novel writing

type

Editing? Ask Yourself This. And This.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progressI’m in the process of turning this pile of scribbled-upon paper into a book. In other words, I’m editing the first draft of my work in progress. (Well, okay, I’m actually working with a Word document, but it started out with pen on paper).

As I work through each of the fifteen sections that may very well end up being chapters, I ask myself questions like these:

blue flames question markWhy?

Is this logical?

Would it really take that long?

Could it possibly happen that fast?

Why this word/sentence/paragraph? What do they add to the story?

Why would he/she/they say/do/think/want that?

Does she know that yet? Why would she care?

Etc.

The first whack at the first draft is really hard. And annoying. Here’s why: to create that first draft, the imagining part of my brain worked full blast, making up scenes and putting down words. That was hard enough.

But editing that first draft is a negotiation between the Editor side of the brain — asking all those questions — and the Imaginer, who must re-imagine and re-create. “Hey you, this doesn’t make sense. Come here and fix it!” The two sides don’t always get along. The Imaginer is a free spirit and doesn’t like being ordered around. The Editor is a bit obsessive.

In fact, I started writing this post to get away from the situation. Sections #6 and #7 needed some significant tweaks to make plausible a really important scene in Section #14. Think Rubik’s Cube. And I finally got around to figuring out just how many days elapse over the course of the first ten sections. Surprise! There’s no way my character could get a reply on Day 19 to a letter she sent on Day 15. It’s a long way from Luxor, Egypt to Providence, Rhode Island, and no one was sending emails, texts, or even faxes in 1962!

Fix, fix, fix!

hammer and anvilI don’t know about other writers, but when I finish a scene or chapter, it’s tight, like a glued and clamped piece of woodwork. Each line cues the next one. There’s no gap into which a little extra can be wedged. If a scene needs to be adjusted or corrected, I have to wrench the whole thing apart and rebuild it.

Aaargh.

Creating a timeline was a great idea. Inserting DAY 1, DAY 2, etc. into the text was an even better one. At last I feel in control of chronological details. I wish I’d thought of doing this earlier. A bonus fact I’ve discovered is that 1962 and 2018 share a calendar, so I can even get days of the week right. But then there are those moon phases, which aren’t the same.

Copy of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes used paperback

From the basement’s random used book collection.

BTW, if you want to see writing with a lot of strong verbs and minimal use of that frowned-upon word, “was,” grab a copy of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and read the first couple of chapters. It’s amazing, full-tilt action writing, and yet poignant and poetic. Something to strive for while massaging text.

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Writing While Old

I had another birthday recently and celebrated two years of retirement a couple of days ago. I’m starting to think of myself as “older,” if not actually old. It seems most of the writers in my corner of the blogosphere are middle-aged or older. Younger writers must hang out somewhere else.

I knew all my life I wanted to write. Scenes and dialogue snippets would materialize in my mind, no doubt inspired by all the reading I did at the time. I kept a journal for decades, starting at age 13. I wrote poetry in my teens (who doesn’t?) and a little novel as a school project. I wrote essays and assigned papers in college, and memos and reports for my job. But I thought the only way to become a real writer was to make it a career choice at an early age, get a creative writing degree, live in a garret, and do nothing but write and hobnob with other writers. I missed my chance to do any of those things, so would never be a writer.

Until November 2000, when I finally thought, “Why not? Who’s going to stop me?” I had been nursing an idea for a novel for a couple of years. One day I started writing and haven’t stopped. The thrill of creation helped me finish that novel and write four more while I was still working full time. After diligent attempts to get published traditionally, I decided the only way that would happen was posthumously. The self-pub option came along just in time, as did blogging.

Am I a real writer? You bet. Am I a professional writer? No. I am lucky enough to have an adequate pension, so I have no need to make a living from my writing. (A good thing, too.) I have the freedom to decide what I write, and how I promote my writing. With time at my disposal, I can draw upon the experience, insights and wisdom of a lifetime to explore relationships and situations and spin them into stories.

Like most writers, old and not so old, self- or otherwise published, I write for the love of it. Some of the benefits are:

Learning stuff. I’ve learned how to create plots and characters, do research, rewrite and edit. I’ve learned how to wrestle Word documents into forms that can be turned into ebooks and printed books. I’ve put together some half-decent cover images. And I’ve maintained this blog for several years.

Personal connections. I’ve been a member of my local writers’ society since 2003, and several critique groups. That gets me out of the house and face to face with other writers and gives me the opportunity to read some of their writing and offer (I hope) helpful suggestions. I’ve also met some wonderful people through their blogs. (You know who you are).

An Active Mind. To keep my aging brain active, writing beats watching television, doing crossword puzzles, or working “brain gym” games. See “Learning stuff” above.

Books. Written, rewritten, edited, published, and available to readers. Unlike my younger self, thinking how I would never be a writer, now I am one.

Spark the imagination! Light that fire!

 

Fire adj2

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Finished!

Today — Thursday, January 25th, 2018 — I typed the final sentence of my work in progress, followed by finis. Why finis instead of THE END? No reason, except that’s how I’ve envisioned it for the last few months. (Besides, finis is cool).

Well, okay, it’s only the first draft. And it’s still steaming. I’ll leave it to cool and solidify, and then start poking around, cutting out bits from here, adding some stuff there, reworking and massaging — in other words, editing.

But right now, I’m relishing the state of completion. I started writing this novel a year ago, picking it up after a false start and a couple years of dormancy. Now it’s complete, even if rough. No more worrying about cranking out the next section, and the one after that. No more visualizing action scenes, contriving conversations, and wondering how long it would take to get from A to B. And no more fictitious meals to put together.

Facts and figures

Title (provisional): She Who Comes Forth.

Word count:  104,816, but that includes notes to self like [CHECK THIS!] and [LUMPY! REWORK!]. So this number is subject to change.

Genre: Uncertain. Maybe “Women’s adventure fiction.” Is that a genre? With a coming-of-age element, and the necessary injection of the supernatural. This is, after all, a spinoff from the Herbert West Series.

Setting: Luxor, Egypt and the Theban Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile.

Time period: Autumn, 1962.

Publication date: Uncertain. Late 2018 or early 2019, depending on how editing goes, and other factors.

Things to do immediately: save to flash drive, external hard drive, and the cloud. Email a copy to self. I don’t want to lose the document to some sort of computer ailment. I’d still have the handwritten manuscript (pictured above), but it’s only the proto-draft. The real first draft is a lot better quite different.

hot air balloons over Luxor Egypt

Image from Pixabay

 

The Willful Character And The Act of Writing

 

I read comments by writers all the time saying their characters take over and start driving the plot of the story. With my current work in progress, I’ve become quite the plotter, making detailed outlines for each section of the work before I start writing. So imagine my surprise when the pen in my hand started writing a scene that was definitely not in the outline! What’s more, it was an unplanned sex scene.

Once it was written, I had to admit that scene actually worked, but the whole thing got me thinking about the willful character. Maybe it’s a form of “automatic writing,” not in the supernatural sense, but the result of tapping into subconscious impulses while in a state of receptiveness induced by the act of writing. (Hey, that’s not bad, considering I made it up on the spot).

The best fictional characters are like real people, complete with flaws, quirks and contradictory impulses. Some writers develop their characters before they actually start writing the novel. Physical features, musical and food preferences, hobbies, education — a complete curriculum vitae. I’m not that kind of writer. I have a hazy vision of my primary characters, that becomes clearer as I write. There seems to be a department in my brain called Character Development, that trots out details about each major character when needed. Sometimes it throws me a surprise.

One of the best parts of the writing process is when this automatic thing kicks in and the words pour out effortlessly. Sometimes it feels as though I’m just copying stuff dictated to me by a disembodied brain. It’s probably my brain. Or some kind of collective unconscious, a well of ideas available to all who yield themselves to the writing urge. That’s where our characters come from, finding their way in response to tentative images in our writing brains.

Characters manifest their characteristics, prompting a kind of negotiation with the author. “Okay, that’s fine — you can do this, but not that. And definitely not the other thing.” But cut them some slack. Willful characters aren’t a problem, but a sign that the writer’s imagination is engaged beyond the scope of the outline, tapping into a realm of mystery. And that’s good.

Sitting down to write, giving yourself up to whatever you are creating, is like going down an unexplored trail. You just don’t know what you might meet around the corner, even if you have a map. Whether you outline your plot in detail before you start, or write by the seat of your pants, you must be prepared for the unexpected.

SWCF manuscript and notesThe first stage of creating a work of fiction — the first draft — isn’t the place to worry about rules, or getting every detail right. At this stage, the writer’s imagination needs to be cranking out stuff, producing raw material to be refined later. That’s why I still write my first drafts — or maybe they’re better called “proto-drafts” — in longhand. Actually, “longhand” seems too fancy a term for my cursive scribble on the borderline of legibility.

The thing is, at this stage you don’t want to read over what you’ve written and polish it. You want to forge ahead, beating out the rough shape of your story, bumps, holes and all. Don’t look back! For me, stark black words on the bright white screen are just too intimidating. I really doubt I would have written that sudden sex scene if I’d been using my laptop. But I scribbled it down, and when I typed it up a few days later, the critical, analytical part of my brain said, “Well, okaaay, I guess it works.”

As for my work in progress — the first draft is almost done! Another 5,000 words or so, and I can write Finis.

And then, of course, I go back to the beginning. The crazy, creative part of my brain will take a back seat, and the critical, analytical part will get to to do its thing.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

thinking, contemplation, statue

Unspoken Thoughts And The Inner Voice

Readers and writers, I need advice!

What’s the best way to represent unspoken thoughts in first person, past tense?

My work in progress contains unvoiced thoughts and interior monologue, as the first person narrator shares her private thoughts with the reader and holds debates with herself.

Like dialogue, the narrator’s uncensored, unvoiced thoughts must be in present tense. The problem is that readers may perceive them as random departures from the prevailing past tense, i.e., as mistakes.

Which leads to these two questions:

a) Are unvoiced thoughts confusing or distracting for the reader, and therefore best avoided?

b) What’s the best way to tell the reader This Is An Unvoiced Thought?

Three possibilities:

  1. Incorporate the statements of the Inner Voice into the past tense narrative, with the tag “I thought” as the signal (same as the “I said” tag in spoken dialogue).
  2. Put the unvoiced thoughts in italics, in present tense.
  3. Unvoiced thoughts in present tense, but without italics or any other signal.

EXAMPLES:

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny, I thought.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“You look great!” Only like a sausage about to burst its casing, I thought.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I wondered, turning back to my crossword.

OR

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“No, of course not!”  Only like a sausage about to burst its casing.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I turned back to my crossword.

OR

She clattered downstairs, all gussied up for her big night out.

“What do you think?” She twirled around, the short pink satin number revealing her thighs.

“You’ll wow ’em, for sure.” Too short, too tight, too shiny.

“It doesn’t make me look fat, does it?”

“No, of course not!” Only like a sausage about to burst its casing.

The door closed behind her. Why am I so judgmental? I turned back to my crossword.

OR?

My thoughts on this: I don’t like the first technique, of adding “I thought” and similar phrases. It works if the unvoiced thoughts are brief and few. It’s awkward if the thoughts are longer than a single sentence, or are frequent enough that a phrase other than “I thought” becomes necessary. “I thought” is more obtrusive than “I said,” and becomes irritating with repetition.

I favour using italics to designate any thought that’s not spoken aloud (#2 above). But I’ve heard that italics can be confusing or irritating.

A fairly extensive treatment of this matter, mainly with regard to third person narrative, however, may be found here. It suggests the technique used should reflect the intensity or importance of the unspoken thought, with italics kept to a minimum. Given all the unvoiced thoughts and interior monologue in my WIP, I will have to keep this in mind when I work it over once the first draft is complete (soon, that will be!)

So what do you think? Here are the two questions again:

a) Are unvoiced thoughts in a narrative confusing or distracting for the reader?

b) What is the best way to tell the reader This Is An Unvoiced Thought?

 

 

front garden in November, decline, brown

Faith to the Finish

The work in progress is at a crucial stage. Not only is the protagonist about to face a really big challenge, but the author (that would be me) is being attacked by thoughts such as these:

Why would she wear that dress while crawling through the tunnel? That’s just dumb.

The photos can’t be in two places at the same time. Uh-oh.

Okay, she finds the cello in the underground room. No, she doesn’t. Because it’s the reason she decides to meet him in the wadi. Even if she knows what he did? That’s just dumb.

Aaargh, let’s think this through again.

There should have been more foreshadowing.

This doesn’t make sense. Any of it. Even with foreshadowing.

This novel is a pile of crap.

Trouble is, I’m at 75K words, and until now I’ve been pretty happy with the thing. It’s too late to call it a false start (especially since I’ve been beavering away on it since January).

Can’t quit, can’t go back. The only way out is to keep moving forward. It’s sure to look better when I’m done.

This is where faith comes in. Faith that I can realize the vision for this novel I’ve been carrying around for the last three years. I wrote the first 17 pages and then abandoned it for more than a year, but I never stopped thinking about it.

There are few things worse than being haunted by an unwritten novel. At the beginning of 2017, I resolved to go back and write it. Now that I’m getting to the climax scenes, a kind of performance anxiety has arrived. These are the crucial scenes! What if I mess up? But I’ve learned a lot by now…

The handwritten proto-draft always feels like crap. The real first draft (Word doc) is always better.

Overthinking details is pointless at this stage. Just write ’em down.

Keep pushing the pen and don’t look back.

You’ll work out the kinks later. You’ve done it before and will do it again.

The earlier sections can be tweaked, adjusted, added to and, if necessary, totally rewritten.

Focus on the key elements of the original vision: that which must be preserved, and and that which must be sacrificed.

Focus on how great it will feel to lose this albatross realize this vision.

KEEP WRITING!

 

winter jasmine, yellow flowers, Jasminum nudiflorum

Winter jasmine in bloom: little yellow sparks in the darkest time of the year.

 

 

 

Logic and Logistics: Writing a Plausible Plot

The Work In Progress is approaching The Crisis. This is where all the plot points are drawn together to produce the climax and conclusion — the whole point of writing (and reading) the novel.

Having written five pages of #12 — I’m not going to worry about chapters until a later draft, so each of the fifteen 5-to-7-thousand-word sections is called #1, #2, etc. Back to #12 — having written five pages, I wasn’t happy with where it was going. The characters were sitting down to yet another meal! Forget that, guys — it’s time we had some action here!

clock mechanism plus numbersAfter a productive thinking session in the shower, I wrote a Revised Sequence of Events list for #12. My mind cleared as the sky after a rainstorm, and I now have a much better outlook on the WIP. (We’ll see how long that lasts).

I’m beginning to understand the Rushed Ending which plagues many a novel, if reviews I’ve read are any indication. The author has been juggling a bunch of balls for 70 thousand words, and now must speed up the rate of ball movement while dancing on a tightrope. All the details, hints, foreshadowing, red herrings, symbols and themes must fit together in a way that makes sense and produces thrills, excitement and satisfaction for the reader. No wonder there’s a certain urgency to get it all done before the balls go bouncing all over, or the whole thing collapses.

rubiks cubeI think I’ll be all right if I keep asking myself these questions: Why would she/he do that? And: Does this make sense? If the honest answer to the first question is “Just ‘cuz,” and to the second is “No,” I’ll have another look at what leads up to that point and make the necessary changes. (Of course, fiddling with one part of a plot can mess up another, sort of like Rubik’s Cube).

Plot logic is especially important when supernatural elements come into play. Up to this point in my WIP, they have lurked in the background, occasionally peeking out to generate interest and hint at future developments. I have to resist the urge to invoke the supernatural as a quick fix for plot problems that should be dealt with in realistic ways. “Oh, hey — I guess I can fly now!” On the other hand, I don’t want to spin things out to the point where the magic, diluted with too much realism, becomes irrelevant.

Well, having made these observations, it’s back to writing the WIP. Now, where’s that list?

cosmos

Images from Pixabay.

table, teapot, plates, candle

Savouring the Plot: Food In Fiction

People in movies hardly ever eat. Drink, yes, eat, no. Even in a movie that’s all about food, like Babette’s Feast. Consider — it’s pretty hard to look gorgeous, sexy, or heroic while chomping on something, or with crumbs clinging to your perfectly plumped lips. Never mind the horror of a smile revealing a chewed up glob stuck to a tooth.

But in books, this doesn’t matter. Readers edit their own mind-movies, and most enjoy a meal or snack now and then.

Remember The Hobbit? Bilbo Baggins is always thinking about food, even when dealing with trolls and giant spiders. Readers relate to that, for who hasn’t suffered from hunger pangs? And when those pangs are relieved (in Beorn’s house, for example) the reader shares vicariously in the feast. Come to think of it, Tolkien created many such occasions. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of food-related scenes, from Bilbo’s birthday party at the beginning to Sam’s rabbit stew near the end.

My fictitious characters eat a lot. Or rather, many plot-propelling conversations in my novels take place at meals — dinners, lunches, impromptu snacks or afternoon teas.

But is the writer obligated to supply their characters with three squares a day, plus snacks, from page one to “The End?” In my current WIP, mealtimes are interfering with the meat of the plot. I’m getting tired of figuring out what to cook up for these folks in Luxor, Egypt, in 1962 — in a cafe, in a hotel restaurant, in the “dig house” of an archaeological team. What about a bag lunch for the trip to the mysterious wadi? Give me a break! I’ll furnish enough food for plausibility, but don’t intend to get bogged down in irrelevant culinary details.

Now I’m (finally) at the stage where dire discoveries and amazing revelations are more important than the next meal. Physiology being what it is, though, my young, healthy protagonist will get hungry even while trying to escape the clutches of the villain, and figuring out the Secret.

Well, if she survives, she might get a cup of coffee and something sweet.

coffee-2458300__340

 

SWCF manuscript and notes

Slogging Through the Mushy Middle

Nothing is as easy as not writing.

My current work in progress is at the 60% point, based on my scribbled outline. The word count is approaching 60,000, with a goal of 90,000 to 100,000, allowing for trimming off 10,000 words in rewrites. The crisis and climax are crystal clear in my mind, glowing like the Arkenstone in the dragon hoard of Smaug.

So what’s the problem? Or am I just gloating?

No gloating here. Sixty thousand words in eight months doesn’t warrant it. (“Gloat today, grieve tomorrow,” as someone said, or should have). The problem is I have only the fuzziest notion of how to get my character from ‘here’ (the village of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna near the Theban Necropolis) to ‘there’ (the… oh, wait — can’t reveal that. No self-spoilers!)

This is the manuscript that was abandoned on page 17 for a couple of years. Almost a year ago, I decided to go against advice and offer it to my critique group at the first draft stage, section by section.

So far, I’ve written ten of fifteen sections (five to seven thousand words each). I scribble each part in longhand first, just to splash something onto the page. Keying it into Word, I make it real, adding material as needed and changing details. After a bit of polishing, off it goes to the group, to be critiqued at our next monthly meeting. This creates a deadline, which has worked well to keep me slogging forward.

It’s a scary feeling, as each critique meeting winds up, to know I have to create at least five thousand more words of coherent narrative in less than a month. Somehow, during the summer, I managed to get ahead by one chunk, which lessens the panic a little. Of course, if I fail to deliver, it doesn’t really matter. The group won’t mind; it’s one less thing to read before the meeting, and allows more time to discuss the pieces put forward. But it’s still a public no-show — same idea as exercising with a buddy. You don’t want to look like a quitter, so you show up.

But the mushy middle part of a novel — that’s perilous territory. Self-doubt migrates to it and lurks there. Little imps pop up and whisper things like, “Boring!” “Slow!” “Too much ‘telling,’ not enough ‘showing’!” “Why bother writing this? You’ll just have to cut it.” And the biggest imp of all comes up with, “Just give up already. There are already too many books out there. No one’s going to read this, so just give up.”

This recent post from blogger K.M. Allan was really helpful.

Like a mudhole, the mushy middle isn’t the place to stop and brood. I tell myself to keep slogging and just get through it before I sink. I’ll bet many novels are abandoned at this stage. Never mind if it’s not my best writing, never mind if I get all the details right. Just get the plot line laid out. Once the climax is in sight, the magic will take over and I’ll run, leap, fly to the scintillating conclusion! (I hope).

 

purple-2721502__340

I’ve said it before, and think it every day — plotting is hard. This novel, like my others, contains elements of the supernatural, but it’s set in the real world, which means I can’t routinely invoke magic to get things done. I have to pay attention to details like distances between real places, modes of transportation, weather, and technology circa 1962.

I have no problem writing scenes I find compelling. They arrive fully formed in the cranial inbox. All I have to do is sit down and render the mental pictures into prose. Then I go crazy trying to stick them together in a coherent sequence without resorting to tedious glue-like (i.e., boring) prose.

The best way is to move directly from one high-interest scene to the next, adding the minimum of transition text, just what’s needed to avoid confusion. I’m going to do that! If more glue is needed, I’ll apply it in Draft #2.

Then there’s the plausibility issue. I don’t know if this happens to other writers, but it’s amazing how easy it is to lay aside logic and reason to get my characters into the situations I’ve planned for them. I have to keep asking myself, “Why?” Why would she decide to leave Situation A and seek out Situation B? Why would something of vital importance in Chapter 3 become totally irrelevant in Chapter 7? If the answer is something like, “Well, it just has to happen, because they have to be in the…” it’s back to the Plot Plan and Character Profiles scribbled in blunt pencil on the back of a piece of junk mail.

Keep slogging! The ground seems to be rising a bit here. The crisis and climax will soon emerge over the horizon.

balloons luxor

The scene of the WIP: west bank of the Nile, near Luxor. (Image from Pixabay)

knitting, yarn, lavender purple

Unpicking and Re-Knitting

At a recent meeting of my critique group, it was brought to my attention that something should happen at an earlier point in the narrative. I sort of knew that already, so didn’t need to go through all five Stages of Receiving Critique (denial, argument, brooding, grudging acceptance, rewriting). I jumped right to rewriting. And swearing and hair-tearing.

Rewriting a completed scene, especially one that’s mostly dialogue, is HARD, even when you want to. It’s got that finished look, prettied up, polished and (you thought) perfect. And even when you have to admit it isn’t perfect, taking it apart and remaking it is a painful process.

In this scene, the characters do things and say things. There’s an internal logic to the sequence of actions. The last words spoken by one character cue the first words of the other. Yanking globs of text from one spot and moving them to another requires a rebuild of the receiving area to rejig that internal logic.

After a couple of minor fits, I decided a logical approach was needed.

First, I identified all the bits of text to be moved and highlighted them in different colours. Topic #1 (turquoise) had to be dealt with before getting into Topic #2 (green). Stuff I didn’t know what to do with was yellow. Directions to self were in upper case purple text.

Well, at least it was colourful. (And so was some of my language).

Once I identified the relevant pieces of text, I had to decide where to move them. Then I adjusted those areas so the incoming text would flow seamlessly into what was already there.

Then I started CTRL-Xing and CTRL-Ving. Some sentences changed colour several times and moved enough times to earn frequent flier points before settling into their final spots. My head started to spin and ache, and certain short words spiced up my internal dialogue.

“No, you can’t put that there! She doesn’t know that yet!”

“He can’t start talking about that until she’s asked him about it!”

“That doesn’t make any !@#$ sense!”

AAARGH!

A number of metaphors sprang to mind — taking apart a piece of woodwork held together with dovetail joints and moving the pieces around, or unravelling parts of a sweater, re-knitting them with a different pattern, and ending up with something that’s still a sweater.

In the end, of course, my efforts were worthwhile. The scene works better, and a reader won’t have any idea of the strain and pain that went into its creation.

rubiks cube

Which is how it should be.

Now back to reading about the geology of the Valley of the Kings, and whether the sediments include concretions.

They do! Another plot point nailed down! Progress!

Images courtesy of Pixabay.