Tag Archives: revising

Time to Trust

All summer, I’ve been busy working on a book on plotting. As I’ve pondered, analyzed, and explained technique for this manuscript, I realized how easy it can be to over-think fiction. Sometimes, you simply have to back up . . . and let go.

Usually novice writers start out by falling in love with fiction. We absorb books like plants do water and sunshine. Then there comes a day when we decide we’ll write our own stories. Our imagination is teeming. We’re excited. We throw ourselves into our fledgling effort and either zoom to the end–yippee!–or we hit a stumbling block and stall out.

Wannabe writers who zoom along with no awareness of problems often become what I call scribblers. They write effortlessly and heedlessly, oblivious to their mistakes, and happily create drivel in the certainty they’re producing terrific stuff. With such hobbyists, I wish them well but hope they never seek publication.

Other beginners, however, realize quickly that there’s an entire universe of things they don’t know. They falter and stop, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they need to learn.

Of this second group, some pull themselves together and seek training or continue to hunt and peck their way through exploration and discovery. The rest declare writing to be too hard and drop out.

Those who keep trying by joining writers groups, taking writing classes, networking, seeking mentors, and devouring books on writing while generating story after story will improve. Their hard work will pay off, eventually.

But sometimes the determination to learn so much and to overcome difficulties can lead to over-thinking. The placement of every comma; the heroine’s dialogue rewritten and read aloud and rewritten, rewritten, polished, tightened, rewritten and rewritten; the worry over how a subplot is going; the concern that several scenes aren’t quite right, etc. can all lead to a hyper-critical state that becomes counterproductive.

You can become so conscious, so aware, of the process that you make the mistake of trying to control it. And that’s not what pros do. Instead, they trust.

Learning and mastering technique is important because it helps you navigate the challenges of awkward plots and difficult characters. Knowing what you’re doing gives you confidence. Best of all, as Ray Bradbury pointed out, once you’ve mastered technique you don’t have to consciously think about it anymore and you can then concentrate on your story.

Therefore, relax. Accept that the process will always get you there. Learn to trust it and let go, the way when swimming you trust the buoyancy of water so you can float. Allow your story to unfold without agonizing over every word. Write the rough draft from a spirit of fun. Believe in your idea. Follow through with it and stick with what you’ve planned, but allow for little quirks and the extras that are going to occur to you when you’re in the flow.

The actual creation of rough draft should not be censored, criticized, second-guessed, or analyzed as you go. That’s too restrictive, and it will hinder you so much that you may develop writer’s block. You should never attempt to edit yourself while you’re creating. As I’ve said many times, the editing function and the creative function operate in separate brain hemispheres, and the human brain is not designed to utilize both hemispheres simultaneously. Work on one function at a time.

When an idea comes to you, embrace it and indulge it at first. Then analyze and test it. Send it back to the idea-maker and create anew. Then analyze and examine it as much as you need to until you have a solid outline. That’s what you trust–all the upfront work to check plausibility, check feasibility, check plot holes, fix plot holes, think and tweak, etc., until you have a solid plan. Then close your doubts and uncertainty, and just write.

Write with all your heart–not your mind. Write fast. Write passionately. Write until you barely know who you are when you leave the keyboard. Live with your characters. Be your characters. And wear their skin through every scene as it unfolds. Don’t look at them from some remote and safe vantage point. Stand in the dusty crossroads as war refugees trudge along. Smell the dust and fear. Listen to the rumble of trucks and the distant pounding of artillery too far away to see. Feel the beating of your heart. Clutch that silly candlestick that belonged to Aunt Ziva, the one that’s stood on the mantel as long as you can remember. It’s now a symbol of home, all you have left. Hang onto it. Don’t drop it because if you do, you’ll somehow lose connection with the past, with family, with memories of when life was happy, and with any hope that life one day will be good again.

When you’ve finished the rough draft, you can once more put on your editor’s hat. You can think, criticize, revise, and pick at it until it’s tight, clear, and riveting. Just remember that when you revise, be honest. Did you come close to what you planned initially? Or did you fall seriously short?

If you made technical mistakes or lost your way through part of the manuscript, trust the process you’ve learned and fix the errors. Then step back, say “good enough,” and let the story live. Don’t kill it by polishing the zest and breath from it.

Plan. Trust. Write. Fix. Believe. Submit.

It’s never easy. But it really is that simple.

 

 

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Making the Cut

Are you a lean writer, never wasting words, able to bring your rough-draft manuscript in on length as precisely as a chopper pilot landing a Huey in the Vietnam jungle?

Or are you a florid, verbose writer, drunk on the wonder and shape and sound of words, seeking the most baroque imagery and the intense flavor of every metaphor you can find? Are you never able to meet assigned length? Do you, after the sublime joy of creation, have to butcher your manuscript to make it fit?

Perhaps you’re somewhere in between these extremes, the ordinary writer with good ideas that’s striving to convey them effectively via the written word.

However, we all come to a point where we’re required to cut our manuscript. My first novel sale, by the way, was contingent on my cutting the manuscript in half.

So … How is it done? How should it be done?

(No, shortening your story by deleting the second space after each sentence period is NOT how you do it.)

You begin by determining the following:

Do you need to make limited cuts or major cuts?

Limited cuts:

Sometimes known in the business as tightening, limited cutting involves combing the manuscript for what’s least important. Passages of description should be shortened. Rambling sentences should be trimmed or cut. Unimportant dialogue that’s not advancing the story should go. Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs likewise. Ask yourself what you would delete if you were paying by the word for publication.

Tightening should eliminate 300-500 words from a short story and maybe 1,000-2,000 words from a long novel. Consider it a painless tidying process.

Major cuts:

This can be both painful and challenging. You should again start with passages of description and explanation. Shorten them as much as possible. You should delete scenes that aren’t advancing the story. The least important character(s) should be removed from the plot. The least important subplot should be removed. Any book chapter that’s simply self-indulgent or a set-piece needs to go.

Always begin with the most conservative cuts and don’t remove parts of story unless length requirements force you to. Understand that the fabric of your story has been torn and will need to be rewoven. That means rewriting some scenes and transitions to smooth things out.

It’s important to keep your chin up during a major cut. You may feel like you’re tearing out your heart. You may feel resentful of having to remove a chapter that took weeks to research. Get over it. Remember that you should preserve the emotions of your characters and jettison the facts that you’ve dug up. Fiction is about your character’s heart, after all.

However agonizing the revision process may be, maintain your perspective. In a few months, no one but you will ever know what’s missing from your story. Meanwhile, you have a publication! Be proud of it.

If you absolutely love what you’ve had to remove, then save it for a different story.

Good luck.

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Getting the Job Done

I’ll begin by apologizing for my recent erratic schedule of posts. I have no excuse, but I do have a reason.

Book edits.

This particular project is taking longer than I anticipated. Probably because mentally I’ve moved ahead to my next book. I’m building a new story world and sorting through potential plot events. Characters are standing by, auditioning for parts and wondering if they’re going to be hired. It’s all very exciting.

The edit, however, pulls me back to a fictional world I no longer inhabit regularly. It’s like being on a tour (See 10 countries in 8 days!) and waking up on the bus to learn you’ve slept through Antwerp. It’s hard to go back when, emotionally, I’ve moved on.

If you think of a story as fabric, then the plotlines and characters are the warp and the weft. Revising any section requires cutting a hole in that mesh and then trying to reweave it so that the mended patch isn’t detectable.

It takes a lot of thought. A lot of mental reconstruction. Much pondering of questions such as, What did I intend her motivation to be in this scene? Why is she doing this? What if I have her do that instead? What will the consequences be if I move the sword from X to Y, and have I traced down all those later references in the story to keep the consistency intact? What color are the troll’s eyes? Was that only mentioned in Book #2?

When you’re wrapping up the conclusion to a trilogy, these questions become ever more convoluted. So you debate with yourself. You emotionally sift through the options, trying to keep them narrow because time is short and you need to finish. You resist the temptation to invent a new character and completely rewrite chapters 9 through 12, and you constantly doubt and question yourself on every decision you make.

I have writer friends who love the revision process. They scramble hastily through their rough drafts, eager to start rewrites and editing.

Conversely, I live for the rough draft, the raw, quick creation of story unfolding from my fingertips. Can I capture it all as I envision it? Can I type fast enough to keep up with the dialogue flowing through my mind? This character wants to throw a plot twist into the story. Do I allow it? Maybe I’d better. Will it all come out the way I want?

It’s like a hunt for big game. You plan carefully ahead of time while being aware that your quarry is wild and likely to react unexpectedly. At the end of the safari, I feel as though I’ve captured the story. Or at least enough of it.

Triumph.

To me, edits are the least-exciting aspect of the writing process. However, I recognize that you really are in the occupation where you belong if you can love (or at least embrace) the drudgery that goes with it.

That’s paraphrasing an old adage. I know also that what’s drudgery for one author is the sublime element for another. Being a professional means doing what’s best for the story, even after the thrill of creation is long faded.

Meanwhile, I’d better get back to work ….

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Trouble … Trouble … Trouble: Writing Diagnostics III

If a story is a building, then conflict is the wiring.  You can have a house that’s not wired for electricity, but although it looks pretty and offers shelter from the elements, that’s it.  You can’t do much modern living inside it, can you?  Where are the lights?  Where are the receptacles for lamps, computers, televisions, and toasters?  How can you operate the kitchen stove?  There’s no air conditioning, no refrigerator, no security alarm, no automatic garage door opener.  Sure, we can live in the structure, but not comfortably or conveniently.

Think about the last time you experienced a power outage in your home.  How quiet it became.  Every faint hum, every sigh of forced heat or air, every subliminal buzz … silent.  The life of the structure was cut.

A story without conflict is just as dead.

Years ago, a student once asked me in frustration, “Do I have to have conflict in every scene?”

The answer is YES!  If you want life and movement and sparkle and verve, you’d better feature it.

However, in evaluating a story idea under development, you should think beyond mere scene conflicts or car chases.  Ask yourself whether there is any conflict inherent in the basic plot situation.

For example:  Say that you’re writing a story about a child and his pet goldfish.  The child loves the fish, and the fish swims around its bowl and begs for food.  Maybe the child’s younger sister is jealous and wants to call the pet hers.  Unable to share, they squabble.

Are we yawning yet?  Because of extremely low stakes, there’s no potential for conflict beyond the level of incidental bickering.  Oh, sure, I could maybe push the idea around and build it up and make something of it.  But unless I’m seeking to write specifically for a young child’s magazine, the exercise isn’t worth my time.

So in evaluating plot ideas, ask yourself what’s at stake?

Image courtesy of ioffer.com

Is it whether Bob can chill his bottle of expensive Chablis to the correct temperature before his dinner guests arrive?

Or is it whether Bob can save his wife from execution by the vampires that have invaded his McMansion?

Photo by Universal Pictures

The stakes correlate directly to the amount of trouble the protagonist is in.

Low stakes equal smaller trouble, leading to weak conflict and a story that will probably stall before the finish.

High stakes equal big trouble, leading to strong — possibly intense — conflict and a story that will escalate all the way to the climax.

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