Getting it Right: Painful and Priceless

Image: CA Hawthorne

The graphic that accompanied each installment. Image: CA Hawthorne

Lessons teach. Painful lessons are more often retained. Painful lessons learned in public are almost impossible to forget. No lesson was less painful than my online story, which I serialized back in 2013.

This is the tale of Last Word Before Dying, which has been available on my website. Removing it is long overdue, but I wanted to replace it with something worthwhile and that’s about to happen. First, though, there are the lessons learned.

Where to begin? How about some story trivia:

• When the story began I was still on oxygen after suffering a severe breathing/health setback the autumn before.
• At the story’s outset I was a Wyoming resident, but moved to Montana before the serial’s midpoint.
• After I changed the format (more on this below) I posted every week until the story’s completion eleven months later, with one exception: the week I attended my father’s funeral three weeks before I moved.
• It was the first story I’d ever written using Scrivener.
• The story squeaked-out novel length, finishing at 61,346 words over 19 chapters (the chapters were posted over the course of 2-3 weeks each).
• It’s about Shayleen Rilden, a girl raised as a virtual orphan in a home with an abusive mother and distracted father. She takes a secretarial job working for an aging, eccentric adventurer and comes to realize the tale he’s dictating provides the answers she needs to save a city.

hope 2After I started my WordPress blog in 2013 I thought a serial was a gift that would also expose readers to my fantasy world, Ontyre. When the story began it was told via Shayleen’s journal entries. Dull, slow, and one dimensional, that format was abandoned after a few months. I suspended the story and brought it back at the beginning of the summer written in 3rd point-of-view (POV).

I’d often over-planned stories and decided to experiment with pantsing, little considering that as each installment was posted it became gospel. The lone exception was when I changed the format and the journal entries created to that point were reworked.

So, what else went wrong? Here’s a small sampling:

• The murky plot wasted time searching for its identity (which was more than I had worked out for the stakes…yikes!). It showed. The story wandered and stumbled. By the time it righted itself, marginally, near the 3rd plot point I was building on a rotten foundation.
• The structure was fair, at best, and the story sagged in the middle like an elastic suspension bridge (confusing, pointless character arcs were introduced and banished).
• The heroine’s life was full of conflict, which was great, but poor planning ruined her arc. I wrote myself into a corner and ran out of ink once I got there.
• The story became rich with backstory and info dumps. It was parceled out in small amounts, but in total it was shocking.
• The heroine had no attraction to the love interest and the better love interest died the first time he had more than a couple of lines. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true.
The narrative voice embraced almost every version of 3rd POV and I might have invented a few new ones along the way.

I could stop here and weep over an experience that was painful and humbling, but I learned SO much. That sounds like Luke Skywalker frustrated in the swamp, and it should. Yes, before the story ended I was questioning my future (but fortunately didn’t lose a hand). What started as a fun experiment had turned into invasive surgery to expose everything I didn’t know to the fantasy reading world. Ouch.

But like I said, I learned a lot:

• My pantsing is now restricted to brainstorming within my plotting framework. No more, “Hey, a dragon egg! Let’s fry it up right here.”
• There’s plotting and there’s plotting properly, and then there’s properly plotting in the way that works best for the writer (try saying that fast). Telling parallel stories that come together at the end was clever and daring, but not when one story was essentially an info dump.
• Know thy characters and why they’re there. Seriously. Figuring this out at the story’s end means you just wasted an entire story discovering what you should have known at the beginning. Now the 2nd draft becomes another 1st draft.
• There’s a reason why rules should be learned. It’s time well spent. A few months after Last Word ended I committed to taking the long road in my writing pursuit, which led to…
• Learning structure through-and-through while paying attention to how others have employed it is worth the effort. In addition…
• HUGE LESSON! This is especially true for anyone writing a story where world building or extensive research or both are involved. When you don’t know where the story is going you fall back (often unconsciously) on what you do know. Backstory. World building elements. Research. Going in I knew the rule that says no excessive backstory and info dumps! It was ingrained in my brain, yet I did it anyway. Why? Because when I became lost (because there was no plan) I absently dabbled in what I knew. When I look at the story now my jaw sags. I wrote that?

Last Word Before Dying also led to other profound changes for this author. One was increasing my reading input. I’ve long been an avid reader, but since I moved to Montana I’ve more than tripled the number of books I read per month. (On a side note: don’t move in a snowstorm in the middle of a major writing commitment.)

Taken near the Wyoming/Montana border while Misha sang the song of her people for the entire 11-hour drive. It was insane. Photo: CA Hawthorne

Taken near the Wyoming/Montana border while Misha sang the song of her people for the entire 11-hour drive. It was insane. Photo: CA Hawthorne

I also decided to better learn POV. I first attempted multiple POVs during NaNo in 2014 and began studying Deep POV in 2015. My brain initially rebelled, but I’m getting there.

Lastly, I learned a lot about the fantasy world I want to explore. I’d wavered between a medieval-like setting and a world more akin to Edwardian/Steampunk/Gaslight. Last Word reflects that wavering because it refused to commit. In 2015 I made that commitment and updated references I hadn’t touched in 15 years.

In the end, Last Word Before Dying was a worthwhile experiment, both more than I’d expected and not for the same reasons I was expecting. Although the story now leaves, it isn’t dead and may appear as a reworked novella in a collection in the distant future. Who knows. Too, some moments were brighter than others. Shayleen’s encounter with the werewolf was a favorite scene, but, alas, it came late and few ever read it.

Next week I’ll remove the story from the website. Poof! As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t want to delete it until I had something with which to replace it. Therefore, an entire short story will debut on the website next week. I’ve written many short stories since late last year and most I’ll attempt to market since income is a word I need to heed, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share one here from time-to-time.

One attitude hasn’t changed and has powered my decisions along the way, even when dreaming up the ill-considered serial and reworking the format. Who’s most important? Is it about the author or the reader? It’s about the author making it about the reader.

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Photo: CA Hawthorne

9 Replies to “Getting it Right: Painful and Priceless”

  1. Pingback: Getting it Right: Painful and Priceless | Christina Anne Hawthorne

  2. I think you are brave to attempt a pantsing serial. You’re letting it go; you ‘ve outgrown it, and now you’re replacing it. That’s just brilliant, go you!

    Pantsing vs. plotting. *sigh* The only outlines I do exist in my head as rough signposts. Apparently my mind works well like that and keeps the information fresh and adaptable. I’ve attempted other forms of outlines, but I ended up creatively blocked, so now I make it up as I go along. This, of course, means that my first drafts are potentially heavily flawed and the second draft needs to fix things with potential rewrites that could be extensive. I’m at peace with that.

    I like what you say about the writer and the reader. I think when the writer writes the story they want to tell (as opposed to writing the story they think the readers want to read), that’s when the magic unfolds. I think readers appreciate that.

    • There are reasons why I never categorically condemn pantsing. Firstly, I’m not a fan of blanket assertions. Secondly, I refuse to impose my preferences on others. I restrict myself to recommending. Each person’s writing process is personal. If someone is at peace, as you are, with enduring additional drafts, that’s fine. Your brainstorming produces a draft and mine produces notes that become an outline. The choices others make matter to me no more than eye, hair, or skin color.

      You make an excellent point and I hope my agreement is apparent in my original words. Honest writing is the greatest gift. Coupled with that is effort. My ability is always improving and my vow is that I’ll always give my best effort in what I produce for my audience. For better or worse, the world is witnessing my growth.

      • Oh, Christina, I totally agree about imposing the “correct” ways to people. I’m a firm believer that each writer is different and finding what works and what doesn’t is both half the work and half the fun. This is why I’m allergic to all the “professionals” selling ways to succeed. Even worse when they have never published a book, never matter a successful book: “Buy my course for $x99 to learn how to write a best-seller. Trust me I’m writing one now using my own advice!” If you think I’m making this up, I’m not. I’ve come across that many times.

        I think it’s for better that the world is witnessing your growth. I, for one, am honoured to be such a witness and thank you for sharing.

  3. Great lessons! I fry up dragon’s eggs all the time, and really respect the long road. I’ve had interesting characters drop dead out of thin air too… Isn’t it amazing how a story can have a story of its own? Look forward to the short 🙂

      • Ah that’s so nice to hear 🙂 And for sure – Marcy did so much work with me to get out backstory and mountains of passive reflection and actually make the plot trot rather than plod! I learnt so much in the process and I hope my current WIP reflects that and can be sounder from the base up and capable of being better for it!

  4. We learn best through doing! I am a panster through and through. I think Terry Brooks puts it best in his writing book. He says it depends on when you want to put most of the work in. If you want to put most of the work in before you write the story you can become an avid outliner. Pansters do most of the work after the first draft. Which makes serial pansting dangerous. Oh, there may brilliant minds out there than can do it, but I don’t think mine can. Hard to say. All the novels I’ve written have to be revised because I had this huge spurt of inspiration years ago and I wrote four novels back to back – the ideas kept coming. The problem was, this was back before I new what I was doing. I didn’t understand pov and other things. The result is that now I have focuses on one novel which just needs one more revision to make it the best I think I can. The others, I shutter when I think about picking them up again. One is the sequel to the novel that is almost ready, so I will have to return to it and it is a great story, but it will be painful to look at all the mistakes I made. I went from, “I don’t need to study the craft, I already know how to write,” to having read about thirty craft books and now I edit and help others fix and/or improve their work. Still, when I have to pick and read some of those old manuscripts, I will be kicking and screaming, but I’ll get over it.

    • Terry Brooks got it right. I’ve now tried it both ways and straight-up pantsing isn’t for me. Everyone else can pants all they want. That’s the beauty of diversity in writing.

      My first true novel was at least the equal of for four true novels (total: 970,000 words). Like you, I wrote it before I knew what I was doing. Years later I returned to them, but discovered they were a “fixer-upper” that had fallen down. Too, I’d wearied of the stories and longed to start fresh. I recommend not letting them linger too long or they’ll become homemade bread you need a chainsaw to slice.

      I’d love to hear more about those stories, Laurie.

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