Nascent Novelists: Don’t Let Fear of Failure Stop You


tunnelThe Tunnel

The time just before starting your novel is like standing at the mouth of a dark, strange railway tunnel, preparing to enter. You don’t know where the other end comes out; you may think you know, but you can’t really be certain until you’ve walked the whole way through. You don’t know exactly what awaits you inside. There might be bats, or rats, or giant spiders. A speeding train might appear out of nowhere, hurtling toward you, glaring with its one bright eye. It might even race up behind you and smash you flat before you even have a chance to turn around.

Putrid Failure

Scariest of all, failure might be waiting for you in that tunnel, by which I mean failure to finish the novel. Fear of failure can be so large and awful its putrid stench can reach out of the tunnel and wrap itself around you before you even set foot inside. It can make you freeze to the spot, where you’ll stay for a long time, maybe the rest of your life, wishing you could go in, but not quite finding the will to take a step. It can make you turn around and walk away, thinking anything that smells that bad can’t possibly be worth getting close to, much less grappling with. It can make all those voices in your head that say you’re not good enough and that this writing business is a waste of time drown out every creative impulse you ever had.

A mighty slayer of dreams, fear of failure is. (Is that a Yoda quote?)


So what’s a writer to do? Or an almost-nascent novelist, standing on the hairy cusp of doing and not doing?

I suppose there are many different answers to this question, but here’s mine:

I said, “Okay, I’m going to fail. Fine.” Once I accepted the worst, failure lost a lot of its power. It didn’t smell as bad or look as big.

I took a step into the tunnel and started walking, one slow step at a time.

And I failed. I came up with stinky plot lines. I created characters that wouldn’t work. Settings both preposterous and unappealing bloomed from my keyboard. But each time I failed, I patched up the disaster or razed it and rebuilt, and then moved on to the next failure.

After several years of doing this, I came out the other end of the tunnel, into the sunshine, with a finished novel. Failure and I had made an odd friendship over all that time, and as I walked away from the tunnel it stood at the entrance with a long face, waving.

“Don’t be so bummed out,” I said, “I’ll see you right down there,” and I pointed. Not far down the track stood another tunnel.

I ran for it.


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!

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.

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?

Rewriting Your Novel: The Deadly Game of “Compare Yourself”

The Rewriting Jungle

jungle to represent the rewriting jungle

So, there you are, the part-time novelist, maybe the nascent part-time novelist, and you’re working hard on your rewrite. It’s tough going, because, no matter how many craft books you’ve read, this is unknown territory, jungle territory no less, and you’re hacking your way through with a metaphorical machete. Despite your careful beat sheet revisions, you come to a point where the 83rd unexpected plot hole jumps out and surprises you. “Ohmigawd,” you think, “this is never going to work. I am wasting my time on what is possibly the worst travesty of literature ever committed in the English language.” So, realizing that you are getting a bit strung out, you take a break to relax and read a bit.

Which only makes things worse.

The Comparison Game

A sign that says stop the comparison game

Things get worse because you start comparing your work with whatever it is you’re reading. This happened to me the other day. Thinking novel #2 might be a lighthearted thriller, I thought I’d pick up One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich. Well, not only is that sucker light, it’s tightly plotted, it has sparkling, well-defined characters, plenty of excitement and a ton of humor. My book stinks, I thought. It is nowhere near good as this.

Well, that was depressing, so I turned to my current audiobook, Shades of Gray, by Jasper Fforde. Oh, man, the world-building that guy has put into this book! It’s about a society in which people can only see one shade of color and the whole social pecking order is built around a colortocracy, with purple vision at the top and mere gray at the bottom. And that’s not all. There are roads made of living material, giant swans, libraries empty of everything but librarians… it’s amazing. The world in my book seems shabby by comparison.

Feh, I thought, feeling doomed.

Avoid Idiot Syndrome

An idiot with a paper bag mask on his head the mask is on fire

But then I thought some more, and realized I was being an idiot. (This often happens.) Here’s why:

  • The books I was reading are finished. They’ve already been through the whole rewriting process. If they aren’t better than my second draft, something’s wrong.
  • The authors of these books have had a lot more practice than I. Both have several published books, and I’m willing to bet they both wrote a lot before they got the first one in bookstores. I didn’t write much in my youth (or early middle age), so here I am. I will never make up the experience gap, unless I live to be 200. (I’ll get back to you on that.) Might as well accept the fact and do the best I can.
  • One for the Money and Shade of Gray are great, but they aren’t my novel. Even after it’s all polished up, my book is going to be utterly different. I’m a different author with a different vision, voice and skill set.
  • For a writer, reading is sitting at the feet of the masters. There’s much to be learned from Evanovich and Fforde if I can set my ego aside and see it. Can I plot as tightly as Evanovich? I can try. Can I make my world as thoroughly as Fforde? I can try. The more I try to emulate the virtues of good writers, the better my writing will become.

Armed with Spackle

Man spackling a wall

Having thought all this, I feel better. I can finish my novel and make it the best book I can write at this stage of my development. I can learn from other writers instead of falling into the deadly game of Compare Yourself. Now I can tackle my rewrite fresh, with some positive ideas instead of a head full of put-downs.

Have spackle; will fill plot holes.

a monkey with a gun demanding a comment

What do you do to lift yourself up when you feel your writing stinks? Leave your thoughts in a comment for the other three people reading this blog. Thanks!

Tools for Novel Writers: From Fix-it Sheet to Fix-it Matrix

Taming The Imps of Rewriting

If you want to pry the lid off a barrel of imps and dump it out on your shoes, start rewriting your novel. That’s how I feel today, at any rate. There’s not just one thing to do. You’ve got to revise words, fill in plot holes, make characters look, act and speak consistently and, oh, sweet Saint Syrup of the Waffle House, do a hundred other things. And when I say imps, I mean imps, not tasks, because they slide out from under you, escape your attention, pile up in a writhing disorganized mass and do their best to make you crazy as a June bug in, well, like, June. It’s enough to make you run away screaming.

But I want to promote myself from nascent novelist to stuck-with-it-and-totally-finished novelist. And I presume, since you’re reading this, so do you. Or maybe you’ve done it before and you want to do it again. Let’s not split hairs. Or hares, which would be messy.

What I mean is, here we are. So let us gird up our loins and tame the imps.

The New Rewriting Steps

First, obtain a beverage. This should be free of alcohol or any other potentially mind-bending substances. I prefer coffee and, no, caffeine is not a mind-bending substance, it is a vitamin. Look it up.

Second, sit down (or stand up, if you prefer) at your chosen tool of literary construction.

Third, assemble the following: manuscript, beat sheet and fix-it sheet. (I described the fix-it sheet in “Tools for Writers: Fix-it Notes and the Fix-it Sheet.”)

Fourth, get something to make a matrix with. (A matrix is a grid; I am obligated to call it a matrix because of my brief sojourn in Hell… oh, wait, that was MBA school.)

Fifth – here’s the fun part – make a new, improved, fix-it sheet. This one enables you to track your rewriting tasks against your chapters with much more ease than the fix-it sheet.

I made my NIFIS (New, Improved Fix-It Sheet) with Microsoft Excel. Here it is:

 New Improved Fix It Sheet for Rewriting

Imps are listed across the top, sections down the left side.

Creating Your NIFIS

Take all the things you need to fix as noted in the three documents gathered in the third step and go to town making columns. Then fill in your sections in the leftmost column, or list them a section at a time as you work on them. As I go through the list, I check stuff off or mark it n/a (not applicable). I like this because it gives me one cage for all the imps, is simple to track and allows me to make the tasks as general or specific as I like. “Beat Sheet Changes” and “In-Line Fixes,” for example, are high level tasks; I track the details in the beat sheet for the former (duh) and in the manuscript for the latter (by just erasing the in-line fixes). On the other hand, “Fix-it: More Factories” is a reminder to include more of Satan’s weapons factories in the setting throughout the book, a pretty specific item.

Goofs of the Past

To give you an idea why I went this route, check out what happened with the fix-it sheet when I started revisions:

 Old Fix it Sheet for Rewriting

I still love the fix-it sheet for keeping track of issues as you go along, but it doesn’t really provide a good way of tracking where the tasks have been done or if they’re not applicable to a chapter. I also found myself resorting to symbols to indicate if changes were noted at specific places in the manuscript, were issues permeating the whole thing, etc. That was pretty clumsy. Sure, you could do it this way, but it would be a mess and I’m kind of an organization freak when it comes to the writing (in case you hadn’t figured that out already, based on this post).

I may revise my rewriting tools again sometime. I’m learning as I go and the novel, the tools and novelist-me are all still works in progress.

Bonus for the Curious

If you noticed the tabs “Arcs” and “Hair References” at the bottom of the NIFIS, check back here soon for a post explaining what those are all about.

Leave a Comment

If anybody has a better way of keeping their rewrite life in order, please let me know in a comment. Thanks!

Writing – or Re-writing – Your Novel’s Beginning

A little plant represents starting off right, as in your novelStarting Your Novel Right

If you work hard and eat your vegetables, oh part-time novelist, you’ll eventually find yourself in the position of rewriting the first draft of your novel. All kinds of interesting things happen, like, for instance you discover that your beginning needs to be gutted and rebuilt.

Argh. Such is the position in which I find myself at present.

Overdrawn at the Brain Bank

I love my original beginning, but it’s a prologue. A corking scene, to be sure, but prologues tend to get you excited about one thing and then you have to switch to another – like the main character, in my case. The thing to do, per my reading in the craft literature and in actual literature-literature, is to start the book off with an engaging – no, riveting – scene that will introduce the protagonist and make everybody fall over themselves caring about him.

I made a few tries at said riveting scene and found I was overdrawn at the cleverness bank.

Ideas for Starting Your Novel

What’s a writer to do? Well, swipe something. Duh.

Idea 1: A Hint or Weirdness

Put a hint of weirdness in the first sentence and show your lead in action. Swiped from Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore.

“While magic powder was sprinkled on the sidewalk outside, Samuel Hunger moved around his office like a machine, firing out phone calls, checking computer printouts, and barking orders to his secretary.”

Here’s a guy working in an office. But wait! What about that magic powder? The weirdness sucks you in, but then the author makes you wait to find out about it while you learn about the main character for a few pages. Curiosity keeps you hooked and weirdness sets up the events to come.

Idea 2: Curiosity, then Chronology

Just start at the beginning and go from there. Swiped from Inferno, by Niven and Pournelle.

“I thought about being dead. I could remember every silly detail of that silly last performance… Call me Allen Carpentier. It’s the name I wrote under, and someone will remember it.”

The first-person narrator starts with a curious statement about being dead – enough to get your interest – and then goes on to explain how he died. From there, he goes into a chronological reminiscence of his adventures. This book could have started at “Call me Allen Carpentier,” but the first paragraphs about being dead hook your curiosity much more easily.

Idea 3: A Foreword

Start with a brief, intriguing essay on a thematic element, or something. Swiped from Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore.

“This is a story about the color blue. It may dodge and weave, hid and deciev, take you down paths of love and history and inspiration, but it’s always about blue.”

You’d probably better be a well-established author like Moore before you do this, and not only that, but a writer capable of engaging an audience without immediately resorting to big emotions or derring-do (the two don’t always go together, you may have noticed). By the time he’s finished talking about blue, you’re convinced of its supernatural nature and itching to find out how it figures into a whole big novel. I’ll let you know how this works out when I’m on, like, my twentieth novel.

Idea 4: Action, Jackson… Contrasted with Quiet

Get things moving in a big way and keep them that way. Swiped from “Afraid,” by J.A. Konrath and Jack Kilborn (who are the same person).

There are a couple of paragraphs in which Konrath sets a quiet fishing scene to begin. These provide contrast for what quickly follows: “The zip of his baitcaster unspooling and the plop of the bait hitting the water were the only sounds he’d heard for the last hour. Until the helicopter exploded.”

What makes this beginning work is the contrast between the fishing and the ‘copter exploding. Just listen to the sounds. There’s a “plop” of bait and then a “kaboom” of helicopter fireball. The action ramps up quickly after this and never lets up.

Idea 5: In Medias Res (“In the midst of things”)

Start somewhere after the actual beginning of the story’s events. You can back up later and fill the reader in on what came before. Swiped from “Letters from Hades” by Jeffery Thomas.

“On my fifth day in Hell, I found a praying mantis. It was during a break between classes, though that should not be taken to mean a break for rest.” After the intriguing first sentence, we start witnessing the fun existence of a Hell newbie through the narrator’s eyes. Not much later we find out the narrator is keeping a diary and the discussion of how that came about creates a framework for discussion of days one through four. The immediacy with which you’re taken into the story makes this work, as it does for most other tales begun in medias res.

This is far from an exhaustive list of ways to start a novel, but it’s Boxing Day, the house is quiet, and I’m ready for a beer. So there.

If you have a way of starting a novel that floats your boat, let the world know in a comment. See you next time.

Re-writing Your Fiction: Starting from Scratch

Box of fruit representing Rewriting fresh fiction when you need to do soWrite Fresh When You Must

Today’s lesson: Don’t become too enamored of your work. Be ready to trash it and start fresh.

My Re-Writing Retreat

Recently, I treated myself to an overnight writing getaway at a local hotel. I took a half-day off, checked in early, and settled down at my trusty laptop to make the most of my uninterrupted hours of re-writing novel #1. (Am I the most boring guy in the world? Quite possibly.)

My first aim was to fix a couple of chapters featuring my bad guys, who are a bunch of demons.

The first of these chapters was a strange one that had Satan holding a high-level meeting with his three top generals and giving an address to an auditorium of lesser demons at the same time. Plainly, the two—important meeting and speech–don’t go together. The two elements needed to be separate events.

The second chapter is about the audience’s reaction to the speech. The crowd isn’t at all enthusiastic about Satan’s message until a minor demon, my hero’s main opponent, jumps on the bandwagon and gets everybody all whipped up. This chapter worked pretty well on its own.

Aha! I thought. I’ll just remove the speechifying parts from the first chapter and graft them onto the second one.

Simple, right? Well, no.

Re-Writing: Easier than Patching

It didn’t take long for me to see that for my plan to work, I was going to have to change the point of view of the second chapter from Satan’s to the minor demon’s. That would require me to have a different beginning to the second chapter. And then I found that taking the speech-y parts out of the first chapter required me to write or rewrite big chunks to plug the holes the excisions left behind.

I was going crazy because I didn’t want to lose any of the writing I was already so fond of.

At some point, I pushed back from the desk and threw myself onto the bed for a good stare at the ceiling. I was just about to switch from writing mode to napping mode when the awful truth bloomed in my brain.

I was going to have to throw out the two chapters and start all over again with this part of the story.

So I did. I started a fresh document, thought through a rough outline (I am an outliner – your method may be different) and wrote the thing from scratch. The result? One chapter instead of two and a more streamlined, more interesting (I hope) section of novel. To finish up, I stripped the two faulty chapters from the manuscript and replaced them with the one I had just completed.

Writing Lessons Learned

During this process, I learned a few things:

Make versions! Whenever you make a major change to your manuscript, save the old version first with a version number or a date. You never know when you’ll need to go back and mine the original for material.

Keep an experimental mindset. Your scratch rewrite is an experiment. Maybe it will be great, maybe it will utterly fail. I find this makes me less nervous about excising a chunk of previous writing and replacing it. I’m not committing to the big change until I’m good and ready.

Rewrite from scratch in a separate document. I just think this makes life easier. With a nice, blank document, your mind is free from the subtle distraction of what comes before and after your rewritten section. You can patch up any rough transitions or what have you in the next draft.

Don’t hesitate to start fresh. Waiting around to do a fresh rewrite is just a waste of time. I tossed away a good hour, at least, trying to tape and spackle those two existing chapters. When you get that awkward feeling, go ahead and start writing something fresh to replace the stuff that’s not working.

What do you do when a portion of your novel is crying out for major revision? Let me and the rest of the world know in a comment.

Thanks for reading See you next time!

Rewriting Your Fiction: Layering

Layering aspects of fiction as you rewrite is like layering colors in a paintingRewriting is Overwhelming

Rewriting your novel. Argh. All that prose and plot lying in a heap before you, waiting for your magical writer’s touch to bring it from crawling to walking and at last to running, rushing amazing fiction. All those characters who can’t decide if they are one thing or another, or when they’ll change, or if they’ll change at all. The inconsistencies waiting to leap off the pages and bite you in your tender rump.

The details of a rewrite comprise a tsunami of… stuff. How do you keep yourself from getting overwhelmed?

Layering as You Rewrite

In painting, of which I’ve done a bit (badly), there’s a technique called layering. You mix a little bit of color, thin it like crazy and then put a translucent layer of it down on the canvas. When that’s dry, you mix another color, thin, and put another layer on top of the first. If you do this well, when you’re finished you’ll have a beautiful, jewel-like effect in your painting.

You can also apply the principle of layering to your fiction. I’ve written the first draft of my novel and have numerous notes for improvement in my fix-it sheet and my beat sheet.

Fix-It Sheet Layering

Here’s a sample of fix-it sheet items. The arrow indicates these are things I want to look at each time I re-write a chapter. I layer in these fixes, meaning I comb through the chapter with just one of the items in mind, then go back through with just the next item in mind, etc. It’s tedious, but it works. If you’re clever enough to keep multiple things in mind while you’re doing this, more power to you.

→Track character arcs in a separate doc – be sure there’s development for everybody

→Throughout: ditch Colin’s internal thoughts unless they are 100% needed or 100% hilarious; don’t eliminate, just cut back

→Redo Colin’s first scene so the reader roots for him, likes him.

→Confirm time period Colin has to succeed. He first calculates it in Coma at the end of Box 1.

→Until he has something more to fight for, Colin should always be looking for a thin spot to escape through. Show his progression from saving himself to saving the universe.

→Bring in the factories more throughout the book.

Beat Sheet Layering

Now, here’s a sample of the beat sheet (click to enlarge). The red text indicates items I want to change. If the red text is lined out, that means I decided against that particular alteration as I was picking through the chapter. If there’s a little check by a note, that means I’ve completed the change. There are some things I’m looking at that aren’t red, too, like “Theme to show”and “Arc” in the “Conflicts, Pace, etc.” column. Just as with the items in the fix-it sheet, I go through these one at a time.

Beat Sheet for Layering Rewrites

What I’m doing here is doing away with complete disorganization and the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed at the expense of putting up with some tedious work. Going through a chapter multiple times can be painful, but so far I’ve found it’s not as painful or slow as I feared it would be. I am also breaking the work into chunks of about thirty pages a crack, so I have a nice feeling of accomplishment when I finish redoing a chunk. Motivation is important!

Speaking of motivation, I know we’d all like to believe our first drafts are perfect, new, dewy little angels from the get-go, but they’re not. They’re scaly, smelly, error-ridden demons and they need careful surgery to make worth a soggy dollar. So don’t skimp on the re-write; get to layering! Or rewrite some other way. I don’t care so much, as long as you make your writing the best it can be.

If you’ve got a tip or three on how to make the rewriting process more effective, how about leaving it here in a comment? Thanks and see you next time.