Having Trouble Finishing Your Novel?

I’ve started three books in the past year and finished zero of them. Three. I comfort myself that during this same period, I’ve been editing another book (which I did finish!), so really I’m not doing all that bad. But come on. We both know that’s a bald-faced lie. I have a problem finishing what I start.

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Part of the reason I haven’t finished any of the last three books I’ve started is that I keep having serious anxiety about whether this is ‘the right book for me.’ Does it adequately express what I want it to express? Is it not just a story but a spotlight on some aspect of life that I believe I can elucidate? This little voice of doubt keeps creeping in as I’m writing until I lose all motivation to work on what I’m doing, and I focus on something shiny and not yet realized, and thereby, still imbued with possibility and perfection.

After suffering another round of frustration, where I started writing a ‘short story’ that I secretly hoped would be a novel, I forced myself to sit down with the novel I’ve been working on for months now and do something very simple, which turned out to be extremely effective in combating my self-doubt: I read it aloud. And it has made all the difference.

What I found is that reading aloud slows my thoughts down (because I can’t speed read), and it makes me stop harassing myself so that I can be enveloped in the story. There are some really beautiful parts, and the story is inherently interesting to me. And finally letting myself enjoy what I’d written made me want to start working on it again.

Every piece of writing advice I’ve seen says that you learn to write by finishing. And hopefully, with this new method, I’ll be able to finish this novel. I’m already 40k in, and I feel good about it. I think this time, I’ll make it.

How about you? What keeps you from finishing what you start?

 

 

What I’ve Learned from Working in Publishing

I’ve been working at a publishing house for a little over a month now, and the experience has been incredible. For instance, I saw an issue of the New York Times Book Review today that doesn’t come out until Sunday! (Apparently, the Sunday paper is not printed late on Saturday night, as I had always assumed). But working in publishing is great for other reasons as well. In particular, it has helped me understand more about who editors are and how manuscripts are chosen for publication. Here are my top four lessons so far:

(1) Working in publishing has shown me that the people in publishing are just as enthusiastic about books as writers are. My favorite thing to do is to ask colleagues/other publishing folks what their favorite books are. Their backs straighten. Their eyes widen. People who aren’t normally prone to gesticulating start flaring their limbs like they’re on fire. These are people who love great books. And they are always looking for another book to love. However, that being said…

(2) We get a lot of submissions from a lot of crazy talented people, and, although I can’t speak for everyone else, I can usually decide whether I’m going to like something within the first thirty pages. So those thirty pages have got to sing. They have to show that you can write well without an editor having to hold your hand because, as you probably know…

(3) Editors don’t have as much time as they used to. Most editors spend their days doing things other than editing, and if they want to edit your manuscript, they will probably have to take it home and work on it into the wee hours of the night. Thus, it’s incredibly important that writers be respectful of editors’ time. When you send out your manuscript, it should be bookshelf ready. You don’t want an editor losing time with his or her family because you didn’t do the best job editing that you could. And finally, the most important thing I’ve learned is that…

(4) The people in publishing are romantics. Really. In their line of work, they will publish hundreds of books that will never make money. Hundreds. And there is something romantic, even Sisyphean about the fact that they read every manuscript hoping to love it and knowing that even if they do, it may break their hearts; for the public may never catch on to just how good it is. And yet they never lose their desire to fall in love with a new book, a new idea, a new way of seeing. They keep editing even if it takes time away from their families and time away from their lives because helping create new books is what makes them sit a little taller, smile a little wider. We are all romantics–writers and editors alike. And we are all waiting to fall in love.

Happy writing, guys.

Game Theory and Why You Should Write Risky

I have lots of degrees I’ll never use. One of them is in a field related to game theory. And in game theory, I learned a principle that blew my mind:

In a market with a sufficient number of competitors, the winners will always be the ones who take the most risks.

Here’s why. A risky action is an action that, by definition, could yield huge losses or incredible gains. A non-risky option is one where your success and failure can never be extreme. For example, if you invest 100 dollars in the stock market, that’s not very risky, whereas if you invest 10,000 dollars in the stock market, that’s incredibly risky. So if there are enough people investing in enough companies, then the people who make the most money will be the big spenders. Every time.

How does this relate to writers?

Let’s say you’re writing a song. And the song sounds just like every other song on the radio. You’re not going to stand out as being particularly bad or particularly good (you’re not taking any risks). But let’s say you’re writing a song, and you decide to take a huge risk: you’re going to make your pop song into an 6-minute opera, and you’re going to flaunt all the falsetto your momma gave you. You could write your mini-opera, and everyone could hate it. It could be so far out of their comfort zone that they can’t even listen to it without cringing. Yikes. Or, they could think exactly the opposite: what you’re doing is so new and different that it makes everyone stand up and pay attention.

The same is true for writing books. You can’t be really successful unless you take huge risks with your work. You’ve gotta be a big spender if you want to do really well.

What does it mean to take huge risks in your work? Be weird. Be so weird that sometimes you ask yourself whether you’ve gone too far (you can always edit that out later). Be so weird that you know that if certain people read your work, they’d hate it. That’s a sign that what you’re doing is risky enough that people can have extreme emotions about it.

As I said in the last post, be ordinary in the sense that the feelings and sentiments you write about are those that other humans share, but be weird in the way that you write. Because come on, who doesn’t want to be like Freddy Mercury?

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Want to be a Novelist? Be Ordinary.

When it comes to being a novelist, one of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to overcome is that I’ve never thought I was particularly ‘gifted.’ I kept looking for evidence in my past, evidence that would prove that I was Meant To Be A Writer, but I sounded pathetic, rehashing tales of the scholarship I won in 7th grade, when I entered a high school essay contest. And I felt pathetic, too, like I was trying to convince myself of something I knew to be false.

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of short stories, and they only make me feel more like a talentless hack. Anyone can write a novel, I tell myself. But short stories? Serious writers write those, writers with taste, writers with understanding of subtleties I am too blunt to get, writers with…

Okay. You get the picture. But it turns out, I have been driving myself crazy for the wrong reasons. It is not giftedness that makes a novelist (or a short story writer). It is being ordinary.

Jane Smiley writes, “novelists are run-of-the-mill sorts of people, not experts, not possessed of prodigious resources in any specialized realm. Would anyone read a hypothetical novel by Albert Einstein? … And yet every day we read and enjoy White Teeth, which was written by a twenty-five-year-old girl; Rabbit is Rich, which was written by the only son of a schoolteacher from a small town in Pennsylvania; Persuasion, which was written by the second daughter of a minor landowner in Hampshire, England; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by a small-town boy from a small midwestern state; and Dead Souls, written and partially destroyed by the son of a moderately wealthy minor official from Ukraine. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this quality of commonness to the nature of the novel; it enables a reader to relax with a novel as with another person, and also to feel as though the novelist might have something to say of relevance to the reader’s own common life.”

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I’m currently reading the new biography of J.D. Salinger, and I’m struck not by what ‘a genius’ Salinger was, but by how average he turned out to be. His IQ was 111 (average); his grades were mostly Bs; no one thought he was particularly wonderful or genius or anything special until after he started getting stories published. Then, they were quick to separate him from them. Oh, he’s so gifted, they would say. He’s not like me. I couldn’t have done what he did.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The reason we’re so willing to attach genius or giftedness to extremely successful writers is so that then we don’t have to compare ourselves to them. But what makes a novelist special, what made J.D. Salinger special was that he wrote down our innermost thoughts, the ones we couldn’t figure out how to express. We read Catcher in the Rye, or my favorite Franny and Zooey, and we thought ‘I am not alone. Someone out there is like me.’ A novel by Albert Einstein couldn’t have done that.

So go forth and write! Write so that someone can read your work and feel less alone.

You don’t have to be anything special. You just have to be ordinary.

What is a Novelist?

I hate reading about what novelists were like as children because it always makes me feel like a fraud. No, I haven’t always been writing. No, I haven’t always been crafting elaborate stories in my head. And no, I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be a writer now! Right? Uh, right? RIGHT?!?

The exception, however, is Jane Smiley’s depiction of what writers were like as children.

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http://yerka.org.ru/ajy/double_life.html

“[Being a novelist] most often grows out of a compulsive habit of reading as a child. [...] Undoubtedly, we were reading for all the wrong reasons–escape, pleasure, avoidance of responsibilities and human contact. We were reading because it was easy and fun and because we were unsupervised. We were reading to find companions more congenial than those around us. We wanted to fill our heads with nonsense and tune out practical considerations. We were not, most likely, athletic or useful sorts of children. We were reluctant to help around the house or to go outside and play. We did not have very good manners, because in numerous ways to be cited later, reading books is deleterious to good manners. [...] We were reading because we had two lives, an inner life and an outer life, and they were equally important to us and equally vivid. A novelist is someone whose inner experience is as compelling as the details of his or her life, someone who may owe more to another author, never met, than to a close relative seen every day. A novelist has two lives–a reading and a writing life, and a lived life. He or she cannot be understood apart from this.”

-Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

 

Say No to Productivating, and Other Writerly Lessons

This past weekend, I had a wonderful Saturday NYC extravaganza with the multi-talented writer Alex Villasante. One of the many things we talked about (besides her pre-adolescent crush on John Denver) was about how we’ve grown as writers. Writers always say that the best way to get better at writing is to write. It turns out, that’s absolutely true.

Something I learned is that I have a tendency to productivate. Productivating is procrastinating while doing something “productive.” In my case, I tend to polish sentences instead of text and story. I spend hours making sure sentences sound right and that the text flows while ignoring the bigger (re: harder) problems of how to create a story that draws people in and keeps them there. But people don’t read stories for pretty sentences. They just don’t.

Another huge writerly lesson came when I reread the first book I ever wrote. I finished it about a year or so ago, and I loved it like I love my mother. I loved it so much that submitting it to agents tore me apart because they were all like “no thank you” and I was all like “Why…” Sob. “Don’t…” Sob. “You love it?” But when I reread it again, I noticed something I hadn’t before: it was really hard to read. I had spent so long crafting these elaborate sentences with erudite verbiage only to find that it was exactly those things that detracted from the text. And I had done so at the expense of tackling some of the bigger issues with plot and pacing.

Alex said she learned similar lessons about pacing and editorial distance (though I will not steal them for my blog. I’ll let her share them if she’d like. Her blog is here.).

It takes a really long time to become a good writer, not just in the sense that you can craft pretty sentences, but in the sense that you know how to tell a good story and you know how to use your writing time wisely. Let me repeat that:

IT TAKES A REALLY LONG TIME! And if you don’t have writer friends who will sip cocktails with you and encourage you to keep writing, it will be really hard to give yourself the time you need to be great. But you can be great. And in time, if you keep working at it, you will be.

Cheers!

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Write with Espresso; Edit with Martinis

I wrote my first draft of my WIP in two months.

At the time, I was all smug about it, you know, the way people are when they’re really naive about stuff. I was like, “I can’t believe people spend a year working on a single book! At this rate, I’ll probably publish like three books a year!” Luckily, I didn’t say this out loud; so no one actually punched me in the face.

But all my smugness was completely inappropriate because, just this month, I passed the one year mark of working on that same book. So much for writing three books a year.

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But even though editing has been taking way longer than I thought it would, I know I’m doing it the right way because my WIP just keeps getting better and better. And that’s the idea, isn’t it? To give the world something of value.

Here’s why writing like you’re overdosed on caffeine is awesome: When you write fast, your subconscious has a greater chance of weaving patterns and themes into your WIP so you seem like a genius. People are all like, “Wow, I love the way you worked the values of dialectical materialism into the character’s motives and behavior.”And you can smile and pretend like you have a clue what they’re talking about. Way to go subconscious. Way to go.

Also, writing a book is really, REALLY daunting. And if you let yourself pause too long to think about what you’re doing, you’ll probably quit. I know I would have.

As for the benefits of editing slowly, a good editor is one who can read a book objectively, who can read a book as a reader would. Editing slowly necessitates a certain distance from your text because there’s no way you can keep the entire contents of your book in your head for a whole year or a whole two years (yikes. Got some heart palpitations just now). Since editing slowly gives you the distance, it allows you to better fix plot holes, it gives you the strength to murder your darlings, and it allows you to understand what’s working and what’s not. Also editing slowly gives others time to read your book. My WIP would have totally sucked if it weren’t for my cabal of Beta Readers as well as my editor and my Crit Partners. And it was only by giving myself months and months and MONTHS! to edit that I was able to get the feedback that made my book something of value.

So if you’re writing, stock up on caffeine, and if you’re editing, join me in partaking in martinis. If I have to be editing for 10 months, at least I can be buzzed for most of it. And taking Casino Royale breaks is perfectly acceptable.

Cheers!

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The First 500 words

I’ve been editing my WIP for an ungodly amount of time. I’m working on a post about why you should write fast and edit slowly. (Well, maybe not this slowly.) But in the meantime, I thought I’d publish the first 500 words of my manuscript here. Man, I am so ready to get this damn thing published already. But it’s not time yet. So publishing on my blog will just have to do. For now.

My book is about a philosophy professor who decides to get a lobotomy. Enjoy!

 

The Trouble with Knowing

By Jenny Herrera

Gentle, clever your surgeon’s hands

God marks for you many golden bands

They cut so sure they serve so well

They save our souls from Eternal Hell

An artist’s hands, a musician’s too

Give us beauty of color and tune so true

But yours are far the most beautiful to me

They saved my mind and set my spirit free.

-Lobotomy Patient #68

1942

 From the archives of James W. Watts III, M.D.

 

Chapter 1

Some philosophers think death is a kind of rebirth in which you awaken to another life, as if lives were so easy to come by. To others, death is exactly the opposite—a draining of one’s life energy. However, my preferred theory is that we just stop. We stop thinking; we stop feeling, and in that halting of energy, of movement, there can be only peace. Unfortunately, that’s not what I get.

There is hole where my stomach should be. I know because I can feel it. I can feel the hard suck in that spot just below my ribs that’s not just emptiness but suctioning, as if what is inside of me is dangerous enough to require suffocation.

When my eyes splinter open, I’m staring at the ceiling, and my mouth is hanging open like some invalid’s. Drool or spit or vomit clings to my chin. No wonder these people in white coats and blue pajamas are weaving all around me, fiddling with IVs and monitors and files. They think I’m an idiot, mentally defective and in need of their care. But just because I have no stomach does not mean I’ve lost my mind.

A plump woman leans her breasts onto my shoulder and yanks at something from deep in my throat. It feels like vomiting a python, and I’m not sure how I could have swallowed it. Thoughts merge together above me, outside of me, just enough for the beginnings of recognition and of anger to emerge. No, I haven’t awoken to another life. This isn’t heaven or hell or stopping or going, and there are no pythons or stomach thieves or anything so interesting. This is just life, my life, restored to me without my consent.

The plump woman forces me to swallow a cup of liquid asphalt, and when I finish, the doctors gather on the other side of the curtain divider, discussing my case as if my temporary incapacitation has also made me deaf.

“Her name’s Abigail Montero,” a doctor says. “She’s 32, with no history of mental illness and no known allergies. She was found unconscious in her home at approximately 7pm. According to the dispatcher…” I hear him turn a page. “Ms. Montero’s neighbor, uh, Mrs. Smith, was bird watching when she spotted the patient empty a bottle of pills into a mug.”

“Do we know what the pills were?” asks one of the doctors.

“Uh, Seconal,” he says. “A thirty-day supply. The refill is from week ago. So we can assume she ingested about two dozen.”

“Two dozen Secobarbital?” one squawks. “She’s lucky to be alive.”

Then, as if on cue, the four of them lean out from behind the curtain, eying me like I’m some sick animal at the zoo, deserving of their pity and maybe even hoping for it. My throat tenses into a knot.

I want to put on my best condescending professor voice and inform them that despite what the medical profession assumes, not all life is inherently good, and as autonomous agents, people have the right—and in some cases the duty—to kill themselves. I want to instruct them to reinsert all the Seconal they stole from my stomach, since obviously I’m entitled to control my own actions. But when the doctors reemerge from behind the yellow curtain whose happy colors make me feel small, I’m speechless, like I really am one of those idiots, too dumb to defend myself.

I squeeze my eyes shut and turn away from the bevy of doctors, praying that when I wake, I really am deaf. And blind. And dead. As I should have been all along.

 

Point of View: Pick One! (Guest Post)

Today’s guest post in the I-just-decided-that-blogging-was-too-time-consuming-to-do-it-by-myself series comes from my lovely critique partner, Jeri Walker-Bickett, who gives us a quick tutorial on what point of view is and how to handle it properly. Point-of-view errors are some of the most distracting errors an author can make; so Jeri does us a great service here, and I hope you’ll show her some love and comment on her post. Also, I hope you’ll take the time to click over to Jeri’s blog, where I’ve written a guest post about my history of hating fiction and how I recovered. So without further ado…

Point of View: Pick One!

Point of view (POV) can make or break a novel. The question of which character is telling the story and why matters to both readers and writers. When handled well, nobody notices. When misused, the story suffers.

Improper handling of point of view is the number one issue I come across when reading and reviewing books by indie authors. That’s not to say traditionally published books never fall victim to such problems. After all, I must have rolled my eyes countless times when Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anastasia Steele’s thoughts were italicized even though the story was already being told from a first-person point of view.

Point of View Green Eye

Plenty of sources have already defined point of view in great detail. Here’s a quick refresher:

  • First-Person: The actions of the story are filtered through the observations of one character. “I went into the store to buy a candy bar, and eating it made me feel like a fat pig.” This allows the reader to intimately experience the character’s story, but it also limits the story to only what that single character knows.
  • Second-Person: The narrator refers to the reader as “you,” which creates the feeling of being a character in the story. “You walk into the store to buy a candy bar even though you know that eating it will make you feel like a fat pig.” This can help create an intense feeling of intimacy, but is rather rare and also difficult to pull off successfully.
  • Third-Person: The actions and observations of the story are filtered through various characters by references to “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they,” but never “I” or “you.”
    • Limited: This approach can run the gambit from subjective (describing characters’ thoughts and feelings) to totally objective (not describing any thoughts or feelings).
    • Omniscient (all-knowing): This narrator has access to every characters’ thoughts and feelings, which can make it hard for the reader to feel close to any of the characters.

Problems arise when writers start to create mash-ups that employ elements of these different points of view simultaneously. An all-knowing viewpoint used to be more popular, but has since given away to a greater use of first-person, and the most popular third-person limited. At the very least, it can be very trying for a reader to follow changes in point of view when they occur in the same scene. It’s better to focus each scene on a single viewpoint, or better yet, only switch perspective with a new chapter.

Point of View White Heads

Definitions aside, I often find myself wondering what drives writers of all experience levels to misuse point of view. Part of the problem lies in the cinematic way most of us tend to picture stories in our minds. Our moving visions shift from scene to scene much like a camera. However, images in a film are rendered from an objective viewpoint (unless a pesky voiceover comes in). Words on a page simply cannot convey what a camera can, nor should they.

Another culprit of writer’s misusing point of view can be found in a general lack of awareness devoted to it in most high school curriculums. Yes, as a former English teacher I will admit to spending scant time elaborating on the intricacies of point of view in literature. After all, much more pressing matters must be covered such as preparing for standardized tests and writing dull five-paragraph essays.

In the end, awareness is key. However, many popular books provide exceptions to every rule.

What point of view issues have you encountered as a reader or a writer?

 

JeriWB 03 (180x180)Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB) is an author, editor, and teacher. She primarily writes contemporary literary fiction and psychological suspense. Such is Life, her short story collection, is now available. Her forthcoming novel, Lost Girl Road, is a ghost story set in the woods of northwest Montana. She blogs about literature and writing on her twisted book blog: What do I know? Please connect with her at JeriWB.com.

 

 

Image Credit: Boy’s Green Eye by L-O-L-A (http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1405557)

Image Credit: Male bald head in white by Illusionist (http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1417639)