novel writing

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

The Work Progresses

You would think by now it would be easy. After all, I’ve written and published five novels and a bunch of short stories. I have idea notes, planning notes, things-to-fix-in-the-rewrite notes, and problem-solving notes.

But writing the first draft is still hard. In fact, some days it’s a real struggle. And yet, it lurches forward.

The work in progress is a sequel, which complicates things. It means I have to know everything each character knows about all kinds of things. Who knows what? Who lied to whom? It’s amazing how many details I’ve forgotten from the previous book, even though I wrote it.

Some characters from the first book have changed quite a bit. I need to account for those changes–plausibly, and in a way that contributes to the plot.

It will be bad news if something I think is crucial for the sequel doesn’t line up with, or even contradicts, something important in the first book. (A good argument for writing both books before publishing the first one.)

Then there’s First Draft Daily Anxiety Syndrome. I’ve managed to keep up with the page a day resolution I made back in December, but knowing I have to put in the required time every day to crank out the next page or two can be a cloud on my horizon as I emerge gummy-eyed from sleep.

Strange thing, though: sitting down and picking up the pen has an almost magical effect. With only the vaguest idea of what is going to happen next, I start to write, and a scene unfolds, complete with details and nuances. (Whether it will stand the test of the rewrite is another issue.)

I’m 85% through the first draft and on schedule to finish it by the end of June. The trouble is, now that daylight arrives early and lingers late, the garden exercises its own allure. I may have to shift my writing sessions from first thing in the morning to what I call Glare Time, the hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the light is harsh and bright and the garden is devoid of magic.

Never mind–at least now I can finally see the day I’ll get this one off the ground!

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, I’m sure many of you have WIPs under way. What works for you? What gives you fits? Share your WIP woes and wins.

Writing notebook and notes

Notes and the Work in Progress

The novels I write begin with notes. Well actually they begin with ideas, visions of characters, scraps of plot, and imagined scenes. All these early elements are recorded in a notebook, along with random thoughts that might be relevant. Some notes are written on scraps of paper that happen to be handy when an idea strikes. With luck, I manage to copy them into the Official Notebook, or at least keep track of them. This stage lasts for months, or even years.

Eventually, I start writing the first draft. On paper, with a pen. Right now, I’m still writing a page a day, sometimes more if I’m lucky. As the plot has developed, in an amoeba-like way, I’ve resorted to another set of notes that are sort of like, but not quite, an outline. Character sketches and motivations, rough timelines, problems to be resolved, things I know that the characters do not, and yes, actual outlines of the next section to be written. These notes are on a separate group of 8 1/2 x 11 (A4) sheets of paper.

Novel writing notes

Then there are the in-manuscript notes. Things like [CHECK THIS!] or [EXPAND IN REWRITE], or alerts to areas of weakness [CRAP ALARM GOING OFF!!!] or [WOULD SHE REALLY THINK THIS???]. And often, when I finish a writing session, I scribble a tiny outline for the next day at the very bottom of the page.

So I guess this proves I’m not really the pantser I thought I was. More like a “plantser,” I guess.

Some things to keep in mind about notes.

  • They’re useless unless read over as the work progresses. There’s nothing like rediscovering a good idea after publishing
  • Notes on scraps of paper should be transcribed into a notebook. The lost idea is always the best one
  • There should be only one notebook per novel, but a single notebook may be used for more than one novel
  • Dating the notes is helpful for cross-referencing (e.g., “See list of names in notebook, Nov. 21/20”)
  • Manuscript pages and pages of notes should always be numbered, and indicate the title of the work (even if provisional) at the top

A novel with multiple characters is a complex creation. Notes are helpful at every stage, from concept and basic plot to rewrites. Also, in working out plot problems and bringing characters to life.

But even more, some notes represent a debate between the Imaginer and the Editor. The Imaginer is the part of my brain that’s laying down the text of the first draft. The Editor’s role comes later, in rewrites and editing. But of course, the Editor is around all the time. Every now and then it plants a flag in spots where it anticipates extra attention will be needed. That’s where those “crap alarm” notes come from. And even some quite rude remarks.

Manuscript with inserted notes

Fellow writers, do you make use of notes to help you write? Do you have any note-related tips to share?

What About the Cat? Or, Insert Quirk Here

We writers give our characters quirks and habits to make them relatable and different from one another. Fingernail chewing, smoking, polishing glasses, using certain expressions. The trouble is, it’s easy to forget about them while creating the plot.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Once the reader has absorbed that this one mangles paper clips and that one wears polka-dots, are further mentions of those quirks really necessary?

I think they are. Real people keep doing things like that, and we want our characters to be real. And it’s just sloppy writing to forget details. Besides, some readers are incredibly fussy. I remember reading a library book in which a certain character had a cat. The cat didn’t play an important role in the plot, but it was mentioned several times. Toward the end of the book, there was a fire in that character’s house and quite a lot of action around putting it out, making sure no one was injured, etc. But the cat was not mentioned. I have to admit, I may never have realized that, had not a previous reader made a marginal note, “What about the cat? Stupid author!” Readers notice details, even trivial ones.

So another editing pass may be in order. Along with tracking down typos and patching plot holes, add a quirks checklist. Insert characters’ habits, tics, pet phrases, and oddities at intervals throughout the text. And make sure not to mix them up.

But don’t overdo it. Sprinkle, don’t shovel. Aim for a happy medium between “Hey, what happened to the polka-dot bowties?” and “Geez, if I see another mention of paperclip abuse, I’ll throw this book at the wall.”

Fellow writers, do you give your characters memorable quirks? Have you ever forgotten about them in the course of perfecting the plot, or attached a quirk to the wrong character? Or as a reader, been annoyed at an author who did that?

SWCF manuscript pages

A Page a Day

Once again, I have a work in progress. It took me a while to assemble the story’s elements, but on December 11th, 2020, I started writing.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve realized I can’t depend on obsession to fuel my writing projects, which is what happened in 2000 and 2001 when I wrote The Friendship of Mortals. (Writing project? No, that first novel was a bout of delightful madness!) For me now the normal state of writing a novel is a long and weary slog.

First drafting is a draining experience. Except when a scene fully blooms in my imagination and simply must be written, bridging the gap between imaginings and words is hard work.

A neglected work in progress is an albatross, a ghost, a sinister shape seen out of the corner of one’s eye, a bad smell lurking in the corner. A neglected work in progress is a burden. The choice is to keep slogging or lay it down and give up.

Giving up is out of the question.

So I made a deal with myself–write one page a day. One page, that’s all. If I hit a point where the work takes off and I write more than a page–great! But one page is enough.

A page of my handwriting is between 400 and 500 words. I’m aiming for a 100K-word first draft, eventually to be reduced to between 85 and 90K. A page a day until the end of June should get me most of the way there.

I’m not saying this is the best way to write a novel. I haven’t tried this technique before, but it seems to be working for me right now. Most days I can find the time and energy to write one page. Often, the session extends to a second or third page. The work is coming to life and asking to be written. After 12 weeks, I’m at 40K words, approaching the halfway point of the first draft.

Fellow writers, do you speed through your first drafts or squeeze them out word by word? Do you have any tricks to make yourself keep writing?

Cursed, Dumb, or Unlucky? Making Trouble for Your Characters

“Torture your characters” is advice I’ve seen so often I think I should add it to my ever-increasing list of Advice to Question. Maybe I’m mellowing in my old age, but this one does have some merit.

For one thing, if the story’s goal is achieved or the problem solved too quickly, the novel or story ends up being too short and possibly boring. Boring the reader is a cardinal sin of writing. So it’s pretty much a given that the writer must create an obstacle course their characters must negotiate to achieve whatever it is they want or need.

Two problems I’ve experienced with doing this:

  • In real life, I make efforts to avoid problems when I’m planning a DIY project, a road trip, or cooking a dish I haven’t tried before. So it goes against the grain to create problems for my main characters, with whom I tend to identify because I often write in first person.
  • I don’t like making my characters look dumb. In She Who Comes Forth, for example, France Leighton does things that may be described as unwise. One reviewer expressed concern about this; another just called her stupid. On the other hand, she is not a “Mary Sue.”

Like any other plot device, the obstacles, difficulties, or perils we create for our characters have to serve the plot. The bumps along the road must be consistent with the plot and advance it, rather than be obviously stuck in to follow the “torture your characters” rule. A deus ex machina is a deus ex machina, even if the god intervenes to mess things up rather than fix them.

If a story involves life-threatening situations, escape and flight, or the schemes of an evil antagonist, perilous situations are essential parts of the plot. But what if your story is about ordinary life? Well, there’s always the difficult boss, the unexpected guest, the leaky roof, or the machinations of bureaucrats.

In addition to fitting the plot, the obstacles have to be appropriate for the character and situation. A flat tire is a mere annoyance if time isn’t of the essence. Climbing a high ladder and crawling onto a steep roof packs more punch if the character who has to do it is terrified of heights. The best obstacles are the ones with no good or safe choice. They may include all kinds of hard choices, not only physical dangers.

Putting characters in trouble can benefit the plot in ways other than creating tension. Negotiating with the boss, accommodating (or ejecting) the unexpected guests, or figuring out how to deal with bureaucracy would be opportunities to

  • show characters’ flaws and fears
  • show how they cope with adversity
  • show how they change or grow over the course of the story by developing skills or changing attitudes.

Does anyone else have a problem with making their characters struggle? Does anyone love doing it? Share your torture tips!

Image from Pexels

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 7: Unwritten and Unrealized

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…

Winter Journeys cover image 4
Winter Journeys cover image 5

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?

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 5: Editing Process

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?

Next time: Don’t Forget to Justify!

Handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 2: The Proto-Draft

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.

Handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals
A novel disguised as two inches of scribbled-upon paper.

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.

First page of the handwritten manuscript of The Friendship of Mortals
The beginning of TFOM. I must have written this on November 7th, 2000.

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.

Copy of The Friendship of Mortals ("big" version)
The final product.

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?

Next time: Writing from the Inside or the Outside?

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 1: “Think Of It As An Exercise”

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?

Next time–the Proto-draft.

This is Part 1 of a seven part series. Here are links to the other parts:
Part 2: The Proto-draft
Part 3: Writing From the Inside or the Outside?
Part 4: Reasons to Write and Reasons to Publish
Part 5: Editing Process
Part 6: Don’t Forget to Justify!
Part 7: Unwritten and Unrealized

To be or not to be? Maybe not!

I’m reading a lot of posts these days about “crutch” words, weak words, and other words that writers should avoid. One of these pariah words is “was.” “Was”? Really? The past tense of the word designating existence or essence? “I am what I am” and similar declarations come to mind. I remembered a post I wrote in 2012 about this very topic. Instead of reposting it, I reworked it here to explore the issue in a more nuanced way.

In a recent meeting of my critique group [in 2012], someone said that “was” imparts an inherent passivity to a sentence or paragraph. I agree that the true passive voice often used in academic writing, as in “A was killed by B,” has (almost) no place in fiction writing. But does that apply to any instance of “was”?

This is a tough one [for me].  You can’t just sweep through a piece of writing vacuuming up every instance of “was” (or its plural cousin “were”). The easiest targets are instances of the true passive voice, such lumpy atrocities as “The sandwich was eaten by him.”  But what about “The house was red”? I don’t think “The house had been painted red,” is any improvement. “Had been” is “was” in disguise, isn’t it? “Was” (a three-letter, one-syllable word!) is indispensable in certain situations.

And what about “is”? “Is” is just “was” in present tense, but I don’t hear anyone accusing it of excessive passivity (probably because most fiction is written in the past tense).

Reading something about standards for metadata [in my job at the time], I found the following:  “Contexts are of two kinds: Events in which (or as a result of which) something changes, and States, in which they don’t.” In fiction writing, descriptions of linked events are desirable because they contain action, but descriptions of states, in which nothing changes, must be regarded with suspicion and kept to a minimum. As though description is an ever-present irritant, like ants at a picnic.

With respect to my fellow writers [I argued in 2012], before counting instances of  “was” (or any other word) in a sentence or paragraph, the critic should ask whether that sentence or paragraph reads smoothly and contributes to the story. “Was” after all, is the past tense of the verb “to be.” Being something or having a specific quality is inherently not an event but a state. I am old. You are young. He was young once. We will all be dead some day. Which is why it’s stupid to quibble about every instance of  “was”.

Okay, end of sermon circa 2012. Back to 2019. The nub of the problem is events vs. states. All you can do with a state is describe it. Describing something or someone in past tense is bound to require the word “was.” But too much description in a novel or story is about as welcome as ants at a picnic. Excessive description is surely the stuff readers skip (harking back to Elmore Leonard and his much-quoted rules).

Instead of devising some sort of circumlocution to avoid the forbidden word, maybe we should focus on chunks of description in which it’s found, and ask ourselves if they’re necessary.

This is the paragraph a couple of my fellow critiquers pounced on back in 2012, with the offending words emphasized:

Soon we were clear of the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance.  By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  There was a steady breeze, a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

As someone pointed out, every sentence has an occurrence of “was” or “were.” After some denial and grumbling, I made changes, reducing the instances of “was” and “were” from six to three (although “had been” is a member of the “was” family. This is how the paragraph looks in the published version of the book (except for the italics, of course).

By the time we left the harbour and cleared the treacherous ledge near its entrance, it was plain that we were to have one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  A steady breeze blew, a little south of west, ten knots, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed with pink and gold and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

Better, but not perfect. Returning to that paragraph yet again, with a freshly sharpened editor’s scalpel in hand, I could do the following (added words in ALL CAPS):

Soon we were clear of OUTSIDE the harbour and past the treacherous ledge near its entrance,  By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  There was a steady SOUTHWESTERLY breeze a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated, RIPPLED the dark blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was  flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

I deleted the weather forecast and the narrator’s musings, and whisked the snow-capped mountains out of sight. Here is the result, cleaned up:

Outside the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance, a steady southwesterly breeze rippled the dark blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The sky, a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

Not a “was” in sight. Even I have to admit it’s better. I could work through the entire book (Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey), making improvements like these. But I’m not going to. That book is beyond the editing stage. It is what it is.

Image by Bischoff49 from Pixabay