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.
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.
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.