Life has very much intervened with my writing goals this year but instead of getting all down about that I’m celebrating the fact that I am still drawn back to it. Even though I still feel like I’m climbing a mountain and the summit’s not getting any closer, there’s no question of turning round and walking away. I still enjoy re-reading my rough drafts, I still like my characters, I want to finish. It’ll take as long as it takes.
I also find that breaks are good for a sense of perspective on your work when you come to re-read it. Now that I’m picking things back up again, one question has moved me on considerably with each scene: what does success look like for this scene? Before I do any more work on it, I’m sitting back and visualising everything that I wish it to achieve – the main emotional punch, the richness of setting, the advancement of plot, all the character traits I can reveal, plus any other twists and turns and embellishments I can pack in to make it as full an experience as possible. Only when I know what the best version of this scene would accomplish do I start to work on it again. It’s really helping me to make sure every scene has a real purpose and is earning its place in my word-count.
Anyone else got any scene-related tips that have worked well for revising?
I’ve been spending a day or two re-reading my first draft with the sole task of making notes on my characters like a detective. Specifically: what is revealed and when about each one. It’s been extremely eye-opening! Of course I know a whole load about all of them but until now I had no clear idea of what actually ended up in the draft.
In practical terms, I had a Google Doc with each character’s name as a heading (with a Table of Contents up top for ease of jumping around…) and then I added bullet points underneath for every scene where there is something factual or descriptive revealed about a person (appearance, lifestyle, backstory). I’m not sketching out character development here – it’s all about sleuthing, trying to piece together who this person is from the clues that are given.
It’s immediately shown up my missed opportunities – a scene where a character appears and we learn nothing new about them at all (other than their development or reactions in that scene). It also showed up where I have left some key descriptors or back story way too late. Mistakes too -things I decided to change in one place but forgot to pick up on somewhere else.
So there’s plenty to focus on when I revise my scenes. I shall be trying to add more detail – small but telling – so every appearance by a character is used to flesh them out.I’m not planning on going in too heavy – my preference or style is to leave room for the reader to use their imagination rather than spell out every detail of appearance. I also hope to manipulate the details so that initial appearances may start to change or shift as the story goes on. I’ve also got to think about point of view – what would be noticed will be filtered by that of course. And then there’s character development – but that’s a whole other re-read of the draft I think!
I’m pretty happy with things so far but I can see how it can be a whole lot better! Which is kind of a good place to be…
Mull, probably a good place for focussed mulling
I made myself a deadline of the end of March for pulling together all my notes to start a full scale first rewrite. I still haven’t started it. This does bug me. This year I’d decided to pull myself together and be more focussed – hence the deadline – but I’m now nearly 2 weeks over. That’s the negative side I’m trying not to get obsessed about. On the positive, I have done some serious pulling and it’s gone well. Well enough to make me not want to skimp for the sake of meeting a silly self-inflicted deadline…
I now have all my scenes beautifully ordered in Evernote and I’m adding to these notes all the time. I have a “to do” list that started big but which has now whittled down to under 10 things. Admittedly one of them is “main protagonist” (i.e. a big think about her, the character arc and goals) but that’s been stewing in my head for a long time and it just isn’t going to come right quickly. When I looked back at my mindmap of problems I was gratified to see most of them have been tackled. So it’s getting there. I do want to keep on track but I think Douglas Adams had a point with his famous deadlines quote – creative stuff can’t just happen on demand and the good stuff does take time. Don’t indulge yourself, don’t get too distracted but sometimes a bit of focussed mulling is what it really needs.
A fine tooth comb
Progress this month has not been good (an entire week lost to sickness and then some) but I’m still inching forwards. I have been really enjoying taking part in Critique Circle and reading other people’s writing is extremely helpful. You notice immediately the good and bad things and then can see them in your own work too. You can see that some of the “rules” (I hate rules) are there for a reason. You can see when a character rises up from a cliche and breathes real air.
However, one surefire issue to slay any piece of writing is when it is peppered with typos and spelling mistakes, wrong words and incorrect grammar. Not that I’m by any means an expert – my work is certainly strewn with blunders – but I mean the really screamingly obvious. This may well be because the writer just hasn’t proof read or used a fine enough tooth comb – perhaps they think they’re not ready for that yet – but actually it makes a huge difference to any reader, not just a professional editor or publishers. It’s really hard to read something with loads of little errors – you can’t help but focus on them, particularly because it’s much easier to crit small things than the big things that matter more like characterization, plot, setting, mood, does it grab you, if so why… If you send out an unchecked piece of writing, you’re giving any reviewer an escape route to avoid the tough stuff! It also does create an impression of someone less capable, less assured – when perhaps all it needed was a bit more polish before going out. Perhaps have some friendly eyes do your proof read as stage one, then send it out wider for a more meaningful critique?
This point is made by Emma Darwin in the middle of her excellent post “How do you decide when to share your draft?” and further nudges in the right direction are in C.S. Lakin’s “1o Risks you Run if you don’t Proofread“.
I came across this on Pinterest, a quote from Henry David Thoreau:
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
The more I read it, the more I love it – it starts in such a modest way with the assurance this has been proved “by experiment”. Then the sky opens up, you’re shown the stars and told they can all be yours. Just keep following your dream and try to do whatever you aspire to do. The key for me is the phrase “advance confidently” – you can’t just potter along, you have to make progress and you have to have confidence. As I try to untangle plot problems, juggle the many layers of a novel and macro-edit a troublesome first draft, this is a wise friend keeping me on track.
Find this and more Thoreau quotes on Good Reads, my favourite reading forum. In fact, there’s another one right here:
Quote from Henry David Thoreau on Library Way in New York City. Taken on February 28, 2007. Re-posted under CC licence from Wikipedia, Kathleen Conkin
I have a bad habit of reading things, getting rid of them and then a day later realising there was some gem of wisdom that has resonated with me and that I need to re-consult. So I can’t tell you where I read this but someone mentioned writing out your plot from the perspective of minor characters as a way of solving problems and building consistency.
I tried this for one character and it was massively helpful – revealed a few plot glitches and showed me where he wasn’t quite working. Now I have taken a different view of him (equivalent to changing his star sign, if you go in for all that) and he has really become a much more complex and satisfying person. I have literally written his side of the tale in one long splurge but I plan to divide it up and split it scene-by-scene so when I go through for my re-write, I can factor it all in accordingly. I’m onto my second character now and half way through I came up with a reinvention of her background which has made everything much more convincing. It’s also a hugely enjoyable thing to do!
I don’t think any of this is going to rewrite the plot in a major way but there’s nothing like making sure every scene works for every character to ensure it’s watertight.
I’m like a magpie with articles/books on creative writing – I scour them for the little shiny nuggets of usefulness. I am conscious that a lot of time can be wasted reading (and writing) about writing but I do believe it’s important to study the craft and I have found that most books on creative writing have something that will really help me. I also follow some blogs – this particular post I’m looking at (One Pass Manuscript Revision by Holly Lisle) was from a link from a link and pertinent as I am just starting the big edit. I’m not too bothered about the whole “one pass” side of things but the section “THE PROCESS, PART ONE — DISCOVERY” clicked into place for me as something that would tackle some major problems head on.
I have been thinking about themes – and genres – and couldn’t really pin down where my novel sits. Now, I am in the camp of thinking that narrative / plot should be the backbone of a novel (or at least the sort I’m aspiring to write) but to be of keen interest themes will have emerged from that to resonate with readers and it will benefit my novel to put some care and amplification into these. Yet writing my one major theme (do I need one big theme?) in less than 15 words has – so far – proved impossible. I do think this matters – when I write and read over my novel, I see much of value (and I enjoy it!) but I feel that it is a bit confused about what it really is. A mystery? A romance? A midlife crisis? A comedy? All of these things? I wouldn’t be worrying about this if I could convince myself it didn’t matter… Sub-themes are fine – I have a great mind-map (tool of choice at the moment is Coggle.it – simple, easy to use, easily accessible) with my themes on and I’m going to come back to these to work on them further once I sort out these big questions!
I also foundered on Holly’s blurbs (>25 words and >250 words) and, again, I think she’s right – this matters:
“if you’re going to nail the revision in one shot, you have to have each of these bits of information clearly in mind going in. If you don’t know where you’re going and what you hope to accomplish by the time you’re done, how will you know what you need to fix? Nothing will guarantee that you’ll wander aimlessly in revision hell faster than this”
I have not been writing with publishing foremost in mind so I’m not thinking about “elevator pitch” or book jackets / blurbs BUT I do want to be able to tell people what my novel’s about and it not sound lame. Even just to try out bits on Critique Circle, I need to decide my genre and give a quick overview. At the moment I would be in a verbal meander of “er”s and “um”s.
I’ve been pondering these issues for a day or two and it’s damn hard to get answers. It cuts to the heart of what I’m doing and writing about. I owe my story and characters to be clear what I’m doing with them, never mind any potential readers. What would be useful with this is some examples of famous books with their short synopses. I may go for a wander in the bookshop and look at some covers…
Any comments or suggestions or pointers greatly appreciated!
P.S. In the shower it came to me – one line of dialogue from my novel actually hits the theme-in-15-words jackpot! However my next thought was “that sounds boring!”…