The First Draft

Yesterday, Monday, July 29, 2019, is a day to remember.

It’s the day I completed the first draft of my first novel. Elements of this story have been in my head for a very long time. I began writing a version of it years ago, but the time wasn’t right; nor, as it turns out, did I have the necessary experiences, motivation, or state of mind to get it out onto the page. Things are different now, thank goodness.

I began formally outlining the plot and characters for this one in March, so this first draft has been almost five-months in the making. That’s quite a bit longer than my “30-Day Novel” resource book said it would take, but hey, done is done, right?

The draft stats on this one are as follows:

  • TITLE: (Redacted – You’ll Find Out Soon!)
  • GENRE: Young Adult, LGBTQ+
  • PAGES: 292
  • WORD COUNT: 83,021
  • CHAPTERS: 28

When I announced on Twitter that I had finished my draft, some of the responses I received asked for my advice/thoughts on the process, particularly about devising a plot. I don’t feel exactly qualified to answer those questions, considering this is only my second book, and first novel. That said, “devising a plot” is what had me stuck for a long time, too. When you sit in front of your notebook or computer screen with nothing but a vague idea of the story and a desire to write, things get intimidating and frustrating very quickly. “How do the words come?

All I can say about this is that I found a process that worked for me, but it might not work for everyone. That process went something like this:

  1. Allow general ideas for the story to develop in my head, writing them down as they come.
  2. Allow the main characters & their motivations to develop in my head, writing them down as they come.
  3. When a sufficient number of plot points (3 or 4) and a sufficient number of characters (2? 3?) come knocking on my brain, start an outline that begins to marry them together.

I also created a writing space for myself, a place I went regularly, at generally the same time, every day. This helped flipped the switch in my brain from “life mode” to “writing mode.” I don’t think this is insignificant. After that, it came down to writing consistently every day for months, in order to get those characters to develop toward, through, and beyond those plot points.

For example, in this 28-chapter draft, I began with 5 characters in mind (3 protagonists and 2 secondary characters). Other minor characters plus the antagonist developed only later. None of the characters remained exactly as I originally envisioned (even names changed.) But I just kept writing. I also had only the first 3 chapters, the final chapter, and 2 late chapters (somewhere around the two-thirds mark) in my head before beginning. The rest had to develop as the story and characters developed. They often led me as much as I wrote them, or so it seems now.

But now comes the hard part. I know I’ll need to go back and re-read the entire draft. I know I’ll be doing extensive revisions. Like writing the draft, revision ideas started to hit me as I went along, and I wrote those down so as not to forget them later. What started out as 3 items that would need reconsideration eventually turned into an entire, journal-page-length list of things I’ll need to do. Characters to flesh out. Plot points to change and plot lines to strengthen. Settings to pare down or edit out. Voices to clarify/articulate better. The list goes on.

I begin to understand what writers say when they claim that “writing it is the easy part.” If you keep at it, the story eventually comes, and you can get it down. But now the hard work of revision, of “killing my darlings,” and of tying-up loose-ends, begins. Eventually, I’ll need to find beta readers to send me feedback as well. I’ll need to process that feedback and revise again. And then, maybe, I’ll be ready to query agents and hope I can convince someone to believe in this book as much as I do. That someone would need to then convince a publisher to take a chance on it.

There’s a long road ahead, but I celebrate the fact that I got the story onto the page. Months of work has resulted in a draft manuscript, and that’s nothing to scoff at, even with a mountain of work ahead of me. For now, I’m going to read some poetry, write some poetry, and let the novel sit and settle for a bit before returning to it with a revisionist’s eye (and pen.)

Onward!


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Two Reviews and Writing Camp

Here’s a little update on my writing life.

Currently, I’m working on a YA novel, queer-forward. It explores the relationship between three diverse friends, with the setting playing a pretty significant role in the plot as well. The story is set in the late 1990s and is book-ended with a prologue/epilogue set in the present. I’ve written 14 chapters out of a planned 30, so the draft is about half-finished and sits somewhere around 160-pages right now. If I continue at the word count I’ve been averaging per chapter, the draft will end up to be around 400-pages when it’s finished; but then of course the editing and revision phases begin, and I’ll likely end up “killing my darlings.” I’m not looking forward to that, but even in first pass-through edits of my completed chapters, I find that I’m editing things down a bit. Probably for the best.

I should be able to complete the full draft before the end of the summer. Then I’ll go through a full revision or two before looking for beta readers (I have one good friend taking an early look as I write, but no writing group right now, unfortunately). After I get through those, if the work is still standing and the piece can be revised again successfully based on reader feedback, I’ll start querying agents. I have no idea what that process is like, so I’ve been trying not to think about it. It’s the most intimidating part of the process to me, even more so than the writing itself (crazy, I know!).

On the plus side, I’ve really been enjoying telling this story. Some chapters have come out like a breeze, often because I had ample plans for them ahead of time. Other chapters have been a real struggle to get through, or to get started. I’ve found, though, that if I can avoid being intimidated by that blank page at the start of each chapter, and just GET STARTED, I do end up somewhere. It just takes a good punch to the wall, sometimes. The most helpful thing for my progress and motivation is to think about how much I wish I had had this book as a teenager or college student. I believe it says a lot of what I’ve been dying to say, and what I would have killed to know/hear when I was younger.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry this month, too, and that’s keeping the creative juices flowing while allowing me to be free within my own imagination. I’m specifically avoiding any books within the genre I’m writing right now, but I’ll get back to those when I’m in revisions. July is also Camp NaNoWriMo. I’ve been updating my progress on the website. My original goal for the month was 30,000 words, but it looks like I’ll be able to hit the “general” goal of 50,000 instead! Is anyone else participating?

Current word count: 42,275.

Reviews for FROM A WHISPER TO A RIOT

The other item of note is that my first book, From A Whisper to A Riot, is still doing well and being well-received by readers. It’s academic non-fiction, specifically queer literary history and analysis, so the market for it is very tight, and I published it independently, which narrowed the reach even further. That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by its reception out there in the reader-sphere. Here are two truly excellent and thoughtful reviews I would like to share:


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The Oligarchs

The Oligarchs

Shall we peck each other
Until we’re skin and bone:
Skinned alive?

Then what,
When the man still feeds
On our marrow and our blood?

Can our plasma be replaced
When the vampire whites
And aristocrats have stolen

What was ours,
What was left of ours?
When we are inside-out?

If we wear our hearts
On our sleeves, then surely
We were asking for it.

-Adam W. Burgess, June 16, 2019


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Manuscript Madness

Where have I been, you wonder? (Or maybe you didn’t?)

Well, in addition to a new semester beginning, which always keeps me busy, I’ve been making some big decisions about my academic manuscript and, consequently, doing some hard work on it.

I’m pleased to write that the manuscript is essentially ready for publication. I’ve finished it, revised it, sent it to early readers, and revised again. This is the culmination of four years’ work, and I have decided to move ahead with self-publishing it. Why? Well, there are a few reasons.

First, academic publishing is brutal and, for my particular situation, not entirely necessary. I have been publishing other small pieces and feel satisfied with that avenue for creative work. This book, though, is the blood, sweat, and tears of years of graduate study and, ultimately, a dissertation and defense. I did send proposals and chapters to a few different academic publications, and while some of the responses I received were reasonable, even helpful, they helped me see that, what I really want to do is get this out into the public as I have envisioned it. I do not want to break the book into smaller articles. I do not want to market it for a particular course. I do not need wrestle with a University and its gate-keeping readers.

This book is mine, and I want it to be available for others, as is. (As it now is, I should say. It has been revised extensively from its original drafts. Many, many drafts.) I believe I see something in it that some publishers are missing, which is that it is more than just a literary analysis and more than just a cultural history. It is both. The components go together. The varied chapters work together. And I hope that any reader who decides to give a try will, in the end, see how all of it developed together, too.

So, I’m pleased to be in this position. I have print copies coming available for beta readers. I just hope I can find a few folks willing to give it a read and make me aware of any glaring issues I’ve missed.

Onward!


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Good News, Bad News

The blog section of my author website, here, has been rather quiet lately. Please accept my apology for that! The semester started about five weeks ago and teaching five courses (four in composition!) is quite the load. Between course preparation, grading essays, and attending countless committee meetings, service opportunities, and etc., I’m still amazed that I manage to find time to do anything else.

That being said, I have been trying to keep up with my writing, somewhat. I use physical journals most of the time, at least for musings and idea generation, which is why not much has appeared here. I also developed an online writing group which got started on September 1st. My first contribution went through last week and the feedback that I did receive (only three out of eight members responded, unfortunately) was mostly positive. I received some great thoughts and suggestions, too, particularly about where things can be cut in order to get to the point, and where things are confusing (the conclusion, which I knew I was struggling with!)

Despite being mostly stalled on major writing goals, however, I have received two pieces of good news: publications! In the last week, two of my pieces of creative nonfiction have been accepted for publication. The first, “I Still Believe in Words” will be appearing at Brave Voices Magazine in mid-October. The second, “Five Years, Thirty: A Reflection,” is being anthologized in a print edition titled, Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction. That title will be available on October 30th.

I also recently submitted a more experimental piece of short/flash fiction, and I’m hopeful for another acceptance (of course, my track record shows, as most writers’ records probably do, that the rejections far surpass the acceptances.) Still, I’m very proud of this piece; it is, I think, a provocative statement on racism, abuse of power, and immigration in the United States. It took a long time for me to get it “right,” at least as far as I’m concerned, so I hope someone else finds it interesting enough to share with an audience.

Anyhow, if nothing else, my two recent publication acceptance emails have truly stoked my writing flame, as it were. I get so bogged down in the day-to-day that, much of the time, I forget to do what it is I need to do, which is to write. Hearing from publishers who think your work has value and meaning does much to reinvigorate the spirit! Onward!


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Routine is Hard. Fear is Easy.

I’m having such a difficult time finding a routine for myself, where writing is concerned. I did a pretty decent job, all summer, of organizing the majority of my days in order to find time for work, exercise, and reading/journaling, but I never managed to stick to my promised intentions for writing hours.

That will have to change, though, as two things become more pressing: first, my need/desire to get more serious with my writing; second, the commencement of my “Writing Together Writer’s Group,” which is set to begin on September 1st. How can I participate in, let alone lead, a writing group if I’m not prioritizing my own writing?

One future calendar consideration that actually leaves me feeling somewhat positive is the fact that I have only 5 classes this coming semester instead of the 6 I had in the Spring (let’s hope that stays true!) In addition, two of them are online, meaning I have just 3 on campus (one of which is a literature course which, while still time consuming, is not as time consuming as composition courses re: grading, especially.) This means I have four heavy-work load classes plus one medium-load, instead of six heavy-load.

I’ve also set my schedule for mid-day classes, because I’m not a morning person. Last semester, the sixth class that was added to my schedule very late also happened to be an 8am course. That literally knocked me out of the game for the entire semester because I simply do not function if I have to get up at 5am. I have tried for months to make mornings my writing time, getting up an hour or two earlier than necessary in order to have my undisturbed time, but even this doesn’t work, despite the fact that it is voluntary and something I look forward to, rather than an “imperative” like teaching a class, on which I can’t just skip out.

So, there are some considerations still to be made regarding my own personal schedule, but I’m hoping that my work load and work schedule for the semester will make things a bit easier/more functional. I’m also thinking ahead to Spring 2019 and have designed what I think will be an even more conducive schedule. I need to fit in other professional responsibilities, like service and conferences, too, so that’s something else that needed to be considered.

Anyway, those things are getting better slowly but surely, and as I get more experience with different types of course loads/teaching schedules, I learn what’s actually best for me. That’s only the first part of the issue, though. The second part is deciding what I should be writing. I’ve been torn, lately, between long-form fiction (contemporary adult and/or young adult novel) and creative non-fiction/essay. Most of my experience and comfort is in the latter, but my desire, lately, has been to write the former. I’ve had an idea for a novel in my head for two months, and I started jotting down a number of ideas in my little notebook. It’s the book I feel I should write, but considering I’ve never written much fiction before, I’m fearful. This fear is what, more than anything, is keeping me from creating a successful routine.

I’m afraid that nothing will come out, or that what does come out will be terrible. And so I refuse to begin. This had been subconscious for quite some time, but I’ve realized recently that it is the reality. Now the big question is, how to overcome it? The simplest answer is, of course, “just sit down and do it!” But has that ever really worked for anyone? I mean, really? Fear is a more difficult thing than we like to acknowledge. I refuse to remain crippled by it, but I also refuse to underestimate it or to treat myself like some nonplussed hero.

Hero or not. At a certain point, the avoidance has to stop.


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Prompt: The Sound of Your Language

Today’s writing prompt comes from Ursula K. LeGuin. It is titled, “The Sound of Your Language – Being Gorgeous.” The task is to write a paragraph (up to a page) of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, or whatever kind of sound effect you like, avoiding rhyme and meter.

Exercise:

For many, being in the desert begets a special, spiritual kind of beauty: to bathe in the baking sun; to gaze at the silky shelf of stars; to hear the tones and movements of critters and crawling things going about their tasks in the dry-parched earth and sand. But Nathan lived in the desert. He did not love it.

So, while dreamers and poets, Midwestern fantasy-lovers and romantics, fantasized of desert sunsets and philosophized on the pure and ancient beauty of the cacti and the palms, Nathan simply lived among it all.

To wish upon a star. To walk the wash. To smile at shaded parking spots and the rare, cool breeze as it comes tumbling down Spring Mountain and into the valley. To worship water, and obey it. These were the sacred things, and the ordinary things.

Reflection:

This is perhaps the setting for my current WIP. I’m wondering why the name “Nathan” came out while writing, when I’ve been struggling with character names for months. I don’t think this is the right name, after all, as I want it to be more “gorgeous” and intentional. A name should mean something, right? (Uriah Heep. Jane Eyre, etc.) But this one worked here, for now. The exercise in general was enjoyable. It reminds me of reading like a writer. The sound and rhythm are important because, after all, readers “hear” these (in their own voices) when they are reading, even if reading silently. I don’t often enough think consciously about the sound of my writing; it is something I tend to create naturally and then correct on re-reading, as needed. But thinking about it as I’m creating the sentences and scenes seemed helpful, even powerful. It sure slowed me down, though.


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