Rewrites: Knowing what to throw away – and what to keep

“Every gambler knows/that the secret to surviving/is knowing what to throw away/and knowing what to keep . . .” – Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ 

This is a line from Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” The song is about a young gambler who meets up with an old gambler, who gives him some sage advice about life before dying on the train bound for nowhere. A very cheery song.

But, just as the young gambler ‘found an ace that I could keep’ in that advice, maybe we can, too.

As writers, we also have to know what to throw away and what to keep. Rewrites abound with these choices. We’ve all read books – especially debut novels – where we think hmm, couldn’t that line or paragraph or entire chapter have been cut without doing anything to the book? And in truth, we’re probably right.

Of course, when it’s you in the writer’s seat, and it’s your baby you’r taking a red pen to, those choices are much harder to make! Once someone – a beta reader, perhaps – suggests, ever so gently, that perhaps this paragraph could be cut because .  . . we tend to instantly launch into defense mode. Truthfully? We know they’re probably right. But admitting that is so hard!

It’s really hard to know what to throw away. I’ve been working on that dratted middle part of my novel for the past week, rearranging scenes, editing others for tension and pace, and yes, cutting some entirely.

Oooh. Yeah. I hear the gasps. What do you mean, you cut? Lines? Oh, my goodness. How could you do that? Wait. You cut – gasp! – scenes? (Horrified silence that drags out . . .)

Yup. Scenes. Entire ones.

How do you know if things need to be cut? Well, if you’re like me, you spend 9 years – off and on – making small edits and revisions and hearing a little voice inside telling you that something’s Not Quite Right, but being unwilling to make the hard choices because that will mean Armageddon.

Let’s think about that little voice for a second.

We are writers. We are readers. At least, we’d better be. We know when something feels ‘off.’ We may not be able to pinpoint precisely what that is, but we know it, deep down. There’s a little hesitation when we read certain paragraphs. We gloss over some sentences, unwilling to look them in the eye. We frown over the transitions from one scene to another, or one chapter to another. We scrunch up our faces at character motives and don’t even get me started on how much we dread reading some dialogue! That’s the little voice writers have. It doesn’t magically appear. It’s developed over time, as we write, edit, read, write, edit, read, write . . . We get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, what our voice sounds like, when we’re imitating others.

In short, listen to the freaking little voice. You may not know what’s going on exactly, but stick a Post-It note on that page anyway. Put a frowny face on it. Just remind yourself that Here Be Something To Work On. Because that little voice? It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you how to make your novel better.

Another thing to keep in mind is the issue I’m having right now:  scenes that no longer fit. What do you do when you’ve revised and edited, and suddenly that pivotal scene in the middle, the one that once changed the entire thing for your characters, isn’t needed anymore? This is what I did to myself. I had a scene that – okay, let’s be honest. I knew it didn’t work. I knew it was out of character for my MC, Erin, and I knew my other MC, Kai, would never ever in a million years NEVER let her do that. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t let it go.

And then I made some major changes earlier in the novel, and that scene is now . . . not necessary. So I cut it from the new draft. It just never got copied and pasted over. I’m still wrestling with whether this is good or not!

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But. Here’s the thing:  if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t belong in your novel.

For a long time I considered this scene sacred, integral to the novel (yes, despite my misgivings about it!). But here’s a sad fact:  if the scene doesn’t go in, it won’t matter. Seriously. It won’t matter to the novel at all.

 (At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m not entirely convinced.)

There are other reasons to jettison paragraphs or entire scenes. One is simply that it doesn’t move the story forward. It might be pretty. It might be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. Does it add to the story in any meaningful way? Does it provide for character development, plot twists, new information? If not – let it go. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch put it,

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (On the Art of Writing, 1916).

Or, if you prefer the great Stephen King:

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)” (On Writing) 

Or, you’d rather, Kurt Vonnegut:

“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” — (How to Use the Power of the Printed Word)

(And please remember:  just because you don’t use it in THIS novel doesn’t mean you can’t rework it for another one! Nothing we write is every truly gone. Plus, your future readers will never know it used to be there. All they’ll notice is the nice, tight pacing, the flow from one scene to the next, the rapid plot development.)

Another reason is parallel to the one I mentioned above – after you’ve revised, you suddenly have a scene that just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your character’s motivations have changed. Maybe you’ve added – or deleted – a character. Whatever the reason, it’s just not necessary anymore. Take heart in the fact that you recognize this, and you’re ready to make the sacrifice for the novel’s greater good!

So if you’ve had paragraphs that you felt were extraneous, or lines of dialogue that don’t go anywhere, or even entire scenes that don’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to cut those bad boys right out of there. Cut them! Do it! Now!

Doesn’t that feel empowering? Scary, yes, but empowering?

Now do one more thing:  save your novel as an entirely new file. And do this every single time you make major revisions and cuts to your manuscript. I just spent about two hours trying to find an old scene that got cut, and now I need again. I was able to find it because I save my novels as new files all the time. No recreating it from memory. It just needs some tweaking to slide right into place.

This way, you can throw things away – and keep them.

 

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Are You Tough Enough . . . for Rewrites?

Rewrites are really tough.

I don’t mean the nit-picky line edits to catch grammar and spelling errors. I mean the kind of rewrites that require you to rip apart entire scenes and stitch them back together, then rewrite the segues between chapters. The kind that make you look at characterization and character arcs.

We always draft our novels, hesitate over things that don’t seem quite right, and say ‘Well, that’s what rewrites are for!’ but the fact is – rewrites are bloody hard work. 

But. If you ever want your manuscript to see the light of day, you have to do them. Seriously. Think about it. How many times have you read a novel where you threw it across the room because it a.) was poorly edited, b.) had major plot holes, c.) characters did things out of character, or d.) ___ (insert reason here). This is why YOU have to do them – so no one, hopefully, throws your book across a room.

I just finished rewrites on the first novel in my urban fantasy series (which – I am hoping – may actually meet an agent this year), and now that it’s off to my beta readers, I’ve started re-reading and editing the second book.

Here’s the thing:  in my mind, that book was already done. In fact, that book was originally Book #1 of the series, but – well, I discussed this in another blog post ( https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/wrong-path-wrong-focus-whats-your-novel-really-about/ ). It had issues, I knew, but nothing on the scale of the one I was currently working on. Suffice to say that for the past few months, while I’ve been frantically editing and rewriting on Book #1, I’ve been consoled by a single thought:  Book #2 isn’t as bad. In fact, it’s really good. I remember it flows well and the characters do great things and it’s funny and full of tension. It’ll need a few tweaks, is all. 

HAH!!!!

OMG. I long for those halcyon days. They were what, four days ago?!

I’m about halfway through the first read of the draft of Book #2, and I can’t believe I thought this was anywhere close to being done. It’s not. It’s SO not.

I suppose every writer goes through this. Neil Gaiman, when he came to Tulsa, told us that there’s a point about halfway through his books where he calls his agent and tells her he can’t do this and the book sucks and he’s a horrible writer (and his agent says “Oh, you’re at that point in the book.”). In her book Write Naked, Jennifer Probst talks about her rewriting woes as well (in fact, she tells a story about her editor calling with a bombshell:  the book sucks, and you need to rewrite the entire thing in seven days. Probst told her editor that she had two small children, and rewriting an entire book in seven days would be problematic – to which the editor said, “Well, you’ll just have to give your children away for the week.”).

And it’s not even so much that I have to do the rewrites – I knew that was coming – it’s the fact that I could be So Freaking Wrong about how good I thought this manuscript was! The book I have in my memory was 85% complete. It needed tweaked. I remembered a couple of scenes that needed some work, and a few that I wanted to move around for better flow, but after that . . . in truth, I was thinking I’d have this thing wrapped up in a week or two.

Yeah. Well. No.

Maybe this is like when you break up with someone, and after a few months, they want to get back together, and you’ve conveniently forgotten why you broke up with them in the first place. You forgot the hideous laugh, or the crude humor, or the way he strips his transmission rather than go into the proper gear, or . . . whatever it is, you forget it. Then, when you’re back together, poof! You remember!

Like I said, I’m about halfway through that first read-through, making notes and sticking turquoise Post-It Notes to nearly every page. Sometimes two or three per page. Realizing, as I go, that this isn’t a quick fix, and it’s not an ‘edit the existing manuscript’ thing, even.

It’s a let’s rewrite this entire manuscript thing.

As I’m reading, I’m struck by several factors that I can’t believe I forgot about. They must have been there – and not lurking in the shadows, either, but right there out in the open. Nearly every page has entire paragraphs that are circled, with a big black REWRITE next to it. A lot of things that were changed in Book 1 need to be addressed – new events, thing that got switched out between Books 1 and 2, motivations. My entire Chapter 1 has to be trashed and redone. Scenes don’t flow – in fact, they don’t even go together in some cases! It’s confusing, convoluted, and crap.

I have the glimmer of some goodness. Some scenes are okay. Some paragraphs are all right. Some sentences can even be left alone. If I can figure out how to fit them back in and where they go, anyway. But overall? IT’S CRAP!

I’m tempted to start rewrites right away, but I need to finish this re-read first. I know it will be a total rewrite. I also know I can do it – but I feel so blindsided! How the hell did I think this was any good?! How?!

My saving grace, I think, is that since I just finished the rewrites to Book 1, I’m in the right mindset to be brutal for these. With Book 1, I was downright brutal – I cut entire scenes! If a scene didn’t propel the story forward, ask or answer questions, and hold my attention, it got cut. By the time I was done, I  was so close to it that I don’t know if I accomplished that or not. We often refer to books as ‘babies,’ but the fact is, when you reach a certain point in the writing/rewriting cycle, that ain’t your baby anymore – it’s the freaking enemy, and all you want to do is defeat it, by any means necessary!

And since I’m still in that ‘it’s the enemy!’ mindset – I’m ready to be brutal!

Yes, rewrites are tough.

We, as writers, have to be tougher.

 

My blog post about seeing Neil Gaiman in Tulsa:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-magical-evening-with-neil-gaiman/

And Jennifer Probst’s website:  http://www.jenniferprobst.com/

 

Rethinking the Story Arc in Novels

Writers need to take inspiration wherever they find it. It might not be pretty, or conventional, but if it’s there and you don’t use it – then the moment will pass you by and you’ll probably come to regret it.

Such was the case this summer with my young adult novel.

I’ve been struggling with it for some time. I know the ending; I knew the ending from the first line, in fact, since it’s bookended. I knew the beginning and I had dozens of scenes drafted out, ready to go. What I kept stumbling over was that traditional story arc – rising action on top of rising action, your MC’s journey, his setbacks, his struggles to get to the next level – you get the gist.

Some might say that I didn’t know the story well enough, if that was my problem and there’s no doubt a grain of truth there. I knew my MC. I didn’t know his nemesis very well; his motives were murkier, more difficult to sort out. All I’ve ever gotten from this guy is stone-cold killer, and in that case, why not just take out my MC on page 80 and have done with it? What was holding him back?

But what puzzled me more was all those scenes I had. I thought I knew what order they went in, and yet, when I tried to fit them together into a coherent novel, they refused to fit snugly into place. Stupid puzzle pieces. Don’t they KNOW they’re supposed to go together? 🙂

So this spring, I thought – maybe this isn’t one novel. Maybe it’s really two novels.

And oddly enough, when I thought about it that way and started putting together what I thought was Book 1 – puzzles pieces began to slide into place.Scenes got deleted. Scenes got moved up. New scenes were written. It was smoother and flowed and it wasn’t quite perfect but it was better – and yet.

There wasn’t a story arc.

There was no forward momentum.

I pondered. I walked. I paced. I ate a lot of chocolate cake. I demanded to  know why my characters weren’t doing what I wanted them to do.

And Nicky, my MC, gave me a look from under his tweed driving cap and said “‘Cause you know it’s only one novel and don’t you go thinking you’re gonna change that ending, either, lady. You ain’t.”

So. I had a nice beginning and nowhere to go with it. In frustration, I jotted down every scene on a separate notecard and tacked them to the wall, where I could rearrange them at will. I’ve done that before, with a good deal of success. But not this time. Yes, I knew I could create a story arc, but the very idea felt artificial. It felt wrong. It almost felt like a violation of my characters. And Nicky was absolutely refusing to go along with it, anyway.

I refused to let it go. I had to figure out how this novel went together. I was trying to write, trying to force scenes into place, but it felt like I was stitching together a Frankenstein-esque monster – a mishmash of parts that didn’t quite fit. I spent days wrestling with it.

Then, finally – THANK YOU, UNIVERSE! – inspiration hit.

Maybe I was thinking about it wrong. Maybe instead of trying to make it fit into a story arc model *(which, I’ll admit, is a difficult concept for me to visualize even with flow charts and, well, visuals), I needed to think about a different model. One I know well.

Television series. Television seasons.

Oh, I know. I’m a traitor. Shoot me now. But wait.

It actually worked.

Really. It did. I thought about the first season in a television series – how there’s usually an overarching theme or goal or quest, how you’re getting to know the characters, how by the end of that season, that overarching goal should be reached. It often leaves you on a cliffhanger as well – and if it’s not picked up for Season 2, you write many bad letters to, let’s say, CBS – but not everything is focused 100% on that goal in every episode. It might be mentioned in some episodes, with no visible progress made. And some episodes are devoted to that goal completely.

Take, for example, Season 1 of Supernatural. From episode 1, you know Sam and Dean have some relationship problems, they need to find their dad, and they’re on a quest to hunt the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend. That’s not the only thing they do during that season, of course – there are a lot of monsters to hunt out there. 🙂 But. By the end of Season 1, they’ve found their dead, shot the demon they were hunting, and begun to act as a team. We’ll ignore the cliffhanger.

Or Season 1 of my favorite cancelled show ever, Moonlight. From Episode 1, we know that Mick is a vampire living in L.A., he’s in love with a mortal named Beth, and all he wants is to be human again. Oh, and he’s a PI. During the season, he’s forced to reveal his true nature to Beth, and by the end of the season, they are sort of together – though Beth has doubts about how they can fit into each others’ worlds – and Mick is on the trail of something that might make him human again. (And then the bastards at CBS cancelled it.)

For some reason, this makes more sense to me than the traditional story arc idea. I know it’s basically the same thing, but the idea of ‘episodes’ instead of ‘chapters’ somehow made it easier to slot scenes into place. I went to my local coffee shop and three hours later not only had the entire timeline drafted into 20 ‘episodes’ but also had rearranged the entire manuscript, complete with notes about what needed to be added or changed when I got to that point. It wasn’t set in stone – I gave myself permission and room to rearrange as needed – but I had the basics.

Not to say it’s been perfect – I’m still fiddling with it, and just rearranged a pretty major scene yesterday – but the framework is there and I can live with that.

And from there, I can move forward – something I haven’t been able to do for months.

 

Why I’m Not Yet Published

Last week, I met with some friends for one of our get-togethers. We all have busy lives, so when we can get together, we tend to spend hours talking. Invariably, it all turns to writing and books.

Invariably, it all turns to me. And why I’m not published yet.

I’ve been hearing this for quite some time, actually. It’s a familiar refrain, like “What could possibly go wrong?” from Top Gear. (I HATE YOU, BBC, I HATE YOU!) The problem (for me) is that I hear it not from other writers, but from my friends – and I love them, I really do – but my friends who do not write novels.

If you don’t write novels, you don’t know what it’s like.

I just finished Heather Sellers’ wonderful Chapter by Chapter (see last week’s post for more information). She addresses this problem in Chapter 25, “Writing is Revising,” and Chapter 26, “Just Want to be Done.”

Here’s the problem:  Agents receive 50+ queries before they wake up in the morning. Every. Single. Day. And when they sit down to read these queries, what they’re doing is looking for reasons to reject authors. They have literally thousands of manuscripts to choose from. They need to narrow the field. Some, they can toss right away:  wrong name, no name, not submitted properly, bad spelling and/or grammar, wrong genre. Some, they can’t reject right away because damn it, the author’s done the thing properly. So they have to read the first chapter or first five pages, or whatever they’ve requested. But guess what? They’re still looking for a reason to reject you. As a writer, your job is to never, ever give them that reason.

How? You revise. You rewrite. You do it over again. And again. And again.

Six years’ worth, if that’s what it bloody takes. Seven. Ten.

The other refrain I heard this past week, which I think I’ve heard before, is “Send it out already. It’s fine. It’s good enough. Besides, the agent and editor will fix whatever’s wrong with it – they’ll want you to make changes anyway, so who cares if it’s perfect or not? JUST SEND IT!”

NO!!!!

Here’s what Heather Sellers has to say about that:  “We have passages of brilliant writing. The plot holds together, basically, and there are some excellent moments in our book. Isn’t that enough? Can’t someone else take care of the other stuff? Tables of contents, indexes, chapter titles, fixing the weaker scenes – aren’t there people who do that? Well, yes. Of course there are. They’re called writers. That would be you.”

She then goes on to say:

“Just as no one loves your kids as much as you do, not even the greatest editor on the planet will care as much about your book, its details, its perfection, its publication, its success, as you do. You must be your own editor before you send the book out of your house and into the world.”

See, here’s the problem. The competition to be published has never been greater. It used to be that a nobody with a decent idea but no clue how to write it could be taken under the wing of an agent or editor, and guided through the process. Not anymore. You’re not an Idea Person. You’re the writer, editor, proofreader, researcher, advocate, and RE-WRITER, all rolled into one person. And you’re expected to know your competition. And you’re not competing just against the published authors – you’re competing against those just like you, who aren’t published yet, but desperately want to be. The question is, what are YOU willing to do to make your manuscript stand out?

Again, Sellers:  “Many writers believe – secretly or openly – that someone else will do this . . . ‘Won’t my agent get it ready for publication?’ They want that editor who exists in their mind, that fantasy person from yesteryear who is so devoted to their genius and their book that she puts everything on hold to help them fix it.

“It just doesn’t work that way.

“Not every writer passively expects someone else to do part of his work; there are plenty of writers who do everything they can to their books and then some. And after they’ve set aside the project for a while, they return to it and do even more to improve the book. You are competing with these authors.”

That’s me. That writer. The one doing everything to improve my book and then some.

It is not someone else’s job to fix my book. It is not someone else’s job to write my book. It is not someone else’s job to figure out why the plot’s not working quite the way I want it to. That is my job. And my job isn’t finished until I have figured those things out. And if you write novels, your job isn’t finished, either. Not until that book is the best it can possibly be. As Sellers says, this is a profession. Agents and editors are professionals. They will look much more favorably on your book – your baby – if you present yourself as a professional, too. And by making your book the absolute best it can be – no matter how long that takes – you’re showing that you are a professional. That you take publishing, and writing, and your manuscript, seriously. That you take them and their time seriously.

And THAT is why I am not yet published.

When the doubts come marching in . . .

For the past few weeks – in between many other things – I’ve been going over the book I wrote last spring. It’s gone through 21 revisions already.

I have two chapters left. The climax and denouement. That’s it. Two more to finish reading and revising. So I sat down last night to get them done. Just another 30 pages or so, and I can get started on putting the revisions to work.

So I picked up the manuscript and started reading . . . and ten minutes later, threw it down in disgust and got up to do laundry instead. Epiphany Time had arrived.

My books sucks.

Is there a time in every writer’s life when they stare at the mess they’ve created, rather like Dr. Frankenstein, and say “Ye gods, what have I done? What have I done?” (Imagine enraged, desperate scream to the heavens echoing from stone walls here.) A time when the doubts come marching in?

I hope so, because I am so there.

To be fair, I do this all the time, with almost every manuscript. Well. No. To be fair, I actually don’t. It’s just this urban fantasy series. What about it is so infuriating? What about it makes me incapable of writing it to any façade of satisfaction? I have no idea. What I know is that I get to a place where I’m happy with it, I send it to my betas, they review it and send it back to me, and then . . . when I start on the revisions, I realize that It Sucks.

I have plenty of other novels sitting on my hard drive that don’t do this to me. They’re good. They were early novels, but there are things about them I love. The writing, the characters. The fact that they move forward. That they have plots. That my characters develop over time.

Yeah. I’m starting to see the problem with the current novel.

The fact is, the doubts march in only when they’re needed. Sort of like gargoyles. Gargoyles only come to life when they’re needed to combat evil. Doubts are there for a reason: to let us know that all is NOT right with the world we’ve created. I take heart from that. Gargoyles might look damned scary as they swoop down on you (though I admit, I’ve never really seen this, so I’m guessing here), but in the end, they’re there to save the day. Doubts must be the same way, right?

I’ve realized quite a few things about this novel in the last couple of weeks.

  • Some chapters need to be rearranged.
  • Some need to come out altogether.
  • I need a plot that actually goes somewhere, but to have that, I have to have characters who are actually willing to do something. Right now, I don’t. So the plot doesn’t progress.
  • Although I adore most of my secondary characters, I’m having trouble with my MC, Erin, and the primary “mover” in the book, a girl named Rebecca. Rebecca doesn’t do much, either, and the truth is, I don’t even really like her.
  • My secondary plot lines are great, but my main one is virtually nonexistent.
  • Rebecca’s biggest problem is a guy named Seth, who only shows up in the last scene.

Maybe most damning of all, I am not familiar with my setting. I’ve never been to England. I want to. I’m dying to. But without having been there, how can I write about it with any conviction? I can’t describe the streets and buildings, or the route Erin takes to university every day, or the shops. I can’t put her in a convincing setting.

But what I think I hate most about it is that it seems so superficial. Like my characters are skating on top of ice, when they really need to be swimming in the depths below. There are moments when I feel them beginning to fall through the ice and get to those dark depths, but those moments are too few and too far between.

Is it fixable? Maybe. Will it need extensive rewrites? Absolutely. Have I got other things to be doing? Yup. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up yet. But the doubts have definitely – and thankfully – marched in. Now, I need to listen to them.

 

When That Scene Just Doesn’t Work

We’ve all been there.

You’re typing away madly, barely hanging on as your characters get deeper and deeper into trouble. Or you’re lost in the rush of the words, the meter and cadence and rhythm.

And then . . . it isn’t coming so fast anymore. You’re struggling. You’re not sure why. You just feel that Something Isn’t Right With This. Nothing you can put your finger on. Just a subtle shift in the universe, is all. The dialogue feels stilted. Your characters, stifled. Your action, weird.

What do you do?

A LOT of people will give you this advice:  “Push on through! Write it anyway! If it sucks, you can revise it later! Don’t stop!”

What the fruitbat kind of crap is that???

If it’s not working, IT’S NOT WORKING. Here, let me get my soapbox back out. soapboxThere, that’s better. Now, back to what I was saying. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s a reason why it isn’t working. There’s a reason why your fingers have gone still on the keyboard and your brain — and probably your characters — are screaming at you to stop. Just stop. Everything. For five minutes.

So you stop. Phew. Isn’t that better? Now. Let’s figure out exactly What Went Wrong.

There are any number of reasons why a scene doesn’t work at a particular time. Some of the most common are:

1.) You’re taking a wrong turn or going on a bad tangent. Writers have a gut instinct about their stories and where they need to go. If you find yourself stuck, think about it for a second. Is this scene taking you down some narrow, rutted dirt road with no way out? Are you going to get stuck and have to wait for some dudes blaring “Dueling Banjos” from speakers to come bail you out? Maybe your gut is telling you that’s exactly what’s happening. Just like we need to listen to our instincts in “real life,” we need to listen to them in our writing lives, too.

2.) This scene will change your novel — and not for the better. Is it making your characters do things they shouldn’t be doing? Is it slowing down the pace? Is it going to result in a complete turnabout for your storyline, one you don’t want?

3.) It’s just boring. Or worse, it just sucks. This happened to me last week. The scene is crucial to my storyline; that wasn’t the issue. The issue was how it was written, initially. It — well, here. You can see for yourself. The first is the way it was originally written; the second is when I stopped and said, “this sucks!” and rewrote it.

Twenty minutes later, I saw Adam loitering in the shadows at the end of the porter’s lodge, inside the quad. When he saw me, he took a few steps forward, into the light, and I could see the fear leave his face for a second, see the relief that flooded through him – only to see it disappear in the next second, and the fear return. He stopped, some distance from me, and I slowed my steps, hesitant.

“Come.” He jerked his head towards the quad, and I followed him. It was a freezing night; my breath clouded the air, and I shivered in my heavy coat as we hurried down the cobblestone walks, through a small gate, and across another quad towards the dorms. I’d never been in this part of the campus before, but Adam seemed to know exactly where he was going, his long strides eating up the walks.

“Adam,” I gasped, “what the hell’s going on?”

Yeah, I’m a coward. What I really wanted to ask was whether he knew I could see ghosts, whether she’d told him. I didn’t have to; Adam gave me a quick glance, and in his eyes I saw everything.

“She’s flipping out,” he said. “Screaming about you and how you’ve done something to her and she’s got to talk to you right now so it can be fixed.” His steps paused, and he searched my face; then he stopped completely, and grabbed my arm to stop me, too. “Erin,” he said. “What does she mean? She said – she said to tell you they’re everywhere, and she believes you. She said – she said she has to see you, right now.”

Okay. It’s not bad, exactly:  it just wasn’t going anywhere. So I immediately stopped, and rewrote it.

Twenty minutes late, I dashed through the gates and saw Adam at the other end of the walk, in the shadows. He stepped forward, and I stumbled to a halt at the look in his eyes.

“Adam,” I whispered, “what the hell’s going on?”

His face was white; his eyes looked haunted, afraid. And when he touched my arm briefly, I could feel it trembling, even through my sweater and coat.

“Wish I knew,” he said. “She . . . she called me about an hour ago. Completely off her rocker. Begged me to come over, to make them go away. And then . . .” He took a shuddering breath, and jerked his head towards the quad. “Come on. Better you see for yourself.”

It was a freezing night; my breath clouded the air around me, and I shivered in my heavy coat as we hurried across the quad and out the north gates, towards the dorms. I’d never been on this part of campus before, but Adam seemed to know where he was going, his long strides making it difficult to keep up with him. Every now and then he’d glance over his shoulder to make sure I was still there, but he didn’t slow down, and he didn’t seem to want me to get too close to him.

Something twisted up deep inside me. But I forced myself to follow him into one of the nineteenth-century dormers and up two flights of steps. The entire house felt oppressive; I felt pressure from all sides, and my senses immediately went on guard.

I had to GET ON WITH IT. So I did.

4.) Your characters are telling you to stop. This does happen. Sometimes we think we know where a story needs to go and what needs to happen, and what we really need to do is listen to our characters. It’s not your story, after all; it belongs to them. They live in that world. They have to deal with the fallout of their decisions. And if they’re just sitting there like lumps, it’s probably because you’re not listening to them. Listen to them. Then do what they tell you to do.

5.) It isn’t moving the story forward. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, that beautiful prose that springs from our pens (or keyboards) just doesn’t get the job done. I’m a firm believer that if a scene doesn’t perform at least two functions, it isn’t working hard enough. A scene can be beautifully written and still have tension, deliver information, convey character and character changes. Scenes must move the story forward. If yours doesn’t, you have two choices:  revise it, or, as Stephen King says, “murder your darlings.”

Yes, I’ve had to do that. I hate it. But it’s not gone forever! You still have it on your hard drive, and your flash drive, and in the cloud, and  in hard copy, and in a dozen other places because we never ever have just one version of our novels, right?! And who knows? Maybe it can be reworked into something different. Maybe you can pull certain quotes or sentences and use them elsewhere.

So the moral of the story is, if you’re stuck on a scene — ABANDON IT. That scene isn’t the only gig in town, I promise! And what you learn from that scene will only help make the right one even better.

Those Dreaded Revisions, Part 2 (My Own Process)

Last week, I promised I’d show you my dirty little secret — my own revision process. (Why — what were YOU thinking?!)

First, let me get this out of the way:  there is no magic number as to how many times you need to revise your manuscript. There just isn’t. I’ve been working on one series for six years now. It took me forever to realize that the reason it wasn’t working was because a.) It needed to be in 1st person, not 3rd, and b.) That first long, slogging book was really two books disguised as one. Know how many revisions I went through with that first book? Twenty-eight. I actually had to go back and look at my saved documents because I’ve blocked that number from my mind.

But then I figured it out late last year, spent most of the spring and early summer dividing that one book into two and rewriting the new first book to the series. Know how many drafts I went through with that one? Twenty-one.

Now you’re probably asking:  what exactly constitutes a draft, to you?

To me, a new draft occurs when I have made so many changes that it cannot no longer be considered the same version. That threshold, however, is probably different for every person. It can be changes to sentences and paragraphs. major deletions, moving scenes and/or chapters, rewriting entire chapters. If all you did was go in and change “and” to “or” once or twice, that’s probably not a new draft. If you wrote an entire scene where Joe declares his love for Becky and she slaps him, so he goes out and shoots someone, and that didn’t happen in the previous version, that’s probably a new draft.

Why do I save so many drafts? you may be asking. Why not just save over the old version a million times? Doesn’t that save space on your hard drive? Well, yes, it does. But it also means that you cannot ever access the old version again. And let’s say you had a scene that you wrote, and after a few months you realize it just doesn’t fit with this particular book, so you delete it. Then you save that draft — and what have you done? You’ve deleted that scene permanently. What happens if you want that scene later, for a different book?! It’s gone! All gone! No turkey sandwiches! No gallons of turkey soup!

So that’s why I save so many versions. In different places. My laptop. My external hard drive. My email. My flash drive.

When I’m revising, I prefer a hard copy — although I am really liking my new method of saving my latest draft as an ePub document and loading it on my Nook. The only problem with that is you have to make the notes on a notepad (or utilize the handy-dandy Notes feature, which allows you to tap a word and then make a note that you can reference later). But the hard copy is great because I can take my colored pen and my Post-It Notes and go to town.

These are pages from a draft I revised earlier this year. This is what some of my pages look like:

page 1

Here, I’ve left myself notes about plot and character development. My first note is telling myself that the dates don’t match up, and that it’s too early for my MC to make any conclusions about whether one death had anything to do with another.

The second one is a reminder that although I know where this story is heading, my MC doesn’t quite yet, and I need to make that clear to the readers! She’s still jumping to conclusions — an easy thing for me to do, when I already know how the story is going to end (by this time, I did know, but I don’t always), and my MC needs to back off a bit and we need to let things develop.

Then, in the text itself, I am forever crossing out lines and rewriting them, and leaving myself notes about “this makes no sense!” Which is something you, as a writer, also need to watch out for:  you know your story better than anyone. Make sure you don’t assume too much! Always ask yourself:  if I was reading this for the first time, or if I didn’t know my own research, would any of this make sense? That’s where your beta readers come in. You need to rely on them to tell you when they get confused and where you haven’t given enough explanation. And you need to make sure they do tell you!

You’ll also see that I write in a purple pen. I will often do dark green, or red, but purple is fast becoming my favorite. I just don’t do black. Ever. It’s too easy to miss things when you go back to do the edits. page 3

Like I said, I’m very hard on myself. I’m a perfectionist, and I don’t like to make mistakes,and if something sucks, I am not shy about letting myself know it! 🙂 For instance, this note says “all of this needs rewritten.” Then I tell myself how I think it should really go. This is just a bare-bones outline, but when I come back to do the rewrites, I’ll have it.

In fact, there are four notes to rewrite this page. And you can see from all the chicken-scratches and purple ink, I wasn’t happy with this scene as written. (I just re-read this scene, in its new version, and I’m still not entirely happy with it, to be honest.) But I never, ever tell myself just to rewrite something, without giving myself a note as to why, or what I should do. That way, I always have that blueprint for later.

With this last one, there’s no major page 2Post-It Notes, but you do see two ink colors: purple and pink. The purple is my note; the pink is a simple “OK” in a circle, to let myself know that I made that change to my satisfaction.

With this particular dialogue exchange, I have three characters “on stage” — my MC, and the two ghosts she knows at her college, Emmett and Harry. They’re . . . you know . . . teenage boys . . . and they’ve been together so long that my MC cannot tell which is which. So when I wrote this exchange where I had no tag lines and no attributions, I got lost myself! 🙂 I needed to remind myself that at this particular point, only Harry was talking; I had to get Emmett in there somehow. Once I had rewritten that, I put the “OK” there to let myself know that this had been completed.

The revision process is different for everyone. As an OCD, sticky-note obsessed, purple-pen-loving writer, this is my method. And it works for me. It might work for you, too, which is why I wanted to share it. It’s a simple process. Brutal, but simple at heart. If you are willing — to quote Stephen King — to murder your darlings, this can work for you. So to recap what I do:

1.) Colored pens and sticky notes.

2.) A hard copy of my manuscript.

3.) A quiet time and place to work. This may be difficult, particularly if you live with cats, as I do. Find a coffeehouse nearby.

4.) Depending on how focused you can be, you may need to read through your manuscript several times. What you’re looking for is:  grammar, sentence and paragraph structure, character development, odd dialogue, adverbs (get rid of them!!!), plot development, lines that can be cut, and of course, those places where Things Aren’t Quite Right. A scene may need moved. A character may act oddly. You may have referenced something that you actually haven’t talked about yet.

5.) If you’re focused and practiced, you may be able to do everything in one go-through. If you’re not, you may want to make two or three passes. Maybe that first time, you’re looking solely at grammar and sentence structure. On your second, you can look at those “not quite right” things. Maybe you’ve already marked a few.

6.) The more familiar you are with your own work, the harder it is to edit. You just don’t see the trees for the forest — or in our case, the twigs. Which is another reason why you need good beta readers.

So I hope that helped a little. Next week, I may continue with some more examples of my own editing and revision process, and share some comments that my own betas have made (we’re to meet this coming Saturday!).