Two big things have happened this week that have signified to me a beginning of a new era. For me. A step-up in my writing process. An ascendance onto a new level (sounds grand, eh?). You know, like if you imagined climbing a mountain that had a series of staircases carved into it, each staircase ending in a big plat platform that you have to traverse to get to the next staircase. So when you start out, you think only about the steps, but when you get to the end of the first staircase, you realize what you've been climbing for the last four years is only one staircase. So that's where I am, on that first platform, looking up at the next staircase to climb.
I went to see Victoria Schwab whom I admire and who is a huge inspiration. Just looked at her ironclad dedication to her craft. The editing-process screenshots she's sharing on Twitter will make the hairs move on your head from all the red in them. And then of course, she is a New York Times bestselling author! That is my goal, to get there. Victoria talked about her drafting process, which is what I ask every writer about, trying to glimpse some secrets I can steal and apply to my own writing. And Victoria said that she used to throw away a lot of writing. In case of her first novel, an entire draft. It had to be rewritten anew. Then at some point she decided she didn't want to throw away so much writing anymore, that she used to go 20-30K words in the wrong direction, and now it's only about 2-3K words. Now her first drafts are skeletal, the emotional cores of her characters (I hope I got this right, I don't remember exactly how she put it), and in the consecutive drafts she adds meat and skin on top. This hit me deep in the gut. This is what I'm doing with TUBE. Good God. I have thrown away not one but three drafts. "This has got to stop," I thought.
I have talked to writing mentor. “You are a very talented writer," he said. "You have an incredible imagination, and your strength is in successfully inhabiting your characters and making them believable on the page. You got that down. But you have no idea how to plot. You didn't plot your first book, and you're still in the same place, after four years of writing. If you want to write novels that sell, you need to learn how to plot.”
This is an approximate summary of what he told me, and it neatly merged with what I heard Victoria say, and I knew he was right. This is the answer I've been looking for. This is the source of my frustration that I couldn’t name, that almost plunged me into depression. This is why I was so disgusted with TUBE, Draft 3. I read it and I sensed that there was no plot, but I didn’t even understand that that’s what it was. It's like one of those things you hear about and think you know, but you don't. I know the definition of plotting, I have read about it, but I don't really know what it means. I have never deliberately plotted any of my books (I tried and failed with Siren Suicides), so really, I don't know how to plot!
And so, because I couldn't name what was missing from TUBE, I thought it was story. "There is no story here!" I exclaimed. I was wrong. There is a story. There is no novel, however, just a collection of interconnected scenes. I have gone ahead and started writing Tyubik, Draft 4 with this idea that I’ll just write each chapter like a separate little story and then string them together so you can read the book from any chapter, just like you meet random people on the train. I was so excited. I see what I did here. I have cleverly found a way out of hard work. I’ve never done this type of work before and so I scorned it in my mind as something boring and unnecessary. But every novel that I read and love has something that my novels don't have. What is it? I was beating my head against the wall, trying to understand what the hell it was that I'm missing. The answer is simple, of course.
Here is how my writing is suffering in the absence of plotting:
1. I'm wasting time on writing numerous drafts. I'm not really wasting time, of course. I'm learning. I have learned a ton of things in the last four years, things like dialogue, exposition, backstory, sentence structure, etc, etc. Too many to mention. But I haven't advanced much in terms of learning how to create a plot. My first draft should be a skeleton, a summary of the novel. Yes, there are writers who sell like crazy and say that they never plot, but I have read their books and I see how what they said has misled me. They're simply writers who have an innate ability to plot. They don't have to work at it. It comes to them naturally. I'm not one of those writers. Lesson learned.
2. I'm allowing my characters to lead me astray. Because I inhabit my characters so deeply, I'm in love with them and I do what they tell me. I love it. It feels so easy. Of course it's easy. And it happily leads me in the wrong direction, so much so that I have graduated from throwing out paragraphs to throwing out chapters to now throwing out entire drafts, all along thinking that I'm learning something and moving forward, getting more and more frustrated and contemplating quitting writing altogether. The reason Rosehead is my bestselling book is because I have unconsciously copied the basic structure of a mystery plot, holding in my head as an example the Harry Potter books and the Sherlock Holmes books. I wrote it quickly, in three drafts, and I published it before I had time to think. That's what's saved it. Rosehead is my most plot-heavy book, and that's why it sells the best.
3. I don’t know what I'm writing about. I grope for it in the dark. It's an exciting process, of course, but it's full of anxiety because I don't really know which way I'm going. I have learned to live with it, thinking that it's part of writing, this pain. But deep inside me I sensed that it was possible to do it a different way, smarter, cleaner, only I didn't know how. Four years ago, when I started writing, I cried every morning for 20-30 minutes before doing any work. I'm not exaggerating. It was horrible. I no longer cry, but the sense of being lost is still there. I want to get rid of it.
4. I hide behind the number of words. It's easy for me now to sit down and bang out a bunch of words, two thousand, three thousand, even four or five on good days. But most of what I produce is water. And it's this water that I cut out later. I can keep going like this, only I have hit the wall with TUBE. I have declared the entire draft as water and threw it all out. There is a hardly a sentence in Tyubik right now that has come from the previous draft. It's a terrible waste, and many of you have told me this, but of course I didn't listen. I see it now, though, and I'm horrified.
5. I stubbornly push forward. And you know what? It turns out, I don’t need to stubbornly push forward. What I need to do is stop and think. I haven't developed a discipline for this, and so all my plot twists and turns are accidental. I get to the point in my story where I sense I need something shocking because I'm getting bored. And if I'm getting bored, that means you'll get bored too. But I don't do it out of knowing what I'm doing, I do it based on a gut feeling, and so I'm not in control of my craft. I sense it, and that adds to my frustration.
6. I misdirect my energy. I have a lot of it, but it burns out instead of being routed properly. It's like pumping water into a bucket with holes. The water won't stop, but the bucket never fills. And so I stand there and wait for it to fill, but it doesn't. I'm blind to the holes, so what do I do? I increase the amount of water. I work harder, not smarter. I write more words, work longer hours, but it doesn't do shit. So I go to an extreme. I work myself into exhaustion. Then I get sick. The process is so familiar to me, it works like the clock. Right now, this week, I'm operating on about six hours of sleep every night. Today I slept five. My throat is starting to get scratchy. I know it's coming, the sickness, but I have come to accept it. This crashing and burning and rising out of the ashes phoenix-nonsense has got to stop. I'm paying for it with my health, and I don't have to.
7. I feel like I’m not growing. And it's the worst thing of all. You recall how I periodically whine to you that I seem to not be doing enough? Well, because I couldn't put my finger on it, these thought nearly plunged me into depression. That's bad, very bad. Doesn't help my writing at all. Fortunately, it's all about to change.
Here is what I will do, starting today.
- I will continue writing Tyubik the way I'm going with it, stringing separate chapters like complete short stories. This is what made me love it again, and I need to hold on to loving it. It's too late for me to stop and start from scratch. If I do, I will lose this book.
- I will reread the first draft of Janna, buckle down, and write a precis for it, a four-page plot summary that outlines every plot turn. Then I will send it off to my mentor who will take a look at it and help me make it better before I start writing Janna, Draft 2, which will be skeletal, reworking the story from the beginning.
- I will reread books I love, like Crime and Punishment, for example, and write plot summaries for them, then compare them to other summaries already written by other people (there is plenty online), to see if I have managed to capture the essence. I'll start doing this exercise as part of my writing routine.
- I will start writing Marquis and Plato with this new model in mind. A plot summary first, then the meat, then the skin, and so on.
- I will practice writing plot summaries until I bleed out of my nose and they come natural to me. Once I have mastered them, and it might take me years, I might step back and stop using them. You know how they say, first learn the rules then break them? Yeah, something like that.
So this is my plan to get on the New York Times Best Seller list.
WISH ME LUCK. And patience. And send vodka.