work in progress

leap over the chasm

Work in Progress Report: On the Brink

My work in progress is getting closer to becoming a completed and published work: She Who Returns: a sequel.

But it’s not quite there. I’m certainly not rushing. In fact, I’m dithering.

The text is finished. I’ve received and considered suggestions from beta-readers. I’ve made all the major plot changes and reduced the word count from 104K to 95K. I’ve trimmed paragraphs, adjusted sentences, and twiddled with words. I’ve even done the backwards read. (That’s when you start at the final sentence and read each one before it until you get to the first sentence. It’s a great way to find typos because you don’t get caught up in the narrative and overlook errors.)

The next steps are: add back and front matter, finalize the covers, write the book description, pick categories and keywords, and format the document for ebook and print. Then upload and publish!

Maybe it’s because I’m trying to avoid those necessary but tedious tasks, but I’m stuck at the point of “just one more read-through.”

Here’s the problem: every time I do the “final” read-through, I make small changes, like swapping “this” for “that,” or deleting a few redundant words. Even a sentence or two. So then I need to do yet another quick read-through just to make sure I haven’t introduced fresh typos or inadvertently deleted something.

Except when I do that “last” read-through, I can’t resist a few more tweaks. Which means I need to do yet another one. Just in case.

Enough, already!

That’s why I’m issuing myself a deadline and posting it here: She Who Returns will be available for pre-order by the end of March.


She Who Returns: a sequel

France Leighton is studying Egyptology at Miskatonic University and planning a return to Egypt via a field school offered by that institution. But France has a talent for rash decisions, and things are complicated by the arrival of her twin half-brothers from England. Edward and Peter are contrasts; one is a rational scientist, the other a dabbler in the occult. But they are equally capable of persuading France to help them with dubious schemes.
France does return to Egypt, if not quite the way she intended. She encounters old friends and new enemies, and challenges rooted in her previous adventures and her family’s complicated history. What begins as an adventure becomes a desperate situation. On the brink of yet another failure, France has to make hard choices that may lead to the ultimate sacrifice.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Snips and Scraps

I had no planned post this week. Not enough thoughts on any topic for several hundred words. No splendid photograph to feature for “Silent Sunday.” These assorted thoughts will have to do.

In the garden, old familiars are showing their faces, after a fall and winter of extremes (way too much rain and a brief period of intense cold right after Christmas). But there’s trouble in paradise: hellebores formed buds early in the warm, wet fall. They made it through the cold snap, but now they are blooming on ridiculously short stems. I don’t know if the plants will produce normal bloom stalks this spring. Worse, something has been eating the little stems between flowers and stalks, leaving buds and flowers lying on the ground. I don’t know if the culprits are birds, bugs, or rodents. I’ve never caught them in the act.

Hellebore "Ruby Wine"
Hellebores don’t look this good so far this year. (Photo from spring 2021.)

At the writing desk, the WIP is approaching completion. I’ve absorbed the suggestions of beta readers and incorporated some of them. I’m nearly finished what was intended to be a final read-through, but since I’ve made a few significant tweaks, maybe it’s a “pre-final” one. Something I’ve been doing this time around is making use of Word’s text-to-speech feature. After combing through a chapter, I highlight half a page at a time and listen to Word’s robot voice read it back to me. This is a great way to pick up on overused words and sentences that don’t sound right. After adding, deleting, or moving text while editing, I listen to the sentence or paragraph as a final check.

I’ve noticed some things about that robot voice. Odd pronunciations, for example. The abbreviation “Dr.” sometimes becomes “Drive,” even when it’s attached to a medical person or a professor. “Bow” is always pronounced like the act of bending from the waist, even when it’s a weapon. Commas produce a pregnant pause, but em-dashes have a speeding-up effect. Single-word sentences of two- or three-syllable words or names invariably generate a slight suggestive emphasis on the final syllable. In some contexts, that sounds spot-on, but most of the time it’s just weird. On the whole, though, the robot voice is a helpful tool. And no, I haven’t given her a name.

Finally, I’m doing an accidental re-read. In relation to the WIP, I wanted to check a scene I remembered from a novel read long ago, in which a character has a disturbing experience in the New York Public Library. After a bit of thinking, I remembered the book’s author was Peter Straub, and a bit more thinking retrieved the title: Koko.

I found the scene I wanted, but then I got sucked into reading the book again. It’s been years decades since I first read it, so it’s almost like I never have. It’s a long book–more than 500 pages. I read a few pages at the end of the day, so it will take a while. In the meantime, the TBR pile languishes…

One of the reasons Koko is so long is because Straub makes sure the reader gets to know the main characters really well. It’s almost like a real life experience hanging out with them, hearing the way they talk, and getting into their heads (which isn’t always pleasant). Point of view shifts between scenes, and is always excruciatingly close third person.

I first read this book before I started writing fiction. Reading it now, as a writer, I appreciate Straub’s techniques, which adds to the reading experience.

All right, that’s it for now! Back to the WIP and the springtime garden!

Is anyone else feeling overwhelmed these days? Or running out of blog ideas?

pond bench area and snow

Christmas Blogging Break

I just realized I had no post scheduled for this week because I’m focussed on getting the WIP ready to send out to beta readers. (You wonderful people know who you are! Thanks again for offering to read!)

So I’m going to take the next few weeks off from blogging to polish up the manuscript and send it out. I’ll be reading posts, just not writing any.

Happy Holidays to everyone, and I’ll be back in this space in January 2022!

No, we haven’t had snow (yet). The featured image photo is of a snow of yesteryear.

All books related to the Herbert West Series

Work in Progress Report: Betas Needed!

Update: Since I published this post, several lovely people have offered to beta-read. Many thanks to all of you! So if you’re just reading the post now, please don’t feel obligated. I continue to be grateful for the community of WP writers.

Exactly one year ago, I began writing my current work in progress. She Who Returns is a sequel to my novel She Who Comes Forth. It will add to and complete the story begun in that book, and will also be the last of the books that began with The Friendship of Mortals. It’s time for me to say goodbye to Herbert West and his friends and descendants. She Who Returns is therefore a summing-up and finale.

The protagonist and narrator is again France Leighton, who happens to be Herbert West’s granddaughter. Now she’s studying Egyptology at Miskatonic University, hoping to return to Egypt via a field school in archaeology offered by that institution. But France has a talent for rash decisions, and things are complicated by the arrival of her twin half-brothers from England. And in Arkham, weirdness is normal.

France does return to Egypt, if not quite the way she intended. Once there, she encounters old friends and new enemies, and challenging situations rooted in her previous adventures and her family’s complicated history.

At present, the text is just over 95,000 words, cut down from almost 105,000 in the first draft. I have worked through it several times to cut superfluous material and make changes to what remains. At least one more pass is in order, after which the next step is beta readers.

Here is an opportunity for you, fellow writers and readers! If a few of you have time and energy in the next few months to read the text, I would be delighted. Especially if you have read all or part of the Herbert West Series and/or She Who Comes Forth. If you want a sneak peek at this sequel, and an opportunity to improve it, here’s your chance.

As a token of appreciation, beta readers will receive copies of both books in print or ebook form, once She Who Returns is published, which will be some time in 2022.

If you are interested, please contact me by email or via the Contact form, and I will get back to you.

Reproduction shabti figurines from RBCM Egypt exhibit shop
Who are these guys? Good question!
table, teapot, plates, candle

Sip, Shuffle, and Grunt: Word Choice Dilemmas

The characters in my novels are a sociable lot. They often discuss things over meals or drinks. That gives them something to do besides talk and furnishes me (the Writer) with opportunities for actions to avoid the dreaded “talking heads.”

It also brings up a few minor conundrums that are perfect examples of Writer’s Brain at Work. As I create these scenes of conviviality, I often struggle with word choices. There aren’t enough useful words for certain actions, and a bewildering abundance for others. They have to be ordinary words, not flashy ones that would draw too much attention to minor actions.

Drinking, for example. The word used to describe taking in liquid has to fit the situation and the beverage. Whether it’s water, tea, coffee, beer, wine, or spirits, the choices are pretty much limited to the following: sip, drink, or gulp (including the variations involving “take,” as in: took a sip/drink/gulp). Context determines which word is most appropriate. Extremes are easier than ordinary situations. If someone is gulping whisky or vodka, there should be a reason. A character who has reached water after a thirsty slog through a desert isn’t likely to stop at sipping. I wish there was a verb other than “drink” for situations where “sip” is too prissy and “gulp” too vulgar. Synonyms such as “imbibe” or “quaff” are pretentious and awkward. Other words, such as slurp, swig, or guzzle, are wonderful but limited.

Then there’s the problem of how to convey something we all do while talking, a nonverbal sound that indicates mild disapproval of what has just been said. It’s sometimes rendered as “Hmph.” Verbs include the following: snort, grunt, or huff. Which to use depends on the character; for some, snorting or grunting is entirely appropriate, but I can’t bring myself to apply these words to characters who simply wouldn’t do that. “Huff” is pretty much the only choice for them, along with the aforementioned “Hmph,” or “made a disapproving sound,” which is clunky. There’s also “harrumph,” but it’s another one that’s okay for an older man but not for a nice young lady or mannerly middle-aged woman. “Sniff,” on the other hand, might just work. Whichever of them is used, I suspect it should not be treated as a dialogue tag, but as a discrete action.

Along with imbibing liquids and chewing food, characters make gestures while talking. Cutlery is useful in these situations; I’ve had characters make rhetorical gestures with forks, tap spoons to emphasize a point, or even hold knives as though wanting to use them as weapons. But sometimes a person just waves a hand, and that’s where I have a problem. Should they wave a hand, or his (her) hand? The latter, as in “Bob waved his hand,” to me always sounds like Bob has only one such appendage. Okay, so how about “Bob waved his right hand”? That implies that there’s a left to go with it, but also puts unnecessary emphasis on “right.” After going around this mulberry bush a few times, I settle on “a hand,” and berate myself for overthinking. Whose hand but his own would Bob wave, after all? (I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much mental energy I’ve expended on this non-problem.)

Characters move around all the time. There are many action verbs. But sometimes, the movement from point A to point B doesn’t call for a splashy verb, such as “leap,” “saunter,” or “shuffle.” Sometimes “walk” is just fine, as in “I walked to work in the rain.” Most days, an ordinary person wouldn’t amble, strut, or stride to work. Even the modest word that is the past tense of “go,” i.e., “went,” has a place. “On Thursday, Bob went to the hospital for surgery.” An expressive word is unnecessary here, unless the way Bob got to the hospital is the point of the sentence, not the fact that he’s going to have surgery. So why make the poor guy hobble, trot, or saunter? All right, that’s enough!

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

To sum up, whatever word is chosen for an action, it should suit the situation and the character. A modest, plain word may be le mot juste, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you ever dither over word choices? Do you ever overthink them?

Featured image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

Dreams in Fiction

Everyone dreams, although not everyone remembers doing so. Dreams, therefore, are a common experience, so it’s inevitable that they turn up in fiction. Fictional dreams are, in fact, a literary device. They have also drawn the ire of rule-makers. Writers know they should never end a story by revealing that it was all a dream, or begin one with the character waking up from one.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use dreams in fiction. They can be useful in many ways.

  • Prophetic dreams can provide foreshadowing
  • Dreams can add symbolic elements
  • Nightmares can provide a jolt of horror and an element of backstory
  • Dreams can show something about a character they aren’t aware of
  • A dream can be a vehicle for something unlikely in reality (along with hints that maybe it wasn’t really a dream)
  • Hallucinations and visions are somewhat like dreams (or nightmares)

Deep into Draft 2.5 of my work in progress, I decided to change a particular scene into a dream. That let me dodge some awkward logic problems going forward and introduce bizarre details that (I think) enhance the reading experience without straining the suspension of disbelief. This got me thinking about the use of dreams in fiction. Every one of my novels includes dreams, from brief mentions to full and detailed accounts.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Not to set down rules (Me? Rules? Never!), but it occurs to me there are a few things to keep in mind about using dreams as elements in fiction.

  • Less is more. Unless a story is about dreams or dreaming, it’s probably best not to go overboard with them.
  • Dreams aren’t logical. Fictional dreams that are too detailed and realistic are obviously contrived.
  • Feel free to make fictional dreams bizarre and illogical. In fact, drawing upon your own actual dreams may be a good idea.
  • Think oblique. Hint rather than state. Instead of having a character remember a dream from start to finish, drop in flash memories of the dream as they go through their day. Vivid vignettes instead of technicolour dramas.
cemetery, gravestones
Image from Pixabay

Fellow writers, do you put dreams into your fiction? Or maybe something you’ve written was inspired by a dream. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Featured image from Pexels

She Who Comes Forth book chapter heading with moon glyph

Chapters: Short, Long, Titled?

I must admit to a cavalier attitude toward chapter divisions. In several of my novels, I assigned them without much thought and didn’t bother giving them titles. Numbers were enough. When I started reading a lot of ebooks, though, I realized that chapter titles make it easier to navigate within an ebook, because they remind you of key incidents in case you need to go back and check a detail. The 19th century convention of providing a mini-synopsis of each chapter in the table of contents would be helpful for the ebook reader.

I used chapter titles in She Who Comes Forth and will do so in my current WIP.

I wrote She Who Comes Forth chapter by chapter, but while writing the first draft of my current WIP, I didn’t give chapters much thought. When I turned the handwritten manuscript into a Word document, I stuck in asterisks and blank lines between scenes, but I don’t want to have as many chapters as this would produce. Really short chapters may be right for some books, but not this one.

As I’ve worked through the first 40% of the second draft, I took a stab at adding chapter breaks. Both where the breaks happen and the chapter titles are subject to change. In fact, I really should have saved this task until the work as a whole was closer to completion.

It seems natural to insert a chapter break right after a conclusion of some sort, such as the end of a party, an outing, or an argument, at the point where something is figured out or resolved. With this approach, if you picture the plot of a story as a series of waves of different heights, chapters should end in the troughs.

The problem with this is that it may create a series of letdowns for readers. After a conclusive chapter ending, something new and intriguing is needed at the start of the next one to re-inflate the balloon of readers’ expectations. Readers are most likely to stop reading if a beginning isn’t compelling enough. Why would we want to create this sort of challenge for ourselves and our readers?

hot air balloon on ground rainbow colours
Image from Pixabay

Recently I read a piece of advice to the effect that every chapter must end with a cliffhanger, because we writers must assume that our readers are so fickle they must be tantalized into reading on, with the ultimate goal of a review that says, “This book is a total page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.” Which suggests that a chapter should end, and the next one begin, at the top of a wave.

For books other than thrillers, the term “cliffhanger” stretches to cover more situations than life-or-death physical perils. Maybe it’s better to suggest that each chapter ends with something intriguing, a question planted in the reader’s brain to ensure that they read the next one, and the next and the next. But distorting a perfectly good plot simply to engineer cliffhangers seems like a bad idea to me.

Photo by Cade Prior on Pexels.com

If the book isn’t a thriller full of perilous situations, the writer may wish to consider ending chapters at points where a question arises. What’s in the letter that just arrived? How will Character A react to the provocative comment by Character B? What will the characters do when their car breaks down during the outing? The idea is to end the chapter on the rising side of a trough, not at the bottom.

Instead of contriving cliffhanger-type situations, find them where they already exist in the work and place chapter endings there, in situations of questioning, uncertainty, revelation, and rising tension. Those should be there already, so why not make use of them?

A confession–as a reader, I don’t care much about chapters. I can stop reading anywhere, knowing the book will be there in a few minutes or the next day, and I can pick up where I left off. Once I’m committed to reading a book, I read to the end, even if I don’t find it enthralling. A book has to be abysmal (in my opinion) before I throw it on the DNF pile. Chapters with titles are useful, as I’ve already noted, but mainly as a way of labelling key events in the story for reference.

I wrote and scheduled this post a week ago. It’s entirely coincidental that THIS OTHER POST on the same topic, but with a different emphasis, appeared almost at the same time.

How do you deal with chapters? Carefully or casually? Numbers, titles, or both? And when you read, do you always read to the end of a chapter before stopping?

Featured image: A page from She Who Comes Forth, showing chapter title.

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.