Friday, July 29, 2011

International Sh*tty First Draft Week-CONTEST!

All week long, fearless authors have revealed excerpts from their sh*tty first drafts. We've seen scenes like Christmas sweaters the manuscript outgrew; scenes that didn't carry their weight; scenes that have been cut and reinserted and cut so many times they don't even bother unpacking their suitcases any more.

Sh*tty First Draft Week was a misnomer in many ways. For one thing, much of the so-called shitty material in first drafts isn't so shitty after all. In fact, sometimes a scene or chapter is just perfect in its original context—but when you change other parts of the story, the context flexes and morphs until that "perfect" scene or chapter doesn't even make sense any more.

In this respect, drafting a novel is a bit like cooking a pot of soup: you can't throw in one new ingredient without affecting the flavor of everything else in the pot.

Another reason Sh*tty First Draft Week is a misnomer is the word "first". What about second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts? INTERN remembers hearing a director say that for every minute in a play, his theatre troupe does an hour of rehearsal (or was it ten hours?) INTERN feels the same way about writing: for every word that makes it into the final draft there are at least three words discarded. That's 300,000 words of drafting for a 100,000 word novel. This ratio is different for everyone, but it speaks to the huge amount of exploring, delving, mistake-making, playing, and who-are-you-kidding that goes into a finished creative work.

So anyway. On to the shitty first draft contest!

The Rules:

To enter, all you have to do is post a short excerpt from your own sh*tty first draft in the comments of this post.

You don't need to tweet about the contest or put it on a t-shirt. You don't need to follow this blog. You don't need to take out a Sh*tty First Draft Week ad in your local newspaper.

Just paste your goddamn draft excerpt in the comments.

The Winners:

INTERN will randomly select three winners by assigning each commenter a number and then drawing the numbers out of a bowl.

INTERN will not be judging the entries on any axis whatsoever, so don't fret about whether your entry is too shitty/not shitty enough/etc—winning is a matter of luck!

INTERN will announce the winners on Monday, at which point winners can send iNTERN their contact information to claim their prizes.

The Prizes:

One lucky winner will receive a first 50 pages manuscript critique by INTERN!

One lucky winner will receive a mysterious Revision Prize Pack!

One lucky winner will receive some twigs, bits of string, and perhaps a book or two!


OK, everyone! Ready to reveal your sh*tty drafts? As promised, INTERN will share a snippet of shitty draftery too.







INTERN's first draft snippet:

This is the story of a girl who was pregnant with a cat. The cat lounged inside her, lapping at sunlight, until the girl awoke in pain one morning; the cat was dragging its claws all the way out.

This is the story of a girl who gave birth to a spider. Her belly swelled up so that people thought she had twins, triplets, quintuplets. But no; all that happened when she went into labor was a very tiny black spider crawled out. After hours of pushing, a tiny black spider. After all that blood, a tiny black spider. After all those months of eating, a tiny black spider. It crawled away on quick spider legs and though she called for it the girl never saw it again.

This is the story of a girl who gave birth to a rat...

etc. etc. etc.

Explanation: INTERN often feels daunted by first drafts, so she'll use poetic devices like repetition to make things "easy" until she hits on an idea she wants to follow. For INTERN, drafts are full of experiments like this that help INTERN discover who her characters are and what they want to say.

So what's your sh*tty first draft about? To the comments!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

International Sh*tty First Draft Week—Day 4

The fourth and final Guest Author in the Sh*tty First Draft series is Alexander Chee, author of the novel Edinburgh. He has been at work on his new novel, The Queen of the Night, for several years. Since there is no cover art for The Queen of the Night yet, here is the cover of Alexander's previous novel, Edinburgh:

What a Tangled Web We Weave...

Revising The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

This is one of The Queen of the Night's oldest sections, and dates from March of 2004, a first draft. I revised it and eventually discarded it, though most if not all all of the themes here are at work in the novel still—a love triangle with at least one other hidden triangle inside of it, i.e., a secret other third party. The royal insignia, that is still significant in the novel, but differently.

The novel is about a young woman who is in sexual and artistic bondage to an older man, who uses her for various purposes, sexual, romantic, political. When I say bondage, I mean, he bought her from a brothel, paying off her contract. He is a tenor singer and a spy, and was looking for someone who had already been discarded, who he could then discard as he wanted to, when he was done with her. But in the process of his use of her, he eventually makes her over into a singer also, a soprano, and he falls in love with her. Or at least, that's what he believes. Because who wouldn't fall in love with someone who basically did whatever you demanded, and had to, in fact, because he owned you?

But by the time the tenor realizes this, he has lost her to a young composer, and she is intent only on escaping him. In this scene, she's preparing to go and preview parts of an opera the composer has written on a commission from the Russian empress, who intends it as an entertainment for the young Alexander's birthday. She is creating the lead role in it at the composer's request. She and the composer are preparing for the trip, which allows them a moment together—they are each with other, more powerful lovers. This trip allows them to sneak off together.

But the cufflinks will offend the empress, or at least, that was the intention when I wrote this first draft. That a gift which was first an affectionate one, from the prince to the tenor, then became an offhand one, practically a discard tossed to a mistress, who should have refused it. But she didn't, she kept it, and then it became an affectionate gesture once more, and obeying the gift's precise instructions. But this, I decided, would bring about what they sought to avoid, albeit unintentionally—the discovery of and sundering of their affair.

In that early draft it was the beginning of Chapter 8.

I'll say that I wouldn't be surprised in the least if I returned this to the draft, or some of it, but for now, neither version is in it, and I hope it's instructive. When I take something out of a draft, it's often because it doesn't belong where I put it---but it still belongs somewhere. So I save it.

They had been the cufflinks of the young Prussian prince, the beautiful young prince, who was now the beautiful young king. He had sent them to Niemanns, the tenor, after one of his performances, along with a cross he still wore on his neck when he offered me these. They were ivory swans on a sapphire field and set on white gold.

The young tenor at that time a lover. Of us both, as I would learn.

Was there an audience with the prince, I asked.

He made no answer. I blushed.

Take them, he said. Don’t you like them? Take them. Just don’t wear them in Germany.

I did as he asked.

He had found me at the Pillon, in my swan mask. He took me from there and set me up with his friends in an apartment near the Paris Opera; for him, really, though the others found it convenient. He was the one who paid for my voice lessons, took me to see the great operas, and in them, the great divas. He was the one who brought me to see the Lucia at La Scala that made me reach for all of this, who laughed afterwards, when I imitated her on the street. They think you are her, he said, of the passersby staring, as if perhaps I was the woman I imitated⎯for I did look like her, though younger. I remember how I laughed at him. Do you really think so, I said.

20 years later, when the composer needed a pair for our audience with the Russian Empress, I brought them out, thinking they would bring us luck. He examined them carefully. They’re lovely, he said.

Don’t wear them in Germany, I said.

Alexander Chee is the author of Edinburgh. He blogs at Koreanish.

To mark the conclusion of International Sh*tty First Draft Week, INTERN will be holding a Sh*tty First Draft contest tomorrow (Friday) open to everyone! To enter, simply post an excerpt from your own sh*tty first draft in the comments of tomorrow's post. INTERN will randomly select three winners—because the whole point of a sh*tty first draft is to write first and judge later.

Happy drafting!


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

International Sh*tty First Draft Week—Day 3

Today's guest post comes from Kat Zhang, whose HYBRID trilogy recently sold to HarperTeen in a major deal. Kat is an esteemed member of the League of Illustrious Interns (not that that had anything to do with it!)

No Slackers Allowed: Making Each Scene Count

I’m the sort of person who underwrites scenes the first round through. Which isn’t to say that I don’t need to cut things once I go back to revise, but when I revise a scene, it tends to get longer (and should). My first drafts of scenes are bare bones…sometimes not much more than dialogue and some sparse action shots.

Here’s a good example. This scene still exists in the final draft…much of the dialogue is word for word the same, but otherwise, the scene has changed quite dramatically. But I’ll talk about that later. First, let’s see how the scene was the very first time I sat down and pounded it out:

“He’s Will right now,” Lucy said as we came in the door. She was sprawled on the carpet, coloring with a reckless abandon. Hally dropped her book-bag on the counter and smiled at the little boy tottering up to us.

“Hi, Will,” she said, dropping into a squat despite her skirt. “How are you?”

Lucy looked up. “Who’s that?” she said. “Is she going to play with us too?”

Will jerked on the bottom of our shirt before Adie could answer. He ignored Hally entirely and looked up at us with petitioning eyes.

“We’re hungry,” he said.

“They’re not really,” Lucy said. “I just gave them a cookie. They just want another one.” She stopped coloring and climbed to her feet. “Is that girl going to play with us?” she asked again.

Hally smiled at her. “I’m here to help baby sit.”

“Who? Will and Robby?” the little girl asked. “They don’t need two people.”

She stared at us, daring someone to say that she, at seven, still needed a baby sitter.

The way it was, the scene isn’t too bad…nothing that makes me cringe, anyway. But it’s pretty bland. Okay, so Lucy is asking about Hally. There’s a little boy. Baby sitting. Yay?

I’m a big believer in every scene doing as much as it can, especially a scene as early in the book as this one is. So in the current (almost final!) draft of the book, the scene itself lasts longer. It no longer begins with Lucy’s first sentence but with the girls entering the house. That way, everything they see, from the size and layout of the home to what Lucy and her little brother are watching on TV, helps with the world building I’m trying to achieve.

Overall, when I revise, I outline the change I want to make, including which scenes will need to be inserted, which will need to be changed, and what will need to be cut. Then I write the new scenes, cut the old scenes they replace, and tinker with the results until it’s smoothed over well enough to seem like there was never a disturbance to begin with :)


The first novel in the HYBRID trilogy (entitled What's Left Of Me) will be coming out...actually, there's no official release date quite yet. Visit Kat's blog here for updates!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

International Sh*tty First Draft Week—Day 2

Today, International Sh*tty First Draft Week continues with a guest post by Sarah Pinneo, whose forthcoming novel Julia's Child takes a humorous look at the organic food movement. Like that complicated recipe for arugula-flax chips, novels don't always work out on the first try...(OK, INTERN is about the cheesiest/worst MC ever. Stepping out of the way now.)

The Dog Should Eat My Homework by Sarah Pinneo

My comic novel, Julia’s Child, incorporates some themes which are both fun and dear to me. Julia, the main character, is deeply involved with the organic food movement. (So deeply, in fact, that she’s a bit neurotic about it.)

So in love was I with the milieu of farmers, foodies and obsessive sustainability that I put all of it into the book. I put it in often. Early readers said “I love it, but there’s too much about the business in there.” So I parted with a few lines and called it even. My agent said “I love it, but the book shows its homework too much.” So I cut out more. I cut out plenty. I was sure of it.
Guess what my editor said? Yes—you win! She said the same darned thing.

Here is a before and after bit from Julia’s Child:

Chapter 4 Opener, Take I:

Fashion had never been my thing. One might argue that I’d gone out of my way to avoid it. Even though I lived in a city where fashion designers outnumber yellow cabs, I often managed to dress like a scarecrow. My long, straight hair had been cut the same way since I was a teenager. And with cooking and toddlers, my wash and wear uniform was essential, if uninspired.

My lifestyle, however, had lately become quite fashionable. Suddenly it was hip to be a “greenie weenie” like me. It was cool to reuse your shopping bags. It was cutting edge to carry around a water bottle, and refill it straight from the tap.

In fact, Green was suddenly so cool that cliques had formed, each with its own brand of righteousness. There were the “locavores” for example—people who wouldn’t eat anything grown further than a hundred miles from home. Then there were the “freegans,” who wouldn’t buy anything new. They get by with clothing and house wares rescued from the landfill. It’s dumpster diving for the new millennium.

But being hyper conscious of the environment wasn’t easy. Checking up on the sources for everything you buy, and going out of your way to find local products took a lot of effort. And it was often a thankless task. The earth never sent Thank You notes. In that way, it was a lot like parenting. (Chapter Continues.)

Chapter 4 Opener, Take II:

“Get this. The new toothpaste I bought you has a childproof top.”

“Groovy,” Luke answered. He hit the car’s turn signal and steered us toward the exit off the interstate.

“I also bought you a different shampoo,” I told Luke. “This one is organic and not tested on animals.”

“I’m fine with that,” Luke said. “Just as long as you don’t make me smell like a woman.”

“I promise if anyone at work asks to borrow your perfume, you can switch back to the old one.”

“But seriously—just don’t switch the toilet paper,” he warned. “First of all, I don’t like the idea of recycled toilet paper.”
“They don’t mean recycled from toilet paper.”

He just shook his head. “Even so. I try to be ‘green’ too, Julia. I’ll plant some extra trees in Vermont if you want. But I’m not using sandpaper in the bathroom.”


The first version is essentially a lecture by the main character. Who wants a lecture? The second version features the main character’s same personality traits, but done in (what I hope is) a more interesting way.

I’d like to say that this will never happen to me again, that I’ll never fail to hear the obvious truth when a string of readers repeats the same bit of critique. But alas, (nerd) love is blind.


Sarah Pinneo is a food writer and the coauthor of The Ski House Cookbook. Her first novel, Julia’s Child, will be published by Plume in 2012. If you ask her whether it was easy or difficult to make the leap from published non-fiction writer to published novelist, she will laugh and point out the fact that her two books have publication dates which are more than four years apart. Sarah also edits Blurb is a Verb, a blog entirely devoted to book publicity.

Monday, July 25, 2011

International Sh*tty First Draft Week—Day 1

Every day between now and Thursday, exciting authors will be revealing excerpts from the first drafts of books you may have read (or might be reading soon!) Today's fearless author is Nova Ren Suma, whose YA novel Imaginary Girls has been getting rave reviews from Kirkus, the L.A. Times, and everywhere in between.

But writing an acclaimed literary YA novel doesn't happen in one draft...

A Scene Sliced Out of IMAGINARY GIRLS

by Nova Ren Suma

I write long. My first drafts are a study in endlessless and an experiment of how many times I can have my characters discover and rediscover the same thing and face up to the same epiphany. In first drafts, apparently everyone I write about has amnesia. That, or it takes me a few times to get a scene down right.

This means that when it comes time for revision the first thing I do is cut. I cut, then rewrite, then cut some more. (Then I do it again. And again.) The snippet of the scene I'm about to share isn't something I cut out of horror--this does happen; I've been known to cut-and-cringe--this scene was simply something that didn't fit the more I kept writing.

Imaginary Girls, my first YA novel that came out this summer, is the story of two closely entwined sisters: Ruby, the magnetic older sister, and Chloe, the little sister and narrator of the book. Technically they're half sisters, since they have different fathers, but Ruby would punch you in the face if you said they weren't fully related. Here's a piece of a scene I cut about Ruby's dad:
The car jolted to a stop on the curb.

“Another errand?” I joked.

Ruby looked at me sideways. “Have to stop here,” she said. “Always have to stop.”

I looked to see where we were--the house just before the hill, the one with the funky sculptures scattered around the front lawn. A fence separated it from the sidewalk--painted blue with fluffy white clouds. Ruby despised that fence. It forced you to be cheerful, she said, when maybe you weren't in the mood. No one should force a feeling on someone who's just innocently driving by their house.

“Remember this place?” she said.

I nodded. Sure, I remembered. She always liked to mess with this house. It gave her such glee. If Ruby was ever depressed, drop her here and let her have at it.

She despised more than the fence. She despised the purple the house was painted; the fact that someone dared paint their house purple; the colorful deck chairs on the lawn; the fact that there were even deck chairs set out on the lawn when there wasn't a deck to put them on, so strangers could just walk on in through the happy fence and kick back on the chairs and be happy; and especially the “art” on the lawn, abstract sculptures made from items probably scavenged from the nearby dump. It was the ugliest art Ruby had ever seen and it bothered her so much, she had to avert her eyes when driving past it.

But that really wasn't the point, and I knew it even if Ruby wouldn't say it. This house happened to be where that man lived, the one we saw around town sometimes, the one she said was her father.

Ruby caught the look on my face.

“Don't be so serious,” she said. “I just need to do one window.”

See, I liked the idea of Ruby wrecking her estranged father's house, to let him know she's well aware of who he is. But if I did that, it puts weight on Ruby's father--a character who barely merits mention in the book. I'd have to tie him into the plot later. Also, it means that Ruby actually cares. And anyone who's read the book knows Ruby only cares about herself, and her little sister. The deeper I wrote beyond first draft the more I realized that it was a detour I didn't need. (Props to my wise editor who must be given credit for helping me come to this and other realizations.)

So I cut this scene free. In truth, I cut so many pages from the first draft of Imaginary Girls--about 200--and rewrote them that I think this shows how sometimes when you're writing a first draft you're not really writing your story yet. You're writing toward your story.

Your first draft may be bloated and repetitive and out of character and utterly random, as mine often are, but you toiled to get those words down on the page for a reason…

…So you could cut them and make room for the better words--and the true story--meant to follow.


INTERN here. As you can tell from Nova's excerpt from an early draft of Imaginary Girls, there are many reasons for cutting a scene besides shitty writing. Sometimes, scenes with GOOD writing need to get cut too, because they simply don't fit the story anymore. Visit Nova's website here.

Stay tuned as International Sh*tty First Draft Week continues tomorrow with an author whose passion for food led her to cook up a book deal with Penguin!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How Books Work: The Hunger Games (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, INTERN mentioned Stephen King’s review of The Hunger Games: “Reading The Hunger Games is as addictive (and as violently simple) as playing one of those shoot-it-if-it-moves videogames in the lobby of the local eightplex; you know it's not real, but you keep plugging in quarters anyway.”

He’s right, of course. But what makes this comparison so apt? How does The Hunger Games deliver a similar experience to playing a video game? And why are books about games (and books that read like games) so addictive?

INTERN recently discovered a fascinating non-fiction book that answers exactly this question.

In Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken, she argues that games step in to fill basic human needs when reality fails us. When real life doesn’t provide enough goals, rewards, community, meaningful work, or sense of cause-and-effect—when real life is boring, alienating, ambiguous and unintelligible—games provide us with challenges, adventures, and authentic camaraderie with other players. Where real life can feel pointless, games test our abilities and present us a constant stream of obstacles and rewards. Games give us experiences we deeply crave—and which can be sadly lacking from modern life.

Which brings INTERN to The Hunger Games. Like the video games described in Jane McGonigal’s book, The Hunger Games provides readers with near-constant obstacles and rewards. Not only that, but the obstacles and rewards in The Hunger Games could literally have been pulled from a video game: a nest of trackerjackers, a silver parachute that drops from the sky…

Like (most) video games, there is ALWAYS a clear goal: find water, find Peeta, blow up Careers’ food pile. To achieve these goals requires skill (how many activities in modern highschools and workplaces still call for that?). Katniss shoots a bow and arrow, distinguishes edible plants from poisonous ones, skins and cooks meat, dresses wounds. Like a videogame, The Hunger Games fulfills our basic hunger to be useful, to not be alienated from our labor. Katniss isn’t skinning rabbits in a rabbit-meat factory where the results of her labor will be shipped to Wal-Marts across the nation—she’s doing work that directly literally means survival.

Like a video game, the ever-changing arena in which the Hunger Games take place always keeps Katniss at the very edge of her skill level. It’s never so easy as to become boring, and never so impossible the players give up. Dancing at the edge of your skill level—whether you’re playing a video game or sailing a boat—is where humans enter the psychological state called flow (a state of absorption in a task that can feel almost euphoric).

And reading The Hunger Games can put you in flow as well as any video game.


So what does this mean for writers?

Obviously, writing dozens of Hunger Games knock-offs isn’t a very attractive option. But more writers could harness the game-like qualities exhibited in The Hunger Games in their own books, whether or not the books themselves are about games (or even dystopias at all).

Readers are human. Humans, like lab rats, have basic cravings. If you can speak to these cravings, you’ll win a reader for 300 pages.

So what are some game-like qualities writers can apply to their manuscripts to make them more addictive?

Clear goals. Characters are always in pursuit of something, which the reader should be able to name on demand.

Cause and effect. Characters’ actions have consequences. Always.

Obstacles and rewards. Obstacles speak for themselves. But rewards are just as important. Finding a tool, weapon, magical object, or guide adds excitement and gives readers an emotional boost. Rewards don’t have to be limited to adventure and fantasy stories, either—even a contemporary novel can use them, although they’ll come in a different form.

The right level of difficulty. i.e. stakes. Just like a video game, readers will get bored if your character’s trials are too easy, and worn out if they go too long without a small victory or reward. To put your readers in flow, keep the challenges coming at the very edge of your character’s ability to deal with them. And don’t neglect internal (emotional) challenges either.

A conflict-rich environment. Your story’s setting shouldn’t be inert. Again, think of games: if you land on the black square, you get bounced back six spaces. If you jump on the yellow crate, you accidentally release a monster. The setting dispenses dangers and rewards at every turn.

None of this is new or surprising—indeed, it’s the oldest writing advice in the book. But then again, humans have played games forever too.


INTERN thinks not.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Books Work: The Hunger Games (Part 1)

If you've read The Hunger Games (or been in the mute and intensely focused presence of someone in the process of reading it), you know that it's practically impossible to put down. Stephen King compared the book to an arcade game that keeps you helplessly plugging in quarters round after round, and after reading it herself INTERN can say that that's a fair approximation.

What exactly is Suzanne Collins doing, on a sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph level, that makes this book such a terrifyingly addictive read?

To shed light on this question, INTERN repaired to her secret basement Book Lab, where she soaked a randomly-selected chapter of The Hunger Games in a bath of chemicals designed to reveal the exact function of each sentence.

Oh, and what an exciting experiment it was! Within seconds, the words themselves melted away, leaving only bright colors representing the following things:

Here is what Chapter 12 looks like following the experiment. If you have a copy of The Hunger Games handy, you might wish to read along. If you don't have a copy (or haven't read the book), skip down to the very end of this post for a summary*.

Notice anything interesting? Here's what INTERN sees:

New discoveries prompt internal conflict.

Pale blue sections (in which Katniss is seeing, hearing, tasting things) are often followed by dark blue sections (internal conflict).

Katniss is constantly being forced to question things: is this berry safe or dangerous? Is this information true or false? Is this person a friend or an enemy? Every new input is a cause for internal debate. As a result, there is near-constant tension.

(Almost) every internal or external conflict results in a decision.

Red and dark blue sections (external/internal conflict) are almost always followed by dark green sections (action/decision).

Katniss doesn't idly speculate about how to resolve a conflict—she takes action. Sometimes the action is internal (deciding not to trust Peeta) and sometimes the action is external (flinging away the poisonous berries). Whichever action she takes pushes Katniss further along her path. She's always in motion.

Some decisions result in further conflict.

See the alternating red and green patches on the second page? Here, Katniss encounters an obstacle (thirst), takes an action (asks Haymitch for water), and fails (water doesn't appear). She's forced to make a second decision (keep on searching, even though she's nearly dead of exhaustion). Conflict isn't necessarily resolved in one try—instead, it escalates and gets worse.

Internal narrative is slipped in with the action.

Notice how those little grey patches tend to appear in the middle of light blue ones? In fact, there's only one place in this chapter where an entire paragraph is shaded in grey. That's because the author is doing an expert job of weaving in nuggets of memory, backstory, and "telling" without slowing down the pace of the story.

The chapter ends on an unresolved conflict.

See how the last two sentences are highlighted in red? That's a cliffhanger. Katniss is woken up by a raging forest fire (external obstacle!). Dun-dun-duuunnnnnnn...


You can try this experiment yourself with any book you admire. What is the author DOING at any given moment? What purpose does each sentence achieve? Do any of the patterns suggested by this experiment hold true for other chapters in other books? Which other patterns can you find? What's the visual ratio of description to internal narrative to conflict?

These things are worth studying. Or at least, they're fun to study, if your particular brand of insanity is anything like INTERN's.

Happy experimenting! And don't forget to enter the International Sh*tty First Draft Week contest next week!


*INTERN doesn't want to risk copyright infringement by posting the actual chapter here, but here's a quick summary of what's going on for those of you who don't have a copy of Hunger Games handy:

[2 sentences establishing Katniss’ present position in a treetop]

[1 line dialogue Katniss overhears from treetop]

[2 sentences describing what Katniss sees.]

[internal conflict: Katniss questions Peeta’s motives/integrity]

[action based on internal conflict: Katniss decides not to trust Peeta]

[action: Peeta moves out of earshot, Careers discuss him]

[2 lines overheard dialogue]

[3 short sentences showing Katniss’ internal reaction to said dialogue]

[a little more dialogue]

[action: Peeta returning]

[3 sentences dialogue]

[action: Careers move away, Katniss changes her position in tree.]

[internal conflict: if Peeta really is on the “bad” side, why hasn’t he told the Careers about Katniss’ secret skill?]

[action: birds fall silent and hovercraft appears to take away dead body.]

[action: Katniss comes down from her hiding place in the tree.]

[internal conflict: Katniss knows the cameras are watching, so she has to act “on top of things” and not let any fear or confusion show.]

[action based on internal conflict: Katniss smiles at the camera]

[internal conflict: Katniss remembers her snares—is it too dangerous to check them?]

[action based on internal conflict: Katniss checks the snares and is “rewarded with one fine rabbit."]

[action: Katniss guts and roasts the rabbit.]

[action: Katniss camouflages her pack, eats some rabbit, goes off in search of water.]

[internal conflict: Katniss speculates about what people in the Capitol are making of her and Peeta’s “relationship,” tries to suss out her best plan of attack.]

[action/description: Katniss is getting thirsty, day is getting hot, etc.]

[external conflict: finds berries, but they’re unfamiliar—are they edible? are they a trap?]

[action based on external conflict: flings berries away.]

[action/description: Katniss is becoming exhausted.]

[internal conflict: the need for water is overpowering even Katniss’ fear of the Career pack.]

[action based on conflict: Katniss makes tentative decision to return to the lake in the morning.]

[action/description: Katniss wakes up foggy-headed and in dire straits.]

[external conflict: Katniss will soon die of thirst if she doesn’t find water. She weighs several different possible plans for getting water, but rules each one out. Then she realizes that Haymitch could send her water.]

[action based on conflict: Katniss says “water” in hopes that the cameras will pick it up and Haymitch will send some.]

[external conflict: why isn’t Haymitch sending water? Is he trying to make her suffer? Is there something wrong? etc.]

[action based on conflict: Katniss realizes Haymitch is sending her a message, and decides to keep looking.]

[internal narrative: Katniss recalls years when she watched the Hunger Games on TV, thinks of her little sister Prim watching her on TV this year.]

[action: Katniss falls down out of exhaustion/dehydration]

[internal conflict: Katniss thinks she has “misjudged Haymitch” and that he doesn’t mean to help her after all.]

[action/description: Katniss smells the air, strokes the ground, feels mud, realizes she’s reached water. purifies the water and drinks it.]

[external conflict/cliffhanger: Katniss wakes up to the sound of stampeding feet and the smell of fire.]

Monday, July 18, 2011

announcing International Sh*tty First Draft Week!



*scratches mosquito bite*

*turns page*

*looks up and startles at presence of blog readers*

Oh! Hello there. This blog (and indeed, INTERN herself) appears to have hit the summer doldrums, a still and windless time when posting is sparse and great waves are even sparser. What was INTERN doing all last week? Gnawing on lemons? Weeping in the library check-out line? Fanning herself with a subscription card for The Economist while horse flies circled her head?

Well, yes and no. Or rather, yes, but that's not all. INTERN was also scheming. Specifically, she has been plotting a Week. A daring and mischievous Week. A Week in which published and not-yet published authors alike will reveal their deepest secrets. A Week in which you are all invited to participate.

July 25-29th is henceforth declared International Sh*tty First Draft Week.

Have you ever read a book so beautifully-written it made you want to quit, 'cause what's the point of writing when there are people out there who can write like that?

Have you ever read a novel full of such deep insights that your own manuscript feels like a swim in the kiddie pool by comparison?

Have you ever wished you could read the first drafts of your favorite books? Wished you could see your favorite authors' mistakes, out-takes, bloopers, and cut scenes? Have a peek at the process by which a first draft gets trimmed, stretched, dyed, stitched, and powdered into a published novel?

Well, haven't you?

Next week, for the first time ever, four exciting authors will be sharing excerpts of their first drafts on this blog and answering questions about the revision process that resulted in a published novel.


But that's not all!

On the fifth day (Friday), henceforth known as International Celebration of Sh*tty First Drafts, INTERN invites EVERYONE to post an excerpt from their own sh*tty* first draft in the comments (or post it on your own blog and put a link in the comments). It will be like skinny-dipping—we'll all run into the freezing cold lake at the same time! Yes, your first draft is embarrassing, but so is everyone's! To the lake! To the lake!

To make the first-draft reveal all the more thrilling, INTERN will be offering priceless prizes to three Sh*tty First Draft participants selected at random.

The prizes will be:

1. A first 50 pages critique by INTERN! (this can be applied to any present or future manuscript, and does not need to go towards the draft in question.)

2. A Sh*tty First Draft prize pack including a red pen (for scribbling all over your manuscript), various made-by-INTERN motivational signs for posting around your desk, perhaps a Book or two, etc. etc.

3. A Mystery Package of books and twigs and bits of string and aluminum foil and...oh wait, you are writing a book, not making a nest. Well, INTERN is sure you will find something clever to do with it.



The excitement begins next Monday. In the meantime, INTERN wishes you happy drafting!

*Why the asterisk in "Sh*tty," you ask? It stands for all the ways in which first drafts are the very opposite of shitty: they can hold flashes of inspiration, stretches of brilliant writing, and scenes that got cut not due to shittiness, but out of necessity. The asterisk stands for *or otherwise unusable for whatever reason. But that was too bulky to include in the official name, don't you think?

Monday, July 11, 2011

great big truths

Have you ever sat down to write a story and found yourself thinking "I'll write about a heartbroken detective who returns to his hometown! No, that's been done. OK, I'll write about a boy genius who wanders the streets of New York. Dammit—done. OK, come on brain..."

The more you think about it, the more it seems like every story idea has already been used a million bazillion times. What's the point of even writing another novel?

This is a scary question, and if you think about it too hard, you risk falling down a nihilistic rabbit hole and bumping your head. What's the point of writing novels—so many novels—when there are already so many out there? It almost seems pathological. Or greedy. Or something like that.

The answer to this question—or at least, one possible answer—came to INTERN yesterday while she was out mushroom hunting (she found a handful of slug-eaten chanterelles and a lovely if inedible russula, in case you're wondering).

A novel is more than just a collection of made-up plot and character details that fit together in a satisfying way. A novel, if it's good, will also contain one or two big truths. And no matter how many novels get written, here's the thing: Big truths are worth discovering again and again.

Finding out that Mrs. Hootlesby murdered her husband with a vienna sausage is astounding once, after which there might be little reason to read the book again. But finding out, along with Mrs. Hootlesby, that all relationships are banal, or that society itself is a murder machine, or that love conquers all—those ideas (or "truths" or "themes" or whatever you call them) are big enough to chew on for a long time. They elevate a story beyond the sum of its plot twists and make it shine.

And sure, maybe every great truth has been written about a million times too. That's because they demand to be grappled with. The triumphs they offer are fleeting, and need to be earned and re-earned again and again. Mrs. Hootlesby's murder plot is like an algebra equation: once you figure it out, the mystery's gone. But big truths are never quite figure outable. They're too big. There are too many moveable parts. And so we can write about them in so many different ways, and they never lose their power.

So write big. Plot, and even character, can feel like a crowded pond, but the big truths are an ocean that will never run out of space.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

the writer takes a walk

INTERN recently finished reading a fascinating book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (a rather fuzzy title, thinks INTERN, for a very smart book). INTERN is notoriously terrible at paraphrasing books, but the basic gist (or at least, INTERN's unreliable and not-to-be-trusted version of the gist) is that since the invention of the alphabet, and in particular the vowel, humans have increasingly existed in relation to a purely human set of signs (as opposed to existing in relation to the entire living, breathing universe, as oral cultures seem to have done.) Literacy, according to Abram, sealed humans off from nature in a serious way--allowed us to live more and more inside our own heads, transfered meaning from the treetops to the page.

Oh, INTERN is so bad at this.

Anyway, it struck a chord. As writers, we spend so much time in relation to words—building imaginary worlds, forming arguments, thinking up the best possible phrasing for a thought. Everything that goes onto the page comes from the writer's brain, or is quoted from another writer's brain. It's like so many mirrors, all reflecting yourself back at you. When INTERN writes, she becomes strangely impermeable to the world. She needs to block everything out in order to enter the word-magic. INTERN knows a lot of other writers (and, come to think of it, programmers) also require this deeply blocked-off mind space in order to do their work.

When INTERN gets up and goes for a walk in the forest or city, however, she gradually feels herself becoming permeable again. Colours and shapes and sounds and smells all flood in. Where the act of writing turns INTERN into this tight little laser beam of selfness, going outside dissolves her, at least a little bit, and there's a palpable relief at becoming part of the world again.

Have you ever gotten stuck with your writing, then taken a walk and had a million brilliant insights pop into your head? There's probably a scientific explanation for this phenomenon (and if you know it, please share!). To INTERN, it almost feels like the ideas are coming out of the air, or shaken loose from her limbs by moving around. It's like there's a part of your brain that can only know certain things when it's taken away from the computer, and by going for a walk you let the genius loci take over and fill in the blanks.

Or maybe going for walks to prevent writer's block is just another writing superstition, like not shaving your beard while you're writing your novel, or, like, only changing your underwear every 100 pages (INTERN knows who you are!)

What are your writing superstitions? Are you a walker, a bath-taker, a rain-dancer? Why do these things help us so much? Is it just a whimsical habit, or is there something larger at work? INTERN wants to know!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

country writer visits the city writer

This post by the Rejectionist (about feeling like the treed and mountained West Coast isn't "large enough" after living in New York City for several years) gave INTERN cause to ponder.

As one who bounces back and forth between living in Big Cities and treed and mountained rural places on a regular basis, INTERN often wonders which is a better or more productive setting for a writer. City or country? Urban garret or forest shack? Here are some observations from both sides of the fence:

In the city, you can choose from a plethora of readings and book launches and literary events any day of the week. Except most of the time, you're too tired and cranky from your three jobs to actually go to any.

In the country, you can occasionally hear a local poet read from his latest collection of lyric poetry, at the end of which you are so tired and cranky you would rather work three jobs than hear the word "gossamer" ever again.

In the city, you work three jobs just to afford the sweltering and boxlike former storage unit you share with six to ten roommates who also want to be writers. There is one desk which you all share. When it's not your day for the desk, you write in the cupboard under the sink, cuddled up to a Windex bottle.

In the country, you pay the rent on your palatial old farmhouse with the loose change you find between the sofa cushions. There are perhaps three jobs to go around in the whole county and they are all inexplicably held by a kind middle-aged woman named Cindy. You don't have a writing closet; you have an entire writing barn. Birds hoot in the rafters while you type.

In the city, you pride yourself on knowing where to buy the dankest [insert obscure serbo-afro-korean pastry here].

In the country, you pride yourself on knowing where to find the dankest polypore mushrooms.

In the city, you are surrounded by writers and artists and do-ers of all sorts. It's heady and inspiring and intimidating and it makes you feel so so so ambitious you get a buzz every time you sit down to write.

In the country, you only know of one other writer in the area (the aforementioned lyric poet). You glare at one another in the bulk section of the food co-op. When you visit your writer-friends in the city, you are so starved for literary conversation they think you have rabies and try to sedate you.

In the city, you're so busy you steal time to write in five minute bursts, on the subway, in line at the coffee shop, or on one of the lunch breaks at your many jobs.

In the country, you wake up with the sun and write until noon. You do this every day. For a week. After that, you realize the chicken coop needs swabbing and the beet patch needs weeding and there's a wasp nest in the solar shower. For a week, you steal writing time in five-minute bursts. Then it's back to sun-up until noon.

In the city, when your country friends come to visit, you try to impress them by taking them to get the dankest serbo-afro-korean pastry EVER. And they pretend to be into it so they don't hurt your feelings, but you suddenly realize you don't even LIKE pastries, that in fact this whole obscure-pastry obsession is just an attempt at differentiating yourself from the teeming masses of people around you, who are likewise trying to differentiate themselves from you with their own obscure-pastry obsessions...

In the country, when your city friends come to visit, you try to impress them by showing them all the obscure medicinal polypores you foraged from the woods, dried, and ground up in a bicycle-powered mill. And they pretend to be into it so they don't hurt your feelings, and you're like, "fine, go back to your tiny apartment and eat an obscure pastry!" and you sulk until it all starts to feel rather silly.

In the city, you can go to one of a hundred vast and well-stocked libraries and bookstores and find anything you want.

In the country, you can go to one of one (1) tiny libraries and check out a tea-and-cats mystery or you can go to one of one (1) used bookstores and buy an entire box of Harlequin romances for twenty-five cents.

In the city, you and your agent go out for espresso and designer cupcakes like, every Tuesday at ten AM.

In the country, your agent occasionally fears that you have been eaten by a bear, when in fact the power's been out for a week following a pesky snow-lightning-flood-storm, and there was never cell service to begin with.

In the city, you are always broke because it costs $50 a day just to breathe.

In the country, you are always broke because there is maybe $50 in the whole county which you and your neighbors are continuously bouncing back and forth between yourselves for various odd jobs.

In the city, you forge your dream critique group out of like-minded writers. You meet every Tuesday morning at eleven AM and engage in scintillating literary discussion.

In the country, you finally find out about a local writers' group after months of looking. The next meeting is in three weeks. You look forward to it with every fiber of your body. When the morning finally comes, you show up at Bud's Coffee Shack ten minutes early. Who is sitting at a smudgy plastic table but your archnemesis, the lyric poet! You turn on your heel and stalk out of there, crumpling your carefully-assembled pages in your fist.

In the city, you are constantly applying for writing fellowships in nice bucolic settings, where you fantasize that you will be so very productive and inspired by nature.

In the country, you are constantly applying for fully-funded MFA programs in cosmopolitan settings, where you fantasize that you will be so very productive and inspired by all the fast-paced urban grit.


So there you have it, writer-friends! The country or the city: both hold their challenges for the struggling writer, and their rewards.

INTERN wants to know: are you a city writer or a country writer? Or are you a suburban writer or a writer-on-the-moon? What is it like to be a writer where you live?

Friday, July 1, 2011

huzzah! 'tis Canada Day!

'Tis summer! 'Tis Canada Day! INTERN is aflood with fond reminiscences of her literary homeland, and wistfulness at her increasing americanization. The Canadian literary scene, which once felt so urgent and intimate to INTERN, feels like that highschool best friend she hasn't spoken to in years. Yet the longer she lives in the big, bad USA, she feels less and less like a Canadian and more and more like an amorphous blob of North Americanness, unmoored and still finding her place.

INTERN knows that approximately six people who read this blog are Canadian. This post is dedicated to them.

You know you are a Can-Lit brat when:

...the most memorable book of your childhood was Le Chandail de Hockey by Roch Carrier. sent your first unsolicited manuscripts to Annick, Coach House, and Arsenal Pulp Press, and got at least one nice hand-written note back as a rejection letter.

...the first literary journals you read/published in were subTerrain, Contemporary Verse II, and West Coast Line. read The Globe and Mail every day for years and got irrationally upset when they changed their font. get irrationally upset when people mistakenly assume a Canadian author is actually American. are aware of Margaret Atwood's doings the way some people are aware of Lady Gaga's—she's just permanently on your radar.

...the characters in your stories write cheques and visit their neighbours. get irrationally upset when blogger underlines the word "neighbours" in red to indicate a spelling error. looked forward to the Word on the Street festival more fervently than you looked forward to Christmas. can rattle off the names of Canadian authors like some sort of catechism: bill bissett, Guy Gavriel Kay, Jane Urquhart...

...when you go to a reading by a Canadian author (almost any Canadian author), and the reading is in the US, and go up and talk to her afterwards, it will turn out that you have at least a dozen Canadian writer-friends in common, and she will invite you out for a post-reading beer or three.

...the literary scene in the US seems so enormous and unwieldly in comparison that you despair of ever getting a grasp on it. Whereas in Canada, you feel like you can actually keep up on all things literary—or many things, anyway.

...your mom still bugs you to apply for a residency at the Berton House. Yes, it's in the Yukon. Does your mother really want you to get eaten alive by bears in the Yukon while toiling over the Great Canadian Novel? Yes, yes she does.

INTERN invites Canadian and ex-Canadian readers to add to this list in the comments.