Archive for writing


Revision Woes

Sometimes I love revising. While there’s a sense of discovery to the first draft, it’s also sometimes hard to think of what happens next. With revising, I’ve figured out what the book is really about, and I can mold and shape it.

But sometimes that can be a real challenge because what’s already there has a powerful hold on the mind, especially if it’s something I like. It’s tempting to tinker with the words that are there rather than question the scene that’s there. Even if I let myself question the scene, it can be hard to break away from the circumstances surrounding it.

That’s where I found myself yesterday. There’s a scene that doesn’t need to be there. It came about in the first place because I was nearing the end of a chapter and needed a good end of chapter cliffhanger. Sometimes, I get good stuff out of throwing in a cliffhanger like that. It sends the story off in a fun new direction by adding additional conflict. But when I really looked at the story, there was no reason for the antagonist to show up at that time. He had other things he needed to be doing. On the other hand, I really liked the other directions that incident spurred, and I liked how I set it up. The problem is, I can’t really have the setup and the aftermath without the incident, and I’m having a hard time mentally getting away from what I already did to create something entirely new. This may be one of those situations that requires starting a new blank document and writing an entirely new scene without referring to the previous draft, then pasting that in.

It’s like I have to completely unwrite what was there, then think of something entirely new, and then smooth over the seams. It’s not even an important scene, but that always seems to make it harder. It’s easier to change important scenes, in a way.

So, that’s going to be my fun for the day.


The Value of Cryptic Notes

There was one good thing about the week or so I spent on business stuff: My brain seems to have solved the plot problem I was wrestling with before I had to put the writing on hiatus. There was something I wanted to have happen, but it was mutually exclusive with another thing I wanted to have happen. When I was reviewing my notes yesterday, I couldn’t quite decipher what I’d written, mostly why I’d suggested something, and I misinterpreted it, but then the misinterpretation turned out to be the solution to the problem because it put one of the things I wanted to have happen in a different place, which allowed the other thing to happen.

Hooray for bad handwriting, cryptic notes, and time away to forget what I originally meant.

I suspect that I get more good ideas and solutions out of bad handwriting and cryptic notes than I lose brilliant ideas because I can’t read or understand them later. It’s not so much the original idea that’s so brilliant as it’s the idea that comes after I’ve had a chance to mull it over, and that idea tends to come from attempting to decipher the cryptic notes.

Bad handwriting is also a good source of fantasy names. I may have written “Mike,” but it ends up looking like “Melke,” which is a decent fantasy name. It would be fun to write an entire book where all the characters are named based on attempts at deciphering my handwriting.

I am so fortunate to live in the day of personal computers. I was watching a documentary on Jane Austen and how she wrote, and I’d be doomed if I had to write and submit my manuscripts in longhand.


Choosing the Adventure

It’s a nice rainy day, which often means more productivity, unless I give in to the urge to nap or read. I do sometimes consider that a perfect reading day gets turned into a holiday, but I have too much writing to do to get away with that right now. I also have a lot of business-related work that needs to be done. But maybe if I’m very good and productive, I can stop early this afternoon and spend some time enjoying the good reading weather.

In the book I’m revising, I’ve hit a point where the smaller changes made earlier in the book have resulted in major changes to the plot, so I’m not really revising anymore. I’m writing totally new material, which means figuring out what happens next and how it’s going to happen. That slows things down a bit. I have to separate myself from what did happen and think of what these characters really would do in these new circumstances.

This process starts to feel like one of those “choose your own adventure” books. I’ll think of what could happen next and realize that there are a couple of different paths I could take. I get out a piece of notebook paper and list what could happen with each option, and I choose the version that either makes more sense or that results in a better story (preferably both). If the better story isn’t necessarily the one that makes more sense, I have to come up with a way to make it make sense, and that may require going back to an earlier scene to set it up.

For instance, I figured out that I could justify the more exciting option if the characters knew the bad guys were close to finding them, and I came up with a way for that to happen, but for that to work, the characters have to be able to recognize a person that they hadn’t previously met, so I had to go back a few scenes to set up how they would recognize him.

This is going to require a lot of tea. And chocolate.


And Then vs. And So

I had a big “click” in my head yesterday that was kind of exciting.

I’ve read a lot of books on the craft of writing, scene structure, etc., and I’ve been to a lot of workshops. I know all the stuff about how a scene needs to have a character goal, then some conflict and then lead into the next scene. I’ve just never been able to make all that work consciously. Yes, I’ve written a lot of books, and most of them have been moderately successful. People seem to like what I write, and I get good reviews. But I think I’ve mostly been doing it on instinct.

That may be the difference between those “gift” books and the ones that are a struggle. The gift books are the ones where my instincts are working and I’m doing it right without thinking about it. The struggle books are the ones where my instincts are failing me.

My click yesterday came from a Twitter thread in which someone was talking about how each scene needs to lead into the next scene with either “and so” or “but.” That means that the actions in that scene cause the events in the next scene to happen in some way. Either the character achieves his/her goal and it causes the next scene to happen or the character tries but doesn’t achieve the goal, and so something else happens. You have problems if your scenes are “and then” because it just means that the next event happens, not that the next event is caused.

I knew that. I’ve heard that a number of times before, but I don’t think it clicked for me until I started looking at the current project, and I realized that the difference between the original draft and the current version is that in the original draft, all the scenes were “and then,” with the protagonist being swept along by events. In the current draft, the thing I changed (not always on purpose) was turning all the scenes into “and so.” The scenes that are still iffy for me that I’m not entirely happy with are the “and then” scenes.

I didn’t actually dance around the room, but I sure felt like it. The clouds parted and sunlight streamed in. There are still other things to fix, but if I can fix that much, it will make a huge difference.


Gift Books

I’m still slogging away through this rewrite. Normally, I’m a fan of writing straight through, then revising, but since this is well beyond a first draft, I figure I need to get it right before I move ahead, and since I needed to make some changes in the past to set up what’s about to come, I figured I might as well go back to the beginning and do another pass.

I think this draft is working. There’s one scene I’m waffling about, though. There’s not a lot of tension or conflict in it, and it doesn’t progress the plot, but the outcome helps take care of a bit of “business” to ease things in the future. I guess I’ll leave it in for now, and I might be able to fix it either by thinking of a way to make it fit the plot or by finding a way around the business part. I also kind of need it to help kill time — the characters have to fill a couple of hours before the next thing can happen, and they’re at a point in the story when I don’t know that I can just say “a couple of hours later …” This scene helps fill nearly an hour in story time (in a page or so) and explains what they’re doing.

Some books are gifts from above. They just seem to spring into existence fully formed, and I feel like I’m merely taking dictation. I don’t have to make a lot of tough decisions about the story or the plot because things just happen and fall into place. Enchanted, Inc. and Rebel Mechanics were like that. Then there are books like this, where it’s more like sculpting a block of marble — I have to find the story that belongs to the concept by chipping gradually away at everything that isn’t this story. I think the core of the plot has been more or less the same the whole time, but the events carrying out that plot keep changing.

And still, I love it. I have to, considering the amount of time I’ve spent on it.



I’m really hoping that this last round of rewrites is the more or less final version of this book, other than wordsmithing and fine tuning. I’m trying to make myself stop and dig deep to figure out what happens next rather than forging ahead and then figuring out that I did it wrong.

One of the real challenges with rewriting is disconnecting myself from the previous version. It’s far too easy to just keep trying to make what I’ve already done better rather than figuring out if there’s a better way to go entirely.

I’m at a big decision point for the book, and I was starting to go down the path I’d already taken, just with adjustments to accommodate earlier changes I’d made, but I made myself stop and really take stock. There’s a brainstorming technique I love called the List of 20 (or there are other things it gets called). The idea is that you make a list of 20 things that can happen. The first 10 are usually pretty easy, and if you’re rewriting, those are usually the things you’ve already written. You might be able to come up with the next few with a little thought. To fill out the list, you may have to get a little crazy. What I often find is that items 15-17 are totally wacky and unrealistic, but once I’ve gone off the rails, that jolts my thinking, so that 18-20 have something that might work that I hadn’t previously thought of, and quite often I’ll end up with about 23 things because that starts me really thinking.

One of the things I’m trying to do in this rewrite is make my protagonists more proactive, so they’re not just reacting to events. That’s easy enough to do with my narrator because we’re in her head and know her motivations, but more challenging when it’s people we’re only seeing from the outside. So I made a List of 20 for each of the characters yesterday, just thinking about what they would do in the situation they’re in, with their goals in mind.

I haven’t yet sorted through everything I came up with (since it was choir night), but I think I’ve got some good stuff that I can really work with. The bad news is that it kills a lot of what I’ve already written for the last half of this book. I may be able to salvage a scene or two, but the book is probably going to go in a different direction, which is good, since the previous direction wasn’t working.

While I’m processing all this, it looks like this is a good day for the Epic Day of Getting Things Done, since I have errands to do I was putting off while we had a week of rain. Now I can safely emerge from the house without needing an umbrella, so I need to get groceries and go to the library.


Writing and Knitting

It has occurred to me that my current knitting project is the perfect metaphor for my current writing project.

I’m knitting a big circular shawl from a book of Victorian lace patterns. Oddly, I started it because I had some yarn left over from another project, this pattern has always intrigued me, and at the time I started it, I had a vague idea for how I was going to use it (as a throw rather than as a shawl). But it was troublesome from the beginning. It’s knitted in the round as a big circle, starting with four double-pointed needles, casting on with three stitches per needle on three needles, and one needle for working. It grows from there until you can switch to a circular needle. There were a few false starts because trying to keep it all together without twisting when there are so few stitches is a challenge, but I finally got it going. I’d been working on it for a couple of months before I noticed that there was a problem way back, probably while I was still on the double-pointed needles. I think what had happened was that some stitches might have fallen off the ends of the needles in between sections and I hadn’t realized it. That meant that the pattern made an odd glitch. I’m knitting this mostly just to have something to knit, so I went back and undid the whole thing until I got to the problem spot, starting over from there.

I finally got done with the body of the shawl and went to work on the knitted-on border. Because the circumference of the shawl is pretty huge, this is a massive undertaking, as only every other border row gets knitted onto the shawl. I got a good way into it before I realized that somewhere along the way, I’d glitched and lost some stitches on the border pattern, so that that pattern began and ended with 9 stitches instead of 11 (it makes points, so it grows from 11, then shrinks back to 11). I undid it back to the error and started over. When I was really close to having the border done, I counted out the remaining shawl edge stitches and the number of border pattern rows I had left, and it was nowhere near even, not even off by just one or two. I looked back over the border and found a couple of places where I’d somehow forgotten the middle row — the border grows to a point, there’s a solid middle row at the peak with no patterned stitches, and then it shrinks from there, but I was going from the peak to the shrinking without the middle in a few places. Then I found another spot behind that where I’d done the 9 stitches instead of 11 thing. I ended up spending a couple of weeks undoing almost the entire border before starting again, and then there was a false start where I’d forgotten the pattern while I was undoing it all, so I was doing it wrong when I started again.

And that’s what I’ve been doing with the current book — I’d get into it, realize I started wrong, go back, and rewrite, realize that was wrong, go back and rewrite. Then I’d get almost done, realize it was all wrong, and go back. I finally finished it, then got feedback from my agent and started over again, then went back to the process of getting to a certain point in the book, realizing what I needed to fix, and going back to fix it.

At least with the book, I can save the parts that are right and insert them in, or I can go back and fix something wrong earlier in the book without erasing everything to that point. With the knitting, I have to undo some parts that are done right in order to reach the errors. The trick with the writing is figuring out what can be saved and what should be scrapped, and sometimes it’s easier to just rewrite a scene than to fix an old scene to fit a new scenario.

Maybe I’m being a perfectionist, but the result won’t be a thing I’m happy with unless I get it right. With the book, I’m hoping to get a new publisher who’ll be excited enough about it to actually put some effort into it, which means I have to make it great. With the knitting, since I’m knitting for the sake of having something to knit, I may as well make it something I’m proud of. Undoing and redoing it means I’m not having to buy more yarn to have something else to knit when I’m done.


Sympathy for the Villain

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been writing bits of the story I’m working on from the perspective of other characters in the story. I’ve gone back to just before the story opens and written up to certain turning points, and I must say, it’s been really eye-opening as I figure out what each character thinks about the other characters.

The character who has surprised me the most is one of the villains. I’m not a villain-centered writer and have very little patience for the “poor, sad villain who had a sad life” narrative. Lots of people have sad lives, and it doesn’t excuse being a villain. But I seem to be edging toward a little more sympathy toward this villain now that I’ve been inside his head. It helps that he’s a secondary villain and is actually one of those shadowy characters who teeters on that line between good and bad. The bad stuff isn’t his plan, and he’s mostly a pawn in all of it. His problem is that he doesn’t resist when he realizes how bad what he’s caught up in is, and he makes the wrong choices at pivotal times, up to a point when I think I’m going to let him make the right choice (we’ll see when I get there). I found in writing from his perspective that I had changed my view about how much he knew, and that changes a lot (including a key conversation the viewpoint character partially overhears).

Now that I feel a bit sorry for this guy, it may change the way I write him, but then I don’t want readers to like him too much. I’ve seen how readers in general can glom onto the poor, sad villain. I want readers to prefer another character. But that means I need to make the other character more interesting. Strangely, although he’s a major character, he’s still a bit of an enigma to me, so I need to do more work on him. I like him, but I don’t think the reasons I like him are making it onto the page.

So, I have more work to do!


Looking from the Other Side

Writing from the other character’s perspective has been really eye-opening. I mostly write from first-person perspective because I enjoy the deep dive into the character’s head and the way that allows me to play with narrative voice. I find it quicker to write that way, as well, most of the time. It’s like writing a diary entry.

But there are times when it comes with challenges. You can only write what the viewpoint character knows. If something happens and the viewpoint character isn’t there, she can’t know about it. She has to learn about it some other way — someone tells her, she sees security video footage, she reads about it. You also don’t get into other characters’ heads, and that’s where you can end up with plot problems, if you let the other characters do things you need them to do rather than what they actually would do in that situation.

In the book I’m working on, the viewpoint character isn’t in the know for much of anything. In one respect, that’s good because it means that all the discovery happens on the page. There’s no info-dumping of information she already knows because she doesn’t know anything and has to get information and figure things out. But it makes things a bit challenging because I have to figure out what everyone else around her knows, what their agendas are, and what they might say or do.

In a lot of scenes, the narrator is driving the action because she’s investigating, but there are scenes in which she thinks she’s driving things because she’s investigating and asking the questions, after having tracked down that person, but the other person is actually driving the action because they know what’s going on and have an agenda, so they have reasons for what they do and don’t tell the narrator. That’s where I’m having to go back and write the scene from the other person’s perspective, to see what they’d say, what they’d tell and what they’d withhold, and why. After I write it that way, I can go back and put it in the perspective of the narrator. The dialogue I can just copy and paste, but I have to take the thoughts and figure out how that would affect that character’s nonverbals — body language, expressions, tone of voice — and how much the narrator would notice of those nonverbals.

In the scene I was working on, looking at what the other character knows and what this person wants totally changed the scene. And now I’m at a point where I need to figure out what’s up with some of the other characters.


Behind the Scenes

My Monday enthusiasm didn’t last very long. I think part of my issue this week is that I’m at a point in the book I’m rewriting in which things are diverging significantly from my original story, and I’m struggling to get a sense of how it should go now. I’ve made a few false starts, realized that was heading the wrong way, scrapped it, and went back to square one.

One of the things I’m wrestling with is finding the balance between proactive, informed characters and characters who are so effective that they shortchange the story. You don’t have a story without a struggle. If your detective is so brilliant that he can take one look at a crime scene and solve the case, there isn’t much of a mystery. On the other hand, if the villain is so good that he can be five steps ahead of the hero and the hero doesn’t stand a chance, you don’t have much of a story. If characters have key bits of information, there needs to be a reason why they haven’t acted on it yet, but if they act on it too soon, it changes the story.

The big change I’ve made is that one of the characters knows a lot and has been trying to make things happen. In an earlier draft, she knew some things, but she didn’t know things needed to happen until other people showed up, but that made not only her but also everyone else too passive. But if she’s been trying to make things happen, there needs to be a reason why she can’t just resolve it all when she comes on the scene. I’ve had to figure out what she knows, why she doesn’t know the things she doesn’t know, and why she hasn’t done more already. That means I’ve had to figure out her entire backstory and what she’s been doing before she meets the POV character. I think by the time this book is done, I’ll have written about three times as much material as I need, between rewrites and the behind-the-scenes and backstory stuff I’ve written out. But if I don’t write it out, the scene just fizzles.

In fact, I just realized that’s what I need to do for the scene I’ve been struggling with. I need to write out what’s been going on with one of the characters, leading up to the scene and even write a draft of the scene from her perspective. That will help me know what she should be saying. It’s impossible (or, at least, difficult) to write that kind of scene knowing only what the POV character knows.

So, maybe I’ll get more written today, before I have to go deal with the choir kids.