Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Process 4--revision

After I’ve gotten through my drafting stage I get to my first revision (which most likely is the third or fourth time I’ve worked through the manuscript). It’s still messy but the main elements of the story are there: the characters are fleshed out, and the structure seems pretty sound. I may still move chapters or sections around a little, but I have a sense at this point that I might actually finish this novel. I have a pretty good idea of what the larger concern or concerns is or are in the story.

So at this point I get to think about other things. One of the things I think about is language. I tighten language every time I work on the manuscript, but once I get to the revision stages I can focus more on that since the larger structural issues aren’t so pressing. I turn to Mr. Mark Twain for inspiration here: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.” It’s true. One wrong word can take all the raw force out of a sentence. I never want to take language for granted. I always want to struggle to write better sentences. And it is a struggle.

How many times do I revise? Sometimes three or four and sometimes more. A lot. There are always parts, sections, that I have to rewrite many, many times. The beginning chapter or chapters I might go over fifteen or twenty times. It’s ridiculous. I know it is, but I can’t help myself. I need to do that to get them to be the best I can make them.

Another thing I work on in revision is making sure each scene is important. I don’t want any throwaway scenes. I want each to be important. Passionate interaction between characters, passionate action, passionate language, I want the scene to have a purpose—whether it’s to advance the story or deepen the character—in the larger story.

Dialogue is action. Dialogue is showing. I love dialogue and I work hard to make it carry some scenes. People talking are always interesting to me as long as they don’t talk about the weather. Characters should be talking, however indirectly, about something important.

I try to be there in each scene, experiencing the scene with the characters and with the story. Back to passion. I’ve got to feel what the characters are experiencing. I’ve got to make the reader feel and understand why they feel that way. I also have to feel what’s happening beneath the action and how it’s essential to the story.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Making Connections

How do you get the reader to connect to your work? You make them feel involved. Sure, right, but how? One thing they must do is be involved in the story and one way you can get them involved is by not with-holding what is going on in the character. The character is constantly being affected by what is happening in each scene. He’s changing. OR he should be. If he’s not maybe something is wrong in your scene.

All these changes can be small ones that occur when he encounters something, well, small. He needs his new girlfriend to tell him why she’s been cold lately. They talk. She doesn’t tell him anything but that coldness increases, the room temperature drops another few degrees. So he finds out nothing directly but he is affected, he does change, and the reader should go through that with him.

I’m not saying inner dialogue here or tell us everything he’s thinking. The selection of detail still goes on obviously, but writer’s need to communicate their characters' little changes and these make the reader and characters closer and help create that connection every writer hopes for.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


For me, first revision isn’t really a revision. I call it drafting because for the first two or three drafts I’m still working on finding my way. I know that, in a way, until you get to the time of polishing the novel—the end stage—it’s all really finding your way, but in the first drafts I’m spending most of my time finding my way and I know I'm lost a lot.

In draft 1 I’m chopping my way through the wilderness. I don’t really know where I’ll end up. I’m not sure I’ll end up anywhere. Draft 2 is when I’ve gone all the way to the other side and now that I’ve made it there, I realize there were a lot of places where I went the wrong way back there in the wilderness. I see from a different place and seeing from there I realize some of the mistakes I made; I think a lot about structure in this draft since I SEE the whole thing. I go back and go through the novel again. It’s all much clearer now, but sometimes I need a third draft to really feel like I really have the basic shape of the novel.

Some other authors on first drafts: Sherman Alexie, who I once got to interview, told me that before he began a novel he had the last sentence in mind. So he wrote his novel to that last sentence. (Sounds good but I’d keep revising my last sentence, I bet.) E.L. Doctrow said writing a first draft was like driving across the country in the dark. You had the lights of your car showing you what was directly in front of you. Beyond that you just kept in mind a vague destination.

This past Friday I went to the Texas Library Association Conference just south of Austin in San Antonio. It’s a big deal. Lots of publishers and librarians etc… I heard a panel where Maureen Johnson compared writing to problem solving. I think she said this after Cory Doctrow said when he stalled he just made something bad happen to his characters. Another way of looking at a first draft is this idea of characters experiencing problems, small and large, and the story moving in such a way that they work them out. But bad things have to happen in order for this to work. As I’ve said before, bad things must happen to good characters. It’s unfortunate but necessary.

By the way, I went to TLA because my publisher had ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of my novel ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES and wanted me to sign them. ARCs are free and come out before a novel is published. In case you haven’t heard of them, they’re what the publisher uses to advertise a book that will come out soon (relatively soon—Oct. for me). They give them out to reviewers and librarians and booksellers mostly. Anyway, when you’re getting published and they ask you to sign them, YOU SHOULD do it. I had so much fun. Because the ARCs are free, people really want them. I had a long line of people wanting me to sign copies of my book which was exciting. We ran out of copies fast. Of course I realize that the little word FREE made all the difference. People do like FREE things. If I could just convince my publisher to give my book away for FREE, I could probably be a big seller. Alas, I suppose there’s a problem or two with that.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Process2-first drafts

First drafts are messy. There’s no way around that. They’re infuriatingly messy. You can’t THINK too much when you’re in front of the computer screen or you will freeze up but you do think about the manuscript at other times. Compulsively, you wonder about this detail or choice or character. Especially the choices—these you wonder about a lot. You get lost. Your story zigs. It zags. It leads you through a wood so thick you have to hack your way out.

You will think, of course, but when you sit back in front of your computer to write, you have to silence all these voices and find that place where you can be in the story. John Gardner says you need to create a “continuous dream” for the reader and Robert Olen Butler says you need to enter a kind of dream to create the continuous dream. I think of it as an altered state. Now, of course, I don’t mean you won’t be thinking about your writing when you’re taking a shower, walking the dog, standing in line for lunch, not listening to your mother (oops, sorry mom), but when you’re writing—especially during this messy first draft--you have to let go and allow yourself to find your way. Your story, what happens, how characters act and react, will suggest certain ways ahead that you’ll intuitively pick up on if you’re THERE in the story. If you get stuck, think about the basics: what do your characters want, what’s in their way, what does the story want? A first draft needs to be done but it doesn’t need to be good or close to RIGHT. As I mentioned in the last post, for some it’s hardly more than an outline, a blueprint, of what’s to come. But almost without exception, it’s a rough sketch of a story. There’s a kind of freedom and comfort in accepting that—for me anyway.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Process 1

Trust your process.

You have to trust your process once you figure out what it is. It’s not easy to trust your process because every writer faces moments in a manuscript when process might be blamed for any number of unfortunate situations. You might claim, for instance, that it was process that led you right into a brick wall or off a cliff or into an imperfect storm, earthquake or any one of the many threatening, potentially fatal, disasters out there. “Trust my process?” You might scream. “Are you bleeping crazy?”

My first process was certainly untrustworthy in every sense. It was crazy. I’d write ninety or so pages and start over and then I’d write 180 pages and start over and then I’d write 270 pages and start over. This drafting my way to a longer and longer novel was the only way I could get a real draft done and it was ridiculous and painful and nerve-wracking but by its end I did have a draft and that draft could be rewritten and revised extensively and at the end of that I did have a book. (You think this sounds rough,I have a writer who writes a complete draft and throws the whole thing away and starts completely over without looking back at that first draft. For her, it works. It would drive me a little crazy, but you have to trust what works for you.)

My process now is less crazy for me: I draft for several drafts still, but I manage to finish a complete rough one ( with some chapters unfinished and others marked with outlines) before starting a second draft, third draft etc...

Still, I always hit that wall when it all seems wrong. I know I have to work through it now. I know I have to trust that this is how I write, and no matter how bad it seems at the time if I push through I can eventually make it to a place where I can rewrite and revise and eventually have a book.

A lot of people want to write, a lot start a novel. A lot of people. Only a few ever finish one. If you’ve finished a manuscript, congratulations because that’s a big accomplishment. You’re in the minority right there. Everyone who’s finished a manuscript knows there are times when it all seems wrong, when it seems best to start something new or burn the whole thing. But in most cases, if you can just see past those moments, keep pushing forward, eventually you will have pages that can be rewritten and revised into a finished manuscript. You have to trust your process.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


We need silence as writers.

I’m not talking about the silence of a room to work in or a space to work at though that’s certainly nice. Some people do need that, too. I’m not one of them. I can work anywhere: in an airport or coffee house or restaurant or hotel room –once driving down I-35 –pretty much anywhere. I prefer the relative silence of my house, but I don’t need it.

But I still need silence.

I need to find that place of calm within me. I have to silence all the voices. And there are a lot of them. Sometimes it’s voices telling me that I need to do this or that. I have so much to do and I shouldn’t be trying to squeeze in writing. Sometimes it’s a problem I’m worrying over. It could have to do with work or with a relationship or one of the animals or…you get the idea. A worry. Sometimes it’s critical voices saying I can’t write about this or a voice saying that no one will want to read my manuscript. Someone told me that 85% of what we worry about won’t ever be a problem. My answer to that was, “Yeah, but that other 15% will really mess you up.” I’m a glass half-empty optimist. I can be hopeful but I have to erode a lot of pessimism first.

But back to my point—there are voices that will interfere with your writing. Voices of doubt, voices of criticism, voices of everyday problems. You have to find a way to silence them before you can get to the place you need to go as a writer. It’s a place of silence within you where the voices of your stories can be heard and written.