Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ubermadchen Summer Progress Report

Palace of Versailles -- still from Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)

You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing.
--Gene Wolfe

This progress report has a wider range than on the label, since I'm counting the summer from the last week of high school to now, one week before I start orientation at college. (Contrast: my personal definition of summer is usually June, July, and August.) The report comes in a few sections:

Analytics -- the numbers
Pensees -- what I learned or am struggling with
Log -- progress as it happened

This week is cleanup week; Friday's post is about my summer as a whole. (This is just the most important/relevant part, so I favor it with its own post.)


(stats collected after yesterday's writing session)

Words Written (story only, not counting planning or scrapped): 101,625*
Time Elapsed (Real): 14 weeks.
Time Elapsed (Story): 20 weeks.
Distance Traveled: approx 1600 km (1000 mi).

*Remember when I said "the next project will be easier and shorter"? Ha.



Maps and worldbuilding notes will help keep both details and bigger matters consistent. Consistency varies in proportion to verisimilitude, which make it important. Writing down cool details as you write them in--or, better yet, coming up with cool details before you start writing the section that includes them--will give you a database of ideas and images from which to draw. Sometimes all they add is color; other times, legit plot twists can occur.

I find myself writing lots of dialogue and argument scenes. Though I don't particularly like reading arguments in stories or dealing with them in real life because I don't like talking in general, for some reason it's really easy to just drop a topic on the characters and watch them go. How much of it will stay in the story? Not all of it, though it's useful to write because it helps me get the characters' voices in my ear.

Remember: this is a draft. This is a first draft. You can skip, you can be vague, you can even write something like [add more salon scenes]. You're just putting this thing together as a first pass, and things don't have to be perfect. The loop is long but you will iterate on this.

I don't know what makes UM different but with this story, I'm getting more of a sense than I ever have before for how malleable certain sections of the story are. Which parts are compressible? Which parts are set in stone and where can you insert crucial information later if you find out that you need it? Information matters a great deal in this story and the flow of information has some well-defined and some blurry paths.

Mullerplan of Zurich

Maybe most of the unique things that I'm getting out of writing UM are because it's more modular than previous stories. They travel, they stay in a city, they move on. It breaks the story up into natural segments, and indeed consideration of cities helped me immensely when ironing out the second half of the story. It also helps me decouple the research and writing cycles: write up to the end of one segment, research and plan for the next one, repeat.

I've said this before but I'd really like to emphasize: PLANNING. As Rachel Aaron writes,
"Here I was, desperate for time, floundering in a scene, and yet I was doing the hardest work of writing (figuring out exactly what needs to happen to move the scene forward in the most dramatic and exciting way) in the most time consuming way possible (ie, in the middle of the writing itself).

As soon as I realized this, I stopped. I closed my laptop and got out my pad of paper. Then, instead of trying to write the scene in the novel as I had been, I started scribbling a very short hand, truncated version the scene on the paper. I didn't describe anything, I didn't do transitions. I wasn't writing, I was simply noting down what I would write when the time came.

If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you're writing before you write it. I'm not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions. Writing this stuff out in words you actually want other people to read, especially if you're making everything up as you go along, takes FOREVER. It's horribly inefficient and when you get yourself in a dead end, you end up trashing hundreds, sometimes thousands of words to get out. But jotting it down on a pad? Takes no time at all. If the scene you're sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immedeatly, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and start again at the beginning. That's it. No words lost, no time wasted. It was god damn beautiful."

I haven't gotten up to her level yet, but the clearer you know what you want to write before you actually write it, the smoother the day will go. For the Zurich section, on which I am currently working, I asked myself a lot of questions about the practical details of this segment, made myself answer them, came up with names and descriptions of characters the girls encounter (because few things kill productivity faster than trawling BehindtheName.com to name Magician #2), and explicitly noted locations and timelines. Looked at a lot of maps. In short: PLANNED.

Sometimes I deliberately don't do this, though: sometimes, I just want to explore the possibilities of a place before I commit to anything. So I take a day or two and just cut loose.

Character issues: I really, really like Marilla. This is good because she's the main character, but it's also bad because sometimes I let her friends fade into the background, and I lose the interaction among them that, I think, drives the story's emotional arc. One would think that someone who cannot resist the lure of multiple-POV storytelling (me) would never forget that there are many sides to a story and that everyone is their own main character. But I do forget, to the story's detriment. Not sure how to fix this, aside from making a point every so often to ask, "hey, what's up with [Character X]? What is she thinking/feeling/doing right now?"

New Library of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh


Senioritis hit hard in the last two weeks of school, but once summer started I could devote more time to writing, making it a priority, weekday thing instead of relegating it to late nights and weekends as during the school year.

Work while in China: mindmap identifies possible AUs, music to listen to while writing. Story bones: clarify what the overarching problems are and identify the three main phases of the story as the girls gain progressively more freedom and power. Story atmosphere investigation brings the focus back onto Marilla, who is a retiring, invisible-girl sort but still has a compelling and attractive personality and a strong aesthetic sense which has been missing from her narration. More light, more clarity, more senses.

Huge explosion of writing after the return from China: 1000+ words almost every day, one day 3000. Why? Because of focus on moving the story forward, writing to get scenes done rather than writing to get words done. "I want to cover this material today," and then I have time to actually do it.

Break at the end of the first week of July to plan for the next part, in France: what do I have to research? What do I already know? Filling up the story box with maps, notes, images. Should add more music.

Starting in early July I began making weekly notes:

7/6-7/12: Distractions sap vitality of the work. Need to take a day to plan out, gain some direction. This isn't a "let's just see what happens" part because it's liminal, it's in the way of the plotty part. This is an interlude, a handover, and I want to get to the good stuff but I also don't want to sludge through Normandy. Also I don't know how to snoop.

7/13-7/19: things pick up after I get a legit list of scenes down and revisit my goal for the story as fast-paced--a thriller chase with a demure narrator and setting. //I don't see Ubermadchen as a thriller, per se, but the action/page-turner element is easy to lose when your characters are all reasonably sensible and well-brought-up young women. Which is probably a sexist statement, but this is the 18th century we're dealing with.

7/20-7/26: Paris! Salons, politics, looking up historical figures. Read and took notes on a section about Louis XVI in Passions and Politics: A Biography of Versailles by Joseph Barry. Things are in fine whack. Versailles section coming up--I give myself permission to explore this one a bit.

7/27-8/2: a busy week, so lackluster writing. Getting into Versailles. This should be the good part, they finally meet Louis-Auguste, but tiredness and lack of enthusiasm plague me. Lots of distraction.

8/3-8/9: somewhat of a slump, still. Exploring ideas in Versailles space, conversations--LOTS of conversations. But I also hit the point where the document is long enough that Word doesn't want to show the spelling errors anymore. //I think this was around page 200.

8/10-8/16: starting to put plot in indulgence pieces because I miss having plot in UM; realization that I need to kick things into higher gear. Taking steps to do so.

After mid-August I switched over to an excel spreadsheet to keep track of my daily work (one notes that I am fond of keeping track of things). Here I distill my notes, again in weekly format because that's how I've broken up this summer.

8/17-8/23: getting them out of Versailles, where they have spent almost the past month. The writing comes quickly because of strong affinity for Louis-Auguste. I'm writing a more emotional main character than usual, and feelings happen. By the end of the week, doing prep work for the next section, which is a liminal bit through which I plan to rush ignominiously.

8/24-8/30: the liminal bit. Not as boring as I had despaired on Friday, but not superbly engaging. Marilla misses Versailles and so do I. But I do it, trying to use Google Street View (I haven't quite figured out the best way to use it) to get a better idea of what the terrain looks like. At the end of the week, digging in on Zurich prep work.

8/31-9/6: because Zurich is a really large section and probably the last I'll have time for before school starts, I decide to do a lot more research and planning. I flood the Ubermadchen tumblr with Zurich images and research, make a list of events from which I cull a list of scenes, and write out on paper a calendar with events written in, using different colors for different groups. The writing goes well.

This week, I'm working on finishing up Zurich. Hopefully I'll have time to plan for successive portions, and hopefully I have time to work on the story in college. Writing keeps me sane even as the process, with all its frustrations and disappointments and serendipities, drives me insane. So it goes.


I listened to French music during the France section, and since basically all the girls have absentee parents, this song seems fitting:

Papaoutai - Stromae

(Incidentally, the story behind this song is very tragic.)

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