Hayley Stone: Five Things I Learned Writing Machinations

The machines have risen, but not out of malice. They were simply following a command: to stop the endless wars that have plagued the world throughout history. Their solution was perfectly logical. To end the fighting, they decided to end the human race.

A potent symbol of the resistance, Rhona Long has served on the front lines of the conflict since the first Machinations began—until she is killed during a rescue mission gone wrong. Now Rhona awakens to find herself transported to a new body, complete with her DNA, her personality, even her memories. She is a clone . . . of herself.

Trapped in the shadow of the life she once knew, the reincarnated Rhona must find her place among old friends and newfound enemies—and quickly. For the machines are inching closer to exterminating humans for good. And only Rhona, whoever she is now, can save them.

 

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When Something’s Wrong, Fix It

Full disclosure: I’m a pantser or, as the cool kids call it, a discovery writer. I begin my stories without any or very little idea of where I’m going, and what will happen. This suits me because I like the experience of a story unfolding before me in a spontaneous, fluid way, getting as near to a reader’s perspective as possible. Of course, it also forces me to rely on my gut a lot of the time. Which is totally cool and never causes any problems.

Oh, wait. No. The opposite of that.

Being a discovery writer is all about instinct — knowing when something is working, and when it’s not. Example: Machinations features a small, barely-there love triangle. In the first draft, it was much more prominent and complicated, but even still I went in with a good notion of who I wanted the main character, Rhona, to end up with. Rhona had other ideas.

Even before I typed the last words, I knew I was on the wrong track. I had the niggling feeling that I was forcing it. But I was already committed; I’d written so many words, you see. Surely I could spin this resolution without having to do a major rewrite? Turns out, my doubts had weight, and I later had to do a lot of rewriting to fix the romantic subplot.

I know a lot of writing advice cautions against rereading and editing while working on a first draft—and sometimes rightfully so—but for myself, it’s impossible for me to move forward when I know there’s a mess behind me that I’m going to have to clean up later. Since then, when I’m certain something is wrong and I have a good idea how to fix it, I simply go back and do so. Saves a lot of heartache down the line.

Muses Are Fickle, But Discipline’s a Bro

There’s a reason a lot of professional authors recommend keeping a consistent writing routine: because it freaking works.

My daily word count goal while writing Machinations was 1,000 words (500 minimum, if I was feeling really off or had to revise). It took me about five and a half months, I only maybe missed a few days here are there, and often wrote more than my goal. Part of the reason I worked so stringently was because I was trying to prove to myself that I could write a novel without the high-intensity challenge and excitement of NaNoWriMo (which, previously, had been the only time I’d finished a novel).

Passion and inspiration are great to have, and necessary to begin, but on the days where the doubt is crippling, habit and discipline will get you through more than some imaginary Grecian goddesses.

Word Count Ranges Exist For a Reason

Come with me, if you will, on a brief journey to my early querying days…

[Insert wavy flashback transition]

Thoughts, at the time of initial querying, c. 2012: yes, your book is outside the typical word count range, but you are a special snowflake and this story is so good and there’s not a single thing you can or should cut. Agents will definitely overlook the fact that you’re 15,000 words over what is generally acceptable for debut authors in your genre. I mentioned the snowflake thing, right?

Reality: Form rejections.

I can’t know for sure, but I suspect a lot of my early rejections were based off the book’s lengthy word count. More to the point, later when I finally decided to roll up my sleeves and axed over 16,000 words to bring it into an acceptable range, I found that it improved the pacing of the story drastically and tidied up some character arcs. I also started getting full requests from agents.

The moral of the story? Don’t hold on so tightly to your words and pride that you’re unwilling to whip the ms into the shape it needs to be in for readers.

(There are exceptions to adhering to word count ranges, of course; a good story always trumps everything else. Still, if you’re over, it might be a good idea to take another look and see if that chapter where your MC takes a long walk and ponders the nature of existence is really necessary to the plot.)

Just Because It’s Hard Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Worth Doing*

For about a year and a half after finishing the first draft and my aborted querying attempt, I left Machinations alone to collect proverbial dust, consigned to the oblivion of my hard drive. I was convinced it would become another “trunk” novel. Not because it wasn’t any good—friends agreed that it was fun and entertaining—but because the effort involved to fix it, to make it good enough to appeal to agents… well, it seemed like too much work.

I’m embarrassed to admit that now, but at the time, I had all sorts of justifications for setting the manuscript aside. It wasn’t “hard” enough for sci-fi. The voice wasn’t mature enough. I would do better with my next story. Blah blah blah…

So often it seems much easier to move on to a fresh project than tinker around with an old one with all its flaws. New ideas always look incandescent, full of promise, whereas once you’ve put actual words on the page, a story becomes chained to the hard reality of art. No art is perfect, because perfection doesn’t exist. (The saying “art is never finished, you’re just finished with it” also comes to mind.)

Maybe leaving Machinations alone for so long gave me necessary perspective on the story, enough to make the edits it required when I finally returned. Maybe I wasted time. I certainly didn’t complete another novel in between, though I tried. Either way, I eventually toughened up, got in there, and revised. And revised. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

* I stole this expression from my grandma, but don’t worry. She’s cool with it.

My English Teacher Was Wrong (And Yours Might Be, Too)

Two of the most damaging beliefs I ever received about books came from an English teacher I had in high school. The first was, “If you know every word in a book, it’s beneath you.” And the second was, “If it’s entertaining, it’s not good literature.

Not coincidentally, that’s also what my inner editor sounded like throughout drafting Machinations. Along with pointing out punctuation and grammar errors, my inner editor laughingly questioned whether my book would be considered “good literature” because it featured so much humor, because it was bright and fun and—gasp!—entertaining.

True: Machinations isn’t high-brow. It won’t make you go to the dictionary every other page—but so what? That’s not the instrument by which I measure a good book, and it’s not the book I wanted to write either. I wanted to write an adventurous, character-driven story that asked big questions about love and identity. A book readers could enjoy and come away feeling good about by the end.

It took me a long time to drown out that teacher’s voice and see the worth in what I was writing. And you know what? With all the darkness in the world today, I think creating fiction that allows people an escape hatch from the real world is as noble a goal as any.

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Bio: Hayley Stone has lived her entire life in sunny California, where the weather is usually perfect and nothing as exciting as a robot apocalypse ever happens. When not reading or writing, she freelances as a graphic designer, falls in love with videogame characters, and analyzes buildings for velociraptor entry points. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in German from California State University, Sacramento. Machinations is her debut novel.

Hayley Stone: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr

Machinations: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Goodreads

18 comments

  • “So often it seems much easier to move on to a fresh project than tinker around with an old one with all its flaws.”

    Ohhhh this. I am about 30k into a novel (which has the basic structure, rather than being the first half) and now oh my god I want to write anything else

    • There is a moment in the 20-30k range on every single novel where I start to doubt myself, start to hate the book, and wish I was working on something else. It happens without fail. That’s where the discipline comes in, as well as learning to recognize where you’re at in the emotional cycle of your writing process. You just gotta push through it. Eventually you should come out of that hole and start enjoying the story again, and by the end, you’ll have a rough draft to work with! That’s half the battle right there.

      Best of luck with your writing, Jamie!

  • I just finished this book and it was really good. It’s not hard SF, a lot of the nuts and bolts stuff is glossed over and in a few cases wrong, but don’t let that stop you, there’s a strong romance line and a lot of looking into relationships and what it means to be human when the world is coming apart around you. Really well written, you just have to go into it without the expectation it’ll be just hard SF with none of that emotional stuff. 🙂

  • “New ideas always look incandescent, full of promise, whereas once you’ve put actual words on the page, a story becomes chained to the hard reality of art. No art is perfect, because perfection doesn’t exist.”

    Boy ain’t this the truth. And the longer you tinker with a piece, trying to get it Just Perfect, the louder that ugly little voice of self-doubt.
    Off to investigate Machinations. I LOVE robo-pocalypse (The Terminator was my first sci fi love), and I don’t give a damn about scientific details.

  • Great post! What was the initial word count of your MS? Do you know, is sci fi supposed to sit around 90k for debuts?

    • Thanks, James!

      If I recall correctly, the first draft was 121k, the second draft 124k (because adding even more words totally solves the problem of a long word count, haha), and every subsequent draft was less until I finally got it down to around 104k. As far as I know, 100k is the sweet spot for debut SF, but that isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions, of course. The final book’s word count is 105 or 106k.

  • I have never posted a comment before but I just had to because this post spoke to me so deeply. I’m on about the 3rd (maybe 4th? 5th? Ive lost track) draft of my first novel, and jesus h roosevelt christ it is HARD! What once was so light and airy and full of ideas and possibilities has become bogged down with the weight of my expectations, doubts, and other people’s opinions. I think daily about how much easier it would be to start fresh with something new, to feel the magic again of creating something out of nothing. And I too am constantly thinking of reasons why my book isn’t good enough, why it should never see the light of day. But I am going to keep trying!

    Thank you Hayley for this post -it’s made me feel a lot better!

    Looking forward to reading your novel! 🙂

    • Jennifer, I’m also squirreling through the third draft of my first novel, so I know exactly what you’re going through. I know the grinch-thoughts that go round inside our heads – “Jeez, other, PROPER novelists would have finished this and be onto their third sequel by now…” “I’m going to be ninety years old before I ever finish this…” and let’s not forget “I am THE ONLY PERSON IN THE UNIVERSE who is ever going to want to read this novel when it’s finally done.” Those and all the general ones about me being deluded about my ability to write a novel AT ALL, like those deluded wannabes on The X Factor who claim they’re the Next Mariah and then proceed to make a noise like a cat sliding down a cheese grater…

      We’re not the best judges of our own work, because we’re too close to it. And even if what we end up with this time isn’t good enough to publish, the lessons we’ll have learned for writing the next one will be priceless. But we have to ‘complete the course’ to ‘graduate.’ Stick with it – it’ll be worth it in the end, no matter what. 🙂

  • “I know a lot of writing advice cautions against rereading and editing while working on a first draft—and sometimes rightfully so—but for myself, it’s impossible for me to move forward when I know there’s a mess behind me that I’m going to have to clean up later. Since then, when I’m certain something is wrong and I have a good idea how to fix it, I simply go back and do so.”

    I’m a believer in “just getting it down” when it comes to first drafts, but if going back to revise helps someone move forward, go for it. Whatever works. But your caveats are important: you KNOW it’s wrong AND you know how to fix it NOW. Otherwise one risks bogging down over stuff best left for the second draft and courting the disease I call “premature polishing.”

  • Wunderba! (I couldn’t think how to say congratulations in German.) But I do wish you well with your first–of no doubt many to come–novel! I appreciate the sentiment of not wanting to move past a grievous error in writing. Now I just have to work on the work ethic of a consistent writing schedule. (Consistency not being the hobgoblin of small minds–unless you are, of course, writing about diminutive creatures of a goblinesque nature.) may your rewards match the measure of your efforts!

  • August 4, 2016 at 1:48 PM // Reply

    Great post. I can relate to a lot of that, and I detest your high school English teacher. If the only way a book can be “literature” is to be boring and depressing, well, I will pitch my piles of degrees in English out the window (oh, wait. I think I already did that, metaphorically speaking). Anyway: it’s a pet peeve. Or maybe I just don’t like “literature.” I like books.

    Also really appreciate your comment about discipline. The only time I get through work in a hurry is when I set a schedule and keep to it. Not always about word counts, but about time with my bum in the chair.

  • Wow! Your post really resonated with me. Like you, I’m a pantser who can’t move forward if the novel I’m building has a weak beam or crack in the foundation. I have to go back and fix it. But there’s always the risk of getting mired in what Robert Kenney calls “premature polishing.” Guilty of that, too. The trick, I guess, is fixing fundamental flaws just enough to feel satisfied that your story is on the right track and leaving the little stuff for later. (Sometimes, I’ll just insert a note with the intention of revisiting it later.) As for daily word goals, 500 is a good day for me. My discipline sucks. So this year, I’m going to try NaNoWriMo in the hopes of getting down the first draft of my second book. My first, a YA novel, took me five years, but I learned a lot about what to do and not to do. Thanks for sharing your hard-won insights, and best of luck with “Machinations.” I’ll put it on my to-read list!

  • Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s worth doing… O – so needed to hear THAT today. Look, most people has childhood issues, however I’m not so sure most people still struggle with those at age 70. My mother hates me. We never had a great relationship but I was too idealistic to think it was as bad as it actually is. Recently my 89 year old mum had a mild stroke that fried whatever boundaries she once had, few as they may have been, and it’s all come crystal. The best advice I’ve gotten, from several folks, is to keep a thousand miles between us. Seems right. I realize that you have no reason to believe me and might be thinking, wow, that’s harsh, I mean – mommy dearest. That’s it, right on the nail head. Nevertheless a little glimmer in me kept saying “O, fix it before it’s too late…”
    Wow. It was too late about fifty years ago. You’ll just have to trust me on this. Except this all is a great source of writing material. Horror, I think.
    Anyway, thanks.

  • I love this post! Thank you so much. I especially love the part about discipline being a bro. I’ve found that to be absolutely true. Sometimes the muse will decide he is done in the middle of a writing session, but if I keep going I am shocked at what I can get done.

  • I agree with you about point 5, a book doesn’t need to use complicated language to tell the story. Its also worth noting that all books shouldn’t always be easy to follow. Gardens of the Moon is an example where Steven Erikson advises that its “sink or swim” for the reader in his introduction. Writing a hard book is worth doing and in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, where anything goes, it shows a depth of imagination.

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