Tag Archives: revisions

On Icebergs, Novel Writing and Journaling

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Tip of the Iceberg

Tip of the Iceberg — Image by © Ralph A. Clevenger/CORBIS

It’s a metaphor that gets used a lot, but I’m going to make an embarrassing confession about its application to novel writing: for the longest time, I didn’t get it.

See, I had approached writing a novel like so:

  1. Think of an idea
  2. Start writing chapter 1
  3. Keep writing until you hit “the end”
  4. Go back and revise a million times until it works

Was the underside of the iceberg just all the stuff I cut from each draft? I honestly didn’t
give it too much thought. I know every writer crafts differently, so I figured this was one of those things that other writers did and maybe it didn’t apply to my process.

Or maybe, in hindsight, I didn’t have enough process yet.

book-journalBack in February, a friend gave me a journal as a birthday gift. It took me until April to decide what to do with it, because I refuse to start a journal until I’m sure what I’m going to fill it with. I have a personal journal that’s so thick it’ll take me another two years to finish, so I wanted this one to be for something else.

After reviewers read my novel draft in March, I realized that the story needed to go in some darker directions. I needed the story to be more bleak. And I realized that I wanted to understand my own magic system and characters and setting better than I did.

Suddenly I knew exactly what I needed that extra journal for.

heart-science

I began with magic-system stuff and progressed to everything. The more I wrote, the more I realized there was to write. I sketched and mapped settings, I jotted down research notes about relevant phenomena, I analyzed the numerology and astrology of every character.

gina-and-chrisAnd most importantly, I wrote lots and lots of backstory—pages and pages of situations that happened to my characters in the years preceding the story, down to why they were riding the elementary school bus in third grade and what family circumstances were like for each of them back then (nine years before the story starts). I even ended up writing about things that happened to my character’s parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. I spent the summer fleshing out their lives and having a marvelous time.

The result is over 200 pages of handwritten notes that cover just a small portion of the thinking and processing that went into them.

Now I’m at the point of placing those insights into the story—and the iceberg analogy suddenly makes sense. Because from all that backstory, I’ve been inserting maybe two sentences at a time into the novel itself—details that give it the depth of those extra pages, even though readers won’t see what’s underneath.

With the next novel I work on, you can bet I’ll have a journal from the start.

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Why Blog? The Altruism of Giving Ideas a Home

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A moment ago I did something that’s become habitual for me: I took the pitcher of reclaimed water off my kitchen counter, out the back door, and used it to nourish the semi-evergreen plants that live in my backyard and need watering year-round.

the perpetual pitcher

Reclaimed water?

It’s the best term I can think of for the water recycling project I began after attending a cooking presentation at someone’s house over a year ago. The hostess made just a tiny comment about how when you drain water, like off of pasta, you could save it for watering plants.

Honestly, she didn’t even say it that directly; it was just an aside, really. But somehow the idea stuck in my head. I began thinking of all the water I waste, pouring it down the drain when my plants, whether outside or inside, would probably love it. And shortly thereafter I elected a certain pitcher to live on my counter forever more and catch whatever water could be reused.

As I offered it to the bamboo behind my patio today, I got to thinking about the passing-along of ideas and how randomly it often happens. We just happen to be somewhere, happen to be with someone, when something is said or done that sticks with us and changes us somehow.

The beauty of blogging is that it removes the random factor. It allows those ideas a place to exist and be found.

This weekend my intermediate students are writing their first blog posts, wondering what to say. What can they tell the world on this historic occasion of their debut post? What’s the point, anyway?

I’m suddenly thinking that my pitcher of reclaimed water is the point: sharing ideas someone else might not think of on their own but that could alter their life — not dramatically, but in the small ways that feel like a difference.

For me on this blog, it’s about sharing ideas for reading, writing, and teaching, obviously. I think of how lost I once felt as a writer, totally unsure of how to tackle drafting and revising on the 300–400-page level. As I gleaned ideas from other writers — such as printing the manuscript out, putting it in a three-ring binder, slapping it full of post-it notes, scribbling revision thoughts all over the pages — I grew more and more confident in my own abilities.

At first the sharing/gleaning of those ideas was limited to infrequent writing conferences, but once I began blogging and reading other writers’ blogs, tweeting and reading other writers’ tweets, I discovered that social media creates a world-wide never-ending writing conference full of incredible advice.

tips from food bloggers gave me the secret I needed for moist & soft whole-wheat banana bread

The same goes for reading, where I used to get stuck wondering what to read next until I hooked up with other readers on the internet.

The same goes for nutrition, where I used to have no idea how to transition into healthier cooking until traditional-food bloggers gave me their tips.

It might be a personal experience, a recipe, a review, a unique perspective on some current issue — there are so many things to blog about. But I think what it comes down to is that when you put those thoughts into writing on a blog, even as little asides, someone else might latch onto them and put them to use.

A student of mine last semester asked me why I blog when it must take up so much time. Other non-blogging writer friends have asked me why I bother with it before I’m even published.

For me, it’s because I love to share ideas and because I’m indebted to all the people who have shared with me. My life is a conglomeration of all the little tidbits I’ve picked up here and there. Those tidbits have turned me into a writer, a reader, a recycler of water, a baker of sourdough breads, and countless other good things that make my life more fulfilling.

Maybe something I mention will ring true for someone else and help them the way it’s helped me.

What about you? Why do you read or write blog posts? What ideas have you gleaned that have changed you?

Leave a comment!

The Etiquette of Better to Give than to Receive

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At the beginning of December, our seven-year-old wasted no time or words in making Santa aware of his desires. (“Dear Santa, I want . . .”)

He pestered me to help him mail it right away, but first we had a talk about “niceties” and a subsequent revision. The second letter, complete with falling snow, turned out a little better with the help of a ‘please’ and a ‘thanks’:

Then this week I discovered I had a bigger job in the Teaching Etiquette department than I’d originally thought.

Two neighbor girls who are good friends with our boys came to our door to bring them gifts. Afterward the seven-year-old started musing about who else might bring him unexpected gifts. He began listing the likely candidates: “Well, I know I’ll get presents from Grandma and Grandpa . . .”

I stopped him. “It’s not very good to focus on what you’re going to get.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just poor etiquette.”

“What’s ‘etiquette’?”

“Good manners. Niceties.”

“But I said ‘thank you’ when they brought the presents!”

A plan began hatching in my brain as I replied, “Yes, you’re really good at ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ now, so it’s time to bump it up to the next level. Now it’s time to think about what gifts to give to people. Who would you like to give presents to for Christmas?”

He listed his closest friends.

“Okay,” I said, my idea still only half-formed. “Get your shoes on. We’re going to the craft store so we can get stuff to make presents.”

Make presents?” he asked in disbelief. “But we can’t make toys!”

“Sure we can. I’ll show you.”

We came home armed with wooden blocks, Mod Podge and scrapbook paper. “It’ll be fun!” I declared.

Hour 1: Both the seven-year-old and the four-year-old had a great time selecting and cutting out pictures to glue onto the blocks. Soon we had plenty and they chose six pictures for each set. The fifteen-month-old made things difficult, but otherwise it was so-far-so-good.

Hour 2: The toddler went down for a nap and I got us into assembly line mode. We were slicing the pictures into twelve squares, gluing them, and testing the difficulty level. All was well, but the number of unfinished squares began to overwhelm us. Suddenly my idea didn’t seem so hot as our enthusiasm waned and the whining ensued.

Hour 3: I was left to soldier on alone, grumbling internally (okay, and a bit out loud) about how I was never going to do this again and it would have been so much better to just buy gifts they could wrap and hand to friends.

Hour 4: The four-year-old casually returned, saying, “Hey, I want to glue those on,” as if he’d just realized I was doing something cool without him. Soon the seven-year-old wanted back in on it too. “This is fun!” they declared as we completed some of the sets and they got to play Quality Control, testing the puzzles for age appropriateness and enjoyment level. “We’re like Santa’s elves, making the presents!”

And, as often happens with these parenting lessons, I found myself looking in the mirror and seeing my own hypocrisy.

I’d been doing the same as my seven-year-old, just with time rather than presents, greedily counting up the possible hours I could find to get stuff done this busy time of year. Those four hours crafting with my kids (well, minus the hour when they deserted me) were some of the first hours I’ve spent with them all month. I’m home with them all day, and yet how often do I give them my full attention and actually sit down to do something with them?

Today they’ve been playing with the puzzles again (we’ll have to create “kid-tested, mother-approved” labels for these gifts), which makes me hopeful they will be well appreciated by the recipients.At first I was afraid it would all be wasted effort if their friends don’t like the puzzles, but now I don’t think so, any more than it was a waste to revise a letter to Santa.

Both mom and kids received a good lesson and good feelings just from the giving.

Anybody else going homemade this year and have similar adventures with it? Do you think homemade gifts are worth the time and stress? What do you do to help your kids put giving ahead of receiving? (Bonus points to anyone who can name the picture book that alligator illustration is from!)

Leave a comment!

Aside

Revision is hard work. It’s just so difficult trying to pinpoint what is “off” and how to create the effect you want it to produce — the right images and moods and tension and so on.

But most of all, I think what’s difficult for me is pinpointing how each character should sound. Most of the time I can’t figure it out until I do . . . meaning I only know it once I’ve got it. So I struggle through every passage, mucking about in sentences until I’ve found a match.

Here’s one I came across today as I’m jumping back into revisions after a weekend off. It’s the kind that made me smile as I looked at the before (on my printed copy) and after (on my screen), because it shows I’m making progress. Hooray for that!

Dry, boring, lifeless passage with no distinct voice:

The adolescents had separated the moment they got to the beach, leaving Caprice to make a fast decision about which she would follow.  Phil had wanted her, of course, and she’d given him enough of a nudge to get started on a few drawings.  Wendy and Peter would have been an obvious choice, but Caprice found herself too jealous of Wendy at this point.

Sticky, fun, livelier passage with Caprice’s voice:

The adolescents had divvied up as fast as they touched the sand, forcing Caprice to choose whose shadow to be.  Phil had wanted her, of course, but she’d given him a nudge of what to draw and sent him along, in no mood for coddling.  Wendy and Peter were the obvious choice to stick by, but Caprice reeked of jealousy too strong to put up with herself near them.

As always, I’m sure I’ll be tweaking this more, but before-and-after shots definitely help me feel like I can do this.

That Elusive Thing Called Voice: A Quick Sampling

Let It Grow, Prune It Later: Writing More than You Need

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A few weeks ago I came across this tweet by my friend, neighbor and favorite author:

What? Shannon doesn’t keep every simile? She doesn’t craft them so carefully and perfectly that each and every one is a gem to sigh over?

I think that even though I know better, I’m often guilty of pretending that the way I read a book, from page one to the end, is the way the author wrote the book. After all, authors are so brilliant that the books just fall into their heads fully formed, right? An author whose use of language I admire must use language that beautifully all the time.

Ha ha.

Anyhow, I wanted to share her tweet today because I’ve been thinking of it a lot this week.

I’ve been rewriting “romantic” scenes in my manuscript, which I put in quotes because I really don’t want them to be the equivalent of romance-genre romantic scenes, just subtle teen romance where the angst and electricity is palpable between two characters, you know? And in earlier drafts, the emotion was lacking, so that’s what I’ve been revising for: adding more of the main character’s thoughts and emotions so that we can experience the fall into love with her.

The trouble is, my revisions aren’t so hot. They feel clunky and awkward and cliché. I have to keep reminding myself of the advice another writer friend gave me to “fearlessly write what she’d feel”; it’s amazing how much fear gets in the way.

What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of awful writing — to the point that the fear paralyzes me.

So Shannon’s tweet has been comforting. Maybe I have to overwrite first, explore my character’s emotions in whatever similes and descriptions I can get my hands on, not being too choosy at first. And then later on I’ll get to experience the joy of pruning: taking big ol’ garden shears to my manuscript and lopping off wayward twigs and branches to expose the best ones, until the wild growth of my novel is shaped just the way I want — and will look like it was always meant to be that way.

How much do you let yourself write more than you need? How much do you cut as you go?

Leave a comment!

Concept, Pacing & Phrasing: Trifold Revision

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I’m deep into revising my second novel — five full drafts deep, with multiple “sub-drafts” in between each full one. And it’s a great feeling, but at times it’s like I’m at all stages of the writing process at once — because every scene in my manuscript is at a different level.

As I started thinking about it, I can pretty much lump them into three categories:

  • scenes that aren’t working at all, and so need to be revised on the conceptual level (which often means scrapped and replaced completely);
  • scenes that are working conceptually but read either too slow or too fast, and so need pacing adjustment;
  • and scenes that are working well in both concept and pacing but are still “off” at the word or sentence level, and so need to be re-phrased.

At the risk of boring you, I want to offer a sample of each. I love to see how other writers revise, so I’m hoping this demonstration will be helpful to those who feel the same way — or even just those who might be curious to peek at what an unfinished novel looks like. Enjoy!

Concept Revision

Sometimes a scene might seem to work on the pacing and phrasing level but not with the big picture of the novel. If you don’t revise for concept first, you get stuck in a rut: polishing and polishing the pacing and phrasing but unable to figure out why the scene is “off.”

Conceptual revision is a matter of stepping back and asking what needs to happen in the scene as far as character and plot development. How does it need to build off the scene before it? Where is it leading for the next scene?

This is a sample of a scene like that for me — that seems okay when you read it but didn’t fit the arc of the novel:

Draft 5c

“You’re here!” The interruption came from up on the balcony, from a girl with designer clothes and long blond waves of hair. She hurried down the steps to the parking lot, talking the whole way.

“I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you guys in person! Isn’t this crazy? Did you see my note on your blog? I tried to talk my friend Cami into coming with me, but she’s totally into her boyfriend right now. They’re at that disgusting PDA stage. I can’t take them anywhere together. So believe me, it’s better I came alone.”

The girl planted herself right in front of the boys, holding her hand out to Zander. “I’m Brianna, and you must be Zander. I recognize you from your picture. And wait, let me guess everybody. Phil, right? And Topher? Drew?”

Wendy coughed. “We were just about to take a picture.”

“Oh!” Brianna exclaimed. “Sorry about that. Here.” She turned to face Wendy, backed up so she was in the middle of the guys, and put a huge smile on her face.

This scene just never worked for the story I’m trying to tell. I didn’t like it, readers didn’t like it, but for several drafts I couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

Then it occurred to me that it doesn’t even make sense on a technical level. Brianna couldn’t have gotten there before them. So I cut it completely, and replaced it with a scene that instead puts focus where I need it more: on Dee’s confrontations with her dad. When they arrive at the hostel, Dee’s phone rings and she goes off into the trees to answer it without the guys seeing her get teary-eyed.

Conceptually, the new scene is way better than the Brianna one. It deals with the character arcs I need to address and simply makes more sense in the story line with the scenes before and after it. (As far as pacing and phrasing, however, it’s so terrible that I’m too embarrassed to give a sample of it yet.)

In order to introduce Brianna, I added a few lines to the next chapter:

STATUS UPDATE: Out on the deck watching the sunset, hanging with new comrade Brianna of the Goldilocks ringlets. ~Drew 10 minutes ago

Zander huffed his usual noise from over on one of the deck’s low wooden chairs.  He shoved his chin into his fists.  “Brianna, tell me there’s something to do around here.  Anything but sitting around.”

The blond invader laughed, and Topher thought how glad he was Brianna sounded nothing like Gina.  In the two hours they’d known her, it hadn’t taken long for Brianna to fix her attentions on Zander, and Topher was more than happy not to have her superficial, flirty laugh directed at him.  If she’d had an ounce of Gina’s perceptiveness . . .

Well, no.  He wouldn’t want Brianna’s attention then either. 

He only wanted Gina.

Brianna is a very minor character, and this introduction keeps her in her place while also allowing me to explore Topher’s character a little more. The pacing and phrasing will still need adjusting, but conceptually I’ve now dumped a scene that didn’t work and replaced it with pieces that do.

Pacing Revision

For me, pacing has to do with fleshing out a scene once I’ve cemented the concept. I have to imagine it more deeply and picture every detail: facial expressions, tone of voice, mood, clothes, props, actions, setting. I can tell that a scene is ready for this when the idea is working well but feels bare, like this one:

Draft 5c

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Wendy stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

“Yes,” Wendy said. “I’m so okay that I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

“Sorry.”

She sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

It’s like Maggie Stiefvater points out in her post “How to Turn a Novel into a Textbook,” how you have to pace a scene by filling in between the dialogue. We need clues about how the characters are feeling, clues about what’s happening in their physical surroundings, clues about where the story’s headed. A few drafts ago I thought short beats like “she sighed and tilted her head back” were enough; this revision below shows how the potential goes way beyond short beats.

After Drew says, “Sorry,” there needed to be a long pause. He’s not good at conversation. He’s not good at driving her car. It would be awkward. Plus, he is so hypersensitive about Wendy that he would be thinking about her, noticing things about her.

I’ve marked the changes in blue:

Draft 5d

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Dee stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

Dee did a half-reach, like she’d wanted to grab the wheel and then thought better of it. “I’m so okay I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

Letting her down dropped a sour pit in his stomach. “Sorry,” he said quickly, and then had no idea what to add to it.

Traffic had congealed, moving like rubber cement from all the high school students on the road. First and second gear were not going to prove his driving skills well. He’d only driven stick a handful of times. But in between shifts he managed to glance over at her and see her eyes squint shut and her fingers dart up to her temples.

She was not okay. But if she wanted to pretend she was, he wouldn’t say otherwise. He focused instead on the essentials: getting her home without stalling her car or rear-ending the one in front of them.

Dee sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

The lines still aren’t quite right: the half-reach and the sour pit and the part about first and second gear definitely need to be tweaked as far as phrasing. But the pacing feels right to me now. It needed those extra sentences to slow down the dialogue and round out the scene.

Phrasing Revision

To be honest, the phrasing of my novel still makes me cringe. That’s the revision stage I always want to skip to even though I know it’s a waste of time until concept and pacing are in place. But once I get to play with phrasing, I love the way these changes finally sync everything else together and make the scene feel right.

Here is just the briefest example of tiny changes I make at the word and sentence level:

Draft 5c

But she felt reckless with the success she’d already had. Wendy was falling for him and glowing stronger than ever. That had to make it easier for Caprice to borrow a slice of it soon—so long as she could keep the selkie himself from stealing all of it. Having Phil on guard duty had reassured her a bit, but there was still so much at stake.

Draft 5d

But she felt reckless with the so-far success. Wendy was falling for him, glowing stronger. Surely Caprice could skim a slice of magic soon—so long as she kept the selkie himself from swiping it clean away. Having Phil on guard duty reassured her only a smidge with so much at stake.

In this case, the concept and pacing were fine, but the earlier draft didn’t sound anything like Caprice. I needed to alter the phrasing to fit her character better. The changes were minor, just tiny cuts and changes within each sentence, but it makes a difference.

There’s no guarantee that I won’t tweak it more, or even decide to cut these lines altogether down the road, but it’s a decent example of how I revise for phrasing — trying to hone in not just on the idea and the details but on how that character would express it all.

Once all three levels of revision are perfected, that’s when each scene comes alive.

Do you differentiate what kinds of revisions you need to make when you write? What helps you break a novel down and see what changes it needs?

Leave a comment!