Tangled!

For the word nerds among us, I was wondering if lightbulb/light bulb is one word or two: https://sfwriter.com/2009/02/how-many-dictionaries-does-it-take-to.html#:~:text=The%20American%20Heritage%20English%20Dictionary,one%20word%3A%20%22lightbulb.%22

On December 30, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Do you ever go to write, but find you can’t untangle the jumble in your head that is ideas and things you need to fix and character arcs and subplots and everything else? So then you either can’t write without getting lost and confused or you try to write and get overwhelmed and can’t go on too far because you can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen next?

An exchange followed with Melissa Mead.

Melissa Mead: Oh yes. In fact, I’m doing it now! I may have to backtrack.

Writing Ballerina: I suppose I should tack on to this: what do you do to get past it?

Melissa Mead: I wish I had a consistent solution. Mostly, I keep thinking about it and either writing around it or working on other things until things come together.

I wish I had a consistent solution too.

This is a hard question to answer, because once I get myself out of this kind of mess, a merciful amnesia falls over me, and I don’t remember how I solved it. Sadly, what I do recall is thinking repeatedly that I’d found my way, writing twenty-plus pages and then falling into a ditch.

Also, the medicine for one story may not cure another. Every project presents different challenges.

I’ve never abandoned a book, but twice I’ve written different tales than the one I set out to tell. The books were Stolen Magic and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. For both, I regret never being able to figure my original plots out because they interested me and I’d still like to discover what would have happened. In the end, though, I wrote the book I could write and let go of the one I couldn’t.

I remember with both books that I changed POV more than once. Two Princesses wound up in first person, and Stolen Magic switches among three third-person perspectives. Finding the POV helped, so that can be one strategy, to change POV and see the effect.

In Stolen Magic, I simplified and simplified to find my story. That can be another strategy. We can ask if we’ve taken too much on and complicated our plot with too many twists and turns and subplots. What can we strip away? What’s essential? Greed was at the heart of my original version, and I kept that.

We can ask ourselves lots of questions and answer them:

• What is the central problem of the story? If there is more than one, our lives will be easier if we decide which is paramount.

• Who is our MC?

• Is there more than one MC? How many? Too many? (Not that there’s a magic number. We’re asking this only because things aren’t going well.)

• Are the MCs’ goals related to each other (belong in the same story)?

• Is the time span as compressed as it can be? The plot will tighten if we can compress, and compressing may help us simplify.

• Is this world too complex? Do we have to juggle so many eggs that a few go splat?

We can make a timeline and ponder it. This may help us see what’s going on and what we need to do.

Same for chapters. We can summarize them. As I write, sometimes (often) I forget what went before. Being reminded keeps me on track.

I don’t believe that every character has to have an arc. If a character is beckoning to us, we can answer the call in another story.

Even in a late stage we can write the kind of outline I, mostly a pantser, write, a few paragraphs or a page, the broadest guide to the symphony that is our story, just the major movements.

As for things we need to fix, I think we should leave them unfixed if at all possible until we have a complete first draft, because the task will be easier then. We’ll know everything, and we’ll know what isn’t working and what is. What I do with this, is I note at the very top of my manuscript the things I want to keep in mind when I go through it later.

Let’s roll some fairytales together in these prompts:

• Your MC, a princess, is despised by her stepmother who owns a magic mirror, and she’s going to prick her finger and sleep for a hundred years. Write the story.

• Your MC loves the sultan’s daughter and is in danger from an evil magician posing as his uncle, and his sister is stuck in the castle of a Beast. Write the story.

• For extra credit, smush the two above prompts into one, combining “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Aladdin,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Turn it into a coherent story, I dare you!

Have fun, and save what your write!

Repainting the Big Picture

This is Raina’s second question after my appeal for questions, written on December 4, 2019: How do you approach fixing big-picture story issues that run throughout the entire book (characterization, worldbuilding, voice, theme, etc. Especially characterization) without rewriting the whole book? To use an analogy, I’ve always thought of plot issues like working on a Lego project (everything is connected, but each scene is more or less a discrete part, and many times fixing the issue is just a matter of rearranging the blocks or adding/subtracting/”remaking” new ones), small scale, line-edits like sanding/finishing a woodworking project (you get up close and fix little things one at a time with relative ease), and big-picture issues like a single (or multiple) wrong thread in a knitting project: one bad yarn runs through the entire thing, connected to everything else, and it’s embedded so deep that it’s impossible to pull out the yarn without unraveling the entire thing. Any tips?

A few of you responded.

Erica: I don’t know. I really hate editing my stories (no idea why), and so when I have big problems like that, I usually just start over.

NerdyNiña: No, but I love your analogies.

future_famous_author: Maybe just read it over one time fixing one specific mistake? If your story is really long, though, I’m not sure how you would go about that.

I, too, am a fan of Raina’s analogies. The knitting analogy is particularly great when it comes to characterization (I’m assuming this is a major character), because character and plot are, so to speak, woven together.

Sometimes the problem is that our character isn’t by nature someone who will follow the track of our plot. When a plot turn has to happen, he’s forced to do things he wouldn’t, often things that unpleasantly go against reader expectations.

Let’s take as an example Prince Charming from Cinderella. He’s our MC. Cinderella is important, but she’s on the sidelines. We need a character who is on board with the idea of three balls that are being held expressly to find him a wife. We want readers to like him. We want to like him ourselves, so we craft a prince who has opinions, friends, challenges, whatever they are–maybe the kingdom is badly governed or he doesn’t get along with the prime minister. When we get to the balls, halfway through our book, he just isn’t cut out to care about them, much less notice Cinderella, no matter how beautiful she is, no matter how interesting and perfect for him she is.

We may have to do a lot of writing to make this work, not only revising him but also our plot. What can we add or subtract from him to make him open to the wife marketplace that the balls really are?

Naturally, we can make a list!

∙ Charming has a warm, loving relationship with his parents, which we have to build. The balls are important to them, so, against his inclinations, he takes them seriously.

∙ We make the ball especially hard for him. He has a stutter, a twitch, a bunion–something physical (another list). He doesn’t care about the ball, but he’s unwilling to fail at anything. We revise to show this quality in our story up to now. We show what happens to him when he fails.

∙ He’s a wonderful friend. Think Darcy’s friendship with Bingley in P&P. We build loyalty into him. Charming’s best friend is making a fool of herself at the ball. He gets involved to save her from years of regret, and Cinderella enters the picture.

∙ More that you can make up.

The strategy here is to look at our plot as well as the one character who’s driving us crazy. We may have to revise both for our story to work.

Often there’s a moment when the character first reveals what he’s like and starts behaving in the way that doesn’t work for our story (though we don’t recognize it at the time). When we find that moment, we can adjust him and move forward from there. Of course, as soon as we change him in that spot, there will be ripple effects. The thing that Charming said that led his friend to an action, he won’t say, so the friend is likely to do something else. And Charming himself will be dancing off in an unfamiliar direction. At that point we look at the new trajectory of our story and see what will have to change and what we can hold onto.

Sometimes what we can hold onto isn’t much. Starting with Ella Enchanted, there have been books that have forced major rewrites on me for one reason or another. I wrote two hundred pages of Ella and had to go back to page twenty and start again from there. In that case I veered down a very long plot cul-de-sac. In Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right and rewrote it three or four times before I found my way. The Two Princesses of Bamarre was supposed to be “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and I had to discover an entirely new story. I still don’t know what I was originally trying to do with Stolen Magic, which I agonized over here on the blog.

On the other hand, some books have seemed to want to be written and have almost written themselves, like the first five of the six “Princess Tales,” and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Others have fallen in a mid range of difficulty.

Regarding other big-picture issues, if the plot is affected in a big way, the changes that we’ll have to make are likely to be big, too. I just finished Part One of my Trojan War fantasy. My MC in the first part is Cassandra, who, according to Greek mythology, is a priestess of the god Apollo, but I don’t know much about what it meant to be a priestess in ancient Greece, based only on short passages in two books on daily life during the period, so I sketched that part in very vaguely, and my writing buddy said that’s inadequate. Through another friend, I connected with an archaeologist who’s working in that region, and she recommended an almost three-hundred-page book on the subject, which I will tackle very soon.

Depending on its contents, I’ll face a dilemma. If reflecting actual history upends my plot, what should I do? I can design a fantasy priestesshood that conforms to my plot and let readers know that what they’re reading isn’t historically accurate, or I can do a lot of rewriting. I think it will depend on two criteria: what I decide will make a better story and what seems more interesting and fun to write (as in the have fun that I end each post with).

If the worldbuilding issue isn’t earthshaking, it will be more in the Lego category. We can search our document for whatever we have to redo, make the change and move on.

But voice and POV are also big-picture issues. They may not change our plot much, but they will change its presentation, the lens through which readers view events. For example, some plot points may rise in significance and others may sink. A significant rewrite will probably be called for.

Writing isn’t for lazy people. If we wanted cushy lives, we would have chosen to be astrophysicists.

Writing also (sigh) encourages humility. And learning. We learn to be better writers our whole lives. That’s a great thing.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m thinking of time-travel movies like Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future, when an MC gets transported to a different time. The MC is the same; some aspects of her world and some of the people in it are also the same, but a great deal is different. For this prompt, write a scene that takes place in ordinary 2020 during the sweet-sixteen party of your MC, Doneta. Introduce an element of conflict–a disagreement with a parent, an argument with a friend, a disappointment from a romantic interest, or something else–you decide. The next morning, she wakes up in a different world, and it’s again the day of her sweet-sixteen party. This world may be forty years in the past or future or may be on a planet that circles a bright blue sun. Some characters will be the same, some different. The party tradition will be slightly different–you decide how. Write the party scene in this new world and revise the conflict in some way. If you like, keep writing.

∙ Take the Prince Charming who doesn’t care a pin about the ball. Don’t change him to make him care. Write the first ball and what follows. Introduce Cinderella and her stepfamily. Cinderella is still pretty and a decent person; the stepmother and stepsisters are still horrible, each in her own way. Your story doesn’t have to follow the fairy tale, but it can wind up there if you want it to. Keep writing, and keep Charming center stage.

∙ Choose one of your stories that you’re happy with and deliberately fool with it–but first save the original. Change the personality of your MC or a major character. Rewrite at least the first five pages. If you like what’s going on, continue. At the end, you may have two distinct stories or two variants that you can choose between.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Rewrite

On December 30, 2018, Kyryiann wrote, So, editing. This last November I finished a first draft for the first time. Any tips on the whole editing process?

A few of you had suggestions.

The NEWLY REPRESENTED Melissa Mead: I usually let it sit for a bit, so I can re-read with fresh eyes to spot errors and make sure that everything makes sense.

Christie V Powell: I like to make a list of all of the scenes, describing them in just a few words, then organizing those descriptions into chapters. It helps me see at a glance what needs to be rearranged and what scenes I still need to write.

viola03 says: Congrats on finishing the first draft!

I’m like Melissa Mead in that I like to let it sit for a bit and re-read it with fresh eyes. My first drafts often turn out more like just the plot line and not a whole lot else, so I start with reading it over and adding some more detail, description, backstory, etc. In a draft that I spent a year editing (I know, yikes!), there was one scene that I just couldn’t get right. I tried it one way, let it sit, then tried it another way, let it sit, until I was happy with it. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to get a scene right :).

Once you’re happy with your edits, let your friends and family read the draft and ask for constructive criticism.

Yes! Congratulations, Kyryiann! You’ve done what for me is the hardest part!

Last night I sat in on a webinar on revision conducted by children’s book expert and free-lance editor Harold Underdown, along with his business partner, Eileen Robinson, another kid lit publishing pro. You can link to their revision workshops and revision info here: http://www.kidsbookrevisions.com/. Harold, whom I count as a friend, is the person behind the informative website, The Purple Crayon http://www.underdown.org/, which I encourage you to visit and noodle around in if you’re interested in writing for children. The book that Harold and Eileen had chosen to illustrate their revision process was my historical novel, Dave at Night. I was honored!

(Many years ago, before I was published, I submitted my picture book manuscript called “Dave at Night” to Harold. He was one of the few editors at the time who took interest in my work and gave me thoughtful feedback. He asked me to expand the story into a chapter book, which I did, and which he rejected–but in the revision I discovered that I’m a novelist, that the longer form suits me. Before then, I had been afraid to try a novel, and I’m forever grateful. Several years and many revisions later, the book was published with a different editor.)

This is a long way to get to telling you that the process the webinar described is called a revision grid, and it’s very much like what Christie V Powell does. Essentially, it’s a list of scenes along with description. The descriptions are organized into a few metrics, like thoughts, dialogue, setting, that characterize the scene. In the process of creating the grid, the writer sees what she’s accomplished and locates the spots that need work.

I agree with Melissa Mead that it’s useful to wait a while before diving into revision. Distance gives us the perspective to see our work fresh. Depending on our natures, we can be less hypercritical–or we can see that not everything is perfect.

If you feel that the draft is dreadful–no worries! First drafts are supposed to be a mess. You’ve done it right.

Here are some of the major things to look at in going through your draft:

• In places, our story feels rushed. In these spots it may be hard to know how the character got from one setting to the next, one feeling to the next, one time to the next, or how relationships, attitudes, or feelings have shifted. In those places, we have to expand to show our story’s evolution. We may need to add scenes and reveal more, remembering to include our MC’s thoughts and feelings, as well as who-said-what and why and where. This expansion and seeming slow-down is likely to have the paradoxical effect of making our story appear to speed up, because, for the reader, being on the ground where events are happening is thrilling.

• We’re bored when we’re reading our manuscript. The problem here may also be that we have to add more showing. We may be narrating too much. Or it may be that we’ve been protecting our MC and we have to inflict the worst, or almost the worst, on her.

• Our setting may not be fully fleshed out. The reader may have trouble envisioning it. I know some of you draw maps for your stories. In this case, you might like to draw the setting. Or you can draw it in words in your notes, and then think about how your characters would experience and navigate the space and what they would react to in it, keeping in mind what you want to make the reader aware of.

• Are your characters consistent? Are we making them do things for plot reasons that they wouldn’t do? In revision, we can think about how to move our plot along without forcing our characters to go against their natures. Or we can rewrite our characters so they’ll naturally do what we need them to. Or, we can have them change, making sure the reader is looped into all the steps in the change.

• Here’s one I’ve been guilty of more than once: making my MC, whom I want the reader to adore, unlikable. For me, when I’ve done this, I’ve made her a tad self-centered and clueless about the people around her. I hasten to add that you may not want the reader to love your MC, or you may want him to come to love her gradually as she evolves. In this case, you just want to be sure you’re achieving the effect you’re after.

• And another I keep running into: pacing. Mine is often too slow, especially at the beginning. My solution is to trim, or, more accurately, hack. Every sentence is a candidate for the chopping block. I don’t think I’ve ever revised a novel without cutting more than 100 pages. As I’ve said before here, I don’t just send them to oblivion–I copy them to my Extras document in case they turn out to be essential after all. And this comforts me. They still exist. And my remaining pages move faster. Besides, I believe in concision. Wordiness is my enemy.

While I’m writing my first draft I always become aware of problem areas that I don’t want to go back to fix right then, because it’s generally best, if we can, to soldier on to the end. When I sense an issue, I go to the top of my manuscript–you can do this in a separate document, if you prefer–and make a note. Here’s one from my forthcoming book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain: Handling slaves. Is there anything apologist about it? Should I make Hamdun be a servant and skip all that?

(Ultimately, I decided to keep the slavery, because it was common then, and I wanted readers to know that, at the time, most slaves in Europe were Muslims from North Africa, and most slaves in North Africa were Christians from southern Europe, both taken by conquest. The sub-Saharan slave trade was in its infancy in the fifteenth century.)

Anyway, when I finish my first draft, I consult my top-of-the-manuscript notes. As I clear them up, I delete them.

I’m an inveterate fiddler, so I repair my sentences and paragraphs at every stage, even in first drafts, when it’s a foolish time-waster–because the sentences and paragraphs are likely to be cut. I vary sentence length and sentence and paragraph beginnings. I’m even, a product of my poetry training, sensitive to the sound of my prose and its meter. Sometimes I add or delete alliteration and assonance. When I want extra punch, I may bring on the iambs, da DUM, da DUM, because ending a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter on a stressed syllable packs a wallop.

As we go through successive revisions, when our drafts are more polished–and certainly before submission–we make sure all is clear, because clarity is the writer’s deity. We have to say exactly what we mean. (By the way, that last sentence is in iambs. We HAVE to SAY exACTly WHAT we MEAN.)

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your main character is in a twelve-step program and is attempting to make amends to the people he’s hurt. Some take this well, but others not so much. Pick one of the not-so-much characters and write a story about the relationship and how it develops in this real-life revision.

∙ The fairy Lucinda has decided to reform herself. She is visiting the (still-living) victims of her gifts and attempting to repair the damage her gifts created, but, in her bumptious fashion, she brings on hosts of unintended consequences. You can pick gifts from my books or make up fresh ones. Write a story about one or more of her attempts to repair the past.

∙ Pick a paragraph or a page from a finished draft or a WIP and rewrite it five ways.

∙ Pick a chapter from a finished draft and trim it as much as you can. Do this in more than one pass. Trim. Walk away. Wait an hour. Go back and trim again. Pay special attention to your adjectives and adverbs. Do you really need this one or that? Sometimes I discover that I’ve written two sentences in a row that say the same thing. One can go. When you’re finished and have waited at least another hour, read the skinny chapter. What do you think? Better or worse?

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Red Pencil

On May 26, 2018, Bethany Meyer wrote, What is the best editing process? What steps do you do in what order from beginning to end in the process?

Also, how does one rewrite a part of the story without feeling like you’re not changing anything/the story has gone flat/wanting to pull your hair out?

Christie V Powell wrote back, After I finish the rough draft, I’ll put it aside for a month or two. Then I’ll read it over and make a list of all the scenes. I reorder them into chapters and figure out what scenes are still missing–for my current WIP, I’m using KM Weiland’s story structure to get the big picture–character arcs, theme, and plot–in the right places. Then I go through and get the manuscript to match the new outline. After that I’ll get feedback from beta readers, and go through it several more times, checking for character, dialogue, prose, grammar mistakes, etc. Then I’ll order a physical copy from staples and go over that to see what I missed.

I definitely do feel that I am changing things–but in a good way. The rough draft helped me to discover the themes and overall feel of the story, and then my editing will help me bring to light what I’ve discovered. For instance, I was half-way through the rough draft when I realized that the relationship between two specific characters was going to be a major focus. In editing, I went back and changed the order and added scenes so that this relationship is a bigger part of the story. I figured out that one of the themes is the dangers of extremism verses the importance of communication, so I worked in two different antagonists, each representing opposite extremes.

Wow! Christie V Powell is organized! That sounds like a great approach to revision.

Just saying, Bethany Meyer, my hair is thin to begin with, and I feel lucky to have any left!

But I’m less likely to tear mine out in revision, my favorite part of the process, than in writing my first draft, my least favorite part.

It may be helpful for everyone to think about revision as I do: the hardest work is over; I have an entire story–beginning, middle, and end; all I have to do now is make it better.

I’m such a slow writer that when I finish the first draft of a novel, I’ve pretty much forgotten the beginning, so I have to wait only a few days before I can dive back in. But I agree with Christie V Powell that at least some time has to go by. We need that time to be able to see what’s going on in an objective way, not to feel defensive about every word and every scene that we labored to produce.

The feeling that the story has gone flat may come from not waiting long enough before going back into it. Immediately after finishing we are at our most vulnerable to a doubt attack.

Every writer works differently, and I’m not as organized as Christie V Powell, so I just jump back in, and I tend to do everything at once as I go through: character development, dialogue, setting, grammar, word choice, pacing. For me: pacing, pacing, pacing.

As I’m writing my first draft, I’m often aware of aspects that aren’t working well that I will need to address in revision, so I make a note at the very top of my manuscript. For example, in my WIP, the relationship between my MC and her grandfather is super important, but I don’t think I’ve revealed it enough, and I haven’t developed the grandfather’s personality fully. So I have a note about that at the top of page 1.

Or, to take another example, at the beginning of the WIP, I made my MC a math genius. As I kept writing, I had to conclude that my own grasp of math wasn’t good enough for me to represent hers, and I confess I’m not eager to educate myself sufficiently to keep up with her (along with all the research on fifteenth century Spain). So, there’s another note at the top to tone down the math. I’m worried, though, that I may find that I can’t do without it. If that’s the case, I’ll hit the books.

Some of my notes are about tiny things that will take only a few moments. At one point I need my MC to be wearing, as usual, a lot of jewelry, but I haven’t shown her wearing jewelry at all. I have to drop a mention or two–there’s a note about that.

Also, I note at the top of the manuscripts words I suspect myself of overusing.

So on the happy day, soon after the even happier day when I typed The End, I dive back in. As I go along, I look back occasionally at my list at the top to refresh my memory and make sure I’m catching everything.

But the first thing I do is save my first draft and rename the revision. That way, if I mess up the revision, I still have the original to go back to. This gives me the confidence to move forward. Every time I start a new round of revision, I do the same.

And other things may crop up as well. If they do, I’ll add them to my list at the top, to pick up as I continue, or to fix in my second revision. I’ll also delete notes as I make the repairs.

A first revision is never enough for me. I go through the manuscript one or two or three more times before I send it to my editor, and then, naturally, I revise again and again based on her feedback.

For me it’s a process of both amplifying and cutting. I often find that I’ve glossed over moments that need more, so I go deeper.

In other places, I’ve nattered on endlessly, and then the (virtual) scissors come out. I cut a lot! Always. Usually over a hundred pages, taken in snips from here and there. Sometimes it hurts, and that’s where my Extras document comes in. When I cut something, I copy it into Extras. I know I’ve saved my original draft, but what I’ve just cut may not be in that draft, and anyway I may find it more easily in Extras if I need it, which sometimes (rarely) I do.

I pay a lot of attention in every draft to the minutiae of grammar, sentence structure, word repetition, word choice. Every sentence in a paragraph shouldn’t start with the same word. A string of paragraphs also shouldn’t start with the same word. Sentence after sentence shouldn’t be two clauses connected by and or but. I need to vary my verbs. And so on. Even though this may not seem as important as plot and character, the minutiae determine the kind of read we provide the reader, and we want it to be smooth.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC gets do-overs. When she makes mistakes she can travel back in time and fix them. What could go wrong? Make the fixes go south, causing more fixes in a downward cycle. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Jacob Grimm writes the stories and Wilhelm revises them (I’m making this up). But, when it come to “Snow White,” Jacob feels that Wilhelm has murdered his creation. Write the story of their struggle and the way the fairy tale evolves.

∙ Your MC is the daughter in a family that has carried on a feud with another family for six generations. She wants the feud to end and takes on the job of mediator. No one cooperates. Write the story of her efforts to make peace. You decide if she succeeds or fails.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!