Thursday, October 30, 2008

Word counts

I counted up pages and words of my most recent draft. I forget the date of my last count, but whenever it was, I've added over 5,000 words and 21 pages since then, more in Part II than Part I.

I know stand at:
344 pp. and 107,700 words in Part I;
196 pp. and 59,670 in Part II;
another 11 pp. in the epilogue;
to total 551 pp. and 170,700 words for the whole book.

I've tried estimating the word counts of some published books to do a conversion, and at best (i.e. shortest) this could be 450 pp. in hardback. More like 500 pp. For example, I'm looking at the hardcover of Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, and I estimate that's about 350 words/page. Divide that into my total word count to get almost 500 pp.

Which is a disaster, I think. It's almost twice as long as I want it to be. How the hell did it get so long? And where am I going to cut? I have no idea.

Climax and resolution--another try

As soon as I finished up for the day yesterday I knew I needed to take another try at the ending. It has a basic flaw in it still, inherent from the moment of the book's conception, that I haven't been able to--or really taken the time--to put my finger on. When I started my main goal was to just get enough material down with enough sensible relationship to the rest that I could claim to have a beginning, middle and end of a book-length fiction. I didn't let any standards of excellence in the craft slow me down, at least in the first draft. In the two rewrites so far, I've let them slow me down a little, but I've postponed really grappling with the problems in the ending.

The problems in the ending I think are inherent in the beginning, and according to Jane Smiley, whose Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Novel I'm re-reading yet again, says that just in the nature of novels. Part of the art of novel writing is faking your way through that.

So, in my case, I think it's unsatisfying ending because, as much as I dress it up with a lot of activity so the reader won't notice, it still boils down to the antagonist or other outside forces (there have been a few versions now) taking the action that solves the protagonist's problem. Or the most basic problem anyway. One way I hid that was to have my protagonist take charge of other less essential problems. What the story needs is really simple now that I've taken some time to think it through a little more carefully--for my main character to take an action, consistent with the character I've portrayed him as, especially in the ways he has changed as a result of events so far, to confront the antagonist on their primary conflict and either defeat him or be defeated. The final conflict has to be about who the characters essentially are.

The problem I'm having is one that I hope is a problem I'm supposed to have. It would be very difficult--close to incredible--for my character to win in this circumstance. Otherwise there wouldn't be any suspense. It wouldn't be a real plot. Put another way, it would be a conflict that's out of balance. If he's going to win, I have to build up the possibility of that. L. Rust Hills talks about the inevitability of retrospect, by which he means if you view the plot from beginning to end you see all these possibilities, but if you view it from end to beginning, you should see a path from the beginning that inevitably led you to this point. It takes really delicate work to pull that off--to stack up the odds and to get your reader to believe that your character could survive them anyway.

So last night and this morning I worked on really trying to imagine a solution--an action my character could take that would work to solve his problem and that would be believable without being predictable. And in alignment with the character and other thematic problems of the book that I've layed out--and in alignment with the other subplots which all get resolved in ways that interconnected with this issue. I don't want those sand castles to crumble while I'm doing the patch job on this one.

I used a few different tools to get the creativity going for me. One is just talking with my wife. She's very familiar with the story, so we could really bat it around together. Another one is freewriting--just laying the fingers on the keys and talking out loud. Last was my acting out method, which I've referenced before. I don't want to give away what actually happens in my story, but if you imagine a character hiding in a closet or something, I was essentially doing something like that this morning, putting myself where the characters would be and trying to live it--picturing what they might be feeling or saying. It would be a riot to witness, I'm sure, but it really helps.

And then I forced myself to sit down and draft it. It really only amounts to a couple hundred new words, but it changes everything about the ending. It does solve the problem of my character taking an active role and is therefore more satisfyying. Whether it's credible and therefore wholly satisfying or not is not as clear. My wife read it and thinks it needs work, and I'm sure she's right.

But for now I'm happy that I've devised a much better ending that I can massage some more over time. I'm looking forward to the next editing stage.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sort of finished with second rewrite

I'm not calling this rewrite officially done, but I did finish going through all the chapters all the way to the end. As noted before, I left behind a trail of messes that I need to clean up, and I'm going to circle back and deal with a certain level of those that are categorically similar to the issues I've been dealing with on this rewrite--issues of confusion about what is really happening in a scene. Also some tidying up of names and geography, so this draft won't have any unnecessary, easily fixed confusion in it to distract people who help me read this draft.

This week is I slooowly worked through Ch. 15--the climax--running into more difficulty than I expected. One particular difficulty is a point where my wife noted that she didn't understand the character's behavior--which is deadly in the climax of course--but to me it's perfectly obvious and I just couldn't figure out a solution. Out of all the notes she's given me, that's about the only place I left things alone to see what another reader says.

And then this afternoon I ran through the epilogue, which is only 10 pp., and that brings me to the end.

I'll start getting my editing notes organized tomorrow and spend a couple weeks on that tidying up work.

I need to explain better what I mean by that, but I'm in a rush right now.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Most of Chapter 14

Put in about 2.5-3 hours total today and fell just shy of doing all of Ch. 14. Only a few pages left, though it's the climax and therefore the place that takes the most mental energy, which I'm low on now. I could probably make another push later after a rest, but I have other plans today, so I guess I'm done until Monday.

Homestretch II

Here's one way I know I'm getting closer to the end. Today it hit me--after 18 months of work and several passes over the scene in question--that the make of car I have in a particular scene has bucket seats and I describe the character as sliding over from the passenger side to the driver's side. I need to either make her climb over the brake or find a new make of car.

I'm looking forward to the time when I can make a list of all the little things like that to deal with and work on checking them all off.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


I finished Ch. 12 a couple days ago and Ch. 13 today--with the usual caveat. "Finished" really just means I dealt with the issues I had notes on. In the meantime new issues make themselves apparent, some of which I make new notes on to deal with the next time around.

Ch. 13, though long, didn't have too much to fix, and I don't think Ch. 14 will either. Ch. 15 is the last chapter excepting the epilogue, and the ending and denouement need very delicate work, so I expect to slow down a little there. In theory I could be done with this rewrite by the end of next week. But I don't plan to call it until I circle around and tidy up several things that I left behind along the way. I'm not sure how long that will take, but I doubt more than a couple weeks. I'll be done way ahead of my Christmas deadline and perhaps before Thanksgiving even.

More and more doubts are nagging me, but I'm brushing them off and sprinting for the finish. I'm taking the attitude that what I need most of all is some outside perspective and there's not much point in figuring out what the remaining problems are until I get that perspective. It's sort of like straightening up the house before the maid arrives. I'm not taking it too seriously.

(Not that I expect any friend who reads this to act like a maid. They'll be doing hard work in reading and evaluating, but it will be up to me to clean up the mess. I guess I need a better analogy.)

Other notes:
-Did I mention my injured foot from basketball last week and therefore no basketball this week and in fact not much physical activity of any kind?
-Following the election is driving me crazy. I spend more time on that than working on the book.
-There has been a significant change in my work habits . . . for the reason mentioned above and the consequence is that I often don't get to work first thing. The good news is that I don't apparently NEED to get to work first thing as much as previously. In the past, a little bit of procrastination meant a whole day last. Lately I've been able to force myself to get a late start and be productive for a few hours.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Developing vs. fixing

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but it's on my mind again right now, because I needed to remind myself . . . don't fix; develop.

I've been working through Chapter 12 which is packed with problems, all leading up to a problematic--i.e. unbelievable--ending. I've been picking over the last few pages sentence by sentence trying to make it work.

But the approach I need to take is not to make it work but to think about what my character would actually feel and do in that situation. To think about that without regard to what I have already written. That's the hardest habit to break--limiting the thinking about an episode to what direction is already layed out. Sometimes it's just plain dumb lack of awareness and failure of imagination. And sometimes it's fear--if I start to have him behave thisaway, that will mean the following chapter is irrelevant.

Maybe, but there isn't any choice but to try and dig and develop. Otherwise the story is going to go emotionally brittle and snap off.

Speaking of which, I saw the film The Cooler this weekend, and to me it failed for just exactly this reason. It was like the writing of a talented and promising MFA student that at key moments, instead of being fully developed, started serving the needs of the plot.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Finished" with Chapter 11

Chapter 11 wasn't in quite as bad a shape as I thought. (All of these first chapters in Part II are shorter than everything in Part I also.) So I was able to get through all of it today. Still, I'm moving on with somewhat less confidence than other days this week.

The problem in Ch. 11 is really a question of what the character is like at this stage. In the previous draft I was committed to something that just didn't feel credible, because I needed certain actions out of him to move the plot along. That problem reveals itself a little in Ch. 11 and then really rears its head in Ch. 12. But the "fixes" I made today I think didn't resolve the question so much as postpone it. As a consequence, the ending has a kind of pulled punch feel to it right now that I don't have a lot of confidence in.

Still, I think it's best to take a look at Ch. 12 next and then circle back after I sort out my issues there. Sort of like the continual return to the conclusions of Chapters 5 and 6 as I got more comfortable with what I was doing in Ch. 7.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Done with Ch. 10--downhill from here

Well, basketball was VERY disruptive this week--a very painful injury of some kind to my foot that I am hoping is just a bad sprain. I'm worried that it's as bad as a fracture, but I'm waiting and seeing for now, in bed, elevating and icing it.

I guess that cut short my game enough that I don't seem so sore. Or maybe all the ibuprofen makes a big difference. I'll have to switch from that to the Tylenol I take most weeks. I think I got off it a few years ago because of some tummy irritation.

So, I got a fair amount of work done today. I could probably do more if it didn't mean starting fresh on the next chapter, and maybe I'll try after all. Today I got through Ch. 10. As expected, it was comparatively easy because it doesn't have any serious problems that I can see. I'm looking forward to have another reader's response, and I've started the process of arranging for that, but it will probably take a few months before it's done.

Next up, work that is not nearly so easy. The problems in the next couple chapters are fundamental, and I expect to be gnashing my teeth over them. It's always about imagining how the character would really act in a given situation. Which sounds easy enough, but there is always the pull of what you already have and trying to come up with a patch that will get you from the new material to the existing material when honest work demands that you forget about the existing material and just figure out what is right for the end product.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Done with Ch. 9, sort of

About 5 hours of work today going through Ch. 9, more or less officially finishing the second rewrite, though that's the wrong term probably. This chapter just didn't need that much work. Did a lot of paragraph shaping. There's one particular area scene that I at one time had made some additional sketches on and in my electronic draft I have had a note to myself to go back and find that other material to include. That's still outstanding because I can't find that material now. But there are no serious problems in this chapter that I can see.

I'm not going to make the mistake of saying "At this rate, I'll finish in . . ." Because the rest of it won't go at this rate. Some chapters, including the next one, don't need a lot of work so I can get through them in a day or two, and other chapters are probably going to stump me the way that Ch. 7 did.

Basketball tonight, so I'm not sure what tomorrow holds. I intend to start the rewrite of Ch. 10.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The "search" feature in Word and sentence-level editing

If my prose ends up feeling machine made, there's a good reason for it. I'm using the "search" feature in MS Word to streamline some of the line editing.

I have a running list of corrections I know I want to make. One example is checking to make sure that I use the word "mom" instead of "father" in certain instances when we're close in on my character's POV. I had used mother a lot in my original draft and decided on mom for most circumstances later on. So I keep an eye out for that as I'm rewriting, but many of them survive, so one tool is just to search for the term "mother" in every chapter and check to see if it needs to be changed. Same for father/dad.

Another example is to look for certain kinds of weak sentence constructions. From my earliest days as a newspaper reporter, my first editor always told me "Don't begin a sentence with 'there is' or 'there are.'" There isn't anything inherently wrong with that. (I just did it in the previous sentence actually.) But it can start you down a path to something else weak in the sentence later and it's a missed opportunity.

For a full explanation, I'll refer you to the book Style: Ten Lessons In Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams, but if you check a draft with many sentences starting "There is" you'll find that the object of the sentence is often an abstraction and often what is called a "nominalization"--a verb in noun form. Clear and graceful (and less wordy) writing typically uses verbs in verb form. So in this case, you have a clumsy, abstract noun following a weak "to be" verb. Also, the subject of the sentence--"there"--is much weaker than if you had a person, place or thing. This is connected to a related principle I try to follow of having every sentence start with a PERSON who is DOING something.

The magic is you don't actually have to know any of this grammar stuff. If you just avoid starting a sentence with "there is" or "there are" you automatically force yourself to use more active verbs and clearer subjects and objects.

BTW, all of this can be similarly applied to sentences that begin (in business/present tense writing) with "It is" or (in narrative/past tense) writing with "It was."

Now, obviously none of this is an absolute rule, except in copy submitted to my first newspaper editor, and if you look above, you'll find a half dozen sentences probably that violate this advice. I'm talking more about writing than rewriting (and who rewrites blog posts?).

Similarly, the first draft of my book, where I was casting about in the dark to find my point, was filled with weak sentence constructions like those--and many others. When it comes time to really try and sharpen the sentence-level writing, I'm going to have a lot of work to do. But on off days when I'm not sure what I should be working on, I try the trick with the search tool. I search for "there is" and several other similar weak constructions, and I try to rewrite the sentences I find, especially if the sentences begin that way.

All over the place

The good news is that I'm putting a lot of time in--just about a full day today and more than a little bit over the weekend, too. The bad news is I'm undecided about how I should focus my time. Whether to circle back and clean up problems that I'm aware of or dive into Part II.

I haven't been having my wife read any of it lately, so I'm way behind on getting her perspective. Over the weekend she kindly agreed to read a couple chapters and this time I had her read them out loud to me. I was pleasantly surprised at how well developed and cohesive they sounded, and I was considerably cheered. We definitely spotted some problems that I spent this morning making some notes on, but I felt reassured that I wasn't hearing two chapters from different books, which has been my biggest fear lately.

Besides those notes, the other thing I did this morning was go quickly through all the chapters of Part II and review the notes that I have had there waiting for me. In general it looks like I have two strong chapters to start with--9 and 10--that I should be able to get through fairly quickly, and then I run into more serious problems. Starting with 11 and 12, I have characters acting like props, going where I need them to go for the sake of the plot, and it's not convincing.

With the rest of the day, I spent a lot of boring time on a sentence-level editing project I've been working on. More on that in another post.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Geez, I don't know . . .

So I've finished the rewrite of Chapter 8 and thus Part I, so I could move on to Part II, but I don't know if I should. I spent today going over my outline of Part I and updating it and poking around in a few chapters and making notes on changes that should be made. There aren't a lot of them, but I have a funny feeling if I circle back and try to improve on several things across several chapters that I'll get bogged down in editing without end. The more planful approach feels like progress. But a progress based on a the illusion that Part I is in good enough shape to leave behind.

More and more I'm feeling like I need the perspective of another reader, which is all the more incentive to get through the rest of this rewrite, so I can hand it off to someone. (I should say that I'll be doing a certain amount of sentence level revision before giving it to another reader--I'll be hitting the low-hanging fruit of sentence-level improvements without spending too much time on it yet.)

I'm also hoping that Part II needs a lot less work, because it started out in stronger shape to begin with and because I have some good solid notes waiting for me that me wife helped me develop after finishing the first rewrite. Best case scenario, I can tackle those notes one at a time and jam through Part II in a short amount of time. But I haven't looked at it in a few months, so I can't be confident of that.

In any case, I guess I'll let it all sit over the weekend and hopefully have a plan on Monday morning.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Finished" with Chapter 8/Part 1

Whew! Those last few chapters were a slog and it feels like a relief to get to this point. I don't think I'm actually finished, but I've worked all the way through it like I usually do. I guess I could just keep going and not look back, but the smart thing would be to give it a read through and tidy up whatever problems I discover then. Tomorrow will be a good day for that because tonight is basketball, so I don't expect to be able to do good creative work. In any case, I'm planning to be kicking butt on Part 2 before Monday.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Crap day

Some days, unforeseen circumstances knee-cap your work plans. This was one of those days. Chapter 8 continues to wait.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Two steps back, part two

This week, more of the same phenomenon that I've seen at other times, not that experience helped me cope with the stress any better. I read through Chapter 8 with increasing anxiety about how little it reflected the reality of what my character had become by that point. A serious rewrite was needed, and I poked around at that work for a couple with little confidence or little sense of how to proceed. (Also, the lack of discipline and the internet distractions have continued to slow me down.)

The problem, I'm pretty sure, lies back in Chapter 7, and twice in the last couple days I've opened up the file and taken another crack at some key paragraphs of the climax of that chapter. I even got up out of bed late last night after I had turned the light off and a possible solution occurred to me that I wanted to write down.

The more I think about it, the more I'm sure that I'm running up against a problem that has been inherent in the concept of the story and the character since their conception. When I started sketching out chapters and episodes for the book, I had my character getting his ass kicked by fate over and over again. I knew that wouldn't really be interesting if he didn't have some strength to balance him out, and I knew that any kind of action he took to resolve his problems wouldn't be credible either without some kind of asset that he could deploy. Also, I want this asset to be something he grows into as part of his coming of age story, so there is a connection between character and plot right there.

So I came up with one, and while I still believe in it, it has always been a delicately abstract idea--a part of his character--that is especially challenging to show rather than to tell. However, even though I believe in it, I have all along been hard put to describe it very well--to tell it or to show it. And this crucial moment in Chapter 7 is where that problem emerges every time I come through the draft.

Anyway, it has slowed me down a lot more than I like, but I think I got through it this morning with yet another reworking of the end of Chapter 7 and then moving on to Chapter 8 and the extensive rewrite that is now necessary there. I had hoped to finish that chapter, and thus Part 1 and thus the two-thirds point of the book, this week, but I doubt I'll finish tomorrow. Maybe, but doubtful.