Marathon Writer, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Trench Warfare

David Jones (1895 – 1974) was a British painter, artist, poet, and writer. Born into a Welsh family living in England, he spent many years in Wales. In his mid twenties, he converted to Roman Catholicism.  His experiences in the Great War as a soldier with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, religious beliefs, and Welsh heritage helped form his work.

Recently, I read Epoch and Artist, a collection of his earlier writings, collected and republished in 1959. It was tough going. He was an extremely smart, well-educated man, who spent a lot of time thinking about art, life, spirituality, and the relationships among those three things. He frequently wandered into military metaphors, which since I spent time in uniform, I found comforting. I understood them.

In an essay on the dilemma between creating goods that were convenient and useful, but shoddy and without an artistic esthetic, he wrote

“I have no advice to offer except to suggest that the reader should make his own reconnaissances. From his own limited bit of trench he may quite possibly secure identifications which may clarify the situation on other sectors. At least he will know, by direct contact, the nature and depth of the entanglements to his immediate front. Which is more than they know at H. Q. [headquarters] for all of their revised maps.

“The contractual is essential. You have to have been there. Ars [Latin for a female personification of art, skill, and craft] is adamant about one thing: she compels you to do an infantryman’s job. She insists on the tactile. The artist in man is the infantryman in man, so that . . . all men are [by birth, members] of this infantry, though not all serve with this infantry. To pursue the analogy, this continued employment away from the unit [that is, pursuing a life not actively making art] has made habitual and widespread a staff mentality. Today most of us are staff-wallahs of one sort or another. [Staff-wallahs are people who run things for other people, but would never think of doing the activity themselves.]”

That comment, “We have to have been there” goes far beyond the topic he was addressing in the essay. In that one sentence beats the heart of being a creative person. We can read all we want about our chosen art. We can talk about it, and think about it. The absolute essence is that we do it, starting from wherever we are at any given moment.

A couple of years ago I met a man who didn’t go exploring what was in front of him. At a writing class’ first meeting, he said he so wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how to begin. The next week, his first class submission was rough and disjointed, but it had real potential, and class members told him that. The next class, he had nothing to submit. Same thing the third class. He didn’t show up the fourth class, or ever again.

I ran into him a few months later and said how sorry we were that he hadn’t continued. “Oh,” he replied, “I discovered I wasn’t a real writer,” and proceeded to give me all the reasons why he wasn’t. He’d never had the advantages that the rest of us in class had. (To this day, I wonder what he thought those advantages were.) His ideas weren’t any good. (Actually, they were quiet good.) He didn’t have time to devote to writing. (Maybe he didn’t, but he could have found some.) Writing wasn’t really important in the world, anyway. (Talk about not knowing what the nature and depth of the entanglements to his immediate front.) He’d love, just love, to be a writer, but it was obvious after the first class that future was closed to him.

It was so sad, and I knew there was nothing I could do but wish him well in whatever he chose to do in place of writing.

Insist on the tactile. Be a writer.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Drama Queens

It’s a little unsettled around here right now. An elderly relative has put off longer than he should have writing things like a Power of Attorney and Advanced Directive. We’re not sure how the current crisis is going to play out, but we don’t think it’s going to be fun.

We are going to lose the beautiful old trees in our commons because the Fire Department says they are too close to the buildings, and would block access in case of fire. If our landlord had paid attention to regulations in the first place, and given those trees periodic care, like proper pruning, this wouldn’t be happening.

I’ll write the first chapter of my next mystery some time this week. Starting a new book is always an emotionally fraught time, and I’ve got more than my usual mad on at editors and publishers in general. Why the heck is book published so complicated? Why can’t I just write and forget all that other publishing and marketing nonsense?

My relative, the Fire Inspector, my landlord, and the publishing world in general need a good piece of my mind.  I’ve laid awake the past few nights preparing a number of vitriolic speeches I’ll never deliver.

I was always a Drama Queen, even before I knew what that kind of over the top behaviour was called. It would be more accurate to say I was a closet Drama Queen. A young woman growing up in the South was expected to meet certain public standards. Privately, I gave my emotions full vent. I had scathing conversations that didn’t do anyone one bit of good because the people I had them with weren’t in the room with me. Sometimes, they weren’t even in the same state.

When I took my first playwriting class, it came to me that these anger-logues in my head sounded identical to drama, tension and angst packed scenes that we were being encouraged to write for the stage. Could it be that I would be better off writing out my frustrations than keeping them in my head?

As it turned out, that was exactly the case. Out was far better than in.

Try this: the next time we’re hopping mad or sad or feeling any strong negative emotions, write down what we’d love to say to the other person.  No holes barred. Just let it rip. Also, write what we think they would say or do in response. We can give those voices character names, if we want. Most times I call them simply A and B. A says this, and then B says that, and so on.

Here’s what I’ve discovered happens

  • I’m shocked at how downright mean and hurtful I’m capable of being to another person.
  • Sometimes the other person, even if he or she is only in my head, says or does something that surprises me.
  • I have a chance to polish those zingers, the lines I usually wish later that I could have thought of at the time.
  • I also have a chance to admit that I don’t want to say those mean and hurtful things, and discover alternate lines that I’d be willing to say for real.
  • This is a wonderful energy drain. I get to stop having repeated, unproductive conversations in my head, when I should be drifting off to sleep.

If we save what we’ve written, we might be able to use this conversation in a future story.

Let’s make ourselves a promise to keep drama on the page, where it belongs, not in our lives.

Oh, yeah. Happy Mardi Gras. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll. Eat pancakes. Wear beads. Make a mask. Make gumbo. We’re doing all of those things at our house today.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Value Added Tax on Ideas

How many idea notebooks do you have on the go?

I’m a one binder to ring them all gal. At the other end of the scale, other writers have notebooks beside their bed, in their car, in their purse or backpack, in the kitchen, beside their TV watching chair, and some, even in the bathroom. I hope that last one is the waterproof version that engineers and biologists use in the field.

It’s not  how many ideas books we have that’s important. It’s how we use them. The first great reason for keeping an ideas book is that the act of writing down an idea gives us pleasure. Nothing more. We have no intention of doing anything with the idea, but at least it’s out of our head and on paper.

In the 2014 movie, Authors AnonymousAlan Mooney has no intention of writing anything. He’s happy dictating character names and ideas into a recorder. Taking a side trip from ideas, this is a movie every writer who has been or plans to be in a critique group should see. It is so familiar, and so painful to watch.

It doesn’t matter where ideas come from

Truth time. How many of the ideas we’ve written in our idea books have we actually used?

Writers can come up with more ideas in a minute than we’d be able to use in a year. Try this: get a pencil, paper, and timer. Ignore computers for this because there’s something about putting pen to paper that generates more creative ideas than typing into a keyboard. I don’t know why, and neither do neuroscientists, but they are working on it.

Don’t write down entire ideas during the timed minute — that uses too much time. Instead, jot down key words, like “3 girls Cherry St.” After the minute is up, flush out each idea into a complete sentence.

Here’s my one minute’s worth of ideas

  • A high school student gets her first job, in a bakery.
  • Three six-year-old girls, all of whom live on streets with Cherry in the name, disappear on the same afternoon.
  • A man’s pet monkey foils a bank robbery.
  • On the C-train, a man has a strange encounter with a woman who insists they are friends, but he has no memory of knowing her.
  • What if 3-parent babies were the norm, and a couple had to get special permission to have a 2-parent baby?

Practice capture and release

We schedule haircuts, dental appointments, spa treatments for ourselves; vet visits for our pets; and maybe even repeating mundane chores like defrosting the freezer or checking the smoke alarms. Ideas need periodic check-ups as well. We start by setting aside a couple of hours, on a regular basis, to examine and arrange ideas — what we might call adding a Value Added Tax to them.

Yes, I mean really scheduling, as in writing “Idea review: 2 – 4 pm” in our calendar so that has the same authority as “Dentist: 2:30 – cleaning” or “Mortimer to vet for vaccination, March 12.” And saying, “No, I can’t come to a meeting that day. I have a dental appointment.” We don’t have to say, “No, I  can’t come to a meeting that day. I’m spending the afternoon capturing and releasing ideas.” Simply saying, “Sorry, that time is already booked” is all that’s needed.

I try to do this about four times a year. Your mileage may differ, but several times a year is a good idea.

Cold case ideas fall into three categories

What was I thinking?

This includes cryptic single words, like “fertilizer,” which, sadly, we no longer have a clue what the idea was. The 3-parent/2-parent idea would take a ton of research that I don’t actually want to do. The girl in the bakery, after further thought, is another coming of age/epiphany/how I learned about the real world idea that’s been done to death.

In general, over 99% of ideas, once they’ve had a chance to cool, fall into this category. Release them back into the wild. Be free, little idea. You have my best wishes for finding a nesting place somewhere else.

Has something, but lacks something, too

The pet monkey/bank robbery story and the C-train encounter feel like that. There is a germ of an idea there, but I’m not sure what.

I rewrite these partial ideas in a section that, depending on the mood I’m in, I call Mix-and-Match or Ideas á La Carte. Part of the idea examination process is periodically to go back to this section to see if I combine two or three disparate ideas, does an entire idea gel?

I also check these lists when something I’m already writing needs punching up. What’s there often provides a sub-plots or a twist for a plot that’s rapidly heading for staleness.

The keepers

Less than 0.01% of ideas are real corkers. They’re rare and important enough that they deserve their own pages. Turn to a blank page in the notebook. Write the idea at the top of the page. Three six-year-old girls, all of whom live on streets with Cherry in the name, disappear on the same afternoon.

Spend time looking at one question: Why has this idea got its hooks in me? What does it touch in my life or my belief system?

Don’t plot. Think of this fledging idea as a small, terrified animal. If we go prodding it with a plotting stick, it will either run away or curl up in a ball.

What intrigues me about writing about three missing girls?

  • I hate the media circus that happens when a child disappears. People should leave those poor parents alone.
  • It’s a sick and dangerous world. Lives can change in a split second.
  • The incredible mystery of three disappearances at the same time.
  • I don’t believe in alien abductions, but some people do, I mean really believe. Ditto conspiracy theories. Ditto mediums helping the police; they’d be coming out of the woodwork.
  • Police are going to focus on looking for connections. What if there aren’t any? What about an absolutely random act? Humans build patterns, even if none exist. What happens if the pattern is so totally wrong that it leads in the opposite direction from where the police should go?

At some point, a promising keeper idea becomes the next thing we know we’re going to write. When that happens, it’s time for that idea to graduate to it’s own notebook or Scrivener file. And this is so much more likely to happen if we weed out the gems from among the hundreds of ideas that so gleefully embed themselves in our heads, and our notebooks.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — being an ordinary writer is wonderful

I think of myself as an ordinary writer. I’m not brilliant, especially talented, or have extraordinary gifts. However, I have spent a long time learning to construct meaningful sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. Writers like to hang out with other writers. Because of that, we forget what a truly remarkable life even ordinary writers have.

We create imaginary worlds, starting with nothing more than an overheard conversation, an idea that won’t let us go, or an image that stops us in our tracks.

We focus on that imaginary world long enough to write 450,000 words, hoping that 90,000 of them will be keepers, and trusting that those keeper words will gel into a novel.

We are incredible pack rats, filing away a tattoo we saw on the subway, the taste of Aunt Sophie’s lemon pie, the way steam rises from downtown buildings when the temperature drops to forty below, and an article on the neurological basis of fear. One day, when we’re mildly distracted, walking to work or doing the dishes, we suddenly know that our next book is about a terrified, tattooed, homeless man, named Raoul Cardinal, huddled against a downtown building, trying to sell lemon pies from a cart, and knowing he has to get out of Winnipeg today, or he’s going to die.

Painters don’t display a portrait with only the base coat in place. Sculptures don’t put a partially carved block of wood out for everyone to see. Dancers don’t bring a couple of minutes of a work being choreographed to the stage, and ask the audience what movements should come next. But, writers trust other writers, and even non-writers with our unfinished work. Other writers, knowing what a great gift this is, try their best to give helpful, not hurtful, suggestions.

We know this is a tough business, yet we still open our hearts to other writers, particularly new writers. Many of us believe that when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.

All of this seems like no big deal to us. It’s the way writers live. Take my word for it, it is a big deal. We should celebrate being ordinary more often.

With that in mind, I’m crowd-sourcing a problem. I working with a new character named Lollie Whitsunday. She was born and raised in England, but now lives in Canada. Lollie is a nickname that evolved in childhood before she could pronounce her first name correctly. The problem is, I can’t think of a first name that would devolve into Lollie.

The name of everyone who suggests a name will be put into a hat. I’ll and draw one name, and send that person a copy of Some Welcome Home, the first book in my mystery series.

Ideas are cheap, though not, of course, the ideas about Lollie’s first name. What ideas really need is a Value Added Tax. Hope to see you next Tuesday, February 10th, for more about taxing ideas.

Marathon Writer, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – Build a Bookcase — 1 of 12

Writers must read.

We read writers who are in our market niche, because these are often the kind of books we most enjoy. And, it pays to know what the competition is up to.

We read writers who, because of the topic or complexity of writing, write far outside our comfort zone because we need at least a nodding acquaintance with the full writing spectrum.

A word of caution here.

The captain of the Titanic didn’t need to see the entire iceberg to know he had a problem. ~Denise Tiller, mysery writer

If a book deals with too much violence or graphic subjects, don’t feel compelled to read the entire thing. Start at the beginning and read until the first disturbing detail is reached. Once, for me, that was the third sentence. I knew, at that point, that continuing to read would do me more harm than good.

We read great writers because it’s a pleasure to see how well the craft can be done, and we read lousy writers because it’s also a good idea both to see how badly the craft it is done, and to console ourself that we write lots, lots better than that.

One thing I want to do this year is build an essential bookshelf of books and other references that mean a lot to writers. The blog on the last Tuesday of every month will be Build a Bookcase.

This month, let’s start with what was the first book that got us seriously interested in writing? And why?

Mine was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, published in 1986.

By the time I read Writing Down the Bones, I’d been hobby writing for twenty-four years. I’d churned out short stories, some rather regrettable fan fic, and at least two complete novels (neither published to this day, thank goodness). I’d kept a journal for eight years. I’d even gotten a degree in English/Creative Writing. And I was pretty sure that I’d nailed this writing thing.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. For me, this book cracked open the difference between writing and living a writing life. I realized I had to stop writing behind closed doors, and start writing in cafes and other public places. I had to find some writing partners. I had to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. I had to learn to allow flow to happen, back and forth, between writing and living. And, a whole bunch of other things that I’m still learning and polishing today.

This is one of three books that I still keep close at hand, in a little wooden box, less than a foot away from my keyboard, just in case I need a quick refresher.

What book got you started on seriously writing?

Going back to the Marathon Writer — Spiral Effect that I started the year with four weeks ago, here’s a followup on why sitting and writing is a bad idea. In the past week, the longevity columnist on CBC Calgary Drive Home – why sitting is bad for us gave the best summary I’ve heard so far about why sitting is so bad for us. It’s 7 minutes, 20 seconds long.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – To Do or Not To Do?

To-do List Myth

We put items on a list in order to get them done.

To-Do List Reality

The more things on a list, the more things that are never completed. The longer the list, the greater the guilt, and guilt is a strong de-motivator.

We say we put things on our to-do list so we can get them done, but in reality, we’re know one of three outcomes is likely

  • We get the item done.
  • So much time passes that the item becomes irrelevant and we cross it off the list.
  • The item remains on our list for a long time, generating guilt and convincing us we are ineffective, bad people

Feeds and Seeds

To-do lists are made up of feeds and seeds. These terms were coined by Douglas Rushkoff, in Present shock : when everything happens now. Feeds aren’t a problem; seeds are. It’s important to recognize the difference.

Feeds are temporary

  • The United Fund Campaign closes at 3:00 PM on Friday. If we’ve already made a donation or don’t plan to, we basically don’t care.
  • Feeds don’t stack. By 4:00 PM on Friday, that message is off our to-do list.

Seeds stack

  • Seeds are spring-loaded and often generated by other people.
  • They send us e-mails, assign us tasks, or have expectations for our help and cooperation. Each time we get a seed message, we open a loop on our to-do list. That loop remains open until we’ve done the required task.
  • Every unanswered question and every task we haven’t yet completed stays in the most active part of our brain, waiting for an answer.  We open more loops in one hour than our grandparents opened in several weeks.
  • Seeds stack. Right now I’m carrying about 50 seeds on my to-do list, and I suspect I’m at the low end of the scale. Many people have over 200 loops open; some have over 500.

Unwind the Spring-Loaded Seeds

The biggest thing we need to do with seeds is unwind the spring-loading someone else applied and re-load it so it works for us. Opening an e-mail isn’t a commitment to do something; it’s a chance to assess what is being asked of us. Instead of grabbing a pen and adding Read article Carmine sent me for Tuesday’s meeting, to my to-do list, what I really need to do is an assessment.

  • The article is twenty-seven pages long.
  • Carmen has no idea what my workload is like between now and Tuesday. Essentially, she’s put the ball in my court and I am conditioned to value her spring-loading over my need to control my own time.
  • If I give this situation any thought at all, I console myself that the meeting is next Tuesday, and not thirty minutes from now.

What are my choices?

  • Look at my calendar and see if I have a block of time to read a twenty-seven page article.
  • Ask Carmen exactly how this article relates to Tuesday’s meeting. If she says it will be a large part of the afternoon’s discussion, then I’m going to have to find time to read it; but if she says that she’s planning to use the 3 principles in the sidebar on page 19 as a discussion guide, then I know I can get by with a lot less reading.
  • Negotiate a mutually-agreed spring-reloading with Carmen. This includes letting go of some tasks.

Seeds Take Time

The next biggest thing we can do for ourselves is remember that each seed, each loop, each to-do item, whatever we want to call them, is a time commitment. Look up Alice’s new Zip code takes less than 5 minutes. Repaint the bathroom takes an entire weekend, maybe longer.

It may help to add a time element to an entry. Look up Alice’s new Zip code (5 minutes). If we see we have several less than 5 minute items, we can group them together and get them done all at once. Or if we have that bathroom to paint, maybe we need to pick the weekend we plan to do it.

Also, it helps to break down big jobs, like the bathroom, into the first small step. Instead of reminding ourselves to Repaint the bathroom, how about reminding ourselves to Measure bathroom walls, so we’ll know how much paint to buy?

Personalize our Lists

The third thing we can do is make our to-do lists fit our personality. Some people go gaga over a slick black leather notebook, pristine white paper, and a premium fountain pen. Other people like colors, doodling, and silly messages to ourselves. If you’d like to see some cool things people are doing with their to-do lists, I recommend checking out the Google + community, The Bullet Journal.

My to-do list? Electronic all the way. iCal with 20 color-coded categories and as many automatic repeating reminders as I can build in. For my permanent records, a PDF copy of the previous month saved at the beginning of the next month.

One of the things I’d like us to do this year is build a bookshelf of books we’ve found helpful getting us into writing and keeping us there. I’m devoting the last Tuesday of each month to building that bookshelf. Next Tuesday, January 27, I’m focusing on the first book. I’ll tell  you which book got me into serious writing, and why. See you then.

Marathon Writer, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – The Spiral Effect

Three times in my life I’ve chosen to see a health care professional about why and how my life had gotten off track. The last time I said to the woman, “I dealt with this issue when I was in my twenties, and in my thirties. Why do I have to deal with it again now?”

She said, “Because life is a spiral. It only seems like you’re coming back to the same problem. In fact, you’re coming back to a different, more complicated problem because you bring with you all that you learned since the last time you worked on this.”

That’s why the same questions plague us as writers decade after decade.

  • Am I really a writer?
  • Can I make a living at writing?
  • What do I do next?

Are we really writers?

If we are recording words with the intention of telling a story, then yes, we are writers. There’s a reason that screenwriter and teacher Robert McKee titled his writing guide simply Story. Story is the heart of writing. When nothing seems to be working, story becomes our refuge, the place we turn to, as the late singer and songwriter Stan Rogers said, “like a child to home whenever darkness comes.”

Can we make a living at writing?

That one is far more difficult to answer. I’ve heard a lot of high numbers — 75%? 80%? More%? — bantered around by industry professionals about how big a role pure luck plays in a lucrative writing career. Sadly, most of us will never be able to quit our day jobs, so what we learn to do instead is juggle time for writing, running a business, doing our day job, living in a family, having friends, and the whole rest of the world.

Here’s the absolute bottom line: there are 168 hours in a week. We aren’t getting any more, so let’s work on making something of what we already have.

What do we do next?

Here’s the first aid kit that every writers need. You’ve probably seen this list before, but have you thought about it being at the heart of being a writer? When we start to spin out of control, we need to do 6 things.


This is a quote that marked a turning point in my writing. I realized I could not keep going at the pace I was going and continue to be a writer. I had to make a choice between learning to slow down and quitting writing. I’m still writing.

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace, because it kills the root of the inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

~ Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968), Catholic writer, Trappist monk, priest, poet, social activist. and student of comparative religion

Breathe – libraries and the Internet are full of resources about breathing and breathing meditations. Learn the basics and practice them

Drink water – even a 2% dehydration, not enough to make us thirsty, reduces concentration and creativity.

Get enough sleep – The National Geographic program Sleepless in America  says that 40% of people in North America don’t get enough sleep. That figure is rising.

Eat healthy and exercise – do I really need to explain these?

We are always spiralling either up or down. There is no standing still. I vote for spiralling up.

Hope to see you back next Tuesday, January 20, for What to do about those pesky To-Do Lists.

My point of view, second draft, Writing

Write the Novel — How many drafts are enough?

Since January, I’ve blogged about writing a novel, starting with a global theme and working through the zero draft (an unfinished manuscript), which becomes the first draft when we finish it. And the second draft, which serves completely different functions from the first.

How many drafts are enough? Because we each write differently, and because for any writer finishing a entire first draft is an enormous accomplishment, my standard for the zero/first draft is, simply, finish it. I don’t care how, but get all the way to the end of the story.

My standard for beginning the second draft is one question, “Am I writing this for publication?”

There are only two answers: yes or no. I don’t think I’m a good enough writer, but maybe a miracle will happen and someone will want to publish it is not an answer. It is a daydream. The reason that the answer needs to be a firm yes or no is that the beginning of the second draft is a major crossroad. Say yes to publication and we go in one direction; say no and we go in a completely different direction.

Saying no to publication

We’re likely to say no to publication if

  • the material is highly personal or dangerous, and we’re not ready for the rest of the world to see it
  • the story is just the way we like it, and we don’t want to submit our characters and story to the meat grinder of editing and publishing
  • we don’t have the health, time, or finances to participate in the publishing/marketing that the book will need. Keep in mind that neither traditional publishing nor self-publishing is a free ride. Traditional publishing requires that we submit what the publisher wants, when they want it. There are less of those restraints in self-publishing, but a well published/well marketed self-published book (e-book or print) will cost the author $2,000 to $10,000 and take hundreds of hours to accomplish.

If we say no to publication, there are no limits to how many drafts is enough. Keep writing, keep revising as long as the story holds our interest.

Say yes to publication

If we say yes to publication, initially two, maybe three content drafts are enough. A content draft focus on character development, storyline, raising the stakes, maintaining continuity, etc. This is completely different from editing drafts.

After the second or third content draft, the book needs to go to at least five beta readers. Beta readers are people we know well enough to ask them to read our manuscript, but aren’t so close to them that all they’ll do is say how great it is. Finding five good beta readers is tough, but it’s the best way to find out what really needs honing. Beta readers are looking for minor plot tinkering, typos, grammar, and spelling mistakes. Readers have to make a commitment to getting the manuscript read and back to us in a timely fashion.

Taking comments from beta readers into consideration, another one to two content drafts will need to be done. Here are questions to ask ourselves after the beta readers are through.

What is this novel worth to us?

  • How much more work do we plan to do before we submit our book?
  • How will we know when our book is ready to submit?
  • Have we set a personal deadline for when this book is to be finished?

How strong is our voice?

  • Read sections we suspect are problematic aloud to examine our voice.
  • Is it strong and clear?
  • Are there places when it seems to disappear?
  • Are there places when it overshadows the story?

By this time, we will have done a total of three or four content drafts, half before beta readers and half afterwards. Then comes at least five editing passes

  • the first is attention to format, how the work is presented on the page
  • the second is a general clean-up
  • the third gets rid of book killers
  • the fourth gets down to the nitty-gritty of grammar and spelling, word by word
  • the fifth is the final, what-have-I-missed fine tooth combing

So the answer to how many drafts is enough — my personal opinion hat is firmly in place here — is three to four content drafts; at least five beta readers; and five editing drafts.

Then we’re ready to either go looking for a publisher or to take the self-publishing route.

Next week, Tuesday, November 25, we take off our writer’s hat and put on our editor’s had for Editing Pass 1 of 5 — Paying Attention to Format. Hope to see you then.

My point of view, second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Dawdle and Plant Seeds

We’re almost done with the second draft. We’ve looked at how this draft is the place to strengthen our voice, build emotional muscle, knead a story into shape, and let go of things we may love, but which aren’t working. The final thing to do before finishing this draft is to dawdle and plant seeds.

Dawdle? Are you kidding? I’ve been working on this book absolutely forever. I want it done. Now! No way am I dawdling at this point.

Think again.

In the first draft, the focus was on two things

  • Goal, motivation, and disaster: Who wants what? Why do they want it? What’s preventing them from getting what they want, or if they do get it, how is it different than they thought it would be? This is the builder’s equivalent of preparing the lot, digging a basement, pouring concrete, framing, and roofing a house. It’s where the heavy lifting gets done.
  • Satisfying the demands of the genre. For mysteries, this means clues, red herrings, detective work, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Following the building analogy, this is all of those choices to be made. Carpet or hardwood floors? Paint, wallpaper, or paneling? Appliances? Faucets and taps? Lighting?

The second draft is where interior decorating happens

  • Enhance every chapter’s first and last lines.
  • Where can the story’s volume be adjusted up or down? When should the story go over the top? When should the story be a seductive whisper?
  • Sprinkle flash symbols through the book. A little hazy on flash symbols? Check here.
  • Mix and match characters, narrative lines, settings. Elements that serve more than one purpose or function enrich the story’s density. The rest of this list was taken from Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery. I strongly recommend this book to all mystery writers.

Deepen the context

  • Appeal to the senses
  • Establish a sense of place
  • Evoke mood
  • Provide texture
  • Sketch a description

Humanize the characters

  • Change sexual tension
  • Establish or betray trust between characters
  • Ground or anchor characters (needs to be done periodically, not just once)
  • Increase a character’s insight
  • Increase what is known about a character

Offer a perspective or counter perspective

  • Juice up the plot
  • Change pacing, emotion, or suspense
  • Raise the stakes
  • Use violence as dialog

Embellish with

  • Buried agendas or secrets
  • Foreshadowing
  • Comic relief
  • Irony
  • Surprise!

And, finally, there’s the landscaping: plant seeds for future books. This is especially important if the book is part of a series. We may know what seeds we’re planting, or we may have no idea at all. Knowing isn’t important. The idea is to plant possibilities than can be explored in subsequent books. Seeds may be as simple as a single line of dialog or a short description.

  • “I had a brother, but he died.”
  • Marcy had seen enough of Chicago, thank you very much. As far as she knew, the warrant for her was still outstanding.

That’s the second draft. When it’s done, take a break.

Put the manuscript away for at least a couple of weeks. Like making bread or aging fine wine, the material needs a chance to settle down before we begin the final content revision.

And that’s just what we’re going to do. Next week, November 11, will be a Remembrance Day blog. We’ll resume our writing the novel journey on Tuesday, November 18, with Final Content Revision. See you then.

second draft, Writing

Write the Novel – Letting Go

Writing a second draft isn’t a matter of tidying up. That comes later. The second draft is where we take things apart, cut away the dead wood, and reassemble the remaining pieces so that the seams hardly show. For the second draft, the questions for each sentence, scene, and chapter are not do we like this or is it fun to write?

Does it work?

The question is, is it working? Letting go of writing we love that isn’t working is one of the hardest things a writer has to do.

Prologues don’t work. Neither do epilogues. For the second draft, ditch them both. Don’t panic. You still have copies of them and, if you decide later it’s absolutely necessary, add them back, but try at least one draft without them.

Here’s an unfortunate truth, the harder a scene is to write, the more likely it needs to be written that way. Other things that don’t work include long telephone conversations; scenes where people are cooking, eating or driving; monologues; too much back story; and expository lumps. All of those are writing the easy way out. Change backstory to context (See my earlier backstory blog), and rewrite everything else.

The Big Reveal

The big reveal in a mystery is two-fold: who did it, and, often more important, why they did it. We’re talking stakes. Large public stakes (what matters to the world in which the character lives) and large private stakes (what matters to the character). What’s wrong with these big reveals?

  • He forced me to end my pregnancy, and now I can’t have children.
  • I had to cover for him. He’s my real father (or fill in the relationship of your choice).
  • What no one knew was that there were two babies born that night. Identical twins, one destined to be raised with every advantage and one pushed aside to live in poverty.
  • I built this company from nothing. He was going to ruin it. I couldn’t let that happen.

If  your answer is the stakes aren’t high enough, you’re absolutely correct. All of these motivations have been used to the point of boredom. What we want is to keep the reader awake nights.

Is the ending untidy? — It should be.

I don’t mean those time we spend behind a closed bathroom door because we want to avoid keeping our significant other awake while we read until two or three in the morning. I mean those times we lie awake in the dark thinking of the implications the ending created for the character (private stakes) and the character’s world (public stakes). What we want to do is resolve the story without solving the issues.

Pro Se was an episode of Law and Order that I saw in 1996. That was what, eighteen years ago? It still keeps me awake.

A brilliant young man had a severe mental health condition. If he took his meds life was, as he described it, “I feel like I’m pawing through a wool blanket. I get so damn tired just holding on to reality.” He could go through a daily routine, washing, eating, etc., but he was incapable of any productive mental activity. He couldn’t concentrate enough work, read, or follow a television program.

If he stopped his meds he’d have a few productive weeks before he spiralled downward. By the time his spiral began, he was no longer capable of choosing to resume his meds.

He became so unstable that he picked a clothing store at random, and attacked everyone inside with a bayonet. The public stakes were huge: commit him to a mental hospital and, when he was released — as he inevitably would be — he’d eventually go off his meds and likely kill again. The private stakes were huge, too: the longer her was confined to a mental ward, the longer he took his meds, the less likely he’d be to function when he was released. It was a completely no-win situation.

In the end, he was ordered confined, with no possibility of early release to a mental hospital for between 6 and 18 years.

Story resolved, issues not resolved. A great story often has an untidy ending.

Next Tuesday, November 4, we finish up this second draft series with Dawdle and Plant Seeds. The final purpose of a second draft is to slow down in some places and plant seeds for either future books, or for untidy endings if this is a stand-alone.