stripped-down room, renovations in progress

Revision Revisited

I’m at the stage of my work in progress that follows finishing the first draft. That draft was a 6-month sprint compared to the rewrite, which right now feels like it’s not even a marathon, but a journey.

Several months ago, I heard a talk by a writer and editor about the psychological state of the writer while revising a piece of writing. I will not name that person here because I’ll be mixing their ideas with my interpretations and extrapolations.

The talk began with a writer’s inherent resistance to revision. There are several reasons for it, but the ones I related to most were the fear that making changes to a piece of writing might unravel it entirely, and the fear of being overwhelmed by the possibilities for changes. The first is like pulling on a thread in a sweater, and the second like looking at a map with dozens of possible routes to a destination.

Then there are the words used to describe the process: revision, rewriting, editing. Let’s start with “editing.” As I see it used, it covers everything from major structural changes to proofreading, and therefore is often qualified, as in developmental editing, structural editing, line editing, stylistic editing, copyediting, etc.

Some writers say they edit as they write. This can mean only that they clean up their prose sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, correcting typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors. Maybe they evaluate word choices and delete or add words or sentences. If you go back and read what you’ve just written, it’s impossible not to do this type of editing, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s definitely not revision or rewriting, which involves deleting or moving paragraphs or entire scenes, or writing fresh ones from scratch.

To me, revision and rewriting are pretty much the same, but when I look at the words, it makes sense that revision happens first. It’s re-envisioning the work, which then requires rewriting. One way of looking at it is that the writer must be freshly inspired by the work as written to shape it into its full potential. In other words, revision is a new beginning, rather than the conclusion of a writing project.

Elements of revision:

  • The Imaginer must be present at the rewrite
  • It’s necessary to identify the core essence of the story
  • It’s necessary to identify the crucial scenes and amp them to the max
  • Strip the connective matter between those scenes to the bare minimum
  • Identify areas of weakness and take deliberate action to remedy them

To elaborate on each of these

The Imaginer must be present at the rewrite. It can’t be left up to the Editor and Inner Critic, who may convince the writer (of whom they are components) that the work is unimprovable, or that it’s perfect as it is and major rewriting will destroy it. At this stage the work is malleable, like unfired clay.

Identify the core essence of the story. This is done by reading it without getting sucked into making minor changes, which is hard to do. It may be helpful to set the manuscript aside for a week or longer before this read-through. This disengages the brain from the work and prevents it from supplying missing elements which would not be available to a reader who isn’t the writer.

Identify the crucial scenes and amp them to the max. During that read-through, write down (with pen on paper) the most emotionally significant moment in each chapter or scene, and focus on perfecting it.

Strip connective matter between scenes to the bare minimum. This may be text that “sets up” a scene or describes characters moving from one place to another. While the writer needs to work out these details while creating the story, the reader doesn’t always need to see them.

Identify areas of weakness and act deliberately to remedy them. Description, dialogue, character motivation, conflict and tension, climax and resolution. Any of these may be problematic and in need of attention. An editor, critique partners, or beta readers may be helpful in calling attention to the problems. However, the writer should beware of taking action on any and all suggestions. Asking for feedback on specifics is more productive.

The goal is to produce a narrative that transcends the writer’s expectations and elicits an emotional reaction in the reader, even when the reader is also the writer. If, during the revision process, the writer gets bored with the story or tired of the characters, the story has not reached its burning essence.

That said, the writer must decide when it’s good enough. Only then is it time for what is usually called “editing”–looking for continuity problems, making the best word choices, and correcting grammar and spelling errors, and typos.

I’m a long way from that stage yet, because I’m in no rush. One thing I’ve learned is that when my attitude toward the work becomes mostly negative, it’s time to step away and do something else. I can’t find that burning essence when I’m physically tired or weighed down by everyday mental baggage.

Fellow writers, I’m sure you all have your own approaches to rewriting and editing. Feel free to share in the comments!

Image by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021

Dead Plant Growing

This rubber plant (Ficus elastica) is on Death Row. It was there all summer, but didn’t know it. The plant thought it was on a holiday, but nights are cooler now. In a month or two, there will be a clear night with frost, and the rubber plant will die.

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021
Doomed rubber plant awaiting a killing frost.

The plant has a history. It is a clone (via many cuttings and air layering) of one acquired by my mother at least sixty years ago, maybe more. Every house she lived in (and my parents moved a lot) had a rubber tree in the living room. Mom liked the leaves, which could grow to two feet long while remaining relatively narrow. Maybe that’s why she put up with the plant’s growth habit in suboptimal conditions–a single stem that eventually threatened to scrape the ceiling, or acquired an ungainly lean. At that point it would be decapitated, and the cut off piece would be rooted to make a new plant. Meanwhile, the original put out a branch at right angles to the stem, which made it look like a gibbet with leaves.

Rubber plants grown in their preferred conditions look much better. (Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com)

Eventually, Mom got rid of her rubber tree. By that time she lived in a small apartment and had also acquired a fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata), which she liked better than the rubber plant. It certainly looked better. But by then I also had a clone of the rubber plant. It wasn’t welcome in our living room, which at the time hosted two big weeping figs (Ficus benjamina), so it was relegated to what became my writing room in the basement. It’s a low-ceilinged room, and while it’s south-facing, there really isn’t enough sun for the rubber plant. So said plant ended up looking like a gibbet for gnomes. Mind you, it was present while I wrote my first novel and several others.

My mother died in October of 2018. Although I was tired of the rubber plant, which was not doing well, I felt obliged to keep it going in her memory. By this summer, the plant really was a thing of ugly. I decided that rather than watch its slow decline, I would put it outside and let the first frost kill it decisively.

Of course, with more light and lots of summer heat, the rubber plant grew new leaves, which reminded me why my mom liked the plant in the first place. But its proportions haven’t improved; if anything, the extra foliage has made it even more of a hulking mess. It wouldn’t be easy to find a spot for it in its old quarters, and it would likely go into a decline again over the winter. So it’s now on Death Row.

As a gardener, I feel a certain amount of guilt about this. If the rubber plant were a cat or dog that just happened to look old and scruffy, I wouldn’t be planning its demise, would I? On the other hand, gardeners rip out and kill healthy weeds without compunction. Maybe it’s because this is a house plant, and of course there’s that connection with my mother.

I thought about propagating a new plant. Unlike animals, plants are sort of immortal in that new clones can be created through cuttings or tissue cultures. The best way to make a new rubber plant is a technique called air layering. You cut partway through a branch and wrap the cut area with sphagnum moss, making sure to keep the cut open. Wrap plastic around the moss and stem and keep the moss damp. Roots grow in several weeks, at which point the new plant may be removed and potted up. My current plant was produced this way, and its predecessor dispatched. I blogged about that HERE.

The trouble is that under the same suboptimal growing conditions that produced ugly specimens before, a new rubber plant would be no different. Watching my various rubber plants looking less than beautiful was not a happy experience, so I’ve decided it’s time to bid Ficus elastica a fond farewell.

Promotion Paradoxes

Unlike advice about how to write, I have no desire to quibble with advice on how to market or promote books. Social media, paid advertising, giveaways, email lists, etc. I have nothing to say about any of them.

BUT: must every indie author even worry about marketing? Consider the following questions:

  • Do you see marketing as part of the same exciting creative process as writing?
  • Do you think of marketing as a tough challenge to whet your mettle?
  • Is marketing a kind of hair shirt you have to wear to expiate your writing habit?
  • Maybe marketing is a form of torture you wouldn’t inflict on your worst enemy?
  • Or perhaps you see marketing as a waste of valuable writing time.

Just about every author who says they love writing, just have to write, will stop writing only when they die, also says they hate marketing, but they have to do it if they want people to buy and read their books. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing and publishing them?

Even authors who have embraced marketing don’t seem to have found the magic bullet. Some report success with a specific form of paid advertising; others say it absolutely didn’t work for them. Solutions that worked a few years ago no longer do. My impression is that it’s pretty much a crap shoot, and can be expensive.

Here are my unvarnished (and unjustified) thoughts:

On the one hand, I hear that prospective purchasers must see a product (i.e., a book) a minimum of 7 times before they decide to buy. On the other hand, you shouldn’t constantly promote your books via social media. For me, the more times I see a book being touted, the less interested I am in buying it. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it relates to my attitude toward TV commercials. The first time: Oh, how funny! Second time: Still funny. Third time: Oh, here’s that again. Fourth time: Man, this is getting old. Fifth time: I’m getting to dislike this intensely. Sixth time: Aargh, not this stupid thing again! Seventh time: Click off. (Full disclosure: I haven’t actually watched TV since 1992.)

I hate advertising. Why should I inflict it on others?

You must promote. But you must do it indirectly, by engaging prospective purchasers with your personal charm (and brand). They’ll be so intrigued by you and your ideas and your way of expressing them, they’ll hasten to buy your books. Well, maybe…

Writers’ blogs (and maybe social media) attract mostly other writers. There are fewer writers out there than readers (although that might be hard to believe), so you really ought to attract readers. The trouble is, readers are too diverse to attract as a block. So you have to target by genre. But what if your books are in multiple genres or mashed up genres, or no identifiable genre?

A blog isn’t enough. You need to publish a newsletter. The point of the newsletter is to build an email list. Then you send your newsletter to the people on the list. Of course, they have to sign up for the newsletter. As bait, you offer one of your books, or at least a short story, for free. But I hear the trick is to retain the signups after they collect the freebie. And anyway, no one reads free books. I have no time to read the newsletters I seem to have signed up for. Why should I expect anyone to read mine (if I published one, which I don’t)?

Besides, I already have a blog. Why should I also produce a newsletter?

Here is my take on an indie book marketing decision path:

  1. Decide if you really want to market your book(s)
  2. But don’t believe you have to
  3. If you want to sell more than a few dozen books a year, you probably do have to market
  4. In that case, figure out what avenues suit you
  5. If none of them suits, you’re not going to achieve those sales
  6. So suck that up, and either quit publishing or live with lower sales
  7. Review your reasons for writing and/or publishing
  8. If writing gives you joy, write
  9. If publishing gives you joy, publish
  10. If marketing gives you joy, market
  11. If any of 8 through 10 give you grief instead of joy, don’t do them.

This is my last word on marketing.

Does anyone have any thoughts about book marketing, or experiences they wish to share?

Enough Rope

The final chapters of my WIP involve rope. Rope is useful. My characters use it to get themselves into and out of trouble.

I have had to visualize the operations involving rope in detail, because there are certain realities about it. To wit:

  • a person has to be able-bodied to climb up or down a rope
  • if someone is going to climb up or down a rope, said rope must be solidly fastened to something
  • after descending via a rope so fastened, there is no way to untie it from beneath and remove it
  • a rope left in place can be used by someone else, including enemies/pursuers

In my longhand first draft manuscript, there is much evidence of agonizing about ropes. First a rope ladder just happens to be lying around. Hurray! Ah, but there’s a note in the manuscript that says “NO ROPE LADDER. TOO EASY.” Replace rope ladder with a basic rope. First it needs to be there, then it has to leave the scene. Where does it go? (Remember: PLOT MUST BE LOGICAL.) A few paragraphs later, the rope is back (“Yay!” say the characters), but I see another added note: “NO ROPE YET.” Fine. The rope keeps sneaking in, and the Editorial Voice keeps sticking in directions to remove it, so as not to give the characters a break.

Meanwhile, the person pounding the keyboard (that would be me) is having fits.

I have to say, this is one of the most tedious aspects of writing–working out practical details in a way that’s realistic but not too easy for the characters. For one thing, tiresome details are a pain. For another, my natural tendency is to figure out the simplest, easiest, and most efficient way for the characters to get something done, not the most torturous, error-prone, and frustrating way. But readers of fiction prefer the latter, so the writer first has to imagine the right way to do something, and then a number of wrong ways. And the plot must be logical.

Just for the record, I have never climbed up or down a rope, but I have certainly become tangled up in a fictional one.

I have now finished keying in that longhand ms. I’ve sorted the rope. Now the rewrite begins!

Featured image from Pexels.

Back garden August 2021

Summer’s Finale: Rose, Lily, Dahlia

Fall (autumn) is almost here. We have had actual rain in the past week, and more is predicted. I am no longer a slave to the hose and watering can.

Here are some photos from August, which is usually a dismal month in the garden–tired, seedy, and dry. This year, despite the heat dome of June and hardly any rain, the scene was blessed by three plants: the rose “Fragrant Cloud,” happy in its new big pot, two plants of the dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff” (also in pots), and a couple of late-blooming white lilies (grown in half-barrels). That’s the secret: pots (and the gardener with the watering can).

Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
White lily closeup August 2021
White lily and pink African violet indoors August 2021
Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" August 2021
Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" closeup August 2021
Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum) and yellow leaf August 2021
Fall begins. Autumn arrives.

Damned if you do…

I really must stop reading “advice to writers” posts.

The mother of all writing rules is “Show, don’t tell.” Showing good. Telling bad. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t use adverbs. You know, those nasty words that end in “-ly.”

The writer wants to convey to the reader that a character is experiencing an emotion. Anger, say, or fear, or joy. She can’t say “X was angry,” because “was” is one of those forbidden words. She can’t have X saying something “angrily.” So what to do?

Okay, the writer thinks, I’ll just show what the character does. X clenched his fists. Y rolled her eyes. Z sighed.

No, no, little writer. You can’t do that. Fist-clenching, eye-rolling, and sighing are overused. And please don’t have eyes wandering around the room or crawling over anyone’s body (I actually agree with that one).

You know what–I just realized something.

Many of these advice posts are written by trad pub gatekeepers and people providing services to writers–editors, book coaches, and similar. These folks read a million submissions or manuscripts in need of help. They are exquisitely attuned to words and phrases. If they are sifting through a deluge of submissions by hopeful writers, they are looking for reasons to reject. An offering has to be sharply different to perk these people’s jaded sensibilities (but not too different, of course). If they are working through a manuscript for a client, they are scrutinizing every word.

So–if you’re hoping to snag an agent, get traditionally published, or win a contest, by all means make sure your offering is free of these offending elements. Read the posts, absorb the advice, and edit accordingly.

But if you are publishing your own work, and your critique partners and beta readers say it’s good, it probably is good, even if your characters sigh or roll eyes more than once in your entire book. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of your go-to phrases and make sure you’re not actually overusing them, but most ordinary readers aren’t instantly annoyed by things that annoy people who read for a living.

Think about it–reading dozens of first chapters or short stories one after the other over several hours is a slog, I’m sure. In such a reading situation, the reader is almost certainly going to notice words and phrases that pop up in all or most of the pieces they read. They jump like fleas into the consciousness of that reader, and are about as welcome. They are the equivalent of the ticking clock or dripping tap to the insomniac. At the end of the session, the battle-weary reader is going to make sarcastic comments, like “Well, this batch had a dozen eye-rolls, fifteen sighs, nine shrugs, and a plethora of pounding hearts. Those writers! Can’t they come up with anything original?”

And what do you suppose that editor or book doctor is going to write about in their blog?

I’ll finish with something from one of the advice-givers in response to a cranky comment on one such post: “The only truly universal writing advice is ‘If it works, it works.’” Capitulation?

Well, maybe I won’t quit reading posts with advice to writers. I wouldn’t want my Audrey the Contrarian persona to run out of things to fulminate about.

gargoyle grumpy
Handwritten first draft manuscript of She Who Returns

Work in Progress Report

Maybe a better title would be “Regress Report.”

Remember the pile of scribbled-upon paper I displayed in a post at the end of June? That was the first draft of my current work in progress. Two hundred pages, about 100,000 words, I hoped.

I expected to take a couple of months to type it up (why does that sound old-fashioned?) The story was complete, more or less, so I was finished with the hard work of rendering imaginings into prose. All I had to do was pound the computer keyboard until I had a big, fat Word document I could massage into perfection.

Remember the motto I applied to the project? “PLOT MUST BE LOGICAL.” It lived up to that until the 60% point, when I reached a place I remembered as potentially problematic. It turned out to be actually problematic. In fact, I had added a note in the manuscript that said “Major Bump in the Road. Fix!” At the time (back in April), I was intent on powering through to “The End.” Any problems could be fixed in the rewrite.

Fixing this problem meant scrapping and rewriting ten pages, or about 5,000 words. The Imaginer had to be recalled from a state of torpor and persuaded to come up with some logical plot elements that would fit nicely into the chasm gap created by removing those ten pages. The new material couldn’t interfere with other plot elements that absolutely had to remain as they were.

As part of the rethink that preceded the rewrite, the Imaginer came up with a splendid new idea that fixed not only the previously identified bump in the road, but did away with some other logic-impairing aspects of the original.

The rewrite took about two weeks, in part because the continued drought in this part of the world made it necessary to spend an hour or so a day racing around with watering cans, dragging hoses, positioning sprinklers, etc. Then there were the usual garden tasks of deadheading, staking and tying, fretting about plants not doing well, and standing around admiring those that were.

Now, at the end of August, instead of a complete second draft, I still have 50 pages (25%) of the original manuscript to key in (which sounds less antediluvian than “type up”). I know it won’t be a simple matter of transcribing the original, because I have to make adjustments as a result of the rewrite, with the splendid new idea. And there are a couple of things the characters are going to have to discuss, to make sure that certain elements make an appearance.

On the plus side, I don’t have word count anxiety. At 75%, the document has about 77,000 words. There will be lots of surplus to trim, once I get to that part of the process. Short, skimpy early drafts make me nervous–will there be anything left after deleting all the crap?

I still hope to have a publish-worthy novel by spring 2022.