Tinker, Writer, Reviser. Sigh.

To give plenty of advance notice to those of you who are SCBWI members or plan to join (you have to be at least eighteen): I’ll be teaching a two-and-a-half-hour workshop on writing fantasy at the national conference on Saturday, February 3rd, in New York City. I’d love it if you’d come!

A shout out to those of you who are getting ready for NaNoWriMo. April Mack, who sometimes comments here, has written helpfully on her blog about NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link: http://www.thelovelyfickleness.com/2017/10/nanowrimo-notes-plans/. And from me: May the wind be at your elbows. May the sun shine on your brain. May time slow as your fingers fly.

One more thing, a poetry competition for students from middle school through college. It does involve using The Golden Shovel Anthology, a collection based on the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, which you can buy or ask your local library to get for you. (Full disclosure: I have a poem in the anthology.) The form of the poem is fun, and, if you don’t want to enter the competition or are out of school or too young, it can be applied to other poems as well. Here’s the link, where you’ll find out how it’s done and how to enter: https://www.roosevelt.edu/colleges/education/community-engagement/golden-shovel-competition.

Another one more thing, a podcast interview featuring moi. You can check it out here: http://podcast.9thstory.com/. It’s an in-depth conversation, covering character development, world-building, plotting–the topics we dive into here.

On to the post. On September 10, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m trying to write a trilogy, which is on a whole different scale than the flash I usually write. I keep getting stuck on Book 2, thinking of ways I could change Book 1 that might tie the trilogy together better, and going back to tinker, even though I know I should write the whole thing first, because things could change. How do I resist the tinkering temptation and get Book 2 to come into focus?

Christie V Powell wrote in response, My way is to publish book 1 first… but I don’t think that would help in this case. I think it’s fun to find the elements of book 1 and twist them around in new ways (like Gail did with Bamarre). My current WIP takes place 500 years before my series, and I’m finding all sorts of ways to play with the world so that they work together.

One thing I do when I’m working on a rough draft but want to change something earlier is to write myself a note, like: “Edit: she’s still wearing the collar” or “Note: White Leader was promoted, not demoted.” Then I keep going.

In Ella Enchanted, Prince Char writes to Ella during his sojourn in the neighboring kingdom of Ayortha that the Ayorthians say little. He goes on at length about their taciturnity. I wish he’d have shut up! Because, years later, I wrote Fairest, which is set in Ayortha, and I couldn’t write a novel in a land where people hardly ever speak, so I contradicted the earlier book. One reader called me on this, and I’m sure others noticed. If only I’d thought ahead!

So it’s great that Melissa Mead’s book 1 isn’t published yet.

If you take or have taken a Philosophy course, you’ll probably read or have read Zeno’s Paradox, which goes something like this: You want to cross the room, but first you have to cross half the room and then half the remaining space and half again, and so on. If you keep halving the distance you can never reach the end. You can’t completely cross the room! Which of course you can, and there lies the paradox.

Writing can feel like living Zeno’s Paradox, with The End forever hanging tantalizingly out there, because we keep halving the distance–in the wrong direction! We keep going backwards to fix and fix again.

I love to revise, as I’m sure writers on the blog know. I much prefer to tinker with my WIP than to forge ahead into new territory. But in general I try not to give in to my proclivities. What helps me keep keeping on is my competing desire to get to the end and find out what happens along the way.
I’m with Christy V Powell about writing a note or notes to my future self about revisions I’ll have to make, which can satisfy my itch to fix. I put the notes at the top of my manuscript, so they’re the first things I see when I start revising.

Going back may be counterproductive. As we continue in Book 2 or in our singleton WIP, we may discover that the revision we made earlier wasn’t necessary or even that the scene we revised needs to be cut. Of course, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’ve said here that I toss hundreds of pages in the course of writing every one of my books. But it’s nice if I can avoid deleting even a few of them by reining myself in.

However, I always go back a page or two and do a little revision before I start a day’s writing. This orients me and helps the juices flow.

But if the urge to revise is too strong to resist, we can at least contain it. We can put a daily limit, say twenty minutes, on tinkering with old territory. We can set a timer. When the buzzer goes off, we have to stop.

We can write signs and put them in key places, signs like The End justifies the mistakes left behind. Or just Onward! Or Endward Ho! I have used reminder signs for other purposes, why not this?

The popular wisdom in the writing books I’ve read advises marching forward no matter what. If the species of your MC changes mid-book, march on. If the villain changes from one character to another, march on. We’ll know best what to fix when we get to the end.

I mostly agree with this, and the books that have gone the most smoothly for me have been written in forward motion. But several times–The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, Stolen Magic–I have snarled up my plot so hopelessly that I’ve had to go back. Usually, my story itself bogs down. I feel like I’m slogging through quicksand. Or I fall asleep whenever I try to write. Then I have no choice: I have to go back. Sometimes, as in the cases of Two Princesses and Stolen Magic, the book that resulted was little like the story I started. In Fairest, I kept getting the POV wrong.

If your story is contorted in tangles, too, I suggest taking a little time to figure out where the difficulty lies. We can identify the moment–maybe fifty pages back–when the story went south. Or we can suss out the problem, which may be, for example, POV or timidity about making an MC suffer. We think about what we need to do to fix it. How big will the fix be? Will the story continue on the path we had in mind? Or will it veer into uncharted territory. If it will go the way we always intended, we can confine ourselves to a note, but if major elements will change, we probably do have to go back and follow the fork in the road.

One of the best (also one of the worst!) parts of writing is that, pre-publication, we can revise and re-revise and then do it again. And one of the worst feelings in real life and in writing is regret. These five prompts are about regret:

∙ Try a memoir piece. Write a few pages about something you regret. Imagine what might have happened if you’d acted differently. You needn’t show this to anyone. However, it may pay dividends in helping you plumb the emotional depths of your characters. If you like, you can fictionalize this memory and make it come out differently–or the same.

∙ Another memoir piece. Write about something that was done to you. Imagine what would have changed if this thing hadn’t happened. Imagine receiving an apology and the effects of the apology.

∙ Back to fiction. In the second act of the musical Into the Woods, the sad consequences of cutting down the beanstalk by Jack are brought to life. Rewrite the story from the moment when the beans begin to sprout. If Jack doesn’t climb the beanstalk or kill the giant, how does his story go?

∙ In your story, the evil queen in “Snow White” doesn’t dance to her death in red hot slippers. She lives to regret her overwhelming jealousy–and she escapes from prison. Write her story of redemption–or further evildoing. Or, pick another fairy tale villain for your story. Or pick one of your own fictional villains.

∙ Speculative historical fiction works with this kind of pivotal moment. Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about what might have resulted if Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had given him a son who lived grew into adulthood. Change a historical moment and write a story about the consequences.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Out With the Old… Or Not

First off, I’ll be signing books from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on November 1st at the book fair in Albany, NY. The event is at the Silipigno Athletic Facility, 140 Academy Road. If you are going to be in the area, I’d love to meet you.

On to the post. On July 23, 2014 Bibliophile wrote, Does anyone else ever cringe when looking at stuff they wrote ages ago? 


I was rereading the one ‘book’ I ever finished writing and just started to die inside. The heroine gives in to the hero too easily, there is no real main conflict and the magic I use is not only cliche, but has no rules. The romance in the book is stilted, as is the dialogue. The main characters literally have zero relationships with any of the other characters and since this isn’t a post-apocalyptic novel, that is unacceptable and just plain weird. 


The worst part is, I can’t bear to take the time and actually rewrite/reread it all the way through. I seem to have lost my love for this book, which is a shame because, like I said, it is the only one I have ever ‘finished’. I have tried rewriting dozens of times; I have had conversations with the main character, reimagined the beginning, how they meet, totally reworked the plot. But every time I restart I get lost and annoyed. Is there any way to learn to re-love this story?

Michelle Dyck responded: Yes, I have certainly cringed – numerous times – when rereading old stuff! (I mentioned earlier the book I’m returning to. It’s a mess.) The good thing about cringing is that it just goes to show how much you’ve grown as a writer since then.


Dig deep into the heart of that story. Look past the weaknesses, stiltedness, and clichés, and search for the core. That’s probably what inspired you to write it in the first place, and it’s what can inspire you again. Remember what you loved about it. There’s got to be something that kept you going back when you first drafted it, and even if it’s not as sparkly now as it was then, it’s something! Try to draw it out. Reimagine what you can do with the story’s potential. Maybe that will help you see the problems with the eye of an artist, seeing more than what’s there, but what could be.

I’m with Michelle Dyck. I certainly have old writing that now makes me uncomfortable. And even in stories that I do like, that I’m working on now, I make mistakes. Recently, in a poem, I imagined a genie granting me wishes. He was an inquisitive being and unwilling to grant anything unless he was sure it would make me happy. I wished for the ordinary things: health and long life for me and the people (and dog) I love. I admitted these might just keep us alive and well. What would preserve my happiness, I wrote, was for writing to continue to be hard. Poem or no poem, I really believe this. No matter how badly a story or a poem was going, I’d never ask a genie for perfect writing or for writing to be easy. That would be dreadful, to sit down every day and pop out glorious plots and poems, effortlessly. How boring! How could I grow as a writer? I would weep and tear my hair.

I also agree with Michelle Dyck that being able to see the flaws in an old work is a mark of progress.

Here’s what you might try, what any of us can try with a story that no longer pleases us:

Without looking at it, just from memory, list (on paper or in your computer) the elements of the old story that you do like, scenes, bits of dialogue, descriptions. Now, without judgment, think about the main plot line. Write it out in a sentence or a paragraph. Again without judgment, list the main characters and the important secondaries.

Consider what you might do with what you’ve got–what you might do now, using the skills you’ve developed. We can regard this as a new story, but a lot of the work has been done, and how great is that?

Bibliophile says that in the old, despised version the characters didn’t connect with one another. Now is the time to think how they might interact, where they might come into conflict, where they might support each other, how they can contribute to our MC’s struggle and ultimate success or failure.

And the magic. Just because it didn’t have rules before doesn’t mean it can’t have them now. Where should the magic come in, and what might be behind it?

I have a novel, like Bibliophile’s, that I put aside, and, when I tried to read it, about a year ago, I found it so intolerable I had to put it down. It’s called My Future Biography. Just from the title you may be able to guess the problem: my MC, Marita, is obnoxious. She’s full of herself and always sure she’s right. The plot turns on something she does that’s so damaging, it’s impossible to like her. She learns her lesson, but too late for this reader.

At the same time, I like the secondary characters and adore two of them. The almost-boyfriend is utterly delicious. And the beginning of the book is hysterical. And I share some faults with Marita, like that tendency to think I’m always right, so I’m fond of her. But even in my most misguided moments, I would never have done what she does.

Maybe someday I’ll go back to the book. If I do–and thinking about it is getting me interested–I would follow the approach I just outlined. I might tone Marita down a little, and I’d give her other, likable qualities to keep the reader in her corner. And I’d find another way to deliver the lesson so that she doesn’t have to sabotage people who’ve been good to her.

Hmm…

But it’s possible that I couldn’t save the story if I tried, or I couldn’t save it yet, until I grew more as a writer, or until the right idea arrived. There are lots more stories to write, and I should get cracking on them rather than mooning over an old one. If Bibliophile or anyone else is drawn to an old story only because it’s the only one she’s finished, that’s not enough of a reason. If finishing is a goal, which it can be but doesn’t have to be, you might look at my posts on the subject, which you can find by clicking on the label finishing stories, and you may also want to check out my posts on revision.

Here are four prompts:

• I love genies! In a takeoff on “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” your MC is a writer who has a genie looking out for her. She finishes the day’s writing with her hero in trouble, but when she wakes up in the morning, her genie has solved everything. The story is finished, typed, and printed out. Write what happens next.

• Take it a step further. This over-zealous genie has emailed the manuscript in the middle of the night to five agents, one of whom, over-zealous as well, has already sent it on to three editors, and one of them has made an offer. The problem–-one of the problems–is that your MC wrote only twenty pages of this three-hundred page opus. Your MC is ambitious and eager to get published. Write what happens.

• Try the method in this post. Go back to an old story that no longer pleases you. If you can’t bear to read it, just think about it. Remember what you loved about it and use that as the springboard for a new story.

• Your MC is a new enrollee at the Hope for the Hapless Improvement School, which promises to turn every student into a heroine. Her failings: messiness, weepiness, awful chapped lips, an uneven growth curve, and an unusual sense of humor. The school has never taken in such a desperate case before, and the head mistress sees the new student as an opportunity to bring fame and fortune to the establishment. Write the chronicle of her school days.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Shining

On January 24, 2014, Eliza asked this important question: Anyone have tips on editing? Whenever I read over my stories, all I can pick out are the things I did wrong. Paragraphs that I can delete, plot holes that need to be stitched up, scenes that just don’t make sense. But once you remove the awful parts, how do you shine it up and make it pretty?

E.S. Ivy wrote this in response: Maybe the following suggestions would help:
– check the dialogue, is it entertaining? Do the characters’ personalities show? Can you add humor in them?
– check a scene with your mind’s eye. Can you really “see” it? Can you add touches of description here and there?
– the important parts, the ending and climax etc.: are there places where you could foreshadow them?

I agree, except that I’m not always on board with foreshadowing. You can read my posts on the subject.

Negativity is built into revision by definition. We’re hunting for problems so we can fix them. Still, revision is my favorite part of writing, the most positive as far as I’m concerned. Once my plot is set, then all I have to do is make it better, make it shine.

For this post I’ll be writing about the polish, which involves the little adjustments we make after the major flaws have been cleaned up. If you’re interested in other aspects, check my earlier posts on the subject.

What I do the most is cut. The process is like sculpting in marble: We chop away at the stone blocking our image, and, as the chips fall, the beauty is revealed.

Here’s a sneak preview of the first paragraph of Stolen Magic. I don’t know how to indent, so I’m italicizing, but it isn’t italicized in the manuscript. First is the paragraph I sent my editor after her intial round of edits:

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returned to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she’d departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she’d become–“ As the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose, she continued in her thoughts: Our heroine had become traveling companion to a noble ogre and assistant to a detecting dragon.

Below is the paragraph I sent her after the second round. My editor didn’t ask for these cuts. Read it and then I’ll say why I made them.

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returned to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she’d departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she’d become–“ She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.

In the first version I reassured the reader so that when the ogre and dragon appear, she isn’t worried. But I want her to worry! Why is the deck groaning? What’s causing the stink? These aren’t big anxieties, and they’re quickly put to rest, but still I’m eager to offer that tiny thrill.

Also, as I cut, the pace picks up. As long as I’m not deleting anything crucial to the story or to the development of my characters, a faster pace is an improvement.

Yesterday I received the copy editor’s response to the manuscript, and without prompting I made another slight change. See if you catch it. Here’s the paragraph again:

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returns to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she has become–“ She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.

Do you see? I changed to present tense in the narration, which seems more natural, more like the narrator of a play. If the copy editor or my editor disagree, I’ll be informed, and then I’ll decide.

(If I were changing the tense in the whole manuscript, that would be an important change, but here the story continues to be told in the past tense.)

These are the kinds of itty-bitty adjustments I’m thinking about at this point. Another one is word repetition, which my editor and copy editor are good at noticing. I’m getting better at it, too, and studying poetry has helped. The reader may not notice the repeated words, but she will probably glide along more smoothly without them. Going the other way, however, sometimes we want to repeat, for emphasis or rhythm. We may even create a repetition as we revise, for those reasons.

Obviously, the repetition of some building-block words–like the, he, she, it, and, and or–can’t be avoided and don’t need to be. But I do check to make sure I haven’t started sentence after sentence or paragraph after paragraph with the same one of any of them.

Name repetition is another kind of repetition that I look out for. For example, have I repeated my MC’s name three times in four paragraphs and it’s irritating? Can I replace one or two of those times with he or she without confusion?

A mistake I often make is taking actions or ideas out of order–in a small way. I just corrected an example of this in Stolen Magic. In the narration I’m revealing that Elodie and her friends are traveling by oxcart, and I explain who’s in which cart, and then, boom!, there’s a sentence that jumps ahead to camping for the night. It looked okay; they do camp. But it’s bumpy, so I moved the camping to the end of the mode of transportation.

We also need to look at word choice. Is this the right term to nail a feeling, a description, an action?

Am I weakening my prose with hedging adjectives. For example, the dragon emits an unpleasant sulfurous odor, which Elodie gets used to and even comes to like. But I had her almost like it, which doesn’t take a stand, so I got rid of the almost.

And of course, we have to clean up any niggling grammar errors, anything that might confuse a reader.

Here are three prompts:

• When my editor at the time wanted me to write The Princess Tales, she sent me several chapter books to read to familiarize myself with writing for that age group, which is younger than the full-length novel crowd. To really get inside the writing, I retyped one of the books in its entirety, absorbing vocabulary, style, sentence length. This exercise was more useful than simply reading the book, or even rereading it several times. So pick a book you love, one you think is well-written, and copy out, say, two pages by hand or on a computer. If you have time, do it twice. If you’re having trouble picking a book, may I suggest Charlotte’s Web, because the writing, in my opinion, is splendid? As you go along in whatever book you choose, ask yourself questions about why the author made the choices he did. You may find you disagree about some of them. That’s fine. You’re entering into a conversation with a book. Cool!

• Using my suggestions and E. S. Ivy’s, re-revise a page or two of a story of yours that you’ve already gone over. Is it “shinier” when you’re done than it was before?

• Your MC is in her room, suffering from the results of a very bad day caused by her own actions. She’s antagonized her friends and her family; someone is in the hospital because of her; and whatever else you come up with to increase her misery. A being (elf, fairy, alien, mad scientist, whatever) enters her room and offers her a do-over. She accepts, of course. Write the day as it played out originally and the do-over, and make it come out worse the second time, but not entirely because of her this time.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Revision methodology

On February 13, 2013, Requien wrote, I was wondering if you have any advice on self-editing. This past NaNoWriMo, I cheated a little and finished my previous manuscript. After deleting my midnight-German rants that ended up just being word count boosts, the novel is hovering around 92-94k words. There are several passages that need expansion, and some details must be added in. 


However, I’m not really sure where to start: do I add in the passages and lace it up, or edit the strange, awkward layers first? As an extended note, I have three different perspectives from the third person omniscient- would this be considered acceptable in a writing community, or strange?

First off, congratulations on finishing your NaNoWriMo novel, whichever year it belongs to! This is a big accomplishment. Kudos to you!

Let’s start with the last question. I don’t know of any monolithic writing community that rules on acceptability. Writers worth their salt know that each book is unique; each book demands its own treatment and requires of the writer whatever approach is best for the story.

I’ve said this before on the blog: the primary writing objective is clarity, unless we’re writing experimental fiction. I don’t mean instant clarity. We can blow smoke in the reader’s eyes now and then. We can write an ending that’s open to interpretation. But the reader should finish a book believing that it was coherent, that he understood what he read. (Careful attention to grammar and punctuation will help this along.) If three different perspectives are needed to tell the story clearly or interestingly, then that’s the right way to go.

I’m a little confused, though, about three third-person omniscient perspectives. Omniscient means all-knowing. When we write in third-person omniscient, we can dip into the thoughts of any character. The god of the story is narrating, and I’m not sure how there can be three of them. However, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking, maybe… Sounds fascinating.

We can certainly have three non-omniscient third-person perspectives. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings trilogy adopts this approach throughout. By turns we see events unfold through the eyes of Samwise, Frodo, Pippin, Aragorn, even Gandalf, and I’m sure I’ve left out a few. I’m alternating third-person perspectives in Stolen Magic, and I’ve done so before in my Princess Tales.

Requien’s question comes at a good time. I’m more or less close to finishing the second complete first draft of Stolen Magic, and I’m thinking about how to approach revising. But before I talk about me, let me say that people revise differently, and you may find your own method as you go along. Some begin with a plot edit; then maybe a character edit; a dialogue edit; a setting edit; and, finally, a word choice, grammar, and punctuation edit. There’s no right way.

Usually I just start at the beginning and work my way through, fixing everything at once. And then I do it again. And again. But I’m going to go about the process a little differently this time. I have edits from my editor on the middle section, which I haven’t addressed, because I wanted to get to the end first. So I plan to start with her notes.

(If she had objected to anything structural, anything that would have called for a complete overhaul, I would have stopped my forward momentum, and addressed her issues.)

Then, I have notes and line edits from my critique buddy, the terrific middle-grade and young adult writer Karen Romano Young, biding their time in a pile in my office. My second step will be to review her big-picture notes and then address her line edits as I page through the manuscript, making my own changes and those of hers that seem to fit. (I don’t do everything that either my editor or Karen wants, although I take their comments very seriously; most of all, I need to please myself.)

So, Requien and anyone else who’s reached this point, it may be helpful to show your rough first draft to someone you trust, preferably another writer, who will know how ungainly a first draft can be. That person’s comments may help direct your revisions.

But even before that, I’d expand whatever needs expanding and add the required details, so that your reader gets the full story.

If you feel the manuscript is too much of a mess and allowing other eyes to see it will reduce you to a trembling, anxious jellyfish, I’d suggest listing the issues you see as major and keeping the list visible as you revise. For example, Requien’s list might start with “strange, awkward layers” and continue on to other major problem areas.

Then, when you get your manuscript into more acceptable shape, consider letting some trusted other take a look.

One thing I always always always do when I revise is delete. To me, good writing is succinct. As my book goes on a diet, it gets tighter, clearer, and more pleasurable to read. A great resource to help you toward concision is Stunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a short book that packs a potent punch. And when I say “delete” I don’t necessarily mean whole chapters, although sometimes I do cut that much, but more often I’m snipping within sentences, excising a word here, a word there, that doesn’t add anything to meaning or rhythm.

Here are three prompts:

• Take a page of a current story or an old one. Cut fifty words, more or less.

• Take a page of the same story or a different one. Find a spot that you can develop more or in a new direction. Turn your one page into three.

• Your main character acquires a magic revising wand – you decide how. Excited, she applies it to her story, and the result is a masterpiece. As she’s rereading it and marveling, her dad calls her to dinner. She brings the wand with her to show everyone. After she’s shown it, dinner progresses. Her brother says something annoying. Her mother reminds her she has homework due without even asking her if she’s already finished it, which she has. Her dad tells a truly dumb joke. Believing that the wand revises only the written word, and to express her irritation, she waves it at her family. Everything changes. Tell the story. You can take this beyond the family and explore the effects of the wand on the family dog, people at the supermarket, the supermarket itself, the local park – wherever you want her to wave it.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Smooth

On October 31, 2012, Seawritesforfun wrote, I was wondering how can you make a book fluid? Mine is rather all over the place because I write very sporadically, (started in ’10, still not finished but very close now). I plan to do about 20 rewrites to try and fix it, but I’m not sure whether or not that will disrupt the plot.

First off, when we revise our first principle should be, must be: Everything is up for grabs to make the best book we can at this time.

I don’t mean we have to toss the first draft, because then we’ll be writing a new book, not revising. And I don’t mean that every element always has to change, only the ones that need fixing. For me, some drafts need just a little tweaking; some need much more. We work within the established framework, but we may have to move a few walls and change the furniture. We may have to add characters, drop characters, change POV, and even adjust (or disrupt) our plot. I’ve begun my revisions for my second Elodie mystery. I don’t foresee adding characters, but I’m doing everything else, and my plot is definitely changing.

If you’re young, say you’re fifteen now and you started your book when you were thirteen, of course the story feels jumpy. The you that started and the you who’s writing now are separated by eons of growth and change and learning. So I suggest that you try to go through this revision in the span of a few months, tops, because you’re still on a steep maturing slope. A year from now you may again be vastly different (although, naturally, many essentials will remain). If you start and then stop, fluidity may again elude you.

A lot of the feeling of fluidity comes from voice. Try reading a few paragraphs from page 3 and a few from pages 25, 80, 130, etc. What do you notice? What are the differences? Which do you like? Maybe one of the pages has a contemporary voice, another goes even further into slang, another is more formal, and another has a distinct old-fashioned tone. Decide which best suits your story.

Can you identify something that you can replicate to give the narration a sense of continuity? For example, in the Elodie books, when Elodie is surprised, she has a habit of saying or thinking, Lambs and calves! Just that expression helps create the sense of a single personality presenting the story. I’ve switched to third person in this revision, although I’m not sure I’ll stick with it, but in most chapters Elodie is still my POV character, and the reader still encounters her Lambs and calves!, not in every paragraph or even on every page, but often enough to remind the reader that this is Elodie’s tale.

In the past I’ve mentioned a novel for adults, or for kids high school and up, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, a fascinating mystery that switches from first-person to third, that changes tenses, and that intersperses the narrative with newspaper articles. The effect is jumpy, I guess, but the reader comes to expect the discontinuity, and the story works as a whole. The key is repetition. We can change tense or POV once right at the beginning or we can sandwich our narrative with a beginning and final shift, but if we’re going to do more, we generally need to do it frequently. If there’s just a single switch a third of the way into the story and not again, the reader is likely to be confused, but if it’s a regular thing, she’ll be prepared.

Here’s another, possibly weird solution. Think of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, which was written over several years, and which, admittedly, isn’t fiction. Anne changes in the course of the book. The youngster at the beginning and the young adult at the end are vastly different. The reader accepts this because of the time span. Maybe you can work something into your structure that accommodates the two years you spent writing your book. Maybe your book can be presented as a journal. Or, if you can’t separate the parts by time, maybe you can by distance. The first part takes place in an earth city, the next on recently colonized Venus, the next in a scientific station on the ocean floor. Or, separate them by narrator, so the voice is different in the different parts. Then, possibly, the revision won’t be so radical.

Here are four prompts:

• Use the scenario I suggested. Your three MCs are geographically apart. Earth is running out of some resource, say, fresh water. Your characters are engaged in a project to save life on the planet, but there are conflicting allegiances among them, and there’s a romance. Write the story, and make it jumpy, with different narrators, different time periods.

• Tell a story within a story within a story, like those Russian nesting dolls that fit inside each other. Your MC is writing a novel about an actor who’s in an original play. Your story includes all three: the life of the MC, chapters of the novel, and scenes from the play. Give your MC problems in her life that find expression in her novel and in the play inside the novel.

• Write a contemporary story but tell it in an old-fashioned, fairy tale sort of voice.

• Retell a fairy tale in a modern setting using a contemporary voice.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Gap

Before I start, hope to see some of you this weekend in Rhode Island. If you haven’t seen where I’ll be, check the Appearances page of my website.

Josiphine, whose first question I discussed last week, had a second: …any tips on rewriting would be extremely appreciated.

In thinking about my response, I remembered a post on the subject and looked it up. My post of November 18th, 2009, is all about revision. If you read it and have further questions, please ask.

Along the same lines, Ella wrote, I’m the kind of writer that plans everything out before I write. When I come to the few spots that I didn’t plan, I skip over them and go on. But now I’m revising and I have to fill in those gaps, and go back and add details and emotions, but it’s really hard. Any tips?
Let’s go to pre-revision. In your next story, which you may be working on now, I suggest not skipping these unplanned parts. Since you’re a planner, when you reach such a place, try planning it out and writing it then and there in your first draft.

It’s possible that these spots don’t fit into your overall story scheme. They may reveal plot problems that get worse if you just soldier on. When you fill in later, the emotions may not feel genuine because you’re forcing your characters to act according to your outline, not according to how they’d actually behave in the situation.

You may discover that these junctures are the keys to your story. They may take it in directions that surprise you but represent, or represent more effectively, your underlying theme.

Now let’s fast forward to revision, to the situation you asked about. You’ve got these gaps. It’s too late for the first draft. What to do?

First off, do you need these scenes? If not, cut them and problem solved.

Do they need to be scenes? Or do they merely represent information that needs to be conveyed, which you can tuck into the narrative or dialogue in another scene? Suppose, for example, that main character Eliot’s uncle has just died, which is important because he was going to pay Eliot’s college tuition. We don’t need the death scene. We may not even need the scene when Eliot finds out. What may be important, however, is his blow-up at his girlfriend Amy because he’s distressed that his education, his hoped-for career, his entire future, is now in doubt. After the argument, during the making up, if he wasn’t too horrible for a reconciliation, he confesses what’s really eating him. Amy and the reader find out together.

If your omissions do have to be scenes, why not plan them even at this late date? (Remember that I’m not a planner and am just guessing how planners make their magic.) Look at where your caesura (If you don’t know the word, look it up!) fits into your outline. Reread what went before and what comes after. Think about how your characters, acting according to their natures, can bridge the gap. How can they express their feelings through thoughts, action, dialogue? What can you find that interests you, that will make the process fun? Is there some aspect of Eliot, for example, that you haven’t explored before? Has the reader experienced his sense of humor or his intellectual side? Can you bring one of these into the new scene? Outline and then write.

Do the new scenes take place in old settings? Can you move the action somewhere else, somewhere you may enjoy describing? Or, can you highlight unexplored aspects of your setting? Eliot will have needs in this scene, or his girlfriend Amy will. Suppose their argument happens in her bedroom. She’s chilly, so she opens the door to her closet where her sweater and tee-shirt shelves are. Above the sweaters is a shelf of stuffed animals that she’s outgrown but can’t bring herself to throw out. She touches the nose of her stuffed penguin for comfort. The stuffed animals and the gesture brings Eliot to his senses, and he realizes how much he’s upset Amy and how adorable and sweet she is.

I’ve exhausted my ideas on this aspect of revision, but I’d welcome follow-up questions.

So, changing the subject. I’m a radio addict. I love to listen to programs that I can learn from, and one of these is Freakonomics Radio, which applies economic theory to surprising topics. I recently listened to a podcast about quitting, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The economists who narrate the show have a position, that quitting is good. They advocate quitting – anything! – and quitting quickly.

I’ve been mulling over the program’s ideas as applied to writing, and I think the good economists left out a lot of complexity. Naturally, they’re arguing against the prevailing idea that quitting – being a quitter – is always bad.

Questions come in to the blog sometimes about not finishing stories, and I always say it’s okay not to finish, because we learn from everything we write, fragments as well as completed stories – as long as we keep writing. Many of you are about to participate in NaNoWriMo, and you’re resolved not to quit. In a month you’ll have a big first draft, and then what?

Since they’re economists, the podcasters talk about costs, in this case two kinds of costs relating to quitting or not quitting. There’s opportunity costs and sunk costs, and they’re kind of opposed to each other. You finish your NaNoWriMo book. Maybe you’ve met your word count, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. You start revising and the going gets rough.

The opportunity costs start beckoning. Every hour you devote to revision is an hour you can’t spend starting a new story – or eating, sleeping, studying for your Physics exam. You think about quitting, but you remember your sunk costs. You’ve sunk a month into this book, a month when you could have been eating, sleeping, or studying for your Physics exam. If you walk away, you may have wasted that time and energy and creativity.

I’ve been working on Beloved Elodie for a dauntingly long time. I’m finally making progress but I don’t think I’m even at the halfway point. Should I have quit, maybe after my second false start?

Possibly, but I guess I’m a sunk-costs type. If I had quit I wouldn’t find out where the story goes. I would find out what other tale was waiting for me, but that other tale isn’t as alive for me as the one I’m butting my head against.

Actually, I did quit. Each time I started over I abandoned the storyline that wasn’t working and I’ll never know if I could have pushed on and made it succeed. This hurts. There were good aspects to each attempt, one in particular that I wish I could have figured out.

I guess this is where I wished for more complexity from the radio. There’s loss when you quit, even when quitting is right. And there’s loss when you continue and don’t write whatever else you might have. And there are gains on each side. We have to weigh one against the other. The only certainty I have is that there’s no disgrace in either decision.

Now I’m quitting. Time for prompts:

∙    Find a time gap in one of your stories, a day, a week, whatever. Invent a new scene that takes place during the gap. When you’re finished, ask yourself if you’ve you discovered anything new that will deepen the reader’s understanding of what’s going on.

∙    Write the dust-up between Eliot and Amy. Decide how he would pick a fight. What’s he like when he argues? Show him at his worst.   

∙    Now write Eliot’s journal entry about his uncle’s death and his behavior to Amy.

∙    Think of the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which we discussed at length in a long-ago post. If you don’t remember the story, look it up. At the end, the soldier chooses the oldest princess for his bride. Let’s imagine that she can accept him or quit being a princess. She’s hardly met him and has hardly been kind to him. Write the scene in which she decides. Write the scene following her decision.

∙    Yes, Cinderella inexplicably continues to obey her stepsisters and stepmother in the original story, not my version, but they also continue to torment her, which cannot be good for their self-esteem. Write a version in which one of the stepsisters decides to do something different, to quit her role. What happens?

∙    Rewrite the tall tale of John Henry and have him quit pounding his hammer and live. What happens next?

Have fun, and save what you write!

Forced

I had a terrific time in poetry school. I heard lectures about odes and elegies and the use of time through verb tenses in a poem and much more. The five poems I submitted ahead of time got careful criticism, and I learned a lot. Thanks to everyone for keeping the blog humming in the meanwhile.

On July 24, 2010, Lauren wrote, I was rereading part of one of the stories I’m writing, and I just realized how forced the writing sounds. How can I change it? Should I completely re-write it, or just change bits and pieces? How can you edit your work without getting totally discouraged and wanting to give up?

I asked for clarification, and Lauren gave it the next day: I mean when the writing sounds fake. Kind of like what you wrote in that one chapter in WRITING MAGIC, where you gave two kinds of dialogue involving a couple of girls and weird smells one of them thought was coming from the science lab, but was actually smoke? One was very formal and didn’t sound like two tween/teenaged girls, and the other one did.

Sometimes I want to give up too. Usually this happens to me in the first-draft stage. I love to revise. By the time I get to revision the major plot kinks have been ironed out and all I have to do is to make my prose shine. Truth is, it’s fine and possibly even universal to want to give up but not fine to actually do so. If you stick with your revision, your story is likely to improve. If it doesn’t, you can start a new story, but I hope you won’t stop writing entirely.

I’m glad you’ve read Writing Magic!

Your dialogue problem may have come about because you’re putting information into speech that belongs in narration. Dialogue is likely to feel forced when it passes along facts that both speakers know – simply in order to bring the reader up to speed. If, in the example from Writing Magic, both characters are already aware of the smoke that issued from the science lab, they’ll be unlikely to talk about it.

Dialogue seems to be a lively way to introduce back story, but it’s not, in my opinion. Usually such conversations come off as stiff. Much better to tell the reader directly in narration. If you’re writing in third person, you can merely say that a science experiment has gone bad. If in first, your main character can notice the lingering smell of burnt rubber or whatever.

I can imagine circumstances when it might be appropriate to rehash known events. Suppose your main character Penny suspects something fishy went on in the science lab but she doesn’t have all the facts and she wants to find out. Maybe she’s an amateur sleuth. Then she would have a reason to bring up the accident, and, if she’s not experienced at sleuthing, she might do so awkwardly. As the conversation gets going she might reflect on how stilted she sounds. The reader will be content, because he’ll worry about whether she can pull off her subterfuge and because there may be real danger.

Or maybe Penny wants to establish a relationship with someone, so she brings up the science lab because it’s all she can think of. The reader will be okay with this too and will probably suffer along with Penny as her overtures proceed. Will she be accepted or rejected?

It comes down to why people talk.

Obviously not all talk in real life is fascinating. Much of it isn’t, but the motivation for speech often is, and sometimes the motive is more meaningful than the words. When a character, Warren, say, makes chitchat because he’s nervous, what comes out may be drivel, may even be forced-sounding drivel, but if the reader understands what’s going on, she won’t mind. She’ll be squirming along with him; the worse it is, the more she’ll squirm.

Or let’s say Warren is trying to find his sister who’s gone missing. He’s made contact with a woman who may be able to lead him to her. They meet for the first time outside a particular bank branch. She’s said he’ll recognize her, and indeed he thinks he does. There’s a woman at the revolving doors wearing a wide-brimmed red hat, a red wool coat tied at the waist, and high black boots. Her face is beautiful, her expression bored. He goes to her, and, scared, spouts the same nonsense as in the example above. The reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.

Not that Warren has to do it this way. He can master his fear and ask the woman straight out if she’s the right person and if she knows where his sister is. That’s fine. It depends on Warren’s character and the tone of the story. The direct dialogue will still engage the reader if she cares about Warren and his sister. One way is no better than another.

There are myriad reasons for characters to speak – anger, fear, warning, affection, love, for fun, to convey news, and more I’m sure – and myriad ways for them to express themselves, as many ways, I guess, as there are characters.

Some people and some characters are more comfortable talking than others; some are more comfortable being quiet. Here’s a prompt: Tomorrow, notice whenever you talk and when you’re silent in company. Pay attention to what prompts your speech and what shuts you up. At night write about what you discovered. Write whatever you remember of actual conversations. On Friday, observe the speech of others. Write about those discoveries too. If you’re feeling inspired, use what you found out in a new story.

Lauren also asked whether she should rewrite only the parts that are problematic or start from scratch. There’s a middle ground. Don’t scrap your entire effort, but do go through all of it. The seeds of the forced writing may start before the trouble begins, and if you fix the earlier part, the rest may fall into place. Revision is a big job. Bette Davis once said that old age isn’t for sissies, and neither is revision (or writing). It’s hard, and we have to push through all our writing frailties. Above all, we need to be thorough. If any place feels off, try other ways to express what you’re getting at, either in notes or in your story itself, but don’t delete your earlier versions.

Occasionally, tragedy strikes and you lose your entire story. If this happens and you start over, sometimes a little miracle occurs. You remember the plot, and it comes out more smoothly. Your subconscious or some good angel has taken over and fixed things, maybe to comfort you for your loss.

Let’s use that angel in a prompt. Think of a part of something you’re working on that you’re not satisfied with. Don’t look at it. Rewrite from memory. Don’t strain to make it better, just write.

Here’s another dialogue prompt: Your main character, Yona, is at her cousin Ivan’s birthday party where she doesn’t want to be. Her mother has threatened dire punishment if she isn’t nice. Ivan is annoying but not evil. This is not Yona’s finest or kindest moment. In dialogue Yona gets revenge on Ivan for existing and having a birthday, but she does it so subtly that he only knows that he feels worse and worse. Yona believes she’s said nothing that will get her in trouble. Write the dialogue.

And another: Your hero, Kyle, needs information that a particular dragon can provide. Unfortunately, the dragon speaks only in riddles. Write Kyle’s attempts to discover what he needs to know.

Have fun and save what you write!

Do Over

Last week Maggie asked, Do you have any tips on self-editing? Like where to begin? Or a process I should follow?

Self-editing sounds a little punitive to me, like correcting mistakes, so I’m going to call it revision, which seems broader, although correcting mistakes is part of revision. But often I’m expanding or condensing or deepening what I have.

I know of only two absolute rules for revision. One: Always save your earlier versions in case you need to go back. Two: Fix the basics – spelling, usage, and grammar – before sending your work into the world of publishing. If spelling and such aren’t your thing, get help – but try to make them your thing. Neglecting them is like neglecting your teeth, in my opinion.

This post will be about revising after you’ve finished a first draft, but even while you’re writing that draft you can pave the way. Be conscious as you go along of the aspects of your story that are giving you trouble, not in a beating-on-yourself way, but as an aloof scientist who’s collecting data. You can make notes of these aspects to help you later. I put such notes above the first page of my story. When you go back you may discover that what you thought was a problem wasn’t one at all. It’s nice when that happens. But it doesn’t always, and then your notes can be the beginnings of a guide.

When you finish a story, put it aside for a few days at the very least. Oddly enough, the shorter your story, the longer you should let it sit. The idea is to forget it a little so you can come back to it fresh. By the time I finish a novel, I have only a vague memory of the beginning, so a few days’ break is plenty.

Some writers read their first draft through without touching it, just making notes. You can try this and see if you like the method. I jump in and start making changes, and I make little and big alterations as I go.

Much of revising is grunt work, like yesterday for me: I realized that I had crammed too much action into too few hours, and I had to shift time around. Mechanical, but necessary, and it took a whole day in real time.

I go through my story in order, mostly, but I bounce around, too. Something I change may call for corresponding adjustments earlier or later in the narrative, so I make them before I forget.

Revision covers every part of fiction: plot, character, setting, voice, detail. Just thinking about it is daunting. Best not to think, just do. You’re unlikely to catch everything in one run through. I revise my books even when they’re in second-pass galleys. After my editor has edited a manuscript a dozen or more times and the copy editor has had at it half a dozen times, I’m still making changes. If all my books were turned back into manuscripts, I’d definitely do some fixing. The thing is, perfection is unachievable. We do the best we can. This is worth embroidering on a pillow or taping over our desks. Perfect impossible, just the best we can.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you move through your work.

Have I caught up all the threads? You may not want to tie up everything, but you want the loose ends to be deliberate. You can leave the reader to wonder if your hero ever reconnects with Sam, his best friend three years ago, but you don’t want to drop Sam because you’ve forgotten all about him. Some threads may be quite minor. For example, in the mystery I’m revising now I came up with an ejaculation for my main character. She says, lambs and calves! – and reveals her farm roots. I need her to use the expression once in a while, not so often that the reader gets irritated, and not so rarely that the reader forgets it.

Are my characters behaving as I’ve set them up to? If there’s a change in behavior, have I explained why? If your main character’s best friend angers easily, and we’ve seen her explode when she thinks a store clerk has an attitude, then we need an explanation if she lets a direct insult slide.

Can I see what’s going on? In a scene I worked on recently, my main character was on the castle battlements and needed to see down to the drawbridge, but I’d put her at the back of the castle, so I had to move her to the right spot.

Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too farfetched to believe? In my mystery, I want the reader to accept that my villain could have done the heinous deeds but not to see him/her coming.

Are my characters, especially my main character, reacting? If something sad or great or frightening happens, she should show she feels it, through thoughts and physical responses and whatever else is available. In an early draft of Ella Enchanted I neglected to show Ella’s grief when her mother dies. I figured the reader would know, as in, Duh! Of course she’s sad.

Is my main character likeable? (If you want him to be.) I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been having trouble with this. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency, if a disaster befalls another character, to have my main think of the consequences for herself before she reacts with empathy, if she ever gets to the empathy stage at all. I think I do this because the consequences for her are what will move the story forward, but, alas, she comes off as a selfish pig!

Is anyone getting lost in a scene? Suppose your main character’s family is having a meal together, breakfast, dinner, late-night snack, whatever. Say you have Dad, an aunt, an older brother, and baby sister in her high chair. Say the reader knows Dad is quiet because he’s preoccupied with something and the baby doesn’t have many words yet. Older brother, main character, and aunt are having a heated discussion about, say, the best way to apologize. Two pages go by without a peep out of Dad and the baby. The reader will forget they’re there and will get a little jolt if they pipe in. If you need them in the scene, make the reader aware of them occasionally. Have the baby drop her spoon. Have Dad get up for a tea refill.

In brief, a few more questions:

Am I overusing words, repeating sentence structures, starting five paragraphs in a row with I?

Is this scene going on too long?

Have I omitted something important?

Can I give a few characters speech mannerisms that will make them recognizable whenever they open their mouths?

This is not an exhaustive list. Think of your own questions as you take up revision.

I love to revise. It’s my favorite part of writing, because getting the story down is over, and now I’m just polishing. So don’t be hard on yourself. Congratulate yourself for the achievement of finishing and have fun.