Category Archives: 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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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, the Bloglovin’ button or via email.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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

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

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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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c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

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Christmas Shopping for the Writer in Your Life: 40 Top Gift Ideas Writers Really Love

Since September, this has been the hottest hit on my blog. If you’re shopping for the writer in your life (or want to pass on hints for those shopping for you), check out this list of 40 gifts a writer would genuinely love and appreciate.

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Living With Books 06: Books Are Spooky, Too

Decorating for Halloween with my boys this weekend has me looking back on the 6th edition of Living With Books: Books are Spooky, Too, on great ways to use books in decorating for Halloween.

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Writing Process: Where Do You Write?

writing ct 1-

One of the cheery questions that writers seem to like trading experience about is, “Where do you write?”

There are those who are passionate café writers. There are those who post long reflections on their experience writing at a weeklong or month-long retreat where trees block view of the closest human being. There are those who write on subways. There are those attending conferences this summer who will imagine long hours writing in the Adirondack chairs on a grassy mountainside.  There are those with full fledged home offices or equally meaningful cubbies with small totems that inspire them to write.

One of my most productive places to write, ever, has been sitting in bed in my house, which is that kind of new construction where the master bedroom is huge and airy, on the second floor with a bay window looking over treetops so it feels like sitting in a treehouse. Chi moves so well through that room that I am neither bored nor distracted.

More often, as single mother, I am in the corner of the sectional sofa in the family room in the middle of my sons’ action, so I won’t someday hear them in therapy saying their mother spent their childhood with her nose in a laptop locked away in her room. I’ve written in other busy places: conferences, courthouses, schools, train stations, airports.

I’ve written in spectacularly beautiful places — on a cliffside balcony looking over the Mediterranean in Positano, Italy; in a beautiful hotel room; at famously photogenic beach. Few places are as beautiful as that empty chair in the picture with this post, where I am sitting right now on the sun porch of my mother’s house in Connecticut, looking out over her gardens as she and my son weed.

ard na sidhe blogBeautiful places and busy places have often left me with ideas to write from. My current WIP began with an image from a gorgeous mountain lake in County Kerry, Ireland.

But, ironically, my philosophy about “where to write” is the same as my philosophy on buying notebooks or pens for writing: the best writing places are equivalent to or more boring than the writing you’re doing. If you’ve ever had writer’s block, then never buy some heirloom-gorgeous writing journal because you’ll be too afraid to write a wrong word in it. I’d rather a boring composition notebook, any day.

As beautiful as this seat is in my mom’s sunroom, I’ve spent more time photographing it and writing about it than working through the list of revisions I’m supposed to be making.  As we get ready to drive back south tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll lament leaving this beautiful location many times. But the truth is, it does me well to dip in such beauty and then retreat to the quiet where the words I need to work on are the main attraction.

As a final thought, I think the best writing seats have good chi — air flows readily so your ideas feel free to unravel — yet are not in the main line of that energy. For example, that seat pictured in the window demands the action of looking out onto the world, in the traffic flow of the main door. In reality, these last two weeks, I’ve written better when snugged into the sofa set back in that same room, with a similar view and still in hearing of all the house’s activity, but sheltered behind the main traffic and action.

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What About You?

Is your writing space important to you as you write, or are you portable in your work? Do you have rituals, like favorite quotes or icons on your desk, or other ways your writing space gets you going? What would you change, if you could? What would you recommend writers look for or avoid in a good writing space?

If you’ve posted about your writing space in the past, feel free to leave your link in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or use the email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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

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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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Filed under Novel Writing, Revision, Writing Process & Routine