novel writing

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

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.

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.

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!