Deadlines

When I was a senior in high school, I realized how truly horrible I am at time management.

I was editor of the yearbook, thanks to the urging of the yearbook advisor, who was also my junior-year English teacher. (He liked me because I could write, and because I had the nerve to write him an essay on why I hated The Grapes of Wrath.) It was not a job I should have taken. I am not a natural leader. I’m a decent negotiator, and I can diffuse minor conflicts – I make a good team member, but I’m not the sort of person people naturally rally around.

Plus when you’re in high school, you end up surrounded by a lot of people who want to be able to put “yearbook committee” on their college applications, but aren’t all that interested in putting in the hours. In addition I was bad at delegating. I’m sure a lot of people who actually wanted to work drifted off because they never had anything to do.

As it happened, the day before our first big deadline, there were two of us left: me, and the layout editor. We stayed up all night matching pictures with pages and stuffing envelopes. I’d never stayed up all night before. I remember thinking around dawn that I would have sold major organs for ten minutes of sleep. Instead we just blindly stuffed photographs and pages into envelopes, and when the sun came up we went to the post office to mail it all.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized we had stopped worrying about whether or not the photographs matched up with the pages, and we’d likely just mailed a whole bunch of stuff that was completely wrong.

I managed to communicate this – with some hysteria – to my mother, who called the yearbook advisor on the phone. He invited me into his office the next day and told me kindly that a) it was fine, so don’t worry about it; and b) maybe next time I ought to ask for help before it got to the point of staying up all night.

There are two important characteristics that deadlines must have to work for me:

  1. They must be reasonable.
  2. Other people need to know about them.

The first probably goes without saying. Unrealistic deadlines are worse than useless: they are frustrating and discouraging, and actually make me move more slowly.

The second is important mainly because it provides accountability. Accountability started for me a few months ago, when I began sharing chapters with my mother. I have written here before about how motivating and liberating that has been. The next step in the journey of my novel is beta readers, but I need to get through one full editing pass (probably two, actually) before I’m willing to give up the manuscript for more rigorous criticism.

The other day at work I ran into a friend of mine; I don’t see her in the office that often (it’s a big place), but she lurks around Facebook and has been aware of my progress. She mentioned, in passing, that she had once worked for a publishing house as a fiction editor, editing for continuity and pacing. That I have someone like this in my circle is a piece of serendipity I can’t pass up. I told her I’d be looking for beta readers in November, and she said she’s looking forward to reading my book.

I’ve no idea if she’ll actually like the book – but I have now had someone with actual formal editing experience offer enthusiastically to help me out. To give up this opportunity would be foolish beyond belief.

I love my novel. I love my characters, and my story. At the moment it is still full of flaws and rough areas, and needs a huge amount of work – but I love it. At the same time…it is work. I have come to look at it much as I look at my day job: something I must attend to and take seriously. It means working on the editing, pushing through the hard parts, writing new sections, ripping out and refactoring and reshaping. It means moving forward, even as I know I will have to go through it all again.

It means deadlines.

November is a motivating choice for a number of reasons. First, I think it’s not unreasonable; it’s ambitious, at the rate I’m going, but it’s doable. Second, it’s a reward. If I really finish by November, I’ll hand this manuscript off to my beta readers and spend November drafting the sequel for NaNoWriMo. The sequel is still new in my head, and not written down; it’s shiny and perfect, as things always are before they have to be concrete. It will be a treat to work on something new.

What deadline I set after that depends on what kind of shape the book is in at that point. I can guess at what a lot of the feedback will be; but the more interesting bits of it will be the ones I would not have anticipated. Those are the ones that will make me sit back and look at my novel in a way I never would have if left to myself. Those are the ones that will allow me to grow it up.

After that, I am going to pay a total stranger to hurt my feelings give it a thorough professional editing pass, and then one way or another it goes to press. 2013 is the goal, but that probably depends on whether or not I take some time to try to sell it to someone, or just publish it myself.

It’s only taken me 30 years to learn to ask for help. I think my yearbook advisor would be proud.

Editing, and the Importance of Coffee

I am a smart person.

This is not bragging; it’s just genetics. I don’t think brains guarantee you much in this life – certainly not success, or love, or prosperity (or talent, for that matter). They’re just another tool to apply to the world, and it’s just as easy to let them sit and gather dust than to use them.

I say this, because my brain is sometimes painfully literal, and people who think of me as bright are sometimes shocked at the degree to which I can be dense and inflexible. I am shocked myself, once the big, obvious light dawns.

Here’s the big, obvious light du jour:

Editing involves actual writing.

Yes, I know. Who knew? But after seven chapters and a prologue, it has finally dawned on me that editing, in many cases, actually means rewriting. This is possibly not true for everyone, but it’s true for me.

It’s not rewriting from scratch, of course – at least, it’s not rewriting everything from scratch. Chapter 7, I am discovering, has a structure and pacing I’m pretty pleased with. It’s a slow-down-and-breathe-a-little chapter, and I think it works reasonably well that way.

But huge chunks of it, it turns out, were little more than outlines of what I wanted to say. I would have written this one about 10 days into NaNoWriMo, and I was becoming conscious of the fact that if I didn’t get moving I wouldn’t get the whole story down by November 30. So I sketched in thoughts and visuals, and got the important dialogue down, and made sure I had a good transition at the end of the chapter: my heroine finishes a cup of coffee before embarking on a dreaded but necessary errand.

Editing this chapter has been like turning a handful of bullet points into an essay. Most of the pieces were there (although I had to sow a few extra seeds of discontent I hadn’t put in initially), but they weren’t actually written yet. And here I thought I had a finished draft.

I do understand why NaNoWriMo tells you not to use the month to work on an existing piece. Editing, despite the prevalence of rewriting, is not the same thing as generating that first pencil sketch of a story. Editing is like oil painting: layer one color, let it sit a few days, add another, see if it fits. First drafts are about getting the ideas down. Editing is about time, focus, and attention to detail. Editing is about actually telling the story.

After seven chapters, I have established a routine, of sorts, for my editing. It goes something like this:

  1. Read the chapter aloud, and correct any grammatical or structural errors as I go. It’s critical for me that I read aloud; it forces me to read every word, and it makes awkward passages far more obvious. It’s also a great way for me to make sure my dialogue is realistic.
  2. Fill in missing or incomplete scenes. Here I try to shift back into NaNoWriMo mode, and silence my inner editor. What’s important is that I do this for the entire chapter in one shot, rather than rewriting the same paragraph over and over and never moving on.
  3. Go to step 1, and repeat the cycle as necessary.

I have come to see editing like combing my daughter’s hair. I have to attack it carefully, gently, and a little at a time. If I rush, I just force the snags further down, where they are bigger and harder to yank out.

It’s daunting, to be honest. When I read through the whole manuscript, the first 9-10 chapters are the cleanest, and here I am gritting my teeth over Chapter 7. It’s only going to get worse, although I’m hoping practice will help.

Regardless of all the work I’ve had to put in to Chapter 7, though, it has felt easier than editing Chapter 1 (which was a far more finished product). So while I am recognizing, perhaps for the first time, how much work I have ahead of me, I am becoming more hopeful that I will actually manage to get through it.

Not that there aren’t setbacks. I was feeling pretty good last night after my latest comb-through: I’d filled in some visuals and fleshed out some thoughts. I’d tightened the dialogue and hinted – very gently – at a few events coming down the road. It was not perfect, but it was close to the point where I could put it aside and move on to Chapter 8.

And then I realized: Nobody had given my heroine any coffee. All of this setup, all these conversations, and nowhere has she actually acquired that cup of coffee she is finishing at the end.

Stupid, stupid brain.