Letting Go, with a Safety Net

cut-chapter-4This morning I deleted chapter 4. Selected the whole damn thing and zapped it. The old chapter 5 is the new chapter 4. Viva chapter 4!

When reading through the printout of draft #2, I couldn’t help noticing that chapter 3 segued nicely into chapter 5 and chapter 4 felt like an extended detour. At present Wolfie has two point-of-view (POV) characters. Chapters 3 and 5 were from the POV of the 50-something woman. Chapter 4 was from the POV of the sixth-grade girl.

When the timing is right, the POV switch works. The idea is to switch just when the reader wants to know what the other character is up to. This time it was more like a TV thriller cutting to a commercial in the middle of a high-intensity scene.

Another thing: When I wrote draft 2, chapter 4, I wasn’t a big fan of Felicia, the sixth-grader’s mother.  Dead giveaway: The woman won’t use linguiça in her kale soup because she thinks it’s unhealthy. In my world that’s a deal-breaker. But Felicia has become deeper, more sympathetic. She’s caught in the middle of a difficult situation, but she seems to be on her daughter’s side. So I was more than ready to jettison all evidence that I was underestimating Felicia.

So I did. I jettisoned the whole chapter.

However, I’ve got a safety net: If at some point I have regrets, or a vague hunch that there’s something in old chapter 4 that might come in handy, draft 2 remains on my hard drive, and it includes old chapter 4.

If experience is any guide, I won’t go back, but knowing that I can gives me permission to be ruthless. When revising, sometimes you really do have to be ruthless.

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

Recently I introduced a client to the wonders of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature. Like many Word users, she wasn’t aware of its wonders. (As a longtime user of Word, I sometimes become so obsessed with its PITAs that I forget how wonderful its wonders are.) With Track Changes you can delete a word, a phrase, a sentence, a whole paragraph and see how your text reads without it. You can flip back and forth between with and without, or leave it to deal with some other time.

You can experiment. You can play with your prose. If ruthlessness is sometimes called for when you’re revising, so is playfulness. Revision is creative work. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Be ruthless. Be playful. Be brave. You can always go back to an earlier version, but if you’re anything like me you usually won’t want to.

Paper Wolfie

Draft #2

Draft #2 is printed on mostly on the back of other writers’ drafts. The green pages are leftover flyers from the Spirituals Choir I sing in. Note the long comment on the right. Those are notes for draft #3.

Yesterday I printed out draft #2 of Wolfie, the novel in progress. At long last I’m ready to embark on draft #3.

I’ve been edging toward this point since early June, ever more slowly, it seems. One of Zeno’s paradoxes has been much in mind — you know, the one that says you will never reach the wall you’re walking toward because first you’ll be halfway there, then you’ll be three-quarters of the way there, then you’ll be seven-eighths of the way there, and so on.

Logic or no logic, math or no math, if you keep walking sooner or later your nose is going to collide with the wall. Work or no work, heat or no heat, I kept writing and I did get to the scene at the end of draft #2.

Which is not the scene that ends the novel. I’ve got two or three or maybe four scenes to go before I get there. I’m standing at the brink of a narrow but deep chasm. Between the tendrils of mist wafting by I can glimpse what’s happening over there but I can’t see it clearly. I need to find myself another crossing point or build myself a bridge.

That’s draft #3. Draft #3 is a daunting prospect because several threads have been growing through the cracks of draft #2 and who knows how they’ll weave together or what else will want to change in the process? Draft #2 is going to tell me all this as I reread it and the many notes I’ve jotted to myself on the journey, some on the computer file, some in my notebooks.

But draft #2 didn’t start talking till I’d printed it out.

A week or so I was reminded of how important the visible, tangible weight of a manuscript can be.  I’d written a scene (in longhand) from one perspective, then stalled. What next? I wondered. So I wrote the scene again from another perspective — an omniscient overview that I haven’t used anywhere else in the book — and what next flowed out of my pen as fluidly as — well, as fluidly as the black cherry ink I was writing in.

I typed both versions into Word, intending to weave them together but wound up staring at the screen with my fingers hovering over the keyboard. Brain freeze. The two versions glared at each other like strangers who don’t want to dance. So I printed them out, and while I read them, page by page, pen in hand (loaded with fiery red-orange ink), they began moving together: this sentence here and that paragraph there and you don’t need this little bit at all . . .

Getting eight or ten pages to dance together isn’t such a big deal. Now I’ve got 466. One of my mantras has long been “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.” Draft #2, it’s up to you.

Thanks to writer Glenda Bailey-Mershon, whose recent post about cutting and pasting in her Weaver’s Knot blog helped inspire this one.

How Many Is Too Many?

An editor was asking how to explain to a client that he was overusing a particular word.

Writers, even experienced writers, have our pet constructions, our favorite words. Often we don’t realize we’re overusing them. When I’m in revision mode, I’ll pause on a word and realize I’ve seen it pretty recently. I hit CTRL+F (that’s the Windows version — it’s COMMAND + F for you Mac folks), put the word in the search bar, and search upward. Recently I discovered I’d used “stage-whispered” twice in three pages. One of them wasn’t necessary. I got rid of it.

The editor’s query wasn’t unusual, but then the editor wanted to know if there was a “rule of thumb” for how many repetitions of a word was too many.

I replied that I went by the “rule of gut”: as an experienced editor and writer, I know that when something stops me in my tracks, it’s worth a second look.

Other editors pointed out that it depended on the word. Unusual words call attention to themselves. “Stage-whispered” isn’t exactly exotic, but as a dialogue tag it’s not all that common either. Twice in three pages struck me as once too often. Other words are so distinctive that if you encounter one on page 251, you may remember that you saw it a hundred pages earlier.

Aside: In my many years of editing on paper, without CTRL+F to fall back on, I developed a sixth sense for this. I also noted unusual words, variant spellings, and personal and place names on my style sheet, along with the applicable page number. When the Katherine on page 73 became Katharine on page 228, I usually noticed. CTRL+F has spoiled me rotten. I’m not as good at this as I used to be, but I’m still not bad.

The inquiring editor took all this in and finally asked how, if there was no rule, she could explain to the client that he was overusing a word. Had anyone done any studies on how often is too often? she wondered.

Then someone suggested telling the client that his readers would notice and not like it. Back in September I blogged about editors and other gatekeepers who hide behind “readers won’t like it if . . .” Editors who hide behind an “authority” that can’t be contradicted or even verified are treading on unsteady ground.

“Good editors don’t need to hide,” I wrote. “We’ll say things like ‘I stumbled over this bit’ or ‘Given the conventions of [insert genre here], you might consider picking up the pace in chapter one.'”

I’ve learned over the years that anything that trips a reader up is worth a second look. Especially if the reader is someone whose opinion I respect and whose honesty I want to encourage. Perceptive readers who’ll give you their honest opinion about your work in progress aren’t all that easy to find. Encourage them by paying attention to what they tell you.

You don’t have to act on all of it: of course not. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned at the first writing workshop I ever attended is that readers are a diverse lot. One might love a turn of phrase that another finds trite or confusing. Two might interpret a character’s actions in one scene in two different ways — and have equally valid reasons for doing so. Readers bring their own unique experiences and expectations to your work. They aren’t going to read it the same way no matter what you do. Listen to what they tell you, then make up your own mind.

So back to the original question: “How many is too many?” Well, if someone notes that a particular word or phrase or construction comes up a lot in your story or essay, take a critical look at it. Use CTRL+F or COMMAND+F to find out just how often you’re using a word or phrase. Even better, read the passage aloud. The word “audience” comes from the Latin verb audīre, to hear. For many of us, repetitiousness is easier to hear than to see.

Learn what your own literary tics are. You don’t have to avoid them completely: just come up with some alternatives.

And keep in mind that repetition can be an effective device. Sometimes it’s 100% intentional. Here’s an example from my novel in progress:

Shannon knew what the message said. It had been playing when she walked through the door twenty minutes ago. She’d dropped onto the sofa and been sitting there ever since, as the room grew darker and both dogs gave up on being fed early. If she got up, she’d have to decide: play the message back or deep-six it, like she’d deep-sixed the last one and the ones before it.

The last deep-six had been on impulse and she’d been regretting it ever since. . . .

“Deep-six” occurs three times in two adjacent sentences, and in the third instance the verb has turned into a noun. Horrors! Is this too many? Should one of those deep-sixes be deep-sixed?

For the moment, no. I like the way the passage reads. The repetition suggests that Shannon is obsessing about what she’s done and wondering what to do next. Will it survive into the next draft? That I can’t tell you. What seems just right now may seem like too many tomorrow — or vice versa. That’s writing for you, and it’s why I trust my rules of gut more than other people’s rules of thumb.


Get Me Rewrite

Many writers hate rewriting. I love it. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Breaking trail is exhausting. (We’ve had a lot of snow this winter. My dog and I have broken a lot of trail. We’re both tired when we get home.)

Rewriting is more like pruning branches, tossing rocks out of the path, and notching trees to mark a trail. Even when it means rerouting a trail to avoid a fallen tree, I’d rather be rewriting than breaking trail.

For now I’m lumping editing and revising in with rewriting, even though they aren’t exactly the same thing. Rewriting means “messing with your first draft.” It can include anything from minor tweaks to a total overhaul.

If you hate rewriting, why should you do it? Good question. Maybe a better question is when should you do it? Not everything needs to be rewritten. Journal entries don’t. Freewriting exercises don’t. Most personal correspondence doesn’t — which is not to say that you shouldn’t reread the letter before you seal the envelope or the email before you hit Send. You should.

Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan nailed one of the whys with these much-quoted and -misquoted lines:

You write with ease, to shew your breeding;
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

When you rewrite, you focus on your intended audience. That can be your boss, your publisher, your teacher, your writers’ group, your legion of fans — whoever you want your writing to reach. My audience includes myself. Yours probably does too. (I just learned from a Richard Nordquist column that Sheridan wrote “vile,” not “curst,” but I sort of like “curst” better.)

At the moment I’m taking a break from Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel in progress, to work on an essay about The Sleepwalker, a statue whose temporary installation at Wellesley College is causing much discussion at Wellesley and elsewhere. No one’s waiting for this essay. I have no deadline and no length limit. I’m writing it because the placement of the statue raises several issues that have fascinated me for a long time, like risk and feminism and the purpose of art.

I’m writing primarily to clarify my own thinking, though if I can inspire other people to consider these issues from different angles, that’s more than OK with me. This purpose is what guides me as I rewrite.

Here’s what the beginning of the first draft looked like:

statue ms

After 13 pages, I figured I had enough good raw material to proceed to the next draft. So I typed my handwritten pages into Word (Word 2010 on a Windows 7 laptop, for those who are wondering). The first two paragraphs look like this:

statue screenshot

The words are almost the same, but they look different, don’t they? Seeing those nice crisp letters, words, and paragraphs triggers my internal editor. At this point, I welcome her on board.

This draft is 21 pages long — considerably longer than its predecessor. At this stage the essay is still expanding. A phrase might trigger an elaboration or a detour: I go with it, not worrying about how it’s going to fit into the final version. At the same time, the internal editor is noting that a paragraph toward the end might be more effective near the beginning, and that I’ve discussed the same point in three different places — could they be consolidated?

Now I’m working on the third draft. My internal editor is having a field day. Word’s various features come in very, very handy. Internal editor is making comments for the writer to consider. She’s highlighting key phrases and sentences that will help structure the next draft. She’s also making additions and deletions, always with changes tracked. Nothing’s set in stone at this point. The writer likes how it looks.

statue screenshot 2


By the time I got to college, my once-impeccable handwriting was barely readable. Typewriters were a blessing, even before I learned to touch-type. Computers were even better. I got my first PC in 1985. I fell in love with WordPerfect. I did all my writing on the computer. Then I’d print it out, edit in pen or pencil, type in my edits, and print it out again.

I wrote my novel, The Mud of the Place, on the computer. Mud was a five-year journey punctuated with stalls, stops, and detours — every kind of block you can imagine. I’d stare at those crisp words on the screen and have no idea what came next. Pretty soon the stall would turn into a downward spiral and I’d know for absolute sure that I was never going to finish the stupid thing.

Around that time I was one of several women writers who gathered from time to time to share writing and talk about writing. Each meeting we’d do at least one freewriting exercise. We took turns picking a word or phrase to start with and setting a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. When the timer went off, you didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but we almost always did.

I was continually astonished by what I could write in 10 or 15 minutes with only a ballpoint pen and a few sheets of lined paper.

Finally I put it together. When I stalled at the computer, I’d stuff a yellow pad and a couple of ballpoints into my backpack and go somewhere else. In good weather this might be just outside. Other times it might be the Get a Life Café in Vineyard Haven. The key was away from the computer.

My key phrase was usually something like “I can’t write this fucking scene because …” And before I ran out of steam, I would have written, or at least sketched, the fucking scene whose elusiveness had been frustrating me so.

Gradually I figured out that scenes often stalled because I didn’t know a character well enough or, especially, because I couldn’t visualize where the scene was taking place. So before I got to the hair-tearing stage, I’d take pen and yellow pad and let the character talk. Characters, I discovered, were often good at describing places that I couldn’t see.

After finishing The Mud of the Place, I went into a tailspin. What pulled me out was Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook. I bought myself a fountain pen and a bottle of green ink to write my “Morning Pages,” the daily freewriting that is the foundation of Cameron’s method. Writing in longhand, I began to see, could be more than a method of diagnosing and solving problems.

For years now I’ve been doing nearly all my first-drafting in longhand, for both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve got more fountain pens and more bottles of ink than anyone needs, but currently six pens, each filled with a different color ink, are in active use.

Why does it work? For me writing in longhand makes it much, much easier to bypass the internal editor and just write. My handwriting is messy enough to flummox the internal editor but legible enough that I can transcribe it into the computer, which is where I do all my editing, revising, and rewriting. And — not to stray too far into woo-woo territory or anything — words seem to flow more easily through my fingers to a piece of paper than they do through my fingers to a keyboard.

The moral of the story isn’t that pen-and-ink rules. It’s that tools matter. If one isn’t doing the trick, try another one. I haven’t tried a tape recorder yet, but I do read aloud a lot both when I’m writing and when I’m editing, so that may be next.

Whatever works.

This morning's pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with

This morning’s pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with. The dark orange scrawl at the bottom is a reminder of where I’m supposed to start tomorrow.