And the Revising Goes On and On and…

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.

The Prodigal Returns – 2

Friday Fictioneers LogoAs some of you have noticed, I took a long break from Friday Fictioneers, not because I’d grown tired of it or uninspired, but because I needed to re-focus on other aspects of my writing. Every week, though, the photo prompt would show up in my Facebook feed, and I’d look away because I knew if I saw the picture, I’d get distracted from what I had set myself to do.

I’ve written here before about the toll that winter takes on me–not enough light, joints which are creakier every year in the cold–and I knew I could concentrate on only one writing thing at a time; I knew I couldn’t juggle the several flash fiction events I do every week with the need to do a massive rewrite of a manuscript. So, the manuscript won out. Sorry.

But I can’t stop to think about the Friday Fictioneers stories that might have been. I’m back, and I missed you guys.

And, of course, for my first story after my hiatus, I chose dystopia and speculative fiction. I mean, what else would I write? “Memento Mori,” I hope, will make you think about all those roadside and street-side impromptu memorials which crop up after a tragedy. As usual, if you can see the link in the title a couple of lines above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab; then select the story from the drop-down list.

Holy Friday Fictioneers!

I got the first feedback from a beta reader for the novel I’m been finalizing. Apparently, I hit on all cylinders with this novel, at least with her. She’s a writer as well, and I respect her opinion, so I’m a pretty happy camper. One out of four means I’m batting .250. Respectable, but let’s hope my batting average improves.

I’ve mentioned that my head has been so deep into that particular novel’s rewrites and revisions that I’ve been having issues doing much of anything else the past couple of weeks. Then, last night I dreamed about my two spies–yes, writers dream of their characters; it’s another thing which makes us special. I woke this morning with the inclination to work on a new piece featuring them. I’m stoked! I’ve got Pandora tuned to the Metallica channel, and I’m reading to rock some Spy Flash!

Friday Fictioneers LogoFirst, though, is today’s Friday Fictioneers story, “Necessary Sacrifices.” Maybe it was the Metallica, but when I saw the photo prompt, which is beyond creepy to me, I had to dip a toe in the supernatural/horror pool.

As usual, if you don’t see the link in 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.

Obsessive Manuscripts

Well, I finally finished the line-edit of the rewrite of my rough NaNoWriMo 2012 manuscript. Actually, it was two line-edits: a mark-up of a printed copy of the MS, and an on-screen edit after I’d incorporated the first set of line edits. I reached the point where I was tweaking the tweaks or making what, as a magazine editor, I used to call “happy to glad changes.” Enough was enough. I stopped editing and sent a copy off to four writer friends who had agreed to be beta readers.

So, what did I learn, aside from remembering not to do “happy to glad” changes?

Well, for one thing, I found I can re-write a 400-page manuscript in two months’ time, but only if I do little else except that.

Excessive use of dialogue tags is great for padding your NaNoWriMo word count but tedious when you’re editing.

A manuscript can take over your life. You think about it when people are talking to you about something else. You dream about it. You bore other people explaining about how you decided to cut a whole chapter because it didn’t really add to the story. It intrudes when you’re trying to write about something else, and you feel guilty when you’re paying attention to it and not other writing projects. Then, you feel guilty when you’re working on other writing projects and not it. It (the MS) obsesses you; you’re obsessed with it; it’s an obsession.

And that’s a good thing.

I suppose.

No, no, it is, it is. Really. But, even after you’ve sent it off to the beta readers, you still think you should be editing it. Nothing big comes to mind. No plot holes except those you’ve already found, but it’s hard to be patient and wait for the betas’ comments.

I have to say, though, I’m really, really proud of this manuscript. I like the characters, the story, the settings, the twists and turns. I’m glad what started out as a suggestion in a comment on a 100-word Friday Fictioneers story turned into a 385-page, fully developed novel not involving spies and guns and intrigue.

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t ever stop writing about those things. Rather, the change of pace was challenging, and I hope I met the challenge. We’ll see. It’s another of those things you have to be patient about.

Did I mention I’m not a very patient person? I’m more the “why wait for it when you can go out and get it done” kind of person. (Of course, as anyone who knows me will allude to, I’ll think it to death before I act on it.) I’m more than eager to get this MS before some agents, but I also want those agents to see the best possible manuscript; so, patience it is.

Sigh.

Friday Fictioneers Work up a Storm!

I actually feel a bit odd not having a writing conference to go to this weekend. In fact, I don’t have another one until October, which will close out my year of writing conferences/workshops until January of next year, when it all starts all over again.

This week and this weekend will be consumed with my line edit of the rewrite of the draft of the novel whose excerpt went over very well in this past June’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. Several of my classmates from that workshop and the 2012 one have agreed to read the MS and provide feedback, so I hope to get that process started next week.

And I haven’t forgotten I need to do an in-depth post on last weekend’s “A Gathering of Writers” in North Carolina.

I am worried, though, that I’ve been so focused on editing/revising (which is important, don’t get me wrong) I’ve not been able to do much original stuff of length. I love flash, and I’m always inspired by the prompts from the two flash exercises I participate in weekly. Rather, I need to expand a little and go back to pieces that are longer–considerably–than 100 or so words. After all, NaNoWriMo is just two months away, so I need to get into the habit of at least 1,700 words–a day!

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo I’m sure has inspired many different genres, but for some reason it led me to one of my favorite genres to read–the ghost story, i.e., the subtle ghost story. Don’t let the title, “Socratic Method,” put you off. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.

Friday Fictioneers–and a Finish!

The first rewrite of my “Tinker Mountain” manuscript is done! Woo-hoo! I worked for the most part of twelve hours the other day and got it in the can. Scrivener has a great tool–Compile–which, after a couple of mouse-clicks, renders a fully formatted manuscript. In my case it came to 398 pages. Oi! Too much for either of my printers, so a quick email to my local Staples, and I had a copy.

Oh, I was so tempted to pick up my red pen and dig in! Patience, though. I want to set it aside for a week or two, get it out of my head, then delve into the line edit. I have some decisions to make: Do I want to show the bad guy (who seduces one girl and rapes another on the same day) exhibiting some redeeming quality? As in, he saves the men in his unit from a German machine gun assault on D-Day? Or do I just acknowledge this as fact and let his egregious behavior stand on its own? Rather than just show another character’s “fatal flaw” (the fact he can’t keep his fly zipped when a younger woman is around), do I include some back story to explain why he is the way he is?

So, those thoughts, and more, will be bouncing around inside my head for the next couple of weeks. I hope they’ll be resolved by the time I sit down with the red pen.

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt comes from a place I’ve been lucky to visit twice–our 50th state, Hawaii. It’s an incredible shot from Mauna Kea on the Big Island, across the ocean, to the smaller island of Maui. Truly beautiful, and it was very inspirational. I love Hawaii, with the mixture of modern, urban life and native Hawaiian spirituality. And where else can you get up close and personal with extinct and not-so-extinct volcanoes?

I hope you enjoy “Free Flight,” and, 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, then select the story from the drop-down list.

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.

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.