Saturday, May 31, 2014

How to Revise Your Novel - Without Burning Out

Last week I started my Tornado C revisions in earnest.  I set a personal goal to revise one chapter every two days—and so far I've stuck to it.  Today I'm on Chapter 5 out of 24.  Even though Chapters 1-5 are some of the shortest in the book, I'm still surprised at how quickly I'm moving.

And what's even more surprising is how I'm not getting tired of my revisions, in what's known as "burning out".

There are different stages of burning out.  The first stage is just getting tired of what you're doing.  The second stage is where the quality starts getting affected—you start slogging through the revisions, and rather than examining your work, you're glossing over your work.

And finally, you just get so sick and tired of looking at your novel all day long that you quit, sometimes for weeks on end.  I've had these symptoms before; we all have.

But what's remarkable about my Tornado C revisions is that, up to this point, I haven't even hit the first stage of burn-out.  Sure, sometimes I feel like Facebook is more fun than revisions, but I'm not tired of it, not yet.

So what's so different about THESE revisions?

I've noticed a few different things that help keep me from burning out—and I feel a list coming on.  Here we go!

1. Be well-rested.

Besides my Will Vullerman revisions last month, and a few small projects here and there, I have not done any heavy writing since NaNoWriMo last year.

And that makes a big difference.  I'm ready to get working on a new project, and I have all of that pent-up creative energy to spend.

2. Set a modest and achievable goal.

The reason I put "modest" in there is that "achievable" needs to be modified.  NaNoWriMo is achievable.  Yet few writing bonanzas have more burn-outs than that infamous contest in November.

Setting a modest goal makes you feel like you're getting stuff done—and you are.  Just keep going at it, steadily, but don't make your goals so high that you have to crunch to meet your deadlines.  That'll keep you from burning out.

This worked really well in my own revisions.  I set a goal of revising one chapter every two days—so far it's required one or two hours a day to get it done, which isn't bad at all.

3. Be prepared.

This is, by far, the most important of the three tips, and the one I've seen make the most difference in my own novel.

My personal preparations were a little elaborate.  I started out by refining my world-building and composing several long works on culture and politics, in addition to drawing supplementary maps.  (What can I say?  I'm one of those world-building geeks.  I love it.)

Then I wrote down all of the writing tips I've found most helpful in my own life, and ones that people have recommended to me.  After that, I reread my novel, making notes as I went.  I identified all of the weakest points—the characters that didn't make sense, the rockiest parts of my prose, the plot holes, the pacing problems.

After that (I see your eyes growing wider; don't worry, I'll be finished soon) I put my writing tips and weak points together and wrote myself a revision plan.  I found all of the questions I would need to ask to revise each chapter, and I put them into my plan.  It ended up being twenty-one steps, in order from the most general to the most specific—my beginning questions had to do with plot and character, and my ending questions had to do with passive voice and adverbs and telling.

For instance, my first question was this: 1. "Reimagine the scene.  What could go differently?  What could go wrong?"  It was followed by, "Determine the goal of the scene: add setbacks and tension."

One of my last questions was, "Examine adverbs and adjectives and eliminate where necessary."  That let me deal with the big picture first, and let me end on the nuts and bolts of sentence structure.

Obviously, to be prepared, you don't have to write yourself an elaborate revision plan.  But knowing just what's wrong with your novel, and brainstorming how you could fix it, helps your revisions go smoothly and quickly.  I found that "mapping out" my plots on paper was especially helpful, since I could see the plot holes visually and try to brainstorm ways to fill those holes—through setbacks and disasters.

Remember, good stories are not written—they are rewritten.  And good concepts, too.  Look at your novel with a critical eye and try to pick apart what's wrong before you actually start revising.

If you're prepared, well-rested, and you have a set goal—well, I can't imagine a better way to keep from burning out!

What about you?  Have you found any tricks that are especially helpful in avoiding burn-out?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Different Take on Originality

In the making of Up, storyteller Pete Docter changed the main plot of the story multiple times - sometimes drastically, taking the story in a totally different direction.  The original concept was of a castle floating in the sky, inhabited by a king and his two sons.  His sons were opposites and couldn't stand each other - and they were vying to inherit the kingdom.

Then the story changed.  Taking along only the title (Up) and a tall bird that had originally helped the brothers understand each other, Docter reimagined the film as the story of an old man, Carl Fredrickson, who eventually ends up with his eight-year-old stowaway, Russell, on a Soviet dirigible.  Then that idea changed, and the Soviet subplot was done away with.

Eventually, Up became the beloved story it is today - a tale of a balloon house that flies to Paradise Falls.  But only after many, many revisions.*

You see, the deal is, originality doesn't come from concept.  Up wasn't born perfect - no story is.  Every story starts out cheap. What separates the good stories - the original and affecting ones - from the cheesy stories is how often they are revised into a better work of art. Examine character motivations and plot twists - in making them better the story becomes less typical.

Everyone's heard that "great books are not written, but rewritten".  But that great CONCEPTS are rewritten - that changes the way you think. If the plot and characters of a story aren't set in stone, if you're willing to completely change the story, then you can free your story from cliches - rewrite it into something that has never been done before.

Good revisions make originality, not good concepts.  

And you know, that's encouraging.  As bad as your story might be right now, it has the capability to become something great.  Something original.

Don't give up hope, and don't give up tweaking.  Both will see you and your story through.

* (All information regarding the development of Up sourced from Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull.  Which, by the way, is an excellent read, and one I recommend.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Reminder for the Christian Writer

Sometimes what's obvious, isn't so obvious.

Writers can get this more than other people. Sometimes we can't see what's glaringly obvious because we've been looking at the details; we can't see the major flaws of a project just because we've been working on it for months on end.

But this doesn't just happen in writing. Sometimes we can lose sight of the big picture. Sometimes we can get so caught up in doing things that we don't remember why we're doing them.

That's when we need reminders. No matter how well you know something, you always need a reminder, because you'll forget it. Little by little, inadvertently, it'll slip from your mind, even if you've tried to stay focused.

This happened to me this past week. My writing just wasn't flowing. I wasn't feeling inspired. I wasn't feeling motivated. I had a lot of goals and a lot of ideas, but they all felt discordant and disconnected. What was going on?

I decided to sit down and figure it out. It was about midnight, I think; and an unusually cool night. I decided what I needed to do was to review the fundamentals, especially when it came to writing. What was I doing with my writing?

The initial answer came easily. I wanted to glorify God with my writing.

But how?

That spawned this post, which is copied from my “midnight notes”. I went back to the basics—I reviewed the fundamentals. To the question “How can I glorify God with writing?” I discovered four answers, roughly in order.

So. How can I glorify God with writing?

1) By showing his glory.

This seems obvious, perhaps. But it's so much bigger and more meaningful once you get past the “Christianese” that surrounds the word “glory”. Showing God's glory in writing means embodying his love so we can experience it more; his goodness so we might thirst for it more; his joy so we might rejoice in it more; his faithfulness so we might give thanks all the more.

Showing God's glory in writing means taking what's good about God, what's glorious about God, and putting it into a story. It means making it so that we can see it clearer than ever before; sometimes our view of God and his virtues is skewed or veiled. The writer's job is to straighten the picture and unveil the masterpiece. We embed the nature of God in a story so that people can see it in a new light, because they might not be able to see it properly in real life.

Interestingly enough, I sometimes think of How To Train Your Dragon when I review this point. Because what that film did, superbly, is convey a sense of wonder. Whether or not the makers of that movie meant to show the glory of God or not, they did. And that's an attribute of God I appreciate more and more. He's full of wonder. And as much as I like HTTYD, that pales in comparison to the wonder found in Christ! So really, it just reflects us back to him who is ultimately wonderful. As beautiful as John Powell soundtrack is, it's a mere echo to the glory of God.

And that's what our work should be—echoes of the glory of God.

2) By showing our journey.

Showing our journey means embedding our hopes and worries and fears into a story. All of the things that all of us feel. Then we play them out in conflict and in plot; and it shows us, ultimately, how God leads us closer to him, to trust him and to triumph in him.

And this one's more practical. Because if you embed a truth of Scripture in a story, it becomes more than just a story. It applies to life. Just like the story Nathan told David changed him, showed him where he was wrong, a story that tells the truth can change people. If it shows our problem, it can show our solution. It can show the end of the journey. It goes beyond a story into real life.

3) By writing the story he inspires, without compromise.

If the story best glorifies God with explicitly Christian content, write it so. If it best glorifies him with implicitly Christian content, write it so. God's glory, not man's judgment, is paramount.

Does that mean that our stories always have to be explicitly Christian? No. Because if God calls you to write a novel that is implicitly Christian, to disobey that calling is to deny him the glory of us doing what we are called to do.

Without compromise is an important phrase. That means that it should be no more and no less “explicit” than what we are called to. I'm not going to force theology into Will Vullerman because that's not what God called me to do when I wrote it. But I'm not going to tone down the theology of Tornado C, because that's not what God called me to do when I wrote it.

4) By writing the best story I can.

Excellence glorifies God. Simply doing something well brings glory to him. What that means is that when I write, I write with passion, dedication, and the love a craftsman has for his craft. It means a love for detail, for technical and structural mastery. It means raw honesty, truth, and emotion.

And a ridiculously good story.

In summary, I glorify God in writing by showing his glory, showing our journey, and writing the story he inspires, without compromise, as best I can.

If a story does not do this, I have no business writing it.

That's our reminder. Keep focused. Don't lose sight of why we write, and how we put it into practice. Sometimes we have to reexamine the fundamentals in order to find clarity in what we're doing.

I certainly found that to be true in my own life—after doing this, I attacked my projects with renewed vigor, finishing my world-building project today at 10,000 words. Having a clear goal helps you have a clear path.

Now—let's get going! Once we have the goal in sight, we don't have any excuses left to keep us from the road.

Soli Deo gloria!

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the LORD, not for men...It is the LORD Christ you are serving.” —Colossians 3:23-24

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly...And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the LORD Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” —Colossians 3:16-17

Monday, May 5, 2014

Read "The Thirteenth Call" and "The Immortal Man" for FREE!

I've been working like mad to wrap up my revisions for my Will Vullerman stories.  After overhauling "The Thirteenth Call" and rewriting large portions of "The Immortal Man", I've finally declared them finished!  All going well, I'm hoping to release them Kindle later this year.

As a result, here I am again, after more than a year.  I'm continuing the tradition of the first two stories—blog readers get to read Will Vullerman for free!

Since it's been a long time I last made this offer, let me amend it: you can request to read any or all of the Will Vullerman stories.  Even the first two have gone through some minor touch-ups, so if you want to reread them, feel free to request all four stories.

But before you do, read the requirements:

First, you must be a follower or “chronic reader” of this blog at the time of this post to be eligible for these free copies. That just means that you have to be one of the current 170+ Google followers, or that you're someone who has been reading this blog for a while.

Second, I need to receive an email from you in order for you to get your free copies. Send me an email at jtbdude [at] gmail [dot] com requesting your copies, letting me know that you're a follower or a reader of this blog.

Lastly, make sure and tell me the format in which you'd like to read the story. I can supply three versions: .odt, PDF, and .doc.  If you don't specify what file type you want, I'll send it in .doc.

Once I get an email from you, please be patient. It may take awhile for me to reply—longer than a week, perhaps.  My internet isn't terribly reliable.

There are no strings attached. While I'd value your opinions and critiques, they are not required for you to receive the story.  (If you do notice some bad plot holes or typos, feel free to let me know.)

Please consider, however, writing a review once the stories come out on Kindle—balanced reviews are crucial on Amazon!

The offer doesn't go on forever. This is only available to blog followers from now up until the time Will Vullerman is published. After that, this post no longer valid. So if you wish to read these stories, please email me as soon as you can!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Frozen: A Revised Review

(Disclaimer: this review contains spoilers.)

A long while back I wrote a critical review of Frozen.  Since then, I've talked to a lot of people about the opinions expressed in that review—my thoughts on “Let It Go”, for instance, or the pent-up potential of the characters' development.

All of this discussion led me to rewatch the movie, so that I could examine the plot and character a little more closely.  I was surprised how much more I liked it the second time—and so I decided to overhaul my review, clarifying the points that people often get wrong and modifying the parts where my opinion changed.

To start out with, what impressed me the most is the theme of Frozen.  In my first review, I noted the ideals: the idea that love is not just romantic, but is bigger and more powerful than that.  Seeing it again, the themes felt larger and more powerful.

Anna has “ice in her heart” that is “put there by her sister”—you can easily see the analogy to the figurative “ice” that comes about in sibling relationships.  Sometimes you get hurt by the people you love.

What's incredible is that Frozen implies that the way to get rid of that ice in your heart is to love all the more.  Anna's sacrifice melts her heart.  If you follow the analogy, the way to heal a relationship where you've been hurt is not to love the other person less, but to love them more.  It's remarkable is just how “Christian” that idea is, especially coming from a secular studio that often emphasizes romantic love and feel-good tropes.  It's “love your enemy” wrapped up in a Disney fairy tale.

I still hold that the first ten or fifteen minutes were the best of the movie.  (My favorite song of the movie is the one that opens the credits, followed by “Frozen Heart”.)  There's a huge amount of character development from there to the end of “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?”  In some ways, I wish the rest of the movie had followed the trend—especially the focus on Elsa, and the emotional punch that her isolation brought to the movie.

Yet the emotional punch only went as far as twenty minutes.  I was under the impression that the use of Elsa's gift could kill Anna, if Anna remembered.  When Elsa revealed her gift and nothing happened to Anna, a potentially explosive twist was erased. 

Then Elsa runs away and sings (as “Honest Trailers” puts it), the “YOLO song”, Let It Go.

(Disclaimer: this section is very long, because it is the most controversial, and I took a lot of time to explain my position.  Feel free to skim!)

My original perception of the song was that Elsa was abandoning her sister and her kingdom to live alone, a “Who cares about them, anyway?” mentality.  There are still some hints of that in the song, but in order to analyze it, I split it into two parts.  (One reason why this song has so many facets is that Elsa was originally conceived as a villain, and Let It Go was her villain song.)

Why split it up?  Well, I really don't mind one message of the song.  The first and second verse are mostly about her “letting go” of her failures and seeing what her powers can do when she unleashes her creative potential.  There are still some iffy parts, but it's not nearly as bad as my first assumption.

But the second half of the song, combined with certain phrases from the chorus, is where it strays into a gray zone.  The song shifts gears: it's no longer about letting her potential out, but more about letting go of everyone else.  (“I'm alone, but I'm alone and free,” she says later in the movie.)  Her solitude became less and less a sacrifice, and more and more an affirmation of “I don't need them.  I can be myself here, alone,” which is ultimately a destructive ideal. 

The first half of the song says, “Since I can't be with them, I might as well let it go.”  Her “kingdom of isolation” isn't self-imposed; she says it “looks like” she's the queen.  The second half says, “I'm going to let it go in spite of them all.”   Who needs them?  Slam the door!

Instead of accepting her isolation as a necessary evil, she accepts it as a necessary good.  “Let the storm rage on,” “you'll never see me cry,”  and “the perfect girl is gone”; she overcompensates for all those pent-up years by letting go of all of her fear and bitterness—towards her powers.  The cold never bothered her anyway. 

But she lets go of all of her responsibilities and, more importantly, her sister, and that's where the song goes wrong.  “I'm never going back – the past is in the past!”

This is fine—in the context of the story.  Later on, she finally realizes that this “freedom”, which is really isolation, hurts her just as much as her first isolation did. (“Nobody wants to be alone,” Anna says.)   But the problem is, the song has now become a phenomenon —so I'm wondering if people missed the point.  Elsa goes through two extremes: isolating her powers and being with others, or isolating herself and freeing her powers.  Both eventually harm her.

By the end of the movie, she learns that it's love that will make her really free.  That's how she controls her powers—and her isolation, of all sorts, ends.

Let It Go is the song that deals with Elsa's swing to the other extreme.  As such, it shouldn't be trumpeted as a great cry for independence and creativity.  Because it's not – or half the song isn't.  The rest of the song promotes a mentality prevalent in our culture: you don't need anyone.  Just be true to yourself.  And that's not what Frozen is saying.

(Okay.  Rant over.  Thanks for listening.)

This brings me to the three major contradictions of the movie.

First up.  Elsa sings that her fears that “once controlled her, can't get to me at all”.  Except in her next scene, she says, “There's so much fear.”  So which is right?  Either the movie contradicted itself, and the writers of Let It Go were in a hurry to make it a feel-good single, or Elsa contradicted herself.  (I'm leaning toward the latter.  As it turns out, isolation can't solve your fear – but “Perfect love casts out all fear”, which is exactly what happens later in the movie.  Another strike against Let It Go.)

Then, Anna exhibits a few symptoms of bitterness when she tells Elsa that she's been shut out for so long, an understandable and human reaction.  Those dissolve, however, and never surface again—which means that we lose some realism and character potential.

Finally, despite Disney's previous treatment of “true love”, Anna and Kristoff are romantically interested.  “Sure,” says Disney, “True love can't be forged in a day – but it might happen in two days, if you go on a snowy trek with an attractive fellow.” 

Plotwise, the story lacked a satisfying and even arc.  The pacing had problems.  After the first ten minutes, which were heavy in character development, Elsa's character came to a virtual standstill, and Anna accomplished almost nothing to do with the plot till she got herself stabbed with an icicle.  It definitely felt rushed, like the filmmakers hadn't marinated the story long enough. 

This is most clearly seen if you contrast the first and second halves of the movie.  The first half introduces the characters, and for the most part has good development and smooth dialogue.  The second half slacks off – once Anna finds her sister, the goal of the story becomes uncertain and the plot meanders. 

Then we have Kristoff's sudden fondness for Anna, culminating in breathing her name when he sees a random tornado thing over Arindel.  Because that line has never been done before.  To top it off, we have Hans, who recycles so many bad villain lines that he ought to be sued for plagiarism.

Combined, this creates a movie with some really good parts and some really sloppy parts.  The humor's great and the theme is surprisingly deep.  But unfortunately, the symptoms of rushed production are evident: character contradictions, irregular pacing, and cliché lines.  It had a lot of potential—but only some of it was used.  However, the philosophical shift that has taken place through Frozen is remarkable, and gives me hope for future Disney movies.

What do you think?  Did I hit closer to the mark this time?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.