Shortening

The word count on draft #3 of Wolfie just slipped below 100000, from six digits to five, from this:

Word count for draft #2

to this:

Word count for draft #3 (in progress)

I cheered out loud, though (or maybe because) no one but the dog could hear me. Once he realized that no outing and no treats were coming his way, he went back to sleep.

I’ve blogged before about how I don’t count words when I’m writing. It’s true: I don’t — but I sure notice the word count when I’m revising.

I expect my early drafts to sprawl. Early drafts are my discovery phase. With nonfiction, I’m discovering what I know and think about a subject. With fiction, it’s discovering what my characters are up to. In Wolfie I’ve given them a puzzle to solve — several puzzles, in fact.

Some of the puzzles weren’t there at the beginning. They’ve appeared in the writing, and they’re turning out to be interrelated in interesting ways. This is also true of some characters. Shannon thought she’d left her alcoholic family far behind. I was as surprised as she was when her younger sister, Jackie, left a message on her answering machine.

I’m not much of a gardener, but I steal imagery from gardens all the time. Significant revelations sprouted in the second half of draft #2. In draft #3 I’ve worked their roots in earlier and let them grow in fresh soil. Those early clues have served their purpose, but now they’re superfluous. Zap zap zap.

Basil sproutlings

This is more like pruning, or pulling excess seedlings. I’ve been doing this on and off all month to my basil plants. I wish I had enough containers and a big enough garden to give all the little seedlings a good home, but I don’t, and if I don’t give a few of them room to grow there’ll be no pesto for me in September.

“Kill your darlings” is a writerly cliché — I think it means don’t get too attached to your lovely phrases, sentences, and paragraphs — but at this point I’m not having much trouble deciding what to keep and what to delete. This is a good sign. It means I’m focused more on the story and not so much on my precious prose. Sure, some of the phrases, sentences, and paragraphs are lovely, elegant, clever, whatever, but they’ve served their purpose. They’re history.

Sometimes, though, I hesitate: Is this sentence or paragraph or scene superfluous, or does it add something important to the story? Is this word really a better choice than that one? I take my hesitations seriously. In these cases, I track my changes in Word so I can reconsider them later. I flip back and forth between the revised version and its predecessor. I don’t have to decide — yet.

When I come back a few days later, the issue has usually resolved itself without my worrying about it. Time may be the self-editor’s most important ally.

I don’t have a target length limit in mind for this book. I want it to find its own best length, but I don’t want it to wind up as a doorstop either. So how do I know what’s essential and what’s peripheral? Wolfie is the story of a woman, a girl, and a dog. Each one of them has a backstory that could probably be a novel, or at least a novella, in itself. I need to know a lot of that backstory, but not all of it belongs in Wolfie. 

When Shannon’s sister Jackie showed up, though, I saw immediately that her story cast both light and shadows on Glory’s, and it helped show Shannon the way forward. At first the extended sequence where Shannon shows Jackie around Martha’s Vineyard (where Shannon and I both live, albeit on different planes) seemed like an extended detour from the real story, but as it took root and grew, I realized it wasn’t. In draft #3 I’ve been integrating it with the other main threads and watching it deepen and grow.

When I’m revising, my rational mind is wide awake and overseeing the process, but so much of revision is done by feel: I have a hunch, or I just know. Which makes it hard for the rational mind to explain, but I keep trying.

Editing Workshop, 5: Lead Paragraphs

Every work, long or short, fiction or nonfiction, has to start somewhere, but lead paragraphs are a major cause of writerly angst and even writer’s block. No surprise there: every how-to-get-published book out there is telling you that if your lead paragraph doesn’t hook the agent or publisher of your dreams, your manuscript will wind up in the slush pile.

Perfectionista — the inner editor who insists that only perfection is good enough — thrives on situations like this: Your entire future is riding on your lead paragraph and you can’t even get the first sentence right.

Take a deep breath and keep going. It’s often not till you’re well into a second or third draft that you know where the story starts and what that lead paragraph has to do. Perfectionista isn’t doing you any favors by insisting you get the first paragraph right before you go on to the second.

Sooner or later you’ll have a lead paragraph that does want you want it to do: lead the reader into the story. That’s the time to refine it and then run it by your writers’ group, writer/reader friends, or other guinea pigs.

This is where Arvilla of the Alphabet Story blog is with her novel in progress. “Below is the first paragraph of my WIP,” she writes. “While I know not to start with the weather, it sets up the scene in which she has problems driving, including a stalled car. She does get rescued.”

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club. What a night, forced to drive her dad’s car. His cherished Nash, temperamental even in good weather, gave her problems. Taught to drive behind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to change a tire and replace spark plugs. Bought used in 1944, it was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s constant tinkering. That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

A lead paragraph’s #1 job is to whet the reader’s appetite for more, and this one whetted mine. I’ve just met Maggie, but already she’s got an immediate goal — getting to Bertie’s book and supper club on time — and two adversaries blocking her way: the weather and a cranky car. I’ve got a strong hunch that Maggie’s ambivalent relationship with the old Nash mirrors her relationship with her dad, and that this will be an important theme in the novel.

This lead also fixes the story in time: 1944 + 10 years = 1954. This sets me to speculating: Maggie’s dad taught his daughter basic car maintenance, but she didn’t inherit his passion for tinkering. Does she live alone? Who’s Bertie, and what role does the book and supper club play in Maggie’s life?

And yes, conventional wisdom warns against leading with descriptions of weather, or landscape for that matter, but when weather or landscape is an active participant in the scene, I say “Go for it!” I would suggest tweaking the lead sentence, however:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night.

It’s not April’s total accumulated rainfall that’s blocking Maggie’s way: it’s the weather that particular evening. Show it to me, what it looks like, how it sounds, then keep it front and center as the scene unfolds. How would she get to Bertie’s if it weren’t raining? How far does she have to go? Give me some hints about the location.

Try distilling the rest of the paragraph to its essence. What does the reader need to know right now? That the old Nash is cranky, that Maggie’s father was devoted to it, and that Maggie, though competent behind the wheel, drives it only when she has to. I’d like to see her in the car and turning the key by end of the paragraph, maybe watching rain pour down the windows and windshield. Work the rest in once she’s en route.

Here’s a suggestion:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. What a night, forced to drive Her dad’s car. His cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather., gave her problems. Taught She had learned to drive in it, evenbehind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to changed its a tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, andit was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?] That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

With the mess cleaned up, it looks like this:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. Her dad’s cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather. She had learned to drive in it, even changed its tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, and his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?]

Now you can have at it — tinker away! Often a reader’s suggestions will shake something loose and you’ll come up with a better alternative. Thanks so much for sharing your lead paragraph. Good luck with the novel. 🙂

Dear Write Through It readers: Do you have a question, a comment, a sentence that needs unsnarling? Send it along and we’ll see what we can come up with.

 

How to Revise a Draft Without Going Crazy

There’s enough good advice in this excerpt that I’m seriously thinking of buying the book. I love revising and find it satisfying, but I often don’t know how to explain what I’m doing, or what needs doing, or how I know what to do. Maybe this will help.

Nonfiction author Dinty Moore shares some tips and tricks on how to look through a draft and make important revisions painlessly.

Source: The Story Cure: How to Revise a Draft Without Going Crazy

H Is for Handwriting

My handwriting sucks. Here’s a sample:

This is why I do nearly all my first-drafting in longhand: because I can’t read my own writing unless I slow way down and focus on each word.

It took me a while to figure out why I’d sometimes get so blocked — paralyzed! — when I did nearly all my writing on the computer. Maybe it’s because I’m an editor as well as a writer, or maybe it’s because I’m a recovering perfectionist who has occasional slips, but sometimes I’d stare at those crystal-clear words on the screen and think, No, that’s not right, and then get stuck trying to fix it instead of moving on.

Eventually I figured out that the best way to break through these blocks was to grab a pad of paper and a pen and get away from the computer. At the top of the paper I’d writing something like “I can’t write this scene because . . .”

And out would flow whatever I needed to know, and eventually the scene itself.

This was also a handy way of getting to know characters better. Whatever I wrote in longhand on a yellow pad wasn’t part of The Manuscript. I loosened up. No pressure. I could write anything I wanted.

My messy handwriting was an asset. What the internal editor couldn’t read, she couldn’t edit. Without the internal editor looking over my shoulder, I could write write write, not expecting anything to be perfect, knowing that there would be a second or third or fourth draft to get it just right.

So why wait till I got stuck to bring out the pen and paper? Why not start out that way?

I tried it. It worked. It’s still working. I do most of my first-drafting in longhand.

Pretty soon, however, the scrawl of a ballpoint pen across lined yellow paper was looking rather dull. I started acquiring fountain pens and bottles of different colored ink. I’ve currently got about a dozen of each. It’s a little ridiculous, but I couldn’t live without them.

The bonus is that ink blottings on paper towels are really pretty. I use them as coasters for my tea mugs and my beer steins. They make me happy.

ink blot

 

The Power of Place

As a writer, I love revising and rewriting. As an editor, I do almost none of it. Critiques, yes. When a writer I don’t know asks me to edit a book-length manuscript, I generally suggest critique as a first step. I read the ms., make suggestions about plot, characterization, structure, and all that good big-picture stuff, but then the writer does the heavy lifting, not me.

For me, revising and rewriting is like first-drafting in that the ms. takes up residence in my head. My mind works on it when I’m not paying conscious attention. This is why character insights and solutions to plot snags often come to me when I’m walking with the dog or kneading bread.

I’ve learned that when I take on a revise-or-rewrite job as an editor, it often pushes my own writing out of my head. So I avoid developmental and structural editing and stick to stylistic editing, copyediting, and proofreading. (All these things go by different names. In “Editing? What’s Editing?” I explain what I more or less mean by them.)

But I recently (very recently, like this past week) took on a rewrite job for a client. It was short: a new, five-page prologue to a novel that’s been accepted for publication. I also knew the novel well, having worked on it in its earlier stages, and I believe in it.

I read the author’s five pages through. The plot was solid. It introduced key themes and characters that would be developed later. It segued neatly into chapter 1. Yeah, the point of view jumped around a bit, and there was a chunk of historical context recounted in a narrative voice that didn’t belong to any of the characters, but my rewriterly mind was already in gear, working out possible alternatives.

I called up the file. A 10-year-old boy is stretched out on the roof of his uncle’s house, using his BB gun to keep birds away from the abundant ripening grapes hanging from a trellis. I knew this kid well: the novel is his story. I could hear his older sister playing hopscotch in front of the house. But I couldn’t see what he was seeing because I’ve never been there and never even seen pictures of what this house, this neighborhood, this small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, might have looked like in 1975, which is when the story begins.

For me as a writer, place is crucial. As I blogged in “The Importance of Place“; “Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.”

Both place and time are critical to this particular novel: Lebanon in the spring of 1975 was on the brink of a bloody civil war that devastated the country for 15 years. That 10-year-old boy’s life will be radically transformed by this war, and the incident in the prologue is a harbinger of things to come. The prologue needed to show readers what he was seeing and hearing. How could that happen if I couldn’t see and hear it myself?

I emailed the author. We talked on the phone. How close together are the houses? How long is the driveway? Are the grapes used for eating or winemaking? What do the birds look like? Where have all the grownups gone? Is the garden in front of the house or in back? How big is the garden pond?

Finally, finally the scene began to play out in my head. My fingers moved on the keyboard and words appeared or rearranged themselves on my laptop screen. The scene stayed in the 10-year-old’s point of view. The historical context can be worked into a later chapter, but I couldn’t help noticing that it is subtly suggested here in the ripening grapes being threatened by birds while a boy tries to scare them off with his BB gun.

At this point I’m rarely surprised when place turns out to be the key to a scene, but I’m awed by writers who routinely bring to life periods they didn’t live in, places they’ve never been, and times and places that never existed. The research, the extrapolation, the imagination, the finessing of details that can’t be known for sure — it all has to be there, and seem so complete and inevitable that most readers barely notice.

Learn the Biggest Secret of Every Good Writer

This is good. No short-cuts. I’d add that growing as a writer means becoming more observant and more attentive to the world around you — and learning how to translate all that into words.

Business in Rhyme

secret_goodwriter

We all know that nobody is born as a good writer. It is a constant process of becoming. And I do believe that the difference between good and bad writers it’s not about the skill or gift. It’s not even about the number of written or published pieces. The key word we are looking for is persistence.

Good writer is writing – no matter how many times he fails or writes crappy work. He is there showing up every day, practicing and trying to improve himself. Not only writing, but everything that goes with writing.

In that sense, I think that biggest secret every good writer knows and we often forget is how good writer treats his bad writing. First, he takes time to write, erase, rewrite, edit, tailor every word to what’s need to be written. And how does he know what’s need to be written? He is…

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Knock Knock

“Your writing will teach you what you need to know” is one of my mantras. (My other biggie is “The way out is through.”)

It will, too. It does. Sometimes, however, I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Like yesterday.

In my journey through draft #3 of novel #2 I’d reached what I thought of as the novel’s set-piece. Most of Wolfie takes place either outdoors or in the various characters’ kitchens, living rooms, and studios (two of them are artists). Most scenes involve only two or three characters. This set-piece happens in a public place, a restaurant, with a dance band playing and a cast of — well, not thousands, but definitely dozens. A couple hundred maybe.

Approaching this scene, I had some apprehensions. The scene was contrived — by me, truth to tell, but still contrived. Somehow my villain had to see that his two nemeses knew each other. One of them strongly suspects his villainy; the other is becoming suspicious.

My mind contrived A Scene: a retirement party for a woman who’s the mentor of one nemesis and a respected former colleague of the other. The connection I needed happened. The story moved on.

But I couldn’t get the honoree out of my mind. I’d invented her for the occasion. She wasn’t real. But then this:

Now Lorna [the honoree] leaned in close enough for Shannon [POV character] to smell her perfume and notice the tiny beads of sweat on her forehead: Lorna had been getting down with the youngsters. “The real wonder,” she said, “is that I’ve survived this long. Promise you’ll call on me one of these days?”

Finally I got it. Lorna’s got a piece of the puzzle, a role to play. I’m gonna call, Lorna. I promise.

Be Brave

Writing does take courage.

blank paper

The challenge of the blank page

It takes courage to sit down (or stand up, if you use one of those newfangled standing desks) expecting words to appear on the screen or sheet of paper in front of you, hoping that those words will be worth keeping or will lead to something that is.

It takes courage to set out on a journey not knowing whether it’s worth making (probably yes, though maybe not in the ways you expect) and whether you’re equal to the task (probably not, but if you keep going you will very likely become so).

Revision is a key to this process, especially for those of us who don’t plan everything out in advance, and for those of us who do but are willing to go along when the material has other ideas. (More about planners, seat-of-the-pantsers, and improvisation in “Whatever Works,” “Notes and More Notes,” and “Backstory Happens.”)

With nonfiction, I usually know where I’m going at the start but often I don’t end up in quite that place. With fiction, my usual is to put a few actors onstage, give them a task, and see what they do with it. I write it all down and sometimes give direction, which sometimes the actors ignore.

In “When Chitchat Takes the Wheel” I blogged about critiques I did recently of two first-novel manuscripts. Both were full of promise — vivid settings, interesting characters — but both bogged down in dialogue that went on forever and didn’t develop the characters or move the plot forward.

In one case, several characters held differing views about issues crucial to them and to the plot, but they never discussed them with each other. You and I both know how that works, right? When you strenuously disagree with someone you want to get along with, you skirt the contested territory and talk about other things. This makes for amiable relations but it does not make for interesting fiction. Be brave, I told the writer. Let them go at it and see what happens.

In the other case, the endless chitchat had a different cause: the protagonist had no memories from before her mid-teens, but her traumatic early years were key to the plot. Survivors of traumatic events do repress their memories,  but giving this character complete amnesia about her upbringing did not serve the novel well. Other people remembered what she did not, so (1) she was a sitting duck for the villain, and (2) she didn’t know enough to go in search of her own past. Be brave, I told this writer too. Let your protagonist have some of her life back.

I just finished reading a novel with a promising premise: a family’s determination to avoid dealing with a tragic event leads to problems down the road. This premise is common for good reason: it often happens in real life, and there’s so much a writer can do with it. But this writer made choice after choice that kept the tragic event at arm’s length, both for the characters and for the reader. For instance —

  • Everyone affected by the event is warned not to talk about it, ostensibly to protect the one who is supposedly too fragile to handle it.
  • They actually obey the warning.
  • The novel’s sole point-of-view (POV) character is fearful and not given to thinking too hard about the past or anything else.
  • The characters rarely interact on any but the most superficial level.

As a result, the characters don’t develop and neither does the plot. Each character has a shtick, and the dialogue is often clever, but the novel came across more as sitcom than as family drama. Not surprisingly, the writer had to resort to melodrama and last-minute surprises to tie everything together. The result is less than satisfying.

What would I have said if I’d been hired to critique this novel as a second or third draft? Let your characters have their memories and their voices back. Instead of one POV character, try it with three: the three who experience the tragic event as children and then grow up with the memories, the questions, and the silences. And don’t lock them in their closets, impervious to the world and each other. Challenge them! Challenge yourself!

Be brave.

When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)

I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.

What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)

In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.

Travvy tries to persuade a tractor to move.

Travvy carries on a one-sided dialogue with an offstage tractor.

These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.

It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.

Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.

In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.

Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.

Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.

I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.

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.