Tag Archives: novel revision

Friday Links for Writers: 06.03.16

tsar love techno 

It’s been a busy week for writing — some new work, some work for clients, and a ton of editing. I’ve made it through about half of draft 10, with draft 11 coming together with the fierce and authentic punch that broke through in the last rewrite. This makes me happy… albeit, with tons left to go.

Just as many hours go into reading. I recently shared my Spring Reading List — go check that out for the books that powering my writing world. Pictured above, a favorite: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (on my desk so I could transcribe a scene I wrote in the end papers while reading late).

This week’s Friday Links for Writers shares some of the most exciting, inspiring or useful links I’ve come across recently. As always, share in the comments to let us know what resounds with you, what you’d like more of, or share your own favorite links. Have a great writing week!

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Jimin Han on Rethinking the CW Workshop

I felt like this piece by Jimin Han on Pleiades is one of the most important ideas I’ve seen for those leading writing workshops. I’ve been struck, in forums with writers applying to MFA programs, the frequency with which minorities and marginalized voices feel unheard in MFA and other writing programs. Han and her teaching partner have a great approach to first learning a writer’s intentions and connecting all feedback to those intentions. Highly recommend this – not just for workshop, but critiquing peers, editing for clients, reading slush, etc.

CjQOA7_WYAE5aJW12 Things I Noticed While Reading Every Short Story Published in 2014-15 (or, Extremely Long Titles That Are Complete Sentences Are Still Very Much a Thing)

Ok, so this was another of the best things I’ve shared online lately. So often, writers are puzzled by what editors react to — something that felt powerful in draft didn’t light off sparks on submission. Kelly Luce’s piece at Electric Lit reveals surprising patterns, overused tropes, and useful insight into the most successful fiction in one year’s reading.

24-danai-gurira_w245_h368Danai Gurira’s Advice to Young Female Writers: ‘Go Where You Are Loved’

Here’s another one I absolutely loved and highly recommend reading. It’s easy to be inspired by Danai Gurira’s self-aware, fierce calm in The Walking Dead. How much more amazing, then, to find she is also a Tony-nominated playwright. She offers great inspiration to go where others embrace you and to get it done.

17 Best Flash Fiction Contests

On his Bookfox site, John Fox shares a list of details and links for 17 flash fiction contests. Are you thinking, “But I don’t write flash fiction”? Common thread among my novel writing friends is how novel edits can be repurposed into flash. Hmm…

Tell Me More: Creating Suspense with Information

This short piece by Marlene Zadig at Carve Magazine does a great job of challenging the idea of withholding information to build suspense. In my focus on reading suspenseful literary fiction this spring, I can attest to it. Readers appreciate being in on the story, not “ta-da!” moments when info is revealed.

Noir is Protest Literature: Why It’s Having a Renaissance

I found inspiration in this article at Electric Literature, as it relates to an idea I’ve been exploring in the shift in safety felt during the first decade of the millennium. “The classic crime story…takes place in an essentially orderly universe, with a common understanding of good and evil. Crime here is a dangerous anomaly, but order can be restored,” contrasted with noir: “Noir, as it emerged in the middle of a violent century, said to hell with all that. Its world was chaotic, baroque and hypocritical. Crime doesn’t disturb this world, it’s foundational to it.”

Crowdfunding Usually Doesn’t Work for Writers – But it Can

This is an interesting piece by Jane Friedman. One could assume it is for writers intending to self-publish, but in fact connects to more clever usage I’ve seen, such as a friend whose successful, traditionally published novel used a Fund Me campaign to support production of a high quality audiobook. She gives great approaches for targeted use.

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What Are You Working On?

What is your current writing goal? What challenges or strategies keep your going or make hurdles in your work Have you come across any great writing links or resources lately? Do share your thoughts or links in the comments.

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cElissaField

cElissaField

Need Motivation?

I’ll be on Twitter all today, and each Friday June-July, with Wordsmith Studio  to host hourly writing sprints.

Find me @elissafield, follow hashtag #wssprint.

Learn more from my post for our last event: Join Wordsmith Studio’s Live Writing Sprints on Twitter.

Or, you can find saved feeds from prior sprints — complete with some incredibly productive prompts for developing fiction — on my Storify.

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or follow via email. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook.

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Friday Links for Writers: 05.13.16

copyright Elissa Field (use w written permission only)

copyright Elissa Field (use w written permission only)

I’m midway through a 4-week break between classes, at the tail end of my Masters. This perfectly coincides with having a printed draft to complete a read-through revision, which makes this a busy writing week.

I’ve been wrestling with technology — finding the most efficient ways to keep track of complicated novel structures while moving large chunks around. I’ve written about mid-level novel revisions often, here, and this revision has had its own insights.

This week, I’m debating moving my outline (the structural spine devised to guide the revisions) into Excel. Complete nerdfest: that allows me to not only graph the chapters and parts, but graph key reveals, reactions, crossing of internal and external conflicts… Not word-nerdy enough? I’ve been obsessively analyzing concepts of action-reaction — the dialogue and external conflicts comprising actions, and all the modes by which characters react, in layers. Worth its own post — a post requested by another venue — but for today…

It’s time for Friday Links for Writers. Not surprising at least one link is a piece on character action. As always, share in the comments to let us know what resounds with you, what you’d like more of, or share your own favorite links. Have a great writing week!

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Character Reaction — Make Your Character Respond

On The Editor’s Blog, Beth Hill discusses the need to reveal character in the written responses to action and events. While I’ve been considering a dozen different layers to response, she covers the big 4: action, dialogue, thought, and emotion.

Pixie Dust

Okay, so this will be, what, the third Donald Maass piece I share lately? Yeah well, he must be good at getting one thinking. His latest post at Writer Unboxed talks about using the most emotionally charged details to power your writing (and delete the rest). Experiences shared in the comments are just as inspiring as the initial piece.

a8b42ebd1d57086a0349245db28cc008Found on Pinterest: Plot Timeline Infographics
Plotter or pantser, I strongly believe in understanding (or planning) the best structure for the novel you’re writing. In revising Never Said, that backbone has been key to building a more complex story than would have been possible without it. The link above goes to pin for the “first act”. Click here to find Act 2 and here for Act 3. Want more? Clicking the pins takes you to the original articles.

How Mapping Alice Munro’s Stories Helped Me As a Writer

And, hey, if I’m confessing my inner word nerd… well, look, Elizabeth Poliner was geeking out on diagramming Alice Munro, too. For me, it’s been a mix of Anthony Doerr and Tana French – but, point is, if you’re diagramming your favorite writer, you’re not alone.

Print Products: Turn Your Book into a Notebook or Workbook

Many of my readers may already have stumbled on Joanna Penn, who has been generous, as her self-publishing career took off, to share creative ways to make a living with your writing. This post is just that, with advice on how to create accompanying workbooks or other print materials from your existing book (especially nonfiction). This would be a great approach for speaking engagements and workshops.

Santiago Caruso via The Guardian

Santiago Caruso via The Guardian

 

On Charlotte Bronte’s 200th Birthday: Illustrating Jane Eyre

This one is just for a little inspiration, for any of us kindling a love for the Brontes. A Guardian piece, featuring the Gorey-esque artwork of Santiago Caruso depicting scenes from Jane Eyre.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: the Privilege of Writing from in the Mess

I loved this answer Ta-Nehisi Coates gave to a Howard University student who asked him what responsibility he thought writers have. The link above gives that one answer. Or, here is the full conversation between him and professor Greg Carr, including a reading from Between the World and Me.

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What Are You Working On?

April seemed to be a huge month for writers using challenges to reach writing goals — and just as many of my friends hit May (and look forward to summer) with editing now on their mind. What is your current writing goal? What challenges or strategies keep your going or make hurdles in your work?

Have you come across any great writing links or resources lately?

Do share your thoughts or links in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or follow via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook.

Round tower bend, Waterford, Ireland. copyright Elissa Field.

Round tower bend, Waterford, Ireland. copyright Elissa Field.

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Friday Links for Writers 09.25.14

Ah, the dreaded "blah" in the margin. c. Elissa Field

Ah, the dreaded “blah” in the margin. c. Elissa Field

It’s been a busy week for reading and writing — from a Hedgebrook application to receiving acceptance to a Masters program, to finishing one client project and starting a pro bono project… In the meantime, I’ve been shifting gears to take a season off from teaching which has meant taking on new writing and editing clients once again. Networking with fellow writers has been a great (and fun and inspiring) resource and I’m getting ready to head into New York for a kickstarter conference of women writers, the BinderCon (Binder Women Writers Symposium) the weekend after next.

With all the business in play at the moment, it’s not surprising that this week’s Friday Links for Writers includes some great writing resources I’ve stumbled across for working writers: two on freelance writing or editing, one on Twitter pitch wars and another on the kinds of topics to write about when building platform. Work on the novel continues to be the heart of my work, so the last two links are for fiction writers: on critique partners and endings.

As always, let me know what resounds with you, what you wish you could find more information about, or share your own links in the comments. Have a great writing week!

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From Full Time to Freelance: How to Make the Leap

This feature by Laura Lin via Forbes is a great cross-section of concrete advice for anyone contemplating jumping from traditional employment to freelancing — and serves equally well as a diagnostic for any freelancer, with ways to make sure your business is on track for success. Related articles are available in the footlinks.

Negotiating: Theory and Practice

While on the topic of freelancing, the Editorial Freelancers Association is a great resource for writers and editors. As part of a weekly #EFAchat, the association shared this article with tips for negotiating rates and scope for client projects. Other resources on the site include contracts and job listings.

 The Ultimate Guide to Twitter Pitch Contests

As a guest blogger on the site Writers in the Storm, literary agent Carly Watters shares some great advice for anyone throwing their novel into the fray in any of the half dozen or so pitch wars that take place on Twitter. First off: pitch war? These are scheduled days for writers to tweet the pitch for their novel — that’s right: your beloved masterpiece in less than 140 characters — using an established hashtag for the event (for example, #pitmad). As with all query tips, Carly’s advice boils down to, “You only have one chance to impress an agent.” She gives concrete tips for writing your pitch. Overall, she say, ” My big advice is that if your book isn’t done, don’t jump in. There are many Twitter Pitch Contests every year so don’t feel like you have to be involved in every one. Wait until your book is ready.”

34 Blog Topics Just for Writers

This post by Frances Caballo at Social Media Just for Writers is a great resource for writers wondering what topics are best to share about on a blog, to give a sense of their work and direction as a writer. The post includes topics for nonfiction, fiction and poetry writers.

Cheerleaders vs. Critique Partners

This piece by Heather Jackson at WriteOnSisters.com does a great job of establishing the difference a cheerleaders of our writing, who constantly eggs us on with praise, and an effective critique partner, who pushes us to craft our best work. Complete with a tool to assess which category your writing partner tends toward, the post also helps one appreciate the value in having both cheerleaders and critique partners in your corner.

An Anatomy of Endings

“Endings haunt us because they are mortality formalized,” concludes staff writer Adam Gopnik in this great piece on types of endings in the New Yorker. “Endings are what life cheats us of. As long as a sense of the ending hovers, the story goes on.” I love the philosophy of this line — but any writer working on the structure of their novel or story’s ending will appreciate the concrete type of endings his article identifies. (Karen Joy Fowler mentioned this article during a workshop at Brisbane Writers Festival.)

Want more?

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

Check out yesterday’s Writing Prompt: Develop Setting – Inspired by Colson Whitehead on New York City.

Or, for great reading recommendations, check out tomorrow’s My Fall Reading List 2014 (link will go live Saturday).

If you’re curious what I’ve been working on, here are two recent posts sharing work or inspiration: Press Freedom for Journalists Covering Conflict: Free Austin Tice and Today’s Work: Sharing a Scene from Never Said.

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What About You?

What writing goals are you working on this week — or what great reads did you stumble across? Feel free to share links (including to your own posts) in the comments.

Do you ever blog about the books you read or post your Must Reads list? Let me know in the comments or by using the contact sheet on the home page if you would be interested in participating in a reading blog hop.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option or via email, or the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Writing Prompt: Develop Setting – Inspired by Colson Whitehead on New York City

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I am a very visual person — I think in pictures — so writing setting is perhaps the last aspect of storytelling that I worry about. In writing a story set in India, details crept into every line without me thinking about them. I knew the exact color of shadows, the moment a bird would flush out of dry brush. A lot of writers can relate to this, especially if their drive to tell a story is inspired by place.

But that’s not always the case. In Friday Links for Writers: 3.21.14 , I quoted Anne Enright from a bit of advice where she said, “description is hard.”

Describing setting can be a powerful way to engage readers, conjure up surprising sensory details, reveal character, add resonance to a scene, develop internal and external conflicts… but it has do so in a way that moves the story, and that fits the voice and character(s)’ point of view.

Continuing the series on Novel Revision, today’s post shares a prompt for developing an important setting in your story, making it work to build character, motion and greater resonance. While many details may have come about in a first draft, midlevel revision is a great time to revise for ideas that were not yet clear in your first vision.

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Find a Place to Stand

Anne Enright’s advice was: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

This is a great starting point for thinking about setting: begin by knowing your character(s)’ point of view and seeing your setting from where the character stands.

Colson Whitehead on New York

Some of you may know I am working from my family’s house outside New York City at the moment, and felt the impact of this year’s anniversary of 9.11.01 in that context. On the anniversary, Jodi Kantor shared on Twitter a link to Colson Whitehead’s beautiful article from the New York Times that ran November 11, 2001.

As a New Yorker living in the city as it recovered, Colson wrote not directly about the event, but about what defines one’s connection to and identification as being from the city.

Read it because it’s beautiful — and because we’ll use it as our prompt. (Read it now, or in the prompt below: The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01)

The First Brick in Your City

Colson says, “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” Anyone who’s spent time in New York knows what he means by “private New York,” as everyone comes to define their own sense of the city — a city so large that any of us sees it only in pieces.

But isn’t that true of each character’s response to setting?

In the paragraph that follows, Colson lists a handful of ways a person might have experienced their first moment in the city.

Freeze it there,” he says; “that instant is the first brick in your city.”

There is so much about writing setting that can be taken from his words. The point of details in your novel is not to inform a reader of what to see and do when visiting the place; you are not a glorified camera taking a picture for the reader. What matters about the places in your story are the ways your character(s) perceive and respond to them.

In Colson’s essay, each example of a newbie arriving in New York City presents a character you can view clearly in your mind, despite being limited to the details of a single sentence. They are details of setting, but they clearly define the interaction of people within that setting. The details involve objects, structures, qualities and even the kinds of actions and thoughts a character has within that setting. A detail could be as mundane as holding a piece of paper or a communication between friends, but the detail is not left vague. “The phone rang,” could happen in any city, but Colson made the same detail of a phone call place-defining, as: “there was some mix-up in the plans.”

Prompt for Developing Details of Setting

So let’s turn his essay into a prompt for your own writing today.

Interpret this for whatever you are working on: a novel, a short story, a poem, a detail in your memoir, a detail in an essay, details fleshed out for a travel piece, or start something new.  You won’t be recreating Colson’s format; you’ll just use the prompt for generating details in whatever scene you imagine.

  1. Read Colson Whitehead’s The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01
  2. Have in mind the place you will write about, thinking of it first as it is in the story’s present. Tip: Have in mind a specific place. For existing work, this will be an important location in your piece. For new work, be sure to have a single place in mind before writing. While Colson writes about a city, yours could be any kind of a place, real or imagined.
  3. What is the “first brick” in your character’s experience of this setting? Be vivid. Be true. Likely part of your backstory, what first memory comes to mind as the moment he/she began to define their own private version of their place? Freeze there. Think, then write where it feels revealing.
    • What emotion attaches to that first brick? Awe? Horror, pain, fear, injury…? Joy, excitement, beauty, anticipation, faith…?
    • What details attach to that first brick? Think of the stub of paper with a new address in the hand of the New Yorker arriving at their first address, or the limited view of a toddler in a carriage.
    • What actions or motion are involved? Are there details of arrival, communication, cross signals, movement? Are there broad sights or limited senses?
    • What does your character want (or think they want) in that first moment? This may be very different — distorted, more basic, more naïve — than later in the story.
  4. Moving through your story, how does your character continue to build their definition of the setting?
    • How does that first brick define the setting for your character?  Does it leave a ghost of emotion through later events? Does it start memory on solid or unstable footing? Do regrets haunt, long after, no matter how much success follows? Do later moments never live up to the first glow? Is there a sweetness the character carries from that first memory that lends forgiveness or blind faith in later experience? or..?
    • Does your character (or do you) come to measure later scenes against that first experience, or is it nearly forgotten as others take priority?
  5. Options for how this might create tensions, conflict development or structure in your story – where you might take it next:
    • What other “bricks” of memory, detail or experience define the setting for your character? Does this possibly suggest a structure for story events?
    • In what ways do these details define your character’s “own private” setting? Is your reader aware of a contrast between that private vision vs. other perspectives?
    • Do different characters perceive contrasting “private” versions of the setting? Does this lend structure, tension or just details to scenes? Would these different perspective ever cause missed understanding in dialogue between characters?
  6. Going beyond a single scene, how could you use this different private viewpoint to add details of how characters dress, what they carry, how they speak or what they do?

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What About You?

Are you working on setting this week? Did you use this prompt or what other inspiration helps you envision your setting clearly? Several of my friends work in photography or other media — how do you reflect on setting in your work?

Let us know how your work is going in the comments. Feel free to share a link to your own post, if you want to share an excerpt or other writing.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option or via email, or the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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

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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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Friday Links for Writers: 06.20.14

Thanks to the tropical showers that trapped me in a coffee shop long enough to make headway. c Elissa Field

Thanks to the tropical showers that trapped me in a coffee shop long enough to make headway. c Elissa Field

Getting into the thick of novel revisions this week has felt like parenting a belligerent preteen – not that I have one of those (apologies, boys).

Landlocked friends, this is for you: beach writing isn't always pretty. c Elissa Field

Landlocked friends, this is for you: beach writing isn’t always pretty. c Elissa Field

On the way back from a meeting midday yesterday, I forced myself to stop and write at a coffee shop for a solid hour. I’ve put so much pressure on myself to complete this novel revision and be ready to query agents by summer’s end (I’ve been sharing this goal and inspiration using #SumNovRev on Twitter – jump in, if you share that goal!).

Luck of nature: I was trapped at the coffee shop by a tropical downpour. It took headphones, a great play list and a good hour or more to get to a point where I wasn’t fighting this manuscript.

As I hit a groove (sympatico: just as Cristina Aguilera belted into “Fighter“), I tweeted: “Not in love with your WIP? Skip to a part you love. Work from there, build on strength.” So much gets deleted anyway, so why sweat the scene I hate? Still lots to go, but I’m probably about 20% through that project of retyping the draft, using the only the parts I really like.

That said, it’s time for me to share some of the Friday Links for Writers that were my favorite inspiration this week. As always, feel free to share your own favorite links (including your own) in the comments.

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Interview with Kate Kristensen

One of the interesting things revealed in Amanda Green’s Rumpus interview with Kate Kristensen — who has written several novels and nonfiction books, as well as freelance and magazine writing — is the ways she used blog writing to interact with, develop and be relief from other forms of writing.

The Writing Workshop Glossary

In this great New York Times piece, Amy Klein shares a great cross-section of writing advice under the guise of “defining” the feedback used in writing workshops. It’s great as a morning read to inspire revisions, with classic questions such as, “What does the character want?” This article is part of an ongoing series called “Draft,” on the writing craft.

We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome

With all the talk about diversity in the publishing industry, I thought this piece by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve was one of the more interesting discussions. Tasha casts doubt on stories that simply add a female lead, even if it’s a strong, well-developed character, where the power in the story still remains in the hands of the male lead.

How to Get Published: 4 Debut Novelists on Elevator Pitches and More

I loved this Buzzfeed interview by Lincoln Michel with four debut novelists, for its down to earth insight into those publishing hurdles like phrasing the pitch.

How to Become a Literary Agent

This may be particular to my own interests in agenting, but I loved this piece by agent Juliet Mushens on Marie Claire’s blog, with her list of what it takes to be successful as a literary agent.

A Literary Expert on Driving in the Dark

Despite the ubiquity of Neil Gaiman advice articles, I loved this interview in the New York Times for some of his confessions of inspiration and his confidence about writing ahead, like “driving in the dark.”

 The Bridge and the Tunnel

This article by Donald Maass at Writers Unboxed is a repeat (included in Friday Links for Writers 07.05.13) but it’s one of my favorites — and kindred spirit with the part of the novel draft I fell back in love with at the coffee shop yesterday… So, enjoy. If you want more, this post shares some of Maass’s great novel writing prompts.

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Writing Communities

I can’t go without mentioning the explosive activity in my writing communities this week. You may have seen this show up as odd hashtags about #binderwomen or #binderwriters, and a couple others intended to go below radar. This isn’t the post to explain this completely, but I do want to take a second to give a shout out to the hundreds of women in my writing community who share such talent and energy. It’s great to connect with you (say “hello” in the comments!).

Elissa WAGI’ll also be explaining later the addition of the WAG Advisory Group badge that’s been added to the sidebar on this site, but for now, you will recognize Wordsmith Studios as the fabulous, supportive and talented group of writers I’ve been part of for two years now. Shout out to my Wordsmith friends. Find us in Tuesday chats using #wschat.

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What About You?

What writing goals are you working on this week? What resources or writing communities inspire you most? Please share any great links — including your own — 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 the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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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

 

 

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Friday Links for Writers 06.13.14

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. c. Elissa Field

If you’ve caught the pictures I’ve shared on Twitter or even the headers to my last two posts, you’ll get that we are in full-on summer status, here. Pool, beach, morning mimosas… Sweet!

Yeah, not so easy: for me, summer is all about long days of writing and revision, so those same pictures are attached to posts about the tough job of finishing this novel. I may be lounging, but the laptop and print novel draft are open in my lap. If you’re in that same status, I’ve been using the hashtag #SumNovRev to connect with others working on finalizing a novel over the next couple months — sharing goals, milestones and resources to keep us going.

Which brings us to today’s Friday Links for Writers, which shares some of the best recent-reads on mastering novel revision, from sentence-level to the first chapter to knowing when you’re done. As always, feel free to share in the comments about what resounds with you, what you’d like to read more of, or share your own best links of the week.

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Nail Your Novel’s First Chapter

Sometimes I feel like all the writing advice out there focuses on the first chapter — but of course this makes sense, since so much is riding on whether or not those first pages hook a reader, agent or editor. Which is exactly the point made in this short post by novel editor Ellen Brock.

Point of View Shifts and Head-hopping: Always Bad?

On Saturday, in my review of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I admired Anthony’s control in navigating pov shifts. Here, this post from Roz Morris is a great examination of the how’s and why’s of what makes head-hopping risky.

The Sentence is a Lonely Place

Shared on the Believer website, this is a transcript of a lecture by Gary Lutz to writing students at Columbia University.  I first discovered this piece a year or so ago, as a link at the end of author Matt Bell’s “The Books We Teach” (behind the subscriber wall at Ploughshares).

11 Questions to Ask Yourself When You Reach the End

This article by Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins is a great list of questions to consider when you reach the end of a draft stage. As Kathy puts it, review this list without too much intensity, just making notes, before setting the work aside to hibernate. It includes great challenges regarding everything from character to setting to plot. A useful tool.

Book Launch Checklist

For those with a book done, in the querying process or even waiting for an impending release, this post at Kelsye Nelson’s site is the most comprehensive check list I’ve seen for launching a book — and was one of the most retweeted links I shared on Twitter this week.

Novelists Discuss the Magic in the Creative Process

I like to end Friday Links with inspirational interviews or lectures, and I really liked this one: from Aspen Institute’s Winter Words 2014, Authors Karen Jay Fowler and Carole DeSanti discuss the creative process.

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How About You?

Feel free to share your favorite links (even your own) in the comments below.

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

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

 

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

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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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Friday Links for Writers 02.21.14

BlackrockIn months when carving out writing time is challenging, I remind myself that Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye while working full time and raising 2 boys as a single mother, by writing before they woke and after they went to sleep.  Doesn’t make it easier, but busy months take constant self-coaching to get it all done.

This week, I was thrilled with a provocative question from a friend that led to a new way of looking at a key scene. The upside of fighting for time to write is it is that much more satisfying when the work that comes out really rings true.

The week’s work has also led to discovery of some great links online, which is your benefit as I share this week’s Friday Links for Writers.  As always, let me know in the comments which links resound with you, what you’d like to read more of, or share your own links.  Best wishes for a great writing week!

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Sally Clements: How to Write a Synopsis

Among my writing friends, several are somewhere in the process of submitting novels as part of their winter goals.  This article by Sally Clements, on the Irish Writing Center’s website, does a good job of addressing how to write a synopsis as part of the submission process.

Secrets to Querying Literary Agents: 10 More Questions Answered

Along the same lines, this round-up of querying advice from Chuck Sambuchino (at Wendy Tokunaga’s site) answers some more interesting questions about query strategy.  Bonus: click the link in the first paragraph for another 10 answers.

Style Sheet: A Conversation with my Copyeditor

Here’s a good resource on copyediting basics, whether you are trading manuscripts with a beta reader or your novel is in the hands of your publisher’s editor, or you are providing copyediting services to other writers.  This article at The Millions includes a chart of standard copyediting notations and an interview with writer Edan Lepucki’s copyeditor.

Clashing Tones: a peril when we spend a long time writing a book

It’s time to share another great post from Roz Morris. I like this post on shifting tones within a manuscript, because it addresses a revision issue we not have heard others name, point-blank: the need to read for consistent voice or tone in a novel that has been written and revised over long stretches of time.

Interview with NBCC John Leonard Prize Winner Anthony Marra

I’ve said before that I am very excited to see the success of Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, as I first ran into Marra in an online forum around the time he would have been writing it.  He has received nods for several national and international awards, and has just been awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s first ever John Leonard Prize.  Here is an interview with him from the School of Writing at the New School.  So many of us could relate to Marra’s inspiration: “I wrote this book as much as a reader, as a writer.  It was the kind of book I wanted to read and it wasn’t there yet.”  I love the revision process he shares: “I retype everything.” As soon as he finishes a draft, he prints it out and retypes it, revising with new eyes as he goes.

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What About You?

What writing goals are you working on this week, or what other priorities interfere with your writing time?  My best wishes go out to several of my regular readers who have been sharing their February goals and helping to keep each other motivated.  Feel free to share yours in the comments, below.

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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!

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

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

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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Filed under Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Revision, Writing Character

Friday Links for Writers: 07.26.13

 

Yup, there's a copy of my novel draft in that bag, for revising on the train. At Rock Center with the boys. c Elissa Field

Yup, there’s a copy of my novel draft in that bag, for revising on the train. At Rock Center with the boys. c Elissa Field

I am traveling this week, which has me on sensory overload. Think: 22-hour drive, zipline obstacle course through the treetops, 5th Avenue and climbing rocks in Central Park with my boys…

As much as we talk about avoiding distractions in order to write, traveling has its own kinds of distractions. If you’re facing those during summer’s tempting travel months, check out Motivation to Write: Keep Writing While on Vacation. That said, I’m off to work by the pool with the boys.

Before I go, this week’s Friday Links include 4 great articles for taking writing deeper… followed by Chuck Wendig’s  As always, feel free to let me know which links resonated with you and what you’d like more of, or share your own links in the comments.

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Bent on Books : Openings and First Lines

This post by literary agent Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency offers 5 suggestions for the qualities she finds lead to successful openings and first lines. Thanks to Melanie Martilla for sharing this (and thanks for visiting here frequently, Melanie!).

The Difference Between Idea, Premise & Plot

In Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, he observes that many novel drafts fail because the writer had a great idea or premise, but it wasn’t enough to sustain power through the arc of the narrative. This article by Janice Hardy distinguishes between the deepening role of idea, premise and plot in a way that may help a writer better establish a well-fledged concept.

Thought Verbs by Chuck Palahniuk

Trust Chuck Palahniuk as he says, “In the next six seconds, you’ll hate me…” This post on a tumblr collecting Palahniuk quotes shares some brass-knuckled advice: “From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.” With these gone, Palahniuk urges writers to un-pack the real meaning intended by those shortcuts. (Thanks to Amanda Byrne, who shared this at Wordsmith Studios.)

Click post link for Maya Eilam's infographic.

Click post link at right for Maya Eilam’s infographic.

The Shapes of Stories: A Kurt Vonnegut Infographic

Eyes tired of words? Check out Maya Eilam’s infographic of Kurt Vonnegut’s theory on the archetypal shapes of stories. (My WIP would be Man Meets Girl While in Hole).

So You Just Had Your Book Published

Worried you won’t get that first novel finished? Or, got it finished and sold and now worry you won’t have any publishing worries left to keep you awake at night? No problem. Novelist Chuck Wendig has you covered with this post at Terrible Minds.

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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!

Recent posts:

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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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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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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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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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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!”

Thanks 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