Before today’s Wordy Wednesday (whoohoo, a writing process post, what what!), one last reminder that the super totally crazy awesome WriteOnCon is going on right now. (CHECK IT OUT HERE.) If you’re a writer, you don’t want to miss this. (Please note that all the posts and videos will still be available after the conference is over, so even if you do miss it, you still, you know… haven’t actually missed it.)
Oh, and I got a Twitter. In case you want to be cool and follow me or something. (I’ll probably more than likely follow you back, if it’s looking like one of my more technology-savvy days.)
I haven’t talked about it much in public, but for a little over a month now, I’ve been doing a pretty intensive round of revisions on Cadence.
If you’ve been here for a while now, you probably know what Cadence is.
If you’re new (Welcome! I love you!), Cadence is a young adult spy novel that I’m currently querying. (And if you don’t know what “querying” means either, you lovely non-writer, I explain it here.)
Why am I revising? That is something for me to know and you to maybe, someday find out–if we are all incredibly lucky and pray really hard and the Writing Industry Fairies smile down upon us. (That exact combination of factors. It can’t happen without that exact combination of factors.)
However, what I will tell you is this: Revising Cadence for the past month has taught me a ton about writing. Which seems crazy, because I just began the first draft a little over a year ago–and I just finished said first draft in January–so how much more could I have learned already?
It turns out, quite a lot.
Of course, it helps that since January, I’ve taken an intro to short story writing class through U of M, attended the Writer’s Digest Conference East, gone to a couple of writing workshops, and oh yeah–it’s WriteOnCon right now. Not to mention reading a more-than-obsessive number of blog posts and articles on craft and revising and all that
awful fun stuff.
But truly? Most of what I’ve learned–or at least, most of what I’m taking into account while revising–is stuff I’ve taught myself.
Reading articles and taking classes based on other more experienced people’s observations on writing is great, but the real learning has been coming from the things I observe and take note of myself. Like how, while rereading Divergent by Veronica Roth, I found that one of the things that helps establish her rapid fire pace is her short, snappy sentence structure; and after sifting through some of my other favorite YA page-turners, I found the same thing. So I was able to go through Cadence and work on pacing by restructuring my sentences to make them shorter and therefore punchier.
Other lessons came from my own writing. My short story The Things I Leave Behind won the children’s/YA division of the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. I wrote that story back in January for the U of M intro to short story writing class (just a week or so after I finished Cadence, actually) and ever since then, everyone who’s read it has adored it. None of the other short stories I wrote winter semester garnered anything like the reactions I’ve gotten to that first one.
So what makes The Things I Leave Behind–which was just another story to me while I was writing it–so special? I finally just sat down and read through it the other day, from the perspective of someone who’d done far too much analyzing during AP English, and I realized: it’s the back story. At any given point in time, there are at least three layers of narrative occurring, one over top of the other: (1) what’s happening in the present, (2) how the narrator is reacting to it, and (3) how the bits of personal history she reveals affect both 1 & 2.
It’s because the story has layers. It’s because a good piece of writing is like an onion.
Not to say that The Things I Leave Behind is good, per say, because believe me–I don’t want to pat myself on the back. But obviously something about it is working, if it’s been so successful.
While the industry pros are always going on about how there shouldn’t be too much back story, I’ve learned, now, that having too little back story can also be a problem. It’s important to develop your world and the characters within it–and then to share that back story. Not only enough for the reader to be able to understand what’s happening on the surface level (1), but also enough to understand why the main character and their supporting cast are responding the way they are (2).
Both learning that writing shorter sentence increases pace (and often tension) and that back story can be used as a device to better allow the reader to connect with the story are important lessons–and they’re just two of the many that I’ve learned and applied to Cadence during the past month of revising. I’ve also learned that using descriptions rather than dialogue tags to identify a speaker can make a scene more immersive, saying things like “I realize” or “it occurs to me” are distancing, and there is such a thing as too little foreshadowing (because while some surprises are good, others just completely throw the reader for a loop).
Cadence is the fifth novel I’ve completed. I began writing it just a few months after finishing my fourth novel, and I can tell you without a trace of doubt that my first draft of Cadence was a hundred times better-written than the most recent (ergo, best) draft of my fourth novel. And now my most recent draft of Cadence–the one that I just finished my intensive revisions on, and is now making the rounds with my critique partners–is the strongest draft of a novel I’ve ever written period. By far.
Although I’ve been writing for longer than I can remember, I’m still learning. Every day I’m learning. I learn from going to conferences and workshops and reading articles with tips and guides, and I learn from reading my favorite books with a critical eye. I learn from talking to people, going out and doing things, and studying my own writing.
Even revising has become a learning process–every time I finish a draft, I know more about voice and structure and plot and sentence structure and character development than I did going in. I have a better idea of what I want the novel (or short story or whatever) to be. And I know more about who I want to be as a writer.
Learning, just like anything else in the writing industry, and life in general, is a developing, changing practice. It’s something I’m beginning to embrace more, now, as I get older and realize how much I truly still have to learn. And it’s a great thing to look forward to–knowing that while the Writing Fairies might not smile down upon me in the near future, they have at least granted me the the gift of everything I’ve learned over the past month or so. And that, in itself, has been worth it.