Turn And Face The Strange

I’m trying something new these days, working on a project that’s much shorter than a novel but much longer than a short story: a novella. Sounds cute, doesn’t it?

A novella typically clocks in between 10 000 – 20 000 words. This particular novella keeps surprising me, both in form and content. I thought I was writing a short story (under 5000 words) back in the spring, but the ideas kept expanding, spinning out, forcing me to give them space. Not only is this the first new project I’ve started since the pandemic hit, it’s also set in 2020. Maybe that’s why it’s so weird. I keep veering into dreamlike magic realism, which is a huge change from anything else I’ve written.

(In case you’re wondering: yes, I finally finished my novel back at the end of September! I’m now onto the stage of sending queries out to agents, with the hopes of finding someone who believes in my book as much as I do and wants to find me a kick-ass publishing deal. Fingers are crossed!)

I’m working on a first draft of the novella now, trying to get this finished before the December holidays. In the new year, I’ll take a step back and attempt to figure out what the heck is going on with this rough beast of a project (Character arcs? Themes? Whatever’s going on with the supernatural mountain lion school mascot that’s haunting my narrative?)… After all the nit-picky novel polishing of the past few months/years, I’m really enjoying the breakneck craziness of drafting something new.

Oh, and one more fun thing: I’ve created a Spotify playlist for the novella’s two main characters, teenage sisters who have very different taste in music. You’re welcome to check it out!

Spotify playlist: “Offscreen”

Final sprint

I’m about to finish my novel. Another day or two of edits on the final chapter, and my 90 000-word literary baby will be done.

It doesn’t quite feel real. I’ve been working on this book since at least 2011, back when I was teaching high school full-time, raising three little kids. I used to wake up at 5:45 every morning, to write before work. Now writing is my day job and my kids are all bigger than me! Time has certainly passed, and the Covid pandemic has made everything harder, but still I find myself here, at the finish line, at last.

Once I press “save” on that final draft, there are a few more steps before I can fully relax. I’ve written this book in Scrivener, so I’ll need to paste the whole document into Word — this entails another reread to make sure the formatting doesn’t go wonky. After that, I’ll take a couple of days to write the dreaded synopsis: a 1-2 page summary of the novel, showing the full story arcs and all key details. I’ve found lots of online guides and examples for writing synopses, so hopefully this won’t be as difficult as I anticipate.

Finally, by Friday, Oct. 8th at the very latest, I’ll send my manuscript and synopsis to a literary agent. And that will be it! Hard as it is for me to believe, I’ve actually written a book.

Both Sides Now

I’ve decided that writing a novel is a lot like knitting a fair-isle sweater.

How so? Well, sweaters are complicated. There are the design decisions: colours, type of yarn, size of needles, stitch patterns. There’s the painstaking work of actual knitting: stitch by stitch, sleeves and hems and panels, all eventually sewn together to make a finished garment. Then there’s the super complicated knitting pattern to follow (which I would never attempt to create myself! These are the domain of professional designers.)

Writing a novel is just as complicated. There are so many decisions that build on each other, a structure that needs figuring out, the long process of putting words and sentences and scenes and chapters together. Not to mention writing multiple drafts, which feels like ripping back knitting work and redoing everything differently.

Let me push the metaphor a little further. If you’ve ever knit (or owned) a fair-isle sweater, you’ve probably noticed the ugly, messy reverse to the neat colourwork design. While you’re knitting, you carry strands of different-coloured yarn along the back, carefully maintaining an even tension so the stitches won’t be distorted on the front of the sweater.

This process of carrying yarn (technically called “floats”) feels like my writing these days, as I work through the final revisions of my novel. I have two main characters, lots of secondary characters and various subplots… there are lots of details to track though each chapter!

I’ve heard that it’s a good idea to focus each round of revisions on a different aspect of the novel: settings, maybe. Or psychological realism for a specific character. Then, as these major elements get worked out, you can go through the draft and cut unnecessary scenes, polish the language, and build up imagery and symbolism.

I’m going for a more immersive approach, working chapter by chapter, revising all of the above. I’ve just finished chapter 20 (out of 28), carefully balancing plots and characters and emotions to keep the tension steadily rising through the book. I’m trying to keep the threads taut so that the story’s got momentum, so that none of my messy edits show through on the final draft.

The colourwork baby sweater I knit for my nephew James this winter.

Less is more

Today, I cracked 100 000 words on my novel manuscript. Not written, but unwritten. This is a milestone!

Novels are generally in the 80 000 – 100 000 word range. Less than 50 000 is a novella; over 100 000 is perfectly acceptable for genres like Fantasy and Sci Fi, but not so much for literary fiction.

I tend to write long. There’s a gleeful pleasure in losing myself in long imaginary scenes. Dialogue between characters goes on for page after self-indulgent page. Descriptions unspool over paragraphs as I decorate nouns with multiple adjectives, embroider verbs with unnecessary adverbs.

My first decent draft of this novel ran over 130 000 words. The draft I finished last year was 115 000 words. Still way too long. I’ve promised myself I’d get it under 100 000 before I sent it out to prospective agents and/or publishing houses. I’ve been trimming for months, shortening sentences and cutting out extra words. I do actually enjoy this editing process: I can feel the prose getting sharper, more allusive and interesting.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the Scrivener word count, celebrating every time I jettisoned another hundred words. Today, while I was revising an early chapter, it finally happened; the number dipped below 100 000 for the first time in years. 99 584 words, to be precise.

I’ve still got another few weeks of revision before I can send out my queries, but oh, the happiness of achieving a milestone. Five figures! Achievement unlocked!

Happier New Year?

Happy New Year! Well, it’ll be happier eventually. So far 2021 looks a lot like 2020: My three teenagers are all home, “attending” school online. My husband is conducting therapy from our basement. Montreal is already in the Red Zone, with rumours circulating of an even more draconian lockdown to come.

I’m struggling to stay positive, to keep the momentum going on my writing. It’s especially frustrating because I’m SO CLOSE to being finished with this novel! After so many years, so many hundreds of hours and thousands of words written and edited and deleted, I’m almost at the finish line.

These days, I’m working through the final edits of my manuscript. I’m nearly done with chapter 24, which is the climactic chapter for one of my characters… I’m almost at the end of this book. I know exactly what needs to be fixed and how to make those revisions. I know which new scenes need to be written and where they need to go. I’ve got all the information, all the tools, and certainly all the motivation to complete this project.

But… it’s such a slog. I’m so desperate for time and space to think, to imagine my way into this fictional world. From October to December, I was able to write at Eric’s office, a few blocks away from our house. Now that’s closed. My own little home office isn’t available either, since my sons need that room for school. I keep trying to be flexible, to find new pockets of writing time: early in the morning, before kids wake up; mid-afternoon, when everyone’s relatively busy and quiet. Still, I’m always braced for interruptions, for a new emotional or tech emergency with my kids. Parenting during a pandemic is hard enough without trying to finish a novel!

Last night, I dreamed that I had another short story accepted for publication. I do have several stories out for consideration, but I’ve been getting nothing but rejections for months. In fact, I received my latest rejection yesterday: After consideration, we have decided that it is not in tune with our publishing needs. We wish you all the best with your writing. So what’s with my dream? Is my unconscious trying to offer me hope?

I don’t like to complain. I like to set goals, to make progress, to feel in control of my work and my life. I know that so many people have it so much worse than me! And yet here I am, throwing this little cri de coeur into the universe: please, let me finish this book! Give me the strength to keep going, to keep believing that I can reach this finish line. Please, let 2021 be a happier year than 2020 for all of us!