Beyond the Midnight Mountain re-outlining
Simi draft 3
No lie. I spent several hours creating a chart of textures, and another of colors.
Because I'm a writer and I can write it off as a work expense. Okay, not really, but I can pass it off as required workplace maintenance in order to do my work projects efficiently. Okay, that's a stretch, too.
In my WIP (working title Simi), Simi has a thing for textures. She touches trees, cloths, yarns, anything she walks past. She also is a weaver, mixing together colors and helping her sister and other neighbors dye. Because she could have any number of different blue skeins, or red ones, or purple ones, she has names for them all. (Also, I can't just say blue or dark purple every few pages.) So the solution is to use sky or lavender or peach, right?
The first problem? A peach is not just one color. Look at a peach. It's got yellow, orange, and sometimes a dark reddish-pink. The inside is yellowish. Not really the color we think of as "peach." The second problem? The book's world is based on pre-columbian South America. Peaches came to the Americas with Europeans. Yes, I could always pretend that in my world there are peaches, and most readers won't even think about it, but I want to stick with things native to the region.
So each time I wanted to describe a color, I'd look it up. Try it. "Things that are blue." Lots of results, like sapphire, jeans, USPS drop box, bluebird... Okay, my fantasy world doesn't have USPS. Sapphire is a cliche comparison, and can actually be just about any color. Bluebird is decent. So we get more specific. "Blue animals." Now we have poison dart frogs. They come in various colors, not always blue, but it lives in the right area, and can't you at least picture the vividness?
How about "blue gemstones?" Some aren't helpful (fluorite comes in many colors) but you find aquamarine, azurite, iolite, lapis lazuli, and turquoise in my target region, all various blues, some edging toward green or purple. Search blue flowers, blue foods, blue insects, blue birds, shades of blue, plants that create blue dyes, images of blue things...and one by one you get names you can use for a specific blue. Think creatively. New bruises, snow in shadow, sunrise, summer. Some situations call for more literal color descriptions than others. But isn't "the blue of distant hills" much more interesting than "light blue?"
And, rather than going through the whole search again each time, I finally compiled my results into a list. I searched foods, plants, animals, minerals, anything from the region, and put what I could into my color chart.
It sounds obsessive, but it's actually pretty fun. This must be what it's like to name paints.
Textures were easier. I found a list of 400 words for texture, arranged alphabetically. The hard part was just eliminating ones that weren't quite textures and sorting the rest into categories. Again, it's pretty fun to figure out how to group such a wide array of descriptors.
Did I feel ashes this week to know how to describe them?
I sure did. I don't go camping often, and I definitely never ran my hands through a pile of ashes. But it turned out we have years-old ashes in the wood stove. Ashes look like tiny charcoals, but when you touch them they don't actually have substance. They just crumble into nothing. They hardly even feel like anything. They're pretty cushiony, but the best word for the feeling of them is âelusive.â
What's the weirdest thing you've ever felt? For me, cow udders. Tell me in the comments.
During the early drafts of Beyond the Mountain, I was pretty obsessed. Every bit of interesting conversation I overheard, every new style of architecture I learned about, every possible plot complication I thought of, I wanted to cram into Beyond the Mountain. I didn't want to waste an opportunity to add something original or fascinating to my story. I was in love with my story. With the world, with the main character Ket, with all the other characters. I wanted her love interest to be my boyfriend. World building was my biggest trap. I wanted to make my world rich and alive, and to do that it needed to be big and varied, right? That's a big reason the first draft was 40,000 words too long.
A second reason was I didn't have the story pinned down. It was in my head for a couple years, but I didn't think I'd ever write it down, so it changed all the time. It was originally based on some fantasy version of Medieval England. Every few months the main plot events morphed. Ket was originally a princess, and went through about 5 names that never quite satisfied me.
Another big reason was that I hadn't yet studied the writing craft in depth. I thought you couldn't just jump from one event to the next without some kind of transition in between, and I also thought you had to put an awful lot of action beats into dialogue, because that's what books do. How else will the reader picture the characters interacting? It turned out I was remembering books wrong. A lot of the action beats I thought I remembered were actually what I imagined the characters doing as I read. Yes, I did read books while writing mine. But it's hard to read a new book and study it at the same time. It wasn't until I went back and read old favorites, that I realized how wrongly I'd been remembering them.
So I began to read lots of books about writing--books on storycraft, books on wordcraft, books on inspiration and living a writerly life. They've been immensely helpful. Reading novels and paying attention to the story elements and mechanics helps a lot. Reading my own bad writing helped way more than I expected. During the first draft of BTM, I toiled over every sentence. Even if nobody ever saw that draft, I hated to think that bad writing might exist in the world with my name on it. I couldn't figure out how to make myself write fast, but I figured if I wrote slowly and did it well, I'd have less to revise later.
Fast forward a couple years. Still revising. That first draft took me about 8 months. The next 4 drafts took about 2 years. I hope to publish it this year, but it still needs at least one more good revision.
So then, Simi. Unlike BTM, I outlined Simi. I wrote down the seed of the idea, but not much came of it for 4 months. Then I found a fabulous book on outlining (Planning Your Novel by Janice Hardy). I outlined for 6 weeks, and wrote the first draft in 30 days. Right now I'm 3/4 through the second draft.
I'm able to write faster now. I can draft without caring that there's bad writing with my name on it. To be fair, it's not nearly as bad as BTM's first draft. But it could be, and I wouldn't worry that someone might see it. And if they did, and I wouldn't care that much. Now that I know I can do better, I can acknowledge my first draft is sloppy, relax, and move forward. If I have a great idea, I don’t try to squeeze it into my WIP, I just write it down for some future book.
I can see so many ways I’ve grown as a writer in the past 3.5 years. Here are the stages I’ve gone through:
As you can see, some things swing back and forth. Others have simply changed. I alternate between thinking I'm awesome and thinking my words and stories are garbage. Sometimes I feel both ways in the same week or the same day. But I'm getting better at the writing process. I have a better grip on story structure, pacing, and making personalities clash. Varying sentence structure and skipping unnecessary actions come more naturally now. I know how to fast draft so I don't get carried away with wordiness, or get bogged down researching details rather than getting the story on paper.
It reminds me of parents. I’m not one, but I’ve seen several first-time parents who wash the passy every time it falls on the floor, read parenting books, and run after their kid every time he toddles somewhere. By the second kid, they’ve outgrown washing passies, and every so often they’ll look up and ask if anyone happens to know where their kid went off to. They still swing between thinking they’re good parents and thinking they’re terrible parents, but this parenting thing is starting to fall into a routine.
There are still things I want to learn to do better. I would love to write a book with more characters, and I would love to write a series. Both require increasing the scale of the story in one or more ways (cast, geography, timeline, stakes, complications, etc.)--and that's what I have trouble with, coming up with enough story to fill the pages of even one book and keep a reader hooked.
I can't yet compare the revision processes of the two books, but I can already see that my second book has been faster and smoother than my first. I still love the world and characters of BTM more, because I've spent so long with them. I wrote BTM because I had a story to write. I wrote Simi because I had to write a story. But as I revise and research the world, Simi is coming more alive for me. And this second time around, I feel a little bit like I know what I'm doing.
Have you ever started a new project or hobby, and wanted to do everything at once? Running, sewing, horseback riding? Let me know in the comments below.
I've added a page on this site for my WIP.
Here's my current blurb:
All Simi wants is to convince her irresponsible, widowed brother-in-law to marry her so she can keep a closer eye on her young nephew. What could be more reasonable? His disinterest, and the disapproval of her river-dwelling village, are little deterrent for her. Her remaining sister Zera disapproves too, but Simi knows what needs to be done.
But when she, Zera, and their nephew end up lost on the river, Simi quickly has more than her family's well-being to worry about. A chance meeting with an old love--and an argument with him that breaks a glass mage's vase--gets the pair a spell that seems, to Simi, an awful lot like a curse.
The book's working title is Simi. It's a placeholder, and won't be the final title. Some titles I'm considering:
Smoke on the Glass
Flame on the River
In Which I Steal a House
I Steal My Family
A Thread in the Ashes
Woven in the Ashes
Woven From Ash
Mirror of Ash
Mirror of Pain
Glass and Smoke
A Broken Loom
Two Houses Gone
Threads of Water and Fire
Threads of Night and Fire
Count the Passing Gardens
Count the River Gardens
Pain and Other Magic
There are a few top contenders in the list, but it's hard to find the balance of cool sounding name vs. imagery vs. importance in the story vs. the right mood/feel. Beyond the Mountain's title has a double meaning--in that book, the mountain is the symbol of the royal house. The deposed empress travels beyond the mountain, while struggling to figure out who she is beyond her lost royal-ness. In a scene where she passes the mountain, she learns something that makes her question whether she can escape her old self at all.
I want a similar title for this book, one that's both a literal and figurative image from the story, and that sounds intriguing without being misleading. For instance, the ones with “pain” in them make the book sound darker than it is. While it’s not a lighthearted romp, it’s also not that dark. No one dies, and there aren’t even cruel characters.
What do you think of these title possibilities? Do they sound intriguing? Dark? Fun? Ridiculous? Comment below!
Last night I went to a New Year’s Eve party for the first time in 8 years. We played several games, including Quelf. I hadn’t played it in several years, but it’s a great game. From 10 through midnight, we streamed the ball dropping, except the part where the ball actually drops, which came 1m 40s after the WiFi gave up.
Then I went to bed, and I’ve started off 2018 by sleeping in till 8:45. Only my dog’s outdoor needs keep me from sleeping longer. Tomorrow it’s back to a 6:30 alarm.
So now it’s 2018. I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution before. A lot of people resolve to eat less, diet more, work out so many times a week, or read so many books, but stereotypically they fail by February. But I’ve decided a theme for 2018, and a goal for 2018, and a month-long resolution.
My theme: I apologize a lot. I try not to be an inconvenience to anyone. I drive faster when someone tailgates me. I try to be in the way as little as possible. Recently at the fabric store, there was 1 cashier and the line was getting 4 or 5 customers long. The woman checking out was at the counter a few minutes while the cashier rang up her fabric and activated several gift cards. It was slow. The customer turned to everyone else in the line and said, “Sorry!” She had no need to apologize. It’s a courtesy. But it’s like an admission that by shopping in a public shopping place and checking out in the checkout line, she’s an inconvenience.
So 2018 will be my year of not apologizing. I’ll still apologize for mistakes, I’ll say “excuse me” if I have to walk through someone’s conversation. But I won’t apologize for a slow checkout, I won’t apologize for driving a speed I’m comfortable with, I won’t apologize for your impatience, I won’t actively try to take up as little space in the world as possible.
Okay, so maybe I will sometimes. And when I don’t I’ll feel rude. But I’ll make an effort. Because I’m allowed to be right. I’m allowed to drive a safe speed. I’m allowed to exist with physical mass and use time to do tasks.
My 2018 goal: Publish both my works in progress. Beyond the Mountain needs another round or 2 of revisions and beta reading, then editing and all the publication steps. My other book (called Simi for now) isn’t as far along, but I’m thinking it needs less work.
My January resolution: Write every day for at least 2 pomodoro timers.
Beyond the Mountain has now been read and returned with feedback by 3 beta readers. One of them is related to me, and pretty easy to please as far as books go, so her comments were more encouraging. The other two betas’ comments were less encouraging.
Not that the readers were discouraging. But as I realized the problems my book has, I of course am very discouraged. There are large sections where little interesting happens. I can condense these parts, but it will throw the pacing off, not to mention making the novel much shorter. To counteract the condensing, I’ll need to add/expand other sections. That’s the part that has me staring at the screen doing nothing.
This week I’ve been trying to back up the beginning—which means writing a new scene. I know what I want to happen in this scene, yet words don’t come. In 6 days I managed 1,000 words. Yesterday I managed another 800 words, by purposefully making them garbage. For example:
“Just write something,” Yania said to the author, her voice echoing in the silence.
“I must congratulate that Talin warrior for winning a difficult fight,” said Tohoem, who apparently was also there.
It’s better than no words at all. I’ll have something to revise later rather than a blank screen. But I can’t make my brain switch back to first draft mode. I don’t know if it’s because working 3 years on this book makes me want it to be finished already, or if 5 drafts has made the current story too set in my head. I just know that once I have a whole manuscript, when I have to go add something, words don’t come.
And I’m going to have to add scenes, conflict, and who knows what else, throughout the whole thing. I’ve cried many times over this in the past 2 days. People advise to set the story aside for a while, but I haven’t worked on in 6 months. I’ve sent chapters to betas and looked at their feedback, and I’ve mentally brainstormed things to change/add, but I haven’t written anything or done any work on it until this week. I’d say 6 months counts as “a while.”
I’ve tried before to do an editorial map, listing each scene’s goal, motivation, conflict, and disaster. But for most of the scenes these items are blank, or repeats of the previous scene’s goal and conflict.
For a few months now, I’ve considered starting over with a new outline and rewriting the whole thing. Obviously this scares me even more than a mere revision. But it seems better to start over and do it right than to keep tweaking something that’s so lacking.
I haven’t found much online about rewriting from scratch. Most of the search results use “rewrite” to mean “revise”. So I don’t know what I’ll do. I know the last 3 years haven’t been a waste, because I’ve learned a lot about myself and about writing that’s helped me write my second book. But still, I can’t help feeling like starting over means all the work I’ve done on Beyond the Mountain was for nothing.
In my last post (3 days ago) I said BTM was getting closer to publishable-ness. Well fast forward to now, and it seems it will never be ready. The further I get, the more I realize its flaws. The more I write the more I wonder if I’m cut out to be an author. Writing is hard. A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, according to Thomas Mann. But why is it so hard for me to flesh something out? To create new scenes? Why does adding words to a manuscript freeze my brain? Why can I know what happens and still stare at a blank screen?