Tools for Novel Writers: Character Traits, Inner Resources

Character Who?Queen Elizabeth the first was quite a character

In a normal blog, you’d expect a post with “Character Traits” in the title to be about crafting great fictional characters. Well, that’s a good subject, but this pile of prose has nothing to do with it. What I want to talk about is your character—and mine, for that matter.

Lots of people start novels, but few finish them. I got to thinking about why and, in my uncontested position as Lord Mayor and Judge of All the World, I concluded that the non-finishers either don’t have the character traits needed, don’t have them in sufficient quantity, or they possess them but haven’t brought them to bear on their writing.

Persistence

There’s nothing more important to a novelist than stick-to-itiveness. A novel is a multiple-draft journey of 50,000 words or better. You’ve got to plan and execute, then plan and execute again, until the thing is done enough to put a fork in. If you’re a part-time writer like me, composing in dribs and drabs during the week, just cranking out a first draft can take a couple of years—I speak from first-hand experience on that.

Once you get the novel ready for publication, then you’ve either got to market it to agents and publishers, if you’re going the traditional route, or directly to the public, if you’re self-publishing. Achieving success in either of these modes takes time, as well. And don’t forget the second novel, and the third, and all the others. Often it takes a writer several books to get anywhere at all.

So that’s persistence. If you don’t have it, get it. If you do have it, shine its light one your novel writing.

Patience

Patience goes hand in hand with persistence. While you’re walking the long road that is crafting a novel, you’re going to run into the heebie-jeebies of haste. You’ll be eager to finish every single draft, especially the last one. And then you’ll be tearing your hair out making changes from editors, agents, or other valued critics, like beta readers, wishing you could OMG just put it out there already!

At times like these you’ve got to push back from the desk (not for too long) and whisper “patience grasshopper” to yourself. (If you don’t know where the grasshopper thing is from, you owe it to yourself to find out!) Patience isn’t just the quality of calm endurance; it is also the quality of being in the present moment with whatever you’re doing. If you can focus on one day, one moment, one task of writing at a time, the patience comes a lot easier. Practice makes is easier, too.

So, that’s… wait for it…

Wait…

Wait…

Wait…

Wait…

Wait…

Patience.

See what I did there? Wasn’t that cute? No? Oh, well, on to the next topic.

Quiet and Solitude, Tolerance Thereof

You’re going to have to endure a certain amount of quiet isolation. When I say “silence” I’m not quite talking literally; for example, I like listening to some downtempo chill when I’m writing. Stephen King listens to hard rock and even metal, I think. Others like just freakin’ quiet, I’m sure. And I don’t know of anybody who writes in a crowded room where they are expected to respond to conversation; coffee houses work (for some) because, even though there are people around, you don’t have to deal with them.

What I mean is you have to create a space that makes it possible for you to create characters, plot and all that good stuff. Once you’ve made it, you have to commit to spending lots of time there; otherwise, no novel.

Focus

A person who lets themselves be distracted by a lot of different things is going to have a hard time completing a novel. I won’t say such a person can’t do it, just that it would be extra hard and extra slow. I know this very well, being of a somewhat “AD… ooh, shiny…” disposition myself. Even so, I have taught myself to focus little by little and after many years have become able to manage my distractible disposition. An hour is great for me; then I get up and stretch, or play a few minutes of guitar, or check on Facebook, or whatever—just for a few minutes. Then I get back to it. But during that hour, I am on task, not thinking about much else but the writing and taking the occasional sip of coffee.

Figure out what your focus rhythm is. If you can’t focus at all, you can learn. I learned a lot about focus by taking martial arts and yoga classes. Those physical pursuits require a level of attention that translates pretty well to writing. You can figure out something that will work for you, no doubt. But you’ve got to find it.

It’s Just Me

These observations on character traits needed for writing a novel are based on my own experience to date. Your mileage may vary. A lot. But I hope this piece gets you thinking about inner resources you can develop to make your writing better and more fun.

Let me and the other two readers know if you’ve got any other ideas about inner resources a novelist should develop and how they might do it.

Writing the Synopsis of a Novel

writers-block Man resting his head on his laptopWhen I write my next novel, I’m going to write the synopsis first. For one thing, my research tells me writing the thing first helps you frame up your novel and I’m certainly all over that. For another thing, I have recently discovered the writing the synopsis after the fact is a giant, festering pain in the wazoo.

This coming May, I’ll be attending the Atlanta Writer’s Conference, where I will submitting not one, but two types of synopses in hopes of receiving useful pointers from the learned minds of real live editors and agents. The first is the short one in my query letter, the initial pitch one sends to an agent or editor. The second is the long one that stands on its own, the one you send when said agent or editor invites you to do so.

To start off with, I read a book about writing query letters and synopses, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyons. It’s especially strong on the long synopses, in my opinion, and isn’t bad with queries. My best advice on query letters came from agentquery.com, specifically, the page titled “How to Write a Query Letter.” It has solid, succinct advice and a link to many queries that have actually won their authors agent representation or requests from publishers.

I can be pretty slow, sometimes (some would say all the time), so even after reading these resources, I had a hard time producing the materials. I took a precious vacation day, spent nine hours working just on the query letter, wrote three versions, and they all stunk. Before this, I had spent many hours working on the long synopsis and produced a five-page document that was only slightly more exciting than the phone book. (Non-old people, see the definition of “phone book” here.)

It was slow. It was painful. I was discouraged.

But then something wonderful happened.

The Saturday after that awful vacation day, I sat down and wrote another short, query-letter synopsis. It just poured out, natural as you please, and the result wasn’t bad at all. The Sunday after that, I wrote a long synopsis that came almost as easily, was two pages shorter than the previous five-page monster, and read like I had written it, instead of some robot.

There’s plenty of polishing left to do, but the bones are there, and a lot of the meat, too. (And that, Virginia, is what we call a mixed metaphor.)

One interesting thing (about time, right?): When I complained to my wife about wasting that vacation day, she demurred, pointing out that the frustrating work of that Friday had been necessary to get my brain to the point of producing Saturday and Sunday’s good results.

So, one thing I’ve learned: If you are writing them after your novel is done, throw the synopses onto the page as best you can, then walk away for a while and let them marinate in your subconscious. When you come back for another try, you may find that they roll right out.

I’ll probably have more to say about synopses in my next post, but for now, I am sick of writing anything and I’m going to stop. See you next time.

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.”

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.

Tools for Novel Writers: Character Interviews for, well… Character

Woman interviewing a guy in a ponchoThe Character Interview

Today’s topic… character interviews! They’re very useful! True! I hate character interviews! Also true!

 

 

Nutrition label with factsCharacter Factoids

I wrote a post a while back called “I Completed a Character Interview and didn’t Scream Once.” It’s about a method of defining characters that involves completing a long list of descriptive items.

While this was a useful process, for a writer like me (no smart cracks starting “Yeah, like a…” and ending in something rude, please), the process has its limitations. When I tried this for a new character, I had a shell of factoids, but not a living, breathing person. Working through the method for an existing character was helpful for record-keeping, but it didn’t give me a better idea of who she was.

After working on my not-so-great American novel for a while, I’ve found that a performing a nuts-and-bolts character interview is not a bad way to start out. It at least gives you something to work with and keeps you from making the oft-told error of giving Jane blue eyes on page 10 and brown eyes on page 75.

Character SouloidsSouls

On the other hand, if I want to know anything about the depths of a character – goals, heart’s desires, shaken or stirred – they have to live on the page for a while and interact with the story world around them. The facets of a character’s personality are born of my own subconscious and they take a while to come out. I am well aware of the excellent craft tomes that suggests methods for eliminating, or at least, abbreviating this process; I am reading them and ever hoping to improve. In fact…

I just finished reading one of those crafty books, Writing Fiction for Dummies and there’s a bit in there about character interviews I am finding very helpful. It’s the idea of determining a character’s values, ambitions and goal. These three points are infinitely more important than weight or mother’s paint color preferences. They get to what makes a character tick, which is a large part of what drives a story. And if you know one or two aspects, you can back up or go forward into the others. For example, if you know a character’s value is financial security, that might lead to his ambition to make lots of money and that ambition to his goal of being a corporate CEO.

After I’ve lived with a character on the page for a while, I still don’t necessarily have a conscious notion of what his values, ambitions, or goal might be, but what I do have is somebody I can have a conversation with. (All that time talking to imaginary friends is finally paying off.) Once that conversation gets under way, the characters speak for themselves. I do give a prod or some direction here and there, but mostly I just let them jabber.

Demon maskExample

Now I’ll bore you with an example. It’s part of the interview with my main bad guy, Gilles de Retz, a damned soul so bad he volunteered to be converted into a demon.

N: I need to know what you want, Retzy.

D: What I want? Is this not the thing obvious? De Retz must rise! De Retz must rule! It is the natural way.

N: The natural way? What are you talking about?

D: There is the natural order and of this are the people who are better and who must rule. De Retz is such a one, perhaps above them all.

N: How do you know you’re better than everybody else?

D: It is a thing one knows. How do you know that you are a narrow-eyed, pinch-faced idiot? You just know, oui?

N: Let’s do a quick check.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Mais oui!

N: Is there a conflicting value, I wonder?

D: I am very loyal to my great Lord Satan. Of all creation, he is the only one better than de Retz.

N: Really?

D: There is the good chance of this, at least.

N: That’s good That would give you a conflict between wanting to rule everything and being the loyal second banana.

D: What? De Retz is not a banana, nor any fruit!

N: Okay, simmer down. It’s just an expression. Let’s do this again.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else. Loyalty to Satan is paramount because he is the only being greater than de Retz.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else. Make Satan the primary ruler.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Here you have l’essence de de Retz, monsieur. I would not have thought you capable.

N: Okay, thanks, Retzy. I think.

I use the example of de Retz because he was relatively easy and so his interview was short. I’ve found so far that the good guys are more complex, which I think (hope) is good.

Put a Comment in the Weird Robot Head BoxComment box with mannekin head

I’m sure I’ll be learning and sharing more about all this as time goes on. Please leave your own genius thoughts on character interviews in a comment.

On-the-job Training with the Rewrite of the Rewrite

On-the-job Training

Two boys doing paperwork on the job

As regular readers of this space (a.k.a. people with too much spare time) already know, I’m working on the second draft of my first novel. Novel making is one of those jobs for which on-the-job training is a must, I’ve discovered, no matter how many craft books you read or workshops you go to before you start.

One thing my O.J.T. has taught me is that as you rewrite, you’ll discover yet more things that need attention, from miniscule nits of prose to Godzilla-like swaths of illogic. For me, correcting all these things at once would be maddening. To bring some sanity to the process, I’m rewriting in layers—more layers than I expected when I started out.

Layers

Layers of soil

When I began the rewrite, I thought I’d be correcting the faults in the storyline and fixing the prose at the same time. Well, kids, that ain’t happening. I find it’s all I can do to get something down that corrects the story problem at hand and vaguely resembles the English language. Later, in another layer of the rewrite, I’ll go back and fix the prose.

Now I have to decide if I’ll fix the prose before I fix the second bunch of story problems I have uncovered as I’ve been tinkering with the first batch. Among these are:

  • Proofreading matters, such as being consistent with the use of “leaped” or “leapt.” In a book with as much leaping about as this one, I need to pick one term and stick with it.
  • Story-world items, like the thin spots. Right now, they are sort of ragged holes in reality, but of late I’m thinking they should have a thin fabric over them that you have to tear through. I’ve got to figure out if that’s a good idea and, if it is, implement it.
  • Plot gaps. For example, I’ve got a character that I was going to eliminate, but now I want to keep him. The problem is, he disappears halfway through the book. How do I get him back in there?

So, now I’m looking at a rewrite of the rewrite, and then a rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite. And that’s just the second draft! What an adventure this writing project has turned out to be.

The Plan

A bulletin board with post it notes for a software plan

What does this have to do with you, if you’re a writer reading this and waiting patiently for something helpful? Well, what I’ve found is that it’s helpful to have a plan and keep working it. Mine is roughly this:

  1. Analyze and rework the beat sheet for improvements.
  2. Arrange a fix-it matrix.
  3. Work simultaneously through the fix-it matrix and changes from my critique group.
  4. Record changes needed for the rewrite of the rewrite (story fixes, etc., not prose) as I go along.
  5. Complete the rewrite of the rewrite.
  6. Complete the rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite (prose).
  7. Then, depending on how ready I think the thing is, either start draft three or send it out to beta readers. I’m not sure which—that’s another part of O.J.T.

Comment!

The riddler

Got any challenges with rewriting and clever solutions? Tell the world in a comment.

Rewriting Your Novel: Outlining and the Unexpected

dead end road sign

Sometimes, when I’m rewriting my novel, I run across a scene that won’t budge. I’ve got all my beat sheet notes laid out, I’ve got my fix-it matrix handy, my imagination and mood might even be in high gear, but everything I do turns into a dead end. At this point, I look at the clock. If my time is up, I breathe a sigh of relief, back everything up and cross my fingers for the next day. If I’ve still got time to work, I often suck it up and start outlining.

Yes, outlining, as in “1. 2. 3.” or, sometimes, even “1.A.i, 2.A.i.a…” The more stymied I am by a scene, the more detailed I tend to get.

Tinkertoy car

Outlining is great because it turns the scene from a mass of interweaving fibers you’ve got to pick through and arrange to a pile of tinkertoys, easy to pick up, simple to rearrange and assemble. When I outline, I can see the big chunks of action without worrying about dialogue, setting, description, character development, or any of that. That clarity allows me to arrange things much more rapidly than would working my way through the scene with just the beat sheet and fix-it sheet would.

So, once I have the thing all outlined to the nth degree, I start writing, stick to the plan and everything turns out perfectly, right?

Well, no. At least, not always.

Antique locomotive off the rails in the dirt

Somewhere along the way, events in the scene go astray of the outline. A character goes into a tunnel when you thought she was just going to cross the street. The bad guy appears earlier than you thought he would, riding a giant seagull instead of arriving in a cab. In the scene I was rewriting this morning, the lead and the love interest were supposed to fight their way out of a situation in a pretty straightforward fashion, but then they see a guy suspended from the ceiling by a hook and decide to get him down. (The novel’s set in Hell, so hook-guy isn’t dead.) Hook guy took things in a new direction, generating dialogue and action I never would have thought of while outlining.

I think this kind of writing miracle happens because the human brain can only do one thing at once. When I’m outlining, my mind is on doing just that, but once I start writing, if it’s going well, my imagination crowds out my carefully laid plans. The outline gets forgotten and stuff happens of its own accord.

woman in flexible yoga pose

So, if I’m going to deviate from it, is the outline pointless? I think not. With a difficult rewrite, the outline is a tremendous help in just getting started, because it’s much easier to start a journey if you have a map –it gives you confidence you can get where you’re going. Once I’m started, if the rewrite deviates from the outline in a good way, I simply revise it as necessary. If the writing goes haywire, I use the outline to ground myself and start on a revision.

The outline is a simple, flexible tool for your rewriting effort. It can un-stick you when you’re stuck, guide you when you’re lost, and record your success when you find the right path for a stubborn scene.

Cute wombat

Do you have any particularly effective outlining techniques? Do you think outlining is a waste of time? Let the world know in a comment. Thanks, and I’ll see you next time!

*”It” is a wombat treat. What kind of person do you think I am?