Scenes From the First Draft of Ambition

A few weeks ago I uncovered the first chapter of the first draft of what would become Ambition. I was struck by a few things: one, that Jules was so self-centered it literally slowed the narrative down while Jules breathlessly described herself and her experience as a trainer. And two, that same breathless look, I can do this trainer thing! remained the core value of early Jules in the Eventing Series.

Photo: pixabay/markusspiske

Now, as I poke around the edges of a fifth book in the Eventing Series, it’s interesting to look back at the way Jules was desperate to hide her lack of actual experience beneath a veil of completely unwarranted confidence. Things have changed for Jules–if you’ve read the four books currently out there in the world, you can see she’s been growing as a human as well as a trainer. And yet what lurks in the background of a trainer not yet twenty-five, especially now when she’s faced with so many clients and owners who have every right to question her every move with their horses and their children?

So yes, I was pretty delighted to find what I think is the complete first draft. It’s called Such a Clever Trainer. The last edit was April 26, 2011. This is as close to a time capsule as anything I own. It’s only 66 pages, about 38,000 words, and a lot of it is longish scenes with asterisks dividing them. This was my attempt to write pivotal scenes first. I didn’t love the process.

I’m not sure how much of this actually made it into the finished version of Ambition. Quite a lot, I think, and yet I think in very different context.  In this version, Jules meets Pete at the first hunter pace she takes Mickey to, at Lochloosa–yes, halfway through the book!

I brought Pete back to the introduction of Ambition after doing some reading on romance construction and realizing that you simply couldn’t have a romantic interest show up 150 pages into a book. I am not big on “the craft of writing” as a form of study, preferring to tell a story the way it feels right to me, but this seemed like a pretty sensible rule. Pete becomes a goal and an antagonist to goad Jules along throughout the book–and of course, there’s the hurricane scene, which is still probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written.

Amazingly, that scene is in this version, missing a few key players–like Marcus, Jules’ beagle, who doesn’t exist at all yet.

Read more about this draft and its inspiration, plus the Lochloosa Hunter Pace chapter, at my Patreon page. Please comment with your thoughts and let me know what you’d like to read next! 

Advertisements

Getting Feedback: So You Want to Write a Horse Book, Part 5

I was going to title this installment, “Feedback Sucks.” I mean, I want to be honest with you, and, for at least the first few books, feedback really, really sucks.

But it’s also kind of awesome (once you get used to it) and it’s completely indispensable, so it’s time to talk about feedback: soliciting it, accepting it, and putting it to work.

The fact is, we all have a massive blind spot when it comes to our writing. It’s ours, and because it’s ours, we love some parts beyond all sense, and we hate other parts with a blinding passion, but can’t quite figure out how to do without them. This is probably true of most things we have immense emotional attachment to.

horse-1808727_1920

The best turn-out in the world can always be a little better. Feedback: it sucks, but it’s so necessary.

Like: you love your horse to bits, and your horse has the best gaits you’ve ever ridden, but you could really do without the cribbing thing. If your horse were a book, you’d lend him out to five other riders. Some of them would come back to let you know you’re right about his trot, you’re dead wrong about his canter but here’s how to fix it, and oh by the way–the cribbing isn’t so bad, just put a collar on him and forget about it. Plus, bonus, you really need to teach him to ground-tie, even though you ride dressage and that’s literally never come up before… for you. 

That’s what feedback on your book is like. Some things you thought were perfect aren’t, some things you thought were awful are just fine, some things are lovely, and some things you never even considered.

Who should you ask for feedback? 

This is different for everyone. You might find it easier to ask people you’ve never met IRL, like an online writer’s group. That way, you don’t have to cringe while they’re in the other room reading it. Or you might give it to your best friend, and just deal with the cringing.

No matter who you choose, I think it’s best if that person shares some of your sensibilities about reading and writing. If you’ve written a torrid romance, don’t hand it off to a friend who rereads The Saddle Club over and over. If you’ve written a contemporary fiction, your friend with the vampire obsession might find your prose lacks teeth. (HAH DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE– you saw, I’ll stop.)

I say this because I’ve made the mistake of giving a manuscript to someone who had completely different sensibilities than me. This person gave me back thorough and well-meaning feedback which simply tore my novel to shreds. I didn’t agree with any of it. And there were pages of recommendations. I was beside myself, because they didn’t make any sense to me, but I respected the reader and wanted to take their advice.

Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t work with their suggestions and released the novel anyway, only taking two or three of the suggestions. As it turns out, the book was incredibly well-received by my readers. The disconnect had been between myself and the beta-reader, who didn’t typically read my style of writing. The feedback, generously given, worked for their genre, but not for mine.

My beta-reading group includes authors who write similarly to me, readers of my previous books, and my husband. Now, a lot of people will say that loved ones make for bad editors, but my husband and I share both a similar taste in books and viciously judgmental attitudes. It makes for a good team. He removes some of my favorite sentences and tells me to fill plot holes, and I scowl at him for weeks. It’s how our marriage works. Your results may vary.

Once you’ve asked, be two things. Be patient, and be grateful. It’s not easy to read critically, especially if you’re not a professional, especially if you’re someone’s friend. And chances are decent that at some point you’ll be asking a friend. It can take some time, and it can make people nervous to decide what to point out. Let them know how much you appreciate their time and their feedback.

What should you do with feedback?

When you get back the email that says, “I really liked it, but I think…” you should pause, pour yourself something soothing, and make sure you have time to read carefully and think about what’s being said. Remember that this is not an attack on your writing–unless you chose a beta-reader who is secretly your nemesis–but an honest assessment of how your writing works for someone else.

Nothing works for everybody. There are books out there you despise that other people adore. That the majority of people adore. They re-read them over and over, rather than read other books. And you can’t get through two pages. Reading fiction is never objective.

But if you want your novel to work for more than just you, beta reader feedback can be a clue as to how the wider world will receive your novel. Does the storyline work? Do your readers care about your characters? Do you close up your plot neatly by the end? Are there confusing sentences? Contradictions?

coffee-1076582_1920

This might be an excellent time to chat over a cup of coffee. Or, you know, something a little stronger.

Chances are, you’ll hit the scoreboard on each of those questions. No book is ready for publication as soon as you’ve finished writing it–I don’t care if you’re on your third draft. You’re too close to it. You need someone removed. You need fresh eyes. Ever work in retail? Ever count a register three or four times and it just won’t come out even, so you ask a coworker to count it, and they have no problems? It’s the same thing. Whatever mistake you were making, you were destined to just keep making it until someone else stepped in and took a look.

It’s okay to set your book aside for a while after you’ve received feedback. You might not want to look at any of it for a little bit. That’s okay. Get removed from it. Start to miss your characters a little bit. Get yourself revved up again to power through the next round of edits. Then read the feedback and decide your next course of action. Are you going to make changes? Go for it. Do you need clarification? Email or set up a meeting to discuss the feedback in more depth.

Once you’ve put your book out there for feedback, take heart. Someone else has read it. Things are getting very real! You’re getting closer to a finished novel. And thanks to your beta readers’ feedback, it’s going to be even better than you thought.

 

 

Making Writing a Habit: So You Want to Write a Horse Book, Part 4

So now you’re blogging, right? You’ve read the first three parts of my series, and you’re following all of my advice, not in a crazy follow-the-guru kind of way, but in a she’s-been-down-this-road kind of way. You’re thinking about the way you want to write, if you’re going to write as true-to-life as you can, or if you’re going to create a new universe for your characters to inhabit. You’re ready to start making this thing happen.

(This is the 4th in my series on writing your horse book. Click for the first, second, and third in the series.)

Whether or not you plot your book is another blog post. For now, I want to talk about writing habits.

Horses like routines. It turns out, horse books do too.

Horses like routines. It turns out, horse books do too.

There are always people to tell you that award-winning best-selling author Junie Efficiency Jones gets up every morning at 5:30 AM to write a chapter before she goes off to feed her heirloom chickens and then heads to her Fortune 500 executive position. That’s great for her and I’m excited for her productivity level. But I’ve always fought against those arguing that habit is the only way to write a book.

For one thing, I would argue, my schedule is too up-and-down to have a daily time set aside. I might have to work at 8 AM one day and 2:30 PM the next day — was I really supposed to write at 6 AM regardless? Not possible. Since a lot of writers are supporting themselves in the service industry, this is a common problem.

By the same token, if you’re in the horse business, you might have an early show one day, a farrier appointment that takes three hours longer than you expected and pushes dinner back to nine o’clock the next night, and quite frankly not have the energy to even look at your computer on the third day.

So no problem, I’ve always said. Write when you can. Carve out time. Write when you feel creative.

This method works, and it’s the kindest on your body, for sure. But I want you all to stop and consider for a moment how long it takes me to write a book. (Those of you who read my books are nodding slowly.) And how long I have to fend off requests for sequels. (Those of you who asked for a sequel to Ambition for two years are nodding emphatically.)

Now I’m going to tell you that I’m finally a convert to the writing routine.

My last (fairly) routine job was with the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation. Here I am on Monte in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. (My son came to visit.)

My last (fairly) routine job was with the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation. Here I am on Monte in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. (My son came to visit.)

In mid-June I started working a Monday-Friday, 8:30-5:30 kind of job. It’s the first time I’ve had a job like this in several years (the last time was when I taking care of horses and riding with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, during which period I wrote Other People’s Horses and Ambition), and I was faced with the very real possibility that I was not going to come home from work and feel like staring at yet another computer for an hour in the evening.

(I also wanted to work out. Call me crazy, but when you take a lifetime of riding and caring for horses professionally and cram it into an office chair, bad things happen. The work-out was pretty imperative to my well-being.)

I decided to write a thousand words every morning, before work. The only thing I was really giving up was my morning Twitter time. And since I work in social media, I was already spending plenty of time on Twitter. I really didn’t need the extra.

It was a struggle at first, I admit. But I stuck with it because it was the only time I was going to write. There was no way I was going to get home from work at six o’clock, work out for half an hour, take a shower, and still find the time (and energy) to work.

Here’s the thing: after a couple of weeks, writing that thousand words became hard-wired into my brain. I woke up thinking about my story. I started writing fifteen hundred words. I started writing two thousand words. Useful, good words — not filler. In fact, I was moving so fast on the plot, I realized I’d have to add in atmosphere and environments in the editing phase — the opposite of my usual writing style.

In short, I’d never written so much, so quickly, wish such ease.

It’s so frustrating!

I held off on the “get up in the morning and write” doctrine for so long, convinced it wasn’t for me, and all this time, I could have been pouring on the creativity.

An added boost: stopping to go to work no matter where I am in my thoughts. Have you ever heard of closing your story mid-sentence, to boost your creativity when you return to the document? It’s the same thing. It works. There’s less wandering around, and more action.

I’m also more aware of where I am in the story, which leads to fewer loose threads to tie up in edits. If you’ve ever read through a draft only to discover you introduced a plot point in chapter three but completely forgot about it by chapter six, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a problem. 

By the time I finished the first draft of Courage last month, I was writing two thousand words in about forty-five minutes each morning. Standing at my kitchen counter, drinking my coffee, I’d written a novel at least twice as fast as I’d ever written anything of comparable length… 85,000 words, with plenty of room to grow in edits.

Now I’m editing in small bites each morning (still standing at my kitchen counter–it turns out that I think much better on my feet than in a chair, which should come as no surprise to any horseman) and I’m about halfway through. The book is growing in beautiful ways. I still wake up and open my laptop without even thinking about it… writing as soon as I get up is completely habit now.

So this is it… possibly my number one piece of advice to you. Get a habit. Force yourself into the habit. And the habit will reward you richly.

Just for giggles, I looked up “famous writer’s habits.” This was the first hit: The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers. Here are a few quotes:

E.B. White: A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Haruki Marakami: The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

Barbara Kingsolver: My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file.

I really love that last one, because this is the state you can work yourself into through a habit of morning writing! This is the place I’m at when I’m writing a draft now, and it’s just so delightful.

Even with the lack of sleep.

What’s your writing routine? Have you tried and failed one, or do you have a routine that’s working for you? If not, what’s getting in your way? Maybe we can find a solution together.