Keeping Score: September 11, 2020

It struck me this morning that the pace at which I come up with new story ideas has slowed down.

Time was I couldn’t go a day without being struck by some story idea, and having to write it down.

These days, I feel like all of my ideas are about the book or the story I’m currently working on. Nothing new, no bolts of lightning, just new ways of looking at the characters or the situation I’m already creating.

And that made me nervous. Like, what if the well’s run dry? What if once I finish these stories, that’s it? Nothing else comes?

To banish those thoughts, I remind myself of two things.

First, it’s a pandemic. Not to mention my state is currently on fire (the evidence of which is clearly visible in the sky outside my window). I’m allowed to feel a bit more stressed, and that means my brain isn’t functioning at 100%.

Second, it’s okay to not be constantly throwing out new ideas. In fact, it’s a good thing. Plowing my creative energy into what I’m working on, rather than dreaming up new work to take on, is exactly what I should be doing. The fact that my brain doesn’t feel the need to go wandering for a new story to work on means this story’s interesting and deep enough to keep it occupied.

It’s a positive sign, not a negative one. And it should be embraced.

As for the novel itself, work continues. I’m still going through a chapter a day, giving myself the time to really look at each scene and fix the things that need fixing. A line of dialog that doesn’t work. Some blocking that no longer makes sense.

Okay, not everything. Some things I’m leaving for another pass.

Like in the last chapter I edited, there’s a shift in one character’s dialog. They go from speaking somewhat formal English to a less-formal syntax. It’s subtle, and it still sounds like the character, but it’s there.

I like the shift, and I think it’s appropriate for the situation in that chapter. But in order to keep it, I need to go through and make sure that shift happens every time that situation comes up, so it feels deliberate, and not like a mistake.

Alternatively, I could go through and make the character’s dialog pattern the same everywhere. That might be easier, but I think there’s something that will be lost if I do that. There’s information encoded in the way they shift their speech according to who they’re speaking to, and I’d hate to lose that.

So yes, even as I go through this pass, I know I’m going to need to do another. But that next pass will be more focused, and thus faster, than this one. At least, that’s the intent.

What about you? When you do your editing, do you tackle everything in each pass? Or do you break it up into different read-throughs?

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

I’m ashamed to say I’m not sure I knew Dinah’s name, before reading this.

I knew parts of her story, from my youth, when I heard the Bible tale. How the sons of Jacob tricked every adult male in a town to become circumcised, just so their king’s son could be granted the privilege of marrying Jacob’s daughter.

How they then slaughtered the town while the men were laid up healing.

In church, the story’s presented as a righteous thing, a sign of their cleverness. How they could outsmart their enemies.

No one said anything about Dinah. How she might have felt about things. Or about the wives and daughters of the murdered men. They were background characters, unimportant to the morality of the tale.

So how amazing, then, that Diamant has put Dinah front and center. Breathed life into her, filling in her story and giving us a complete account of her journey. Of her mistakes and triumphs. Of her hopes and fears.

It’s an incredible feat to pull off. And Diamant covers not just Dinah’s life, but her mothers’ lives, too, starting from the moment they met Jacob, so we get the fullest picture possible of Dinah’s situation, of her time and place.

She gives us a sense of the rhythms of their existence, both day-to-day and year to year, without ever getting bogged down in too many details (or leaving things so vague as to be unhelpful).

And what rhythms! Diamant invokes the feel of the ancient world, the sounds and the smells, the hassles and the joys. And it’s a woman’s world that she brings to life, the rituals of childbirth and the red tent, the offerings to multiple gods, the hard work of cooking and farming and making, well, everything. T

he men are present, but it’s not their story. It’s not their world.

Diamant’s succeeded so well in showing us this world, in fact, that it’s her story, Dinah’s story, that I remember more vividly now, not the ones about her brothers. Which feels…proper. The way it should be.

Better to remember the healer and midwife, perhaps, than the tricksters and killers.

Keeping Score: September 4, 2020

Is it bad to enjoy reading your own book?

I’m still working on the novel, still plugging away at editing one chapter a day. It’s about all I can do, given my schedule constraints.

And so far, it’s…not that bad?

I mean, I’m probably filling in gaps that are there because I know the characters, I know the setting. But I was trying to write the equivalent of an action movie, and while I think I failed at that (there’s not nearly enough stunts or fights in it to qualify), I think I did manage to produce a fast-paced, sci-fi, thriller.

Each of the chapters are short — the longest is maybe ten pages — which makes them easier to edit, but also easier to read.

And I’ve kept the language pretty tight, as well. Not always tight enough, hence the need for edits. And sometimes I wander off into describing a character’s thoughts from the outside, inside of rendering them from the inside (it’s a shift in point of view that I’m still learning how to handle properly). But overall, each scene starts, flows, and then ends without a lot of fat to trim.

Which worries me, of course. What am I missing? What am I not seeing, that I need to fix?

It reminds me of something the write C Robert Cargill tweets about a lot: That when you look at your work, and hate it, part of it is because of the difference between your skills and your taste. Your taste is likely far more sophisticated than your skills, starting out. You enjoy reading writers far better than you. And that’s good! Your sophisticated taste is what lets you see the problems in your own work, which you can then fix.

So I have to wonder: Has my taste declined? Have I been slacking in feeding it new works, so I can be critical of my own?

Or am I just still too close to this book?

Either way, I’m not upset at these chapters. They’re not so horrible that I wouldn’t want to show them to someone else.

Which perhaps is good? And maybe the point of doing all these editing passes and rewrites. To get the book to a point where I think it’s ready to be seen by other people.

Flawed still, probably, yes. But good enough to go out to beta readers, and eventually (after more edits) agents. That should be the goal, right?

And if I’m getting there, I should feel good about it. Not dread.

Note to self: Stop feeling dread.

Keeping Score: August 28, 2020

Made it through the intro chapters of the novel!

I’m past the inciting event now, and heading into the chapters of the long middle.

Most of the edits for these chapters, so far, have been small things. Removing some extra words here, adjusting the blocking of some characters there. I’m editing more to make things consistent than anything else. Haven’t had to knocks wood do any major re-working of these.

And thank goodness, because just as I turned the corner of the inciting event, I started to only have fifteen minutes a day to work on it.

It’s stress, more than anything else, but I’ve had some schedule shifts as well that have thrown me off. Made it hard to concentrate, to sink into the novel and see what’s missing with what I’ve written.

But the only way out is through, right? So I’m chugging along, working on it when I can, and trying to be patient. The work stress will pass, my schedule will get sorted, and I’ll get back to spending more time on it each day.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Keeping Score: August 21, 2020

I seem to always discover new things about the story while I’m writing it.

It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. Somehow, no matter how much time I spend thinking about and planning a scene, simply by writing it out, my brain will come up with new ideas and connections to other parts of the story.

It’s all good stuff, and I’m grateful, but it’d be a touch more convenient if I could think of these things while I’m outlining. That way, I wouldn’t have to go back and revise other parts of the book to match the new things I’ve come up with while writing a scene.

Don’t get me wrong: the fact that I can come up with anything at all, instead of just staring at the screen like a deer caught in a truck’s headlights, is fantastic.

It’s also just a tad bit annoying, sometimes.

Which is to say: I’m making progress on the novel edits.

Looping, patchwork, scattered progress, but progress all the same.

Right now I’m trying to nail down the intro chapters, the first five or so. I want them to do quite a lot: Introduce the main character, and their (normal-day) problems, lay the ground work for a mystery that pops up later, orient the reader in the setting, introduce some antagonists, and make all that interesting enough so the inciting incident is worth sticking around for.

Oh, and they’ve also got to setup the stakes for the inciting incident, have the incident itself, and then pave the way for those consequences to play out.

It’s a heavy responsibility for those first chapters to carry. And before I started making these changes, they weren’t quite up to it.

But I think they can be! So long as I make the right changes.

So that’s what I’ve been working on this week, and will likely keep working on into next week.

I feel a bit like a director on a movie, making changes to the set design between each take (and also changing the script. and the blocking. the actors hate me). I go in and add a machine there, change the readout on a display there, redirect the lighting over there, and then let the scene play out again. Or scratch a scene entirely and replace it with something new, in a new location.

It’s slow going, but it’s fun! Kind of. Makes me grateful no one’s had to read the earlier drafts. This one’s going to be bad enough.

Keeping Score: August 14, 2020

I’m rather upset with past me.

Finally dove into editing the novel this week. Stopped procrastinating and worrying about the right way to do it, and just started doing it. Figured I’d look for inconsistencies, and touch up language or dialog along the way.

And at first it worked! I chugged along, making small changes, trimming sentences here and there, for four whole chapters.

But then I noticed something: The chapters I’d written (and edited, now for the third time) were all too short.

I’d left out physical descriptions of the characters, so the reader had no guidance on what they looked like.

I’d left out descriptions of the locations they were moving through, so the reader had no way to orient themselves in space.

And I’d left out any discussion of how the characters should react to a crisis, so the reader had no idea of the alternatives, or how bad the crisis really was.

I could tell all this, for the first time, because the reader was me.

I don’t mean that I was literally lost in my own novel. Thank goodness, no, I still knew where everything was, and what everything looks like.

But I’d had enough time off from the book to approach it like a reader. And I’ve recently read some books that had a quick pace and an interesting plot but never gave me enough time to get oriented in the world, so I always felt a little confused.

Both things that let me recognize it when it started happening in my own book.

So this editing pass — draft number three, for those keeping score at home — is turning out to be a “filling in the gaps” pass. Expanding conversations so each character’s whole train of thought is present (or at least enough for the reader to make the tiny leaps required). Spending more time in a space before the plot pushes us out of it, so I can give the reader something to visualize.

Thankfully I’ve been thinking about all of these things for two years now (or three? is it three years?) so I can fill in the gaps when I spot them. But even as I fill in the gaps, I know I’m creating more work for myself. Because each of those filled gaps is now a first draft, and will need to be revised again (and again) before it’s ready to go out.

So thanks, past me. You keep the plot humming along, but you forgot to lay down all the sign posts along the way.

Keeping Score: August 7, 2020

I need to get back to working on the novel.

I’ve let it sit these past few weeks, untouched, while I finished getting one short story into shape and started plotting a new one.

But if I’m going to meet my personal deadline of having the novel ready to submit to agents by December 1st, I’m going to need to edit this second draft.

To be honest, I’m intimidated. I’ve never edited anything this long before.

How do I even do it? Read it all through, and then go back and edit passages? That sounds…like it’ll take forever.

Or do I work chapter by chapter, editing each one until it’s done, and then moving on? That sounds like an easy way to lose sight of inconsistencies (or to having to go back and edit previous chapters anyway, as inconsistencies show up).

I think what I’m going to do is a series of editing passes. Pick one thing to look for — like the consistency of a single character’s dialog — and edit all instances of that. Then pick something else — the descriptions of a ship, say — and edit all of those.

I’m hoping this will give me a structure in which to do multiple reads over the book, without getting lost in the weeds of any individual chapter. And it should broaden my perspective so I can stitch the book together, so to speak, with these edits. Make it more coherent, more whole.

But what do I do with the short story I’ve been outlining? I don’t want to lose momentum on that. And I worry that the novel, once I start editing it, will take up all the room in my brain for narrative.

I want to work on both. Use the story as a break from the novel, and use the novel as a break from the story. They’re different enough — one’s near-future sci-fi, the other is early modern period fantasy — that I should be able to keep them separate in my head. And editing is different enough from drafting that I’ll be exercising different writing muscles with each.

What about you? What do you do, when you’ve got a longer piece to edit and a shorter one to draft? Do you alternate working days? Finish the shorter piece before editing the longer? How do you handle two stories that both need your attention?

Keeping Score: July 10, 2020

Missed last week’s Keeping Score, but for a good reason: I was wrapping up the second draft of the novel!

I set down the final words in the last chapter later that weekend. It’s done!

Or rather, the current draft is done. I’ve still got some editing passes to do: for consistency, for character dialog, for general polish.

But this draft, which started out as minor edits and grew to become pretty much a rewrite, is finished. As part of that rewrite, it’s grown, from 70K to 80K.

Ditto the rewrite I was doing for the short story, which I also wrapped up last week. The story’s grown from a 3,000-word piece to something north of 8,000 words! Some of those might get cut away in editing, but it’ll still end up more than twice as long as it was before. I had no idea there was so much story left to tell with that one, until I tried to tell it.

With two project drafts done, I’ve mostly taken this week off. I need the space for the novel to cool off so I can approach the edits with an objective eye. I might leave that one untouched for a month or so, just to get some distance.

For the short story, I think I’ll start editing it this week. At least an initial pass for consistency and word choice, before sending it off to beta readers. Once I get their feedback, I’ll make further edits, to get it into shape for submission.

Meanwhile, I’ve started brainstorming a short story idea I had a while back. Everything’s still vague now, but it’s about dragons, and mentors, and loss. I’m excited to see how it shapes up!

Keeping Score: June 26, 2020

It’s been a struggle to write this week.

My uncle — who because of age and circumstances was more like my grandfather, so I called him Pop — died on Father’s Day. And I’ve been living and working under a shadow ever since.

Hard enough to lose him. Harder still, because I couldn’t make the trip out to Texas for his funeral, because of the pandemic.

He’s gone, but I didn’t get to say goodbye.

So I’ve been soldiering on. Writing a paragraph or two, at least, every day.

But each word is a struggle. And if I stop and think about anything for too long, my mind drifts back to losing Pop, and I come undone for a while.

Stay safe out there, folks. Wear your masks. Wash your hands.

Write what you can, when you can.

Keeping Score: June 5, 2020

How does one write, in times like these?

I feel guilty for not being at the protests (my wife and I are both at high-risk for covid-19). For not being and doing more, both now and in the past.

I can make changes going forward. Donate to Black Lives Matter and to Bailout Funds. Push locally for police reform. Vote for candidates that will hold our police accountable.

But where does writing fit into that? How can I justify spending time…just, writing stories?

Because I have kept writing, even as the police have tear-gassed my old neighborhood. As helicopters fly overhead, towards the next showdown between the people and the “heroes” that are supposed to keep them safe.

On the one hand, I write because writing is my escape. A way for me to tune out the world for a bit, and come back to it ready to rejoin the struggle.

On the other hand, I write because writing is a form of activism.

When we read, we can enter the mind of a character completely. See the world entirely through their lives. Cry with them, when the world throws them down. Shout with joy when they triumph over those who would hold them back.

We can build empathy with people and situations we never thought we could. We can also see the dark sides of our own selves, when thoughts and habits of our own are cast in a different light, or shown to us from someone else’s perspective.

So I write to escape, yes. But also to create something that can change someone’s mind.

It’s not as fast as signing a petition, true. Or joining a protest. Or calling a government official pressuring them to be better. Which is why I will continue to do all those other things.

But I will also write.