with the story in general, I realized that I needed to add a few new scenes to up the tension and make some character changes. I also identified a few plot holes that needed filling in.

Then, I reworked my vomit-draft summary into an expanded and improved outline.

Now I knew with more certainty where I was going, I opened a new Scrivener file (more on my thoughts on Scrivener at a later date) and began work on my second draft.

For me, the key to getting through this draft was to take things one step at a time. I didn’t copy and paste everything over at once. Instead, I copied over one chapter at a time and worked through that, rewriting and tweaking as necessary. As I worked through the second draft and the story began to take on a more recognizable shape, I realized that there were other narrative and structural issues I needed to address. Instead of going back and fixing them in this draft, I decided to make note of them for next time—I had enough work to do adding in whole new scenes and creating brand new characters and I knew that if I went back at this point I would fall back into the endless self-editing loop.

By the end of the second draft I had two things: 1) a proper draft to work with and 2) a list of changes for next time.

Step 4: Polish, polish, polish

Now we reach the messy step. It’s the step I’m in now, the one that technically has no real end in sight.

I’ve written a third draft, using pretty much the same technique as I did for the second draft (one chapter at a time, rewrite/delete/write new scenes, make notes for next time). The difference is that now I feel like I have a really solid base to work from. I decided that for my next round of edits, I need to switch it up a little and make notes by hand. So, for the first time since I was 12 years old, I printed out a full copy of my novel.

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Title redacted because it’s a working title and I don’t know if I love it or hate it yet. Also, look carefully and you’ll spot my writing buddies—Quoth the Raven, Gnick the Gnome, and norse god Loki.

And that’s where I’m at now! The plan is to read through the novel, handwrite some notes, and prepare for draft 4.

What’s next?

That’s the question isn’t it? How do you know when it’s time to let go and let other people read and critique your work?

To be honest, I haven’t fully figured it out yet. I suspect that, for me, it’ll be after draft 5 (which will hopefully be more of a copy edit than a full revision), but that’s the sort of thing that every writer has to figure out for themselves. I’ll let you know when I get there.

TL;DR

So there you have it, how I finally pushed past the first draft and actually wrote a (workable draft of a) novel.

I hope this was helpful for some of you who might be struggling through the same kind of thing. Please keep in mind though that there is no right way to write a book. This was just the method that happened to work for me this one time.

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this giant ramble it’s this—don’t be afraid to switch it up. If your method isn’t working for you then try something new. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even good, it just has to be finished. Revising brings its own difficulties but if you have the raw material to work with you can always make something better.

Are you working on a novel? How did you push through your first draft? I’d love to hear from you!

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Unpopular Bookish Opinions

You know what we don’t hear enough of these days? Other people’s opinions. In order to rectify that, here are some of mine:

Sometimes the film actually is better

I thought I’d start on a nice controversial one to get the ball rolling! I agree that 99% of the time the book is better than the film — they’re usually more nuanced and allow more time for characters to develop. But every so often, a movie comes along that is the exception to the rule. For me, some of those films include The Godfather (if for nothing else, than for dropping the terrible bridesmaid subplot), The Green Mile (come to think of it, I could have made this list up of Stephen King adaptations alone — The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me...all great books/short stories, but the films just tighten things up), Jurassic Park (Goldblum + really great animatronic dinos = enough said), and The Silence of the Lambs (again, still enjoyed the book but the movie is such a classic.)

It’s OK to dogear your books

I’ve written about this one before but it bears repeating. By all means, take care of your books if that makes you happy, but just know that some of us actively enjoy being monsters. Dog ears, underlines, cracked spines — all are fine by me and don’t impact my enjoyment of a story in the slightest.

Happy ever after is overrated…

…Sometimes. Listen, I enjoy an appropriate HEA as much as anyone else, but what really gets me is when they are shoehorned into stories they have no business being in. If the main character has been put through the wringer, I don’t really want to spend the final chapter finding out that it’s all good because at least they’ve married their childhood sweetheart. Give me a bittersweet ending, a happy-ish ever after, an I’m-not-OK-but-I’m-fine ever after.

One book that did this really well, in my opinion, was Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (I just bashed King above, so I feel I owe him). Spoilers in the next paragraph!

When Jake Epping successfully travels back in time and foils the JFK assassination only to totally mess up the current timeline, he gives up his shot at happiness with Sadie, the love of his life, to undo it all. When he returns to the present, he finds her again — now an old woman — and they dance together one last time. (Even writing that brings a tear to my eye!)It wasn’t a totally happy ending because his actions had consequences, but it was sweet and satisfying.

It’s OK to get rid of books

For the longest time, I believed that it was sacrilege to get rid of books. If you bought it you’re stuck with it( even if you didn’t even like the book all that much). Getting rid of most of my worldly possessions last year to go travelling around Canada by car finally cured me of that problem once and for all. While it’s lovely to be surrounded by books, you don’t need to hold on to every last one. It’s OK to give them away to friends, drop them into Little Free Libraries, or even sell them to a used book store for credit.

These days I have three criteria for whether or not I’ll hold onto a book:

  1. Is it a book that I’ll potentially reread in future? (The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, His Dark Materials, The Graveyard Book…just a few books I turn to time and again when I need comfort.)
  2. Is it a book I want to lend out to multiple people? (Books like Fingersmith by Sarah Waters which I know most of my friends and family would like.)
  3. Does it just bring me joy? (Hardcover editions of Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairy tales, a book of fairy illustrations written in French so I can’t actually understand a single word of it but just love to flick through every now and again).

If it doesn’t fall into one of these three camps then it’s out.

Maybe this will change in future should I ever actually live somewhere with, you know, actual space for lots of books. But for now, I’m happy to keep my bookshelf relatively lean.

* * * * *

Do you agree with me or do you think I’m an uncultured cretin? What are some of your unpopular bookish opinions?

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More me than not

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The Brides of Ross in County Clare, Ireland on a very “me” kind of day in April 2019

I lay in bed this morning looking back over old photos, trying to pinpoint the last time I really felt like me. 

I don’t know what I thought I’d find there or what signs I was looking out for. A more genuine smile? “Happier-looking” eyes? If I saw either of those things I was probably imagining it. The fact is I’ve always smiled for photos. And anyway, who’s to say that happier times were times when I was more “me” anyway? Isn’t sadness as much a part of me as any other feeling?

To be honest, I don’t really believe that “me-ness” is necessarily tied to periods of intense emotion. Me-ness is more slippery than that. Less black and white. It involves understanding yourself on a really fundamental level and that, let me tell you, is bloody hard to do! We make up lies about ourselves and the kind of person we are because we don’t want to acknowledge our faults (or at the very least we want to believe that the faults we do have are much less egregious than Susan-from-down-the-road’s). But our faults are part of the great me-ness puzzle just as much as our interests, our fears, and our hairstyle are. We’re like giant fleshy Rubick’s Cubes in that way.

What I’m trying to say is, confronting yourself can be scary and being who you really are is terrifying. What if who you are gets rejected by the world? Even worse, what if you finally understand who you are and then you lose it?

It was Tom Cox that started me on this train of thought. In his book, 21st-Century Yokel (a lovely book of essays that’s part memoir, part nature writing, and part odd stream-of-consciousness, the reading of which feels like you’re sitting by the fire on a windy autumn evening with a hot cup of tea), he wrote:

All people have years when they are more them than they are in other years, and 1982, 1983, and 1984 were all years when I was very me.

Reading this short passage took my breath away. I’ve been thinking a lot about identity this past year and how I’ve been feeling disconnected with a lot of the things that I once felt defined me.

Looking back over pictures this morning with that quote in mind, it was tempting to say that 2014 was the last year I felt “very me” (in a way that’s hard to describe to anyone else other than to say that in 2014 I wore my me-ness like a suit of armour), but to say that is a disservice to 2019-me. 2019-me has been through a lot. I’m older (though probably not much wiser). I’m softer in some ways and harder in others. I stand up for myself more than I did in 2014, but I also value empathy and compassion more than ever before. I like some of the same things as 2014-me did, but not all of them. In many ways, I’m not that old me anymore. I’m different. And I don’t know if I can ever be that person again.

As we move through life,  a lot of us will lose our me-ness as and many of us feel like we’ll never find it again. But maybe we need to stop looking at me-ness as something that’s built once and sustained over a lifetime. Maybe me-ness is something that can be rebuilt over and over and over again.