Category Archives: Ideas & Plotting

Rule Six

What do you do when your brainchild is stillborn?  What do you do when the story you’ve spent months-years-in crafting and writing, the story you’ve almost literally sweated blood over, the story you love more than all your other literary children . . .

Just . . .

Doesn’t . . .

Work . . .

Last week I gave another writer a beta read on the second draft of a science-fiction novel he’s writing.  (All third-party pronouns in this post are generic, so don’t bother trying to guess who it was.  Not telling.)  I was able to report that the writing was really good.  I was also forced to report that the novel had issues that I felt kept it from being publishable.  (Said issues mostly lay in world building, but aren’t germane to this discussion.)

My friend accepted my thoughts with grace and class, and agreed that the novel definitely needed more work.  We parted still friends; which, to me, is perhaps the sign of a premier friend-the ability to accept criticism of a personal labor of love and still be warm to the critic.

A couple of days after our conversation, this thought occurred to me:  Should I have told him to cut his losses and move on to something new?

At first I was shocked that the thought had even crossed my mind, but then I realized what had prompted it.

Rule Three of Heinlein’s Rules of Writing states:  You Must Refrain from Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order.  Now most of us understand that rule not to mean that Thou Shalt Write Only First Drafts, but rather, that to spend excessive amounts of time rewriting and polishing a work is ultimately counterproductive and contra-indicated for building income.  (A writer I once read comes to mind who said that after he finished the first draft of each book, he would then spend a year reviewing every single word in the draft, one by one, considering whether it was the best word in that place.  Eep.)

So that was part of what was in the back of my mind, because I knew my friend had already spent a pretty fair amount of time on this work, and I had just indicated a lot of it needed to be taken apart and put back together differently, which would take a lot more work.

But there was something else in the back of my mind.

You see, I finished my first novel in 2002.  Before you congratulate me on that, I have to say I started it in 1977.

Twenty.  Five.  Years.

I was young.  I was stupid.  I was working solo, without the benefit of knowledgeable readers.  I had started it in a fit of temper after finishing a particularly bad SF novel which I threw across the room.

I wrote for a few weeks, then bogged down in the story.  I gave it up for a while, went and read some more good science fiction and fantasy, then came back and tried again.

That was the pattern for the next twenty-five years:  write until I became frustrated, then go away for months, or even a year or so, but eventually circle back to it, frequently starting over again.  By the time I finally drove it to a conclusion, I estimate I wrote over a half million words.  The finished manuscript was well under half that length, and it was too long.

It didn’t sell.

I gave it another full revision/rewrite/polish.

It didn’t sell.

Although I had never heard Robert Sawyer’s addendum to Heinlein’s Laws (Rule Six: Start Working on Something Else), I intuitively knew that I couldn’t just fixate on that novel; I couldn’t just hover over it and continue to try to pump life into it.  That way led to stagnation and sterility.  So I put it on the shelf, and moved on to other things, and before long did find my author’s voice and began selling professionally in 2007.

I still harbor love and affection for that first story, that first novel.  It still resonates in my mind.  But I realized something this week as I considered my friend’s novel:  mine will probably never be published, because I have too much new stuff I want to write to consider going back and trying one more time to build an edifice of words on a faulty foundation.

In the end, I answered my question about my friend’s novel:  “No.”  It wasn’t a warranted question.  It wasn’t my call to make.  And besides, there’s no doubt in my mind he can address the issues and write the story.

In the end, I answered my question about my novel:  “Yes.”   With a certain amount of sadness, I let it go.

Rule Six: Start Working on Something Else.


Why I like to write myself into a corner

Most writers say your first idea is cliché, your second idea is mediocre, so you should always go with your third or fourth. For this reason, I like to write myself into a corner, or at least plan myself into one. But that’s bad, you say? I don’t think so. At least, not always.

The reason I think it’s a good idea is the same reason I think most of us, at least me, get ourselves stuck in the first place. We’re going along with our story saying to ourselves, “Well, if this happened, this character would do this, then this would happen…” You get the idea. But we reach a point and go, “Uh-oh, then everyone dies, or then this plot-point won’t work, or then we can’t end up over here.” The corner. But, this is where we can force our mind to come up with a better story, and NOT by saying, “well, if so-and-so does this then it’ll work.” The whole reason we ended up in the corner is because so-and-so wouldn’t do that. We have to come up with a better twist that will allow our characters to be true to who they are, while still moving the story forward. An example:

A few days ago, my family and I were driving in our van listening to a book on CD. I wont’ name it, but some of you will figure it out based on this example. Please know that this author is heads and more heads above me in every area, but this one scene….

We have a quick-thinking girl who has the ability to light anything that’s not alive on fire. Her and her friends are being chased by worm-filled, worm-controlled zombies. Listening to this, my kids immediately said, “Zombies means dead. Light them on fire!”

It took forever for the character to finally figure it out, then it took forever for her to figure out she could save energy by just setting their heads (their control-center not full of worms) on fire.

The comment was made, “Well, how could the author do anything different? If she figured it out immediately then the zombies are no longer a danger.” (The corner)

So we played around with the truth that this character would immediately, or at least very soon, come upon the solution herself. So how could one keep the story going?

“Wouldn’t it be cool if she lights them on fire, but the body explodes and worms fly everywhere and the heroine and her group are nearly contaminated.”

Now that’s chilling, it ratchets up the suspense, and it makes the obvious solution a surprising added danger.

“But then they have no defense and they’ll all die.” (Corner)

No, then it makes sense for her to wait before lighting their hair on fire, or for her to  just ignite the tops of their heads as a last resort, and since the brain is left mostly intact by the little wormies, it makes sense that their fat bodies won’t be close enough to the fire to puff up like popcorn and explode. But of course, it’s easy to be critical of someone else’s work. Like I said, this writer is brilliant, but I used this small scene as an example because my family had fun playing with the plot.

A couple of months ago, I found myself in a corner with a book I was working on. I struggled and struggled with how to move the plot forward. I won’t bore you with the details, (mostly because it was complicated and spanned several scenes) but I worked out the semantics and turned a mediocre middle into a hair-raising rise in tension that went much better than  originally intended.

So, if your characters are pushing your story into an unsolvable dilemma, maybe instead of trying to steer them clear of the danger, let them take you to the cliff’s edge. Like them, on the brink of utter destruction, you might find an unexpected twist that will catapult you to a higher ledge with a better view. Just make sure it’s not a convenient fix. I’ll talk about those in my next post.

Revision Show and Tell: What Tricks Do You Live By?

I confess. I don’t like first drafts. Working out the story, initially, is always the hardest part, for me. When it works out, it’s great, but most the time, it’s a slog that requires hard work and persistence that’s sometimes really hard to stomach.

To me, the best part is the rewriting–taking what was meandering and barely readable and turning it into something entertaining that other people might actually want to read.

Of course, when that’s done, the story is down, all the plot and character issues are worked out, and the book is revised, and re-revised, it’s time for some polish. As Kylie mentioned in her post on Editing, just re-reading the manuscript isn’t enough. To really polish our works of art, we often need help. Everyone’s got their little tricks for everything from pacing problems and varying sentence structure to catching typos. Clancy told us about using “The Writing Code,” and that got me to thinking. What other tricks are helpful for catching those little things that keep our stories from really shining?

I’ve collected some over the years. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Reading the story aloud
  • Probably the best way to catch problems with rhythm and flow. If you stumble over anything, it probably needs to be revised.
  • Using Word’s Find/Replace feature
    • This is helpful to locate those words I use too often, fixing spacing problems, finding to-be verbs so I can change them to active voice, or any other problem I know normally crops into my stories without my noticing.
  • Reading the manuscript in different mediums
    • It’s amazing the things you find when you turn a Word document into a PDF or print it out.
  • Reading the manuscript backwards
    • This is a handy trick to find typos because you can’t get lost in the story.
  • Creating a scene cheat sheet
    • You can use a simple note card, an Excel list, the keyword feature in Scrivener, or whatever works for you. This is basically just a list of what plots are being serviced in each scene, so you can tell which scenes are pulling their weight are which aren’t.

    So, it’s Show and Tell time. What tricks work best for you?

    The Balancing Act – Specificity in Action Scenes

    Very recently, I took part in a workshop with twenty or so other aspiring novelists in the SF and Fantasy genres, and one of the most common problems I ran across was in writing action scenes. Often the scenes came out jumbled and confusing, or the writer simply skipped it. Writing action can be intimidating. It was for me. My first action scene, I confess, was first written by a friend of mine. He did the draft, and I had to fiddle with it until I figured out how it worked.

    For me, action scenes have myriad issues that make it difficult to navigate. Here I’m going to focus on one of those issues – the difficult balancing act of how much detail to include. Too much description is much the same as too little; both will leave the reader confused.

    The lack of description, I think, is at least partially based on the fact that we hear, again and again, how too much description slows the pacing down. In most cases this is correct, most description is unnecessary because the reader can assume certain things.

    Example: He parked and went into the building.

    I don’t put in the step by step detail about navigating the parking lot or getting out of the car- putting his foot on the break, turning off the ignition, unlatching his seat belt, opening the door, getting out, and closing the door behind him. Most people know how to get out of a car, so the detail is unnecessary.

    Let’s look at the same idea put into an action scene. Take this example I saw recently: I lunged. He landed on the ground with a heavy thud, and I got back to my feet.

    Now, I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what just happened. What made the other guy fall? When did the narrator end up on the floor and why? The detail is now a true necessity for the reader to experience what they are reading.

    That’s the irony. While, in another type of scene, description can be problematic, it’s necessary for action scenes. Quite simply, most people don’t know what it’s like to be in a gun or sword fight, a space battle, a horse charge, or a kung fu brawl. They don’t have the experience to fill in the gaps, and so the writer has to do the heavy lifting.

    The problem comes when the writer moves too far in the other direction. As I said above, too much is just as bad as too little. Get too detailed, and the reader might lose the focus of the scene in all the minutia and become confused anyway.

    The way out of this is to be specific rather than wordy. Slamming to the ground, for instance, implies something very different from hitting the ground or slipping to the ground. Also, words that mimic what’s going on can help cut down the word count while still keeping the pacing going. Hard consonants can help a reader hear a gun fight in their heads. Short, concise words echo the pace of a fast moving chase.

    Another good thing to remember is the use of paragraphing – shorter paragraphs that describe only one character’s actions can keep what’s going on clear to the reader. Get too long, or put more than one character’s actions in a paragraph, and things start getting muddled again.

    So, while finding the right balance can be difficult, it’s by no means impossible. There are plenty of ways to counteract the need for the additional description an action scene requires. The key is to keep the action simple and clear.