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Worrying about wordcount

An editor friend once told me to let a story be as long as it needs to be. Which is good advice in theory, but not always realistic when worrying about submission guidelines.

Short story calls tend to be in the range of 2,500-5,000 words, with 7500 words as an upper limit. Totally Bound, which is the publisher behind Capturing the Moment says that novellas start at 25,000 words and novels at 50,000. Other publishers say a novel is 75,000 or 80,000 words. Other wisdom holds that a novel is around 100,000 words.

In general I find that it is easier to trim a story than to lengthen it. Taking a story and trimming off all the tangents, the many times I use “just” as a filler word, and other bits here and there streamline the story. If you look at a writer like Malin James, every single word serves a purpose–there isn’t so much as a spare syllable.

However, when I sat down to write Capturing the Moment, it was with the explicit goal of writing a novella. That felt like stretching my writing muscles, as the longest thing I’d had professionally published at that point was a 5,000 word story. Writing 25,000 words wasn’t easy, and I had to keep asking myself what I could have them do within the guidelines of a 24 hour story (at the time I was writing to a specific call, but ended up going with a different publisher for personal reasons).

It took me eight months (with a big health related break) to get from the first word to submitting to a publisher.

Plunder began life as a short story in October or November of 2015. The characters wouldn’t leave me alone, so I started a novel. Unlike when I wrote Capturing the Moment, I didn’t have a specific publisher or call I was responding to. There was no exterior framing device to use. This was all on me, with the goal of at least 50k words, even as I knew 50k is often considered a long novella or a super short novel, but that was still twice the length of Capturing the Moment.

In the roughly two and a half years since, I wrote a first draft that almost killed me to get to 50k words. I felt desperate by the end of it, watching my word count slowly trickle upwards to that goal. I had a beta read and respond to it, and I began to mess around with it again at the end of last year, taking it from 50-75k words because I was then responding to questions I hadn’t answered, making things more obvious, and stregthening the weak spots that had been called out to me. I then sent it to several more people and a good friend who is also a sometimes editor of mine (Jessica Augustsson, owner of Jayhenge Publishing).

Jess asked several key questions that, along with my conversation with Beverly Jenkins, made me realize I hadn’t done anywhere near as much research as I should have for a historical.

Now I am back at the drawing board, and my writing is both ticking upward as I fill in gaps, fix historical errors, and shifting down as I trim the fat. As you could see in the top picture, my word count as of this minute is 77,003. At the end of today it could be 78,000 or 76,000, although my final goal for the book is in the 80-85k range.

Then I’ll send it back to Jess (I asked her to let me go through and fix the historical issues to the best of my ability) and we’ll see what happens then. At that point, though, the focus won’t really be on wordcount.

So what advice do I have?

My solution was to keep messing with their happiness. I think that’s probably lame advice, but it’s one of the pieces of advice I’ve always gone back to when struggling with my work. Oh, are they happy? How can I create a situation–interior or exterior–that will fuck with that.

What do I mean?

So in Plunder, one of my two MC’s is Bree, who is a young woman who grew up on her father’s ship, but was sent away to what was in effect an early finishing school. She’s leaving school and thinks she’s going to return to living on a ship when she learns that her father has arranged a marriage for her. When her ship is attacked by pirates, she negotiates with the captain for the safety of her crew. A night turns into a week, and she falls for him. Everything seems to be going well, and that could have been the end of the story. But I have him send her back to her father’s ship–an act with repercussions for the rest of the book.

In Capturing the Moment, I kept bringing in Meg and RJ’s past, because the relationship they’d had in college and just after had repercussions on how they interacted six years after their broken engagement. Eventually, they also needed to have a massive fight to deal with their past. Each time the past came up, it affected the present. By figuring out their past, it not only helped me understand where the story had to go, it affected word count.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to deal with word count goals. If there was, I’d be producing stories at a much faster pace than I do. I think it’s a muscle that gets stronger as you practice your craft. I could write a novella because I’d grown strong muscles writing short stories. I can write a novel because I wrote a novella.

 

 

Writing a historical book and research

In preparation for writing the full version of Plunder, I did some research. I read a few books and thought I had “enough” to write.

After reading a lot of historical romance by Beverly Jenkins specifically and others more generally and reading an unrelated comment about anachronisms like desks when they didn’t exist, I realized that what I thought I knew and how much I needed to know were two very different things.

I may have overcompensated by buying 15 non-fiction titles on pirates, the history of rum in the Caribbean, racial politics, ships, and so forth.

I am still making a conscious choice to ignore some of the less desirable traits of piracy (the rape, the violence, the fact women pirates were super rare–we only know of two during the “golden age” of piracy in the Caribbean) but I want to get other things right. I want to get the ships right. I don’t want William to win Puerto Seguro via poker when it would have been cribbage (side note, I learned cribbage last weekend). I don’t want them wearing boots when no one wore boots in that era unless they were riding horses. Things like that.

To some extent, I’m sort of doing a Titanic story–the details are mostly correct (in the movie the details of things like china are painstakingly correct) but the actual love story is implausible.

If you write historical fiction, how much research do you do?

 

First drafts suck and the process of writing a novel

first draft suck

Last week I finished the first draft of the novel version of my short story, Plunder. I wanted a minimum length of 50k and ended up at 42k. There’s so much that needs to be cut or repurposed, like the chapter of exposition. There are secondary characters whose names I lost track of, and ones who need to be fleshed out. There is a lull about two-thirds of the way through after I break up my couple  that needs a lot of work. Tertiary characters flip between being alive and dead because I lost track. It is a jumbled, disorganized mess. But that’s okay.

edit without mercy

The biggest challenge I’ve faced with the novel is the sheer scale of the story.

Where Capturing the Moment had two main characters and two secondary characters, Plunder has two main characters, and tons of secondary characters. The nature of life on a ship means that I had to flesh out some portion of the crew, and with something like seven named secondary characters on two ships, it’s easy to lose track of who is who and what their personalities are.

Plunder is told from Bree’s perspective, unlike Capturing the Moment which showed both Meg and RJ’s points of view. It is very challenging to not tip my hand or give things away before their time. William is an alphahole, but I need my readers to still root for he and Meg to figure things out.

I have realized that in order to effectively edit the novel I need to create

  • a master document wherein I list all the characters and details about each of them
  • a chronological timeline.
  • chapter by chapter summaries–some of the exposition in a later chapter was dealt with in casual conversation earlier.
  • a sexual summary–style, position, allegories I use for orgasm. I don’t want to get repetitive, or miss out on something.

editing

I’m not going to start editing yet. I’m still too close to the story. My plan is to take a few days off, write a short story or two, and start the edits in June. I’ve shared the document in all it’s disastrous glory with my husband, but I will spend a month (or more) polishing it to the best product I can create.

When I wrote Capturing the Moment, I knew that my setting was accurate because I based it on my own visit. As I said in my guest post with F dot Leonora, I’m a photographer like Meg. I had to look up some details about art and the proper name of an instrument, but I was on solid ground. With Plunder, I’m dealing with a foreign time period and selective historical accuracy. The closest I’ve come to being a sailor is working as a costumed guide on the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum in college. I know nothing about rigging or the other jobs on a ship in the 17th. Research is only going to get me so far. I’ll need to consult with someone who knows their stuff as Bree is supposed to be a skilled sailor and fix the details I’m bullshitting today.

Once I’m done with edits, my husband will give it one last look. When both of us have signed off on it, I’ll send Plunder to my betas. They’ll need time to read and provide their comments.

During that lull, I’ll work on other projects.

When I have beta feedback, I’ll digest their thoughts and then revise Plunder further. I may send it to one more round of beta support or editorial support. A story is never really “done”–it just reaches the point where you are going to send it in or futz with it forever. I also call this the I keep editing, but now I’m making it worse instead of better. That’s the point where I’ll submit it for publication, and cross my fingers.

pirate 1

What does first draft, unedited hot mess look like? Here’s an example…

She was just about to head back to William’s cabin when it happened. A wave rose up and slapped the Ghost, tippping it starboard. She thought she heard a scream, and looked up in time to see the man from the foretop falling. He hit the gunwhale and slipped off into the sea.

“Man overboard!” Bree screamed, but her words were drowned out by the shrieking wind.

The starboard side of the foresail was unmanned, and began to flap. Bree might not be a pirate, but she was a skilled sailor who knew her rigging. She took a deep breath and dashed over to the ratlines and began to climb. The ropes were slick with rain, and she fought to keep her footing. Once at the crossbar over the foresail, she grabbed a piece of rope and knotted it about her stomach as the missing sailor should have. That would hopefully keep her alive if she fell, and she retied the knots that had gone slack.

The storm was like a living predator, snarling as it attacked its prey. Lighting slashed across the sky. She was soaked to the skin by the drowning rain. Waves tossed the Ghost, water sometimes crashing over the deck. Bree clung to the mast, keeping a close eye on the sail, listening for orders.

Bree prayed that the Maya was safely moored somewhere far from this storm. The thought of losing Marcus and James was unbearable. She looked for William, worried that he, too, might have fallen victim to the storm, but he wasn’t near her, and she couldn’t see the aft of the ship. Her heart twisted, but she remained focused.

The storm quieted, but she knew it was just the eye, and that the eerie calm wouldn’t last.

“Lass!” The pirate above her at the fore topsail called down.

She looked up. “Yes?”

“Can’t decide if you’re brave or dumb as a rock, but good work.”

My thoughts

  • “just” is one the worst offenders when it comes to filler/unnecessary words in my writing
  • Living predator? As opposed to a dead one?
  • I really know nothing about rigging, although I looked up proper names for things online
  • “the man from the foretop falling” what?
  • Would tying a rope around her waist save her if she fell? Really?
  • The storm needs more description. Do more than those few sentences.
  • She cares about Archie, the ship’s boy she befriended as well as Marcus and James

It’s not a bad passage, but it’s a really important one in the story. It needs expansion, more details (including support from someone who knows something about ships and sailing), and other editing support.

Here’s the thing, though. You can’t edit what you haven’t written. I wrote this, so now I have something to edit. In a month or so.

Writing Schedules, Pantsing vs Plotting, and a Sneak Peek

I recently spent a week fully immersed in what I hope will be my first full length-novel, Plunder (based on the short story soon to appear in Rogues). I had an absurdly productive week unlike any other writing experience, except the one I had when I wrote the first draft of the Plunder short story, am now roughly halfway done with the first draft.

pirate 5

However, I am a pantser, not a plotter. So what I have is an incredibly rough half of a book that will require extensive editing.

Does this mean I don’t know what’s going to happen next? For me, it means I have the complete arc of the story in my head, and am filling in all the empty spaces.

It’s easy to say that I’ll refine the first half and then write the second half, but if I learned anything from the ghost novel, which holds the record for most starts and zero finishes of any story I’ve ever written, ever, it’s that you suck it up and keep going.  My goal is to write the entire first draft and then fix it.

It’s only apt that I pepper this post with pirate memes not only because Plunder is a pirate story, but because even when I have plotted a story, my characters have committed mutiny and gone off to do whatever they want despite my outline. I have learned that I write more effectively by pantsing than plotting.

pirate 4

When will the first draft be done? Damned if I know. People talk about daily word counts and schedules, but as Jade A Waters said in her post called “The Process,” I kept fooling myself into believing I have a systemized process, and it’s become abundantly clear I’m full of shit. I laughed with delight when I read that line, because I find it to be so true for myself as well.

I’ll write in the mornings, when the kids are at school–Oh crap, I have to grocery shop. I don’t want to grocery shop with my four and seven year old, do I?

I’ll write in the afternoons, while the kids are absorbed in tv–Assuming I can block out Sofia the First or whatever other inane tv show is on/am not on Ms 7’s case about homework.

I’ll write in the evenings, after the kids are in bed–Well, sure, once I’ve done the other at home things, and if I’m still conscious enough to not fall asleep at the laptop/have enough energy to do anything other than watch tv listlessly. Or if I don’t have a freelance article due.

I’ll write on the weekends, when Mr. Night is around to run interference with the kids–Sometimes. Sometimes we actually want to do stuff as a family.

I don’t have a hard and fast policy because my life isn’t regimented enough to have one at this point (and probably never will be as I’m just not that organized). I have hopes that I’ll finish it before Capturing the Moment comes out on March 29 (pre-order will start March 14), but have accepted that it may not be.

pirate 2

I think that Plunder came along as well as it did during my intensive writing week was due to the fact that I love this story. This is a story I am happy to give up my free time to, and characters I absolutely adore. William is an alphahole (a term I only just learned thanks to Ilona Andrews post on that trope–btw, I loved her book, Clean Sweep). Brianna is an equally alpha heroine who has no desire to bow to the whim of any man. All she wants is to be a sailor, and eventually the captain of her father’s ship, the Maya. Both William and Bree are strong personalities with lots of opinions about everything, and throwing them together is often delightful.

If anything, I think the reason that things have slowed down is that they are currently apart because William was, well, an alphahole. Entirely his fault. I’m finding it hard to keep the story moving until they meet up again. Which is not to say that the middle bit is bad (although it’s a draft so it probably does suck–all first drafts suck), but rather than I have more fun and thus write faster when they’re butting heads.

pirate 3

Speaking of William and Bree, here’s another glimpse into their story

“What are you doing?”

“Darling, clearly it’s your nature to argue over everything, but it’s a blanket. It’s warm. You sleep under it.”

“I didn’t say I was ready to sleep.” Bree plucked the blanket from his hand and tossed it back to the floor. “I’ve yet to fully explore your territory with my tongue.”

“If you must. I suppose I can close my eyes and think of my duty to cartography.”

Bree’s hand had been trailing through his chest hair. At his comment she grabbed a fistful and yanked.

“Vicious little vixen.”

“Damned pirate. Turn over.”

“Aye aye, wench.”

All mine.

Her hands roamed his body. Freckles were scattered over his back, and Bree pressed a kiss to each. She had never considered a pirate would have such a banal thing as a freckle.

“Where did you get this?” An odd scar marred the perfection of his buttocks.

“Slight disagreement with a shark.”

She dug her nails into the cheek.

William sighed deeply. “Slight disagreement with a fishing hook. Rum was involved.”

Bree laughed with delight. “Turn over, and let me see what other wounds have been inflicted upon you. I wish to catalog them all.”

He turned onto his back. “What of the wound you gave me, minx?”

“A memory I shall always cherish.” Her tone was tart, but her eyes were soft as they made a study of his form

Siem Reap: Let the Edits Begin

When I first started writing erotica, my writing process went like this—

I would sit down and write a story. I would re-read it and do some light editing. I would spell-check it. Then I would submit it for publication on literotica. Within a few days, the story would be published. Email feedback would roll in. I would bask in my awesomeness. Fin

literotica

The thing about writing for literotica or any of the fan fiction hubs is that there is an audience for everyone. As a new writer, that sort of positive community support and feedback can be so valuable for building confidence, especially if you have a fragile ego.

My most productive period on literotica was when I was a graduate student in New York City. The program was a terrible fit for me. I came to the realization that I didn’t want the career I’d been focused on for years. I was new to the city, shy, broke, and miserable. There were weeks when getting a positive review email from a literotica reader was the only good thing that happened to me.

Looking back at that work, while there are stories that show promise—a scene, a character, an idea—the reality is that they are largely crap. The first reason for that is that I was a baby erotica author–those first steps were full of falls and bruises. I was new to the genre and rusty as a fiction author and it showed. The second reason–and if I’m honest–the bigger reason that those stories suck is that they lacked editing.

editing

After I finished the first draft of Siem Reap, I went over my story page by page, line by line and I worked on it until my eyes were ready to bleed. I tweaked it until I thought I had the best piece of writing I could come up with. Then I sent it out to beta readers, and steeled myself to have those readers point out all the faults I’d become blind to.

The difference between amateur Delilah and professional Delilah is that (a) I believe in editing and (b) I know that “my best” is a starting point far from the finish line.

My”best work” is full of flaws that I can’t see because I live in my character’s heads. I write with an ear for English instead of an in-depth knowledge of grammar, which means my writing suffers from grammar errors I don’t know I’m making. Something I think of as clever may be clever, or it may miss the mark entirely.

edit without mercy

I’ve been very lucky to get feedback from several readers. Some of it has been positive, other bits have been critical.  All of it is useful.

I took a break from Siem Reap largely because of health issues. If you follow me on twitter, you probably know that I was hospitalized twice in March due to back and pain management issues.  It’s why I’ve been so absent from the blog–it’s hard to write when the painkillers have you seeing double.

Now that I’m no longer in the hospital, and I’ve begun to rehabilitate my back, I’m ready to dive back into Siem Reap.  I’m trying to look at the forced absence as a positive. The story is not so fresh in my mind, so I have a bit of emotional distance from my characters.  I have valuable feedback to help me revise the story and make it stronger. I’m not so sick of the story that I want to burn it (a real hazard at times).  I’m eager to revisit Meg and RJ and begin the next phase of editing.

april 15

Literotica Delilah would likely have hit publish back in February after the first draft was done. Today’s Delilah is hoping that I will be ready to submit the story by mid-April. Siem Reap is an okay story today.  Thanks to my beta team’s feedback, I think the editing I’m about to do has the potential to make it a great one.

 

Sometimes you have to suck…

I’ve been stuck on Chapter 6 of my ghost book for over a month.  I’ve tried writing it multiple ways and no matter what, I hate it.  HATE IT.

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 8.44.14 pmBurn, chapter 6.  Burn.

I am giving myself permission to suck.  To write it, knowing it will be weak and will likely be cut entirely or hacked to pieces in the second draft, so I can move on with things.

I have tried to write this novel on and off for about a decade–a draft of it was written for a Halloween contest, and the characters have never left me alone.  But this is what inevitably happens to me when I’ve tried to write full length pieces–I hit a speed bump and get mired in the desire not to suck.  So the book has gone through several incarnations with characters of different names, different plot lines, and so forth.  But it always seems to hit a point where I can’t move past the momentary bad writing.  I second guess every choice I make until I have a zillion starts to the chapter, but no finish line.

So what changed?

Lynn Townsend.  I’m going to have to paraphrase because otherwise I’ll spend forever trying to track down exactly what she said to me, which was “Just write.  It’s okay that it sucks.  Just keep writing through it.”  Which is obvious.  Which is advice I’ve given.  But hearing it from a REAL AUTHOR who actually is willing to put one of my stories in her anthology (and thus thinks I don’t suck) changed something for me.

Now, you may say “but Delilah, you’re an author.”  To which I would tell you “Yeah, but I’ve never written or published a book, so I’m not a REAL AUTHOR like Lynn or Alison or Insert Name Here.”

So I’m going to suck it up, and I’m going to suck.  So I can move on.

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 9.04.17 pm

September 30th.  I’m stating it publicly–I will send some terrible sad chapter 6 to my editor and move on with my life by September 30th.