Adventures in revising

Sorry for the somewhat protracted radio silence this week…revising my novel has taken over my life and I’ve been neglecting pretty much everything else.  Carrying out revisions, however, has raised some potentially blog-worthy questions for me about process. 

When I first started writing a few years ago, my revision process was very simple: try to figure out what was wrong  and fix it.  Since then I’ve learned a lot and, as a result, have started breaking the revision process down into much more specific components and steps. 

For one thing, I can now take my writing apart more effectively and analyze it through different lenses.  Are there problems with the structure, plot, and pacing?  Do the characterizations need more subtle shading or greater development?  Is the writing flabby?  Is the POV too distant?  Is the world-building vivid and deep enough?

Pulling out these individual strands has led me to revise in several passes.  For instance, the plan for final revisions to my novel “A Blood Red Sun” include the following passes over the manuscript:

1. Plot level changes

2. Shading and development of characters, especially the protagonist and secondary POV character

3. World-building (particularly with respect to improving sensory aspects – sound, taste, touch, feel)

4. Editing following the method in the 10% Solution (this includes a reading aloud pass and a printed pass)

At least…that’s the plan.  I’m midway through the first pass and I’m already finding it really hard separate elements.   In fact, it’s gotten to the point where pass #1 and pass #2 are merging.

I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not.  On the one hand, combining the two doesn’t seem to be hurting my focus, but it is taking longer and reducing the number of times I’ll go through the manuscript before declaring it done.  Do I need to force myself to be more regimented?  I don’t know.

Another benefit emerging from this project is greater awareness of my chronic weaknesses.  One thing I’m realizing I do A LOT is flounder around with spatial cues.  Characters are always crossing the room, looking at each other, “fixing their gazes” (ugh), and so on.  In a few rare instances, such cues are necessary for clarity, but usually they’re just useless filler.  I look forward to zapping them with my editing ray of death in pass #4. 

Distancing the POV is another trap I fall into when drafting.  Characters watch other characters experience things rather than letting the reader have direct access.  Instead of letting “the sun warm her face” the character will “feel the sun on her face.”  And then there’s the dreaded “was” replacing active verbs with its passive life-sucking force.  Again, my ray gun is at the ready.

One of the things I love about writing is how much of a learning process it is.  Sitting down to complete one task (revising a novel) allows you to simultaneously experience greater self-awareness and growth as a writer in general, which will benefit your next writing project.  I have no doubt I’ll look back on my first year of blogging and smile indulgently at how naive I seem to my now more-experienced self.  Not only do I have no doubt, I look forward to it.

In the meantime, though, it’s back to revisions for me.  Please share your processes and suggestions for revision in the comments…I could use the help!

Unmet goals: friend or foe?

I’ve been thinking a lot about goal-setting lately, and the inevitable side effect of unmet goals.  On the one hand, since newbie writers must self-motivate (lacking book deals and attendant deadlines), goals are essential.  On the other hand, when you miss them, a cycle of emotional distress starts: discouragement, quickly morphing into self-loathing, and then (hopefully) into a stiff determination to amp up productivity.

Goals are funny things.  Without them, we might not get as much done.  With them, we’re guaranteed ennui and semi-regular failure.

Exhibit A: this year I decided to do NaNoWriMo for the first time.  I did not finish the 50,000 words needed to “win,” and therefore fell short of my goal (by around 22,000 words, in fact).  However, I did get almost 30,000 words into a new novel, something that would never have happened if I hadn’t set the goal of 50,000.

Exhibit B: A week or so ago I resolved to practice specific writing skills daily.  Out of seven days, I managed four.  Viewed one way, an epic failure.  But…viewed another, I did at least get down four days of practice as opposed to the zero I would have managed without the goal of seven.

To add a little flesh to Exhibits A and B:  in the same time I set and failed to complete those goals, I also drafted two short stories, revised 1/3 of an already completed novel, and tended to my personal life and day job.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this.  Am I setting overly ambitious goals given the other commitments in my life, taking on too many projects at once, or awful at meeting goals?  Maybe this is just how things are – maybe my story is your story too, and we’re all perfectly normal?

Or, maybe goals are no different from those mileposts we cling to when out on a run (you know, where we tell ourselves: “just keep going. When you get to that telephone pole at the end of the block, you can stop”; but then, when we finally get to the telephone post, we say: “just a little further…maybe push on to the funny looking tree missing half it’s branches?).  Even though you don’t get it done as quickly as you’d like, you still finish your run, or your novel, or whatever.

So, what do you think?  Is this line of reasoning the sort that paves the way to a hell of justifications, or is it the best way forward through a writer’s life of peaks and valleys?

Practice makes perfect

A YouTube video about the common (but absurd) assumptions non-writers have about writers is making the rounds on Twitter.  It’s both hilarious and depressing.  And it makes me think about the importance of practice.

As in any profession, innate talent will get you only so far.  If you want to become a good writer, you’ve got to practice.  As the characters in the YouTube video so aptly explain:

“I assume you have used a steak knife before?”

“Of course.”

“Do you think that qualifies you to perform neurosurgery?”

Just because you know the English language doesn’t mean you’re qualified to write a novel.  You have to actively learn and mindfully practice the craft of writing.  It’s said that, if you’re lucky, your third or fourth novel might finally sell.

For many of us, “practice” means writing every day.  And that’s about it.   But awhile back, Victoria Strauss posted an article by Barbara Baig on the SWFA blog discussing the role of deliberate practice in developing one’s writing skills.

As defined by Baig, deliberate practice included (and I’m paraphrasing here):

1. thinking about the specific skills involved in writing a novel or short story (ranging from proper grammar and writing dialogue to being creative, developing characters, and world building, among many others).

2. making a list of the skills you’re good at AND a list of the skills you need to work on (for many of us, just assessing this can be difficult; Baig suggests studying the type of feedback we get from our writing groups).

3. coming up with a series of exercises designed to practice weak skills and, therefore, improve them.

I printed out the blog post about a month ago.  Approximately a week later I made a list of the skills I felt I needed to work on.  I even started to identify possible exercises.  Have I practiced them even ONCE since then?  No, I have not.

Why?  I know deliberately practicing would improve my writing.  It would make me more mindful of my weaknesses and help me develop the habits to turn them into strengths.  The problem for me (and, I suspect, for many of us), is intentionally setting aside time to work on exercises when I could be making forward progress on a novel or short story.  Most writers have day jobs, families, and social lives that claim 90% of their time.  The remaining 10% is precious.  It’s hard to carve it up any further.

Even 30 minutes of deliberate practice a day would probably reap more benefits than an hour of drafting and revising on a project where my bad habits are already ingrained.  Summoning the resolve to engage that practice daily is about as hard for me as not weaseling out of trips to the gym (in other words: it’s hard).

So – I’m calling in backup.  Every day for the next week I will practice writing shorter, clearer, more active sentences (thanks to my academic background, a weakness of mine – as some of you readers may have noticed – is looooooong, multi-clause, wordy, passive sentences).  To practice clearer and more active writing, I’ll make a list of 7 topics and spend 20 minutes each morning writing about one of them.  No sentence will contain more than two clauses.  The use of the word “that” and all instances of “to be” verbs will be kept to an absolute minimum.  Adverbs will be forbidden.  In exactly 7 days, I’ll report in on how well I lived up to my commitment and on how effective the practice was.

Anyone else willing to pony up and commit to practicing a specific writing skill over the next seven days?  Come on.  I double dog dare you.