Some writers say their characters come alive during the writing process and even push the story in unexpected directions. But do we owe anything to characters we’ve thought up but whose stories remain unwritten, stuck halfway through Chapter 3? Or languishing in an abandoned notebook?
A while ago, in a discussion among several indie authors, I declared that I had no unfinished works. That’s actually true, although She Who Comes Forth stalled at page 17 for months before I found my way back to completing it. But I do have a complete novel that’s been sitting around unpublished since 2008.
Winter Journeys is literary fiction unrelieved by any genre fiction attributes. Moreover, it grew out of my obsession in the early 2000s with Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. And said obsession was due in part to my experiences of rejection while trying to get my first few novels traditionally published.
The twenty-four songs that make up Winterreise follow the wanderings of a man who has been rejected by a young woman and her family, and who finally rejects the world. I turned that story arc into a novel about a woman who goes through a similar trajectory in the present time, while she becomes fascinated with a particular recording of Schubert’s music.
I hesitated to publish Winter Journeys myself, first, because literary fiction doesn’t sell unless boosted by the forces of Big Publishing, literary prizes, and being made into movies. And second, because I had an intention to send it around to Canadian publishers. They do publish literary fiction, with the help of arts and culture grants from the federal government.
But since entering the realm of self-publishing, I’ve totally lost the mindset and desire to submit. (I actually hate that word, even.) So this novel continues to lurk in the shadows, although I’ve designed a number of cover images for it. Here are two of them…
2028 will be the 200th anniversary of the publication of Winterreise, and incidentally, of Schubert’s death. I think that would be the right year to publish Winter Journeys.
In the meantime, I’m getting psyched for writing a sequel to She Who Comes Forth, provisionally titled (what else?) She Who Returns. (You read it first here, folks.)
This is the final post in this series. I hope reading about my writing journey has been informative, interesting, or at least diverting. Here’s a link to Part 1 if you want to read it again. Links to all the other parts are there.
Well, fellow writers, do you have any stories languishing in unwritten or unpublished limbo? Do you feel you have an obligation to give them life?
Writers frequently talk about their writing process. Editing needs a process too. In the early stages, some call it “rewriting,” reserving the term “editing” for polishing prose and correcting errors.
At first, I had no editing process; I simply read my manuscript, starting at the beginning (again and again), and tweaked in an unstructured way, fixing typos in paragraphs I would end up deleting next time around. Then I joined a critique group and had to figure out how to deal efficiently with feedback from other writers in a way that would improve my work-in-progress.
Eventually, I worked out a process. I can see progress from one session to the next, which wasn’t the case when I was just flailing around. Even more important, I know when I’m finished. Now I find editing much less demanding than the brain-to-text process of the first (or “proto”) draft.
Some writers prefer to print their manuscripts for editing. I actually dislike printing, but I do find it useful to make a copy of the document and mark it up with different colours and notes to myself.
Sometimes, I’ve found, editing is not so much a matter of adding or deleting stuff, as re-ordering it.
I’m always surprised by how much text I move around early in the editing process. Sentences and paragraphs — even entire scenes — go in different directions and end up far from where they started. Some paragraphs get taken apart and the parts moved to different places. Is my thinking that disordered at the first draft stage?
Actually, yes. At that point, I’m intent on turning ideas into words and getting them down. I don’t revisit what I’ve written until the whole thing is finished and typed up with a word processor, which is when I start editing. In the hurly-burly of writing the proto-draft, it’s not surprising that I often overlook the optimal order of occurrence. (Look at all those o’s!)
Order of occurrence is important, not only for physical events but for characters’ thoughts and emotions. Something has to happen before a character reacts to it. Sometimes, story elements that belong together get separated and must be reunited, unless they’re really two instances of the same thing, in which case one of them should be deleted.
Because of what I think of as “word count anxiety,” I crank out a lot of words at the proto-draft stage, so I have to lots to delete at the editing stage. When it comes to sentences or whole paragraphs, I sometimes edge up to deletion by first highlighting the problematic text and adding a note, in all caps so it’s hard to miss: IS THIS NECESSARY? (See image above.) When I revisit that spot later, I move the highlighted stuff to the bottom of the document. If what’s left works without it, I blow that material away or put it into a separate “Deleted Stuff” file. (Torture your darlings before you kill ’em. Or put ’em in jail so you can torture them later.)
I make several passes through the manuscript, targetting specific problems. First I look for plot problems and order of occurrence issues. Then repeated material. Then the list of my personal problem words. I work from big issues to niggly details, leaving the final check for typos, omitted periods, quotation marks, and question marks to the VERY END.
A sad truth is that many small errors are introduced during the editing process. That’s why it’s best to deal with the fiddly stuff (typos, extra spaces, missing punctuation marks) AFTER operations that involve adding, moving, or deleting chunks of text. To borrow a simile from woodworking, there’s no point in polishing something that still needs to be shaped or sanded.
I suggest following something like the following steps, in this order:
Structural stuff: deleting or adding scenes, moving paragraphs and sentences
Continuity stuff: finding and fixing plot holes and inconsistencies with names, physical characteristics, and similar details.
Polishing the prose: finding and fixing clunkiness, repetitions, awkward phrases, sub-optimal words, etc.
Finding and fixing grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and typos
Final detailed proofreading, paragraph by paragraph, starting at the end and working backwards. (That forces you to see the words and punctuation marks, rather than reading the story.)
Some of my first manuscripts were created before I trained myself not to follow periods with two spaces, and before I started using proper em-dashes. Word’s Find and Replace function is great for hunting these out and fixing them.
In fact, the Find function can be really helpful when searching for many of the infuriating small errors that hide until after a book has been published, and leap out cackling wickedly as the happy author is perusing their newborn. Author and blogger Virginia S. Anderson has compiled detailed tips and suggestions for using Find in several posts, the first of which can be found HERE.
The only word I always search for is “that.” It’s amazing how often it can be removed without harming anything. I wouldn’t do a global search and delete, however; sometimes “that” is just what you need. And each of my works has had its own set of “pet” words, like “glow,” “mutter,” “forces,” or “ultimate.” They’re useful, but are also memorable enough to annoy readers if they turn up too frequently.
Fellow writers, what is your editing process? Methodical or improvised? Do you enjoy editing or think of it as torture?
Now that so many writers are also publishers (of their own writings), publishing seems like a natural outcome of writing. First you write, and then (after a few other operations) you publish. A no-brainer, right?
No. Writing and publishing are two completely different actions. While many pieces of text are written in order to be published as soon as possible, many others are not.
Reasons to Write
Inspiration: you can’t not write
Declaration: a statement you must make
Exploration: you want to see if you can write
Reminiscing: capturing the past for yourself or others
Figuring Out: solving a problem by putting it into words
Explanation: recording knowledge
Reasons to Publish
To share ideas
To amuse and delight
To reveal something to the world
To test your ideas
To test your writing
To make money
To become famous
We write for personal reasons. We publish to share our writings with the world.
It stands to reason that we write more than we publish. We scribble down notes and ideas. We write multiple drafts and versions, we have false starts that go nowhere, we abandon pieces half-written when inspiration runs out. We write for practice, or to solidify ideas. We write out of frustration or rage or grief. Many of these writings are never intended to be published.
Writing does not equal publishing, no matter how easy it is to publish.
Freedom of thought is fundamental. No thought is forbidden, but not all thoughts need to be put into words and published. Any thought may be written, but some are best followed by shredding, burning, or deletion, rather than publication.
Then there are all those “rules” we keep reading about — never do this, always do that, don’t use these words, etc. Rules don’t matter if you’re writing with no intention to publish. Worrying about rules can hobble the mind and fetter the fingers. Beginning writers may think they must master the rules before they write anything, which likely means they won’t write at all. Forming thoughts into words can be freeing, healing, or motivating. No one should stifle the impulse to write because they haven’t learned the rules.
But before a piece of writing is published, it must be readable. That’s the time for attention to rules. If the words are to be out in the world and read by others, the writer must ensure they are effective vehicles for the thoughts they embody.
Fellow writers, do you always know when you write something that you will publish it? Do you ever write things you will never publish?Or regretted publishing something?
There’s a lot of advice for writers on how to structure a piece of fiction from inciting incident to crisis and conclusion. How to create conflict and build up tension. How to make relatable characters. To me, that advice often sounds like the writer is looking at their work from the outside, standing apart from it, assembling pieces and fastening them together.
I prefer to write from the inside.
It’s like I’m creating the structure from within and living in it with my characters. I’m right there with them as they interact, experiencing their conflicts and struggles. It’s like making a burrow, digging into the substance of the story and shaping its hollows and passages with my hands and body.
Writing from the inside is writing in first person or using what’s called “deep POV.” That is an extremely close third person point of view, just one remove from first person. The narrator doesn’t speak as one of the characters, but is pretty much joined at the hip with them, close enough to hear their inner thoughts. It’s as though that character, the writer, and the reader are one. A drawback of this device is that other characters’ thoughts must be conveyed in dialogue or by some other means.
This inside/outside thing reminds me of Emic vs Etic — a concept in anthropology that distinguishes between ways of describing a culture. An outside observer’s account (“etic”) is scientifically detached but possibly coloured by his or her own culture. That written by a member of the culture (“emic”), while richer and more detailed, may be obscured by assumptions not available to all readers. For example: “The group demonstrates an animistic religion,” vs. “I honour the spirits of sky, water, and stone.”
I won’t say that one approach is better than the other, but working from the inside feels right to me. All my novels and many of my short stories are in first person. Of the fourteen stories in Tales from the Annexe, nine are in first person. Those with a third person point of view are, in my opinion, a bit less intense and immersive.
With my eyes useless, I explored my darkness. Like a trapped insect, I crawled inside the walls of my skull, revisiting memories of sight. … I remembered the weight of the glass cylinder filled with the drug, the small resistance as the needle punctured living tissue, the faint grating of glass on glass as I dispensed death. (From “The Night Journey of Francis Dexter”)
Writing from the outside may be the preferred method for writers who do detailed outlines and other preliminary work before they begin to write. Working from the inside may be favoured by those who plunge in and splash out a messy first draft with the intent to shape it later, in effect writing first from the inside and then from the outside. And maybe those who start from the outside need to do some work from the inside after they’ve created the framework.
Or maybe it’s about Thinking (inside) and Doing (outside). Introspective works may be best served by first person or extremely close third person. For action-packed thrillers, close third person may be effective, possibly switching between or among characters. Epic fantasy, on the other hand, with its intricate plots and many characters, demands third person omniscient. And first person or deep POV may be used for specific scenes to add intensity.
Whichever approach a writer takes, it’s helpful to do it consciously and methodically, so as to maximize the impact and avoid confusing the reader.
All this reminds me of something I read about how beavers build their lodges. First they pile up a huge mass of sticks, and then burrow inside it to shape their living spaces from within. Then they plaster the outside with mud to make it weathertight. There is something beaverish about us writers, isn’t there?
Fellow writers, do you distinguish between writing from the inside and the outside? Which approach works best for you?
Berthold Gambrel and I can’t be Two Guys Talking About Writing anymore because we’ve been joined by the fabulous Audrey Driscoll from north of the border. In this chat, we discuss how we came to writing and decided to publish our efforts. We try to provide some advice as well. Hope you enjoy it, and yes, we continue to look for more of you to join the conversation.
(A side note about my background. I’m an empty nester now, with both boys off on their own. I’m in the process of transitioning one of their rooms into my “office.” On the list of things to do is to eventually paint the walls — which are covered with various things his friends painted on those walls around seven or eight years ago. The room is still very much a representation of my younger son.)
That pile of paper in the featured image is the original manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals.
When I began writing my first novel in 2000, pen on paper was the logical medium. I did not know if I could create anything worthwhile or if I would soon abandon the project. Besides, it just felt right. Until the 20th century, all books were written with pens scraping along on paper. (Okay, I didn’t use a quill pen.)
Even now, I write my first drafts by hand, but those drafts are getting sketchier, especially for short stories. They’re somewhere between outlines and fully realized drafts. Sort of like really detailed outlines, with occasional fully realized scenes or pieces of dialogue.
I think of those handwritten starts as proto-drafts. They are the first organized manifestations in words of the ideas and mental images behind my fictional works.
The objective of a first draft is to get the whole narrative down in words, even if some of it is left skeletal, a framework or scaffolding. I supply detail and finalize the plot as I type the thing into a word processor. With that document complete, the real work begins. The words are legible and I can cut, copy, apply colours, search, replace, and delete.
But the handwritten proto-draft is an essential part of my writing process. Here’s why:
A page of scribble is less intimidating than crisp words on a white screen. If I’m not sure about a new story or novel, or if I’m trying some sort of new technique, I don’t want the half-baked thing glaring back at me looking stupid.
The first thing I see when I go back to the new writing project is the spot where I left off, rather than the first paragraph. I can slip back into the story immediately, instead of thrashing my way through the beginning.
I can avoid the distractions of the internet.
I can write almost anywhere–outdoors, on the bus, or in the bathtub (as long as I can keep the paper dry).
It’s more complicated to shred or burn a paper draft than to hit the delete key with vindictive glee if I decide the work is crap. I can stuff it into a box or drawer–or even the recycle bin–where it will be safe until the fit has passed. (I wonder how many great works may have perished when open fires were used to heat writers’ rooms.)
I don’t have to worry about losing any work to a computer malfunction or power failure. Fire and water are the only immediate concerns. Or leaving the manuscript on a bus or in a coffee shop–theoretical possibilities only, since I don’t actually write in such places now. (I always shudder when I think of how T.E. Lawrence lost the ms. of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a train.)
If anyone accuses me of plagiarism, I have proof that I wrote every word myself, along with crossings-out, circled paragraphs with arrows, and sentences squeezed in along the margins.
When the longhand draft is complete, I put it away for a week or a month. Then I go back and start on the real first draft, by transcribing the handwritten text into a Word document, changing, omitting, and adding as needed.
The longhand draft is sort of like a compost heap, only better organized. It’s a big pile of words I can work with to refine the raw material into a completed work.
For me, the toughest part of writing a piece of fiction is the process of embodying concepts with words or solidifying imaginings into prose–the raw act of creation. The sooner I can get that done, the better, and the proto-draft helps.
If writing by hand on paper is out of the question, a writer can still do a proto-draft. Control + End takes the cursor to the end of the document. Then it’s just a matter of writing like there’s no tomorrow until THE END.
Fellow writers, how do you create your first drafts? Longhand, word processor, detailed notes, sketchy outlines? How do you bridge the gap between ideas in your head and words on page or screen?
Some readers aren’t quite prepared to jump into novel-length horror, but they can handle the torture scares in shorter spurts. Today’s featured book of short stories checks off that box. Read on to find out which chilling book has stuck with this author since the age of twelve. Welcome Audrey Driscoll!
Would you rather sleep in a coffin for one night or spend the night in a haunted house?
A nice new, padded coffin in a coffin showroom would be okay, as long as the lid was left open. If it had to be closed, or if the coffin had been previously occupied, I might just go for the haunted house. On the other hand, spending time in a closed coffin might be a useful experience for writing a horror story.
Has a movie or book scared you so much you couldn’t sleep? Which one?
In November, it will be twenty years since I became a Writer with a capital W. That’s a different being from one who just happens to write things like term papers, memos, reports, email messages, and journal entries for work or personal reasons. I did that kind of writing all my life. A Writer, on the other hand, writes novels. A Writer writes books.
Writers, I always thought, are special. They are the anointed few, like members of a religious order or secret society. They are interviewed by serious-minded journalists on national radio. Their names are uttered in tones of hushed reverence by readers.
If one hasn’t become a Writer by age thirty, I thought, it’s too late. But in my forties, I actually did it. And have kept doing it. Okay, I haven’t been interviewed on national radio. No one utters my name reverently (as far as I know). But it’s on five novels and a collection of short stories.
Because 2020 is a milestone in my writing career, it’s an excuse opportunity for a series of posts about my approach to writing and publishing.
There will be no advice in these posts, just my experiences and thoughts about them. I’ve given up dispensing advice to fellow writers, at least in the form of “You should do this” and “You should never do that.” Okay, maybe the odd “You may wish to” sneaks in there at times. As do my opinions on advice from others.
November 7th, 2000 was suddenly the right time for me to start writing a novel I had been thinking about for a couple of years. I had an idea I found compelling, and the dark evenings were perfect for the solitary and closeted activity of novel writing. I had recently read Stephen King’s book On Writing. I was all fired up.
I set up a writing space in a spare room in the basement, furnished myself with a 2-inch-thick pile of good-one-side (i.e., scrap) paper and a pen, and started writing what eventually became The Friendship of Mortals.
But writing a novel is a daunting project, especially if you haven’t done it before. Sitting in front of that stack of paper with pen in hand, I had reservations. Who did I think I was? What if I ran out of words, ideas, and images? What if the thing was a dud? What if I never finished it at all?
Then I had an idea: Think of it as an exercise. That cut the project down to size. “Come on,” I told myself, “let’s try it; if it doesn’t work out, no one will know.”
“Exercise” is a good word here, because it’s sort of like adding a few more “reps” when one is doing push-ups or squats. Or running just one more kilometer. “Come on–just one more.” One more paragraph, one more page, one more book.
And of course, it was 100% up to me whether I continued. No one was checking up on me or suggesting I speed things up. No one asked me how many words I had written that day. I was utterly free to write or not. (Twenty years later, I look back on that time with envy.)
The approach worked, or maybe I was just lucky. The project took off and became an obsession. I spent three or four hours on it every evening (after a full day at work) and finished the first draft in six months. In the next five years, I followed it up with two sequels, which ultimately became three when I chopped one of them into two, to form the Herbert West Series.
To keep things in perspective, none of these books was published until 2010. Unlike writing, attracting a publisher was more than an exercise.
What about you, fellow scribes? How did you start your first piece of serious writing? Did you read writing craft books first? Do research? Make an outline? Scribble a bunch of ideas that eventually coalesced?
Today we have an author making a first time appearance at Bad Moon Rising. I read a wonderful review of Diaballein last week at D. Wallace Peach’s blog HERE The list of three items to take into a haunted house totally makes sense – well thought out. Welcome Cage Dunn!
Would you rather sleep in a coffin for one night, or spend a night in a haunted house?
For prickly-skin inspiration, I’d like to walk through a haunted graveyard at midnight on my way to sleep in the abandoned haunted house, but not in a coffin.
What three items would you take to the haunted house?
eReader, of course, ‘cos how else am I going to get weird reflections of the ghosts who think I can’t see anything behind me?
Pump-up mattress, ‘cos even sleeping with ghosts should offer some comfort, and old haunted houses are not conducive…
Seven stories from Audrey Driscoll’s Herbert West Series…
The Nexus A 101-year-old professor reminisces about about his most memorable—and dangerous—student, Herbert West.
Fox and Glove To win a bet with his friend Alma, librarian Charles Milburn needs information from a dead man. But first he has to convince Herbert West to help him obtain it.
From the Annexe As if a relationship with a part-time necromancer isn’t complicated enough, what if it were more than friendship?
A Visit to Luxor On a climb up a hill near Luxor, Egypt, Francis Dexter and Andre Boudreau encounter bandits and supernatural entities.
One of the Fourteen A chance meeting in a pub brings Dr. Francis Dexter into a perilous realm between life and death.
The Night Journey of Francis Dexter Determined to confess one of Herbert West’s worst crimes to the victim’s son, Francis Dexter is subjected to a terrible revenge.
The Final Deadline of A.G. Halsey Nearing the end of her life, newspaperwoman Alma Halsey struggles to figure out what really happened to her granddaughter in Luxor, Egypt, and to warn her of threats to her heart and soul.
…and seven tales of illusions, delusions, and mysteries on the edges of logic
Welcome to the Witch House As if moving into a dump of a haunted house isn’t bad enough, Frank Elwood discovers conceited math student Walter Gilman is already living there, for his own peculiar reasons.
The Deliverer of Delusions Miranda Castaigne gives up her romantic life with artistic ex-pats in Paris to discover the truth about her eccentric brother’s death in a New York City insane asylum.
The Ice Cream Truck from Hell Friends Will and Doof investigate a mysterious ice cream truck that cruises their town at night.
The Colour of Magic Things get weird when the tenant in Marc’s basement suite insists on painting her bedroom with a very special paint.
A Howling in the Woods When Doug’s son Todd keeps playing a recording he’d made in the woods, of a strange howling sound, Doug orders him out of the truck—and into those woods.
The Glamour Fifteen-year-old Ann, convinced she was switched at birth with the daughter of a wealthy family, sneaks into their home on the evening of a celebration.
The Blue Rose Deon the Fabricator’s obsession with creating a blue rose leads him to make a perilous journey to the Blasted Lands. His childhood friend Luna of the City Guard undertakes a search for him and learns hard truths about love and duty.
The pre-order price of $0.99 has been extended, but only for a short time!