Category Archives: Relentless Wake

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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Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends

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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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Just for Fun: Responding to a Prompt from Teachers Write

One of my favorite family photos. We'd all converged in Virginia and I took this as we stopped in a specialty bike store so my brother could look for a part for his vintage BMW. None of the bikes Roonan would race, but a great moment. c. Elissa FieldMy posts on the last two days were pretty intense… So today’s is a chance to just play around with sensory detail.

Inspiration for today comes from a writing challenge — no, “challenge” is too intense for summer — a virtual writing camp for teachers called Teachers Write!.  (I wrote about it on my teaching blog hereTeachers Write via Mrs. T’s Middle Grades. Go back to that later — right now, read on and I’ll give more links below.)

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonWhether you’re a teacher or one of my YA-writing friends, you’d be interested to know the camp is hosted by four kid-lit authors: Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles and Jen Vincent. They share daily writing activities every day except Saturday, and the hosts and participants get together in blog comments, Facebook and twitter updates.

With all the revision I’m doing, I wasn’t sure I’d get involved — but, wow, with such excitement amongst the hosts and participants (over 1,111 last count I heard), it’s been a fun opportunity to connect with others.

Tuesday Quick Write Prompt

On her blog, kid-lit author Kate Messner  got everyone started today with Tuesday Quick Write (<click to read the prompt).  As a warm-up, her prompt was really interesting: it’s a single word but — whether from her examples and encouragement, or merely the suggestion of the word — it was amazing the range of sensory details it helped rouse.

My Morning Warm Up

So, just for fun here is my morning warm-up. It may seem random without the context of the story, and it’s just an unrevised rush of ideas, but I liked that the prompt provoked details of setting that brought out my character Roonan’s childhood fear about his motorcycle-racing father on race days.

        Sometimes night left vapor rising off the fields, waving hands across the laneways in warning. Stared you straight in the eye from the place where darkness started at the edges of fields and crept its way through the trees overhanging the roads. Smelling of earth, of damp, of rocks uncovered by cloven hooves in the night, of the sour, live alarm of dung beneath the cows, jaws cranking out the sane pace one should travel. Ch-omp, ch-omp, ch-omp… Pausing. Heaving out a breath. Stomping. Looking away to where a kite split the white haze of morning, where crows hid somnambulant in the trees, faces hid beneath a wing. Slow. Sl-o-o-ow. Slow. Sometimes rain would come. Barely falling, merely a dew floating in the air. Sometimes heavy sheets, rushing rivers impromptu along the lanes, drawing rivulets of mud, strings of grass, ripened berries knocked loose in the night by greedy maws, pebbles, spilled oil, sprung gears popped loose, a bit of chain, spit hocked out in yesterday’s trials, bit of tape. Men walked in the rain. Their boots mucked a neat path from trailer to trailer. Mechanics continued methodically adjusting spanners, polishing visors, low voices saying, “I’ve not heard shite,” of whether it would dry or the meet be canceled. Roonan was still young enough to squat beneath the trailer’s overhang, hearing but unseen, his eyes fixed on the rivulets creeping  closer to him beneath the trailer, eyes widening at the chance there might be no race today. He heard the familiar rasp of his father’s voice, the disappointment in it, saw what he knew to be his father’s hand extend out the door to feel how hard the rain still fell. Sometimes it stopped. Sometimes Roonan’s heart would race the hour or more after rain stopped falling, anxious knowing how badly the men wanted to ride, how the crowds were clamouring, “The roads are fairly dry…” Sometimes it would rain all day and he’d lie in his bunk, coffinlike, in the caravan, forcing his gaze to stay fixed on the near distance, tuning out all other voices – the complaints, the cursing, the calculating of costs paid to come this far and not race – and press down, like holding down sick, the guilt that rose in him. To be afraid, as he never saw his father or Stephen: scared by the thought of his father flung 160 miles an hour between the hedgerows.

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What Else is On Teachers Write?

Wednesday’s feature is Q & A — participants post any questions to be answered by guest writers. If you’re reading this on Wed morning the 26th, hop to this link, where writers  Laurel Snyder and Joanne Levy are on deck.

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What About You?

If you are a teacher/librarian and want to participate in Teachers Write, here is the post on Kate’s site announcing the program and how to sign up. Here is the recent writing prompt: Teachers Write 6/25 Tuesday Quick-Write Sometimes

If you’re not a teacher, I am in love with the handful of prompts to spur thoughts about setting halfway down this article by Donald Maass: The Map and the Trail.

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Revision is Messy c. Elissa Field

Revision is Messy c. Elissa Field

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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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Sloans summer c Elissa Field

Sloans summer c Elissa Field

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Sharing a Bit of Today’s Writing

Valvoline

This week, the world has been pinging writing-triggers my way, like pebbles falling on a rooftop to claim my attention.

A dog slithered her way into my previously pet-less WIP — Valvoline, a little black collie, slippery as motor oil, persistent as memory. She is a stray who sidles in and out of scenes, tripping off my laconic main character’s inner dialogue.

I was revisited by flash memory of my grandmother’s wedding ring — which hid beneath a larger band, her original ring worn thin as wire by 53 years of marriage. More than once, that thin rose-gold band has crept its way into my writing. Remembering her hand conducting the air as she trilled along with an old song, her widowed ring became parallel to the gun my main character wears in a hidden holster.  Which — I’ve slowly realized — is empty. His empty weapon found its parallel in the widowed wedding ring, and this small observed detail plants the seed of a hint that the woman he dates is a widow as well.

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Raw and unedited (and possibly doomed for deletion before the final draft), here is a bit from this morning’s writing. 

I follow several international journalists, and part of my writing this morning was spurred by tweets amongst them about this week’s East Belfast riots. A picture posted by Belfast journalist, John Mooney (photo here), who was nearly trapped in Newtonabbey after last night’s riots, triggered dormant thoughts about memories my main character (Roonan) has of one of the mistakes in his life. Trigger was not the riot, but the image of a leafless tree against clouds of smoke.

When the explosion rang in his ears, Roonan ran first to where his brother had turned to face him.  Looked for the startled, wondering face where it would have been in the remaining cloud.  Searched for him in the crater blasted into the pavement, down into soil and rock below. Moved the car a distance, their mother’s sweater sliding back and forth across the empty seat, voices repeating, tormenting in the deafening ringing of his ears.  Walked back to sit beneath a leafless tree, black lines of twigs drawn against the silken sky as riot police gathered behind an armored car. Wiped something from his face. Startled to know he’d been crying, tears muddying the faint grit and spray of red across his face.  He’d run then – the slow, steady pace of a man intent on getting away, forcefully relaxing himself in order to disappear into a crowd.

It was the tree he remembered. Spindling black-twigged branches. Huddled, riot-armored men behind the huddled armored trucks, black shine of their helmets, round as his father’s crash helmet against the flashing lights. Agents milling through the lifting cloud like men on the moon.  His brother no longer there.  Slick slide of his mother’s cardigan across the seat. Ice-rush of water as he washed his face, changed his shirt. His mother no longer there.

Exaggerated, unworldly silence concussed his hearing.  Like the moon.  Like the moon.  No matter the milling of people moving in curiosity down the street.  No matter the diversion of men as he crossed back over the border.  No matter the passing cars, the friendly, sorrowful wave of a neighbor as he turned back into Ridell’s main street, passing the grocer where she shopped, the post office where she’d mailed Stephen a package only last week, the shops where she’d just sent him with spare money she’d found to buy his brother longer jeans, now the youngest had grown so tall.  No one on the moon.  No one anywhere in Roonan’s ringing head.  No one to ask him, What did you do?

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October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation

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

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

Need a challenge to keep your writing moving in October? I’ve previously shared these two:

But Tuesday I came across another blog with a challenge near to my goals this year: character motivation.

In her 10/14 post, “Making Motivation Matter,” Writerlious blogger E. B. Pike shares insights and an exercise she gained from a Writers Block conference she attended in Louisville. Follow link to her post to read her full explanation of the challenge as presented to her in a workshop. I can’t resist trying it here.

The challenge (quoted from the Writerlious blog):

1.) Write down your character’s name

2.) Write down what your character wants, as succinctly as possible

3.) Ask yourself: If your character doesn’t get what he/she wants, what will happen?

4.) Now, write down three ways describing how you could make this matter even more.

5.) Again. Think of three ways you could make this matter even more. Write them down.

6.) You guessed it.  Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself if there’s any way you could make it matter even more.

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Of all my characters, Michael Roonan is most likely to meet the bar of high stakes motivation. Let’s see:

  1. Michael Roonan.
  2. Roonan wants: the happiness his parents had.
  3. He cannot get what his parents had because of a tragedy he witnessed that caused him to take a life in self-defense, as a boy.  If he did not get over the tragedy, he would just grow up in isolation. Not yet a big stake.
  4. That violent act caused him to become alienated in fear.  He isolated himself to protect those around him but a loyal friend tried to rescue him.. Once the friend is involved, stakes are raised, as he is now focused on extricating the friend from guilt, beyond any hope of extricating himself.
  5. In an effort to correct the problem, he upheld his father’s paranoia about needing to protect the family and avoid violence. But the more he sought to avoid violence, the more he escalated it, and two members of his family are killed. Stakes raised twice: believing in his father’s integrity and lives lost.
  6. His involvement in violence is exonerated as “self-defense” — yet he becomes increasingly aware of his own flawed perceptions, so that his innocence or damnation hinges on whether his father’s values and paranoia were accurate. Stakes raised: loss of innocence, loss of faith, damnation. Against these, Roonan sees death as easy.
  7. At the moment Roonan judges himself damned, resigned to death, he is confronted by the unexpected birth of his own son — now faced once again with his original wish: for the simple happiness of family.

I’m not surprised to have full stakes for Roonan, but am curious to run the same test on the female protagonist, Carinne, as development of her character has been my focus in recent revisions:

  1. Carinne
  2. (Should I be honest and say I stalled out to even say what she wants?) Initially, for herself: love, acceptance.
  3. If she did not get love or acceptance for herself, she might just withdraw into herself. No big deal. She’s in company with half the planet, perhaps. Not yet a story.
  4. She then meets Michael Roonan. They are kindred in resignation to their individual isolation. Seeing it in each other, they fight to keep the other afloat. She begins to rebel against her own resignation, at the same time she becomes accomplice in his escape from the man pursuing him. She becomes a part of a mission to keep the man safe, which essentially parallels her own need to fight for herself. Story spark.
  5. She has fallen in love. There is the moment when things could turn and go well, but then Roonan is killed.  She believes he survived, but is told he died and she is sent out of the country.  At this point, it is interesting, but as far as her motivation, it’s still kind of “so what?” – she could move on with a new love, I suppose. He could be the exciting bad boy that got away – but not necessarily high stakes.
  6. She is pregnant and has a child (the first pages open with that child digging in her garden). She had been willing to give up on finding Roonan for herself, but won’t give up once it’s a matter of finding her son’s father. Stakes are raised the day he comes home asking who he’s supposed to take to the daddy party at nursery school. Ding!
  7. Once Roonan is found, the son’s need for his father to survive and be part of his life provokes the resolution, as living happily is at odds with the father’s need for atonement.

What a great exercise for identifying where motivation is clear and where it is still pedestrian.  I love romantic motivation, but am suspicious of it as the sole motivator, so had been questioning Carinne for some time. She is compelling, but not if her only motivation is loving Roonan.

What’s interesting in breaking it down is it pinpoints a truth I caught last spring: Carinne is not the real protagonist; the son is.  Carinne is essentially a stand-in for the son for much of the story.  While we might be moved by a love story, the son’s need for a father trumps the mother’s romantic motivation.  It is the son’s desire (and mother’s desire for his well being) that drives the story.  Once I hone in on that, how easy are the questions to answer.  What does the son want? A father. What will happen if he doesn’t get it? Parallel to the tragedy already modeled by the dad: questions of his manhood, his integrity, his identity, his worth. Resolution of that one desire addresses the needs and desires of his parents, as well.

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I applied Writerlious’s list to a finished draft, but a key point as it was presented to her in workshop is to take the time to define your characters and their motivation before starting to write.  For all those of you contemplating NaNoWriMo next month, this is perfect time to do just that!

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October is only halfway done! Jump in on one of these challenges, or share your own questions for developing story.

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