My Three Rs: Rereadin’, Rewritin’, and Revisin’

Some days you have to choose–blogging versus spending quality time with the grandkids and one of your BFFs. Yesterday, the grandkids and the BFF won. So, no blogging, though I did spend a couple of hours in the evening working on the novel rewrite/revision.

I have about forty pages left from the original, rough draft to rewrite/revise. In the process I’ve added about 10,000 words to a manuscript, which was “just” 63,000 words to begin with. I’ve been told 60,000 to 70,000 words is a good length for an MS you’re going to shop to agents. Of course, I’ve also been told, at a different writing conference, that 100,000 words is tops for such an MS. So, who knows?

I think this first revision will end up at about 76,000 words, give or take a thousand. That doesn’t bother me, since the next step–after letting the MS gel a while–is to do a line edit. That should bring me back closer to 70-72,000 words, which I think is enough to tell a story in two time lines.

Why did I add words in a rewrite? Well, that happens sometimes, especially after time has passed since you wrote the draft and a re-read shows you scenes, which have no context. The actions, dialogue, setting, etc., seem to have just fallen from the ether onto the page. The context has to be there, or the reader will spot the disconnect right away. Sometimes the additional material has to be there to make a character two- or even three-dimensional. Other times it’s because what is obvious to the writer isn’t always to the reader. Yes, readers like it when you give them just enough for them to make the leap of logic; however, you can’t give them a chasm to jump. Readers are not Evel Knievel.

Here’s an example: A character in this novel is obsessed with the unborn child of her own son, killed in World War II. It wasn’t enough to just state this. I needed to show examples of this obsession, and this led to a scene of a frenzied woman going to the house where her daughter-in-law has sought refuge from her and making a scene. And of course, I had to write other scenes to show this tendency so that the final scene had context and was believable. Also, of course, those scenes may not stay, but at the time I needed them to understand this character better. You can’t condense until you have the context of the characters, the plot, even the setting.

Another example: Since I made up a town in the Shenandoah Valley, I had to give it a history, some of which is based on three different towns where I’ve resided, as a child, a teenager, and an adult. The history is great–I both researched and relied on my memory, and I’ve created what comes across, to me, as a real place. However, again, how much of that history is essential to the overall story in the novel remains to be seen, but I needed that to fully realize this fictional town in my head.

Of course, this fixation on rewriting/revising means I’ve created very little original material, at least not novel length. I average two pieces of flash fiction a week, which keeps the writing brain engaged. I do, however, miss the process of sitting down and churning out a novel-length work.

Then, again, that’s what NaNoWriMo is for–and that’s only three months away.

Three months? I guess I better start thinking about something new to write.

Back to the Real World

Yesterday, when I was supposed to blog, my brain was still jet-lagged. You spend a week in a beautiful state on the west coast, and by the time you adjust to the three-hour time difference, it’s time to come home–and adjust to the three-hour time difference. I know the purpose of a vacation is to “vacate” your regular life and relax, but I felt bad that I didn’t do any writing, except for a 100-word Friday Fictioneers piece. I did no work at all on the project I’m in the middle of revising. Bad me.

A writer friend pointed out over coffee yesterday afternoon that the break from the revision project is probably good, that I likely needed to take a step back, not think about it, then dive back in. Sounds like a plan, except that yesterday my brain couldn’t wrap itself around what time zone it occupied, much less concentrating on revising a novel.

Let’s hope today is better and more productive, and at least I’m writing a blog post. That has to count for something.

In Memoriam

Now on to something a bit more serious. A writer died over the weekend. He didn’t have the national notoriety of a Richard Matheson or a Vince Flynn, but he was beloved here in the Shenandoah Valley and among his fellow writers in the Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta Group of Writers (SWAG Writers). His poetry, whether about animals he spotted in his yard, lost loves, or eccentric composers, was sublime and touching. He was initially dubious about our open mic nights. “Can’t we just sit at the table and read to each other?” he asked. We encouraged him to the stage, but he didn’t have enough light to see his pages. We would take turns over the weeks and months holding a lamp over his shoulder so he could see well enough to read. Why? Because his poetry was wonderful. He gradually took to the applause and was often among the first to sign up for reading slots.

Then, in the past few months, he stopped coming. We tried to find out what was wrong through mutual friends, and we heard that he just “isn’t doing well,” a southern metaphor for “he doesn’t have much time left.” Then, we heard he would be coming back to SWAG Open Mic night this month, but he didn’t show. Again, we asked around, and then we got the news. He had passed away this past Saturday at the age of 79, far too young we thought.

His obit described him as “a loving father, grandfather, friend, musician, teacher, choir director, author, poet, and wine connoisseur.” I think we in SWAG got to experience each aspect of him through his poetry readings. We had already missed his whimsical verse over the past few months, and now knowing we’ll never hear it again is disheartening. He was a true Renaissance Man, whose wit and wisdom we will miss, and we are lessened in our craft by the loss of him.

Ted Grudzinski

Ted Grudzinski

Rest in peace, Theodore George Grudzinski, poet and fellow SWAGger. We will always keep a chair at the table for you.

Revisions, Revisions, Revisions

Whoever said revising is the hardest part of writing, give him or her a cigar. The odd thing is, I don’t know why that 1) surprises me and/or 2) annoys me. After all, I’ve been writing/revising something for close to forty years. Not a single one of my government reports or magazine articles made it to print without multiple revisions. I suppose in that case because the revisions were engendered by third parties rather than being self-induced, I just accepted it and moved on to the next one.

Every writer–no, don’t deny this because it’s every writer–grumbles when it comes to polishing that rough draft. Some people erroneously decide that first cut is good enough and rush to Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing and bestow on us a rough draft full of plot holes, inconsistencies, typos, grammatical goofs, putrid punctuation, and sloppy style. They are usually the first ones to wail that self-publishers get no respect. Well, duh, accept some responsibility for that. And I’ve self-published three collections of genre short stories. I agonized over every word, used the services of a proofreader, and some typos still got past us. I felt as if I’d betrayed the reader in that case. The advantage of direct publishing, though, is that I can upload a corrected version and only lose maybe one day of availability.

When my workshop instructor at Tinker Mountain praised my novel excerpt, he made a point of declaring how polished it was–and then suggested some line edits, ones that were necessary. He didn’t ask me for a copy of the entire MS as is. He told me to go home and revise it then get back in touch. I didn’t and don’t resent that feedback. This is a person whose opinion I respect, and he’s right. It’s a decent rough draft, which needs a lot of work to be a final product.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from grumbling as I go about Revision Round One.

What, you ask, you’re going to revise it more than once? Yes. I have a lot to digest about it: the instructor’s critique but my fellow workshoppers’ critiques as well. As I reviewed their comments, I saw they, with their fresh-eyed attention to the MS, made some good points which I have to factor into a revision. That means at least two revisions, perhaps more because I always hand off a “finished” MS to someone who will look at it from an editor’s perspective.

Why am I grumbling, then? Well, this novel is very different from what I usually write, which are historical thrillers. This novel is a combination of literary fiction and historical fiction (because it has a present-day and a past timeline interwoven), with a strand of mystery added, and the revision is taking me away from my characters, Mai and Alexei, who are like friends. Go on, admit it. Your characters become larger than life to you, too; otherwise, you’d write them with one dimension.

In this novel I’m also exploring a subject I never thought I’d address–race relations, historically and in the present day, and that’s by no means easy. Not that I’m tiptoeing around anything. I’m working very hard to be honest, and it’s difficult. My usual characters are just as bleeding-heart liberal as I am, so to be inside the head of a woman from the 1940’s to whom white supremacy is a given is very, very challenging. I’m trying not to make her a caricature and to show her as a human being, but that’s a trial as well. It’s too easy to just make her evil and not explain why she is the way she is.

However, doing something different from what you usually write expands you as a writer. It opens you to other possibilities, makes you look at your writing differently and more critically. A few years ago, I would have told you I could never have written a story of fewer than 500 words, much less 100 words, but I do it, twice, every week. I never disdained literary fiction–I read a lot of it–but I never thought I’d write a novel-length literary fiction work. But I have, and I’m very proud of it. Better yet, I’m excited about it, and I’ll be even more excited about it when it comes through the other side of the revision process.

Where revising your work is concerned, resistance is futile. You’ll be a better writer through revision.

June’s Final Friday Fictioneers

Can it be possible we’ll soon be halfway through this year? Where has the time gone?

The novel revision is going well. Ahead of schedule in fact, which is good since I’ll be on vacation July 7 – 15. I think I’m about at the point to take a break from it anyway, so vacay will come at a good time for a lot of reasons. I’m sure I’ll come back to it refreshed.

Tuesday, I taught a one-night workshop on putting suspense into your writing, and that was enormous fun. We did it on a Facebook Event page, which didn’t go as smoothly as I’d like, so if anyone has any other suggestions, I’d appreciate it. Still, it was pretty cool to be “teacher” again, and I was honored someone asked me to do it.

Friday Fictioneers LogoMaybe because I’m about to take a cross-country flight and maybe because in my old job I worked a lot of “unruly passenger” issues, I came up with “On The Road Again.” Not exactly an homage to the Willie Nelson song of the same name, but I think you’ll see it’s apt. The photo prompt has a lot of layers to it–the POV and the implied motion. Simple yet complex, and my little story probably doesn’t do it justice, but it was fun to write.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select it from the drop-down list.

A Little Respect for NaNoWriMo

During the critique of my novel excerpt in my Tinker Mountain workshop, I mentioned I’d completed the rough draft during National Novel Writing Month, and a small discussion ensued. The instructor, Fred Leebron, had a dim view of NaNoWriMo based on other workshops where people had submitted excerpts from their own NaNo works. Needless to say he wasn’t impressed.

Another workshop member sneered that NaNoWriMo emphasizes “quantity over quality.” That’s true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean quantity can’t become quality, I pointed out. I referred that person to the website, where the Office of Letters and Lights emphasizes editing and revising a NaNo draft, but I conceded you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink.

Later, during my one-on-one conference, Leebron admitted that he had a new respect for NaNoWriMo, given the quality of my work and another person’s workshop piece, also from NaNoWriMo. I explained that I do nothing with a NaNo draft for six months, then I pick it up and start revising. I also explained that the first twenty pages I’d submitted for the workshop had been worked and reworked during a writing retreat in May and honed especially for Tinker Mountain. The rest of the draft, I explained, needed a lot of work. Nevertheless, Leebron conceded he had new respect for NaNo but wished that every participant didn’t rush to publish or to submit to workshops before editing. I agree.

Of the two NaNoWriMo-ers in the workshop, I’m the seat of the pants writer. The other was an outliner. Now, I’ve done both, and, in fact, the only other NaNoWriMo MS I’m particularly proud of is one I meticulously outlined before November 1. Last year’s effort came from a germ of an idea in a piece of flash fiction I did for Friday Fictioneers. Either way works, but in some ways it’s the aftermath of NaNoWriMo that matters. The hype goes toward the build-up to November, to the daily word counts, and hitting that 50,000-word mark in thirty days. OLL can’t force you to behave like a professional writer and edit that MS–edit as in critically look at it and revise it into a polished MS. That’s up to the writer.

There are very few–I’d say negligible–writers who can go from a rough draft to a viable published work in those thirty days. For one, since the word count is what’s important, I’m finding that in my revision of last year’s MS, I’m eliminating about three-quarters of the dialogue tags. Using them for every line of dialogue is great for word counting but distracting when reading. Sometimes it’s the small things like that which distinguishes a professional MS from a rank amateur one.

So, I offer this challenge to fellow NaNoWriMo-ers: Do your part to enhance NaNoWriMo’s image in the literary world. Don’t publish that MS right away. Polish it. Edit it. Revise it. Run it through a critique group. Do whatever you need to do to make certain it reflects well on you as a professional writer. Making NaNoWriMo look good is just a pleasant side-effect.

Friday Fictioneers First Day of Summer!

Now the hard work begins. Now, I’m coming down off the high of the positive remarks about my novel excerpt and beginning the revision of the first draft. I have the workshop instructor’s marked-up copy, plus my notes from our one-on-one conference, plus the comments from my fellow workshoppers, and those will be a big help, but revising is the hardest work of all.

Since the key to any good work of fiction is to get the reader to turn the page, the extraneous dreck has to go. I think Fred Leebron’s words will have to become a mantra for revising: “The first draft is for the characters; the final is for the reader.”

So, here’s my process. The first revision is a re-type of the MS, editing as I go. Then, I’ll put it aside for a couple of weeks to get it out of my head. Next, I’ll print out a double-spaced copy and do a physical line-edit. (I’m old school; I still need to have a hard-copy version and a red pen.) While doing the line-edit is when I’ll read the MS aloud, and it’s amazing what you find when you hear your words spoken. Once I incorporate the changes from the line-edit, I’ll either pass the MS through my critique group or have a couple of folks from the workshop review it. Finally, it’ll be off to the workshop instructor for review, and then the process will probably start all over again; but that’s the writing life.

Another hard part of the hard part is that for the next several months I’ll be focused on this MS alone, and I know I’ll miss working on the Mai/Alexei novels. I’ll still be doing Spy Flash stories, but delving into my world of spies and intrigue will have to take a back seat for a while.

Friday Fictioneers LogoAnd I’ll always have Friday Fictioneers! I know I’ve praised this exercise before, but it has allowed me to delve into genres I thought were beyond me–sci-fi, fantasy, horror. Today is one of those times, even though it’s a fairly straight-forward photo prompt: a soldier standing guard. What you don’t see is what the soldier guards, and that’s what got my imagination going–and you get, “The Unknown Soldier.”

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title above, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Off to Retreat!

This week I’ll be at The Porches in rural, central Virginia at a writing retreat put on by one of my writer friends, Mel Walsh Jones. Since it’s my first writing retreat, I’m not sure what to expect, but I’m hoping I get a lot of editing and revising done on the rough draft I completed for last year’s National Novel Writing Month.

Mainly, I’m looking forward to getting away from all the distractions my house and home town can offer and communing with other writers and perhaps a bit with nature. So, a short post today, and I’ll write more about how the retreat went next week, after I return.

Happy New Year, Friday Fictioneers!

Happy New Writing Year!

The holidays are great, but they’re over at last. No rushing about shopping or cooking or cleaning up a mound of discarded wrapping paper. The relatives have all gone home, and no more guilt-trips about spending time with your lap top, doing that, you know, hobby thing you do, writing.

I managed to keep to my writing schedule between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but not much else, and I, for one, am glad to be getting back to the writing/revising/reading schedule I’ve become comfortable with. If I don’t, the guilt-trips will come from me.

Friday Fictioneers LogoThis first Friday Fictioneers of 2013 has an apt inspiration photo, and it took me to my usual genre–the thriller. Yes, it’s a bit B-movie, a bit noir, but I hope when you read it you get that I tried to juxtapose beauty and something normal with something dark and abnormal.

That’s what usually attracts me to read fiction, the contrasts between dark and light, good and evil, the usual and the unusual. I’ve often wondered why that is. You’d think with the disruptive life I had, I’d want no surprises in my fiction. I do probably read more literary fiction than anything else, but I often need my dose of something that wrenches me from normalcy, because, well, otherwise life–and reading–would be boring.

Today’s story is “Indulgences,” and, as usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of this post and click on the Friday Fictioneers tab. Then, you can select “Indulgences” from the drop-down list.

An Early Holiday Present

December seems to be a month of publishing firsts for me–my first collection of short stories, Rarely Well Behaved (out of print) appeared in December 2000. I remember when the proof copy arrived as if it were yesterday. Never before had I held a real book with my name on it as the author. I had approved the cover (based on my suggestions) a Scan 2few weeks before, but to see it on the book was a whole different experience. As I flipped the pages and saw my words there, I thought perhaps I was dreaming.

When I “refreshed” the short stories in Rarely Well Behaved this past year and reissued them as two eBooks then paperbacks with new covers, I was pretty excited, but it wasn’t the same kind of feeling as holding your first published work in your hands.

I’m hoping the past is prologue for a whole new collection of short stories–short, short stories–coming out this month. (Fingers crossed that it won’t take me twelve years for the next book.)

Spy Flash is a collection of flash fiction stories I’ve written over the past year in response to Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cube Challenge. Each week Jennie posted a picture of a roll of a nine-cube combination of object and action Story Cubes, and based on those objects and actions, I wrote a story, usually of fewer than 2,000 words. There was some cube repetition, and I pounded my head on the desk a couple of times trying to think of different ways to use a pyramid, beyond the obvious.

About ten stories into the adventure, which I initially intended just to use to explore back story on the two main characters in my novels, I starting thinking about what to do with the stories. Somewhere along the line, I decided I would compile them into a collection of linked flash fiction. Even though I’m sure it’s been done, I thought that rather clever. (Hey, I’m an infrequently published writer; someone needs to brag on me.) I also thought the possible title clever as well. I mean, what else would you call flash fiction about spies except Spy Flash?

I then decided once the story count reached twenty-five, that’s when I’d compile them into a collection. I began the compilation again about ten stories in, and the first thing I noticed was that inserting them into the manuscript in the order I’d written them and published them on my blog resulted in massive incoherence. So much incoherence, in fact, I doubted the decision to compile them after all. They were linked in that they were about the same people in a specific profession, but because I had moved back and forth on the timeline of their careers, the vignettes were a jumble. For a while, I couldn’t come up with a solution. I liked each story individually, but I didn’t like the whole they made.

So, I set the idea aside awhile–always a good thing. I continued to write the stories, but I really felt as if I were just compounding the problem. Finally, when I had the twenty-five stories, I printed the manuscript and skimmed it. Still a jumble. Then, I had one of those forehead-smacking, “duh” moments and rearranged the stories in chronological order. Hello! The whole thing made sense now. It had a logical flow, and, if anything, the stories were even more linked. Then, I found if I added transitions and references to earlier stories, what had been a jumble of disconnected snapshots became a big, coherent picture.

Once I completed a revised draft of the manuscript, I realized I hadn’t been this excited about a work of mine since Rarely Well Behaved.

And the cover for Spy Flash? I wanted something dark and mysterious, something that conveyed spying as well as the less exciting aspects of espionage. What better than a black Spy Flash Cover 2.dofile folder and an all-seeing eye?

As of today, I’m waiting for the proof copy of Spy Flash to arrive, and I know when I hold it in my hands I’ll have that giddy feeling of accomplishment. I’m a much better writer twelve years down the road thanks to a lot of people, and I’ll be just as proud of Spy Flash as I was of Rarely Well Behaved. I’ll again rue that my Dad won’t see it and that my brother–the guy who hated to read but read my first book–won’t see this one.

For a long moment I’ll savor that feeling of “yay, me, look what I did,” then reality will set in–lining up book signings and arranging the publicity because, hey, I’m not John LeCarre or Alan Furst. I’m just Phyllis Anne Duncan, who’s pretty excited about the publication of her second, original book of short stories.

NaNoWriMo Let-Down?

Counting today, five days remain in National Novel Writing Month. I finished my first draft (65,000+ words) about a week ago, and I think the writing adrenaline left me then.

NaNoWriMo involves a lot of build-up in the month of October, rolls along at a fever intensity for the thirty days of November, then you have a writing crash. Holiday shopping and other preparations intervene, and December can easily become a Month of No Writing.

(And here, I’d like to give a shout-out to my regional NaNoWriMo group, Shenandoah Valley and Winchester Wrimos. The administrators–Susan Warren Utley, LaMishia Allen, and Rebecca Postupak give plenty of encouragement and become your personal cheerleaders through their in-person and on-line events. Great group and great folks.)

I have a personal rule about a NaNoWriMo draft: I put it aside for several months, just to move it from the forefront of my writing brain, and work on other things. After finishing the first draft on November 20, I really had to resist going back and beginning to edit the draft right away. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Not enough distance yet between the first draft and the need to revise. For me, at least, I need to clear that first draft away and forget about it for a while. Only then can I come back and take a “fresh” look at it.

The professionalism of the people who run NaNoWriMo means they don’t encourage you to run out and self-publish that first draft, and to further encourage our success, their web site includes a list of NaNoWriMo-ers who have had their NaNoWriMo novels published. When you study this list, you’ll see that, for those who’ve had their novels published in the traditional manner, it was the novel from two or three years before, i.e., after likely several rounds of editing and revising.

So, if you’re not revising that newly minted NaNoWriMo draft, how can you keep from getting a post-NaNoWriMo let-down? First, who says you only have to start a new novel in November? Start a new novel, work on revising a short story, edit a previous NaNoWriMo work, write a piece of flash fiction–the writing possibilities are endless.

I’m “lucky” in that I have all these manuscripts sitting around in various stages of completion. There’s always something for me to work on, and it’s not like I have to force myself to write. The issue for me has always been treating writing like what it now is–my work, my career. I mean, I took Thanksgiving Day off and felt guilty about it. I guess my pre-retirement, Type A work personality just shifted to my new job. And that’s a good thing?

The only let-down from NaNoWriMo for me was not working on something new and different from what I usually write. With my writing, though, in more ways than one, there’s always work to do.

How about you? What do you do after you’ve finished a project? Do you take a writing break or start right in on the next project?