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!

  1. Thank you for the mention! What a nice surprise.

    I love “The End justifies the mistakes left behind.” I think I need a giant poster of that. 😉

    I realized a week or so ago that in the novel I’ve been working on for months, which has two protagonists, the female one is not actually a protagonist. She has no agency (she reacts to everything happening but doesn’t assert herself), unlike her male counterpart. I was debating whether to go back and do a significant edit (maybe a partial rewrite), but I think I’ll take your advice and keep going. I’ll fix the first half later!

  2. Thank you for the good advice!

    I’ve been making files of old versions of scenes and whatnot that I cut, in case they’re what’s causing the roadblock. It kinda backfired on me this week, though, because I went looking for the file with all the names and locations of the members of the ruling Tribunal. Instead, I found a REALLY old version of Book 1, and got sucked into reading it and muttering “Why did I cut this?”

    Sigh. 🙂

  3. I love thinking through different ways to handle revisions. In my most recent completed story, I kept a separate document full of revision notes. When I decided to change tacks, I’d make a note of where in the story I made this decision, reminding myself to go back and incorporate the change into the earlier pages. For example, about a hundred pages in, I decided I wanted to make my MC’s friendship with another character far more advanced than it was at that point. I made a note to develop that early in the next draft, then carried on from that point as if they were the best of friends with an existing history. Not my favorite way to grow a relationship, but it worked out! I love the freedom that charging ahead (but remaining organized in my notes) gives me.
    Awesome topic and ideas, and thank you for the great prompts! I need to get my imagination up and running before NaNoWriMo. 🙂

  4. I related so much to Char’s imaginary conversation. The whole thought process where the Ayorthan decides what to say… that is me. I figured that Char had a different perspective of the court than an insider.

  5. Zoe/TheSixthHobbit says:

    Hi guys,

    In my WIP, my MC is currently trying to pick a husband out of a group of suitors, with really high stakes. I wanted to add more tension, so I’m having her also deal with some of her siblings’ problems as well, some of which are central to the plot and some are not, but they’re all super important to the characters. I’m starting to worry too much is going on. How much subplot is too much? How much tension do you need to keep the story interesting enough? Any advice would be appreciated 🙂

    • If picking a husband is a “high stakes” problem, you actually might not want to distract from it by adding outside problems. You could bleed the tension away. It might be more effective to focus on getting maximum tension out of the husband-hunting. What are those stakes? Could they be even higher?

    • This was a fun article: https://killzoneblog.com/2010/05/how-many-subplots-is-too-many.html
      My NaNo novel I’m planning for has five: one for each of the three point of view characters, one for two minor characters, and the overarching one that connects them. That’s adult fantasy, and I’m aiming for 100k words eventually. So I guess I’m lining up with the maximum in this article.

      It seems like this is just for big subplots, though. I like the tiny ones that are really well hidden. Like in Harry Potter 5, Hermione suggests that Harry use a certain medicine. Several chapters later, he suggests it to a friend. Several chapters later, the tricksters mention that they heard about it from that friend and used it in their invention. It doesn’t detract from the other plots; in fact, you often only catch it on rereadings.

      Tension, I think, depends entirely on how stressed the character is (which plays into how worried the reader is). If the world is about to end, and your main character isn’t really worried about it, no tension. If the kindergartner doesn’t get to sit by her best friend and acts like the world is about to end, there’s plenty of tension. If your character is picking like Kusco in Emporer’s New Groove, no tension (“All righty, bring out the ladies. Let’s see… yikes, yikes, yikes, and let me guess, you have a great personality. Is this all you could find?”). But if this character really cares, and has lots of reasons for caring: impact on the fate of her family/kingdom, fear if she’s seen unhappy couples, desire if she’s seen happy ones, etc. then there’s plenty of tension.

    • As much detail as possible! Little stories/ scenarios/ problems/ details that help develop/ clarify your MC’s character/ situation will make your book positively BLEED with invigorating interest!

  6. I just read The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre and I love it! My sister read it just before I did, and loved it too. She said sometimes she likes an author’s first books but is disappointed later. But not with yours! She said The Lost Kingdom is every bit as good as Ella Enchanted. I agree!

  7. In my WIP, adult fantasy, I have three point of view characters: two adults, and then a 15-year-old whose sections are all from her journal entries. I am having a lot of fun pulling from the style of my teenage journals, but I’m a little worried. Journals are almost all telling, and it might not appeal to adults. I’m keeping them short. I enjoy adding a different perspective than the other two characters, and I also like that I can use the voice to introduce every single person of her large family with “her brother” or whoever it is. Anyway, any advice?

    For example, here’s her first journal entry:
    Hello! My name is Norma Filara. My dad just bought some new land, and when he was at the office he got this little notebook for me, and now I can keep a journal again! My last one got left behind when we moved. Actually, all our stuff got left behind when we moved. I guess I have to explain about that. My little brother Hamal was learning how to dream-jump, and he accidently jumped into some soldier guy’s house. We don’t know every thing that happened, but… he’s not alive. I don’t want to talk about that. It was freezing cold and we had to leave our house and everything, and Mom and little Orion got pneumonia, and… I don’t want to talk about that either.
    Let’s move forward. We just came to a new city, called Grayton. My dad got a great offer on some land that no one else wanted. It’s perfectly good land too. He and my biggest brothers Altair and Leo are super busy now building buildings and digging wells. I’m supposed to be busy too. We all are, but Altair’s wife Ann is too busy watching the little ones so sometimes we middle ones get overlooked. I don’t mind. I would rather explore, and she can’t stop me!

    • Ooo, sounds intriguing!
      I guess the style of writing (whether it is more telling, or more descriptive), would depend on the character of your fifteen year old, and what kind of a mood she’s in. Why is she writing? Is it just to remember a few facts, or capture a memory? Does she actually enjoy writing? (that would probably result in a more descriptive style). I like her style of writing (reminds me of Anne Frank), but it almost feels like she could become more descriptive as she continues adding entries, and slowly becomes more ‘accustomed’ to this journal.

  8. I want to say that I so wish I could have made it to your workshop when you were in MI! I’d have loved to meet you…hopefully someday. 🙂
    I have a question about genre, or age category, I suppose. I’ve been querying a YA manuscript, and I just received some feedback from an agent that confuses me a bit. The very flattering part of her feedback was that she said my writing reminded me of yours, Gail; she then said she thought maybe I should be writing literary middle grade. However, the age group I naturally tend to write about, and for, is mid to upper teen, although the content is mostly clean and appropriate for younger readers. I don’t see my manuscripts as being easily adaptable to middle grade, but maybe I don’t fully understand the differences between YA and MG. I, personally, loved reading your books as a teenager, and now write to satisfy readers like myself at that age. Is there a clear line of definition between the two, and do you have any advice about to how to handle feedback like this without drastically altering my work in pursuit of publication?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I always think I’m writing (in my novels) for older readers than my editor tells me I am. In OGRE ENCHANTED–out next year–my MC is fifteen at the beginning and sixteen at the end and yet I’m told it’s middle grade. You may be able to call your work middle grade, if you don’t mind, without changing anything.

      So I may have influenced your writing a little? Cool!

      • I’m happy for it to be called middle grade if it fits! I think it’s just hard for me to tell at this point, so probably some more research into that category is in order. That’s interesting that your character can be 15 and 16 in a middle grade novel. That gives me some more clarity. Thanks!
        I definitely think you’ve influenced my writing and I’m so thankful!!

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