Novel vs. Dissertation, Round 2 (Revision bonus!)

I’m doing “Camp” NaNoWriMo this month, working hard on revisions to my 2013 NaNo project Ghosts of the Old City. The first full draft of that novel was completed in 2014 the weekend before I started my first full-time teaching job. Since then, I’ve drafted two other novels—Spires of Trayan (my 2015 NaNo project, a sequel to Ghosts that wants another 20-30,000 words and some research) and The Space Between Notes (my 2016 NaNo project, which is a thin sci-fi novel or fat novella that only wants another 7-10,000 words). I’ve made several stabs at revising Ghosts, enough to have a few colors of ink on the manuscript that I printed out way back when.

By now, “finishing” the novel is in the ballpark of how long it took me to finish my dissertation…although I wasn’t drafting a sequel dissertation while ostensibly finishing the first, nor was I branching out into dissertating on, say, literature. This month is the first time I’ve really dug into making changes (rather than just suggesting them to myself in margins or identifying problems). It’s gotten me thinking about the how revising a novel is and isn’t like revising a dissertation. (For a comparison of NaNoWriMo versus writing a dissertation, see my old post here.)


While dissertations are contributions to scholarship and (in a tiny way) to human knowledge, the audience for the document itself boils down to your advisor and committee. Turning the dissertation into a proper monograph is a different step, with different needs, than figuring out which references you need to include to help ensure that Dr. ______ signs off on it. Dr. X expects to see a careful, critical-theory heavy definition of “new music.” Professor Y wants more engagement with existing research. Dr. Z wants your footnotes to do some specific thing, and will throw a small but enthusiastic fit if you don’t.

(There is always a Dr. Z. Sometimes I wonder if professors draw straws to decide who will play that part.)

The revision process for the dissertation becomes, depending on how involved committee members are, a process of juggling occasionally competing needs, a delicate attempt to balance what you want to say with how you need to say it to get some more letters after your name. You pick your battles. For my master’s thesis, my advisor wielded a mechanical pencil of doom, marking all sorts of things. Some of them, I thought, were actually good. Good enough that I’d leave them alone and only change them if she marked them a second time. (I never attempted to go for a third.)

With the novel? Well, the audience at this stage in the process is me. I am writing a story I would like to read. I’m beholden to myself and myself alone. I can pick as many battles as I want, and feel responsible to pick all of the ones I can find. Once the draft goes to beta readers (in a month or so—drop me a line if you’re interested), the calculus will change. It will change again when agents or editors get involved.

Right now, though, revisions are thoroughly in the “author knows best” stage, which is certainly more fun than trying to suss out what a committee wants.

Staggered Starts

Dissertations are not novels, and they’re not, as mentioned earlier, scholarly monographs. Even with a plan for the whole thing, dissertations tend to be written one chapter at a time. This alters the revision process and hockets it with drafting. I was revising my first chapter while I was drafting my third (and revising it again when I was finishing my seventh). Finish a chapter, send it to the advisor, get feedback, use revision as a break from drafting (and vice versa). This process results in a dissertation that is much closer to being “finished,” usually, at the end of the drafting process than a novel is.

The NaNo process amplifies this difference: the whole point is to shut off your inner editor and get words onto the page. Most people, if they have a better idea for a scene they’ve already written, either take some notes or re-write it. Nothing gets sorted until later. When you do get around to sorting it, there’s invariably material you never want to see again. You do rewrites, but you’re rarely trying to alternate between drafting and revising. I didn’t really start making headway on my revisions for Ghosts until I read through the whole draft several times and went to work right at the beginning, a very un-NaNo process. No staggered starts.

Digging in the Guts

I tell my students that the purpose of revision is to help a piece be its best self. I also tell them that this means getting rid of parts that aren’t working. (High school seniors who freak out about needing to write a 5-8 page paper really freak out when you suggest that the paper would be better if they cut out a page and a half in the middle.)

With Ghosts, I threw away big chunks of text even before the first complete draft was finished. Of the 52000 I wrote during November of 2013, I threw out something like 10,000 almost immediately. They didn’t fit the way the story had grown. And now? I am still digging out the most “NaNo-y” passages and replacing them. I understand so much better what the story is, who the characters are, what needs to happen. There’s a lot of work I’m still doing to make the novel its best self, even before I get to the stage where other people start poking it in my blind spots.

The dissertation didn’t require throwing so much writing away, though there were equally painful cuts involving interesting research that proved to be tangential. I would have loved to follow up on some of the new music/pop crossover that appeared around the edges of my research, but that would have taken me out of my carefully-determined (and painstakingly-justified) timeframe, as well as away from my thesis. It would have changed the dissertation’s self.

I did change a few things substantially in the dissertation, particularly in the early chapters as I refined my argument and its scope. That’s probably the closest confluence of novel-revising and dissertation-revising: the writing and revising both refine your understanding of what the text’s “best self” is. Digging around in the guts of the work is about discovery as much as it is about doctoring. And it’s just as visceral as it sounds. There is a story you want to tell, and you evaluate whether you’re telling it, whether the story you think you’re telling is the story you are actually telling. Sometimes, the story your draft really tells is more interesting than the one you had in your head. Sometimes, the story your draft tells is just kinda dumb. Reconciling either can be messy and painful, but making things better often is.


NaNoWriMo Reflections, 2015

So the semester is done and I finally have a chance to look back on NaNo.


I won this year, but it was so much different than 2013. I’ve spent the last few weeks (and particularly the evening after our local “TGIO” party) puzzling out which of the differences had to do with me and which had to do with my region. There were a lot of changes in both over the two years between my wins.

Back in 2013, finding the community in the Austin region was super-important to me. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I’d only been in Texas a few months and meeting people who were not in my family circle was novel (sorry). Teaching was still just a stopgap, something I was doing on a substitute basis while looking for a real job. I was still pretty miserable much of the time. I’d also, y’know, never written a novel before. (Never mind that I’d started several going all the way back to third grade.)

That year, write-ins were really social. We spent at least half the time doing word sprints and chattering between them. I went to most of the Saturdays and most of the Wednesdays. A really high percentage of my wordcount came from those write-ins, particularly from the sprints. I remember that most of the people seemed to be writing purely for entertainment. We’d get together, overcaffeinate, and hurl words at our virtual pages.

Last year, I hardly made it to anything. I wanted to, but being a first-year teacher at a poorly-funded middle school was as much as I could handle. The commute did not help, nor did my kids’ challenges adjusting to their new school. I don’t know if the changes I noticed this year were in progress last year or not.

The biggest difference this year is that the community seemed much more…pre-professional. Our new municipal liaisons were great at organizing events. Many of those events, though, aimed directly or indirectly at publishing. The focus on writing for the sake of writing seemed diminished. The write-ins were much quieter. One of the regular ones is at a local gaming store. Back in 2013, it was one of the noisiest write-ins. This year, it was an island of quiet in the otherwise busy store. Don’t get me wrong—I still wrote thousands of words at that write-in. I just wrote them quietly. People said hello when they arrived and goodbye when they left, and occasionally chatted with friends they’d already made when they needed a break. Mostly, though, the write-ins I went to were quiet.

This year, that suited me. That’s the other difference—I’ve written a novel now, even though it’s not quite ready for distribution. I knew going in that I could do it, and I had a good idea of what I wanted to get out of the month. Putting my head down and writing was fine. Really, I needed the time with minimal distractions more than I needed the community this year—I like my job (a lot), my home life is fairly stable, and my stress-happiness balance is tipped very much toward happiness. November was about making time to chase the story and the wordcount.

It was a hell of a chase, too. I was at “par” on two of November’s 30 days: the first and the last. Going into Thanksgiving break, I had over 20,000 words left to write. I spent much of the break writing (including Thanksgiving day). On Black Friday, I hiked downtown and got caught in the rain. (It was bad enough that I had my spouse bring me some dry clothes.) I had about 1800 words left for Monday, and wrote almost 3000 because I was not about to stop in the middle of the climactic chapter.

The end product is, I think, better than the initial version of Ghosts. Most of the story for Spires of Trayan is there, and there are fewer of the scenes where I’m using the characters’ fumbling around to try and figure out where the story needs to go. I’m sure that when I open it back up in a month, I’ll groan and wonder what I was thinking. There will be things that are too obvious, things that are not obvious enough, and a few scenes that will be better off incinerated.

But it’s done. Fifty-one thousand words on the page (61000 including the ones I wrote last year). Words that weren’t there before. It was a quieter, calmer, more focused NaNo, but pulling those words out of nothing makes it a win.

Once More Unto the Breach

The other day I had to explain the word “trudging” to a bunch of 13-year olds, many of whom spoke English as their second language. Today the word felt apt—not because I was in a Minnesota winter stomping wearily through piles of snow, but because work is work, and sometimes nights are short and work is tough. I think about all the things I have to do (both in the possessive sense and the one of requirement) and it feels like I’ll be trudging until June.

That is why I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year, even though my time is as compressed as it ever was when I was using grad school as an excuse not to do it. I’m doing it because sometimes we have to jump off a (metaphorical) cliff and remember what flying feels like. Sometimes we forget to hit the ground, sometimes we don’t. (And we can be Arthur Dent in both cases.)

I miss the Austin NaNos I haven’t seen in a year (and some I’ve seen at Camp NaNo events). When I “won” eleven months ago, I called them “a community of fellow striver-sufferers.” It still fits. It’s hokey and a little artificial, but the camaraderie of NaNo is still great. I suspect that I’m much more excited for some of my fellow Austin NaNos to write their drafts than I’d ever be to read them. I’m just as sure that some of the stuff is awesome. Thing is, that’s not really the point: the point is to write. Because it’s fun and sometimes it’s more fun to do together.

The fun is the important part. I still have a manuscript sitting around to revise and get edited and published. Part of me wants to kick myself for starting the next book while the first one is still so rough. There’s just no better, more fun part of the year to churn through a novel draft than November. When something means enough, you stop finding time and start making time.

This post has simmered for a few days—from a really abysmal Wednesday and on to Halloween, when the hardest of the hardcore NaNos are spending the holiday evening having a potluck and caffeinating themselves to get going at midnight. My kids are out trick or treating. It’s quiet between trick-or-treaters, and for once I don’t have lessons to plan. I’ve resisted the urge to throw on a movie…because the quiet is good. This is a moment I’m taking to write.

Nothing fancy, words on a screen, and most of those words are about words, which is too often a snake eating its own tail. But I will write. I am writing. I am a writer.

Tomorrow I start a new novel and send Maedoc and Zahra to Trayan. They might not get there and back this November, but they will go. And I will go with them because it is a far, far better thing than to stay here.

And because I’ve been English teacher/nerd enough to be actually using these speeches in the morning to psych myself up, a little Henry the Five, courtesy of Branagh and Olivier:

Let’s jump off the cliff and try to forget about hitting the ground.

Something Happened on the Way to Camp NaNoWriMo

In early December, I had a post-NaNo Facebook conversation. I wrote this in passing:

 Honestly, I’m a little surprised more people didn’t win. Over 300,000 participants, and only about 41,000 winners.

I had hit my 50,000 with a day or two to spare. My 50,000 was “pure”—I hadn’t included any of the writing I did for Walking Ledges, nor for any of my games, nor any of my brainstorming. I certainly didn’t include the conference paper that ate my first weekend of writing. I was proud of myself and excited by the proto-novel that I would only later start calling Ghosts of the Old City.

In attempting to repeat the 50,000 word feat in April, I have a much better understanding of how those other 260,000 people came up short of the NaNo benchmark. In November, I was working…but not full time. I had an hour or two a few mornings each week to write. I had the energy to go to weekday write-ins and saw enough of my kids to spend my Saturdays away from them sans guilt.

April has been different. I’ve been teaching middle school five days a week. Getting up at 5:30 would be great for writing if I didn’t have to get myself ready and help make sure everybody’s ready to be out the door around seven. After a full day of work, cooking dinner is just…more work. Dishes still have to get done. Clicking through flash games starts to seem a lot easier than trying to muster more words. I spent a Saturday fixing my washing machine, and parts of others doing non-writing socializing.

In short, life happens.

Despite good intentions, I had not shaped an outline before April first. In November I’d hit the wordcount goal, but even then I wrote: “My 50,000 are from all over the probable novel, and do not come close to completing it.” I had scenes I liked without any idea how they went together. I was able to string together a convincing first six chapters from what I’d written. I had part of the final confrontation written. Everything that came between was soup. I had killed off a character; I tried different spots for his death. I decided against killing off that character because his death wouldn’t mean much unless I brought him further out of the background. I had a secondary bad guy that I removed because he was a distraction. Then I brought him back. You get the picture.

That was the first week. The second was the broken washing machine and health insurance shenanigans. It wasn’t until the third week that I began writing in earnest. That was when I discovered something: filling in gaps isn’t nearly as much fun as writing in the leaps and bounds that produce them. When I got stuck in November, I could just jump to a new scene. I could also write “scene seeds”—brief bits of prose (200 words or so) that suggested something cool was happening or about to happen. I was constantly making something out of nothing. I wasn’t worrying about architecture or how well my story would hold together. In fact, I didn’t really figure out what my central conflict was until a lunch break in mid-November, when I was already twelve or thirteen thousand words in.

Now that I actually have an architecture, getting stuck has most often meant skipping over to some other spot where I’m stuck. I think most of the passages are in their proper places, but all the existing material I had in the middle has required some rewriting. No, Emma wouldn’t ask that question because she was there the night before when Maedoc explained it to the chief inspector…wait—Bogul hasn’t attacked Zahra yet, she can’t be frightened…nobody knows that the Owls are actually…. You get the picture. There have been many things to fix, and I can’t just write what seems cool at the moment.

The story makes more sense now, but the re-writing runs counter to the NaNo ethos of “words first.” Even with Camp NaNo’s flexible goals, I still cringe at the way I’m falling behind my on my bar graph. I got much closer to par over the weekend (thanks in part to the write-in I threw together), although some of the words I’m counting aren’t entirely fresh. Fortunately, my real goal doesn’t depend on word counts. I started the month aiming for a top-to-bottom draft. To get there, I think I’ll need to come up with about 10,000 words in the next 60 or so hours. Doable.

Camp is smaller. There’s much less local activity (another thing that has retarded my bar graph’s progress). The month ends in the middle of the week, so there won’t be the all-nighting that rounded out many NaNoers’ November. I have my virtual cabin and the Austin NaNo Facebook group to lean on for support, though. I haven’t given up on “winning.” And even if I don’t hit my wordcount or complete every missing scene in Ghosts of the Old City, I’m still writing. I will have written.

What more could I ask?

NaNoWriMo, Camp Style

November was National Novel Writing Month. I was a bit skeptical going in, as I wrote before the month began. I also “won” NaNo—I got my 50,000 words despite presenting at a conference and missing the first weekend. I met some fun people in the Austin area. As the month wound to a close, we were abuzz with the desire to start writing groups and workshop the manuscripts we’d piled up (some more neatly than others). It faded relatively quickly amidst the clamor of the holidays and what passes for winter here in Texas.

Earlier this month, the Austin NaNo Facebook group slowly rumbled back to life. also sponsors “Camp NaNoWriMo,” a more open-ended pair of virtual camps in April and June. (This is exactly what I needed back when my Novembers were full of academics, incidentally.) A good chunk of the Austinite NaNo crowd was signing up. Some of us are still working on our NaNo projects: editing, adding the missing bits, or otherwise trying to turn our word piles into entities with literary architecture.

I signed up. I want to finish.

When I committed to the “proper” NaNoWriMo, post-relocation life was still unsettled. It had been about three months since the move. My partner was only just starting a new job. I was still applying for writing jobs willy-nilly and substitute teaching on occasion, but with my partner working, I went back to being the stay-at-home parent. (Substitute teaching did not pay enough to justify paying for daycare for our pre-K daughter.) That’s changed somewhat. My sister-in-law watches the kids after school when I’m working…and I’m working a steady 40 hours each week at my long-term substitute gig for most of April. This weekend I even had to take some time to do grading and a dash of course prep. I will have considerably less energy and rather less time to throw at my novel than I did in November.

That’s really why I’m doing it—because I don’t have the time. I want a draft. Correction: I want a finished manuscript. I can’t have that without a draft. I can’t complete a draft without doing the writing. NaNo’s a good incentive for that: I take lizard-brain pleasure in watching a bar graph (or in this case, a bullseye graphic) improve. I also get something out of the mild competitiveness of the wordcount race. These nudges will, I hope, be enough to help me cram writing back into my day.

Oh, there’s writing in my day. Blog posts. Still a bit of online game writing (though I’ve dialed that back). I’ve been pecking at my novel intermittently. What has been lacking is sustained pressure. I wrote last week that I’m afraid of quitting my novel, that it would be easy to leave it where it’s at. That’s true. The fear of quitting is also a much more familiar one: the fear of failure. I’m okay with being a “failed” academic, mostly because I happily slap those quotes on it. Being a failed novelist wouldn’t come with the scare quotes. I am in this for serious.

 Not everybody who does NaNo is. I think that’s where many of the anti-NaNoWriMo posts miss the point. Many people do this for fun, and only for fun. They do it because they like hanging out with other writers, virtually or physically. They do it because they enjoy the process. If they crash and burn in November, it’s no skin off their nose. If they write 70,000 words that nobody else will ever read, that’s okay with them. We do NaNo because we love to write.

This seems to be even truer of Camp NaNoWriMo. Its format is open-ended, allowing users to set their targets and describe their projects any way they want. In my virtual cabin, I’ve got two people who are enthusiastically writing fanfic (Harry Potter and Dr. Who, if you’re keeping track). Some people are writing histories. Others are writing poetry. Camp NaNo is an excuse to revisit November’s camaraderie for a while, to borrow a bit of its structure and manic energy without being swamped by it. Or it’s a chance to dip a toe in those waters before diving in in the autumn. The key is this: we bring in the goals we want.

To my fellow campers and fellow writers: best of luck achieving them.

The 967th Cut: Writing, Writing, and Writing

I’m currently on course to triple-bogey NaNoWriMo. It is too early to panic, and I’ve got several hopefully word-lucrative weekends to go in the month, but I’m something like 6000 words off “par” depending on how much I get done today. It is not for want of writing that I’m behind. I suspect that, if I included everything I’d written since the flip between Halloween and All Saint’s Day, I’d be far closer to my goal.

What have I been writing? Posts for games (including a lengthy training montage involving a Chinese truck driver), professional correspondence, lengthy sub reports…but mostly I have been expanding and polishing the paper I’m presenting Friday afternoon at the annual American Musicological Society meeting in Pittsburgh. It has been a while since since I’ve touched my research, never mind tried juggling it with fiction writing, blogging, and my usual keyboard recreation. It has provided an opportunity to reflect on writing, on what changes and what remains the same as I shift characters, genres, and function.

Here’s the important thing: words matter.

I knew words mattered a long time ago. I wrote a lot of poetry in my latter teenage years, tinkering with every word and sound to get what I wanted. I knew about lightning and lightning bugs, to crib a bit from Twain. By the time I started grad school, I had incorporated that sensibility into my fiction writing. It never occurred to me that I could pay the same attention to my academic writing, though. At least until I had a fantastic advisor (Carol Hess) who deployed her inimitable mechanical pencil to mark up my papers like they hadn’t been marked up since I started at Atlantic College.

From Dr. Hess, I learned just how many of the lessons I’d learned writing poetry and fiction could apply to formal writing. She argued with me about word choice, about syntax, about varying sentence length. It was not enough to have good ideas. Nor was it enough to express them clearly. To get past “clear” to “compelling” takes work. It takes choosing the right word every time. It requires killing your darlings.

This is especially true for presentations. The presentation format amplifies everything that turns good ideas into bad writing. Nobody in a conference room has the luxury of re-reading a muddy sentence. As a writer, I have to make sure that the paper makes sense read out loud, that I don’t choke it with jargon or polysyllables. At the structural level, arguments need careful scaffolding so that they catch in listeners’ minds.

Turning literary wordcraft to academic ends has made all of my writing better. Without being able to skate by on mere fluency in any of my word work, I’ve had to develop better habits. Even in my least formal writing, the stuff I do for games, I find myself striking out extra words and focusing on vivid verbs. Focusing on sound and register has helped me improve my dialogue writing. (Games have actually been incredibly useful for that, as a Cypriot smuggler, a high school guidance counselor, and a Cajun werewolf are all going to speak…rather differently.)

Writing is writing is writing. As long as we do it attentively, we learn from it.

Expect an update on the conference and the NaNo progress this weekend.

NaNoWriMo, At Last

I heard about National Novel Writing Month in the waybackwhen, in a year that was mostly zeroes. I was in college, still vaguely an aspiring writer but mostly a composer in love with sound. As cool as it seemed, I promptly forgot about it. There was too much going on in my life. “I’ll get around to it after I get out of school, maybe.” Besides, I didn’t have any great ideas to turn into a novel.

By the time I did, graduate school was burying me. I made grand plans in November and in May to do a Personal Novel Writing Month in, say, July, when I was not taking classes. Invariably, these plans had disintegrated by December and June. I started a novel six years ago. That lasted one and a half chapters and a few notebook pages of brainstorming. For the last few years, I’ve technically had the time to write. Unfortunately, I was busy with a different book—or at least a book-like entity—titled “Presenting the New: Battles around New Music in New York in the Seventies.” That one has been read by about four people, who were kind enough to sign a paper saying I should be allowed to finally finish school.

Writing a novel shot up to the top of my to-do list once my dissertation was done. It seemed like the obvious thing to do while sitting on my hands waiting for the slow mill of the academic job hunt to finish grinding me down. I even got started on The Fairworth Chronicles. I churned out a prologue in a timely manner, and moved on to the first chapter. That was around the time my partner and I decided to move our family 1200 miles, and around the time my kids got out of school for the summer. That confluence of circumstance put most of my writing on hold.

…at least until we got here and I decided to try and make a serious go of writing. I have a day job now, so writing time is scarcer, but I am gradually figuring out the pacing. And I have missed my characters. I want to turn them loose in Sakurdrilen and see what happens. (In the meantime, I am brainstorming and outlining and pushing on with re-writes of my novella collection.)


I’ve read a number of posts now both encouraging and discouraging writers from participating in NaNoWriMo. Most of the latter point to the arbitrariness of word count goals and the delusions of having a finished project at the end of the month. Most of the encouraging posts remind me of friends talking up Tough Mudder or Warrior Dash. (Both pro- and anti- posts frequently make explicit marathon comparisons.) NaNoWriMo seems to have grown huge and club-ish while I was busy writing papers. It’s no longer just a project, it is a month-long event. In the Austin area, I could attend write-ins and other NaNo events three or four times a week, starting now and going all the way to the end of the month. It’s a Big Thing. Out of habit and training, I tend to be skeptical of Big Things.

So…why NaNoWriMo? And why now? I hold no illusions about brandishing a finished manuscript at month’s end. I am not sure whether I want to join “the club,” though many folks seem enthusiastic about it. (Several of the local events are at Austin’s big game/comic store, too, so…) I have fairly firm ideas about what I want to do with my writing, where I want to take my stories, how I want to present them to the public. Do I really need to make myself crazy chasing 1700 words/day for 30 days? Particularly when I am presenting at an academic conference early in the month? Wouldn’t it make more sense to ensure my rewrites get done and put that effort into better establishing my on-line presence in advance of my first serious bit of self-publishing?

Well, yes. Yes, it would make more sense. But on the other hand: why not just do it? I have never really had the opportunity to chase an arbitrary writing goal in a community of like-minded chasers. First drafts can be awful. (I am in the middle of rewrites, I know how awful they can be!) But the blank page is worse. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single cliche. And then you rewrite it so it sounds better. And then you rewrite it again so it makes more sense. And then you find somebody trustworthy and clever to read it and tell you all the things that are wrong with it, and you keep fixing it. That is all part of writing.

But the thing about NaNoWriMo is that you can let those other steps come later and just write. That holds tremendous appeal, and that is why I’m doing it this year. Because I can. Because I will. Because why not?