Am I Editing, Revising, or Rewriting?

August 17, 2010 at 5:25 am (Editing, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Sometimes it is difficult to know.

What starts out as a simple search and destroy for typos can suddenly become a revision of a clumsy scene which can soon morph into an entire rewrite of an act of a novel. I think the problem here comes from not being able to focus on only one aspect of the writing at a time.

For me, I like to start with the big stuff and work my way down to the small. While I’ll correct typing errors as I see them and move punctuation that is truly being offensive, editing the nitty-gritty is kind of the last ditch run through, mostly because if I revise or rewrite I know I’m just going to put more errors into the text.

So I begin with the rewrites. I may stay in the rewriting stage for the rest of forever with some manuscripts. Rewrites, for me, are the massive changes. The adding characters, taking them out, changing direction entirely, cutting scenes, adding scenes, moving scenes. All of the things that give you a huge headache when it comes to checking for continuity errors and will usually have you rewriting chapter after chapter to accommodate the change you made way back in the beginning.

Then I revise. These are the more surgical changes. Adding an emphasis here, changing the wording of that exchange of dialogue there, altering a description in that chapter. Sometimes these have carry on effects but normally it is just tightening up the overall story that has already been rewritten (many times) and checked for continuity.

Then, should I have made it this far and not put the project aside, comes the editing.

Still, despite wanting to work from one layer down to the next, down to the next, I end up jumping back and forth between the three.

How does your process for revisions work?

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Creatures of Habit

August 15, 2010 at 5:07 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , )

People really are creatures of habit. When pushed out of our comfort zones we tend to act a little lost for about five minutes and then we create a whole new comfort zone and find a new pattern to fall into. Over and over again we find a rhythm and steadfastly stick to it until something actively forces us out of it.

It’s all the little things that are telling. While the big events change from day to the day, the small details tend to remain stuck in time.

For instance: What hand do you reach into the cutlery drawer with? Have you ever thought. Start checking when you go to the drawer. You’ll notice you almost always use the same hand, and not only that you will always grab the cutlery in pretty much the same order. For me, I tend to go knife and then fork, unless I’m carrying something and then I’ll be using my off-hand and go through the drawer from the other direction. Weird but true. I’ve also watched people actually swap the hand they were using to carry a plate in order to ensure that they are reaching into the cutlery drawer with the same hand. They don’t realise they’re doing it – it’s an unconscious action – but they can’t help themselves.

Everyday we do things in the exact same way. When you get into the car do you belt up first or start the car? Do you check the mirror before you start backing out or do you wait until you’ve finished reversing before you look up and realise someone has moved the mirror?

However the big thing that nobody every really seems to notice is that they almost always walk the same path. Regardless of whether it has been five minutes or five years, when walking through a space people tend to follow the same line they followed the first time. For some, that means stalking straight across the middle of the space, while others skirt in a slight arc so that they are not in the middle but still cutting it close. Others still are happy to give the middle as wide a gap as possibly and hug the edges. Whichever they do, they’ll repeat their steps almost every time until someone drops something directly in their path. Then they take the next path of least resistence.

What strange creatures we are. What strange creatures are characters must be if they are to really ring true.

What habits have you noticed in yourself?

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Why Writing a Novel Is Like Baking A Cake

August 13, 2010 at 5:37 am (Planning, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Okay – before you jump on the attack I am going to counter this soonish by explaining why writing a novel is not like baking a cake.

There are many reasons why writing a novel is in fact like baking a cake:

1.  There are certain ingredients that must be present or it will not work. You can argue that there are eggless/flourless and everything-else-less cakes out there and some of these are very, very good. However, for the most part, leaving out critical ingredients in a cake or a novel will just get you into trouble and have your taster (reader) wondering what went wrong.

2.  The better you plan it out before beginning, the better the process goes. This is true for me, I know.When baking a cake I do a lot of pre-organisation and pull all the ingredients out and line them up on the bench. I even measure most of it out into various cups and bowls and have it all just sitting and waiting to be added. Far too many times I’ve entered the cooking process and go to the cupboard to get out the… Forgot to buy it. Now I have to go to the shop and get some more, meanwhile the oven is heating, and I forgot the shop is already shut. Plus, I know what sort of cake I’m making if I plan it out. I don’t get mid-way through and think I’d like to add some apple but then I’ll have to add more flour because the apple will make it too moist and I’ll probably add too much flour and then I’ll have to add a dash more milk. This all relates to novel writing in that I can plan out my characters, their motivations and goals out before the story so I won’t get too many surprises during the writing. I can make sure I’ve researched any vital plot points and have that research at the ready. I also know what sort of story I want it to be. So I’m not getting midway through and thinking, wouldn’t this be better if I just went back and rewrote the whole thing (though sometimes the plan fails and despite all the careful thought we do have to go back, and back again).

3.  It takes time. Okay, cake time to novel time are really not comparable but they both take time and rushing the process makes for a bad cake/novel. It takes as much time as it takes.

4.  The right tools help get the job done faster and better. In cakes this means whisks, pans, bowls and ovens that actually heat evenly and consistently. With writing this means at least a basic understanding of language and probably a word processing program of some sort that includes some basic editing assistance (such as spell check). The writer’s tool kit also includes their knowledge of the genre and plot conventions and all the other things you need to write the story.

5.  The proof is in the pudding. The taster of the cake can tell you if the cake is good. The reader of the story will tell you if the novel is good. Yes, you can pre-taste (read and evaluate yourself) but you are probably not the best judge. Like with cooking you will either be too harsh (I’m a terrible cook) or far too generous in your evaluation (its awesome and only burnt on two sides…).

There you have it. Five reasons why writing a novel is like baking a cake.

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Foreshadowing

August 12, 2010 at 5:30 am (Plot, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Foreshadowing is something I haven’t really written about on the blog before but it is incredibly important when it comes to writing a cohesive story. I have to thank Hart Johnson on Confessions of  a Watery Tart for reminding me why it is so important in story writing.

She actually uses a very good explanation of one of the stronger parts of the Harry Potter series in that very little just appears as it is needed. The polyjuice potion is mentioned well in advance of it ever being used and so as a reader you aren’t left thinking – this author got herself stuck and then had to magic her way out of it. Yes the mention was deliberate because you knew they were going to use it later but it still made the whole story stronger. And it was the same with many other items and events within the Harry Potter series. By being prementioned and then gently reminding the reader at certain points, by the time the event or object become critical to the story it was like it was there all along and it doesn’t feel like a quick fix.

The best way to explain why foreshadowing is important is probably to look at what happens without it. The scenario is where your hero is backed up against a wall with thirty villains closing in, all armed to the teeth with more weapons than I could name, there is a bomb about to explode, a damsel in distress hanging from a helicopter two blocks away screaming for assistance and a tidal wave is closing in. Okay, I erred on the side of melodrama when writing that scenario.

Suddenly your hero…

Anything you end this sentence with is going to sound lame unless it was previously set up. This situation is clearly impossible. There is no way your hero can get out of it and save the victim, and disarm the bomb and stop the tidal wave. Unless they are superman which leads us to the question of how did he get into this situation in the first place.

Are you suddenly going to whip out a magic make everything offensive go away potion?

However, if you had thought about this scenario and gone back earlier in your story and tweaked a few things it is quite likely that the hero’s side kick is currently trying to disarm the bomb, and sweating profusely while doing it, and the hero is in point of fact simply keeping the villains busy. But he’s doing it by projecting a hologram (using technology that was of course demonstrated far earlier in the story) and he is actually cutting the victim off the helicopter. What you’re going to do about the tidal wave is anyone’s guess unless the hero is planning to use the bomb, retrieved by the side kick, to somehow interrupt it (which seems pretty unlikely to me).

Foreshadowing: possibly making the impossible slightly more plausible.

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I have a plan

August 11, 2010 at 5:04 am (Planning, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’m not using it and I haven’t referred to it – but a plan exists. Surely that counts for something.

In case you are wondering what I am talking about, it is the old to plan or not to plan argument in writing. As always, I outline, know where I want to go, and then dutifully ignore any of it and write whatever anyway. From the number of unfinished projects I have stacking up, this may not be the most effective method, but it works for me. I don’t want to lock myself in if I’m not feeling the characters lead me in a certain direction. And I don’t want to be endlessly worried that they haven’t progressed as neatly from point a to point b as I would have liked.

I love to write. I love words. If I can eventually tidy them up enough to make a story, great. If not, I’ll have enjoyed the writing anyway and maybe at some future time I’ll return to the story and figure it all out.

That’s kind of what’s happened at the moment.

I came across a fairly old story (in fact I don’t remember when I started it). I didn’t even have it on my computer any more. I only had the paper copy I printed out. It wasn’t finished and as I was reading it I realised I really wanted to know where this story ended. Only I didn’t remember.

Fortunately I also printed out the plan and included it in the file.

Unfortunately having just read the first act of the story, I realised why I abandoned it. The plan didn’t make any sense. There were entire sub-plots that were clearly leading to X but just didn’t appear in the plan at all. The main character was clearly not motivated by D but by P and those two characters over there were as likely to be conspiring as a spider with a fly. I’d had a plan but the way I’d written that first act just made the plan entirely irrelevant. The story was better than the original plan and the characters a great deal more interesting but it made the second act almost impossible to write without an entire overhaul of the over all goal of the story.

So now I need to figure out where the story should be going and how I’m going to get it there and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get it written. I’m not going to commit myself to it but I have a strong feeling that I’m going to spend quite a number of sleepless nights thinking about it in the near future.

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Learn to Love Them – They’re Going to Be With You Forever

August 10, 2010 at 5:32 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Okay, maybe forever is a slight exaggeration but you really do have to be able to deal with having your characters in your head for a long time.

You spend so much time making them real, getting to know them, putting the through hardships and helping them overcome difficulties. You watch them grow – you help them to grow. You direct them and guide them and shape them at every turn.

Elspeth had an excellent post last week on characters when she shared her 10 Tips for Non-Perfection. It was her list to help the writers out there not view their characters through rose tinted glasses and it is a great list – well worth the read.

As a writer I’m truly cruel to my characters – particularly in drafting stages. Mostly because I want to see how my character reacts under every kind of pressure I can throw at them. In the end I usually pick the crisis that has the most interesting reaction and go with it, but when I’m still developing the character I can be really nasty to them.

But when all of that is said and done, underneath, I still really love my characters and can feel pretty caught up in their lives at times. One particular WIP that I’m still thinking about revising continues to stump me mostly because in the face of the massive danger being faced, nobody dies. Well, one character does, but we didn’t really like them and other than a brief mention in act one they really failed to have an impact.

I didn’t even intentionally write it that way.

It just turned out that after I’d finished the various minor skirmishes that were going on in the huge and dusty battle, every named character (villain or hero) tragically survived. It was a cold blooded conversation with a friend when I sat down with the draft and started systematically listing each character’s attributes and why they should die/live. I still haven’t actually rewritten it.

How do you and your characters get along?

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Feeling Tense?

August 5, 2010 at 5:01 am (Character, Tension, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

We all know that tension and conflict are essential to an interesting plot, but sometimes stories just start to feel that little bit melodramatic. They take themselves so seriously and every little thing is a major drama for all the characters. Or a character enters the story – about a third of the way through – and their only real purpose seems to be that the middle of the story was getting boring and someone decided that they needed more tension to keep it moving. This can work if the problems caused by this character somehow link back into the central conflict, or it can feel like an add-in if the character comes, antagonizes people for awhile, and then when the story gets moving again, miraculously either has a change of heart or disappears.

There is virtually no end to the list of different ways you can add tension to a story. Sometimes those seemingly simplistic moments can become very tense (and not in an overly dramatic way when handled well). As a reader, these are my five favourite ways that authors introduce tension for their characters:

1.  A secret is uncovered and the character is trying to prevent the knowledge from spreading. I always like intrigues and character dilemmas. You always wonder just how far is this character going to go to keep this a secret. And when the secret is revealed, how will they react? Admittedly, as a reader I like to be in on the secret and then the fun is seeing if the other characters in the story catch on.

2.  Forced waits. I’m going to confess that I love this as a plot device because in real life this is what causes the most tension. You know what is coming, you know what you need to do, everything is progressing and then it all just stalls. You can really relate to the characters as they get frustrated and impatient and desperate to act while others use the time for further preparations and others still simply work themselves into a bundle of nerves.

3.  Rivalry. It may be a cliché but I do love rivals when they are both well established characters and their both given a fair showing. The play between the two as they try to one-up the other, while not admitting that they care what the other thinks, can make for an intriguing and interesting story and can also create some really interesting tensions between the other characters as they realise what is happening.

4.  RAS (Random Acts of Stupidity). Everybody is stupid at one point or another and when a character has clearly done something incredibly dumb, I like that to be addressed by the other characters, rather than simply ignored because it is convenient to the story. This can create really interesting group dynamics and the tension in the scene where someone confronts the character about their action can be excellently executed.

5.  Anticipation. I remember reading a book in high-school (don’t remember which one) where a girl was having her thumb chopped off (various political reasons leading up to it). But they announced this at the beginning of the chapter. Guy has hold of the girl, blade drawn. She’s crying. Then someone else comes in and there is discussion and another speech and they keep coming back to this girl who has tears streaming down her face. The whole chapter you’re wondering – are they actually going to do this? Is she going to get away or be released? If they had made me wait to the next chapter to find out I probably would have given up reading the book because essentially nothing would have happened in the chapter, but this book was brilliantly executed. Just when you couldn’t take any more and you had to know, the answer is revealed and then the chapter ended.

What are your favourite kinds of tension to read? Or to create for the writers out there.

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The Sycophant

August 4, 2010 at 5:47 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve jumped works in progress for the time. I wasn’t making progress on one draft and I wanted to write so I decided to have a look at an earlier abandoned project (rather than starting yet another never to be finished project). Interestingly, even though I abandoned the project because I felt it was too flat, reading it after having a fairly lengthy space, I was drawn in to the story and the characters again and when I got to where I’d abandoned the project I was disappointed that the story didn’t finish.

So working between project I am now trying to reacquaint myself with some of my earlier character creations and it is amazing how fast they come back (all giving me dirty looks and muttering about being cast aside).

One of the characters I particularly enjoyed reading about again and getting to know all over again is the sycophant. This isn’t actually his name though it may as well be. It is what he is called by pretty much all the other characters and even though he is only a minor character in the story, he manages pretty effectively to be despised in the most amusing of ways.

I’d clearly also used the thesaurus when writing the draft originally because I noticed I was very careful not to endlessly repeat the word sycophant, even though I really enjoy that word. It rolls right off the tongue and always gives just the right amount of contempt and loathing.

Anyway – alternatives to sycophant:

  • toady
  • appeaser
  • crawler
  • flatterer
  • follower
  • greaser
  • hanger-on
  • parasite

All of them very flattering words.

Incidentally, when introducing the character I don’t tell the reader that he is a sycophant. I have one of my other characters call him one within the first few lines of him entering the story and then back it up by having him carry out some very toady like actions. His character is established and I haven’t once said to the reader (by the way, you’re meant to dislike this character).

I’ve since also moved on from this project but I think the time will come very soon when I’m going to have to finish this one.

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What a character

August 1, 2010 at 5:45 am (Character, fantasy, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I was recently visiting Nancy Kelly Allen’s blog and found some excellent advice on critiquing a manuscript. I must admit however, I was drawn to Nancy’s advice on the main character.

Is the main character active in carrying the plot forward? The main character should be responsible for solving the problem or reaching the goal. Uncle Hamm or an older brother should not step in and save the character that is experiencing the trouble.

This advice I have heard before. I don’t recall which blog I read it on but the author explained that the problem with book 6 or the Harry Potter series was that Harry was spending all of his time trying to win a sporting trophy rather than trying to solve any of his problems. In point of fact, Dumbledore deliberately kept Harry in the dark about what most of those problems were which meant that the reader was cheated out of a possibly more interesting story than the one we were delivered.

The fact that I’ve heard this advice before didn’t stop me from sitting and going ‘oh’. Mostly because it is one of thousands of things that when you think about it should be obvious but sometimes when you are looking at a draft completely eludes you until someone else points it out. It helps to be reminded, often, and it is a really important point.

Linking back to Harry Potter, one of my biggest problems with the series was that Harry was given the starring role in the first book but was almost the least interesting character in it. Hermione solved most of the problems while Ron randomly ran into things that may have helped and occasionally Harry would do something pretty stupid that turned out to be good. Harsh, but at the time that was how I saw it. The second book in the series was even worse as far as establishing Harry as the hero. Even in a coma Hermione was more useful than Harry turned out to be. She gave him the vital clue that made everything in the conclusion possible.

I actually do like the Harry Potter books and I’m not pulling them to pieces, just the main character who was always a little underwhelming to me.

Thanks Nancy for reminding us of this excellent advice.

What is the best advice you’ve been given about character recently?

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One for the good guys

July 31, 2010 at 5:27 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

I love watching old movies. The good guys all wear white or at least tan and other pale colours and manage to keep their hair in perfect formation (maybe one strand will blow across their face) and they save the day with minimal loss and pain. Perfect feel good moment. I hate reading stories like this though.

Maybe it is because I look for different things from the movies I watch to the books I read. Movies can have a terrible story, bad acting, awful effects, it doesn’t matter as long as I’m being entertained. Yes, I prefer movies that actually have a story and good actors, the effects can go either way, but entertainment is all that is required. From books, I expect far more. I expect an intelligent and intriguing story and characters with depth that draw me in. I expect that the good guy won’t just be good because he’s (she’s) written that way but that they are actually given some sort of purpose and motivation.

My favourite protagonists when I read, have flaws. Massive and horrible character flaws usually. While I love reading David Eddings stories (the Elenium Trilogy is amazing) there is only one David Eddings character that ever made my list of favourite characters and that was Althalus. All of his other heroes are good because they are good and work together because it is the right thing to do. Althalus on the other hand was a thief and was coerced by a goddess disguised as a cat into saving the world. That appealed to me on a number of levels.

People in real life are never all good or all bad. And they aren’t the same in every situation and around different groups of people. I think characters in stories should reflect that to an extent.

That said, just going entirely the opposite direction and having an anti-hero can feel a bit old as well.

Who is your favourite good guy and why?

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