The method to my madness

Wow, so it’s Christmas, huh? When did that happen? I swear, I feel like it was just August. Because of the breakneck speed with which this holiday season approached, I of course was incapable of getting ready at all. I completely forwent sending Christmas cards this year, because I didn’t have time to update my list or write out the cards, or the funds with which to purchase the amount of cards I wanted to send or the postage. (Note to self: buy Christmas cards on clearance this year! Then you’ll be prepared. And write them before Thanksgiving in 2009, jackass.) I bought the bare minimum amount of presents, so there are people who may be getting Christmas presents from me in January. Sorry! I suck at life.

However, I feel like I have a good excuse this year–I mean, besides the economy, which is everybody else’s excuse. I was knee-deep in revisions between Thanksgiving and now, and it really did take up much more time than I thought it would. Revisions are no joke. I know that if you’re a writer, published or aspiring or under contract, you already know that, but I feel like it must be said over and over again so that we all get it through our thick skulls that you can’t turn over a manuscript in two weeks, no matter how clean you might think it is. Thank God I had four weeks.

My mind and life are generally in a state of total chaos, so when I’m tackling a big project it’s necessary for me to come up with some sort of system with steps in order to accomplish whatever Big Ass Goal looms over my head. You’d think it would help that I’ve revised a novel, particularly this novel, several squillion times, but it doesn’t. Each round of revision is like a new adversary that must be crushed. It is with this spirit of resistance and combativeness that I approached my revisions for AUT during this, the supposedly most joyous of seasons, and I am happy to report that I emerged from the other side intact and, most importantly, satisfied with the results.

This is how I did it.

Step One: Waited impatiently (because I am an incredibly impatient person) for my editor’s brilliant revisions.
Step Two: Received said brilliant revisions; counted pages of the revision letter (4, not bad); saw Twilight (sparkles!); put the whole thing away in a drawer and avoided it like it carries the small pox virus for a week or so.
Step Three: Read the revision letter, absorbed all the comments; cried (just kidding, I don’t cry); still couldn’t face the marked-up manuscript, so continued to avoid that like I avoid tourists and people from Staten Island (just kidding! not really).
Step Four: Went to San Diego for Thanksgiving. While on the plane, made copious notes in preparation for fleshing out a character that was, perhaps, a bit too much of a cipher in the first billion drafts. Wrote a new character manifesto for said character. Compiled a playlist specifically for said character and listened to it a lot on the plane. Consulted my friend Scott about a new car for said character. Flew back to New York, thinking, “God, this writing thing is a breeze! I can’t wait to start doing it again.”

My previous thoughts were, of course, wildly untrue. I knew that I had to write new scenes for said character, and I knew that I could do it, but I didn’t know what to write. Because I’ve always been sort of a micro-to-macro type personality (is that a personality type? whatever, it is now)…

Step Five: Went through the marked-up manuscript and made all the small typographical changes my editor suggested. Flagged any and all questions written by my editor in the margins that would require bigger changes, that I disagreed with, or that I thought could necessitate further discussion.
Step Six: Began the first stage of deflagging. This came after a conversation with my editor, during which we discussed some things and I cleared some stuff up for her. After that conversation, I went through and got rid of the flags marking those passages we’d discussed, and started making some of the medium-sized changes to get some momentum.
Step Seven: Finally dove into writing the new scenes. This became so, so, so much easier once I figured out exactly what it was I wanted to write. I decided on three scenes, a happy first scene, an emotionally charged second scene, and a sad closing scene. I figured out where to put them, and then I wrote them. The prose was terrible–repeat-y and purple and weird–but the skeletons were there. Then I sent them to my agent, who had an idea about how to take a scene a little bit further, so I worked on that. Then I cleaned up the scenes and put them to bed, so to speak.
Step Eight: Second stage of deflagging, making more medium-sized changes using the momentum I’d built up from the first deflagging and writing the new scenes.
Step Nine: Created a final to-do list, and tackled it to the ground.
Step Ten: Final once-over, making sure everything was good in the hood.

I’m probably not technically done yet. There is one thing my editor requested I do that I did not do, which I’ll probably have to explain, and there was something she asked that I do that I’ve been trying to do for a year, literally, and none of my efforts seem to have wholly fixed the situation, so I’m waving the white flag of surrender on that one unless she has some ideas about how I can do it. I’ve hit a wall on that one, sad to say, because otherwise I feel pretty confident about this round of revisions. I’m willing to work on it more, but at this point the well is dry on that aspect. But that’s a job for next year. Right now I have one or two things that came to me in the middle of the night (this is very annoying, brain, BY THE WAY) that I want to fix, and then probably I’ll send my editor the manuscript via email tomorrow or something. Then, Christmas! I’m so relieved.

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Character manifestos

In advance, I’d like to say that some people might take issue with me handing out writing advice considering that, while I do have an agent now, I definitely have not sold a book and therefor whatever efforts at writing I might have made in the past thirteen years or so since I first booted up ClarisWorks (that was the word processing program the Mac clone I got in the eighth grade came with…oh, the late nineties!) and typed a sentence may have very little value for the general aspiring-writer populace. To which I say, um, you’re probably right. So don’t read this post! And I mean that in the kindest way. If you want to see what life is like from the other side of the bold line between published and unpublished, please do visit any one of the writer blogs to the right. I, for now, am resting firmly in a gray area, filled with editorial letters from my agent and plot boards and revisions, but I’m learning a lot, so that’s something, right? And anyway, it’s my blog and I can write what I want, and also nobody reads this thing anyway so what have I got to lose? Right! Let’s get started.

When I was in junior high, I knew this guy who was a little bit intense for his age, and he ended up writing this “manifesto” which, though I never read it, was said to be (by his girlfriend and best friend/aspiring girlfriend) pretty strange, but undeniably him. Cut to a million years later–this is how I get into the minds of my characters. I write all kinds of crap from their PoVs, and to this writing exercise I appellate the term “manifesto.”

Several things go into a manifesto. It usually starts with a topic or a question–How do I feel about this [insert whatever you want, relevant or irrelevant…or, at least, anything you think your character can expound upon]?–and branches out from there. Sometimes, it’s “How do I feel about this person?” I usually try to have each character comment, however briefly, on the other ones eventually in their manifesto, since obviously, by virtue of the story, they are tied together in some way and they must have varying opinions about this. Recently, I started writing a manifesto for a character in my current WIP and, even though this doesn’t have a lot to do with the action of the story, he started his manifesto with, “My parents are getting divorced,” and continued to comment on that. I hadn’t really expected him to talk about that–I expected him to talk about the other main protagonist of the book, a girl he has conflicting feelings about, or on the mystery at hand, or even about his future, but his parents divorce? I don’t think that, at that point, I’d even decided that his parents were getting a divorce. Well, they are now. I mean, he said they were, and he wouldn’t lie to me.

I never mean for any of the information or writing in the manifesto to make it into the book. Ever. It often sneaks its way in, especially the character’s feelings about the other characters and the situations he/she finds herself in during the course of the novel, but usually not the way it is written in the manifesto. My manifestos are not beautifully poetic, or even well-written, or even–and I cringe to admit this–free of grammatical or spelling errors. They’re usually handwritten, they’re usually sloppy, and they usually defy the space-time continuum–they are written from the perspective of that character before the novel begins, but can comment on any event or person throughout the course of the novel, even people they haven’t yet met or things that have not yet happened. So, basically, they’re written in the past with foresight in to the future, and yet none of my characters are prognosticators or anything. It’s like the characters are standing outside of themselves and have access to all their thoughts and experiences throughout the entire novel (and before and beyond). Freaky! I know. But it works.

This is sort of a take-off of the character interviews or questionnaires people sometimes do, which, though helpful to some, really don’t give me the information that I need. I understand that those are about uncovering facts about your characters that would be otherwise unknown to you, but I prefer to do it this way–the characters tell me what they want, what they think is important, and when they lag a little I prompt them–“What do you think about this character?”, etc.–until they’re done talking. Then I put the manifesto away. Sometimes I consult them again, but most of the time I don’t. The whole point of the manifesto is in the making, not in the having. Once they’re alive in my head, what’s on paper doesn’t mean very much, and I never feel especially committed to anything small that they say there–I mean, yes, Protag #1 of my WIP says his parents are getting divorced, that that’s important to him, so I am committed to that, but if he told me he used to vacation with his grandparents every summer in Martha’s Vineyard and later I decide it makes more sense if they go to Shamrock, TX, I don’t think twice about making such a change. If they say they have brown eyes in the manifesto, but I want them to have blue eyes later, again, no compunction about the change–I probably won’t remember that their eyes were brown in the manifesto in the first place!

That’s how a manifesto differs from, say, an outline. It’s exploratory surgery, not plotting. You just go into the character’s mind and feel around, getting the lay of the land, observing, listening, diagnosing. The characters are far more self-aware in their manifestos than they end up being in the novel, owing to their unique perspective, and, maybe more importantly, they’re always, always completely honest. Also, manifestos are always written in a first person PoV, even though that character might never speak in the first person ever in the novel itself. This is, of course, only something I do when I feel like I need to–I may not write a manifesto for every character, or even any character besides the main protagonist…it’s just sort of what I think I need at the moment.

Does anyone else do this? Probably. I’m sure I did not invent this writing exercise. Other than the plot board and character manifestos, I haven’t really done any other writing exercises, per se–just endless, endless revision.