Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NaNoWriMo, Dr. Diesel & Me

I feel as though I'm halfway through a two-year course on how to write a novel.  I got my midterm grades recently, and I'd say I'm straddling a B-/C+ grade.  I do some things well, but I'm committing what I think of as "first-novel" errors:  clunky exposition to establish the backstory, the characters lack that extra 10% of zing that readers want, and I still have problems knowing where to start and stop scenes.

Fixing it is easy.  Basically, I need to take a completed manuscript, pick apart some of the seams, patch in some better material, and then iron it flat so that no one can tell it was ever in poor shape.

Here's the hitch:  I have to weave the fabric myself, and in the process, I have to do a better job than I did the first time around.

Okay, there are two components to this.  NaNoWriMo's helping me with the first, and Dr. Diesel (in the form of my Ford New Holland 1620 tractor) helped with the second.

NaNo first.  I'm 30% done with my NaNo novel, which is 15% done for its intended length.  (NaNo only requires 50,000 words, but I'm aiming for single-title contemporary which is at least 80,000.)  And it's a lot better than the completed manuscript, which I started during NaNo last year.  The characters have that 10% extra zing, their internal monologues are more natural, and their dialogue has better pace.  In fact (shameless self-aggrandizing here), I've been reading it aloud to Brit Hub 2.1 as I complete each chapter.  Reading something aloud is a pretty tough test, particularly for first drafts, but I think Blackjack & Moonlight holds up.

Which is all very well for B&M, but what about Love in Reality, the completed manuscript that needs an overhaul to replace all the clunkiness with sleek new writing?  Well, here's where Dr. Diesel comes in.

I'm about as good at accepting criticism gracefully as the next person, but I am better than I used to be.  I used to fear constructive comments as if each one were tipped with curare.  Now, they merely terrify me.  The challenge is to make myself read the remarks of contest judges and my writing coach, absorb the criticism, figure out how to fix the problem, and then go back to the loom to make the new material.

For some reason, this process kept triggering all my old fears about poisoned darts.  I started thinking it was going to kill my spirit, kill my determination to go on, and so forth.  I couldn't figure out how even to get started, I was that scared.

Then I mowed the meadow.  (Not a euphemism, by the way.)  We have three meadows.  They get mowed in the autumn after a killing frost, which was late this year.  So, on Sunday, I got out the tractor with it's brush-hog mower attached and started on the smallest meadow, which is between our house and the main road.  It's slightly less than two acres and normally takes a couple hours to mow.

See all that fluffy stuff?  That's our south meadow in autumn.  The power lines show where the road is.

Everything was going well and I was maybe halfway done when I needed to stop the tractor to clear out the air filter.  No biggie -- this is the downside to mowing in the fall when all the plants are covered with fluffy seeds.  The fluff clogs the air filter (which is just a screen in front of the engine) and the engine temperature slowly rises.  When it gets to the red zone, I clean away all the fluff and start back up again.

Only, this time the tractor wouldn't start.  So I had to leave it, make a call to the local guy who services Ford New Holland tractors, get instructions on what to do and then go out yesterday morning and try again.  (All credit goes to Brit Hub 2.1, who went out first and dealt with some of the issues.)  Sure enough, with the instruction and help I could get the tractor started and get back to business.

Kind of like revising my manuscript: it's broken, I need advice on what's wrong and how to fix it, but then I got to get 'er done.

Which is when I remembered something about mowing our meadows.  We live on a sloping property.  The other two meadows I can mow going up and down the slope, but for historical reasons I've always done the south meadow in ever-shrinking rectangles.  And because the meadow isn't a true rectangle but more wedge-shaped and because it slopes to the south and to the west, there's only one bit that feels completely stable.  All the rest of it feels just a bit tippy.

Wrong season, different mower, and I weigh 50 pounds less now, but that's the idea

Which inevitably gets me thinking about the tipping point of a Ford New Holland 1620 tractor.  But yesterday, it hit me.  Even if I knew with certainty that the tipping point was 30 degrees off level and the worst slope I face is 15 degrees off level, it wouldn't keep me from getting scared when I'm mowing those bits.  The knowledge is cerebral; the fear is instinctive.

I used to mow that particular meadow several times each summer, and the second or third time would be a lot less scary that the first.  My body learned from experience that the tractor simply doesn't tip over.  Sometimes experience is a better teacher of what we can survive than abstract understanding.

So yesterday, after finishing the mowing, I rewrote the opening to Love in Reality.  Today I'm going to read the collected comments of judges and critics to the next section.  I won't enjoy it, and I'll be scared, but I know it won't kill me. 

And I won't tip over.


  1. Go you!!! I think novel-writing is a process that can only be learned by doing, too.

  2. "I won't enjoy it, and I'll be scared, but I know it won't kill me."

    There's a lesson I'm always trying to learn.

    I don't get much of this kind of feedback anymore, but since I teach, I give it all the time. And I loved your post, because it's always important to remember that some people will be feeling this way when they read my comments on their work.

    The learning feels good though, doesn't it? I love the moment when I recognize that I've made a step forward in my writing, and something works now that didn't before.


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