Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Intense editing

What is it Wednesday? I've been deep in it since last Friday. I've always known that I have more stamina for the close editing than for the more purely creative aspects of the work, and I've taking advantage of that by putting in long hours, including over the weekend.

My time estimates are holding up -- about 4 hours or so for each chapter, half of that marking up the printed typescript and half inputting the changes on the computer. I'm also comparing it closely as I go along to notes from one of my readers. More on what they had to say another time.

So far, I've finished 6 chapters this way and have neglected everything else. I've got a bad case of bleacher butt. The weather hasn't helped. I need to be on the computer a lot and it is just getting to the time of year when my office is hot to be in.

I get a break -- though I don't really want it -- over the next few days. I'll be losing Thursday through Monday to personal and family stuff. If I'm lucky I can mark up a few chapters on paper and have them to type in when I get back Tuesday.

BTW, through the five chapters, I've trimmed another 8 pp. without really striving for that. Just little snips in cluttered sentences here and there. Estimate another 15 pp. off the same way, and I should end this draft at about 305 pages.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Close scalpel work

I feel like I'm finally doing the fine line editing, and it feels good. Many other writers have discussed the pleasures of close editing like this, and I've long known what they meant based on my nonfiction writing experience. It's satisfying to get the language sharpened, though it's a little alarming to find how dull it still is after so many drafts.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. My character is reading a children's book that is briefly summarized with this phrase: "The boy is part of a rebel group that is fighting the machines." The revision takes out "that is." Thus: "The boy is part of a rebel group fighting the machines." I'm finding several of those kinds of things per page. Also, many of my exposition grafs tend to clarify themselves by repeating a point with a second unnecessary metaphor. Overkill. So I have a lot of lines like that struck out.

So many in fact that in the first 17 page chapter, I subtracted two pages just with these little changes. Amazing.

It's slow work though. So far, including some sessions over the weekend, I've marked up on paper the first four chapters (Part I) and input the changes on the first chapter. Based on how it's gone so far, I estimate about 10 pp. per hour in each mode. Thus about 4 hours total for each approx. 20 pg. chapter. That's a lot of time under the best of circumstances, and it's the kind of work that's hard to do for more than an hour or so at a time. I think it's going to take me about a month. I can only hope that the first four chapters are not typical since they had so many revisions in the last draft and so are somewhat clunkier than the rest. I'm getting really impatient to pick up the pace.

Also, I have some paying work on the line that may start to hog up a lot of time. We'll see.

It's getting hot. Longtime readers will remember that my office is too hot this time of year, so I'm thinking about how to set up my space on the screened porch. Probably tomorrow.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What It Is by Lynda Barry

I've written previously about my love for Lynda Barry's comics and novel (The Good Times Are Killing Me) and how I suspect her language has influenced my own from when I first read her over 20 years ago. I recently came across a book of writing instruction she made that I didn't know about. That's an exciting find. I snatched it up, and read it last month and thought I would give it a shout out here.

It's called What It Is. pub. date 2008. The LOC tag is graphic novels, so it may be hard to find. I can understand the mistake, because it does resemble a graphic novel, since it's made up of cartoons and collages with hand lettered text. However it's not a novel but a long non-fiction essay/instruction manual about the creative process that Barry uses and teaches, which she says learned herself from a particular teacher who she celebrates throughout.

Now, most of the book is not my particular thing--abstract collages that appear to be examples of warm-up exercises from her notebooks. There is a hint of a narrative thread--a series of related inquiries about where creative ideas come from. But for me it's a gossamer thread that never latches on anything long enough, and the collages themselves, while probably excellent examples of their form, are a form that just doesn't interest me as much. I loved the short comics interspersed throughout.

What does interest me is the second half of the book where she starts to focus more directly in this instructional method that she calls "Writing The Unthinkable." The mascot of the class is the Magic Cephalopod who is summoned from the image world by the creative act. In practice, this section of What It Is amounts to a series of creative writing exercises using freewriting techniques with specific prompts or guided questions, all explained or illustrated in comic or collage form. The exercises have the writer making lists of certain kinds of words or childhood memories (e.g. the first 10 cars from your early life that you remember) and than using those as prompts in timed exercises. Some relaxation exercises are also an important part of the process.

Now, I'm a big proponent of freewriting, and I think as long as you can come up with good focused prompts, it's an exericse worth the time in most cases. So it was fun seeing what amounts to Lynda Barry's idea of a never-ending prompt generator.

I think the kind of advice she's giving here is most suited to the early stages of a writing project, especially generating ideas for a story. If you've written your story and are revising or are trying to find focus or are otherwise further along in a project, this is less useful.

In short, this is a good handbook to get you off the dime when the creative impulse is itching and you are despairing for something to write about. If it's what Barry uses, it must be worthwhile, because her comics rock.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mantras and focusing questions and starting Draft 8

Way back at the start of this blog I talked about the mantras I used to focus and motivate me through the first couple drafts. I think I have new one for this draft.

When I was drafting, the mantra was "Just add sentences." Whatever it was I was afraid of or confused by, don't let that stop me from adding sentences. That was the only goal. Quality was the enemy. Art was the enemy. Intelligibility was the enemy. Just add sentences.

When it came to the first (and eventually the second and third) rewrite, I figured out that my mantra was "keep digging." What I needed to do during that long period was to develop the emotional complexity of many many episodes and the way to do that was the dig deeper into it. The tendency was to try and fix things up by writing the patch from one spot to another so I could persuade myself that I magically wrote a perfect book in only two drafts, so I had to remind myself that it was premature to do that. Keep digging.

The draft I was working on last winter, I was thinking in terms of mantras or focusing questions, but looking back I was probably telling myself something like "keep cutting." That was the stage where I cut it down by about 27% if I remember right.

This draft I did in the last month, the way I focused myself, as I mentioned several times, was to ask "What is the intention in this chapter/episode/section?" Not a mantra in that case, but a focusing question. And as I mentioned, it helped a ton. I would spend a little time before each chapter freewriting on that question and eventually an answer would present itself which would in turn make clear big pieces that didn't adhere to the intention.

The next draft . . . I said yesterday, I think I could benefit from some kind of focusing question like that, and I spent some time last night thinking about that and reading some different sources that have been valuable to me in the past. I'm not sure I've found the exact right concern to guide me in this draft, but here is what I've settled on: "Show the reader the necessity." I'll be all over the issue of necessity. That cuts two ways. One is cutting out what is unnecessary, and, again, I'm hoping this is at a sentence-craft level by now. I'm trying to get the sentences to zip. Two is building up the energy of the language to help the reader feel the necessity of a given scene. I want the book to feel necessary.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wrapping up Draft 7

No one could possibly be interested in this detail, but just for the record . . .

I decided to call an end to Draft 7, and I took it to the copy shop to print out. I'll start marking that up with red ink to create Draft 8 soon. Here's hoping it's all sentence level work.

A tally of where we are on page counts, chapter numbering, etc.:

-Chapters: It is now 17 chapters. That's still counting the epilogue as a chapter. I got there by deleting Chapter 8 and Chapter 10. Therefore, the former Chapters 9 is now 8. The former 11 i s now 9. Every following chapter is now two numerals lower, so that that the last Chapter that was 19 is now 17.

-Parts: It was previously broken in 3 parts. Part I was about the first 60% of the book. Part II was after a break in the time of the present action and went through the climax of the story. Part III was the epilogue/last chapter. I decided to break Part I into 2 parts at a moment after Chapter 4 where there is shift in the pressure on the character. Therefore, what was II is now III and what was III is now IV.

-Page count: 328 pages. That's minus 1 more from some slight edits yesterday and then plus one when I added in the page marking Part II. That's minus 65 from the start of this draft and minus about 212 from the version I finished last December. Which is a 39% cut. My reader back then said he thought "it could be half as long." Short of what he suggested, but it wasn't that strong a suggestion.

-Word count: 96,302. If I remember right, my version last December was about 170,000 words. That's about a 44% reduction. That tells me something that I observed without calculating it before which is that the word count comes down faster than the page count. I think that's because what I'm most likely to cut out is exposition as opposed to dialogue, and dialogue takes more space per word. If I cut a paragraph of exposition, I might get out 8 lines of space and 100 words. If I cut 8 lines of dialogue, I gain the 8 lines of space but about 50 words.

-Schedule: My official start on this draft was June 22. (I did have a few odd sessions in the weeks before that.) So, 31 days exactly. Approx. 23 weekdays. A little slower than a chapter per day. If I had had any paying work going on, it definitely would have taken me twice as long. I put in a lot of p.m. sessions that I haven't normally throughout this process.

-Process: I just noticed back in my post for June 22 that I hadn't decided yet if I would do a certain kind of meta-writing on "intention" for the entire book first or one chapter at a time as I went. I ended up doing the latter. It was very helpful too. A way to sharpen my focus and give purpose to my reading and edits each day. I should think of some similar key lense to focus through on this draft so I'm not reading willy nilly.

Alright, off to the next draft. Deep breath.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Don with draft 7! Sort of

I finished working on the last chapter this morning, which feels great. I'm not going to call this draft done just yet though. I always have a ton of clean up notes that I leave for myself along the way, and I'm working through those. It's hard to guess how long they'll take. A matter of hours, but if it's today or tomorrow or what, I'm not sure. I'm already burned out on what I've done so far. It's kind of tedious work.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One short session to go

I put in another loooong p.m. session today, burning my eyes out, and got through Ch. 18. That only leaves the very short Chapter 19/epilogue to go. I should be done with this draft by lunch tomorrow.

Minus 1 more page, by the way.

Minus 64 pp.--Done with Ch. 17

So far, so good on my theory that Part II has fewer deep structural problems and will go quicker. I'm cruising. I did a read-through on paper of Ch. 17 yesterday p.m. and input the changes this a.m. Shortened it by 1 pp. That's a total of minus 64 pp. I'm starting to think that if I get it really sharp at the sentence level, at this length I might be able to put a couple scenes back in if they are warranted.

I'm starting to think about the next stage. Lots to consider. Another read through on paper for sentence-level work (especially in Part I)? Find another beta reader to help me? Whatever it is, I'll be doing it within a few days.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Minus 62 pp.-Done w/Ch. 14

I floundered around and worked through the rest of Ch. 14 this morning. I cut more than usual, including a really powerful scene that the more I looked at it just wasn't important to the progress of the story. I'm still wondering why I wrote it in the first place. It was an addition in a later rewrite attempting to patch up some other kind of gap, but now with it gone, I don't see any gap. Except that I miss it.

So, that's minus 6 pp. more for a total of minus 62 pp. I'm sitting on 331 pp. I never thought I'd see the day. I mean, in word counts, which was how I originally tracked it, when I was writing the first draft, I had a target of 100,000 words and I ended up going long to 135,000 words, which I thought that would be OK. Then my rewrites drove it up over 175,000 words, which I thought might be too long. Ha. I'm now at 98,000 words! Not only is it acceptably not-too-long. It's getting to be downright short.

The other thing I did this morning was go over a key moment back in Chapter 12 again. I keep having my wife read it, and she keeps saying she doesn't get what I'm doing, so I try again. I'll be lucky if the problem really is just in this one moment and not some deeper conceptual problem that I have dig out of the entire chapter.

Next up, Ch. 15. I think that should go pretty quick. I made line edits on the typescript several weeks ago. Hopefully no real revision needs will reveal themselves as I input those edits.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The voice inside, the voice outside

My wife read Ch. 12 and I went back to it this morning to make changes based on her feedback. (The chapter got longer by a page and remains lots longer than I would like it to be.)

Jane Smiley advises against having an intimate reading the work in progress, but I've had my wife reading it every step of the way. She heard first drafts read to her over lunch hours after I wrote them, and she's been assigned to read chapters as they get revised through all five drafts since then and to read the whole thing from start to finish a few times. She's given tons and tons of great advice and, probably more important, pointed out problems that I was too timid to face up to. Typically, a voice inside is trying to tell me that a scene isn't working, but it takes another voice that I can't ignore to get me to focus on that problem.

These conversations are very stressful for me and I assume they are for her also, because she must know that I will inevitably be quite depressed by them. Last night is typical. She reads Chapter 12 for about an hour and, hoping to avoid the tension, puts her comments in writing, but I lure her into explaining more. We do a lot of processing, talking through the problems until I see them clearly and have an idea of what needs to change. That's necessary of course and helpful, but it never feels good and I get discouraged at how much further from completion I thought I was when I handed the draft to her to read and how much more work I still have to do. Then I bitch and moan all night. In most cases I get back to work the next day, frustrated but disciplined, and make some more progress.

Well, it's been an amazing amount of time on her part over the last couple years and a lot of work to navigate the rocky terrain of my emotions. She'll deserve a ton of credit for the result. I'm sure I would have given up in confusion a long time ago without her as a sounding board.

Now, one caveat about the usefulness of her or any reader's advice. When she sees a problem she naturally suggests a fix. One scene in today's material, for example, had the character acting in a very emotionless and flat way, and she suggested showing how upset he would be. But the thing is I had him acting flat for a reason--the emotion sets in later; he's having a freeze response at that moment. So the fix I needed was to make clear what I was trying to do rather than to change what I was doing. Oftentimes I have to take the advice I'm getting and back it up a step. I just tell myself, "My reader is helping me see that there's a problem here. Now, what are the possibilities for fixing it other than what they recommend?"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Flip-flop day--Done with Ch. 14

I got my morning messed up but was able to get focused in the afternoon and, with some prep work I did yesterday, worked through Ch. 14. No radical changes and I subtracted 3 pp. It's still kind of long at 21 pp. And I'm not a hundred percent convinced that radical changes aren't still necessary. It's an odd chapter that is putting in place a lot of elements needed for the conclusion. It's hard to know how that kind of "service work" reads. God I wish I had some expert reader who could give me some perspective.

On to Ch. 15 tomorrow. Still expecting to go back to Ch. 12 when my wife has a chance to read it.

At this rate I should have "worked through" all of it by the end of next week. That's not the same as calling an official end to this draft though. We'll see.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cruising now

My theory that the remaining chapters will give me less trouble looks sound for the moment--at least until someone reads it and brings me back to reality. I put in another p.m. session after lunch and in 2 hours worked through and finished Ch. 13. I had notes from my wife reading it several months ago, which mostly amounted to cutting out a lot of background exposition stuff. I took out a lot of it but convinced myself some it is necessary. Regardless, I probably need to print out this and other chapters where I've done this level of work so I can look hard at the sentence-level some more.

The result for now is that I cut an additional 4 pp. That's minus 54 so far and sitting on 393 pp. This is from an already comparatively short chapter. Wow, it's only 11 pp. now. Shorter than I thought.

This chapter and the few following are heavily influenced by a point that Jane Smiley makes in Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Novel. She says that at about 65-70% mark, novels often have a feeling of gathering themselves up and directing their energy toward getting to the end. The pace seems to pick up. I knew that I wanted my Part I to end at about the 2/3 mark and that there would be significant shift in time and change in the character during that period. (I was thinking of To The Lighthouse as a model, when the death of the mother has happened off stage between two parts of the book and we return to characters have changed a lot.) So I figured this transition would be an opportunity to pick up the pace of the narration like Smiley says is often typical. I made a conscious effort when I was drafting (two years ago!) to have the episodes and the chapters come at a quicker tempo.

I guess my now 11-page Chapter 13 is a sign of that. Chapter 14 ought to be. It was once two separate short chapters and I combined them. It's 24 pages right now. I'll deal with that tomorrow.

Losing days--tentatively done with Part I

This week is going a lot slower than I expected. I gave up Monday to catching up on errands, and yesterday I got in the usual a.m. session, but got ambushed with other stuff in the afternoon. Plus, I'm not having a lot of confidence in this chapter.

I "finished" it with an a.m. session today, but I need some perspective on it. It feels too scattered. It's definitely still too long--25 pp. I'd like to get every chapter under 20 pp. in typescript, not for the sake of the overall length, which I am no longer worrying about, but for the sake of balance and because a single chapter can still drag even if the whole book is short enough.

One easy solution to the length would be just to cut out a 5 page section I indulged myself by adding back into this chapter. It was originally part of a superlong chapter in the first draft. That got broken into two pieces, lately called Chapters 10 and 12, and as noted before I ended up deleting Ch. 10 entirely. Now I'm trying to reclaim some stuff I like from Ch. 10 and re-attaching it to Ch. 12.

Overall, I guess I'm still struggling with the question of intention in this chapter. One symptom of that struggle is uncertainty about including that 5 page section. Another symptom is that I'm feeling like the climax of the chapter--which is really the climax of Part I and the nadir of the character's situation--is lacking the punch it should have.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Refraining from writing and Joseph O'Neill

I've written before about refraining from writing at a micro level, and I came across a related idea today.

One, inspired by something Elvis Costello said about songwriting about giving up the recording every snippet of a song idea he ever had, I gave up the habit of jotting down every clever turn of phrase or observation I had. Costello said this was a kind of wasted energy and if the song was any good he would remember it later anyway. Similarly I've come to feel that all those accumulating scraps of paper, from pads I kept next to every place where I might ever come to rest, didn't do anything to help me produce an actual piece of writing.

Another example is that I no longer leap up late at night when inspiration strikes. My writing time is in the morning, and if I'm in bed at 11 p.m. and get an itch to make progress or have an idea about how to solve a particular problem in the WIP, it used to be I would spring into action out of respect for the impulse. Now I respect the process more. I refrain.

The Elegant Variation is running an interview with Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland, and they have a discussion about refraining from writing on a more macro level--refraining from even having a WIP. From starting a second novel before you have an idea that really warrants it. He seems to have the counter-intuitive goal of writing less, and there's a certain kind of sense to it.

TEV: How much writing constitutes an average day, whether in hours or in pages. And how much planning or outlining do you do?

Joseph O’Neill: It is far too shameful to start talking about that stuff.

TEV: Keep that in the box?

Joseph O’Neill: Yeah.

TEV: Next question please?

Joseph O’Neill: Well, it’s a disgrace, really. Having said that, I’m a great believer in the essential disgraceful nature of writing. I mean it really should be as close to idling as possible. Of course, I venerate the 300-400-500 words a day sort of writers. I used to be one of them. But at the moment, I’m just too idle to do that.

TEV: Someone, I think it was Fran Leibowitz, talked about the curse of the writing life, that we always feel so felonious because we aren’t writing more often than we are. And there’s not a writer I know who isn’t sort of secretly ashamed in some way of their work habits, that they don’t write enough, or they aren’t disciplined enough.

Joseph O’Neill: I have the opposite. I am secretly ashamed about the fact that I have written so much even thought I have only written very little.

TEV: Can you elaborate?

Joseph O’Neill: Let me put this another way. I think the sort of middling kind of novel that tides you over between novels is not ideal. There’s a lot of that around: “I haven’t got a fantastic idea for my next novel, but I must write 500 words a day. Because if I don’t write 500 words a day, then I won’t have a novel of 65,000 words in the next 18 months. Therefore, I must start writing 500 words a day based on idea X, even though it’s not that brilliant.’

TEV: The system must be fed.

Joseph O’Neill: The system must be fed. Less cynically, there’s the hope that, by writing, you will come to discover that idea X is, in fact, much better than you suspect. So refraining from writing is never, for me, a source of artistic or professional guilt. Of course, to be fair, there may be pressing financial reasons to be productive.

I just remembered that I read a Toni Morrison interview once where she professes a similar Zen-like lack of anxiety about not writing--that she writes when the story is ready to be written, and otherwise she doesn't force it and spends her time on other things that are important to her. I'll have to look that up. It's somewhere in Conversations With Toni Morrison by the University of Mississippi Press.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Feeling better

Nothing in particular to add today except that I'm feeling optimistic about finishing before long.

I did have my wife read the changes to Ch. 11, and she objected yet again to the development of one critical moment. I stewed on it yesterday and took another run at it this a.m. (A Sunday. I'm neglecting shopping and all other kinds of housework lately.) She finally gave tentative approval to that.

In all honesty, the process was helpful and important to help me get a better sense of what is going on with a character at a key moment. Necessary work, and I like the result.

So, on to the last chapter of Part I and then Part II. Like I said before, I'm harboring the delusion for as long as possible, that all the bone deep problems in the book are in Ch. 11 or earlier and that from here on the editing will go more quickly. If so, maybe about two weeks to finish?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Really tough week, but ending on a high note

It's hard to explain the uncertainty and inelegant process of this week. Suffice it to say that there was a lot of gnashing of teeth and rending of cloth.

I had the hardest time figuring out what was wrong with the two chapters I was working on (9 and 11) and how to fix them. Without going in to it too much, in the case of Ch. 11, one question was how much I could wander away from my main character for the sake of subplot. I felt I was too far afield and struggled to find a solution that brought us back to him but also snuck in what was important about the subplot. I spent two days writing a whole new episode and trying to work over the seams between it and the existing material, and then after my wife read that and I had a lot of defensive reaction to her reaction, I decided I had to start over yet again.

Today I wrote yet another new episode and worked that in, but instead of trying to tack back toward my main character I came to the view that it would be OK to digress. My wife persuaded me that the thematic resonances with the main plot were so strong that the reader isn't feeling like they are getting sidetracked. It reads like a complication, not a distraction in her generous reading.

So my new material written today addressed another problem in the chapter--too much flashback, not enough present action--but I felt free to follow the secondary character out of frame as he leaves the main character. Here's hoping my wife or some other reader thinks that works.

Meanwhile, all kinds of problems in Ch. 9, which is a complementary piece to 11 thematically, and I've been gnawing at those like a rat.

I think I'm done with these, ultimately one day behind schedule. Next is Ch. 12, the last chapter of Part I of the book, approximately the 2/3 mark in the original plan. (57% mark now, but that will creep up as Part II is reduced by the edits still to come.)

Page counts--I've lost track of what the last tally was, but with all the cutting and adding and cutting and adding in Ch. 9 and 11, I think I reduced the two of them by 3 pp. total. Right now the total is minus 50 pp. through Ch. 11, and I stand at 343 pp. in typescript.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I was wiped out at the end of yesterday from bullying my way through not knowing what I was doing and finally "finishing" Ch. 10. I've been in the same space today trying to work through Ch. 11, not feeling any confidence or flow at all. I'm hitting flaws and have a frightening feeling that they are deep structural problems that will cause everything to come down on top of me if I investigate too closely.

It's hard to explain. I'm wandering around in the text with no sense of what the work is leading to.

Anyway, the problems I discovered sent me back this morning to do still more work on Ch. 10. I've been working on Ch. 11 this afternoon, and I think I'm going to leave it for today and try to do some brainstorming so I have a better sense of what to write tomorrow.

Thursday will probably be a loss for personal reasons. With luck, Ch. 12 on Friday will go easily, and then I'll be done with Part I. (In terms of page count, I'm pretty sure I'm over 2/3 through.)

Also, I have a hope, self-deceiving no doubt, that any real structural problems are set up and are therefore being fixed in Part I and that the revision of Part II will just fly by in comparison.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Minus 14 pp. or minus 49 pp. depending how you look at it.

Many OCD page count has an apples-->oranges problem since I cut out a couple entire chapters. Counting only the careful work of revising chapters, I cut an additional 2 pp. out of Chapter 9 today, for a total of 14 pp. from that kind of work. But in reality, since I completely removed Chs. 8 and 10, this draft is currently 49 pp. shorter. I'll continue with the higher number from here on, understanding that the cuts have come from two methods--surgery and butchery.

I'm sitting on 344 pp. in typescript, so there's no need for me to worry at all about the overall length anymore. It is now officially short enough not to sweat it. I'm headed for about the equivalent of 280 pp. printed.

It's a lot easier to count beans than to judge if any of the edits are good. The work on Ch. 10 was really rough. I feel pretty shaky about it.

An emotional time for me right now

There's a certain emotional cycle to this work that I've learned to recognize, and I'm depending on that to get me through the very fearful place I'm in right now. This too will pass, I hope.

I'm working on Chapter 9 (sticking with the most recent numbering--not yet accounting for chapters removed.) And it's not going well. I'm been thinking my problem is uncertainty about cutting out Ch. 8, but I don't think that's it now. Ch. 8 being cut does mean new patch work is needed in Ch. 9, but the real problem is a growing awareness of structural flaws already in Ch. 9 and uncertainty about how to fix them. Or how to define them and then fix them. That uncertainty is scary.

Most of the fear is self-inflicted. For one thing, I get in a clock-watching mode and start feeling anxious about how long this is taking. That's an arbitrary pressure, since there is no rule about when I have to be done with the book. And I should know by now that whenever I run into a problem like this it usually just means an extra day of work once I get past the anxiety and start really dealing with it. Not as fast as I want, but not a fatal blow to my time line either.

Anyway, those are some of the things I'm trying to tell myself this morning. But I remain stuck, cycling around blindly in the first few pages of Ch. 9 trying to figure out why it smells so bad. Hopefully I can approach it with a sense of calm this afternoon or tomorrow morning at the latest.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Traumatic cuts

I did it. I need to go lay under the covers for the weekend and tell myself it will be OK.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Minus 12 pages, but that's small potatoes

I worked through Ch. 7 today, probably one of the strongest , and got 2 pp. out, for a total of minus 12 pp. in this draft. Sitting on 381 pp. now.

But the page count is maybe about to get thrown out the window with a dramatic edit--cutting whole chapters out.

This is one kind of edit I have needed to consider but have so far worked around and avoided. One, there are some chapters that do important work but are not very different from other chapters, so there's a question of whether or not that work is distinctly important. Two, there are some chapters that may just depart from the main story too much and, while doing something I like and want to hang onto, don't do enough that's important to the main story.

The focus on "intention" that I've been writing a lot about has helped me get some of that sorted out so far, mainly by helping me build up and highlight what is uniquely important in a chapter. But now I've come to a place where the question "What is the intention of this chapter?" has no good answer. Looking at things that way has made it apparent that the chapter probably has to come out entirely.

This is a chapter I've complained about many times. (Ch. 8 in the current counting. Ch. 6 in previous drafts I think.) It cost a lot of struggle in the first draft. It ran to about 75 pp. of material at different points. It's been revised with several different endings and, with great difficulty, chopped down to 25 pp, which is still the longest in the book. My readers have loved it on its own terms. It features a very well developed character and a lot of drama. But it is a digression from the main story. It's essentially a little novella that grew up like a wildflower in the middle of the book. Because of how much I like it, I kept thinking I could make clear how it does connect to the rest of the book, but in doing so I was confusing the minor importance of backstory with the imperative of present action.

The good news is that the chapter created another little ripple in the plot that necessitated an odd little chapter later on that never felt right and I couldn't figure out how to get rid of. (Ch. 10 in the current counting I think.) Removing Ch. 8 should make it easier to solve that problem at least.

There are a couple of arguments for going slow on this decision. One, the chapter isn't totally irrelevant. It does have some details that are important, so I would have to find a graceful to get those in elsewhere. Two, there are questions about the effectiveness of some other chapters, like I say, and I hate to do anything drastic in this one spot without knowing what my plan is for the other spots. Third is a question of pacing. The reader is experiencing a flow up to this point of how much time passes between chapters, and removing this will disrupt that pacing.

But if a writer is this unable to account for why a chapter is relevant, probably they should stop thinking about it and just cut it. I've had to cut stuff with less certainty to get to this point. Tomorrow morning is when I would start on revising Ch. 8, so I have another day to stew on it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Minus 10 pp. and showing vs. telling continued

I got through Ch. 6 today, focusing as discussed before, and got it down by 2 pp., which totals 10 pp. of cuts, which puts it at 383 pp. Dang. That's almost 200 pp. down from where it was 6 months ago.

A few words about the perennial subject of showing vs. telling and an example of the kind of line editing I've been doing this round . . .

I've been reading an anthology called The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. (anthology is from the Greek meaning "I liked some of the pieces OK.") The one I read yesterday was "The Telling That Shows" by Peter Rock which argues that the rule about showing/not telling is more a guideline and that sometimes telling is preferable when it is coming from a voice of authority. Or that it's a blurry line between the two concepts--when a narrator speaks with authority the telling is a kind of showing. An interesting idea that I'm willing to consider, and today I came across a particular point in my editing that might be evidence for the theory.

I have a line that has read, "She examined the broken spaceship, and the damage turned her stomach a little." In my read through, I inked in some improvements to that, and I was typing them into the computer file today, but when I came to it I wasn't satisfied with the improvements, which were in the category of adding physical specificity. The spaceship was "on the floor next to her" and damage was to "the expensive toy."

That's less abstract. More showing. But somehow still flat and lifeless. "Examined" is a thesaurus word for "looked at," which is what she was really doing. "A little" is a little too much clutter.

In noodling around with a fix, trying to describe the image that I saw in my head, I hit on the word "miserably" as in "looked at it miserably" but backed off. I probably hold the rule to avoid adverbs more dear than the rule to show/not tell. Then I realized I was really hanging up on avoiding "looked at"--that in going for more active and descriptive verbs as much as possible I was going an inch too far on the show/don't tell rule. What if I just told what she was doing like I pictured it?

What I came up with was, "She gave a miserable look at the broken spaceship on the floor next to her." What I think I've done here is technically changed my original showing version into a telling version but, contra to conventional wisdom, improved it. "Miserable" has replaced "damage turned her stomach," and the less physical, more abstract version somehow feels more precise and knowing and intimate.

At least I think so. It's a theory.

Anyway, these are the kinds of micro edits that are taking up a lot of my attention lately, in addition to the "intention" macro-question that I've talking about.