Thursday, November 20, 2014

Find Frank (and the 200 pages I scrapped)

TLDR: In sum, editing first (and second) drafts of a manuscript is all about making tough choices and sometimes you have to scrap hundreds of pages (like I did) and start over. In the words of Steven King, "Sometimes you have to kill your darlings." Here's how I did it:

Find Frank, Kate Bitters


I started writing Find Frank in July, 2013 and declared that month my NaNoWriMo (JulNoWriMo?). I had a great idea, tons of motivation, and gobs of free time. I started cranking out about five pages each day and ended up with well over 100 pages and about 55,000 words. I was thoroughly pleased with myself.

Then, I set my writing aside.

I had finished my second novel that spring (Ten Thousand Lines) and decided I wanted to return to the manuscript and start editing. So I edited...and edited...and completely neglected Find Frank.

Then, I started talking to people about my project and revealed the plot to a few close friends during a New Year's Eve party (the plot, by the way, was loosely about Waldo (as in, the main dude from Where's Waldo) as a paranoid schizophrenic who is being used by an organization called The White Wizard and sent on bizarre missions while tripping on mind-altering drugs...not a complicated premise at all). My friends liked the idea, but had tons of questions and, without meaning to, they began poking holes in the plot.

THESE are the kinds of friends a writer needs. I can get unadulterated praise from my mother.

After the party, I couldn't stop thinking about the advice my friends gave me. Maybe they were right; maybe my plot was so convoluted it would be difficult to iron-out on paper. Additionally, I didn't want to get in any hot water with Martin Handford (the creator of Where's Waldo) and I also didn't want to sully Waldo's name for the millions of children who adore him (although, that was definitely a secondary concern compared to getting sued by Mr. Handford's people).

So, I started re-thinking my idea. The re-thinking process looked something like this:

Novel Planning, Kate Bitters

I'm not sure what I would do without my gigantic pad of paper. It helps me visualize my ideas, to really scrutinize them and see if they gel. I scribbled all over the ginormous paper, connecting subplots, drawing arrows between characters, writing frazzled notes about setting, character features, and plot.

When I emerged from my planning session (which took nearly a full day, on and off), I ended up with a much better idea than the original one.

So, I began writing.

And writing.

And writing.

...And ended up with 80 pages of material I thought I liked.  In the meantime, I continued editing Ten Thousand Lines and began (unsuccessfully) shopping it around to agents. One agent said she liked the idea, but wanted me to cut my word count from 146,000 to under 120,000. So, I did. It took over a month of work and, in the meantime, Find Frank was left behind once more.

When I finally popped my head out of the mires of editing I decided to re-read Find Frank. I didn't much care for it.

Let me rephrase: I liked the overarching plot, but the writing structure left something to be desired. I almost ignored my feelings of misgiving and plowed ahead with writing the rest of it, but I'm so glad I didn't. Instead, I took what I had, restructured it, filled in some plot holes, and started over.
Find Frank, Kate Bitters

Currently, I'm 60,000 words into the story again and I'm loving it. I've re-read the entire thing recently and felt much more comfortable with the structure and plot flow. The book is far from complete (I still have about 25,000 words left to write, and then I'm going to edit/workshop/revise the shit out of it).

The main take-away? Editing is not for the faint of heart.

It takes tons of chutzpah to sift through your words (your lovingly selected, carefully planned metaphors and dialogue) and slash them to bits. But you have to do it and, believe me, your story will evolve and grow stronger each time you do.

Good luck out there.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Editing and need some extra help? I do that. Please contact me through my website.
And high-fives to you for taking that first scary step!
-Kate

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How Neil Gaiman Came To Read My Spectacularly Awful Story

Neil Gaiman, The Bad Gaiman Challenge

It all happened last week. Neil Gaiman stepped onto the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater amidst raucous applause and began bantering with the host of Wits, John Moe. He  read some fairly funny scripted dialogue (in which he was a realtor selling a magical home to a young couple), then did an interview (mostly about The Ocean at the End of the Lane), and finally moved into the main event (well...for me, anyway)...

John Moe began, "Hundreds of you submitted truly horrible, wretched Neil Gaiman stories...couldn't read more than a few at a time before I had to get up and walk around the room a little bit."

Neil Gaiman responded, "You should be ashamed of yourselves." Then, he began reading the five horrible little stories that "won" the Bad Gaiman Challenge.

The first story was mine.

Maybe "won" isn't the right word. After all, the contest was all about impersonating Neil Gaiman's writing style...and doing it really badly. It involved coming up with the absolute worst piece of short literature bunk that one could spew into existence. Somehow, I managed to pen a short story so terrible that it drifted to the pile of god-awful, putrid, ill-conceived submissions and was chosen by the staff at Wits to be read by Neil Gaiman.

I should not be as proud of this accomplishment as I am.

What does it prove, after all? I guess it shows my prowess at copying a writer's style and reworking it into an exaggerated, truly awful form. This is surely a skill that I will use on the daily from here on out...right?
Kate Bitters, Neil Gaiman, Bad Gaiman Challenge

Anyway, even if this writing contest was the strangest thing I have ever entered, I was still tickled at being chosen. Tickled, that is, until one of the staff members at Wits copied a word in my story incorrectly and made Mr. Gaiman stumble as he read, "...had ticked in his waistcoat...possibly tucked? It says ticked here." Wherein John Moe rejoined, "It's bad on many levels."

Oh dear. My bad story was made worse by some incompetent intern [Edit: The Senior Producer of Wits contacted me and told me she made the typing error. Sorry, intern, for the unfounded blame!] who was unable to copy and paste my words onto Mr. Gaiman's note cards. (And yes, I did go back and check that I had actually written "tucked" and not "ticked").

So, my 15 seconds of fame quickly fizzled and everyone else moved on with their lives as I obsessed over the mistaken word that Neil Gaiman, THE Neil Gaiman, read from my story. If I ever meet Mr. Gaiman I will most likely ask him if he remembers the Bad Gaiman Challenge and the story he read about a tiny poker game and lactating she-boars and a town called Mug-Wumpton...

...and he will most likely say no.

I wouldn't blame him. Such hideous prose should be scratched out of anyone's memory (let alone someone who is paid to write good prose). In any case, my story is immortalized in a Wits podcast, which you can find here at minute 23:15:

http://www.witsradio.org/episodes/gaiman-diamond/

[Edit: There's also a video! Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cK-8jnub5Q]

For those of you who would like to see the written version of this ugly, little tale, here it is:

The world’s tiniest poker game took place on the head of a pin. All the usual suspects were invited: Marv the unicorn, Cornelius the animate skeleton, Wasp the pig, and Henrietta the imp. I stumbled upon the game when I was travelling to my grandmother’s house in Mug-Wumpton—jabbed my foot right into the pin and caused Wasp the pig to spill the extra aces he kept tucked in his waistcoat. It probably wouldn’t have happened if the sky over Mug-Wumpton wasn’t a sickly purple that day. But the sky rats were out and the she-boars were lactating, so the sky changed and the pin was stepped on and poor Wasp the pig was never invited to another poker game again.
Kate Bitters, Bad Gaiman Challenge, Wits

Yes, a truly awful little story, but I will never forget the sound of Neil Gaiman's voice as he read it and John Moe's response afterwards: "Yeah, that's bad."

[To check out my not-quite-so-terrible prose, please visit www.KateBitters.com]

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Do You "Social Media" Instead of Writing?

First of all, please excuse my use of "social media" as a verb. It really shouldn't be, but I'm afraid that's what it's turning into: an action. As in, "I'm just going to social media for a while before I write another page of my novel." Oh dear. I expect Mignon Fogarty to barge in and rap my knuckles with a ruler at any moment.
Kate Bitters, The Bitter Blog
Photo courtesy of evermooremilestones.com

Grammar aside, let's move on to the meat of the issue. Tell me if this scenario seems familiar to you:

You have some free time; you want to continue work on that novel you started a couple months ago. You sit down at your computer with the best of intentions, fingers ready to fly across the keyboard when a thought flickers through your mind, "I should check my Facebook page. I haven't posted an update in a while."

So, you visit your page, post an update, and see that someone Liked (ugh, another fake verb!) your page. "Who is this person?" you wonder and proceed to click on their name and visit their page. Then, your phone sounds.

Someone just added you on Instagram. "Cool!" you think. "I wonder what kind of pictures they post." So, you jump from Facebook to Instagram, browsing through pictures for half an hour when CHIRP! someone favorited (yet another made up verb!) a tweet from yesterday. "Hmm," you think, "should I start following that person? Will they follow me back?" Then, you remember that you haven't logged into Just Unfollow for a while to see who's stopped following your account.

And the day marches on, inundated with LinkedIn updates, a new Goodreads newsletter, Tumblr updates, RSS feed alerts, a new Blogger follower, a comment on last week's Vine video, a slurry of Google Alerts, and on and on and on.
Kate Bitters, The Bitter Blog
Photo courtesy: FireWalkerApps

By the time you sift through all your social media, post updates (even if you're super efficient and use a tool like Hootsuite), comment on others' posts, add back followers, update your profile, thumb through your Google Alerts for interesting fodder for this weeks' blog post, etc., you've used up so much of your day that your writing is completely neglected. Another day claimed by the ocean of updates and virtual connections.

And your novel has been set aside yet again.

It's easy to fall into the social media snare. Authors today (indie or not) need to have some kind of social media presence. It's simply expected of us now. What makes things difficult is that there is SO MUCH FREAKING NOISE out there it is hard to get noticed by anyone unless you're constantly making a fuss.

But why even bother to make a fuss when you don't have the material to back up your social media marketing? Why spend hours strategically following blogs on Tumblr when you could be working away on your next novel or poetry series or short story collection? You shouldn't. Your focus should be on your material above all else. If you don't have the chops, don't pick up the trumpet and start playing.

Sure, you can build up an army of Twitter followers by posting dazzling photographs and videos, but what does that army mean? Nothing, if you have nothing substantial to offer them.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't invest some time in building up your social media base before you are published, but I am saying that you should get your priorities straight. Above all, you're a writer. You write compelling, thoughtful, edge-of-your-seat material that you're proud of and want to show to the world. Isn't that worth marketing?

Kate Bitters, The Bitter Blog
Photo by HappyWriter
This week, I challenge you to make an honest effort to write. Close your browser, put your phone on silent, set aside an hour or two that is dedicated solely to writing, and WRITE. It doesn't matter if you're penning Pulitzer Prize-worthy material, the point is you're writing. Writing is a craft (just like playing the violin or woodworking or playing soccer) and you need to practice your craft every day in order to stay up to snuff.

And after you've written a little, go ahead, tell your millions of followers about it.

Good luck and happy writing.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Book Review: Sweetness #9


At the end of Stephan Eirik Clark's debut novel, Sweetness #9, I felt like eating some organic, small-batch sauerkraut. Clark's book cleverly and thoughtfully dissects the ethics of food testing and the pressures of the capitalist free market in the form of a sharp (and often laugh-out-loud funny) narrative told by flavor scientist, David Leveraux.
The Bitter Blog, Book Review, Kate Bitters
Kate's rating: 4 out 5 stars

Leveraux spent the early part of his career studying the effects of a new sweetener (Sweetness #9) on a batch of lab rats. He began to notice troubling traits in the rodents--apathy, aggressiveness, obesity, depression--but was encouraged to keep his mouth shut and his head down and just do his damn work. After all, the rats didn't have cancer, did they?

The Bitter Blog, Kate Bitters, Book ReviewDavid half-heartedly attempts to blow the whistle on the testing facility, but instead retreats into a troubled silence. He ends up leaving his job and moving on with his life, but is haunted by his decision to keep quiet about the effects of Sweetness #9. Eventually, the bright pink granules become the number one sweetener on the market and David begins to wonder if Sweetness #9 is contributing to America's explosion of obesity, anxiety, and depression. 

David's own family seems to mirror America's troubles. His wife, Betty, struggles with her weight as she gulps down diet sodas and tries a myriad of new fitness programs; his son, Ernest, has a love affair with packaged food and red food coloring (adding it to everything he consumes, including his orange juice, which he calls a "bloody sunrise"); and his daughter, Priscilla, decides to rebel against her family's food regimen and embraces veganism and all-natural, organic foods. Amidst David's struggle to keep harmony in his family, Sweetness #9 once again creeps back into his life.

By the end of Clark's novel, you'll find yourself checking the labels of every packaged food item at the grocery store and wondering about the multi-syllabic ingredients listed there. Toeing the line between deadly serious and sarcastic, Sweetness #9 will have you laughing, cringing, and wondering how David Leveraux will untangle his messy life.

The answer? Something to do with small-batch, organic sauerkraut.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. A thought-provoking, funny read that moved a bit too slowly in the middle and wrapped up a bit too hastily at the end. I look forward to Clark's next novel and hope that he continues to write in the same inventive, bizarrely-humorous tone.

The Bitter Blog, Kate Bitters


Monday, October 27, 2014

The SWAMP (Slash Fiction Entry)

The assignment: 
Write a short story (around 500 words) that has a Halloween/horror/weird fiction theme

The result:
A short story called "The Swamp" that I presented to my Speculative Fiction Writing Group. It ended up clocking in at about 600 words. Turns out, I'm not great at brevity.

Enjoy! And Happy Halloween...


I never drive anymore. I rarely leave my parents’ house. Not since Andrea and Janie disappeared last May; not since the swamp.

I know disappeared isn’t the right word. They weren’t whisked away like rabbits from a hat. They were eaten.

But no one believes me when I insist Kroger’s swamp ate my friends. They just exchange worried looks and cautiously change the subject. So, I keep quiet, spending hours alone in my room, trying not to think of my senior prom or the fatal drive that led us to the mouth of Kroger’s swamp.

It had been my suggestion.  “Let’s take a little drive before heading to Jason’s party,” I said.  “It’ll be fun.”

Janie rolled her eyes, smoothing the puffy folds of her pale green dress.  “You’re too obsessed with that car of yours, Kit.  The rest of us are so over it.”

“Agreed,” Andrea chimed in. “Let’s go to Jason’s and skip the joy ride.”

I pouted at my friends until they conceded and we all piled into my black Ford Mustang. “Thanks you guys,” I beamed. “You’re only young once, right?”

Andrea laughed and yanked a bottle of whiskey out of her purse. “That’s right, Kit. Let’s drive!”

We went north, following meandering roads through a dense pine forest. I took the corners much too quickly, making my friends shriek and giggle as we passed around the Jim Beam. I remember taking a slug, tilting my head back for a second, and when my chin leveled out again, two glowing yellow eyes hovered enormously over the middle of the road.  I screamed and swerved, sailing off the road and screeching to a halt in a patch of blackberry brambles.


“I knew this goddamn joy ride was a terrible idea!” Janie yelled, storming out the door.

“I’m sorry!” I cried as Andrea glowered at me and followed Janie.  I rushed after my friends, feeling the thorns tug and rip my prom dress. I adored the dress—its draping and soft gold sheen reminded me of a Greek goddess—but I didn’t give it a second thought as I tore through the thicket and ran to the edge of a foul-smelling swamp.

We stood by the calm, black water for a few moments, scowling at each other.  Then, the music started—softly at first, barely a ripple across the water, but crescendoing dramatically. We turned toward the black swamp.  It bubbled with the haunting melody.

Andrea tiptoed forward, eyes distant, and stepped into the brackish water. We hardly noticed as the churning liquid began gnawing at her skin like stomach acid. We were too busy listening to the mournful song, and stepping toward the swamp ourselves.

Janie went next, dress billowing as she walked straight into the swamp’s belly. The music spun around me like thread wending through a loom. I dipped one toe into the water, simultaneously feeling an acidic burn and the tug of something around my torso.  An arm.  I looked up into the bearded face of an ancient-looking man and screamed.  I wanted to feed the swamp! I wanted to sooth its aching heart.

The man tossed me into the trunk of my Mustang and took off. I barely remember the trip back to town or being deposited at my parents’ doorstep, but I do remember a raspy voice whispering in my ear as I clutched my body in an embryonic ball.  “Stay away from Kroger’s swamp,” it whispered, beard brushing against my cheek. “There is only death there.”

When I opened my eyes, the man was gone, and I was left with only hazy memories of that night, and the burned remnant of a half-eaten toe.

Photo by titusboy25, Deviant Art.

Monday, October 20, 2014

5 Steps to Gear up for NaNoWriMo

Kate Bitters, the Bitter Blog
Photo Credit: Transformnation.com
So, you're going to write a novel, eh?  And you're going to do it in a month? And your plan is to wake up on November 1st, grab a cup of coffee, sit in front of your laptop, and start typing?

Good luck with that.

Really, I do wish you the best of luck (and maybe you're one of those rare kinds of people who can jump into a project with zero planning), but I would hate to see you squander an entire month for lack of preparation. So, let's rewind a bit...

You still have over two weeks until National Novel Writing Month, so that's a good chunk of time to prepare and lay out your game plan. But how to do it? How should you prepare for a month of fervid writing?

Glad you asked.

1. Write every day

NOW is the time to start writing every day, not the beginning of November. It takes time to adapt a new habit, and writing every day is not something that comes easily if you're out of practice. Set aside some time every day (maybe in the morning before work or during your lunch break or, if you're like me, late in the evening after your brain's had a rest) and make sure you do nothing but write during that time. Close Facebook, put your phone on silent, and let your housemate(s) know that you need some time to yourself for an hour. And then get to it. You don't have to write anything grand or even cohesive as long as you're writing. If your writing begins to evolve into something bigger, great! Go with it. Think about how your scribbles might turn into a larger story. And if not, that's perfectly fine; you're just gearing up.

PRO TIP: Having trouble coming up with something to write about? Try using writing prompts. You can find some great writing prompts on this subreddit or some clever prompts on Writing Prompts That Don't Suck or some Halloween-themed prompts on my blog.


2. Create an Outline

Do you honestly think you're going to write the next great American novel without a proper outline? Maybe if your name is Jack Kerouac, but not if you're an average Tom, Dick, or Harry. If you have an idea (or the faint spark of an idea) burning in your brain for November, take the time to flesh it out. No, give it bones first. Then, flesh it out.

There are lots of ways to do this. My favorite method? Taking a gigantic pad of paper (mine is about 32" x 27") and creating a mind map. My mind map usually involves plot tangents and character outlines. It's a great way to get your thoughts out on paper and visualize how different ideas might tie together.

mind map for writers, writing mind map, Kate Bitters
A mind map I made once to sort shit out.
Once you have your thoughts out on paper, take a look at them and figure out how they fit together. Where should you introduce this or that character? How do you introduce this or that plot twist? Think about your introduction (who should you introduce right away), middle (how does your plot unfold), and end (the slam-bang finish!). You don't have to suss out every detail, but having a solid outline helps a lot as you get started. And, as you delve deeper into writing your story, you may have to go back and modify your outline. That's perfectly fine and expected; let the story carry you where it may.


3. Set Bite-Sized Goals

It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you have a novel sitting in front of you, ready to be written, and you're on page...four. Don't let yourself feel the pressure of the entire 250 page novel weighing down on your shoulders. Instead, break down your overarching goal in smaller chunks and tackle them one at a time. Some examples:

"I'm going to write three pages each day."
"I will write 15 pages by the end of each week."
"I'm going to write for an hour every day."
"I will write 400 words each day."

Put your goals on a calendar; keep them visible; refer to them when you're having an off day or are feeling unmotivated. And don't forget to reward yourself when you achieve a goal (Hooray! You wrote 20 pages this week! Have some ice cream...).

If you find that your goals aren't quite attainable, rethink think them and forge ahead. Don't be discouraged because you missed a day or didn't quite make your weekly goal. Also, don't be afraid to call upon your cheerleaders when you need help (which leads us to tip #4...)

4. Gather Your Team!

It's easy to slack off or lose motivation as the month wears on. You might quietly begin to skip a day or two of writing. You might become discouraged by the direction your writing has taken. So, you toss your writing in the proverbial drawer and think, "There's always next year."

STOP BEING SUCH A WHINER AND KEEP WRITING!

That's what you need someone to say to you when you're feeling this way (or maybe you just need someone to say, "You can do it, champ!"). It's way too easy to lose steam and bow out of NaNoWriMo if you have no one but yourself holding you accountable for you actions.

Let others in on your plan. Those "others" could be family members, friends, your spouse or children, members of your writing group, your bus driver, you co-workers...whoever will
A) Continuously ask you about your writing,
B) Be a constant cheerleader/motivator/heckler/ shoulder to cry on and
C) Be juuust distant enough to allow you to get some damn writing done.

Tell this person (or people) about your intentions for November and figure out a check-in system. Maybe you text them every day to say, "Yup, I'm writing." Or maybe they call you every week to check your progress.  Or, if you live with your cheerleader, you might briefly talk about your writing every night at dinner.

Whatever the case, it is incredibly helpful to have others looking over your shoulder, so to speak. That way, when you're thinking about quitting and your main character has somehow worked herself into a dire situation and you're unsure how to dig her out, you can turn to your support team and lean on them for advice, motivation, or just a listening ear.

5. Be Realistic

Realize that a month is a reeeeally short amount of time to write a novel (or novella or even a short story). Don't be hard on yourself if you fall behind or your writing is less than your best. If you write every day and put in an honest effort, that's enough. Really, it is. It's a hell of a lot more than other people are doing in November. Most people are griping about the chilly weather or worrying about packing on holiday pounds and you, YOU, my friend, are attempting to write a novel. Bully for you! That's wonderful!


 Now, go get 'em, soldier! November's claws will be planted in your leg before you know it and you'd better have a plan or you'll slowly bleed out as the 30 days pass you by. Instead, take November by the scruff, give it a shake, and start writing! Best of luck out there.

And, by the way...Keep in touch! Tell me what you're writing this November and what progress you've made. I'd love to hear from you!


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Autumn through Young Eyes

Photo Credit: kids.knowtolove.com
When I was young, autumn was my favorite season. I couldn't wait until the landscape turned buttercup yellow and orange and sultry red. I loved the sound of dry leaves underfoot. I relished the reward of jumping in a huge pile of leaves after raking for several hours (maybe it was really minutes; my concept of time was skewed back then!)

I loved all things autumn: the colors, the fall jackets, the Jack-o-lanterns and the smell of oil as my dad polished his hunting rifle for deer season. I breathed in the crisp air, drank hot cider, and picked the last of the veggies from the garden with my brother. Idyllic, right?

And now? Mostly I think about how autumn is a stepping stone to winter.

I dread the increasingly chilly days and the decreasing amount of sunlight. The colors make me depressed about what lies ahead--mounds of snow, scraping ice off my car window, shivering indoors as I wrap a blanket around my shoulders. I see the first red and yellow trees and say, "Piss off! I'm not ready for you yet!"

Autumn has become a harbinger for winter.

This year, while out for a morning walk with my dog, I caught myself glaring at the trees. I stopped in my tracks and realized what I was doing. I was dreading the future instead of living in the present.

The lesson I learned from my moment of self-analysis is this: sometimes we should think like children. They live in the present, for the most part, focusing on the things around them. I'm not advocating for ditching foresight and turning toward instant gratification, but I am advocating for being present.

Instead of dreading what comes next, enjoy the here and now. Relish the colors of the leaves. Enjoy the company of the people around you instead of thinking about how much housework you have to do tonight. There is a joy and a satisfaction that comes from living in the moment and appreciating the wonder/beauty/camaraderie around you.

So, stop. Instead of thinking about this:


Enjoy this:


Happy fall!