July just ended, and now it’s August. Did I get caught in a time warp and miss July altogether? I must have because it seems I opened my eyes the other day, and it was August. How did that happen? And how have I managed not to blog for a month or more?
Three words: Work in Progress, aka WIP.
This particular WIP is a four-book series entitled A Perfect Hatred. I’d left it alone for a year, then resolved to do a complete rewrite of all four books this year. All told, I’ve cut about 90,000 words from three books, and I’m working on the fourth now; it’s down 10,000 words.
A writer friend said why bother to cut; length doesn’t matter in an ebook. It may not, but unnecessary words weigh anything down. Most of what I’ve cut has been back-story, info dumps, and clever little paragraphs to show the reader just how much research I’ve done. I’ve cut swaths through what a character is thinking and let those thoughts emerge through dialogue and action. I hope.
In short, I’m trying to apply everything I’ve learned from three years of workshops and conferences, and it takes a lot of time. I’m back in my characters’ heads, and I don’t want to leave them. I dream about them. When I’m not writing them, I miss them. I find myself getting annoyed when other responsibilities intervene. I’m having chats with my characters when I’m in the car, the shower, at the grocery store. Trust me, if the chat happens in a public place, it needs to be entirely within your head; otherwise, people avoid you.
Why am I suddenly obsessed with this particular WIP? It’s somewhat time sensitive. It deals, fictionally, with an historical event whose twentieth anniversary occurs in April 2015. It would be timely to release an ebook a month starting in January, with the fourth book coming out on the anniversary itself. Of course, that pre-supposes I’m going to self-publish it, another thing I’ve obsessed over, written endless pro/con comparison lists about, and changed my mind countless times.
It’s my opus magnum. I started a first rough draft of it in 1997, researched and wrote in my spare time, discussed the topic to the point where my now-ex said, “Please stop,” and ended up with three books worth of “stuff” by 2000. I put it aside because it had no ending–at least the right ending. I’d tried several; none worked. Then, in June 2001, the ending happened.
In the meantime, I’d drafted other novels and many, many short stories. I got a new job, which involved a lot of my time, and this particular WIP got tucked away again. When I retired in 2009, it wasn’t the first thing I picked up to concentrate on, but when I did focus on it, I realized it should be four books, not three, an unusual number for a series. So, last year I edited the first book, put it aside because something wasn’t clicking, and I got caught up with other projects. It dawned on me late last year, the whole kit and caboodle needed a rewrite, as in start book one from page one in a blank Scrivener file.
I’m likely going to be diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome (again), my back is pretty much wrecked from sitting too much, and my house really needs cleaning. Oh, it’s not in hoarder territory at all, nothing a good vacuuming wouldn’t cure, but I don’t want to take time away from rewriting to do that. Lately, I don’t want to use my time for much of anything except writing. I went to a writers conference on Saturday–a good one where I got to be a gushing fan girl to Bruce Holsinger about his incredible novel, A Burnable Book–and resented the hell out of every minute there.
Obviously, this is something I need to get a handle on or I’m never going to leave the writing room in my house.
But, why is that so bad?
I’ve done a lot of editing and revising this week–in between those domestic things that pop up: refrigerator repair, grocery shopping, reading a book for a book club, reading MSS for critique groups. Somehow, though, when you’re editing/revising, you feel as if you’re not accomplishing much. It’s not as if you have a word count which keeps increasing; though, in the case of my editing/revising I’m trying to reduce the word count.
Bottom line is you can’t tell how successful you’ve been by simply looking at what you’ve edited/revised. For me, the measure is how what I’ve written sounds. If you’re not employing reading your work aloud as an editing/revising technique, start now.
First and foremost, you can tell if your dialogue sounds authentic; i.e., as if two real people are speaking. I even do the accents. One of my protagonists is Russian but speaks excellent English with just a slight accent. The other protagonist has an upper crust British accent but has lived in America so long she’s quite adept with American slang and vernacular. Makes for interesting conversations and great fun in reading aloud. My neighbors might not agree.
Reading your work aloud is also a big help in spotting typos and most grammatical errors, the ones your eyes skip over when you do a silent read. I think it’s because you enunciate each word and your ear hears any discordance.
Of course, doing this in a coffee shop or a library is not the best of ideas–not that I’ve ever done that. Give it a try if you’ve never done it. I think you’ll like the result. Just pretend that your publisher is having you do the audio book version. Great fun and useful, too.
Today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt should have evoked something dark and supernatural for me, but I went completely in the opposite direction and ended up with pure schmaltz. Don’t let the title, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” fool you. It really is pretty sentimental. If you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.
The set of prompts for the final round of NYCMidnight’s 2014 Short Story Challenge arrived right on time, one minute before midnight last Friday. I, however, was asleep. I barely had one eye open Saturday morning when I fumbled for my iPhone to see what the prompts were: Open genre, a fisherman, jealousy.
The good news is I thought of something right away. The bad news was I had to get up and get ready to drive forty minutes away for a five-hour meeting, after which I’d drive forty minutes back, pending a brief trip to Trader Joe’s. I went to Starbucks for a road breakfast but saw I had some time, so I sat down inside the store, had a somewhat leisurely breakfast, and outlined the story, which had popped into my head. Throughout the day, I’d grab some time during the meeting and jot down snippets of dialogue or ideas which came to me.
Did I forget to mention the story for the final round had to be submitted within twenty-four hours?
By the time I got home and settled to write, it was nearly four, but the outlining had been a good thing. In less than forty-five minutes, I had a first, very rough draft for the 1,500-word story, which came in at 1,510 words. I felt good about that; usually I have to cut hundreds of words. My first edit brought it back to 1,496. I sent it off to an English major to proofread it, and after a quick turnaround, I did another edit and ended up with 1,497 words–not that I added just one word. I cut and added, cut and added, and ended up with a net gain of one word. After formatting it for the contest, I hit the submit button at around six-thirty.
Two and one-half hours to write, edit, and submit a story. Of course, as soon as I hit submit, I wanted to take it back, but I’d crossed the Rubicon, tossed the dice, swung the bat–you get the picture. No do-overs. Again, of course, the next day, I decided to look the story over and saw I wanted to do a complete rewrite. Sigh. Why hadn’t I just waited and submitted in the minutes before midnight and given myself time for improvement?
All of which makes me wonder about writers who dash out a 200,000-word epic and immediately upload it to Amazon–with no editing, no proofreading, no rewriting. Why on earth would you do that? What’s the point? Here’s this measly 1,500-word story I’m losing sleep over because I now see all the ways it could be improved, but other writers blithely put their work out for the world to see without so much as a go-over.
Is it me, or does that just sound nuts?
I’m sure that will anger some people who believe a fresh set of eyes looking at your work will somehow harm your story. Just consider it might improve it. It’s worth taking the chance.
In the meantime, I’ll know by May 29 whether I hit the submit button too soon or not.
The writing project which has obsessed me for the past six weeks to two months is a rewrite/revision of the first book in a series I’ve planned entitled A Perfect Hatred. If you go to my brand new author website to the Works in Progress tab, you can read a synopsis of each book in the series.
This is a project I’ve worked on since 1997, when I happened to be in Oklahoma City when the trial for Timothy McVeigh ended in Denver. I became intrigued by the rabid hatred of this man, perhaps well-deserved for his horrific act, but I wondered if there were more to the story. As I researched, I saw that his story of how he came to be the Oklahoma City Bomber would be a great vehicle to discuss, through fiction, a political movement I’ve long believed to be a clear and present danger to the United States.
Of course, this draft novel started out as one book, a collection of widely disconnected scenes in reality. As I researched and added my fictional version of real events and provided the transitions between scenes, it swelled to nearly 200,000 words. I split it into two books, did more revising and more writing, and ended up with nearly half a million words over three books. Too much. Way, way too much.
A writer friend told me not to worry about it because people don’t have a concept of page numbers in e-books, but, no, it was way too bloated. About three years ago, after having another friend, who is a PhD candidate in English, read it, I began another revision, starting with book one, which I pared down to about 140,000 words. Overall among the three books, I probably cut nearly 300 pages.
And it still wasn’t enough.
I further split it into four books, against the advice of the same writer friend who said length doesn’t matter in an e-book. Then, I put it aside for a full year, didn’t look at any of the four books. Earlier this year, I decided it was time to start again with a total rewrite. Instead of importing the Word file of Book One into Scrivener and editing, I split the screen on my MacBook, with the Word file on one side and a brand new Scrivener file on the other, and I started rewriting. Or maybe just writing.
A few days in, and the results weren’t promising. I had pared and cut and condensed a lot, but I’d also expanded some scenes to the point where, when I reached a particular point in the story, I’d ended up adding more than a thousand words overall.
That didn’t bode well. I went back over what I’d added. No, that was necessary because it filled a hole, but I had to resolve to be a tad more vicious in killing my darlings. Now, at two chapters away from the end, I’ve cut whole chapters, reduced lengthy sections of expository dialogue to summaries, and even done the Virginia Woolf “and then time passed” thing. It’s probably going to come in at around 115,000 words. Better, but there may be room for more cutting.
The issue is real espionage involves a lot of researching, a lot of briefings, and a lot of meetings. Even in light of all its flaws in stretching the truth, the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is a prime example of how it works: Sometimes it takes years, and the needed intelligence comes in by accident or coincidence. Alan Furst’s books are rich in historical detail as well as the painstaking process of being a spy and not getting caught. Some people don’t like getting bogged down in those details, but I feel you do real spies a disservice if you don’t show what it’s really like.
In real life you don’t go to M for a five-minute explanation of the mission over a glass of Scotch. You don’t go to Q for a collection of implausible gadgets. You get a data-dump. As one special forces guy I know once said to me, “You read every scrap of paper you get because you never know which bit of information will save your life.”
In my drive to make my spies authentic, I’m in the tough place of making that mundane information-gathering lifestyle interesting while conforming to the vague publication industry standard that 100,000-plus words are too much.
Give up? Never. Carry on? Of course. Books two, three, and four need to lose the bloat, too.
Balancing the need for back story and the need for clarity in a work of fiction can be more than delicate–it can be frustrating. I’m currently running a novella 5,000 words at a time through my new critique group. Though the novella uses the characters I’ve introduced in Blood Vengeance and Spy Flash, I wanted the novella to stand alone, i.e., someone who hasn’t read the other books could read the novella and know exactly what was going on.
That means sprinkling in some expository detail and back story so the reader has context. Turns out I overdid it a bit. I wrote about a page and a half, mostly dialogue, about an event which had happened in a previous short story. The critiquers liked it, found it intriguing, and assumed it would have some significance later in the novella. Oops.
My initial inclination was that the reader needed this amount of detail to move on. What I didn’t want to do is leave open questions which would hinder someone from reading further, but it turns out the readers got tripped up on the details. Not just tripped up–that amount of back story started them down a path which has nothing to do with the story I’m telling in the novella.
After some chat about how to address this, one person suggested that I simply remove the detail, allude to the event, then move on. I wasn’t sure that would work, and I thought about it for a couple of days. Then, last night I sat down and edited that scene. A page and a half of exposition and back story I edited down to three lines, and, lo and behold, it worked. Less sometimes is more.
One of the challenges in using a photo prompt to inspire a story is when the photo is of an inanimate object, or objects, in a mundane setting. When I first saw the Friday Fictioneers prompt on Wednesday, I thought, well, what do I make of this? On Thursday, I took another look, and a unique point of view came to me. So, let me know what you think of “Innocent Bystander.” As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.
The recent deep-freeze from the errant polar vortex this week froze more than water pipes and noses. It induced a brain freeze–in me, at least. I couldn’t seem to coax a single word from that cold-addled brain onto the computer screen. All I really wanted to do was sleep and eat soup.
I’ve already written about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and how the shortened periods of daylight get me down, and, well, never mind that the intervals of daylight are actually increasing right now, when it’s mind numbingly cold and gray, my brain decides to hibernate. None of my usual writing pick-me-ups seemed to work. I looked at today’s Friday Fictioneers prompt (which comes out on Wednesday) and went “meh.” I scanned the news outlets for a topic for my mid-week political blog and went “ho-hum.” (Thank goodness Gov. Chris Christie is a perfect foil for a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal; otherwise, I’d have skipped the political blog this week. So, thanks to the Jersey guy, my column was only a day late.)
Today dawned (I’m sure it did because it’s moderately light out there.) rainy and foggy but also with an idea for the Friday Fictioneers prompt, one that was at least satisfying. However, I managed to roll over and go back to sleep. My luck is improving, though, because when I woke again, the idea was still there–and ended up being 121 words, way too long for a 100-word story. Snip, snip, cut, slice, and lo and behold “Siren’s Song” met the word count with idea still intact.
As usual, if you can’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.
Now, I’m going to catch a nap or eat a bowl of soup. Whatever.
At some point this year Friday Fictioneers will be three years old. Pretty amazing to stay around this long. We’ve had vets leave and come back and a lot of newbies come and go as well, but the stories have always intriguing and thought-provoking. I guess that’s what makes us stay and write every week.
With my other online writing group, I set my writing goals for the year, to include participating in Friday Fictioneers, so I’ll be around as long as Friday Fictioneers is around. However, writing a story for Friday Fictioneers isn’t merely to check a box. Paring a story down to 100 words improves not only your writing skills but your editing/revising abilities as well.
Here’s an example. When I first started writing these 100-word stories, my first draft was typically 300-400 words, which took a lot of editing to get to 100 words as a coherent story. As I became more practiced, first draft began to drop in word count–200 words, 150 words, until now when a draft comes in at 105 or so words. Makes the editing easier and quicker, too. Plus doing these flash fiction stories has inspired me to participate in other flash fiction exercises with different word counts. Yep, I’m very versatile.
Another way I’ve used Friday Fictioneers story prompts is to hone my dialogue skills. I’ve written several stories, which consist solely of dialogue. Today is one of those exercises. The story is “Did I Tell You the One About My Talking Dog?” As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list. It’ll be easy. After a purge of 2013 stories, it’ll be the only possibility there.
Since this is the first time I finished NaNoWriMo with ten days to spare, I’ve had to resist the temptation to start revising that 94,000-word rough draft.
Why not, you ask?
Well, it’s too fresh in my head. I had that whole scene-by-scene outline before me as I did all that frantic writing, so I’d be too tempted this close to the rough draft to say, “Ah, this is fine. It follows the outline perfectly, so why mess with a good thing?”
Now, I’m not saying that rough draft isn’t a good thing. It’s a complete rough draft, and that’s the accomplishment. Frankly, anyone who goes into NaNoWriMo thinking he or she will have a complete and final novel draft in thirty days, and some unfortunately do, is deluding him- or herself and lowering the bar for indie authors.
I know that within that rough draft is the kernel of a good story; otherwise, I wouldn’t have written it. I wouldn’t have put my butt in a chair for eight to ten hours straight for too many days in a row just to write a piece of crap. Right now, that draft is fulsome, i.e., overdone. It’s full of unnecessary words, too many dialogue tags, and long jaunts inside characters’ heads.
To make certain the non-elective surgery to come is successful, I need to let it sit awhile, let it get out of my head, which is hard because it’s book two of a three-book series; I’m already plotting and planning book three. What’s more, I left a major issue between two characters unresolved at the end of the rough draft, and that’s driving me nuts trying to figure out how to address it.
In the past I’ve put a rough NaNo draft aside for up to six months before I’ve delved back into it. That may seem like a long time, but that has worked in the past for clearing the deck in my head and allowing me to take a look at the draft with a fresh perspective, or rather, an editing/revising perspective. I’m much more likely, after that interval of time, to cut those unnecessary words and extra dialogue tags, to turn the internal musings of a character into dialogue or action.
Writing is a process, a long, convoluted, and sometimes painful process, but the first step is having a draft to work from. Regardless of the critics of National Novel Writing Month–we call them “NaNo Haters”–having that draft kicks the process off, and it’s all uphill from there, uphill as in working hard and making the climb to reach that apex of a polished, readable, publishable draft. And that’s a good thing.
When you cultivate a group of writer friends and ask them to read and critique stories and manuscripts, an important obligation as a good writer friend is to reciprocate. So, when one writer friend who gave me excellent feedback on my work in progress asked me to do the same for hers, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the first two chapters of her WIP in my last two workshops at Tinker Mountain and had been eager to read more.
I was so eager, in fact, when I picked up the MS yesterday morning, I didn’t put it down all day–which is why Monday’s post is happening on Tuesday. But it’s great when something lives up to your expectations. When my friend’s book gets published–and it will–this will be my first experience with the evolution of someone’s work other than my own, and it’s a humbling experience. Humbling, in that I felt honored she asked me to read it, that she values my opinion.
Here’s the thing. She doesn’t expect sycophantic raving about how good it is. (Trust me, though, it is that good.) She wants a writer’s eye and honest criticism, which she’ll get from me. Again, I got that from her, and I’ll return it in kind. And I’ll get a little thrill when I buy my copy, knowing I helped in some small way. So looking forward to that.
And new topic. I’ve been working on the next set of stories for Spy Flash 2. (In case you didn’t know it, last year I published a collection of my espionage short stories, Spy Flash. To read all about it, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Published Works tab, then click on Spy Flash from the drop-down list. You can click through to purchase it from Amazon.com, and, oh, by the way, if you buy the paperback, you can download the Kindle version for free. Commercial over.) One thing which has stood out for me is the way odd words unconsciously work their way into a story.
One story had an inordinate use of the word “just” and not the adjective, as in a “just cause,” but the adverb, as in “at this moment” or “in the immediate past.” Okay, one or two usages, maybe, but I found this usage in a couple of sentences per paragraph. I don’t remember typing them; it was as if they “just” appeared. Of course, that’s not the case. The word popped into my head–quite a few times, apparently–and I wrote it. In most cases, there was no need to substitute a better word; deleting “just” made the sentence stronger.
A few weeks ago, I had the same thing happen with the word “always.” Ack! Where are these crutch words coming from?
I suspect because I do a lot of “pressure writing,” i.e., meeting deadlines and word count goals I’ve mostly set for myself, they filter in, and I let that happen because subconsciously I know they’ll come out in the wash, or edit. What surprises me, though, is how often they show up.
And now I’ll bring this back around to the original topic. This is why having a group of writers who’ll critique you with honesty is important. They won’t let you get away with “just” and “always” or whatever crutch word creeps into your work. If you don’t have a group, find one or create one. Social media are great for this. Part of the joy of writer conferences is meeting and networking with many different types of writers from all over. Social media allow you to form critique groups without having to be face-to-face, and, even then, there’s FaceTime and Skype.
Don’t fear the critique. Embrace it. And watch out for those crutch words.