Category Archives: Novel Writing

Today’s Work: Sharing a Scene from Never Said

Running man

Some of you may know that I participate in a variety of writers’ groups online, which has been fabulous company and motivation as I pound through novel revisions this summer.

Novel Revision Process

I haven’t been posting about my writing process as often as I did last year, but regular readers may know that part of my obstacle is that I’ve taken on a daunting but very thorough revision process: rather than just continue tweaking draft 4-5, which I’d worked on through the winter, I am fully retyping the current draft. It has been an extremely effective process… but s-l-o-w, in the sense that it’s August 1 and I only have 24, 700 words in (last winter’s ms was 176,000).

What has been particularly exciting about the process is it has benefitted from the concentrated power of scenes written later in my understanding of the story, and I’ve been really excited, in particular, about the layer of meaning that have come about from expanding viewpoints.

I have been sharing about this regularly on Twitter (#SumNovRev), within Facebook groups and during daily writing activities at TeachersWrite! but have posted little about it here.

Sharing an Excerpt of the Work in Process

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonThat said, today I am sharing an extended scene from the last third of my novel in progress, Never Said. (I shared a short excerpt from this as part of Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback; revision to this scene was prompted by character description activity on Kate Messner’s blog for TeachersWrite.)

About the Excerpt

Michael Roonan is an elusive main character as the novel takes place at a point in his life when he appears resigned to his own death despite the community around him absolving him from blame. He goes along with his best friend’s insistence that he go on the run, but there’s the unspoken undercurrent that he doesn’t disagree with the man who is after him (Sean).  This excerpt is from Sean’s POV, but really is lead up to the reveal of secrets Roonan has been keeping all along.

I’ve written before about how I like to play around with POV, writing from several different viewpoints as I discover a story. This antagonist, Sean, was a fun surprise, as he had insights I hadn’t thought of.  (Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict).

 

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Excerpt from Never Said

(The following is an excerpt from an unpublished novel. Do no copy or use without express written permission from Elissa Field.)

Sean saw the back of Michael Roonan’s head from a distance, across the thin stream that split the village center.  Mick turned toward the marketplace on the other side of the stone bridge. Wind lifted his hair and Sean saw his face in full profile. Definitely him. His hair was heavy, coarse with the filth of a man on the run. It calmed his anger to know Mick ran, no matter what he’d said. His hair grown out like the mane of a horse, so unlike himself.

Unrecognizable from the man he’d last met on the jetty south of Wicklow, when he’d watched Mick dive off the stern of a trawler, knowing he was avoiding the Garda whose lights flickered fierce off the roofs of their cars, parked in jackknifed formation at the entrance to the docks. Sean had grinned at him, unseen: They’re not for you, Mick. It’s a body washed up against the headwall. Coppers wandered bored as farm dogs, no hints yet if it were a murder or just a ferry jumper or a man washed overboard. So tedious, waiting on coroners.

He followed the intermittent bob of Mick’s head beyond the concrete breakers, carried far south by the inlet currents. He might have drowned, another body to be fished out, but sputtered out of the surf along the strand amid coarse grasses and weekend strollers. Sean watched him collapse. Waited. Mick pulled himself to sit facing out to sea as if what chased him was yet panting in the frothing waves. Not behind him in the car park, where Sean  leaned back for a smoke. A think.

Shells or stones – he couldn’t see from this distance – rattled in the waves with a sound like dried bones. Mick’s hair was buzzed military-short, then. More stark than months Sean had seen him reported, imprisoned in isolation for all the players who wanted him dead.

This little man. Hunched along the shore line, thin thread of light blazing brilliant beneath the oyster shell gradations of the sky.

Water and sand fell from his shirt when he stood. He brushed kelp from his shoulder. Otter of a survivor. One summer in Ridell, there’d been one of the younger brothers – he was sure it was Mick –pulled in an undertow jumping off the tower at Blackrock. The black shadow of his head, like the back of a turtle or a skate, pulling deeper and sideways along the Irish Sea bottom that would be exposed, smelly with the decay of exposed mussels and whelks at low tide. Sean was the one to dive for him, a bolt through the current, wrenching him to the surface. Clear vomit of seawater sprayed over his forearm as he held the boy’s chin in the crook of his elbow, rolling onto his back, the boy buoyed on his chest as he waited out the current to let them go. The little brother’s head gagged and sputtered and cried, gasping for air. Struggled to get free, to swim, not knowing all you could do is relent and float until the current gave you up. “Easy,” he’d told the top of the boy’s head, fixing his face to the sky. “Look, there. See the gulls? How many is that?”

He was sure it was Mick. The Roonan son who covered his ears at the high engine whine of his father passing in a race, even as others took pictures or shook their fists to cheer.

There was no rush. Wait him out.

Mick’s head was down when Sean came upon him, nearly dried, on a bench along the roadside not quite into the adjoining village. Mick said, without looking up, without surprise, “How is it going for you, Sean? I’d heard you were out.” It was barely discernible: the faint shift of posture to check peripheral vision, clear enough one wolf to another, to be certain Sean was alone.

“You killed Stephen.”

There was a long silence. Cars passed, their headlights bilious green in the odd fog come in from the sea. That color got to him, always – color of the dead boy in the canal – and he wanted to shake Mick, to shake the whole world, the way Man and Ulster vibrated in the high-revved videos of Gerry Roonan at 200 miles per hour. How did Mick take this for granted? How did he not know how lucky he was, for what he had? Him and Stevie: they’d be famous racers, just like their da. What hate makes you blow that all apart? For what? Not even a cause.

Mick turned fully to him, no avoidance in his eyes. “I killed Stephen.”

“What the fuck, Mick. Can’t you even deny it to me?.. Why? Why would you do that to your own brother?”

Roonan didn’t answer that. Not yet. “How did you know?”

“I watched you. I saw you do it, you stupid fuck. Watched… I saw him…”

Both were in it, then. Graphic memory. Two men, brothers to Stephen in different ways, watching from opposite sides as the universe sucked inward on Stephen then exploded infinitely outward. The only two to have seen it plainly, true. Night stills for them as it does in sacred moments, letting damnation seep in.

“Why the fuck did you do it?”

A man climbs fully inside his eyes when come upon his truths. Sean knew as he stared into Mick’s face waiting for an answer: it was there. Mick was walking around inside it as if visiting an old room, testing what was remembered, what was broken, what was new. He wanted to punch him, deflate silence by crushing his head like a collapsed football. Fury at such deliberation, such unhurried reflection. Michael was a big man now: past twenty-two Sean guessed, strong from pulling nets on the trawler, taller than Stevie would have been. He’d heard stories of Roonan crushing an undercover cop’s head against a rock to stop the man from beating an informant. He’d heard rumors of his calm shadow in a doorway being enough to scare off provo gunners.

“You need to run, Mick.”

The man’s eyes rose to his face, but he was not there. Somewhere else, some other time, and a chill went through Sean. Remembering the boy in the hedgerow, when Rodgers hit the tree. Sean and Stevie and Mick were the first to the body, the racer’s attached hand still opening and closing in a fist, as his severed arm was further down across the road. The man’s eyes met their three faces through his visor, pleading for help. Mick would have been just eight when he heard that first gasping groan of a body giving up life, and his father’s road racer had passed them just after, front wheel lifting in the air at the surprise of finding Rodgers’ spent machine broken apart across the road, then whining away up Perry’s Hill.

He did not give away the gun tucked into his waistband. Did not acknowledge he could pick up a rock or that broken sign post just feet away and bash his skull. Could have done it then, that evening, as the high pressure sodium lighting came on over their heads, lighting them in a glow as if good friends reminiscing before walking home from the pub. He said as if he had yet to make a plan, so Mick had the benefit of a warning: “You need to run, because I’ll have you dead for it.”

Mick had stood. His feet were bare, having kicked off his white rubber fishermen’s boots when they filled like anchors with the sea. He looked up and down the street like an animal dropped from a car, dazed and recalibrating for home. He took a step toward the street to read a sign, he looked back to the car park where he calculated Sean’s car was parked. “I know you will,” he said to Sean. “But I won’t run. Not when you come.” Mick met the man’s eyes, held them to be certain Sean understood, and he’d walked off slowly in the direction of the main road.

If you want to share your feedback in the comments: 

If anything resounds with you, do click “like” or leave me a comment to let me know what you liked — it’s hard and lonely work, so I will love you forever for any encouragement. Seriously. Of course, the impact may be lost a little,  since this piece is from 2/3 through the book, and some details may reference earlier chapters (for ex: “hedgerow” is a frequent reference to where the boys stood when watching Roonan’s father race motorcycles) — but still, find kind words to let me know if any of the scene didn’t work for you and why.

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What About You?

What are you working on this week? Are their aspects of your writing process or writing community that help you get it finished?

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No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

 

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Filed under My Work in Progress, Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Writing Process & Routine

Finishing the Novel: Daily Task of “Getting it Done”

Celebrating the first days of summer writing at a French café. c. Elissa Field

Celebrating the first days of summer writing at a French café. c. Elissa Field

 

Ah, blissful! After a demanding spring of teaching, summer has arrived — and with it, long days of novel revision. As often as I post about Novel Revision Strategies, one of the biggest strategies is how to manage time to get the most out of time to write.

Today, this had me reflecting on the strategies that help writers work long days on novel writing or revision to successfully reach writing milestones but not burn out or kill energy for the work.

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1)  Purge all those distractions.

If I were only going to write for 30 minutes before going to a day job, this step would be considered a distraction. But, on days when you plan to write or revise all day, there’s only so far you can ignore other tasks (trust me, I’ve pushed it). Here’s a quick cycle I let myself run through to remove distractions before writing:

  • Get refreshed. For me, it’s coffee. For some writers this might be push-ups, a quick run or walking the dog.
  • Keep it clean. Allow a quick 5-15 minutes to make a pass at household tasks. Picking up after the boys, dishes, laundry — whatever handful of things keeps the house going. Generally, this fits in while coffee is brewing. Sometimes I use “count to 10″ for this: pick a random number like 10, 20 or 25 — and quickly knock out that many of something. As a parent, this step usually involves cleaning; another writer might need this time to schedule an oil change or other kind of maintenance. Or be so lucky as to be able to skip this one altogether. Jealous.
  • Follow up for 10. We all hear warnings to stay away from email, social media and other distractions. But look, we take time to build important connections – so while I agree it’s important to write first, I give myself 10 minutes to tend the fires I stoked the day before. I don’t tend client projects here; those I schedule other times in the day.
  • Know your plan. Whether you have a written to-do list or a general idea in your head, have a sense of your writing goals for the day, with all materials on hand.

Everyone good? Kids busy with an activity? Somebody fed the cat? Nothing is on fire? Then hunker down.

2)  Write. One hour (or two). Uninterrupted.

For the work I’m doing today, 1 hour works. You might rather 2 hours. Whatever your number, it’s pure writing time.

Somewhere in the fidgeting above, I will already have in my head what the morning’s work should be. This week, the goal is to get as far through a complete read through (and revision) as possible. I’m working from a printed draft, so I will have shot that print job to the printer in 100-page chunks while checking email or some other menial task prior to writing. Yeah: no “I couldn’t write because I spent my hour fixing a printer jam or replacing print cartridges.”

No chat. No email. No phone or text or social media. No pausing for drinks or bathroom. If you’re a clock-watcher, use the timer on your cell phone to remove that distraction. Fall purely into writing for one straight hour.

Ding.

3)  Time for a break.

When I’m draft-writing, I write for hours on end, as long as the ideas are flowing. For revision: blocks of time. In the breaks in between, I might be revisiting some of those same tasks from morning’s distraction purge. Check the kids. Switch the laundry. Walk the dog. Get a snack. Another coffee. A phone call. Short tasks from other areas of my to-do list.

Again, I’m not a proponent of staying away from social media, so I would check Twitter, Facebook or my blog. I might share an accomplishment from the morning — connecting with other writers working on their goals at the same time is a great way to keep yourself going.

But I aim for a break to be 30 minutes, not longer. Sometimes it’s just a stretch, refill coffee and…

4)  Back to it.

Lots of successful writers will say their complete writing goal for a day might be 2 hours’ work. For me, during summers away from teaching, my aim is 4 hours on a short day, but as long as 8-10 hours for a full day of writing or revision. I get there by repeating these 2 hour blocks of work.

Do I have to stick with the clock? Not precisely.

Using time blocks helps structure the day and keep you honest – both in your discipline and the need to stop for breaks. But the day’s goals may dictate more organic work-blocks: retyping chapters one and two might fit neatly into one hour, or might prompt a sidetrack into research over the actual date the TSA was started. Maybe that block will be 1.5 hours, and maybe another block will be just 30 minutes, since it involves an intensive re-evaluation of my character’s inner motivation that requires a breather for reflection afterward.

I don’t stop to a factory bell if I am in the middle of something. Likewise, sometimes a task goes more quickly — or is more draining, so you need a break sooner than expected.

Having minimum or maximum time blocks can help you stay on track. If I planned to write an hour, I’ll push myself to keep going if it’s been less than 45 minutes. If I planned an hour but keep going off on tangents, I might control this by stopping if it goes past 2 hours.

Are you working at home with family? Honoring time blocks also helps to manage that temptation to get lost in writing and forget a promise you made to take kids to the pool or go out to dinner with your partner.

5)  Break up the work

To achieve 8 and even 10 hour days, I’ll keep repeating breaks and time blocks to stay refreshed but productive throughout the day.

Time blocks also help to create natural shifts in the work.

For me, this might mean 4 hours on the novel, then 2 writing for my blog or clients, or to work on submissions. Or I might break it into hours for revision, versus hours for research or drafting new material. Shifts in work help keep you from burning out.  I use a color-coded Outlook calendar to keep a visual of the time needed and available for each, throughout the week.

Benefit of learning to write on the go: my "office" view for the afternoon.

Benefit of learning to write on the go: my “office” view for the afternoon.

You can also shift location. This morning I have certain work (like this post) that has to be done on household wifi. But I’ve packaged afternoon revisions so I can take them with me to the beach, which allows me to honor time with my boys. Flexibility in where you work is a great strategy for buying time to write.

6)  Celebrate an accomplishment.

Keep yourself going by celebrating a milestone. Intrinsic rewards can be something as simple as flipping through all the editing marks you’ve made on a printed manuscript or reviewing your word count for the day. One friend kept tally of her word count on her mousepad at the end of every day.

Make it social by sharing this. Lots of us keep each other going by posting our day’s milestones to Twitter or a goals group with writing friends online. Some share their word counts on NaNoWriMo software during challenges throughout the year. Tell your partner or your kids. Build in a fun reward, like a festive drink or night out with friends.

Or… yes, there are days when the “celebrate” step is replaced with “chastise.” Do reassess goals for the following day if a milestone wasn’t reached or new issues came up.

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What About You?

What time strategies do you use to reach your writing goals? Am I alone in trying to work 8-hour writing/editing days (I doubt that)? How do you keep yourself both refreshed and moving toward your goals?  Or, post a question if you think readers here could help you solve your writing-schedule challenges.

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(c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

(c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

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Novel Revision Strategies: Retyping the Novel Draft

At work on novel revisions. c. Elissa Field

At work on novel revisions. c. Elissa Field

 

This week, along with spending time with my boys for their spring break, I am working full days on novel revisions. The first 2 days, I was writing new material and then integrating all new “add ons” into the existing draft, then printing it out. Deep breath. Then, yesterday, I decided to try out a whole new strategy for novel revision.

First off, as with other posts in my Novel Revision series, this is a revision strategy intended for a mid-level revision. That is, at least one complete draft has been accomplished (more about that below). If you want other ideas about novel revision, click this link for a full listing of posts in the series or look for links at the end.

If this novel revision strategy doesn’t work, you’ll hear me cursing. But, so far, I can see merit, so let’s try it out.

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Stage in Revisions

The novel draft I am working on has held together as a novel for at least a year and has gone through several revisions to develop the internal and external conflicts, so that I have my permanent story line in place. The characters are fully developed. It is at the revision stage of working together scenes from multiple revisions, purging out weak portions from early drafts, and working toward smoothing out what will be a final version (prayers skyward).

Where did this approach come from?

Within recent weeks, two writers I follow each shared this piece of advice, here in a tweet by Alexander Chee:

By coincidence, I had just heard the same strategy in this New School interview with Anthony Marra, whose Constellation of Vital Phenomena I’ve been reading (look for link to my review of Constellation below):

At about 7:30 into the interview, Anthony answers a question about how he came upon the narrative style of the award-winning novel, in which there are no minor characters.

Explain the Revision Strategy

In sharing how the style came about, Anthony explains his writing process this way:

I retype everything.  That is sort of my revision method: just retyping and retyping. I’ll print out a draft as soon as I’m finished and put it down in front of the keyboard and go back and retype the whole thing…  This process of retyping, I feel like it’s the way some painters paint the same landscape again and again because… you start seeing it more through your memory than through your eyes…”

Wait, What?

Tell me you didn’t say, “retype the whole thing.”

I know. Isn’t “retype the whole thing” the great nightmare we all have of what would happen if the computer crashed, losing all but that one print copy?

Do the math: Type 30 words a minute? Maybe you’re lucky and type 60 or even 100? Yeah, divide your novel’s word count by that. Starting from scratch on all those finished pages – you’re staring down the long road of WEEKS worth of typing.

As the groan ebbs, the more patient writer inside — the one who genuinely wants excellence — toys with the idea, thinking, “What might I fix more authentically if I were typing this manuscript in from scratch?”

My Manuscript Tests it Out

My novel draft is in a good place for this kind of revision.

  • I want to read the whole thing through.
  • I want to make major revisions to resolve differences in voice that come from working on a novel over a few years’ time.
  • I’m willing to drop any scene or sentence or word that isn’t working.

This is a great point to be recreating the story on a blank page, rather than just tweaking an existing draft.

And I type nearly as fast as I think. It may be faster for me to retype what I like than to mark up a draft and have to go back and implement those changes, knowing they still won’t perfectly fit with neighboring text.

So How’s It Working?

Two days into this approach I’ve typed in 6,993 words (or 19 pages) which is essentially the first chapter (or first chapter and half).

Pros

Retyping has been a great approach for this section of revisions, as 1) I needed this part of the novel perfected to submit as writing sample with a couple applications, and 2) the existing draft was made up of a handful of draft options.

Retyping went very smoothly. I typed in the first 4 pages exactly as they were, as I’ve revised them several times, although I discovered some obvious sentence errors in a couple places. I then cherry-picked 4 old scenes to rescue just key details and wording. Then I typed in, nearly verbatim, a couple recent drafts, which are closest to my intent with the narrative voice.  There was one small chunk that I cheated and used copy-paste to transfer. Sue me.

There were several pages of text I willingly dropped. In particular, it was good to see those “explainy,” psychology-heavy sections from early drafts falling behind on the cutting room floor. This is why I wanted to use this process. I kept only the best wording — only wording that felt strong enough to be worth typing again.

Cons

It does take a bit of time. I did the math but refuse to accept it would really take me 219 days to retype this thing. I’d like to claim faulty division and tell myself I can do it by May. (Update in June: nope, not finished by May. I haven’t given up the approach, but did not have time to devote to it while busy with students the past two months. Getting back to it…)

Have issues with your eyesight? I don’t normally but would empathize with anyone who does, as I injured my eye last month, which has made my vision more sensitive, and it is a little demanding on vision to go back and forth between the print draft and on-screen draft.

Worry about losing one of those darlings you slaughtered? I have a longstanding practice of saving a “cuts” document for anything I delete from a draft, because I can just cut it and paste it there. With this retyping process, I technically still have a record of those lost words as I have the printed draft, but, in order to move quickly, I was not clearly marking the printed text to keep track of words or sections I chose to exclude while typing. Keeping colored highlighters on hand would help with this: highlight one color for deleting and another if you are thinking to move something to another part of the manuscript.

Ah, typos. For anyone who’s already gone through a draft correcting dropped letters, misspellings, capitalizations or dropped words, this is the little nightmare: retyping exposes you to a whole fresh round of typos. I’m sure that writers using the retyping method just address those on the final version, or aim to do their best correct them with each round. < Note the irony of typos in that line? Point made.

Overall

Definitely, I see a value in this revision process, so will keep it in my toolbox, although I don’t know that it will become my one and only process.  I’ll post an update over the coming weeks to see if I stick with this process through the whole draft.

My biggest concern, overall, is that it is very tempting to make drastic revisions when retyping. This could be good — it lets you release those outgrown darlings readily — but that also means that the current revision can only be as good as I am on the day I’m retyping any revisions. Although, just as easily, one could tune out and simply type what’s there without real revision. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Update 6/8/14: I can’t update with a fabulous success story, as I went back into the distractions of teaching for the 2 months since that post, so have not made it far through the manuscript. However, I did finish reading Anthony Marra’s novel (look for link to my review, below), which I praise for its clean narrative and ability to accomplish a complex narrative structure. The strength of his narrative control is a nod in favor of his revision technique. I’ll update again as I move ahead with long revision days now school is done.

Read more about Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in my June 7, 2014 review.

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How About You?

Are you at work on revision? Have you tried this strategy? Or, what strategies do you recommend? Feel free to share links to your own posts if you’ve written about your own favorite approach.

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Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

More from my Novel Revision series:

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Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict

Running manOne of the great things about my online writing community is the way we keep each other motivated, often in ways we don’t expect.  Last week, I shared how it had motivated me to re-set my 2014 goals after I shared a brief excerpt of Wake and gotten feedback that pushed me to think, to have confidence and above all, “Keep going.”

My 500 wordsToday’s post is sort of Jeff Goins’ fault, as the day 19 prompt at his 500 words challenge was to write in another voice. So it is I spent the day evaluating a process I have been going through in deepening internal motivation of a novel character.

This post serves as follow up to several novel revision articles posted over the past year. I’ll include the relevant links to individual revision steps for anyone looking for more on the revision process.

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Revision in Process: Internal Motivation of a Main Character

Throughout my series of posts on Novel Revision last summer (this link takes you to all posts on Novel Revision, or find links to individual skills within this post), I revealed how deeply I felt the need to push my main character, Carinne (Revising a Flat Character).

Motivation for the male protagonist, Michael Roonan, was clear from the get-go. He’s killed people; guilt and loss compel his self-castigation. But, in early versions, Carinne’s written motivation was only that she was getting out of a bad marriage and she fell in love with Roonan.

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Truth: as I wrote about in Can Literary Fiction Be Hot, the romantic element is often the most compelling and memorable aspect of fiction that sticks with us.  Still… My gut told me there had to be more to her motivation than “failed marriage” and “he’s hot.”  Kind of lame motivation, right?  Too thin, too predictable, too linear.

Many of my novel revision posts have shared the ways I’ve challenged my own understanding of Carinne and character motivation because, one way or another, my gut told me that I knew something more about her than I had written.  (Did you pick up on that when I distinguished her “written” motivation, above?)  But I needed to go deep to put it into words, and part of that included distancing the character from my own experience.

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

The eye-opener was in an exercise I completed (October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation), where I kept assessing and re-assessing stakes for the internal conflict of the main characters.  For Carinne, the written stakes were only whether she raised her son alone or if she could get her lover back with her. Then I realized it wasn’t her own stakes that drove her, but those of the little boy, Liam, she had conceived with Roonan.  The driving motivation to go find Roonan had to come from a place beyond romance — she was off to find him so that her son would not grow up without a father.

Along the same time, I wrote last summer that I had come to understand a crucial backstory for Carinne that distances her from myself.

This is something I have not written about, but have felt deeply in the year and a half since a young photojournalist went missing on assignment.  His last tweet — from a birthday celebration with friends — and the pride in photographs he shared in his online portfolio — have stuck with me as an eerie, disembodied voice over the months his parents and sister worked through international channels to discover what happened to him.  As much as the news speaks of military or civilian losses, lost journalists has been a major piece in international affairs of the past 20 years.

The thing with this novel I am writing is, it has to do with why people get involved in violent international affairs. Roonan became a murderer while doing everything he could to avoid involvement in paramilitary activity in his family’s Irish border town. Carinne meets him years after the violence, finding the ghost of the man. A failed marriage is not her motivation; I quickly wrote that out of the early draft.  Carinne came to life for me last summer when I stopped apologizing and making excuses for her and let her behavior be entirely contrary – then let the missing reporter be the loss that drove her chaotic behavior.

True Revision Can be Messy

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

I began last summer’s revision-series with a post titled Work is Messy, Book May Bite.

What a mess new motivation makes of a draft, but slowly the 2 internal storylines have been laying themselves out clearly in parallel to one another, as the external conflict brings the story to resolution that genuinely resounds with meaning, as Carinne unites father and son.  Yeah, okay: it can be romantically hot, too, but the resolution now resounds on a more universal level.

I once watched my stepmother unravel a month’s worth of knitting to correct a missed stitch in a complicated fisherman-knit afghan, and I couldn’t believe the patience and insistence on perfection it took for her to do that.  Taking apart this main character, Carinne, has felt like all that unraveling — pulling the whole novel apart and putting it back together.  But I knew in my gut that it wasn’t “there” yet.  I love the characters and their story, but I just knew that the resolution of an international conflict could not be just romantic happily-ever-after. The little boy was symbolic of something in the opening, and he had to be the core of the resolution, as symbol of something greater for the novel to resound.

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The Work in Process

That’s a lot of thinking out loud.  How does it play out?  One approach that brought me closer to understanding the mother’s motivation was to write scenes from the child’s perspective.

In final revisions, I’ll be deciding between a close-omniscient or alternating third person narrative structure, which means I am not yet sure if I will keep the boy’s voice or just let it inform the mother’s perspective.  But, for the sake of sharing a piece of the writing process, here is the scene I shared at Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback last week.

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Excerpt from Work in Progress, Where the Wolves Find Us (nicknamed Wake)

Context:  This excerpt is from a rough draft rethinking an opening scene from the son, Liam’s, perspective. The novel opens with the mother (Carinne) finding her son burying something in the back yard. As Carinne is in the process of washing mud from his hands, he asks, essentially for the first time, if his father is dead.  This becomes the inciting event; by the end of the chapter, Carinne is searching for the missing father.  The drafted scene below is from a long riff that came out when I took time to see “life with his mother” from Liam’s perspective. What would he see, hear or feel, growing up with a mother isolated and obsessed with missing people?

His mother’s shoulder was warm against Liam’s back, the water glittering beneath the sink-light as she sudsed his hands. He clapped his hands so bubbles sprayed and he tracked them, her voice murmuring in his ear as each iridescent orb floated up and sideways and down, each at its own rate so that his eyes measured them as if racers toward a finish line. Plik! Hope. Plik! Each popped, no matter he’d resisted the urge to touch them. Each, in its own path, flicked a mini explosion of its membrane and ceased to exist in the vacant spans of light.

Carinne’s voice reached a pitch – Liam’s feet had kicked dishes stacked in the sink – then went silent, replaced by the constant curt voice of men and women from the television playing in the next room. News. Always the news, and he hated it.

He patted suds onto her cheek. She took it as a joke, laughing, her eyes smiling at his.  He hit her again,  harder, wanting it to stop: the man chopping news into his head.  An airport. A warning. A plane stopped along a runway. Heads talking. The plane. More heads. A fire truck.  She would look: study the stream of words at the bottom. Flip three channels forward, pausing on each. Each, more news. Then back.  Even she didn’t care, he could tell. She took in what was happening the same way she studied the noise of trash men arriving for the blue bins or the neighbor’s garage door motor starting: look to the noise, see it for what it was, and disregard it as not affecting them.  But most hours of the day, he could not make her change the channel.  “Just let me see what’s happening overseas,” she would tell him, “Then we’ll change it.”

She corrects him now, “We don’t hit!” gripping his hands together in her own as if for prayer. He twists his head away and pulls his hands. “Hands are not for hitting,” she recites.

He says very quietly, as if to an unseeable friend, “I hate the news.”

She lets go, relieved. The smack makes sense, as it hadn’t a second ago. He leans into her shoulder, his dried hand reaching along the back of her neck to where her hair is softest, her baby again. “I hate it, too,” she says.

She will change the channel, this time, but he doesn’t believe she hates it. The firemen spraying foam on the plane by the runway did not interest her, but other times she has watched the same repeating footage, over and over.  A black uniformed policeman being interviewed in a mist of rain, dark clouds rising behind him.  A white SUV driving between sand-colored buildings in a cloud of dust behind a reporter cloaked with a checkered scarf. Over and over, she might watch these. Study the images to the corners of the screen. Study faces blurred in the background. Over and over. Then flip channels in hope to see the same scene from another angle.  Not notice the stack he’d made of his cars: three tall, now four, his eyes widening, willing them not to topple.  His mother frozen silent, remote clenched in her hand. Sometimes tears. He hated it as she did not. So easily, she could have flipped to another channel. Thomas the Train. Even Dora.

“I hate the men,” he said once.

She had turned away from him like she did when he broke something and she was mad even though she said she wasn’t.  “Never hate the men,” she said.  She left the room, crying and trying to hide it from him, as if these men were her own friends, her family, as the empty house of the two of them showed no sign of.

Have Feedback?

Of course this piece is in draft form and out of context, but constructive feedback is welcome.  I am on the fence whether it is helpful to actually use the child’s voice, as I think it would be tough for a toddler to carry the opening voice of an adult novel. Would you try to use his voice, or just let his insight inform the mother’s POV?  Hmm.

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What About You?

Are you revising fiction this week?  What challenges do you run into or what has worked well for you? If you’ve also been sharing your work or revision strategies, feel free to add your links or comments below.

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

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Novel Revision: Can Literary Fiction be Hot?

hotfiction

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

So what am I working on next, in this series on mid-process novel revisions? Okay, confession. Maybe, while working on novel revision this week, I caught myself admiring Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. And maybe I rewatched Sense and Sensibilities, catching my breath for the 99th time over Colonel Brandon’s silent anguish of love. Maybe that had me thinking about hot main characters and romantic plots.

But then, just maybe, as I reread parts of my novel which has matured into its thematically-layered 4th or 5th draft, I stumbled upon a love scene between my main characters and cringed.

For a complete list of articles from this Novel Revision series, look below.  But today it’s time to take on love scenes.

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Love Draws Us In

If you’d asked me what this novel was about during first drafts, I would have called it a love story. It opens with the prattling of a toddler conceived in a love affair between the main characters. I feel a loyalty to that love spark, even as growth in the story has come to focus more on the layers of conflict and the larger theme of civilians avoiding violence during war.

That early feeling of falling in love with this broken main character is a central integrity to the story that doesn’t leave me.  Key transitions in plot hinge on the moment they met, the moment they were drawn to each other, the moment they first, well, you know, and whether they are in love, and how that changes their original response to conflict. The love tension between my MCs is the fun part of the story, and a powerful inspiration that keeps me going from draft to draft.

Tough, my current revision process tells me.

How many first dates, even well described, would make it through the rounds of novel revisions? As I re-read these original scenes and decide how to edit love into the final drafts, I’m left wondering what role sex plays in literary fiction.

Purpose of the Sex Scene Fits the Purpose of the Genre

Sex plays different roles in different genres, of course, and thinking about the purpose of a genre helps to establish a guideline for the purpose sex scenes would serve in a book.

If I were writing romance fiction, the purpose of my sex scenes would be to evoke a romantic experience for the reader. For a mystery or thriller, sexual tension might accelerate the tension of a crime or create the more mysterious, romantic motivation for a detective or spy. For young adult lit, sexual activity is handled carefully to depict first experiences crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood, and is therefore likely to focus on hesitation or anticipation, and small details a young person would remember of a first kiss or holding hands.

In each case, defining the work’s purpose is a good starting point in knowing what love scene details will advance a story without being off kilter or over the top.

What is the Role of Sex in Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is less easily defined than some other genres, so I was left wondering at the role of sex in my WIP. In many cases, literary fiction is a hybrid with other genres, containing elements of romance, mystery, historical, coming of age, or science fiction. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass addresses the effective crossover between literary and commercial fiction.

What is generally the case in all literary fiction and its hybrid/crossover varieties is that heat and passion can’t be the only purpose of love or sex in a story. Dang. I can’t just say my MC is a hottie and they are so in l-o-o-o-ve. The passion has to fuel or depict a larger purpose in developing character and advancing the conflict.

Of course, there are numerous literary best sellers where sex is not present. In his essay, Sex in Literature, Adrian Slatcher references Julian Barnes in saying “‘the author feels a commercial obligation’ to write about sex. But there have been several literary bestsellers to involve almost no sex at all.”  In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, there is the non-sexual tension of his main character not sleeping with the prostitutes he befriends. In Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, love is brotherly and era-appropriate dating scenes involve sitting on a blanket at the beach or arriving at a nanny’s house to pick her up for a date.

But sexual passion is fuel in much of literary fiction. Looking back on stories that continue to resonate as classics, it’s often a romance at the heart of the story that we remember. The fact that the romance between my main characters is important to my own interest in my WIP tells me that I need to give careful consideration while revising, for this to remain a strength in the final story.

Sex Reveals Character and Conflict

Literary fiction tends to be centered on character transformation, and sex can be a powerful symbol of where a character is in conflict. Sex is symbolic of inner conflicts of being trapped, captured, free,  released, linked or united, and often serves as transformation in the plotline of internal conflict resolution.  This can appear as outright sexual activity and its outcomes (think Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter), desire that fuels action without explicit sexual activity (Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence) or the state of desire restrained from action (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day).

Romantic desire can appear to stand alone as a character’s inner conflict, but is generally symbolic of something more.  Even in novels like Pride and Prejudice, where the character’s internal conflict is resolved through acknowledging mutual love and marrying, that desire for love is integral to a larger theme of defending personal identity within the external conflict of England’s old property laws. Sex is an inherent theme of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, but serves to create tension and release of tension and violation within a greater theme of war.

As much as love or sex can be used to signal transitions in inner conflict, it is also used in opposition. Sex is the external act of internal emotion, and tension arises if the external act (or lack of action) is in conflict with what the reader knows about inner emotion. Intense emotions are created when a reader knows the character’s desire but the character does not act on it, as in Kasuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, which exudes a sensual tension partly because the butler never breaks his reserve.

Similarly, sexual behavior or loving actions can create a dramatic contrast to depict a character’s inner torment. In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, the scene when soldiers walk to a brothel while on leave is the antithesis of sexy, establishing through contrast how nightmarish their battle world has been and how dislodged the men are from emotion. The presence of sex without love or compassion is often symbolic of inner dysfunction, as Hemingway often used to signal the disembodiment of humanity after the shock of war. Reams of literary fiction include sex as sickness or sex in its dysfunctional state, such as The Kite Runner, The God of Small Things and The Color Purple.

Not Choreography

One of the simplest rules I’ve heard in knowing how to write sex in fiction is that effective sex scenes do not involve choreography. If you could replicate the movements and positions based on what is written, then it’s too much.

Like any other sensory details in successful fiction, sexual details have to serve the story, not just paint a picture. In that sense, I have been really resistant to say my main character is beautiful or describe the dramatic eyes I imagine for her love interest (yeah, that picture up top comes close). My story is not advanced by the characters being attractive.  Beauty is only meaningful when it reveals what the character perceives as beautiful, or beauty in relief against themes of pain or darkness. Hot details need to be something more than just what we, as writers, find hot in a mate. As with any character traits, they should reveal the character’s fear or hope or history or greater desire and what keeps them from finding happiness. For my female character to notice scars on my male character’s knuckles is more meaningful (and less ridiculous) than to say he has nice hands.

Often, the novel’s sexual tension is best achieved in description of a nonsexual event. In Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, the hottest sensuality comes not from deflowering of the mute wife, but in the nights she sneaks to feed the wild tiger meat from her husband’s stores.

But let’s say we do want to communicate that the scene was hot.  The details to establish hotness still need to fit the novel’s theme, advance its conflict, and fit the voice. Only rare novels would benefit from Victoria’s Secret outfits and naming of body parts and positions. Words that are hot in imagination or real life — like lips and fingertips and more — often turn ridiculous in writing (and euphemisms can be even more ridiculous).

Successful sex scenes often evoke sensuality with words unrelated to the body or actual sex. Even in overtly sexual novels, like The English Patient, sexual details are often odd, like sexualizing the divot at the base of the woman’s throat. Hardy described blooming mushrooms in the woods rather than describe Tess’s virginal skin in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has his characters wait a lifetime to reach fulfillment in Love in the Time of Cholera, and description of that scene involves reference to constipation.

Revising with a Mind to What Makes Sex Scenes Work in Literary Fiction

It seems the key is to understand the purpose or message of your own novel, and know your story’s internal conflicts, to understand which kind of sex (or lack of) scene can work within your story. Sex is one of the choices my characters make in carving out their odd path toward resolving their inner conflicts, and their scenes together reveal love and hope and passion and parental intentions, but also dysfunction and imbalance and fear.  Revising feels like coming at the scenes from an angle rather than head-on, working to deepen character and conflict, understanding how each detail reveals the progression in character transformation and not just heat.

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What About You?

Have you been conflicted in writing or revising love in a story?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

If you want to read more on the subject, I admired this great post by English writer Isabel Costello: Sex Scenes in Fiction.

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Or, here is the current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say

tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been posting a series on Novel Revision Strategies, to address the kinds of revision that take place during the intermediate process between a completed draft (in 3rd or 4th version) but not quite ready to polish and submit. Links for the whole series are below.

A major part of mid-process revisions includes evaluating conflicts, stakes and character motivation, and it is exactly this that has come up 3 times in my morning writing:

  • Stakes: At Wordsmith Studio, Kasie Whitener posted the next question for our craft discussion which references Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. In chapter 2, Maass says, “If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.” Our discussion is to ask the question, “So what?” in challenging whether our own stories have set high stakes. Back in October, I addressed this challenge using a checklist in October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation.
  • Clueless: I stumbled on the post 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing by another Wordsmith Studio friend, Jeannine Bergers’ Everett, and was reminded how often — as writers, as parents, as adults — we are trying to figure something out and think ourselves incompetent and clueless but keep going anyway simply because it’s our job. Keep reading; this all comes together…
  • Say it: This actually came first. I started the morning writing 1,249 words that began with my character saying the words, “I was wrong to do that.”

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Raising Stakes: Characters Say the Things We Never Say

I’m actually having a stressful morning. Some readers who interact with me in other forums may know I ran into a number of irritating obstacles in life while Mercury was in retrograde the last couple weeks.

The details aren’t interesting, but are parallel to Jeannine’s memory of her mother saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” while cutting her children’s hair (yes, Jeannine is very funny; look for the link below because you’ll want to follow her). I’m trying to get on the road to take my kids on their summer vacation to visit my parents and am nearly paralyzed with worrying that I’ll forget to pack something, that there’s some business I was supposed to attend to here in town, that…

Just as I was tempted to tweet something like, “It’s really scary to be a mom,” I realized what a genuinely true statement that is, and how blatantly obvious, and how no one ever says it and how, well… I wasn’t going to either.

And… of course, since I’m so darn obsessed with this novel right now, I was less concerned with feeling bad for myself than I was struck by the truth that this is a big part of raising the stakes for characters: the power of saying it.

I could describe the tedious list of things it takes to pack the car for a trip with the kids. I could even write the details in a way that is interesting and evocative. In chatting with a friend, we’d roll our eyes and laugh, make it into a charming joke where we empathize over parenting or the summer heat. But, as long as we’re not drama queens, it’d stop there, right?  That’s how stress gets used in our real lives: I turn it into some socially appropriate, “can you believe it?” joke about my day and move on.

I don’t tweet the true statement about the fear or anxiety.

Because I’m not a character in a novel.

But my character is.  And what got me writing this morning was an a-ha trigger of the one line my character needs to say.

At the moment she abandons her mother and sister and grandmother on a trip to Ireland to run off with a man she just met, she doesn’t need reams of polite excuses as to why she’s justified. She needs to say what we don’t say in polite chatter: “I was wrong to do it.” The second I typed that line this morning, an entire new insight opened into the relationship between Carinne and her mother, and their shared grief over her lost brother.

In raising our character’s stakes, our characters shouldn’t politely back down from making a wrong choice or being scared. Fear and anger and mistakes are where conflict happens. Even if I later edit that sentence back out, treating it as a prompt, and only keep the writing it provoked, it was fascinating how readily the flood gates opened the second I said words we don’t normally speak out loud.

“It’s really scary to be a mom.” And all the honest, true details of that emotion write themselves. “I was wrong to do it.” And all the honest emotions of what it means to have done something knowing it was wrong, immediately raise the more interesting question of, “Well then why did you do it?” 

This a-ha could not have found more of a kindred spirit than in Jeannine’s post (DO read it, when you’re done here), in which her mother says blatantly, out loud, what no one confesses: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” As Jeannine’s post and my own experience this morning reveal, it is amazing the authenticity and empowerment that actually saying these unsaid statements produces.

Want to Turn This Into a Prompt?

  • What is one of your character’s values? In what way does the story’s conflict or your character’s choice violate that value? What is a statement your character would not admit to? Now, make your character say it.
  • What is something your character fears? Make your character say this out loud.
  • What weakness or fear does your character fear will keep him/her from what he/she desires? Say it out loud.
  • And, to keep you on track with WSS’s craft chat, ask yourself about any of these questions and statements, “So what?” Are these high stakes, and in what way could you raise them?

Do Now:

Do go read Jeannine Bergers Everett’s post on her blog Mobyjoe Cafe: Throw Out 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing. Jeannine is extremely funny and insightful, so I really recommend following her.

If mention of the Wordsmith Studio craft discussions has you curious, look for announcements of our group’s weekly writing activities via the #wschat hashtag on Twitter.

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What About You?

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

For my current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Novel Revision Strategies: “Hit List” of 6 Things to Edit Now

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. Classic: either move this with a happy star to the next chapter — or cut it and pillage for single words/details to keep. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

If you’ve read my last several posts, you know that I’ve been sharing the varied processes I’ve been going through in daily revisions to my novel.  If you want to read other posts in the series, a list of links is at the end, below.

As I’ve said before, my novel draft is in mid-process revisions. That is,

  • I am no longer drafting the novel: the full story is written from opening through final scene, including external conflict, internal conflicts for key characters, settings and the major scenes, and all the research is completed.
  • On the other hand, I’m still making decisions and answering questions about what I’ve written, addressing inconsistencies, moving large sections around, or deleting, and rewriting.
  • Just as I’m no longer drafting, I’m also not editing at the sentence level, yet, as I will during final revisions. I may correct word choice, sentence structure or punctuation as I notice them, but I’m still in a more “construction” phase than the final process of polishing to send to an editor.

I say this to recognize that there is a point between mid-process and final revisions, where it helps to be able to run through a series of steps to test for common errors — and that is the point of today’s post.

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A Hit List of 6 Steps to Apply to Target Weaknesses in a Draft

Finishing the middle process and approaching final revisions is a good time to consider some common errors that editors, agents and other pros report finding in novel drafts submitted as “finished.”  One of the reasons this stage of revision can be such a concern is that a writer may have a blind spot to errors that editors and agents find obvious.

The hit list below offers 6 practical steps that can help you target and fix weaknesses remaining in your draft. Inspiration comes, in part, from the advice for writers posted on the submissions page at the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s prize for fiction, but also from resources like “query tips” on Twitter, other articles from editors and agents, and my own experience.

1. Run Spell Check

This one sounds obvious. Of course: check for misspellings or errors in capitalization. But also watch for inconsistent spellings of proper names you invented – spell check won’t catch these unless you add them to its dictionary. Did you ever change names of characters or locations? It’s a common error to not catch all inconsistencies before submitting.  Read for misused homophones, which spell-check might not catch. Yup, we all swap out there/their/they’re, etc., when typing fast. Beyond spelling, check grammar and punctuation — use the best spell-checking tool available to you. For example, if you have both Scrivener and Word, use the spell-checker in Word. It’s smarter. Lastly, the skimming nature of bouncing through your document with spell check can also help you notice other subtle issues — for example, consider “overused words,” below.

2. Bad Phrasing and Passive Tenses

Use your software’s search tool to target lame word usage.  You can target passive word choice by searching “there is,” “there are” and “there was/were.”  Search helping verbs and -ing to avoid overuse of vague or passive verb constructions.  I’ve heard at least one pro say it’s a newbie error to use constructions with “become”/”becoming.” For example, “He became scared,” rather than, “Fear ran through him.” An odd example of stilted/passive wording mentioned by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society was overuse of the word “the.”  They say (link below) that one non-winning novel submission to the Society’s contest in 2012 “used the word ‘the’ 10,001 times. At least half could easily have been eliminated.” To make the point, they revised sample lines to show how wording could have been more vivid. Searching any of these words might help target where the usage is fitting or where it might be written more effectively.

3. Overused Words or Images

We all have certain words or images we overuse — do you know yours? Skimming during spellcheck may increase your awareness. If not, listen for them as you reread or ask a beta reader to notice them for you. Often, these can be unexpected. For example, I was surprised to find I’d used “horse” 47 times in this draft which is not about horses. Only 4 scenes required a horse and the random mentions took their power away (why all the horses? It’s an autobiographical misfire as my family has horses in our background – while my characters do not).  If you have a particular mood or image in mind as you write, you could find it overly pervasive. Some of my overused words, for example, were dark, silver, memory, shadow and light. They are key mood words, but I needed to use them in the most powerful moments, not, um, everywhere. Overused words create vagueness rather than meaning, so targeting them is an opportunity to seed more powerful detail. “Sitting in darkness” is one thing; “sleeping in the cold shadows of a hedge along the drive” moves the story and conflict, not just mood.

4. Is it Over-written?

In early drafts, it’s easy to write reams of words that aren’t yet anchored in the specifics of story details you didn’t yet know. There and in other places, if you suspect a sentence or paragraph is too wordy or not serving a purpose, use a highlighter to mark only the words that matter. Could you edit to just those? What if someone asked you to post a line to Twitter?  If you were limited to 140 characters, what words would drop out?  At the same time, highlighting key information can help you avoid deleting an important detail. Let’s say it’s tempting to delete a cringe-worthy scene from a early draft — highlighting any key information revealed by that scene (“a gun was stored on the top shelf”) will help you make sure to save and relocate it to another scene, so you don’t create an inadvertent hole in the story.

5. Target Dialogue

Personally, I write full conversations between characters during drafting, but delete all dialogue except the lines with power during revision.  Dialogue problems are a common issue to keep drafts from succeeding.  Advice for revision includes reducing wordcounts and improving story flow by removing unnecessary dialogue tags. Other advice from pros suggest editing for pompous speeches or voice that does not ring true, or excessive reliance on lengthy dialogue for information dumps. Unless dialect is key to your story, avoid overuse of phonetic spellings and spacers (“I, like, well, um, really,” she paused..). Every line of dialogue should cleanly, clearly carry its weight to activate the story; weak dialogue kills.

6. Senses Should Sing

Writer Donna Gephart recently shared the advice that 80% of the brain’s perception is related to sight (read her mini-lesson as part of Teachers Write! here). Awesome. Except that may mean that writing is overly preoccupied with details related to eyes and unnecessary sight direction. “He turned and looked toward the dock. The boat was on fire,” is a great example of unnecessary sight direction. Better: “The boat was in flames.” The reader doesn’t need to be told the MC turned and looked. Target “looked,” “turned,” “saw,” “glanced,” and other directions related to eyes, and consider whether they’re really needed. What is really revealed, and is there a better way to reveal this?  And go beyond sight details.  Where could you add detail from the other 4 senses — especially in places where you want to pull a reader deeper? Use sensory details that develop character (name 3 things the character would notice that no one else would) or move the story.  Remove details that are clichéd, assumed or reveal nothing about the character or story.

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Links to other posts from my Revision Series are at the end of this post.

For more on common novel errors:

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How About You?

Do you consider your WIP to be in a drafting stage, in mid-process revisions, or are you polishing to submit for publication?

Do any of these 6 steps ring true for you? Have you tried a similar approach, or do you have a trick of your own to share?

What “common errors” do you worry most about? Or, do you worry about having a blind spot and not be able to notice errors? (Which hints at my next hurdle: the importance of getting feedback from beta readers…)

Best wishes to you, wherever you are in the writing, revising or publication process.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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More Posts in this Novel Revision Strategies series:

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Novel Revision: 5 Issues Addressed in Edits

working on ms

If you’ve been following this series, you may know I’m now 6 days in to intense revisions on the novel manuscript I printed off Friday.

Am I still that organized and cheery? Ugh! 6 days-in (full, long days of reading, marking and changing), I’m tired. No matter how organized, revisions are hard work.

I have made it about halfway through the manuscript — having accomplished close-reads in some places and more general mark-ups in others. Like shoveling heavy snow, the deeper I go, the heavier the lifting seems to get — but there have been some remarkably simple fixes, too.

In continuing to share the process, here are the kinds of issues I’ve found in this stage of the draft, and some solutions.

  • Easy: in at least half a dozen places, I found a scene that had been pasted more than one place in the draft. It’s an easy fix: I decide which location is best and delete the duplicate (ms. is shorter, yay!). If you use Scrivener, this should be easy to notice/avoid as you can recognize the same first line repeating on more than 1 notecard or binder label.
  • Scary: there’s nothing worse than knowing you wrote a scene, but it’s not there when you go to read your draft. When you write and revise in short bursts over months, especially if you use whatever media is at hand (shout out to the writer who scribbled a scene on her arm while sitting in traffic), it is scarily easy for this to happen. Of the 3 scenes I am missing, I’m looking in an old draft for one, because I know it was there before. I found another in my email folder because it was a scene I’d written using Dragon Dictation, which transcribed and emailed it to me. For whatever else is missing, I’ll be scouring notebooks to see if it was handwritten somewhere, or will wait until the next draft and rewrite from memory.
  • Whiny: it was hard not to lose confidence re-reading certain early-draft sections which I find whiny — so full of psychological explanation. I mentioned the strategy of highlighting my favorite wording – this made it easier to ignore the whiny and instead focus on the better, newer writing, which convey those emotions more authentically in scene. Still cringe at the whining, though. Ugh.
  • Wrong: using the task list I mentioned Tuesday, I’ve been tracking facts to resolve. For example, since the story takes place before and after 9/11, I can’t ignore the impact that event would have had, despite the story not being about 9/11. A couple quick choices and some research let me edit all of those details at once. The other way story details are “wrong” is where I’ve changed details as the story has grown. As with “whiny,” I mark any wording worth keeping, then scrap the older versions. Using a “search” function can help locate the old facts to edit out (see the comment about “horse” below — a search that fixed a change in backstory).
  • Careless: I’ve gotten good at “turning off that internal editor” when drafting which leaves me with lots of conventions flaws to fix, like having no quotation marks on dialogue. In many places, I literally allowed ideas to come out in comma-strung lists, to avoid having to edit out wordiness later. Good news: Spell-check quickly fixed all the issues with uncapitalized names and unpunctuated sentences. Moving forward, I only have to tidy the harder edits on scenes that will be kept. With dialogue, I draft whole conversations, but delete out all lines except the ones with power. Knowing I have at least 1 more revision after this, I don’t have to polish everything.

Revision checklist-One piece of advice I’m trying to keep in mind is to not be too rash with changes. I’m marking certain text to “keep for now,” already anticipating leaving some decisions until the next batch of revision.

For more on common novel errors:

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How About You?

Readers in prior posts have shared their own revision process and challenges. Are you revising as well?

My biggest challenge is trying to get it done — I know what I need to do, but can’t get over how much time it takes to get through it. Can you relate to that — or what is your biggest challenge or fear?

Best wishes to you, wherever you are in the writing, revising or publication process.

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Novel Revision Strategies: A Day’s Work in Pictures

novel revis 7-9

sols_blueIf you read Monday’s post (Novel Revision Strategies: Printing for Read-Through), you know I am using a printed draft for this stage of novel revisions.

Today’s post is a photo diary of what morning work looked like — as waffles with the boys shared space with ruthless edits on this draft.

“Failure is not an option”?

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Go “where’s Waldo” to find the NASA slogan on my coffee mug: Failure is not an option.

Even as writing and revising drafts is all about failing over and over again? Yeah, I still love that mug’s inspiration. I bought it on a trip to Cape Canaveral with my rising-7th grader when he was in 4th grade. Ever wondered about the explosive launch sequence pictured on my blog’s masthead? That was taken on the same trip — a re-enactment of the control room for a successful Gemini launch. We’re in that control room when writing, and the mug reminds me to never stop.

Novel writing is launching into the risk of failure, the surging insistence that it will go well. The rocket will launch. Risk embraced.

Or, go with Samuel Beckett as inspiration: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Drafting and revising is all about getting something down. Being willing to fail as well as we can, then trying again, even failing again — but failing better. In that sense, the mug would say, Giving up is not an option.

So, here’s where that has gotten me in the past couple days…

These are probably my favorite revision pages:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

This is what less happy pages look like:

Messy revision

Ohhh… that looks painful. Chickie is staying out of it. BUT, check-marks show the changes have been made in the new computer draft. Work goes on. c. Elissa Field, repro w writ-permiss

If you read the captions, you see the range of changes going on.

The top picture shows pages from the opening scenes of my WIP, which are ready to go — marked “done.”  I also signal “done” in the computer document by changing that text to blue. Yup, plain text: that leaves you vulnerable to being cut.

The second pictures shows a scene that has been outlined with highlighter to say it will be kept (although not “done”), with corrections marked. Where I still have questions to answer, I wrote them on the blank page above to make sure they won’t get lost.

Apparently I was not mean enough to take a picture of pages with entire scenes X-ed out, but they are there. I do paste deleted text into a “Cuts” document… just in case.

The colored highlighter is an example of what I mentioned in yesterday’s post about using color codes to mark key scenes or characters.

Here’s the color key:

color key

This is the key on the first page — so far I’ve been marking the text that will be kept with a highlighter for the main character it relates to. Being able to visualize this helps, as this edit is all about getting the final structure in place, then seeing what’s missing.

Creating a Style Sheet – or, um, Lengthy To-Do List:

Revision checklist-

Every hour or so of reading, I go back to the computer draft to implement the changes. I’ve been checking corrections off to keep track of what’s been done, and also gathering this chapter-by-chapter task list of questions that need to be resolved. So far, it includes facts to resolve, like names, family names, locations, dates — as well as plot details that have changed between drafts and need to be made consistent.

If you want to read more about creating a “style sheet” to manage your novel, check out this post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner: Create a Style Sheet for Your Manuscript .

A Party so Wild it Needs a Bouncer – Enter the Outline:

Outline as Bouncer
Really, most of this mark-up on the draft took place yesterday. I came back to it this morning knowing I was still swamped in some choices. I had a clear list of scenes in my head, and knew the order I need to shift them into. As clear as it was in my head, with the story changes that took place between drafts, I need to keep track of the order of important reveals and progression of internal and external conflicts.

Enter the Bouncer, tough guy outline watching over the WIP’s shoulder above. Yes, it looks a bit techie — I am used to throwing Word tables together to manage info, so that works for me.

The Bouncer outline works like this: like velvet ropes deciding who will be allowed into an elite club, if a scene is not on this list, it won’t stay in the draft.

As much as writers chat about whether to “pants” or “plan” I believe fully in a hybrid of the two. In order to finish this outline, I had to analyze my understanding of the story. It reminded me of a couple scenes not written yet, and helped me better analyze how to get the right tension and resolution at the end. Mean as he looks, the list makes my job so much easier.

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How About You?

It’s been great to read comments from readers about their own process for revising — share yours as well?

Rather than revising, are you focused on writing new material? It was also great to connect on Twitter today, as Wordsmith Studio writers hosted wordsprints. Check out the hashtag #wschat to find writing activities each week.

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Novel Revision Strategies: Printing for Read-Through

2nd printed draft 2

Cheers! I’m celebrating a little milestone on my end, as I made it far enough through all those chaotic novel revisions over the last 2 weeks (Novel Revisions: Work is Messy, Book May Bite and Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character) to be able to print a full novel draft again on Friday night.

Little celebratory dance. Cheers. Now time to get back to work.

Printing the draft feels like an accomplishment — so neat and finished-looking in its binder. But it is just a milestone before the next step of revision.

Each day I work on novel revision and engage in conversations with others in the same process, I notice there are specific techniques that writers use to manage the complex work of novel revision.

While we all probably do most of our drafting and revision on the computer, there are specific strategies writers use in revising from a print copy.

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When Do You Print?

The first time I wrote a novel draft, I printed copies all the time — I think I had a 4-foot high stack of at least 12 different drafts. But I’ve come to hate the messiness and waste of paper, so rarely print these days.

With my current WIP, I didn’t bother printing until I had my first complete, holds-together draft. In particular, I was going on a 3-week road trip, so printed to have the draft to take with me when a computer wasn’t available. There is a picture below of the draft I worked with last summer.

Even with changes, I haven’t bothered to print it again over the winter, because so much of what I was doing was outside the manuscript — character and story development, and writing new scenes. If I wasn’t going to work from the printed draft, there was no point in printing (caveat: other than to have a backup).

I knew it was time to print again when the next step of revision was to read through to see how things held together and test for the ordering of scenes in building the story structure. I’d already completed any petty tasks (ran a spell check to catch distracting corrections) and had pasted all pending material into the draft. I was no longer actively writing new material — I thought I’d filled all the “holes” and was ready to read for what worked, what was missing, what needed chopping, what needed moving.

For me, this will be an intermediate read: I expect big moves with this revision. I’ll have to chop scenes of motivation that were replaced by a new backstory. I’ll be merging or chopping duplicates where I’ve written the same scene more than once (not uncommon for me, as I keep “hearing” different perspectives or detail to a scene). And I’ll be making big choices about structure: I’ve written a handful of scenes from different character perspectives, so need to make a choice to structure multiple viewpoints or convert those scenes to something the MC would have known.

Others may print when they are ready for line edits or sharing with beta readers. I may be doing line edits in some places (polishing verb tenses, fixing/adding transitions, perfecting punctuation and word choice), but mostly I assume I’m not there yet. That will be the next print and read-through — which will hopefully be soon.

What is the Process of a Printed Read-Through?

Other writers use a neater process than I do. Ann Hood has said that she writes for 2 hours every day in a relatively linear order and begins the day’s writing by revising her work from the day before. When she has a completed draft, she prints it off and carries it to a local coffee shop where she goes all the way through the draft marking her edits.

Revision checklist-Similarly, young adult writer Alissa Grosso shared her process in this post for Teachers Write! last week, describing how she reads through a printed draft, marking all corrections in red ink.  She said it takes her about 4 days. She then makes the noted corrections on her computer draft.

My process is similar, with the exception that I use more than just pen in marking changes (see strategies, below).  So far, I’ve made it about one-quarter through, in one day.

  • In places where the text is polished (the opening is essentially done), I’m doing a close reading, noting decisions that need to be made (a date, a year, a city name, the name of a background character) and scrutinizing word choice.
  • In nearly-there sections, it’s time to insert any missing quotation marks (I’ve become minimalist in not typing them during initial writing, but they’ll be needed in submitting).
  • If you’ve read any of my quick drafts, I sometimes draft loosely, allowing almost stream of consciousness in details and thought; now, as I decide which scenes are working, I’ll be editing together the sentences that will stick. (That’s a burdensome approach, but it seems to avoid the overwriting that can come about when first getting to know a story.)

I will probably begin implementing changes into the computer draft before getting all the way through the read-through. Other writers finish all reading/notations on the full draft before going back to the computer.

If you’re going to make the changes on the computer anyway, why waste time with a printed draft? Read on to see some of the visualization strategies the printed draft allows.

What about really messy drafts?

Honestly: I printed this copy off completely ready to cut scenes apart and shuffle them like cards if that’s what it took to envision how they best fit in the storyline. We do that with student writers in workshop, sometimes, when their ideas are good, but the writer needs the ability to kinesthetically shuffle their sentences and paragraphs into a more powerful order. In my case, the linear telling of the story needs adjustment to control when the external and internal conflicts converge and reveal, for resolution.

That ability to visualize and physically move text around is a main advantage of printing a draft. On page 72 of her book Real Revision, writer Kate Messner shares Darcy Pattison’s “shrunken manuscript” technique. Kate shrinks font to the smallest size, single-spaces and minimizes margins so an entire novel manuscript can be printed on few enough pages to lay out across the floor of the living room. Shrunken to this scale, it’s possible to see the “big picture” of entire novel in a single view.

What do you look for, when viewing this big picture? Where are characters introduced? Where does the inciting incident occur? When is information revealed? Where do internal and external conflicts converge? Resolve? Where are there holes? Or, are there too many scenes happening to slow the action down? Do reveals happen too early or too late?

Some Technical Strategies for Printing

The shrunken novel approach gets us into interesting territory. We’ve all been taught that finished manuscripts should be submitted in 12 point classic fonts, double-spaced, with a 1″ margin.  A full-length adult novel can take 200 pages to print. But, for revising, forget those requirements: when printing for revision, use strategies that help you see and work with your manuscript.

Condensed drafts left you visualize more per page, in a less cumbersome draft. Over time, I’ve come to prefer working with drafts in 10 or 11 point font (closer to book text), and in 1.5 spacing, rather than double. (Set yours to a comfortable size: yeah, I can relate to having difficulty with small text up close.)  I customize to narrow margins (half-inch at left, top and bottom), but I leave a full inch at the right. On drafts where I planned to write lots of comments, rewrite scenes or plan research, I’ve left a 2-inch right margin; otherwise, I use the blank backsides for comments.

Play with the look of the page. You may notice in the picture above that I printed “2 pages per sheet,” creating a book-like layout. Tech-specs: I used 10 point, Times New Roman font. Spacing is 1.5, with half inch margins. Using landscape layout, I used the Word option to print “2 pages per sheet,” which is equivalent to columns, but without fit issues. This book-like layout has been easy to read, condensed, and with enough room to work with the text.

Display or print in different formats. Similar to the note above, simply printing in a different font (go from TNR to Calibri, or the other way around) can help you see your manuscript with fresh eyes. An extreme version of this comes from the fact I seem to notice typos more once I’ve posted to my blog. Using that, I’ve saved sections of text as a draft post (not published), and viewed it on my blog to spot revisions.

Scrivener or Word? You can print directly from Scrivener (“compile to print”) but I compiled from Scrivener to Word, then tweaked the manuscript in Word before printing. Word allows more control over margins, printing layouts, fonts, etc., and you can preview before printing so you don’t waste paper.

Working with my WIP's first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

Working with my WIP’s first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

Pen, pencil, highlighter…or all those fancy flags? If you are visual, go all in. Both as a writer and a teacher, modeling for students how to take control of their reading, I am all for using color and tools that take control of your draft:

  • Back to Kate Messner, with her shrunken manuscript spread on the floor, Kate uses colored Post-Its to mark key moments, characters, props and reveals in the manuscript.
  • With my draft last year (in this picture), I used large, tabbed Post-It flags to mark chapters, with room to write summary of the chapter or list pending questions. Smaller flags marked key scenes. Color helped signal different characters and conflicts.
  • In my current draft, I am reading with different colored highlighters, so I can highlight my favorite wording and key scenes or details. With these highlighted, I can make clearer decisions about the sections I will cut. I can rescue important details from scenes being cut. I can make clearer choices about which wording to use when merging a scene I’ve written more than one way.
  • If you don’t use highlighters during your review, you can use the trick we teach kids in writing workshop: write your corrections in ink, then use highlighter to mark comments once you have implemented them into the next draft. A good way to keep organized and know where you left off in your work.

color keyDon’t take my word for it… Check out this picture-diary of how I use colors and other strategies as I get to work with this manuscript in Tuesday’s Novel Revision Strategies: A Day’s Work in Pictures.

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What About You?

What revision strategies have worked for you?

Do you have specific strategies for print revisions, or do you do most of your revisions on the computer? Or what questions do you wish someone could answer about revision?

I’m debating a post on using Scrivener software — do you have questions (or feedback) about it?

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Motivated to Write: 12 Tools to Get Writing, Now

Day One - Begin

The bottom line with all writing advice is you have to get started. Write first thing in the morning, while coffee brews. Block out time to write on your calendar. Set word-count goals or write in 3o minute sprints. The bottom line on all of these is: get started.

While lots are taking time off to vacation this month, thousands of writers from all ranges in experience are committed to write every day in July or even the whole summer, to get this thing (whatever their writing project may be) done.

Whether you are a joiner, jumping in to share your daily accomplishments in a public forum, or are going it alone in classic writerly isolation, here are 12 online resources get you motivated to write every day.

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1.  Online Writing Forums & Challenges – motivation, camper-style

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Lantern-Vertical-BannerThe most well-known forum at the moment is Camp NaNoWriMo, which began July 1. The July “camp” is an off-shoot of the Office of Letters and Light’s original project to “write a novel in 30 days” during National Novel Writing Month (November). NaNoWriMo gets writers going with site software for tracking daily word counts, counting down to reach a total wordcount goal. Traditionalists may balk at the thought, but the site attracts a full range of experienced and newbie writers who find the site’s ability to turn daily writing into a trackable accomplishment with peers cheering you on just plain fun. (Yes, NaNo has had lots of “real” books published.) NaNoWriMo is especially good motivator for a new project, but “rebels” (those who’ve already completed a novel draft, or are researching or…) abound, with rebel forums and guidelines for setting project-specific goals.

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonMore forums and daily challenges:

  • Teacher or Librarian? Teachers Write is a vibrant “writing camp” hosted by a slew of adult and young-adult authors, currently running (through summer) with daily prompts, Q & A with authors, community and feedback.
  • Is your writing goal to “build platform” (audience) for your writing? Robert Lee Brewer’s Platform Building Challenge from April 2012 is the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen for expanding competence in all social media formats. Click the link to go to day 1 – and check out Wordsmith Studio, an ongoing writers’ forum that arose from the challenge.
  • Blogger? If your goal is to post every day, join Liv, Laugh, Love’s July Bloggers’ Challenge which offers daily prompts and a Facebook forum to gain audience.
  • Poet? Try Our Lost Jungle’s February 2013 Chapbook Challenge for a month of inspiration to write daily poems and organize a chapbook.
  • Submitting for publication? Try Our Lost Jungle’s  May 2013 Submit-O-Rama with daily inspiration, goals and resources.

camp writingAm I participating in any of these forums? I used the 2012 Platform Challenge last year, I’m a Founding Member of Wordsmith Studios, I’ve participated in Teachers Write, and I’m a rebel at Camp Nano (find me here). For testimonial on how online interactions impacted the day’s writing, check out Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends at NaNoWriMo.

2.  Use Good Prompts

Cynical about prompts? Not all prompts provoke insightful writing or help you advance the conflict of your story.

Of all the prompts I’ve ever encountered, I think literary agent & author Donald Maass rules. He occasionally tweets them from as a numbered list, as shown below. Follow him (@DonMaass) or his hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday for more. Below these tweets are links for more from Maass, as well as a recommended resource from Ann Hood.

More Maass prompts:

Another of my favorite books to prompt novel inspiration is Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions . Read about it here: Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy.

3.  Time & Word Count Motivators

Lots of writers motivate themselves with daily milestones. Ann Hood has built a career by writing 2 hours every day. Others aim for a word count goal. Writers with a deadline set this by dividing the number of  needed words by the available writing days.  Others may aim for 1,000 or 2,000 words — adjusted to whatever their normal, productive word count would be.

  • Written? Kitten!  Just for fun, to feel a sense of accomplishment for, say, every 100 words you write, you have to click and check this out. Every time you type 100 words, you’re rewarded with a kitten. (I’d forgotten using it, once, until I was transferring text from an add-on doc to my WIP and found it ended with the sentence, “If I keep typing, any word now a kitten will appear.” Meow.)
  •   750 Words This site takes its inspiration from the practice of writing morning pages recommended in The Artist’s Way. The site keeps a bowling card style score for each day you write, with double points each time you hit 750 words (equivalent to 3 pages) per day. Unlike the Kitten, you have to provide your email address and log in.
  • Timed Writing. Finish reading this first. Then log off the internet when writing, to blog the temptation to surf during writing time. Some writers use more forceful options: check out Mashable’s 6 Apps That Block Online Distractions So You Can Get Work Done.
  • For more time-management strategies, go to the January Challenge, below.

4. Strategies for Getting Started – or Finished

In January, I hosted the January Challenge… Check out the strategies below for ways to manage competing priorities to accomplish your writing goals – from writing daily to applying to residencies or increasing submissions.

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What About You?

What writing goal are you working on this month? Are there resources or forums that help you stay motivated, or are they a distraction for you? (Despite this post, I find resources both “helpful” and “a distraction,” so balance between networking and hermitsville.)

Feel free to share goals, prompts or links to your own articles on similar themes in the comments.

And, best wishes with whatever your goals this month.

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Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends

camp writing

sols_blueI’m antsy today. Got a few things done. Wrote a couple thousand words. Fixed my printer. Waited for my son to be done with my laptop. Shared a friend’s article online. Decided this Irish man on Twitter has amazingly expressive eyes. Debated saving a picture of him onto my Pinterest, thinking of my main character Roonan, then felt a bit stalker so nixed it.

In the middle of that, yes: I wrote a couple thousand words. It’s a good day: I’m busy with revisions and they are going well enough that I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had small breakthroughs at every turn. Big improvement over last week (Novel Revision: Work is Messy, Book May Bite or Revising a Flat Character).

Prompts are Everywhere

When a novel is rabid inside me, it seems prompts are everywhere.

I read the first line of Neil Gaiman’s new book ( The Ocean at the End of the Lane ), which starts, “I wore…” and I’m prompted to start a chapter with a simple sentence, active verb, simple statement. I read the 3-step prompt shared at Tuesday Quick-Write and all I hear is, “Make your character say she has a problem.” I know she does — but make her say it. ITunes flashes a reminder and now the “problem” scene starts with Carinne in the car and The Killers come on the stereo. You can’t ride with armed men, listening to The Killers and not admit you have a problem. So the scene spills out. Carinne’s inner conflict slips into her perception of the external conflict and the readers get hint of what she’s hiding — what would motivate her to go along with these men.  …It raced up in her chest, this anger she’d never owned before. It was a problem.  She would have to face it. No excuse now. No one telling her not to talk. In the night, her mouth close to Roonan’s collarbone, his mouth against her ear saying her name, no one was telling her to stop. No one told her not to talk about Danny. No one said, “Not now. Let it go.”…

Nice (not that little snippet, the whole scene). Twenty minutes of writing and I have one big chunk that weaves an original scene together with Carinne’s newly drafted internal motivation.

So take a break. Notice the Instagram pic of that Irishman with the amazing eyes. Oh, look. His friend posted pic of a silky golden retriever’s head thrusting in a car window. And we’re off again… They’re in a field with sticks of peat stacked 3 by 3 in small pyres every few feet, circling around them, Roonan woken by the nose of a silken retriever, a happy scene yet she reacts with terror…

Enough with Instagram. So, check for friends who registered at the site for Camp NaNoWriMo. Sure, okay, I’ll log on, too. Account asks for a synopsis of my novel. Seriously, do I have time for this? Type-type-type… Next I know… Wasn’t I just saying I was beginning to stress over writing the query? Here it is, nearly done:

Michael Roonan’s best friend would do anything to save him from the man bent on killing him, but Roonan himself thinks death is fair end to the guilt he carries for lives he has ended. Except, facing death, Roonan suddenly sees only beauty in the world. In the moment he meets traveling American, Carinne Browning — herself clearly at odds with her mother or her husband — he sees chance to borrow and recreate what his parents had, the one thing he would have wanted to experience before the end of life: to be in love with a wife. Five years later, after the day she watched Michael Roonan shot down in a Dublin park, Carinne is faced with the question from the child born of that affair: “Is my father dead? Is he buried in the ground?” Tracking down Michael Roonan means unraveling the secrets that led him to a life of violence, as well as the painful mystery that compelled her to bond with such a man. The crossing of their lives unveils how deceptive memory can be, and how life’s biggest choices — even those impacting the outcomes of wars and history — can be born of personal fears and mistaken perceptions.

As much as I tease myself for being antsy today, it’s sometimes just that hyper energy that gets the work written.

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Writing with Friends

All of this is to say, as much as I value all the reclusive time I spend writing alone, there is a powerful value in a circle of writing friends and the interaction that brings.

I decided to join in with some friends who are participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this month. I’m a camping “rebel” in that I already have a finished novel draft well over the 50,000 word goal (Wake is heavy at 145,000 words right now, with a good 30,000 destined to get chopped) — but I’m among those using the camaraderie of the camp to keep motivated and share mini-milestones as I go. I’ll drop it if it’s a distraction, but will keep cheering on my participating friends.

With the same group of friends (Wordsmith Studio #wschat on Twitter), I’m participating in an online discussion of writing craft July-September, using two books: Donald Maass’s  Writing the Breakout Novel and John Gardner’s classic On Becoming a NovelistWith a different group, I’ve been sharing in daily writing prompts at an online “writing camp” for teachers, called Teachers Write.

I know what I’m doing with my revisions this summer — I’m working through a series of tasks that aren’t in any forums online. They’re what I know needs to be done; I could do it alone.

But there is power in community, and I’m glad to be “camping out” with writing friends this month.

Check out tomorrow’s post: Motivated to Write: 12 Tools to Get Writing, Now

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What About You?

What communities — online, in person or otherwise — do you write with?

Do you have set goals you are working toward? What helps prompt your ideas, or do you wish you had more sources of discipline or inspiration?

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Friday Links for Writers: 06.28.13

air-show-snow-conesSome weeks have a person singing “TGIF” loudly. My earlier posts this week (on the hard work of revision Monday and revising a flat character Tuesday) have confessed how intense writing and novel revision have been on my end. Yesterday’s challenge was the bleary work of comparing prior drafts, line by line. Still not fun, yet.

On the other hand… the kids and I are out of school for the summer. Today we’re off to the pool. Nights, we’ve been repeating my favorite childhood memory of reading mysteries falling asleep, as we’ve been buddy-reading my 11 year-old’s summer reading, And Then There Were None.

Before heading out to swim, it’s time for Friday Links. When writing is intense, I especially appreciate great reading to escape into, and I’ve stumbled across some great pieces this week. I hope you enjoy them – as always, let me know in the comments which links resonate for you, what you’d want more of, or share links to your own posts or links. Enjoy!

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This is Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I’m sure lots of you will agree that literary agent Rachelle Gardner shares some of the best advice on her blog.  As I said, I’m in the hard part of writing, and this article is just the right pep talk. Rachelle says to tell yourself, “This is where patience comes in. I can do this.” You knew it was going to be hard; tell yourself, so this is what hard feels like. If you don’t need this inspiration, click to follow her anyway, as her blog is always great.

Are Children’s Books Darker Than They Used to Be?

If you read or write YA, this title probably called to you as much as it did to me. My spontaneous answer to the question was, “No” — have you ever read original fairy tales? They’re dark. In her article, writer Julia Eccleshare at the Guardian evaluates the darkness of current kid lit, and also the thematic needs of young readers that compels that darkness. (But a parent/teacher request to YA writers: not too dark folks. Recent experience with cable-channel movies has me aware of how much we’re desensitizing ourselves from violence. Don’t be dark just to get attention.)

Teachers Write!

If you are a teacher or librarian, this is a really high-energy writing “camp” hosted by 4 young adult authors online. I wrote about Teachers Write! on my teaching blog here, and shared response to a morning prompt here – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are daily prompts, advice, Q & A with authors and feedback — plus the positive camaraderie and feedback from participants. Use the link above for official info and sign-up… or see what’s going on at this Facebook page: Teachers Write! Facebook page. One can jump in to participate at any time.

Is the Key to Becoming a Great Writer Having a Day Job?

On the heels of link for teachers who write is this link, on that perpetual debate: the value or conflict of a day job to earn a living while writing a novel. This piece by Mason Currey in Slate won’t give you modern advice but may reassure of the value of day job as he examines several famous writers from throughout history and evaluates the impact of day jobs on their success.

Querying Agents? Check hashtag #MSWL

Want to find agents who would love to read a manuscript just like yours? Search tweets using the hashtag #MSWL which stands for manuscript wish list. Writers, don’t post your wishes — look for agents to list the kind of manuscript they’d love to get.

A Dozen Reasons Books Are Rejected by Agents, Editors (& Readers)

What’s interesting about this post by Mike Wells on his The Green Water blog is that his examples address that gap between writing a good enough query to interest an agent… but then the manuscript doesn’t follow through on the expectations set.

13 Inspirational TED Talks for Writers

Have you discovered TED Talks yet? I used to roll my eyes a little, they came up so often in “let’s rock the world” conversations — and then I got hooked myself. This is a second great link I’m sharing from Aerogramme, with a range of authors talking about creativity and more.

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Want to Join a Book Discussion on Writing Craft?

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

With fellow writers at Wordsmith Studio, I shared my love of novel writing prompts that literary agent Donald Maass used to tweet. I included 23 of those prompts, plus link to Maass’s site, in this post last March:

Want more? As one of our community resources, Wordsmith Studio hosts quarterly discussion groups including books on writing craft. Starting Monday July 1, we’ll be reading Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel. My copy arrives today. Find discussions on Twitter on Mondays at 9 pm EST July-September — using the hashtag #wschat (this tag is also used for Tuesday discussions of various aspects of writing).

Links for more info:

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Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character

Editing manuscript for Wake, poolside, during summer months off. Can't argue with that. c. Elissa Field

Editing manuscript for Wake, poolside, during summer months off. Can’t argue with that. c. Elissa Field

One of the biggest jobs I addressed in novel revisions over the winter had to do with one of my three main characters. She was originally the main POV, but I wasn’t excited about her voice.  Not helpful: I thought of her as relatively unlikeable: sullen, and not the way Jane Austen used to fix by saying, “It’s just that she has her head in a book.” No. My girl, Carinne, was broody.

I’ve written about my challenges with her twice before. You don’t need to read these now — they’re long-ish and I’ll give explanation, below — but here are the prior posts:

Is this Character the Best POV?

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

That last link shares a tool I used to evaluate the stakes for my characters — which revealed what I had already suspected: weakness in Carinne as main character was hint that she is not really the center of the conflict. 

In early versions, it was natural for Carinne to be the main POV as she fell in love with the other main character and tells the story (in present and past) after he is reported to be dead. Her POV allows his life/death to remain in question.

But in revisions over several months, much of what I’ve written has been from other points of view (Michael Roonan, his best friend, and his son, Liam). I set aside the actual WIP and went “off road” into the internal and external motivation, the characters’ voices and backstories and fears and desires, the setting. The male MC, Roonan, had a famous motorcycle racer for a father, and the voice of Roonan came alive the more time I spent thinking about that. (Here’s a bit of draft-work I shared from Roonan’s perspective)

As Roonan’s voice comes alive in new material, it allows the 3rd person POV to not be centered on Carinne but alternate between characters. The fix: Carinne is not “flat” when seen through Roonan’s eyes — and the story is stronger for being centered on its conflict.

c.Elissa Field

c.Elissa Field

It’s Not You, It’s Her

Going to the other posts listed above, one of my struggles with Carinne was that “challenge of the character most like myself.” While Carinne is not an autobiographical character, I still have that authorial “blind spot” and resistance in portraying her.

I called her broody up above and that’s the “character like myself” obstacle: my own self-consciousness about never wanting to be melodramatic or complain gets in my way when expressing Carinne’s crisis. In hard times, my family’s attitude is, “Well get to work and solve your problem.” But, uh — that attitude isn’t helpful when you’re a character depicting your reaction to an inciting event and wrestling your way through a book-length conflict. If authors toughened up and spared the emotion, we’d have very short books.

Following advice in those posts, I had to create authorial distance to see Carinne as outside myself, and I had to be unapologetic. When Carinne fights with her mom in an early chapter, I can’t be thinking, “I don’t want to write about fighting with a mom. What if my mom thinks I wrote it about her?” Because — well, yeah, I did, in the sense that I used the knowledge of how uncomfortable it is to be at odds with your mom and that it was a sign to the reader that the mother knew something more was going wrong with Carinne. As I occupy and own that truth, the scene I first envisioned loses thinness and takes on the resonance I intended. If you read yesterday’s post, the “something more going wrong” is the revised backstory that has me so busy right now. In getting to know Carinne outside myself, a much clearer backstory arose, empowering her motivation throughout the book — and also helping me see her as a character distinct from my own experience. There was no simple trick to doing that, other than continually asking myself, “Why would she do this?”

Likewise, in answering that question, I had to step fully into — and not back away from or deny or justify — the choices Carinne makes. I had to let her make bad choices — resulting in a memorable story — rather than back away and try to say, “She didn’t really do that.” Oh, yeah, she did that! She was bad, and we’re having fun reading the consequences. Um. I mean, sorry about that, Carinne.  When I fully owned what she had done and went deep into why she would do it, the story took over.

Now to Integrate Those Changes

At this point, integrating these changes into the WIP seems to resolve the issues with this character by writing Roonan more fully, seeing Carinne from his perspective and having Carinne own her experience. As the story gets going, it now seems clear that she has a good reason for her broodiness: She’s raising a baby by herself who was fathered by a man she last saw when he saved her from being shot, and feels isolated when everyone thinks she should get over it.

My remaining insecurity in revising Carinne will be that she is the voice of the opening chapter, which carries so much weight. That is, the first page is a disembodied internal monologue in Roonan’s voice, hinting at death and guilt, then the chapter opens with Carinne watching their son in the backyard, and responding to the inciting incident of the son questioning his father’s absence.

Beta readers have liked the opening, but I’ll still be jumpy about it as I finish revisions and I’m sure I’ll keep pushing myself to get her voice right. (What was the theme yesterday? “Sometimes the Work is Messy” and, “Danger – Book May Bite.” )

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Daredevil: Sharing a Bit of Today’s Work

I did something brave the other day. I submitted an excerpt of chapter one for consideration by a lit mag that publishes first chapters. (If by any wild chance you happen to be a reader or editor at said magazine-that-publishes-first-chapters, can I say just how fabulous you look?)

I won’t post the opening, to avoid negating “first pub” rights, but I wanted to share a bit of the work I’ve been revising.  So here is a short bit of Carinne’s conflict from the end of the chapter, an excerpt from my novel in progress, Wake:

She sees herself already, weak as she will be later, when Liam has fallen asleep – not in his bed, as other mothers would be so good to do, but stretched out long like a dog across her bed, sighing in his sleep as if it were such work to be here on this earth as a little boy, such relief those hours left alone to sleep, return to wherever it is he came from.  Wherever it is children come from and the dead return to — and she won’t be able to fight it, that urge, once again to hunt for Michael Roonan. Search websites and news footage and maps shot from space, pictures so accurate a man could be standing in that shadow beneath a cloud, looking up to wave.

Search until sleep took over. Never to find.

As if it had never happened.

I ran, she remembered.  Ran.  Escaped the agent dispatched from Dublin Centre, escaped the gardai at the rotating brass doors at the front of the hotel, slipping, ankle twisting.  Everything moved.  Rushing cars that might have been standing still.  Pavement rushing up to her, blood on her palm as she brushed gravel from her knee.  Blood at her wounded shoulder, gauze plastered in a crust to her skin.  A tunnel in her shoulder, perfectly-pierced hole raged through by a bullet plucked with stainless tongs.  The sound.  The sound of that flattened lead bud clanking into a metal pan, tongs rattling behind it.  Bullet. Real.  Real as a bullet clanking into that metal pan.  I was there.

She might have screamed it into the street, turning heads of Dubliners, of footballers anticipating a match, tourists murmuring as they all did, “World Bar, St. James Gate…”  Her vision blurred.  She stumbled blocks she could not have retraced, voices calling to her in her stumbling rush, blood maybe seeping through the bandage at her shoulder, crazed fear at her eyes – here and there they called out as to an injured animal, “You, there!”

Me there.  Over and over they called it out.  Me there. I was there.

Tiny bud of infant, even then, swimming its way north.  Evidence.  There, then.

Here, now.  Liam stretched asleep, like a dog at her feet.  Given over to it, once again: searching on her laptop into the night.  Hunting for Michael Roonan.

“I’m sorry I’ve lost your father,” she whispers.  “I’m sorry I have no answers for you.”

If you want to leave constructive feedback, I’d welcome answers to these questions:

  • Does the character/action/voice hook you? Do you want to read more?
  • Are there any details that work? Is there wording that is confusing?
  •  If Carinne seems flat to you, what do you feel is missing? If she’s not flat, reassure me if you found her engaging.

Read more about where revisions take me next:

Read this January 2014 post, which continues to share how I push Carinne’s character and explore the perspective of her son, Liam, including a draft excerpt from this same chapter, written from Liam’s perspective:  Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict.

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What About You?

What challenges do you encounter in writing character, or what approaches do you take to understand their motivations?

I find I’m slow to describe physical appearances — are there certain details you always include or tend to exclude?

I’ve enjoyed connecting with readers about your current writing goals and challenges. If any of this post or the links resonated with you, let me know.

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Novel Revisions: Work is Messy, Book May Bite

Revision is Messy c. Elissa Field

Revision is Messy c. Elissa Field

The titles of two of my previous posts here sum up where I am with novel revisions this week.

As I’ve mentioned in posts before, I come off the end of the teaching year like a kid going full bore on a skateboard flying off a pier. My writing has been cramped into short spurts all through the teaching season, and I crave these full, guiltless days of summer for novel writing.

But novel revisions are the chaingang work of writing, much moreso than those gluttonous days when all I had to do was invent ideas for the story. Days I rode such a rush of thoughts that new scenes (or more textured detail or characterization of existing scenes) ended up scribbled in the margins across pages in whatever book I was reading. Didn’t worry about transitions or sentence formatting or, you know, spelling as I drafted scenes out of order, in documents separate from that pristine, complete WIP I hadn’t opened since November.

Those prior post titles that come to mind like poetry to summarize my work these past two weeks? Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy and Novel Revisions: Danger – Book May Bite.

I came off the end of that metaphorical dock flying weightless through the chaos of tracking down all the books I’d read last winter to find the scenes I’d drafted in the margins, to add them to the neater notebooks and Word “add-on” documents where I’d properly stowed new work. I landed into the grunt work of transcribing all that handwritten material. Apparently I’d broken my hand or taken a prescription-writing course over the winter or been drinking heavily and writing in a cave… because much of my effort has been spent holding a page at arm’s length, turning it right and left until scrawl becomes legible.

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

It took more than a week to get through all the books with notations. Tedious. I posted that on Facebook and writing friends commiserated: yes, tedious!

I couldn’t help worrying this was the easy part. Drone work, just transcribing.

I posted on Facebook: I’m actually a little scared about opening that Scrivener file of last fall’s WIP. What condition would it be in? It’s been a full, holds-together draft since last summer; it’s been through two revisions since but… you know, what if it stinks? What if I can’t remember what I’d revised and where I’d left off? As I typed into one add-on doc in Word, I couldn’t help knowing there were 2 other docs of additions/revisions and beginning to anticipate how much work it would be, integrating all that new material with the draft.

The better the new material, the harder it would be. Nudge of anxiety: with this much new material, was it essentially a full rewrite? Was I jumping on board a lean motorcycle or getting ready to wrestle a train?

People say novel writing is hard. Not true, exactly. Simply writing out a novel? I’ve typed out 6 stories before that were novel length and held together with complete characters, setting and a full story arc. Simply getting-it-down took about 2 weeks each time. If you have an idea, writing the novel isn’t the hard part. Revision is.

Or, to quote Randy Ingermanson, featured for his snowflake approach to novel writing in last week’s Friday Links for Writers: “Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard.”

The novel — my WIP Wake – was written last summer. But the good novel I needed it to be still had issues with its ending, and my understanding of the characters kept shifting. Kept getting better — that part was great — but for pete’s sake folks, every time I understand you better, I’m stuck with another marginalia-scene to transcribe. Another key detail to weave organically through existing scenes. And then there’s that brilliant (<sarcasm) flash of all new backstory for one main character… revising all her “motivation” and the resolution between her and the love interest. Yeah, okay — it fixes other problems, but do you know how much work that will be? (Read about how much work it will be in tomorrow’s post: Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character.) And it’s not just new material, it’s the tasks I keep giving myself to test out the structure of the novel, evaluate where the conflict rises, where secrets are revealed…

Advice-to-self 1: when the work is hard, just get started. When I finished classes 2 weeks ago, I knew my task list but, if you don’t, then try to break the work into steps, pick one and get started. My first step was transcribing the handwritten work, second step was pulling all the files onto one laptop (I’d been between computers), and then all the add-ins into one document so I could work with one Word doc and the WIP on Scrivener.

Advice-to-self 2: This is better than 1: reread what you have. Mark where it’s good. Move everything else aside. For me, this will help resolve that insecurity about the Scrivener WIP vs. all those other pieces. I won’t cling to the old WIP if the new pieces are that much better. Old scenes will drop readily from the WIP if the newer material is stronger. And I won’t be bogged down with any of the new material that’s not useful.  I’m already starting to see this.

Because… I’m not quite to the part where it stops being messy, but relief is replacing fear when I read what I wrote.

The last revised WIP was good. It wasn’t as raw as I remembered. And I’m really excited to discover that the rewritten parts from winter work. (Sure there’s some garbage, but I can ignore that.) They add the texture I needed in certain scenes, get more closely inside characters’ motivation. That new backstory does create more work, but it adds energy that was missing. And a few adjustments to the order of events may resolve that problem with the ending without needing “more.”

Revisions are hard. My fear is genuine — I know the last 10% of completing a novel is like facing a wall between me and the end of the race. I’ve failed to scale that wall once before — left a good novel draft unrevised. The work is messy and the book does bite — but getting to work is the only solution.

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What About You?

So many of my writing friends (including readers here and those in online forums like my Wordsmith Studio friends) are in this same boat: working to get a novel ready for submission.

Are you somewhere in this process?  What strategies — whether process or motivation — help keep you going?

How do you know when it’s enough — when the work is good enough to send out? I’m not good at that one…

Good luck with your writing, wherever you are in the process!

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More on revising Wake:

Sloans summer c Elissa Field

Sloans summer c Elissa Field

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Friday Links for Writers: 06.21.13

Sloans summer 2013

Today is a great day to take your writing outside — hopefully it’s as gorgeous where you are as it is here, on this first day of summer.

Summer brings busy writing days. I spent this week transcribing 10,000 words in scenes I’d handwritten or scribbled in margins of books I was reading (!) since January. Looks like I’ll be continuing with this for another week — and then it will be time to integrate this new material and newly-envisioned ending with the fourth draft I’d left off on last fall.

Novel revisions are job enough — but every week has time for reading, and here are some of the great Links for Writers I’ve come across this week. As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments — let us know what you’re writing this week, or tell me what links were meaningful, topics you’d like more of or share your own.

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Okay, and Here’s My Advice to You and Young Journalists in General

As much as I talk about fiction here, I studied journalism before fiction and spend much of my time online following international journalists. Which is lead-in to say it was sad news to hear of the death of award-winning journo Michael Hastings this week. Find inspiration in this link — his frank list of advice to young writers.

How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method

“Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard.” I love the opening line of this article by Randy Ingermanson, as he shares his method for writing a novel that begins by building organization following the nearly scientific structuring of a snowflake. This link was shared by my friend, writer and photographer Rebecca Barray. While it arose in a conversation of plotting for Camp NaNoWriMo in July, several of the steps are useful for a writer evaluating the structure of an existing draft during revisions, and result in wording for an effective query as well.

Story Contest Deadlines by Month

Do you submit short fiction? There are debates that suggest — despite the additional cost of entry fees — contest submissions fight smaller numbers for publication. Here is a surprisingly practical tool via About.com: click on any month to access a list of literary contests with deadlines in that month.

Opportunities for Writers: July and August 2013

Along the same lines, Aerogramme’s blog post lists several unexpected submission targets with deadlines for now through August. “Surprising?” There are classics, like the Katherine Anne Porter Prize (for a short story collection) — but also a haiku contest sponsored by NASA, related to a Mars mission, and a deadline for McSweeney’s internship applications.

Our Lost Jungle 30 by 30 Challenge

My writing friend Khara House is one of the best at hosting challenges on her site, Our Lost Jungle. If you are not overloaded in the throes of existing work, her 30 by 30 challenge this month offers fab inspiration to get artists in any medium creating new work every day. Or, if the last 2 links have you thinking about getting your work out the door, work your way through her prior month’s Submit-O-Rama. She is a great blogger to follow.

A Celebration of Maurice Sendak at 92Y

Other sad news provoked this link, but look for joyous inspiration with this recording from a celebration of children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak’s birthday with James Gandolfini’s amazing reading of The Night Kitchen, followed by Dave Eggers reading a chapter from his book The Wild Things, inspired by Sendak.

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Annual Sing for Hope installation of pianos in public parks, NYC. Photo credit: posted by Ashley Butler on Sing for Hope facebook (http://goo.gl/2PVae).

Annual Sing for Hope installation of pianos in public parks, NYC. Photo credit: posted by Ashley Butler on Sing for Hope facebook (http://goo.gl/2PVae).

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Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass

When life intervenes, writing can compete hard for our hours. Especially if a day job or kids cry for our attention, we can have days we wish writing had its own demanding boss screaming, “Write! Write!”

nephele_tempestThanks to her March Madness Challenge, we can all pretend agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency is that stern boss. Or encouraging one.

Tempest’s challenge is to make time to write every day. She supplements this with homework and “circuit training” — which began with a challenge to compile a list of at least a dozen writing prompts. This is why bosses are fab: if you asked me, I’d say I don’t like prompts. Too work-out-ish. Let me just write.

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

But Tempest says, “Gather prompts,” and I am suddenly reminded that agent Donald Maass has been tweeting a thought-provoking series of novel prompts, one per week, since 2011. In March, Maass’s agency website shared at least 50 of the 101 prompts he had tweeted at the release of his Writing 21st Century Fiction, a to kick a good WIP into “breakout novel” shape. (The list of prompts is no longer on the site. Look for other links below.)

Here are some of the prompts from Maass’s list that challenge my thinking with my WIP.  Please follow the link to his agency website for the whole list or find more recent prompts in his feed on Twitter at @DonMaass . Update 6/2013: the list has been removed from the site, but Maass does tweet occasional prompts from his book, using the hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday.

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  1. “What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.” Thinking to myself: the death MC caused. Hurt his mother, his brother, himself. But what about his younger siblings, his mother’s family? What about his son? Did his mother have a best friend who never forgave him for it?  Hmm.
  2. What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in.” Curious in the absence of this. Who in my WIP is selfless? Would it be more revealing if they were selfless than if their motivation were more immediate?
  3. “Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.” I like this, as writing violence can be as challenging as writing sex: for literary fiction, you need the effect of the thing, and I’m curious about this challenge for getting further from the obvious.
  4. “What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways.” Mulling (which is why prompts are great): have I been clear enough with this?
  5. “What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it.” My MC would have a heart attack over this one. It is a key point to the story: the fact his best friend knew his error all along. But, hmm. There’s never been a showdown, and that intrigues me.
  6. “Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?” While my MC is focused on ways his father mentored him, a small conflict as prompted with his boss (a minor character) could be perfect diversion to expose a clearer image of how the world sees my MC.
  7. “Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it.”  My WIP opens with a small hurt that engages the reader. The injustice is clear as it leaves a little boy without a father. It’s that last bit that lights a flare: I’ve never let my MC know about it.  How would he react?
  8. “What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.” Yup. This is key to MC’s internal conflict. Lifetime of avoiding wills his fear in.
  9. “What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.” I’m debating a story thread I added last fall — knowing it is strong, but weighing if it takes power away from the MC’s story. This question is key as I decide if there should be another secret in play or not.
  10. “What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.” Roonan: everyone is hiding. Or he thinks everyone is hiding, or sees what everyone is hiding. (Which may be true, but reveals more his animal state of having lived in hiding.)
  11. “Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.” Like the one before, these are intriguing as they provoke: what does the MC see that no one else does? What a great way to reveal inner conflict.
  12. “Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.” I just think this one’s funny.
  13. “Your MC’s worst quality: let him/her struggle with it, provoke it 3 times, make it cost something big, then allow change.” Use this one to evaluate where his worst quality is revealed, where this might incite more. And the love interest’s worst quality?
  14. Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. Force him to rebuild.”  Yup.  Reversed.  Shattered. Time to rebuild.
  15. “What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.” Roonan: to stay out of the violence. Secondarily, he had to protect his younger brother and sister. In protecting or helping vulnerable people, he backs into violence.
  16. “Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.” There are guns in the book, but a vintage motorcycle and bag of locks would be the dark object. Or is there something else?
  17. “What does your antagonist believe in? Who else shares those values? Why are they actually right? When does your MC see that too?” If anything, this challenges me to wonder: am I too quick for MC to agree with antagonist?
  18. “What’s the worst thing your antagonist must do? Make it against his/her principles. Make it unthinkable. Then make it imperative.” Thinking… External antagonist? Wondering if there is a place for this. But also, how about internal antagonist? Have I directly confronted this? Is this what compels his mistakes?
  19. “What does your protagonist most want? How is it truly something that everyone wants? Explain & add.” I’ve written about this before (here). My character wants the same happiness he thought his parents had. Writing needed might include those directions: “explain & add.”
  20. “In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.” Intriguing challenge.
  21. “During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again?” My immediate thought is a smaller detail, not the obvious change.
  22. “Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.” We all love-hate this one.
  23. “What’s a moment when everything could change? Pause. Explore. What does it feel like to be weightless?” This tweet provoked a transformative emotional response in a crucial moment in my WIP when I came across it last fall.

Updated Summer 2013 — Here are several resources for learn more from Maass:

Hey! Want an opportunity to read Maass’s book, work on your manuscript and trade notes with a fab writing group? My friends at Wordsmith Studio have selected Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for our book chats on Twitter, starting July 1, 2013 at 9 pm EST. We’ll discuss the book at chats July through September, using Twitter chat-tag, #wschat.

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What prompts or other writing inspiration do you use to start your work? Do you avoid prompts or welcome them? Have you posted your own prompts before? Feel free to share your link or favorite prompts in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Filed under Novel Writing, Writing Character, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop

2013 Writing Conferences & Workshops

Poets & Writers' listing for Bread Loaf Writers Conference: http://www.pw.org/content/bread_loaf_writers_conference

Poets & Writers’ listing for Bread Loaf Writers Conference: http://www.pw.org/content/bread_loaf_writers_conference

Late-winter and early-spring are a time for hunkering in from the cold or taking refuge beneath tropical sun. We’re not yet thinking of summer.

But, for writers wanting to attend summer writing conferences or workshops, we are, in fact, in the thick of writing conference application season.

Rather than wait for this week’s Friday Links, today’s post will feature links to several of the best summer writing conferences — and also hashtag for following tweets from next week’s Associated Writing Programs Conference in Boston.

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2 Great Publishing Conferences:

  • #AWP13: It’s time, folks! March 6th-9th, AWP 2013 (Associated Writing Programs’ winter conference) will be off and running in Boston. In recent years, Twitter hashtags have added an entirely new, lively component to conference participation. If you are attending the conference, use the hashtag #AWP2013 to coordinate with other writers, editors, agents, etc., there with you, and to share insights from the conference. For those of us not attending? Become a vicarious conference participant by following the hashtag throughout the weekend.  You’ll be privy to great quotes from workshops, themes that arise and more. It’s a great way to discover interesting people to follow. [Also, here is the website link for the AWP Conference.]
  • Grub Street Muse & Marketplace 2013  was on my 2013 “wish list” as I swear it seemed that every single human involved in writing and publishing was there last May. When I workshopped with Ann Hood, she was flying out to be at Grub Street the next morning, and the weekend was full of #Muse2012 tweets from writers, editors, agents, publishers, digital content folks — you name it. The Muse is May 3rd-5th in Boston; overviews and registration are available online.

Renowned Summer Workshops:

Here are 3 of the most prominent summer workshops. As they are competitive to apply to, consider checking out forums discussing the process by following a link to the Speakeasy forum under Poets & Writers near the end of this post.

  • Bread Loaf Writers Conference: March 1st is the deadline to apply for Bread Loaf Writers Conference held in Vermont August 14-24. If you’ve never been to Bread Loaf, take the time to read about it, as it has one of the oldest traditions for literary conferences in the country, dating back to 1926. Numerous famed writers have participated as attendees before gaining fame and as workshop leaders. Admissions are competitive, so send your best work. If the application date passed you, check out the new Bread Loaf in Sicily workshop, scheduled for September 15-21.
  • Tin House Writer’s Workshop has steadily gained national recognition as one of the foremost summer conferences, attracting fabulous faculty and participants. The workshop is held July 14-21 at Reed College in Portland, OR. The link takes you to the admissions page; use the site menu for lists of faculty and more description. No deadline is posted, although applications are currently being reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis; admission is competitive, so apply early.
  • Sewanee Writers’ Conference  is a by-admission summer conference with a tradition for excellence in the faculty, workshops and participating writers. (Sewanee and Bread Loaf often share faculty in common; attending writers have described Bread Loaf as having a more structured schedule and being slightly more intense.) The conference is held July 23rd-August 4th at Sewanee – the University of the South, in Tennessee. Applications are being accepted Jan. 15th-April 15th.
  • Aspen Summer Words has been on my radar as the only workshop or conference I could find where Colum McCann has taught. Beyond this, search through the site to find clips from speakers and other great insight into the value of Aspen’s programs, which include both juried and non-juried summer programs (June 16-21) and winter programs.

More Great Summer Conferences and Workshops:

To Find Other Conferences or Workshops:

Do not underestimate the value of regional workshops and conferences in your area. To locate more conferences, either by region or by interest, check out these data bases:

  • AWP Directory of Conferences: use this customizable search to find conferences or workshops to meet your needs
  • Poets & Writers magazine: the link at left takes you to a data base of conferences and residencies on P&W’s site. Or, join conversations in the Speakeasy forum, where writers share their wisdom about the application process and what they gained from attending most national conferences.

If Not Summer, Then Next Year:

If summer is not your time for workshopping, then watch for more deadlines in the fall for fabulous conferences and workshops held over the winter. I’ll include one to watch as it unfolds in March:

  • Sirenland: If you have the liberty to take off to beautiful Positano, Italy (one of my favorite places), here’s one to consider applying to for next year. Sirenland 2013 takes place March 17-23, with applications accepted in the fall. The conference was established by Hannah Tinti (author of The Good Thief, and editor of One Story). If you’re curious, check for a #sirenland hashtag during the conference week.

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How About You?

What conferences or workshops have you considered attending? Which have you attended in the past?

Share your interests or experience in the comments, or share links to your own posts about conferences. It’s especially helpful to other readers if you can share advice about admissions, experience from attending, the names of workshop leaders you’d recommend, or the names of local workshops you’ve attended and would recommend.

For example, read this great 3-part series on writing workshops posted by writer Gerry Wilson, beginning with: Workshop Primer Part 1: What, Where & Why?

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Coming tomorrow: My Reading List: Winter 2013

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Filed under Novel Writing, Writing Life, Writing workshop

Friday Links 01.25.13

Welcome to Friday Links for the 4th week of January. It was a memorable week for national reflections and looking forward, as we began with celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and watching the second inauguration of Barack Obama.

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

The work-week since then has been a blur. Great conversations with so many of you, trading notes about your projects for the January Challenge, blogging about mine… and of course, getting it started.

It has, therefore, been a slower week for fiction. But those hours in the morning still found some great reading moments.

Here are some of the links I’ve found worth sharing. A few regular visitors — especially those who worried they were not “on time” in starting the January Challenge — will find the first link intriguing. Don’t put off reading that one!

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Positive Procrastination 

You may have noticed from my January Challenge strategy lists, I am all for tricks that harness (not fight) the energy of our natural tendencies. Wittily written and extremely insightful, this New York Times article by John Tierney presents research demonstrating how the energy of procrastination can be effective fuel (yes!) for getting things done. Quoting Robert Benchley, “The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” I highly recommend this one!

Sierra Godfrey: How to Write a Great Climactic Scene 

Once you’re over procrastinating, here’s one for getting the end written.  Many workshops focus on opening pages. Last summer I focused on character. Lots of folks talk about analyzing plot points. Sooner or later, those of us tying up a final draft need to get around to writing an ending that lives up to the rest of the book. In this post, Sierra Godfrey offers a valid checklist of what this scene must accomplish.

The Finishing Touches by Jael McHenry

Are you done — or nearly done with that novel draft? Here’s a great article from Writer Unboxed, by Jael McHenry, who focuses the challenging process of polishing a novel draft to address a handful of key threads. Offers some interesting insights.

#5pagesin5tweets 

With the end written and draft polished, it’s time to sweat whether an agent will bite on your query.  As I became a fan of Twitter, one of the best series I followed was agent Sara Megibow’s weekly #10queriesin10tweets. Each week, she’d pull 10 queries from her in-box, summarize the pitch with her verdict (pass, request partial or occasionally (9 out of 32,000 queries in 2012) signed).  Fabulous glimpse into an agent’s thinking — but, gasp!, Sara announced recently, “I feel like I’ve said all I need to say about queries, so it’s time to move on.” No need for disappointment — on January 10th she premiered her new series using the hashtag #5pagesin5tweets. Rather than the query, she is addressing partial submissions she has received. As with the prior series, she summarizes the author’s approach with a verdict (request full or pass) and why.  To access, click the link, or enter the hashtag in a Twitter search or feed browser.

[Note: if you would like to find more discussions like this on Twitter, let me know in the comments, as I have more hashtags to share. You can find me on Twitter at elissafield.]

Should You Be a Writer or an Editor? 

It’s not a question I’ve asked (I do a bit of both) — yet, this 2-part article from The Open Notebook blog addressing the question posed during a Johns Hopkins University masters in science writing forum is a fascinating look at how to know if you are natively an editor or natively a writer.

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These are in my "active reading" stacks, bridging my reading lists from summer into fall, 2012. (The porcelain boxer has run through three generations in our family - as has the breed.) c Elissa Field

These are in my “active reading” stacks, bridging my reading lists from summer into fall, 2012. (The porcelain boxer has run through three generations in our family – as has the breed.) c Elissa Field

What are you reading this month?

That’s a question I’m wondering this week, as it seems time to compile another seasonal reading list. I have some great purchases still waiting to be read, that will roll over from last summer or fall – but I am curious, too, for new recommendations.

What are you reading, what new releases are you curious about, or what would you recommend?

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Going on this month:

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Filed under Books, Friday Links, Novel Writing

January Challenge Week 2: Start Something

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Time to launch Part 2 of the January Challenge — starting one new project from your 2013 goals! 

Today’s kick-off addresses claiming time and selecting which project to start.

But first, for anyone who hasn’t read previous posts: the January Challenge arose because many of us have competing goals we want to tackle in 2013. To get the year started, I applied strategies from freelance writing (and teaching and parenting…) to stoke projects in various stages and keep progress moving forward.

write start badgeEach week of the challenge focuses on finishing one thing (last week), starting one thing (this week), improving one thing, then evaluating and planning the next step.

Links to prior posts are embedded in today’s kick-off where relevant — or find them all at the bottom of this post.

Join the challenge at any time and adapt it to fit your needs. If you join in — even well past the end of January — let us know what you are working on or the kind of strategies that work for you. If you blog about it, please share link to the challenge (you can use the JC badge, if you want to be festive), and share link to your post in the comments below.

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Week 2 Launch: Start Something

I mentioned last Monday, the challenge in starting is sometimes the pressure to finish a lingering project first (read more on that here). 

I’ve felt that way this week: I need to start production of this literary magazine, but ideas for revising my novel jump into my head (“finish something”), my reliable truck spent the week in the shop having its fuel pump replaced (“improve something”), and I’ve had to drop everything to attend meetings to plan events later in the semester or next year (“evaluate and plan“). 

Too often, the project you need to start is like a guy trying to elbow his way to place an order at a crowded bar, vying to get the barkeep’s attention.

This week’s first motivator: give yourself permission to claim the time.  Don’t wait to be less busy. Steal a chunk of time to get going, right now. Well. Finish reading this, then go.

Part of the pressure in starting something new is the feeling you have to set aside something else to do it. Not necessarily. You can continue using strategies to tinker with other projects, even as you focus on starting your new one.  I’ll post more later, but here are a couple strategies from Week 1:

Today: Select the Project You Will Start

In talking to friends, most have several things they want to start in 2013. For this challenge, pick one.  Don’t stress: you can start one now and start another one a couple months from now, or string several small starts to quick finishes.  The key is to stop waiting and jump in.

My goal is to start production of the literary magazine I have to produce for 150 writing students, which needs to be printed and delivered by the end of May.

If that were not mandatory, here are some of the other projects I could imagine taking on — which might be similar to your goals.

  • Apply for acceptance to a conference, workshop or MFA program. Summer programs like Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House or Grub Street will announce programming and accept applications now through March. (check my links page for more info)
  • Begin final revisions of a novel manuscript. Revisions might be “improving” or “finishing,” but this step is also the beginning of a new process, including new formatting, finding beta readers, finding agents and beginning querying, or learning the self-publishing process.
  • Begin submitting stories for publication. Submitting is a new step, involving finding publication targets, drafting cover letters, or organizing your tracking process.
  • Begin an online business. Several outlets allow for uploading materials I (or any of you) could market, and it’s the next step in projects I share with peers.
  • Beginnings in your day job or personal life are fair game. The literary magazine will parallel projects in your day job or for a freelance client. Same goes for projects like looking for a house, starting a job search, planning a wedding, getting ready for a baby.

How Do I Decide Which to Start?

My reflections on 2012 revealed that I’ve made my way through some challenges in recent years. One of the ‘rules’ that led to my best progress is:  Do first the thing that will make your life better tomorrow.

Ask yourself, for any project you consider taking on: will my life be better when this is done, or more of the same? What you start today is an investment in what your life will look like next week, next month and beyond.  If deciding between projects, do first the one that gets you closer to your overall goals. This might include:

  • Honor deadlines. Start first any projects where you committed to a fixed deadline.
  • Invest in tasks that empower you or give you more options. If you need to be employable, start a course that buys you credentials, certification or street cred, rather than one that’s just for fun.
  • Plant seeds for future success. Market now for clients you will need in the summer. Build your website or social platform now for the novel you’ll need to market next year. Submit stories, then wait for replies while working on your novel.
  • Take the first step in big projects. Some starts are just that first step on a big project. My litmag, for example, was really started with mock-ups and volunteer meetings and soliciting work last fall. Grad school starts with investigating programs or soliciting recommendation letters. You might only tackle this one step for now, with other steps taking place much later.
  • Did you try the 3-column to-do list in this post, to identify obstacles preventing you from moving forward? If so, consider starting a project that removes an obstacle. Start a task that increases income if lots of your projects are held back by a lack of money. While you might normally fight for time to work on your novel, starting a client project (or spring cleaning and yard sale) might allow you to replace your laptop — in turn, letting you work more on your novel.
  • Certain goals take priority in the category of: “Twenty years from now, you’ll regret more the things you didn’t do than those you did” (attributed to Twain, repeated by many). For those trying to finish a novel, prioritize that. It takes a long time to go from draft to edited and published copy in a reader’s hands; invest in getting closer to that. Every day you put off starting puts that end goal that much further out of reach. Other intangibles — like foreign travel or falling in love or dropping everything to play with your kids — fall in this category.
  • Protect the status quo. As with honoring deadlines, be sure to start projects that keep good things present in your life, like maintaining a healthy client relationship or success in your job.
  • Peace of mind counts. All this talk of improving life for tomorrow doesn’t mean you can’t have “start an herb garden” or “organize family photos” as your challenge this week. Will you feel better tomorrow for having done it? Go for it.

Your task for today is to select what you want to start. Share your goal in the comments if you want us to cheer you on. Tweet your goal with hashtag #januarychallenge or blog about it and share your link below.

Here’s what I’m wondering, for the next post:  What keeps you from starting a project that is important to you? Are you unsure what to do first? Are you afraid it won’t go well? Do you need resources, materials or answers before you can start?

Now, go!

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

grasp c Elissa FieldThe January Challenge:

Other Recent Posts:

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Filed under January Challenge, Novel Writing, Seeking Publication, Time Management for Writers