Thursday, April 28, 2011

Regulating the chapters

So far this week the work has gone like I planned it. Two days off for other stuff, and two days on the book. I worked on that troublesome section like I planned -- on paper and then on the screen -- and since then have been sweeping up other messes.

Mainly I've been following through on some ideas for how the chapters are organized. I think a couple drafts ago I noted that I had chapters as short as 4 pages and as long as 22. I got things a lot better organized than that awhile ago, but I still have as of now a range of 8 to 18, with a bigger stronger cluster around 11 pages. Before this morning I had gotten it down from 32 chapters to 27 chapters.

I had been considering the idea that my first chapter should really be positioned as a preface, and I made that change today. In addition to renumbering everything, it meant fussing a little with the tone in the openings of the preface and the new chapter 1.

And I had been considering re-slicing the breaks between some other chapters, which I went ahead with today. That leaves me with 24 numbered chapters plus the preface for a total of 25.

Meanwhile, every time I make these changes, I'm revising my outline. Too OCD, maybe, but it makes me feel better to know it's up to date. It includes details on page-length of each chapter, which changes whenever I combine or break chapters.

Thus I know the spread that I detailed above, and I know the flow is much more regulated. It also shows me some opportunities for revision. I had two chapters that are 18 pages long. They weren't necessarily too long, but that seemed as good a place to start with shortening the book as any. I tackled one of them and knocked out 3 pages and 1,000 words this afternoon. I plan to try the same with the other tomorrow. That would mean every chapter is between 8 and 15 pages, which seems really nifty.

That's tomorrow, and the end of the week, and then . . . I don't know. I'm getting close to printing it out again for a fresh read and/or to share with my next reader. Maybe it's time.

With all my revising, the total had crept up to 71,600 words. I'm at 70,600 words now. I doubt that I'll get it back down to my original goal of 65,000 words, but I plan to close the gap some.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Done, but not really, with fourth draft

If I was kidding myself, I could claim to be done with this draft. Only in the sense that I turned through the last page of the printed out typescript and entered the changes marked there into my newest computer file. But like I was thinking about yesterday, what I really did was push through to the end on the superficial stuff so I can circle back around to focus on some harder stuff. I think I'll do that after breaking for the weekend. Actually a little longer because of some distractions from my paying work. I'll pull out the relevant chapters and just read them with as fresh a perspective as I can.

After that, I'm not sure, but I I'd like to see if I can find sentence level improvements before calling an end to this draft. I'll have to think about it. And there's always a certain amount of sweeping up to do of miscellaneous notes and corrections. Gotta check for consistency on the name of the character remaining when I combined two. Stuff like that. Renumbering the chapters. Anyway, I doubt it will be more than another week total.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I have about 45 pages to go to get through my notes on this draft, but I don't see it happening before the end of this week. I'm in a section that needs more careful attention, and I find that I keep neglecting it because I'm always impatient to get done when I'm at this stage. I need to slow down and take each part of it fresh, one day at a time and not to try to force it. It's too easy to talk myself into accepting the material as it is instead of pushing myself.

I have an idea that I could fix that process problem by going ahead and pushing through to the end of the draft and then returning specifically to this section -- printed out fresh to read with a clear mind -- instead of starting at the beginning and working my way up to this section when I'm in a state of exhaustion and impatience. Maybe I'll try that.

Funny the mind games a writer has to play with themselves to sneak up on the work.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A little slower

I hit a section that needs more careful attention. That combined with distractions from real life are slowing me down. Right now I'm at page 152, so slightly over half way through. So far I've grown it by about 18 pages and 4,500 words. If I end up adding a total of 9-10,000 words, I'm going to be pretty upset. I think I've done the major sections that require new material, though. Everything from here on should just be the "creeping" additions, though I shouldn't underestimate those.

What I've been struggling with is the transition between Part I and Part II, which comes almost exactly at the half-way point in the book. The problem is that there isn't much in the way of suspense or unresolved mystery to call the reader over the bridge. I wrap up too many of the problems without establishing enough sense of drama about the main conflicts that arc through the whole story. I think I've got good fixes in place now, though, again, I won't really know until I've let it all sit for a time and then read it again fresh.

I'm also getting rid of a character by combining two. They were too similar, and their separate roles in the plot could easily be carried out by one person.

What I don't understand is what Charles Dickens did in those situations when he was writing in serial form. You get 2/3 of the way into a story and then realize you could/should pull one character out of the story entirely or that you haven't laid the groundwork for what you're going to have him do.

Friday, April 15, 2011


I'm still in the fast-moving stage as I discussed yesterday. Got through about 50 pages this morning. And I stumbled on one little change in a detail that, when I follow the ripples of it through the plot so far, add a lot of fun nuance, so I'm really pleased with the work this morning. It feels like I amped up the power quite a bit with some small changes.

So I'm at a little less than half-way through the whole thing in 5 days. I'll guess 5 days plus the weekend to get through the remainder. I do expect to hit some more slow spots later needing more careful attention as the conflicts I set up get resolved.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Writers group and picking up the pace

As with the last draft, there are some spots in this draft that need more attention than others -- the same spots, really -- and so the pace of my revisions varies as I move through different sections. The first four chapters continue to be where I have to work carefully. I guess I don't establish the story as well as I carry it out in the middle. As a result, the work was slower going up until today when I passed out of the set up material, and now I'm cruising for awhile. I'm through pg. 77 and chapter 7. (The chapter numbering is going to be changing at the conclusion of this draft, and I've already grown the total by 5 pages.) It's hard to predict the pace in the future. I'd guess about a solid week of work without any interruptions, but I do have a lot going on in the next couple weeks.

I'm moving into an exciting new phase of my writing life. For the first time I'm in a writer's group, formed with a friend and some of her MFA classmates. We met for the first time last night to get to know one another and establish ground rules. Naturally, I'll keep their work in confidence.

I'm looking forward to it a lot, but I am struggling to figure out how best to use their attention. There's a limit to how many pages I can impose on them, and being a novelist who gets my work through several drafts before I start feeling the need to share, I'm not sure what is smart to give them. I don't expect to have any new raw pages. I'm not even sure which of the 3 books I have in play to give them parts of. I think I'm just going to have to make a choice without a lot of confidence behind it and go with the flow until I have a better sense of what kind of feedback I can get in this kind of context.

I expect to hear from my other reader (of the 3rd draft) before the end of the week. And I have another definite reader lined up for whenever I finish the 4th draft.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On to the fourth draft

The last two days I've been doing the work I thought I would be doing -- trying to make the conflicts clearer, scene-by-scene, on the typescript. It involves marking up the paper copy adn then sometimes deciding the the cutting and pasting is radical enough that I need to be on the keyboard and then keying in all my changes from the paper copy. So far I'm through 27 pages and three chapters. It's hard to tell if I'm really doing any good or just plastering over serious problems that I haven't faced yet or creating clumsy solutions. I have a bad hunch that I won't be able to tell for a long time -- until I've gone all the way through, then let it sit for a few weeks to get some distance and then reading it again.

It's a time of great uncertainty.

I'm also making the whole thing longer, bit by bit. So far I've added one new page for every chapter and about 1,000 words. Hopefully that trend doesn't continue. At this same rate, I would 9,000 words by the end, and that's not gonna fly.

On to Chapter 4 next. Probably not tomorrow, though.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Focusing on conflict

I haven't been journaling about it, but I have been working hard since last Tuesday, and I've been learning a lot that I do wish I had time to note.

I decided I had had enough time away or couldn't stand any more time away. So I printed it out and read it on paper for the first time. One good thing about working on a children's book is that it's easier to read it in a rush and get an overall impression. It took me about 7 hours over two days.

It's not easy for me to read that way, because as I go along I see lots of opportunities for sentence-level corrections and rewrites. On the one hand, the more I do that, the more I undermine the work of reading it for the overall impression, which is really important. On the other hand, I know that the more times I read it, the less able I get to actually spot errors and clumsiness, so you want to grab them when I see them. It took me awhile, but I really had to train myself to leave the editing pen sitting on the table. I ended up marking errors and putting a check mark next to anything that seemed clumsy and needing a revision so that I could keep close to a natural reading pace.

My overall impression was mixed. I didn't feel great about what I saw. There are a lot of moments in the book that I'm proud of, but there was something lacking that prevents it all from hanging together, and I realized I still have some significant work ahead of me.

I'm probably fooling myself, but I think I have a handle on what the problem is. The conclusion outshines the set up. It answers questions that weren't clearly asked, so the climactic scenes don't feel like they matter.

To fix that, I've been doing a lot of thinking about and freewriting about and notetaking on conflict. That seems like a pretty obvious aspect of fiction, but as I often have to point out to my students, it can be elusive. When we're struggling and just want the work to be done, it's easy to confuse a problem with conflict. The character has a problem isn't a conflict. The character has a problem AND something else may make a conflict. For my students, and now for me, it can be unexpectedly difficult to get clear on that.

And then when I have a good sense of conflict, it usually only works in isolation. When I start matching it up with what is actually going on in at different parts of the draft I can see a lot of daylight. Which leads to a lot of brainstorming and notetaking about the revisions I could make, once I get over the panic.

And I'm not sure I do have a good sense of what the conflict is to begin with. It remains elusive.

Anyway, I'm trying not to rush it, or I would have started the next rewrite yesterday. I keep trying to see if I can get a sharper sense of the story first. Once I do start the next draft, I think what it will be is going through scene-by-scene to make it focus on and further the central conflicts.

It feels like a long way to go. One mark in my favor so far is that the language felt pretty tight on the read through. I didn't have a whole lot of those checkmarks. I don't think there's a lot of sentence-level clumsiness or drag. When I do get to work on a polishing draft, I think I'll want to try and punch up the energy and playfulness of language.