By George, I Think She’s Got It

I’ve never been able to say how many times I go through a WIP to edit it. In my usual disorganized fashion, I might do several chapters, leave it for days and weeks, and then try to go back to more or less where I left off. The result, I’m sure, is that some chapters haven’t had enough eye time, while others have been worked down to the bone. Scrivener has been my long-time helpmeet, keeping me more or less organized, but it can’t do everything.

I’ve sworn, over and over, that at least one readthrough has to be from page one to the last page, without distractions. But I’ve never accomplished it — until this week. I tried different methods, including reading Camp Expendable on my Kindle, but that never worked out — for one simple reason, I now realize. I couldn’t keep myself from doing the editing as I read. On the Kindle, that means making notes for every highlight because you can’t edit on it. If there’s anything more distracting than making notes on a Kindle, I haven’t discovered it yet.

I’m not one to give up, though. (stubborn, pig-headed, slow learner) The secret — cue the trumpets — is to highlight the trouble spots and just charge ahead. That leaves me with the obvious problem of remembering exactly why those highlights are there. But once I’ve spotted a problem, it isn’t really that difficult to go back and realize what it was. So, I am now the proud possessor of a novel which I read straight through in three days, doing nothing to distract me from getting a good overview.

There are probably well over 100 highlights, which is a discouragingly impressive number considering how many times I’ve been through the novel, weeding out clumsy sentences, poor word choices, etc. But it’s also encouraging. I only found two or three actual typos, and one continuity problem, so that really isn’t too bad for a length of almost 78,000 words. Most of the work to be done involves fleshing out some of my usual bare-bones sentences, and restructuring others. I’ll also be adding one short scene which, if I’m very lucky, won’t introduce a whole batch of new problems.

With all those highlights to guide me and keep me on track, maybe I’ll actually have the damn thing completed to my satisfaction within the next few days. But haven’t I said that before? Stay tuned.

In the Home Stretch

I’m down to the last chapter of Camp Expendable, writing new material and editing at the same time. It was a last-minute decision to break this chapter off from the previous one, which would have been an absolute monster in size. The chapter also picks up from the open end of the previous chapter and finishes everything off neatly. But it’s only about 1,400 words, while the rest are anywhere from 3,500 to 5,000 words. And there’s still stuff to be said.

I was just reading a blog post by another writer, about the left side/right side concept of where the brain comes up with the creative stuff. He knows as well as I do that the brain isn’t actually divided as neatly as that, but it’s a handy way of thinking about it. I don’t see myself as terribly creative, and since my approach to writing has a strong logical slant, maybe I’m either predominantly left-brained but still manage to squeeze out stuff that’s moderately creative, or I’m straddling a tightrope in the middle. That could be why it’s easy for me to create and edit more or less simultaneously.

That’s what I do during National Novel Writing Month, while all the other experienced writers are screaming about how you have to kill your editor, or at least shove it in the closet so it doesn’t get in the way of churning out those 50,000 words. Not only is it easy and natural for me to write that way, I’d probably go nuts if someone told me that I absolutely wouldn’t be permitted to edit until the whole thing was written. The result is, that while everyone else is bemoaning the pile of crap they have to show for 30 days of sweat and agony, I have something I wouldn’t be ashamed to show around — if I were the kind of person who likes to show my work around.

Different strokes, folks. And the blog post is: The two brains of the writer (or really any person/artist)

It Isn’t Procrastination. Really

So much for the plan to edit at least two chapters a day. That intention triggered a several-days long period of no editing at all. Or maybe it wasn’t a trigger, just as matter of coincidence. At least I have a believable excuse, thanks to Ruth Harris. It isn’t often that attempts to classify people work out very well, for instance: pantsers vs. planners. It just isn’t that simple. But her little list of three types of writers defined by their working speed and habits hit my ‘yes’ bump.

The post: Speed Kills, or Does it? is subtitled How to Write Fast(er) without Going Bonkers. It’s a far cry, thank goodness, from those assurances that if writer Speedy can churn through 5,000 words a day and produce a complete, edited novel in six weeks, then you can do it. And should. Because Harris says that you need to know your own working style, whether it’s steady, spurt, or sprint. You’ll have to read the post for her explanations of steady and sprint, but spurt hits me right where I live. “Spurt workers tend to write in extremely productive bursts. They also need a few days off to regroup and catch up with themselves between intense writing sessions.”

Yes, yes, yes. It’s nice to have a name for it rather than berate myself for quitting just when I seem to be getting ahead. It’s another of those areas where I blame myself for personal characteristics that are built in. The idea isn’t to use that as an excuse, but to understand it and allow myself room to write in the way that suits me best. And of course, that includes editing, formatting, and even designing book covers. Editing can be very satisfying when it’s going well, but it takes such intense concentration that it burns out the brain synapses in a way that the actual writing usually doesn’t.

I can wish my style was ‘steady’ but every time I’ve tried to set up a reasonable schedule, whether for writing or editing, I’ve totally failed. My brain just doesn’t work that way. In fact, it isn’t steady at anything. I suspect that it stems from my need for constant variety in most areas of my life, and a brain that seizes on one thing at a time and exhausts it in a big blaze. Steady is boring, says my brain, and I’ve learned that there’s no point in trying to argue with it.

Today, I’m back at work editing Expendable. Two are finished. I should be able to get one or two more done by the end of the day. I’d like to continue that pattern for the next four days, and get to ProWritingAid  Tuesday or Wednesday. But it probably won’t happen. Or maybe it will. But I’m not procrastinating. Really.

The Never-Ending, One and Only Draft

Came across a moderately interesting review —Track Changes — of the book of the same name, on how the change from typewriters to computers has changed the way novelists write. Some writers still use typewriters, and a few write by hand. And of course, there’s mention of early criticisms that word processing would, in some way, degrade literature. I imagine that one topic is covered pretty thoroughly in the book.

What really stood out for me was just one line: “Philip Roth and Zadie Smith have both said the computer has done away with drafts: they edit as they go, saving over earlier versions.” That, quite frankly, was awesome, because I do exactly the same thing and have been working that way for a long time.

In discussions about novel development (or development of any book, but mostly usually novels) drafts are always a hot topic. How many drafts are optimum? How many drafts should I write? How many drafts do you go through? I never get into those discussions. What am I going to say, “I write only one draft?” Horrors! That has to mean I don’t care about grammar, construction, story development, or any other aspect of writing.

If I say that I just keep writing over the first draft, more horror. What if I cut out something I later realize I want to keep, and it’s gone? There are two ways to deal with that possibility. 1. If I’m really in doubt about cutting out some material and then regretting that it’s gone, I stick it in a text file called “Fragments.” Scrivener makes it very easy to do that. Or, what I’ve switched to doing instead, I can add it to “Fragments” in the floating Notes feature. The advantage of using Notes is that I can keep it onscreen, rather than having to jump between the “Fragments” text file and the chapter text file. There was a time when I just stuck the deleted text at the bottom of the chapter, but that messes up my word count if I’m keeping track of it.

2. The other way to make sure my golden words aren’t lost forever is to take a snapshot of the chapter as it is at that moment. Snapshots are another clever feature of Scrivener, but the truth is that I’ve used it only once, just out of curiosity. Snapshots are, though most people probably don’t think of them that way, another way to back up your material. Since I save to Dropbox, and have an external drive just for backups, plus thumb drives, when I remember to use them, that would be a bit of a redundancy on top of redundancies.

When it comes right down to it, though, over time I’ve developed the attitude that there are multiple ways to write a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. In a sense, writing a novel in a word processor is like playing with Silly Putty. Your ideas are plastic, always changing, always capable of being reshaped. To make the best use of the power of writing digitally, your mind also has to be plastic, willing to let the past evolve into the new.

If nothing else, you don’t have to deal with the clutter of all those old drafts that you’re probably never going to look at again.

When Desperation Drives You

That’s when you’ll do crazy things. Like sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo. Which I just did. Why? Because Camp Expendable has been hanging for almost seven months now, despite having had an excellent beta critique and some major rethinking on my part. Why the rush? Considering the months of prep work I put into it before actually writing it last November during NaNoWriMo, the time is probably close to a year.

I’m more or less normally functional about every other day. The rest of the time, accumulated aches and pains, and fatigue, turn everything I do into a debate about priorities and how much energy any one job will require. Not exactly a situation conducive to sustained work on novel revision.

The first draft of Camp Expendable was 52,394 words. Since then, I’ve done a fair amount of editing and increased the word count to 64,620 words. The scope of the novel means that it really needs to be at least 75,000 words, and that’s what I’ll be aiming for in July. It’s pretty pathetic, really: a goal of just over 10,000 words for an entire month’s work  — 335 words a day. But half the year is gone, and I haven’t done diddly on any of my writing goals for this year. Something has to give. July will be do or die time.



The “Why isn’t My Series Selling?” Lament

Every time I see someone asking forum members for help for a poorly selling book or series, I’m tempted to stick my rude two cents in and say “Maybe it just isn’t very good.” I never do, but it’s pretty darn tempting. The beleaguered author lists all the things they’ve done right that should suck readers in and keep them coming back for books two, three and four. Is it really necessary to say that they usually haven’t done everything right? And even if they have, that’s no guarantee of success.

Every so often, I take a look at the book that is supposedly perfect and can see plenty of reasons why readers might not even finish reading it, much less go on to the next one. In this case, the cover was okay, the blurb was too brief for my liking, and wasn’t entirely clear, but we’re trying to find out why people do buy the book, but don’t finish it or enjoy it enough to buy the sequel. I’m well aware that most readers aren’t turned off by poor grammar or typos unless they’re bad enough or frequent enough to be distracting. I was skimming the sample pretty quickly, so I might have missed a few boo boos, but the only thing that really struck me was that invisible bugbear, the repeated word — (“that that”).

So what was the problem? Even a slow start might not be enough to turn readers right off, if it’s a genre they like, and the blurb has led them to expect an interesting story. But this was supposed to be an action novel, with a tough heroine, and it dragged, and the heroine immediately sounded like an idiot. If that wasn’t bad enough, the author was apparently trying for a literary touch, and sprinkled in irrelevant and awkward metaphors when he should have been concentrating on the action. Continuity problems? Oh yes. Like the villain saying he was going to take his time about killing our heroine so she could appreciate it, and then, just a few paragraphs later, saying he was in a hurry to make an appointment and could only take two minutes to finish up this little job.

All of that might not turn the average reader off right away, but it’s a safe bet that the flaws of the first dozen or so paragraphs are going to show up again and again. After a while, a little bell is likely to go off in the reader’s head, and she’s going to notice that something’s rotten in Denmark. All the lame metaphors, and the details that don’t work, will have a cumulative effect just below the conscious level. It’s when they reach consciousness that the reader is likely to sign off.

I read some of the Amazon reviews, noting that only 47% of readers gave the first book five stars. And 16% of only 19 reviews gave it one or two stars. Another 16% gave it three stars. Most of those poor reviews were spot on, even for the short excerpt that I’d read. So maybe the real problem for the author — the most important thing that he did wrong, was to not pay any attention to the reviews.

Character –> Revisions –> Frustration

Working on Camp Expendable has become an exercise in frustration. I want it finished and it doesn’t want to be finished. I put the first three chapters through ProWritingAid yesterday, and my overall impression was that the writing is better, so there isn’t as much to be corrected as there would have been only one or two drafts back. But… I was still finding details I was unhappy with that required further tweaking. Will this never end? Apparently not.

To make things even worse, while I was reading K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel last night, Casey’s personality and my problems with it intruded. Casey is the primary protagonist, and it’s his actions that direct the novel. I think I’ve developed him fairly well, but all through the various revisions, I’ve felt that there’s something lacking in how he comes across. That lack is weakening the novel, and even though I can see the problem clearly, I haven’t been able to figure out what to do about it. Until last night.

Here’s where I would love to turn the novel over to beta readers because I don’t know if I can trust my own judgment that he’s coming across as a whiner with a bad temper, whose stance changes with every shift in the wind. He’s also very strong when he needs to be, and very caring, but extremely vulnerable because there have been so many losses in his life. He’s conflicted.

But I’m being stubborn about getting this book published as soon as possible, so waiting for beta readers (if I can even find more than the one faithful one who’s been so much help to me) is simply out. I don’t have the patience, or the time.

I recently broke each chapter into its scenes so I could have a better overview. That may stand me in good stead now because I can go through the named scenes and track Casey’s arc, which is something I should have done earlier. “Arc” is another concept I’m just now getting around to in thinking about structure.

I now have a better handle on how to present Casey’s conflicts, even if the details are still  fuzzy. But that’s the pantser aspect of my work. There’s always a lot that doesn’t come clear until I start digging in. Unfortunately, all this insight means a fair amount of revision. The word count is probably going to go up, which is fine, except that most of my chapters are already quite long (around 4,000 words), and I may have to break up some chapters. That means more editing before I can put the “final draft” (the second or third final draft) through PWA.

I think I’m going to go make a batch of cookies now and eat myself sick. (I’m a frustration binge eater.)

A final note. This is something I’ve thought about off and on. Much of the discussion and advice about how long it takes (or should take) to write a novel, is based on stories that depend heavily on plot. Such stories can be outlined, with approximate word counts and deadlines set before the first word is written. Stories that depend almost entirely on characterization can not be written that way. I was learning about Casey long before I wrote the novel last November during NaNoWriMo. So, he’s been on my mind somewhere between six months and a year. And that still hasn’t been enough time to know him as well as I need to. Think about someone you thought you knew very well after years of being friends, and then they surprise you with an aspect of their character they’d never shown before. You may have to rethink your whole relationship, and your view of who that person really is. That’s Casey.

Discovering Structure, Moderating Ambition

I restarted a work journal for Camp Expendable today. I’d started one weeks ago and forgot all about it, but I’m trying again. This post is a slight reworking of the entry.

Story structure — I’ve paid very little attention to structure, just forging forward with the story, letting it take its own shape and hoping it works out. Structure may be the last big aspect of craft that I need to learn about and be aware of as I plan and write.

To that end, I broke the chapters down into scenes yesterday. I also named them as a way to remind me what’s in each without having to skim through every time to figure out where I am. The result of breaking it all down into scenes is finding that 1. they don’t always break neatly. Is that because I’m careful to include transitions, or is it a problem to solve? 2. Chapters vary wildly in the number of scenes they contain, and the length of the scenes varies just as wildly. The usual range is from two to four scenes, though one reached five. Another problem to solve?

It’s obviously time to find a good book on story structure.

The task took a whole day to get through, so that’s one more day of delay to publication, which is moving further into the distance with every day that passes. And I thought I was on the final run-through before proofreading. Trying to understand the structure of what I have here will take at least another day. Given the conflict between wanting to get the darned thing done and out of my hair, and wanting this book to be different in terms of quality and reader appeal, I’m starting to feel desperate. I hoped this one would be a true breakthrough, one that I could say was a real achievement rather than a decent job. So far, I haven’t felt that it’s anywhere near that point, and this sudden concern about structure makes it blindingly clear that I may be trying to accomplish something I don’t have the skills for yet.

I could laugh at myself and chalk it up to being an obssesive perfectionist, but it makes more sense to admit I still have too much to learn to aim for such a grandiose outcome. Maybe next time? So the work goes on, and if it takes a week or more past the deadline I tried to impose on myself, then that’s what I’ll have to accept.

How Many Drafts? The Rights, The Wrongs, The Reasons

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I don’t write separate drafts, so it’s impossible to say how many I go through before I’m satisfied with a story. It’s occurred to me that my “method” would probably be a nightmare for most writers. There are no older drafts to go back to, just the one that has been evolving and changing from day one. I also do a lot of stopping and starting over the months or years that I work on a novel, and usually start back with chapter one, so some chapters have been revised more times than others.

The subject of drafts has been occupying my mind for quite a while because there are so many opinions about it. I have a strong bent toward picking apart the pros and cons of subjects that are more a matter of personal opinion than of hard fact, and that’s what I’ve been doing lately. There are logical reasons why some professional writers insist that you should whip that novel out and stop fooling around with multiple drafts, while others insist that you must rewrite until you have a polished gem.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I see one specific factor influencing how many drafts a professional writer considers optimum. The concept of “professional” writer has changed somewhat over the decades. By today’s standards, someone like J.D. Salinger would be considered a hobbyist because he published very few works, and took his own sweet time about it. Back when writers were paid by the word for magazine articles and stories, there was a fairly clear distinction between “hack work” and Literature. Hack work was about earning a living, and its practitioners were professional writers; Literature was about creating a body of work that would exist long after the words were put on paper, and its practitioners were also professionals.

Of course, those two categories didn’t necessarily say anything valid about quality. Some hack work turned into classics, some Literature was forgotten before its authors had died.

Today, from what I can observe, writing for a living is professional; everything else is considered hobbyist. It’s a dichotomy that leaves most writers scrambling to churn out their next novel as quickly as possible, and a smaller number fighting a rear-guard action for consideration of old-fashioned qualities like depth and complexity.

As a general rule, writing for a living is writing to entertain, and necessarily concentrates on plot and action. Writing “for the ages” strives for meaning, and focuses on style, complexity, and insight into characters. The two are’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but current debates tend to sound as if they are. You’re either a professional writing for a living, or at least aiming for it, or you’re a part-time writer, a mere hobbyist who doesn’t take writing seriously.

The irony here is that “taking writing seriously” is now defined by speed and productivity, rather than by maturing craft painstakingly learned over time. A notable change, which may be another overgeneralization, is that many of the writers who wrote for a living—the science fiction writers of the Golden Age of SF, for instance—churned out an enormous amount of crap initially, but learned how to write, on the job, and became the classic authors we still read today. Many of today’s professional writers, some of them hugely successful, write just as badly years later as they did when they started.

When I say “write badly” I’m talking about the qualities that make a book a classic and that are necessarily left out when the goal is to earn a living. These professional writers do improve their ability to plot, to maintain tension, to keep a reader hanging on until the exciting ending. What they may not bother with is style or even basic grammar. This does not describe every professional writer, and I’m not trying to feather and tar professional writers, as a group.

The real problem is that they are influential, and their advice to beginning writers, based on their own experience, and their success, makes it appear that their methods must be followed if success is to follow.

What does all this have to do with drafts? Everything. I think it was Ray Bradbury who advised writers to produce only one draft, and get the darn thing published. It’s popular advice, but I wonder at what stage of his career Bradbury made the suggestion that has, over time, turned into a rule. Was it an early statement when he was struggling to establish himself? Did he stick to it throughout his career? He wasn’t alone in advising just one or two drafts, and I suspect it’s the reason we see so many books that look exactly like first drafts: grammatically awkward, vocabulary-challenged, full of plot holes, continuity errors, and cardboard characters.

But here’s the thing. If you can write a story that hooks and holds the reader, you can get away with all that. Why? Because the majority of readers don’t see the problems, and even if they do, they don’t care as long as they’re being entertained. So, if you want to earn a living by entertaining the readers, one or two drafts will do the trick. You will rake in the bucks and it won’t bother you that your stories are read one time and then forgotten when the reader grabs another one more or less like it. It won’t bother you that your books will eventually disappear, buried under the ever-growing mountain of momentary entertainment, or that your name will be forgotten. You accomplished no more during your lifetime than the office worker sitting in his or her cubicle, but let’s hope you at least enjoyed it more than the office drone enjoys his job.

Good Intentions

Six chapters of Camp Expendable read yesterday, eleven more to go. This was supposed to be a straight readthrough in one day, but I hardly ever manage that. Just gotta edit when I see something that needs to be changed. But I’ve been managing a little self-control, and highlighting some of the areas that I want to go back to after this round.

The cover is sort of done, after having to drop two different ideas. It still needs work. My second idea was a sign post with the camp name stenciled on. It looked terrible, so that was out, but I kept the stencil font. That will have to change. And I should probably delete the question mark. So this is a semi-final version. Comments are welcome.Camp Expendable-blog


Best Laid Plans, Spring, and All That

I intended to spend Sunday reading straight through Camp Expendable, then start another editing run-through, and maybe work on the cover. Didn’t happen. Son invited me to the “traditional” “Easter” dinner of lasagne. Any holiday, and I doubt anyone in the family observed this one, is a good excuse for a big dinner, even if there’s no tradition in back of it. My DIL makes a mean lasagne, and I got to take some home with me.

It was a perfect day. Actually sat out in the sun with my Kindle, took a guided tour through the gardens to see what was coming up (lots of daffodils), and even pulled a weed or two. Got back home just ahead of a major thunderstorm. Before the trip home, we took a side trip to their store, which has evolved over the years from office supply store, gift shop, arts and crafts gallery, to antique shop. One lovely display is small plants, including mini African Violets, in tea cups and carved-out old books. Don’t worry, none of the books are worth anything. The African Violet of my dreams was in a tea cup (for $19.00!), but luckily there was one still in its mini pot. So I now have the first of what will probably turn into another African Violet collection. I had one years ago, and have missed them.

It’s officially Spring now because I just ordered vegetable and herb seeds from Burpee. And one single strawberry plant. It was ridiculously expensive, but it’s a spreader, so I’ll propagate it from runners if the flavor is as good as they claim. I also dipped into my son’s seed supply for a few items, including marigolds, which I’ll use as companion plants for repelling bugs. And they’re pretty.

I used up most of a 40 pound bag of potting soil in the six and a half months since I moved into my apartment, and another one will be needed very soon. I’ve cut back some on my plans for this first year of indoor food gardening. But there will still be eggplant, summer squash, tomatoes, lettuce, swiss chard, and carrots, plus peppermint, sage, and basil to add to the lemon balm, parsley, and ginger already growing.

Back to the book today?


One more chapter of Camp Expendable to edit in this round. Then read through the whole thing quickly before getting into what I hope will be the final round before proofreading. My original idea for the cover didn’t work, but that’s okay. The new one won’t be spectacular, but I think it will work. I’m looking for the right font, because that’s what will really make it. I’ll be very, very glad to get it all over and done with because I’m itching to get back to the book about the death penalty.

I’m also nervous about tackling it because it’s going to be an experiment in style. In fact, I’d have to say that I’ll be pantsing it, not something I normally do, or at least not to the same extent.

If I can find the font for Expendable and get the cover finished up, I’ll post it here tomorrow.