Tag Archives: Rewriting

Starting Over: A Most Exquisite Agony

Just about everyone who has ever used a computer knows the gut-wrenching pain of having to cope with lost data. Ever had your computer crash in the final stretch of writing an essay, and then discover that the file is unrecoverable? Ever spend hours on a piece of work and forget to save it before disaster strikes?

Of course you have.

But this post isn’t about data recovery, a subject on which I know very little (frankly, I would be well-advised to learn more). No, today’s post is about the exquisite agony of starting over.

Over the course of the last few years, fantasy wunderkind Brandon Sanderson has released chapters on his blog from his early unpublished manuscripts. On the one hand, this is an encouraging development, since it demonstrates so well the gradual accumulation of skill as time wears on. I find myself able to identify with Sanderson’s early writings. Hopefully, given more time, I, too, can become a writer of his caliber.

But the most interesting thing to me is the way that Sanderson openly talks about rewriting, and even re-rewriting, some of his manuscripts. In other words, he wrote it once-it wasn’t good enough. So he waited a while, then wrote it again-it still wasn’t good enough. He waited some more… then wrote it again! Finally, it was ready to see the light of day.

This kind of persistence is remarkable. As far as I can tell, it’s a necessary quality if one is to become a best-selling author.

In my editing career, I frequently come into contact with books that just aren’t good enough. It’s not that they’re outright bad (well, sometimes they are), but rather that editing alone isn’t enough to elevate them to “ready” status. The unfortunate reality is that the writer probably just doesn’t have chops to pull off the story-yet. My suggestion might be to give it some time, work on other projects, then come back a few years down the road and attempt the unthinkable: a page-one rewrite.

In other words, write the entire novel over again. From scratch.

If you’ve ever spent months-honestly, probably years-on your pet project, then the notion of starting over is truly daunting. Exhausting.

In my case, I have a 175,000-word novel sitting on my shelf. I wrote it the first time back when I was in high school-well, I wrote the first half before giving up. At the tender age of sixteen, I knew I wasn’t up to the challenge.

A few years later, I resurrected the project and tried turning it into a series of teleplays (television scripts). I wrote more than ten of them! But this format was impractical in the long run, so the project fizzled out. And almost stayed fizzled.

Then, after a long break, I jumped back into the fray last year and wrote the complete novel, which took nine months. In the spring, I trimmed it down some, bringing me to that polished 175,000-word version.

Except it’s not polished. Not really.

I’ve grown tremendously over the last few years. I was able to accomplish things in my most recent draft that my high school self would never have believed possible. But after receiving a lot of honest and well-intentioned feedback, I was forced to come to an uncomfortable conclusion: it’s still not ready. And in fact, like those editing clients I mentioned, editing still isn’t enough to get it where it needs to be to really come alive.

Indeed, I’ll have to start over. One more time.

But there’s no point in attempting another rewrite so quickly. Brandon Sanderson turned some of his flawed early works into best-selling gems, but they had to percolate for years.

So, just how long will I need to wait? Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule, but I do know one thing: I will accumulate more skills and grow faster as a writer if I keep producing new work.

And there’s the rub. It’s not about waiting at all… it’s about pressing on.

Editing Schmediting

While roaming the internet one morning (procrastinating, in truth), I stumbled across a great quote from Jenna Morris at Literally YA: Remember, not many people have died from editing.

How awesome is that? Say it again: not many people have died from editing.

This quote really rang true for me because as much as I enjoy editing and re-writing, I have no idea what I’m actually supposed to do. Editing, for me, usually consists of reading the manuscript over and over, changing a paragraph here, a word there, maybe adding in a scene or two. Yes, the manuscript improves, but it doesn’t sparkle and that’s what I need to learn: how to polish the beast-that-was-once-a-first-draft until it shines and glimmers and sparkles.

I’m taking some editing classes with the fabulous Kim Wilkins and I’m learning structure. I’ve learnt to start by searching for those words I know I over-use – “that” and “just” – and eliminate them. If I hesitate on whether I really need the word, it goes and I can usually admit the sentence is stronger for it.

Another editing tool I’ve learnt is the scene map. My hyper-methodical brain loves the concept of a scene map. It allows me to indulge my love of spreadsheets and organising information and yet also provides a lens through which to view the manuscript more methodically.

A scene map lists each scene, one after another. It’s not an outline to be completed before the writing starts, but a review of how the storyline actually unfolded. I have a column of scene numbers (which will eventually be grouped into chapters); next to that is a brief description of what happens within each scene and who the viewpoint character is. A third column is for my notes: heighten the tension here, or develop a relationship better in this scene, or there’s crucial information missing here.

The scene map helps me to view the manuscript more objectively and note where there are problems. Then I can work back through, scene by scene, and fix those problems. If I only have ten minutes in which to work, I can pluck a small task from my scene map and get stuck straight into it. I can’t wait to get to the end of this first draft and start applying my new editing tools.

So tell me, what editing tools do you use?

The Art of Implication or Show Don’t Tell is for Losers

I’m a fervent believer in the old adage Show Don’t Tell. We’ve all heard it. We all hate it. We all know it’s essential for good fiction — the writer’s Golden Rule. It reminds us that simply telling a story isn’t enough. We have to bring the story alive through choice details that make the simple statement redundant and useless.

So, why do I say that it’s for losers?

Because, lately, I’ve come to realize that the adage doesn’t do the work. I’ve been reading a lot of works in progress by unpublished writers, and I repeatedly come across the same issue. It’s an issue, I myself, have to deal with. It’s not that we’re bad writers. It’s not that we don’t know the adage and put it to good use. The issue is that we don’t use it as widely or was deeply as we should.

First, lets look at the adage itself. Show Don’t Tell only mentions one of the senses. While our mentors might mean to use all the senses, it’s not evident in the statement — and as we all know, words are powerful things. They work on us even at a subconscious level, and the amount of times new writers forget about the other four (or five depending on the story you’re telling) backs me up. As many of us have heard before, genre fiction is immersive. Our readers don’t just read the worlds we create. They live in them. If we were writing scripts, showing the world might be enough. But novel and short story writers must use every sense to make their worlds real. Readers must smell the newly turned earth of the farmer’s field, taste the smoke of the soldier’s recently exploded bunker, feel the slick sweat of the rebel about to be put to the question.

Second, the adage doesn’t encompass the most important aspect of putting across a powerful story — emotion. You can’t show emotion with any power anymore than you can tell it. For example, showing a facial expression is about as informative as just saying that someone’s happy. And depending on how it’s carried off, saying that someone’s happy is easier to understand. But you can imply emotion. When we describe the smell of our farmer’s new turned earth, we imply the satisfaction of the fruits of a plowed field. When we describe the feel of our rebel’s slick sweat as he awaits his torture, we feel his terror, his discomfort. Emotion, my friends, is the universal language. A reader may not understand a character’s political or religious views. They may not understand how a character’s background may motivate their actions, but they will understand a character’s emotions. Emotions are the true connective tissue between a character and a reader.

For this reason, I’ve come to think that the adage should actually read Imply Don’t Tell. I mean, that is what we’re talking about when we Show, right?

Which brings us to my third reason that Show Don’t Tell is inadequate. Show Don’t Tell is primarily a tool for narrative. We use it for description. We use it for action. But when was the last time someone told you to Show Don’t Tell a piece of dialogue? Doesn’t really work, does it? And when was the last time you realized, or were told by a reader, that your dialogue is flat, repetitive, overwrought, over-simplistic, or just plain unbelievable? That’s happened to all of us. Great dialogue implies subtext, motive, tension without saying it allowed. Great dialogue implies physical and/or emotional danger. When one character asks a question, the person answering doesn’t give a direct answer. They answer a little to the side, in a round about way. And even when they do answer directly, they do so with loaded words that imply more than they’re saying.

So, I put to you all, when you’re writing or revising and you come across a telling statement, don’t wonder how you can show it. Wonder how you can imply it. For, when you think about it, implication is what we’re best at. We can’t in reality, make other people see what we see, feel what we feel, no matter how good a wordsmith we are. If that’s what you want to do, go become a movie director. Writers can only imply with these paltry things we call words and hope the reader get’s somewhere close to the point. By implication, we leave a few cracks for the reader to fill in the gaps, and that is half the fun of reading.

 

Getting it Right: Character Counts

Six months ago I started a novel, and in that time I’ve written enough words for most books–somewhere in the realm of 185k though 23k now lives in a deleted scenes file–but I’m only just beginning to know my characters. I mean really know them. This might be due in part to my penchant to discovery-write the majority of my story rather than meticulously plan every scene out in advance. I’m a Gardener, not an Architect, and that means I’ll be prone to much more rewriting.

Oh, I know the ending and several key events, who dies, who lives, and a few other elements of the story, but for me, I enjoy the process of discovering the nuances of my characters as I write. As a result, I’ve recently decided to start over. That is to say, I’ve decided to begin my second draft before finishing the first.

It’s not unheard of; David Farland–bestselling author of the Runelords series–has said he writes through the first half of a book then does a rewrite before tackling the second half. Granted, he’s a self-proclaimed Architect, but the practice seems sound in my opinion, especially since I’m doing it for the sake of character. I finally know much more about the motivations of my characters, their voices, how they would actually handle certain situations–which, in some cases, is different from what I wrote originally.

Many authors talk about how it takes them a few thousand words to truly get into the head of their characters–longer for those like myself writing Epic Fantasy since we’re often dealing with multiple POV characters and, depending on needs of the story,significantly larger casts. But it’s extremely important to know your characters. A good plot is important, key scenes that might be depicted in cover art are important, but, when you think about it, what you remember most about every book you’ve ever read or every movie you’ve ever seen are the characters. You remember the Vaders, the Gollums, the Tyrions, the Moiraines.

Every character should be the hero in their own story. Their motivations should make sense even if we as impartial–or even biased–readers disagree with them on a moral level. This is especially true of antagonists who can become flat and one dimensional if they are not at least some variant of gray. My primary antagonist just happens to be one of my favorite POV characters. He also happens to have the most complex motives, and is the main impetus for my decision to rewrite what I’ve already written before pushing on to the end. In many ways, he’s more a protagonist than antagonist in the true sense of the word, though he does work against the main protagonists’ goals.

So how does one accomplish the task of creating memorable characters? It starts with knowing them yourself, as their creator, the writer who gives flesh and blood to the ink of their existence. Learn their habits, their quirks, their wants and desires. This, I’ve come to discover, can only be achieved by writing in their heads for long enough to begin thinking as they think, acting as they act, loving or hating as they do. You must know them as well as you know yourself for ultimately, they are a part of you.

Another way to breathe life into a character is through physical description. I love to people watch, everywhere I go, looking for the tiny idiosyncrasies that make us all unique and which I might be able to apply to my own characters. It might be something simple: a limp, an incessant cough, the way a woman tilts her head when confused or a man clenches his fists when challenged. It could be something more subtle like speech patterns, grammar–or lack thereof–the amount of eye contact one person chooses to give versus another. We are all of us different, and so too should your characters be different from one another.

Perhaps the most important thing is to like your characters, even the antagonists. Robert Jordan used to say his favorite character was whichever one he was writing at any particular moment, something I took to heart. After all, if you don’t care about your characters–even the baddies–no one else will either. Give them something to strive for, something to long for, something that, if they don’t get it, will bring their world crashing down around them.

These are the things I’ve only now, after 180k+ words, discovered about some of my characters, and why I’ve decided to begin draft two of my novel. I was always going to do another draft anyway–perhaps many more since I’m more Gardener than Architect–so I do not feel like I’m going backwards by starting it now. I’ll be building stronger, more memorable characters, and that will go a long way toward getting this novel published. And who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, some other aspiring writer like me will mention Bos Illur in the same sentence as Vader, Gollum, Tyrion and Moiraine. One can only hope!