Waiting In Between Revisions

I’ve recently finished what I hope is the “final” revision of my WIP and sent it out to a trusted reader. Now I wait…

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Waiting is extremely difficult, but something writers must deal with regularly. We wait between drafts, to give ourselves space from our own words. We wait to hear from our beta readers, who help us to birth our “babies”; and from our agents, whom we trust with our newborn creations. If you noticed a birthing theme it is because I recently spent three weeks helping my daughter and her husband after the birth of their second child.

img_1491Helping to care for this newest member of our family and his 2.5 year old brother was a joy (though and exhausting one). Not only did it feed my soul as a parent, but it also fed my writing soul. The timing of this child’s birth coincided perfectly with my work on my WIP. (Yet another reason I count myself as lucky). I was at that point where I needed to put it down and walk away. Putting a story out of my mind, after it’s been priority #1 for months, is not something that comes easily for me. But this time it was oh, so easy. I forgot all about plot structure, objective correlatives, character growth, and historical accuracy and thought only of changing diapers, playing “choo-choos”, doing laundry and dishes, going to the playground, playing cars and reading books, and doing more laundry.

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In the week that I’ve been home, I re-read my story, tweaked it, and sent my “baby” out to be read. Now I am left with nothing to do. I know some writers move on immediately to their next project. They start researching and plotting and pre-writing. I can’t do that. I can work on smaller projects: picture books that will never see the light of day, or that pb biography of the sculptor whose story really should be told but I can’t quite figure out how to start. But even that sucks too much of my attention and I’ll have a hard time shifting gears to go back to make the revisions in my WIP I know are coming. I have cleaned my desk, though. It might not look like it to some of you, but trust me, THIS is clean.

So instead of moving onto my next project, I’ve returned to my life. It’s been nice to catch up with friends I didn’t see for the three weeks I was away and whom I ignored for the months prior to that when I was writing (thankfully, I have good friends who understand my obsessive work schedule). I’ve also been binge watching “Orange is the New Black” (which I started while rocking an infant while his mother napped). And I’ve been knitting, which I can do while binge watching “Orange is the New Black” so at least I feel as if I’m being semi-productive.

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Waiting is part of the process. And as exasperating as the waiting is, I wouldn’t trade it, or any other irksome part of the process (and there are a lot of them)  for anything.

 

 

 

The Heavy Lifting of Revision

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I don’t like to exercise. I never get an endorphin high. EVER. All I ever get is tired and achy. But it might not be my fault! Scientists have identified a couch potato gene! 

Still, despite being able to blame my parents for my laziness, I know that exercise is important to my health. So I do it. I drag my lazy, endorphin-deprived butt to the gym at least twice a week to work out with a trainer. He pushes me. He increases the weight and makes me do extra reps, when all I want to do is curl up in the fetal position and cry. Then I stagger home, strip off my sweaty clothes, turn on the shower, and allow my tears to mingle with the water that courses over my aching muscles. But, despite all my pissing and moaning, I love the results. My abs are far from rock-hard, but I’ve got muscles.

For the last few months I’ve been struggling with another task I dislike–Revision. I know, I know, most of you are saying, But I love revision. Well, I don’t. I’m waiting for scientists to report some genetic malfunction that will help me explain this away too. It’s not that I dislike all revision. The first revisions after the shitty first draft are exciting. But somehow that doesn’t seem like revision to me, that’s all part of writing the story. It is often when I find a nugget in my writing that makes me believe I’m a genius. The revision I dislike are the ones in-between the full rewrites (where you know that pretty much everything in your story sucks and you chuck the entire thing and start over from scratch) and the ones where you’re tweaking–adding a bit more to this character, pulling a thread all the way through the story, cutting out the number of times you used the word “just” or “like” or how many times your character’s smile looked like the rising sun.

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What I’m struggling with now is an old, old, old story that I pull out of the drawer every year or so, fiddle with and then stick back in the drawer. I love the story. I love the characters. I love their journey. And, I’m told by readers and my agent that it is worth working on, but somehow I’m not getting it right. I’ve been working on this story now for about a year and am about a third of the way through yet another significant revision and I’m not sure I can face it. I’d really rather sit on the couch and read or work on that shiny new idea that is twinkling in the back of my head.

This kind of revision hurts. It makes my muscles and my head ache. I want to curl into a fetal position and cry. So, I have a small team of “trainers” who check in with me–sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. They encourage me to write just one more scene, and make me do the heavy lifting of revision. Then I stagger down the hall from my office to my bathroom, strip off my sweaty clothes, turn on the shower, and allow my tears to mingle with the water that courses over my aching muscles. But, despite all my pissing and moaning, I love the results. My story is still far from rock-hard, but it’s got muscles.

 

 

 

Beckoning Your Reader

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How do you invite a reader in and tell a story without telling too much? If you’re too cryptic, you risk angering your reader, who will toss your book across the room because he can’t make sense of the story without that key information you’re too cleverly holding back. But your reader will be equally annoyed if you give her too much help, feeding her information through dialogue, stage directions or narrative.

There’s no formula for how to do this, since every story is different. You might withhold information in one type of novel when you would reveal it another. For instance, Carolyn Wheat, author of How to Write Killer Fiction, discusses the differences between the timing of information revealed in mystery and suspense fiction.

“The tension in a mystery,” Wheat notes, “depends on information withheld from the reader,” including clues that must be interpreted and woven expertly together by the novel’s hero detective. In contrast, the suspense novel, “relies on information given to the reader; we know that when our hero’s back is turned, the old friend she’s asked for help will telephone the Nazis and give away her location.” Thus a detective in a mystery novel is always two steps ahead of the reader, while in suspense, the reader is two steps ahead of the character.

But notice that in both instances, the reader is participating in the story. And that’s the key. Letting readers question and struggle and analyze and figure things out for themselves. To do this we need to ask what experience we want readers to have, and deliver this experience through our characters’ eyes.

It’s tricky. Often we reveal too much at a certain stage in our work, because we’re still in effect, telling the story to ourselves. If you find you’re feeding the reader information too fast, or writing backstory (what happens before action begins), you may be at this stage. That’s okay, just remind yourself that in revision, you’re going to cut this information, or move it into scene.

One way to move from feeding the reader information to letting the story tell itself is to truly get under a character’s skin. This is not always easy to do because we love our characters and like parents, try to protect them from the realities of life (or maybe we as writers try to protect that part of ourselves we’re uncovering, since it’s always our story in some way). But you can’t protect your characters by explaining their feelings; you have to let them take the punches from these painful experiences so they earn getting back up and into the ring. We need to feel how our characters feel, blow by blow. Otherwise their battles are too easily won.

One exercise that may help create this immediacy is to write a few scenes with your character in the present tense. This offers little time for character reflection or backstory and gives you an opportunity to focus on your scene moment by moment, and express those moments through the senses. It’s surprising how much you can reveal this way without telling the reader anything. I used this technique in my novel The Lucky Place when I wanted to see the world through a child’s eyes. The story begins with the line “There are always secrets,” but I found it wasn’t readers I was keeping secrets from, but the character. Cassie is three when The Lucky Place opens, too young to understand the adult world around her, yet through her eyes and ears she reveals more than she knows. She might not be able to interpret it yet, but I wanted the reader to.

Readers only participate when we let them in to figure things out for themselves. When they experience the same tensions the characters experience, unravel their dilemmas and contemplate their choices as if they too were stuck smack dab in the thick of things.

–zu vincent

Blowing Out To Brightness

hummingbird-matthew-b-pA hummingbird was sending its long, delicate beak into the garage window today, trapped inside and trying to escape, able to see the wide world before it but not able, despite its whirring drive, to reach it. My attempts to coax it toward the open garage door panicked the little thing, and drove it harder against the glass, the glass ramming up to meet it with astonishing bluntness.

A hummingbird can wear itself out in short order this way, grow dehydrated, and die. So I let it rest.

But in that pause it struck me how, so focused on the world beyond the glass, the bird hadn’t noticed that freedom was only a stone’s throw away.

Silly bird, right? Yet how often as writers do we remain tapping the glass when what we hope to reach lies just outside the door? How often do we write with our nose pressing the pane, begging entry into a place we sometimes fail to enter? What larger perspective might we take, how many steps back or up or sideways, before we really experience insight?

Perhaps the answer lies in training ourselves to see more deeply, and to think more deeply, too.

“If you love something, the work will be just fine,” graphic artist Inge Druckrey says. “Go beyond what it is and try to understand what it’s doing. How it reflects and represents the subject.”

It seems to me Druckrey is talking about stepping back to view the larger implications of what we create. For it’s in considering new angles that we learn to go beyond what is to understand what it’s doing. Maybe this is achieved by considering how our own needs, motives and desires are shaped—and shaped by—our vision. Asking more of the work than what we originally had planned, and more of ourselves in the bargain. Who are we? What do we bring to the page? Why do we carry it so?

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There is another perspective too, of course. The one created by stepping forward, when we truly enter the world beyond the glass.

“When I wrote my first children’s book at the age of twenty-five,” says author Susan Cooper, “I hadn’t even met a child for years—perhaps not since I stopped being one myself.” It wasn’t that Cooper particularly liked children, it’s just that her creative vision had retained “that quality peculiar to children’s writers… a strange intuitive immediacy that the creative imagination shares with the alert, unjaded mind of a reading child.”

And that, I think, is the world beyond the glass. The one we share with the “unjaded mind of a reading child.” If we meet the reader here, as Cooper promises, “he will fall in love,” and give your book “surrender, acceptance, a warm generous responsiveness—and an unselfconscious sense of wonder.”

To cultivate this sense of wonder, you might adopt what data visualization expert Edward Tufte calls “deep seeing.” For example, Tufte advocates taking a walk and giving yourself over to the power of sight. Really experiencing sight in a new way. “After ten minutes of just seeing,” he says about his own such walk, “it was like the light became perfect. And in this perfect light, you could protect the eye against blowing out to brightness. The details in the shadows were perfect, too.”

But all this takes work, of course. It’s likely that just when you feel your work is done it’s only just beginning. Deep seeing, deep thinking, take effort. It’s not easy to judge when your eye has blown out to brightness or where the door to freedom stands.

For the hummingbird, it just took that moment’s pause. Soon I was able to retrieve a small net and hold it out, the exhausted bird climbed aboard.

I slipped the net though the door. The bird left the net. I watched as it dipped and faltered, then caught the beat of its tiny wings and sailed up. Freed, the hummingbird had the envious perspective now. Its heart was in my hand, and it carried my heart aloft.

Novel Edit: Vision and Revision

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There’s an old writer’s adage that talking about the plot of your novel is dangerous, since telling the story can dissipate your desire to put it on the page. But there does come a time when discussing your plot can really help. At least that’s what fellow Tollbooth author Tami Brown and I are discovering. 

Both of us are looking at a serious novel revision of our current middle grades. We’ve read one another’s manuscripts and are sending them through the sieve together.

This week and next, our posts will share some of our process. Our approach is pretty much organic. Brainstorm, exchange ideas, try out various techniques, and generally help each other dig more deeply into mood, character, plot, theme and structure.

We’ve loosely termed our brainstorming sessions “Vision and Revision,” because what is working for us is to first discuss the overall vision we have for the rewrite, and then create a blueprint for this vision to take back to our desk as we revise.

If you’d like to come along, pull out your novel that’s ready to revise, grab a trusted author to partner with, and jump in!

Vision

Each of us has written and (honestly) rewritten our manuscript more than once. But that’s okay. That’s how you let your subconscious out to play. Now it’s time to trust that these drafts hold the clues to revision, that although the soul of the story might still seem to be missing, it’s really already falling, like a shadow, across the page.

So vision is a matter of looking into those manuscript shadows and asking questions.  

Where to start?

For us it’s not at the beginning, but at the end.

Beginning at the End

As a long time short story writer, I’ve learned to trust my intuition and plunge headlong into a story, because somewhere in the process the ending will appear. Seeing the ending is a magic moment, one that sends out a beacon to follow as I write. When I have the ending, I know what I need to add to illuminate the reader’s path, and what I need to cut. That’s what vision is about in this sense, only in reverse. Because we want to create a new novel ending and move backward through the novel to make sure each element serves this end.

(To test this theory, imagine plunking your reader into a labyrinth and asking them to follow a series of dead ends. Imagine how quickly they’ll put the book down. You want the reader to be curious and surprised, but not duped. Moving backward from the ending can show you where you’ve gone off track. The road back to the beginning should be clear, and this goes for all story elements including mood, tone, story world etc.)

Below is a map to our process in moving from the ending backward. Don’t be fooled by its brevity, we found that some of these points can take hours (or even days), to resolve. And for us it’s proving fluid. See what works for you and your editing partner. You may want to outline your manuscript first, then discuss your new vision, or go back and forth between discussion and outline. We’ll be using this vision and outline in next week’s posts to create a dynamic storyboard for revision.

Discussion:

  • Your reader and your character will come to an epiphany at the end of your novel. What is it? Is this epiphany a moment of change (or rejection of change) for your character? Why? How does it occur?
  • Does your new vision of the story ending alter/redefine this epiphany? Can you state this clearly in a sentence or two?
  • To help you state specifically how your character has been changed (or has rejected change) by the end of your story, decide what you want your character and your reader to feel, understand, walk away with at the end of your novel. In other words, what is your theme, and how does it relate to your character’s story dilemma? What is it you really mean to say/convey?

Reversing Your Outline:

Looking at the existing manuscript, use index cards, an outline or margin notes to write down the main point/main movement of each chapter. Try to use as few words as possible.

  • These notes will help you pull back those shadows to reveal the soul of your story. And when working with your editing partner, can be a quick guide when you discuss and revise your story structure.
  • When revising, your notes will tell you if each chapter is clearly focused on your theme and the end result of your character’s struggle, and if each scene within the chapter is clearly focused on the chapter main point/main movement. They’ll also tell you where you need to add, cut or refocus attention.  
  • You’ll use these notes next week when we storyboard plot, character action and motivation.

In the right-hand margin, in your outline or on your index card, write down how the chapter advances the overall story. Again, be brief.

  • These notes allow you to follow the logic of your story, making it easier for you to analyze or discuss your story with your editing partner.
  • When revising your own work, these notes will tell you if each chapter fits into your overall story structure. You might find that some chapters should be shifted or cut after completing this step.
  • You should be able to summarize the main point/main movement of each chapter and how this chapter supports the overall story. If you can’t, that chapter will be one that needs to be revised until you can.

Next: Using vision to create that dynamic storyboard for revision. -zu vincent

Friends, Enemies, and Family—Crafting Relationships to strengthen character and intensify plot

Relationships are KEY to a story: The way a relationship evolves and changes is often much of what IS the story and plot.

A character learns and grows and struggles because of interacting with other characters.

Also, interactions between characters are often at the intersection of action and emotions, and these relationships convince the reader to care about what happens to the characters.

RELATIONSHIP ARCS

I love relationship arcs.

As part of my revision process I analyze my manuscript’s relationship arcs. This arc is the up and down between two characters. In the same way that a character has a character arc and a book has a plot arc, relationships also have an arc. I visualize them as the typical plot diagram–with ups and downs and usually a climax.

Similar to a plot arc, a relationship arc will have turning points, reversals, and sometimes a climax. Sometimes the relationship arc is, at the core, also a subplot. (I could also argue that most subplots would be a relationship arc.)

[For more info about plot arcs visit Ingred Sundberg’s Story Structure Diagrams.]

I have found that considering relationship arcs helps me catch all sorts of both plot and character details that need tweaking or sometimes more intensive revision. It also makes me more aware of the relationships between characters.

As I look at relationship arcs, I focus separately on each important and significant relationship in the story. In most cases the relationships I examine are the relationship between the main character and a secondary character.

How do I usually approach each relationship arc?

(Keeping track of the relationship between characters will depend on the writer and the relationship being examined. One can do it as a chart or graph, written out by scene, or in one’s head, or with sticky notes or note cards . . . . . whatever works.)

1. I find every scene where the two characters appear and consider the following questions.

  • Where and how do things change between the characters?
  • What are their actions and emotions?
  • What are the ups? The downs?
  • Is there a climax?
  • Does the other character disappear for a long period of time? (It is fine to have a character not in a series of scenes–but this means the author needs to not forget that relationships develop off-stage.)
  • What is the purpose of this relationship? Is this relationship critical for the story, or is there no change between the characters, or is a character a flat stand-in-character who does not pull his weight?
  • How does the relationship change throughout the story?
  • If this relationship is a subplot I ask myself if there is some sort of interaction that can be layered on top of the main plot line in any scene.

I also consider if these scenes are in their proper places, in the proper order, and that the “right” amount of space exists between the scenes for this relationship.

2. After I have considered all the above questions, I use plot theory and character theory and apply that to the specific relationship I’m looking at.

  • Where is the beginning, the turning points, reversals, climax, change and growth, conflict, and complications of the relationship?
  • If these items don’t exist–is that relationship needed? Or does the missing element need to be added?

3. Emotional points. In addition to the physical plot of the relationship, there will also be an emotional layer. If there isn’t an emotional aspect to every relationship, I question if it belongs.

4. We can also consider the thematic considerations and if possible, make the relationship a mirror or repetition or variation of the physical or emotional plots of the book.

Basically, the Relationship Arc will have turning points like a plot arc and have emotional change like a character arc.

I repeat the above steps with each significant relationship. Don’t worry–in many cases, it can be a fairly quick process. A writer does not need to analyze every relationship. Even laying out the most important 2 to 4 relationships which the main character has can be super helpful.

LAYERS

After looking at major relationships, I look at how and where the relationships layer. By having turning points of different relationships coming frequently, the tension on the page will make the story more intense.

I find that by separating out and looking at major relationship arcs, I insure that each character is needed, gain another perspective on characterization, can fine-tune my plot and keep the tension nice, and well, fix all sorts of problems that arise in drafts.

Relationships and the interactions between characters are often the engine that move the story forward, creating plot, while showing who that character is.

Sarah Blake Johnson