The Unexpected Moment in Novel Writing

privetHedgeThe Privet Hedge of Writing Semi-Doom

Many times, when you’re writing or rewriting your novel, you’ll hit a brick wall. Well, maybe not a brick wall; more like a tall, thick privet hedge. You can’t seem to climb over it or dig under it and the sucker extends from horizon to horizon. It’s not exactly writer’s block, this condition. With writer’s block, you’re standing in front of that hedge and you’re certain there’s nothing on the other side and there’s never going to be (at least that’s the way I think of it, and it’s my blog, so there). This is more like writer’s blah. You’re pretty sure there’s something on the other side, but you have no idea what it is or how you’re going to get there.

A Real-Life Examplereallifelogo

Now that I’ve whiled away a little of your time with an analogy, let me give you a concrete example. (Yeah, yeah, I know… about time.) I’m currently in the process of planning my second novel, based on the assumption that I’m going to finish my first one before I shuffle off to the eternal Buffalo. (So I’m an optimist. Sue me.) I had a dandy start for the thing all drafted up in full prose, with shooting, blood, crazy characters and a briefcase full of shrunken heads. Unfortunately, upon doing further planning, I discovered that none of it worked, except that case of heads. Damned if I was going to let go of that. Trouble was, I didn’t know how to get the case into the hands of the hero, which was a problem, because I was pretty sure the whole plot revolved on that one circumstance.

I tried all my usual tricks. I stared at the ceiling. I wrote a few outlines. I did some free writing. I prayed. I cast the bones and threw the stones. I banged my forehead on the laptop.

All this availed me nothing.

Let-GoLet it Go (Not the Song, for Once)

Finally, I just walked away from it. After all, it’s novel number two and I’m just in the planning stages—there’s no hurry. A few days later, that beginning started nibbling at the corner of my brain again. I was doing something more or less mindless—driving, gardening, playing with a loaded handgun, something like that—and I decided to give that matter some play in the old brain, just on a casual basis.

And, boom! A new beginning presented itself. I don’t know if it’s the be-all, end-all new beginning, but it’s something to work with for the moment, at least. What a relief!

unexpectedMomentThe Unexpected Moment

It was an unexpected solution at an unexpected moment. I think it worked because:

  1. I had let the matter rest a while.
  2. When I thought about it again, I wasn’t trying so hard, I was just casual about it.

Maybe this is a sure-fire tool for me, maybe it’s not, but it worked once, so I’m going to try it again. Maybe it could work for you, too.

Keep writing and good luck reaching “The End.”

Rewriting Your Novel: Cutting the Fat to Improve the Story

movie extrasThe Coolest Cuts of All

The Extras

Not too long ago, my niece and nephew got roles as extras in The Hunger Games, a lot of which was shot in our city. Under normal circumstances, these two are as handsome a pair of humans as you could want, but the movie studio decided that their slender builds and pale complexions made them perfect for District 9. Put them in ragged clothes, smear some dirt on them and, voilà, half-starved, oppressed young coal-country yokels.

Family and friends were all a-quiver with excitement. Discussions of what scenes they might appear in and where they might be spotted ruled dinner tables across the land.

Then we found out that most of their scenes got cut. The land was filled with sighs of disappointment.

Man cutting down a treeCuts Most Cruel

So, why, oh why, were my relations deleted? While poor judgment on the part of the filmmakers remains a possibility, the real reason is probably that their scenes didn’t contribute enough to the film to make them worth keeping. After all, when you’ve got just two to three hours to tell a complex story, you’ve got to get pretty picky about what stays in and equally ruthless about what comes out, if not more so.

I’ve run across similar issues during the rewrite of novel #1. (Yeah, still working on it, and thinking of changing the title from “Thin Spots” to “The Neverending Story,” copyrights be damned. Anyway…) Some lovely bits have gone the way of the niece and nephew’s movie scenes, excised from the work to lie on the cutting-room floor.

girl with a chainsawThe Joy of Cutting

Alas and alackaday? Well, not really. With every scene I’ve cut, the novel has become a more sinewy thing, more lithe, not weighted down by a lot of literary belly fat.

It’s not so hard to tell when a scene can go. All you have to do is ask yourself if it’s moving the story forward. Is new information conveyed? Does a character change? If you took the thing out, would anybody know the difference or detect a hole in the story? If not, out it goes.

This rule applies even to scenes you really love. (Also to characters, sub-plots, everything.)

I have a scene I really like, where damned souls are playing baseball, the ball itself is the former dictator of a small island nation and a soul who can’t hit gets hung from a lamp post by the loin cloth. It’s so much fun! I loved writing it. But it doesn’t do a blessed thing to further the plot, so… yank.

I do save these cuttings. Some of them may make their way into future novels, but they won’t be in this one.

Go thou and do likewise.

Tools for Novel Writers: The Editing Checklist

guy marking off a checklistEditing Your Novel with a Checklist

A rare and wonderful thing happened to me the other night. I was at my writers’ group meeting, getting a critique of my rewrite’s first 30 pages. Everybody said it worked—and believe me, they would say if it didn’t, bless them—and, best of all, one person called the submission “flawless.”

Let’s just take that in for a minute…

Flawless.

Ahhh…

The Checklist Works

Okay, time to snap out of it. Praise great, but I always keep in mind it’s important to keep it in perspective and continue to be your own strictest judge of your work (inasmuch as you can do that without making yourself crazy). Still, it seems that in this case I did something right. This being a relatively rare occurrence, I thought I’d step back and try to figure out what it was, this thing of rightness.

After some consideration, I came up with this: After researching best practices, I came up with a rewriting checklist and started using it to grind through my first draft.

The best practices come from a variety of sources: My sainted wife, my writing group buddies and books like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne, The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel, by James Thayer and others.

My personal list is set up in Microsoft Project, because it’s great for tracking a sequence of tasks. I got a sweet price deal on it (thanks, day job!) and know how to use it (thanks again, day job!), so that works for me. For most people, a spreadsheet or a plain old word processor list would probably serve just as well. You could even go old-school and use some kind of paper setup.

The main thing is to have a list, regardless of how it’s physically constructed. I’m going to share mine, leaving out most of the the checkpoints specific to my particular story, except for examples.

To use the  checklist, I edit one section/scene at a time, grinding through one task at a time until I’m ready to move on to the next. It’s not as much fun as writing the first draft, but it’s not as bad as it sounds, either. And yes, I am so retentive my checklist has sections. Don’t hate me because I’m over-organized; hate me because I’m beautiful.

Section 1: Make beat sheet changes.

This section doesn’t have any sub-headings. As part of the rewrite, I revised my beat sheet so the story elements are cleaner and hang together better. The first thing I want to do is make those changes.

Section 2: Writing checks.

This is the big kahuna. If I can fix these, I can be pretty sure that my prose isn’t garbage. It might be a day away from going sour, yes, but garbage, no. The checkpoints are:

Show/Tell: Is there anywhere I’m telling instead of showing, at least too much?

Watch for info dumps: Am I laying information on the reader and not trusting her to figure stuff out from context?

Minimize interior monologue. First-person italics best, but still minimize. In my novel, the lead character is alone a lot, so I use italicized interior monologue to show his thoughts. It’s easy to go overboard with that, so I try to pare it back.

Beats (bits of business) – balanced use: A beat, or bit of business, is something a character does during conversation or when you want to remind the reader that they’re there when perhaps they are just standing to one side. This is stuff like scratching, or unwrapping a stick of gum, or engaging in a nervous tic. Too much of this makes dialogue too busy, too little makes it drab and unrealistic, so you have to find a balance. Have fun.

Watch overuse of metaphor and simile. I love metaphor and simile like I love beer and chocolate! They are the shoals upon which the raft of my craft often runs aground… because I use them too damned much. Here is where I cut and weep, cut and weep.

POV clearly of the character, consistent, focused. Make sure the point of view is consistent and that it belongs to the character it’s supposed to. It’s easier that you think to whaz this up.

Section 3: Character checks

This section is mostly specific to the needs of my novel, but there are couple of ideas more than one person could find useful.

Characters arcs (especially lead): I got a big clue from my writer’s group that, in the first draft, the lead character hadn’t changed much by the end of the novel. So now, in every scene, I check to see how, or if, the POV character is developing at all, even a little bit. I pay special attention when the POV character is the lead. If there’s no character development at all, I have to ask if the scene needs revision or even if it needs to take the USS Scissors to Cuttingroomflooristan. Just last week I zapped an entire section because, despite its cool action sequences, it didn’t do squat to advance the characters… or the story.

Character-specific checks: This is a list to remind me to work on certain aspects of characters when they appear. For example, one of mine is “Adrasteia and Colin: build the love story.” Since the love story is new for the rewrite, I need to keep a watchful eye on it. Yours could be anything you like, from “Remember Fred has a nervous tic” to “Zelda sometimes has three legs, but not always.”

Section 4: Scene checks

I use this section to look at scene structure.

Action scene; goal, conflict, setback: Does the scene meet these criteria? Is it supposed to be an action scene?

Reaction scene; reaction, dilemma, decision: Does the scene meet these criteria? Is it supposed to be a reaction scene?

If the scene doesn’t match one structure or the other, what is it? A big blob of wordy goo clogging up your story, or a hidden gem that needs cleaning and polish?

Is the POV character the one with the most to lose in the scene: Be sure the scene centers on the right person. Not long ago I struggled with a section for days before realizing it wasn’t working because the character I was using as the POV wasn’t the one with the most to lose. Once I fixed that, the section worked.

Section 5: Novel structure checks

Here I have a list of the generic names for the main points in the novel, like “plot point one.” My list conforms, more or less, to the dramatic structure laid out by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering. You can use whichever structure you want, say, just Acts 1, 2, and 3. Brooks works for me.

Section 6: Specific scene/story checks

This is another list of reminders, like “more foreshadowing of the revolution,” and “Library Angel – pick him up later.” These are things I want to develop in the revision or make sure I come back around to. Pretty straightforward stuff, methinks.

Section 7: Read aloud

No subheadings or lists here, just the one thing: “read aloud.” Reading your stuff out loud is, I believe the primo way of catching your goofs and improving your writing. Reading aloud slows you down, making it easier to catch the missing commas and whatnot. It also makes it very clear when your prose is a malodorous pile. If you do nothing else, do this!

That’s it! Yes, it’s long, yes, it’s tedious, yes, working your way through it for each section is a festival of rump pain, but it seems to be working, at least for me. I expected writing a novel to include a lot of just plain, slogging hard work and I was right.

Yeah, I know… For once I’m right and it turns out to be that.

It’s a long road we’re on, fellow part-time novelists. I hope this helps. Good luck.

Set the Rules for Your Fantasy World

Fantasy portrait with Egyptian statue and human figures - akashic record by new 1lluminati on flickr.comRules for your Fantasy World

I recognize that different techniques work for different people, but I find that, when it comes to fantasy-world-building, the answer-a-long-list-of-questions method doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it and it was an interesting exercise, but I prefer to let the world take shape as I move with the characters through the plot. But I’m starting to discover the limitations of my little process and to think that perhaps there are some things you should decide about your world in advance.

Like the rules. Some of them, anyway.

Let’s Talk About Me! …and my Mistakes

Let me talk about myself and my novel-in-progress for a minute. The body of the lead, Colin, is in a coma on Earth as we know it. Colin’s soul, meanwhile, is in Hell, by mistake, whereas it is supposed to be in Limbo. Here’s what happened to me.

In an early chapter, one of the characters explains the way a coma works: “Human being has terrible accident, human goes into coma, human soul goes to Limbo to wait for the body to live or die according to the grand design.”

Fine and dandy so far, but I ran into trouble when I started thinking about old Colin again. Colin’s mission requires him to return to his body under his own steam, not according to some plan. So his mission contradicts the previously stated rule.

Arg!

Writing my Way Out of Trouble

I have to write my way around this one way or another. What I think I’m going to do is re-tool a scene so Colin can declare he’s not going to leave his fate up to some plan, he’s going to do his damnedest to reunite with this body in hopes that will restore his life. That’s serendipitous, because it gives the mission an existential bite and adds a bit of uncertainty, since we don’t know what will happen if the soul jumps into the comatose body.

I lucked out. Things fell into place, but not before I had put in a couple of hours of frustrated noodling and a couple more sitting in a beach chair, staring at the clouds, thinking it through. Of course, I still have to see if my plan really works.

I wish I had set up the rules for how my world works before I started writing. I hope you’ll profit from my experience.

Part-Time Novelists, Beware Ambition!

Journey to Midway Island by Kris Krug on flickr.comJourney over Destination

Over the last two and a half years I’ve been working on my first novel, I’ve thought a lot about how to keep going. One thing that’s sustained me is the practice of writing for its own sake; that is, writing just because dreaming stuff up and writing it down is fun. I’ve saved myself a lot of anxiety that way, because I’m focused on enjoying the journey, not on reaching the destination. I know this works well because I recently screwed up and stopped doing it.

Oops… Ambition

I fell victim to ambition.

A couple of things led to my fall. The first was finishing my first draft. That was exciting and made me eager to push on to the second draft and from there to completion. I might have coped with that well enough on its own, but…

…the second thing happened about the same time.

It was actually a very happy event. A friend from my writing group, Susan Crawford, got a two-book deal with a major publisher on the strength of her debut novel, The Pocket Wife. (Susan is a beautiful writer, the book is suspenseful, cleverly plotted and full of fascinating characters. You should order a copy at once. No, make that two copies, so you can give one to a friend.)

Fantasy Frickin’ Island

Along with my happiness for my writing buddy came visions of literary glory and along with those the counter-productive fantasies. Wow! I could do that too! All I have to do is finish, show the manuscript to one agent at a writing convention and, bingo, my ship comes in! It’s going to be awesome, but I’ve got to hurry!

The calm I usually bring to my writing quickly evaporated, along with a good bit of the fun and creativity. I felt cramped and frustrated by the ability to do only so much in a day. I couldn’t enjoy the other parts of my life because the writing part had gotten distorted. Writer’s block began to set in as I tried to work quickly but achieve perfection at the same time.

At some point, as I was rewriting the same sentence for the fifth time in the same sitting, I woke up and realized something was wrong. It didn’t take long to figure it out. I had abandoned the journey for the destination, which was, and still is, a land far, far away.

So I took a deep breath, shut down my PC and spent the weekend thinking about anything else besides writing. I needed to achieve some detachment. When I returned to the blank page the following Monday, my head was clear enough so that I could see the problem. So I relaxed and just started following my plan at my own pace, rather than the pace of some fantasy editor. The fun and creativity came back. So did the quality.

Proper Proportions

There’s nothing wrong with ambition in and of itself. All of us who write novels have our share. We are ambitious for good writing, for finishing the work, for giving our stories to the world. It’s when ambition gets blown out of proportion that your writing can suffer.

So keep ambition in its place.

What to do When You Can’t Write Fiction

Sleepy novel writing man at computerUnable to Write

Times there will be, my fellow part-time novelist, when you’ll sit down at the keyboard, notepad, stone tablet or whatever and find yourself unable to write fiction. Maybe your muse is out drinking, or you’ve got writer’s block, or you didn’t get a wink of sleep the night before and your mind is about as nimble as a bowling ball.

A Ten-pointer

Your time is limited, so you don’t want to waste it. In hope of helping out, here’s my list of things to do when you’re unable to write.

1. Free write

Just sit there and let those stupid words come out. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, any of that stuff, unless it just happens on its own. At least you’ll keep the gears oiled and, who knows, you might turn out some free-form poetry.

2. Write badly

This is one of my favorites, as I do it so well. Move on to the item you have planned to write and let the suck-fest begin. Give yourself permission to stink and to make only half the progress you wanted to. The world will not come to an end and you’ll have something to go back and fix later.

3. Edit

Your mind may be a gelatinous sludge, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read. Take that manuscript and read it sentence by sentence, hunting down those misplaced commas and run-on sentences. Try reading sentences backwards – you’ll be surprised what you catch.

4. Plan

If your beat sheet is all done, take it out and look over it. Does it make as much sense as the last time you looked at it? You’re in poor shape, so don’t make any big changes. Just make notes and come back to them later.

5. Research

I like research because it makes me feel like I’m working on my novel without actually writing anything. That, and I get to surf the web looking for God knows what. The hard part here is getting distracted by social media and whatnot. Just don’t.

6. Dream up the next one

You might just need to step away from the novel you’re writing now. Fooling around with plans for your next book is a productive way to do that. Scribble ideas, play with an outline, sketch a character or two – you know the drill. It’s productive, it’s fun and it gives your aching brain a break.

7. Stare at the ceiling

It’s okay to stare at the wall, if you want, too. I don’t recommend the floor because that much looking down is bad for your posture. Just relax and let your mind amble through your story, all or part of it. Yes, you’ll find yourself thinking about how nice the walls would look if you painted them puce, but when that happens just bring yourself back to the story. You might be surprised at the things your subconscious shows you about the work.

8. Character and world definition

I have a hard time with these types of exercises, myself, but you might be a writer who thrives on filling out the questionnaires out there that help define characters and settings. If you are, this can be an excellent way to use your time. Even if your characters and setting are already defined, you can sharpen aspects of them or at least just get them recorded somewhere in an organized way.

9. Read about craft

There are plenty of good books on fiction-writing craft out there and a slew of good blogs, too. Give yourself the gift of some reading time and there’s a good chance you’ll improve your writing. Stephen Covey readers may recognize this as “sharpening the saw.”

10. Journal or blog

This is another great way to keep the writing machinery lubed up. I like to write about writing in this space, so occasionally I do that when I’m incapable of fiction. You can use a journal to record observations of real life to be used in your later work or whatever you like.

So, there you go, ten ways to get through those times when your dreamship turns into a scow. Good luck, and if you have any good ideas to share, let the other two readers know in a blog. Thanks!

The Charlie Horse Solution – Overcoming Fear While Rewriting Your Novel

Fear of Frying Your Novel represented by Bacon Bruzeln Slices Of Ham Sear Frying Pan Fat by Coding 4 Web on pixabayFear of Frying Your Novel

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been posting about rewriting a lot lately. And not just posting. I’ve been reading about it, talking about it, thinking about it… okay, obsessing about it.

I want very badly to do an excellent job on draft the second, so I’ve been planning a lot. I’ve re-swizzled my beat sheet and used my electronic note cards to clarify the details of individual story elements I want to bring out. And then I’ve done it again. And again. This has been going on for weeks.

The other day I woke up to the fact that I wasn’t doing anything except spinning my wheels. Why? I could give you lots of explanations, but there’s just one basic reason behind all of them:

Fear.

Here’s the deal: I have before me the first first draft of a novel I have ever written. It’s precious to me. It’s true I’ve written a lot in this space about writing fiction with a non-attached attitude, but I kind of forgot about that and latched onto my draft like a leech on an artery. My first draft isn’t that great, but it is finished, and I don’t want to break it. Never mind that, thanks to the wonders of personal computing, I can make a copy to revise so I don’t touch the original. If the situation had anything to do with logic, it wouldn’t be a situation.

Charlie Horse solution to novel rewriting problem represented by Boy on Rocking Horse property of the authorThe Charlie Horse Solution

Then, as I said, I woke up and saw that I was stuck. So, great, Now I was afraid of being stuck and afraid of editing my draft. Not a happy place, but, thanks be to St. Luke and the Muse (feel free to insert your own spirit guide here), I remembered the Charlie Horse Solution.

Which you’ve all heard of. No? Here’s the story for your edification.

When I was a teenager, after a long day of dodging saber-toothed tigers I would sometimes wake up with a Charlie horse—a cramp in my calf muscles that would bend my leg to that my calf was involuntarily lodged against the underside of my thigh. Most painful and unpleasant.

One should probably massage or soak or breathe deeply in such a pickle, but upon being awakened by intense pain at 3 a.m. I was not one for slow solutions. I would grab my calf in both hands, grit my teeth and straighten my leg. It hurt like flaming Hell’s bells, but just for a second, and afterward my leg would be all better.

I decided to take the same approach with my revision. I went right to the beat sheet, made a copy and moved a row (I use Excel) from point A to point B. It hurt! My nice little plan had a gouge in it. But the world did not come to an end. My novel did not disintegrate. I did not break out in boils. Encouraged by this absence of disaster, I moved another row, and another – still no signs of doom. Quite the opposite, in fact. I began to see how the rewrite could fit together. Before I knew it, I had discovered an approach to the novel’s beginning that I was finally happy with.

After some days of work, I had the B.S. (we should all call it that more often, don’t you think?) in good enough shape to start writing. That’s where I am now. The first time I tore out a paragraph that wasn’t working, my stomach was in a knot Alexander the Great and his sword would have had a hard time sorting out. But I yanked it and again, the sun stayed in the sky. I added new material and still the other stars stayed in their accustomed courses. Rain still fell down, not up. Ducks still went quack.

Recovering momentum in novel rewriting represented by Rubicon,-to-ford-the-river- by Simon Kozhin on commons.wikimedia.orgCrossing Over

At this point, I crossed a sort of literary Rubicon and do you know what was on the other side?

Fun!

And, yes, some of that non-attachment I’ve been telling you guys is so important. I was really glad to see it again. Most importantly, I found momentum on the other side, the forward energy of the story and the joy of creating it for its own sake.

So that’s the Charlie Horse solution:

  1. Recognize you’re afraid.
  2. Make a fresh copy of your beat sheet, manuscript, whatever you’re using.
  3. Don’t hesitate: change something, anything in the copy, to get going.
  4. Change stuff until you’ve got your momentum back.
  5. Start having fun again.

Good luck!

Comment fairy nili_fairy_2a_by_jagged_eye-d47hv70l on deviantart.comTell Me Something Good

Make the Comment Fairy happy. Leave me a comment if you have some good ideas about getting past the frightened stage when you’re revising, or if you just want to commiserate.