In Writing, Sometimes Less Is More

One of the things we always struggle with as writers is knowing how much detail to provide in a given scene. Too little, and you haven’t given the reader enough of a sketch to complete the illusion. Too much, and you risk boring the reader, or depriving her of the chance to use her own imagination to fill in the picture. To make matters worse, the balance is different for every reader. You will never be able to please everyone.

Starman Jones by Robert A. HeinleinWhat got me thinking of this was Heinlein’s young adult classic Starman Jones. I first read this book in a library hardcover as a, well, young adult, and certain scenes have stuck with me ever since. I recently downloaded the audiobook from Audible, and started reliving the story of a young man’s journey from vagabond to starship astrogator. (It holds up remarkably well, despite the basic premise—that starship jumps would be calculated at lightning speed with paper and pencil—now seeming ridiculous.)

Early on, there’s a scene where Max is running away from his no-good stepfather, and he risks hoofing it through a tunnel where ring-jumping trains blast by at supersonic speed. He makes it through by the skin of his teeth…

“He reached the far end with throat burned dry and heart laboring; there he plunged downhill regardless of the sudden roughening of his path as he left the tunnel and hit the maintenance track.  He did not slow up until he stood under stilt supports so high that the ring above looked small.  There he stood still and fought to catch his breath.

“He was slammed forward and knocked off his feet.

“He picked himself up groggily, eventually remembered where he was and realized that he had been knocked cold. There was blood on one cheek and his hands and elbows were raw.  It was not until he noticed these that he realized what had happened; a train had passed right over him.”

Those lines go by pretty fast, especially in the audio narration. But my first reading of them left an image scored in my memory: the magnificent silver ring trains, lancing through the hoops across the countryside; the peril of venturing too close, much less into the tunnel; and the moment of truth, when an unscheduled train blasts overhead, the concussion wave nearly killing our hero before he can get more than shouting distance from home. That scene took pages, in my memory—in my imagination. But the core of it was just one line: “He was slammed forward and knocked off his feet.”

Did that scene hold the same power for every reader? Maybe not. But maybe for some, it did.

Where does that leave the rest of us, following in Heinlein’s footsteps? Trying to decide, scene by scene, what to tell and what to leave out. Writing, rewriting…

In case you wondered what I was up to with the Reefs of Time rewrite.

The Joy of Rewriting

Rewriting is sometimes joyous, but usually it’s a finicky and ornery-making process. You never know what chapters are going to give you the most trouble. I recently finished some fairly heavy reworking of a series of chapters in my will-I-ever-get-this-finished novel, The Reefs of Time. One sequence of scenes was fairly ordinary, in the sense that they involved people meeting and talking. I mean, yes, they came from several worlds; and yes, they were meeting to discuss an interplanetary war; and, well yeah, the elephant in the room was a much more alarming threat from the outside. And if you press me on it, this scene took place on a planet elsewhere in the galaxy, and in the future, and with characters representing several different sentient species. But leaving all that aside, and the fates of worlds hanging in the balance, it was a pretty standard meet-and-talk-and-argue situation. Should be pretty straightforward to get this one right, right?

Maybe not.  While the first draft was pretty ragged, I thought a thorough rewrite from beginning to end would bring it into line. And if not that, then another pass would surely do it. I was not entirely correct. My writing group tells me it’s still not there yet, though to be sure, they’re not in total agreement on what works and what doesn’t. Do I need a scientist in there? hints one member. Hmm, maybe I do. But what’s this about a certain character placing too much trust on the basis of an ancestral connection? asks another member. That’s not what I meant at all! wails the author. So… more work to do.

The last chapter of this batch was another kettle of fish. Different subplot, very different tone and feel. This one’s cosmic, involving among other things, quantum entangled time travel over a scale of a billion years, and there’s a lot of stuff in it that’s really hard to convey in a few sentences, or at all. There’s a whiff of scientific truthiness about it, but it’s pushing the envelope pretty hard. And it’s personal, emotionally fraught for the characters. My first draft bordered on gibberish. Craig, in my group, had commented with kind restraint, “I don’t follow this at all.” Rich had muttered something about his head exploding. So what am I supposed to do with this?

Picking it up again to rewrite, I hovered on the edge of despair. It didn’t make sense even to me. How was I supposed to make it make sense to the reader? It’s a crucial chapter; I can’t make it go away. I pondered, poked, sighed, put on different music, got more coffee, ate too much chocolate. And then one little gear clicked into place in my head, a reminder of something about quantum mechanics that’s so basic my dog could have pointed it out to me. (Why didn’t he? If he tells you, let me know. He’s saying nothing to me.) It was really just a Schrödinger’s Cat kind of thing. (Ah, a cat thing. That must be why he didn’t tell me.) It was small, but it was just enough to give me a toehold. And from there I climbed and scrabbled and felt my way, like Frodo and Sam in the Emyn Muil. And I was a little rushed, printing it out at the last minute for my group meeting. Is this going to work at all?

And you know what they said? “This is great!” “This moves right along.” “It makes sense to me.” Are you kidding me? Is that what they thought? Are you kidding me? It really works?

Apparently so. On to the next chapter!

Cat Dances on Keyboard, Author Gets Last Word

The perp. Goes by the moniker Moonlight.

I’m sure every writer has either had this happen, or had nightmares of it happening: You finish up a nice bit of work and walk away from the computer. Do you think about the havoc your cat can wreak on your work? No, you do not. And when you return, hours later, having forgotten all about it, you find gibberish on the screen in place of your finely turned prose.

Yeah, it just happened to me. Look at Moonlight. Doesn’t she look innocent and cuddly? Well, cuddly she is, but innocent she is not. No, this kitty tried to rewrite my chapter for me. Bad kitty! Seriously, she’s a terrible writer. Here’s a sample: [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[… What kind of writing is that?

Yes, of course I had saved my work. (How stupid do you think I am? No, on second thought…) I saved, and furthermore, it was backed up automatically to Dropbox. What I failed to do, though, was to close Scrivener before I walked away. Scrivener auto-saves anything you write. So your cat dances on your keyboard (or parks her fuzzy butt on it for warmth), and Scrivener obligingly saves all her new work for you. And the new work gets saved to Dropbox!

That’s what I found when I came back to my laptop, hours later.

What to do? Dropbox’s “deleted versions” to the rescue! I went online to my Dropbox account and looked for the mostly recently changed file in my Scrivener folder. (That took a little while, owing to the spaghettified file structure of my book, but never mind that.) Scrivener saves each chapter as a little rtf file, and sure enough, the last-saved file was time-stamped half an hour after I left the house! Caught you, you little scalawag!

Dropbox saves a number of older versions. It’s not even remotely obvious how to find them, but I eventually discovered if you click on the file you want, then click the little icon with three dots at the top, it offers to show you the version history. And there’s where you find your pre-cat-dancing version, and restore it to its rightful place.

Hah! Show you, you little furball!

My Interview with Stefan Rudnicki

Or Stefan Rudnicki’s interview with me. Skyboat Media has just posted a conversation I had via Skype with Stefan Rudnicki, the narrator of the forthcoming audiobook of Neptune Crossing. Stefan asks me some questions about how I wrote the book, and how I write in general, and I did my best to answer.

Technical glitches prevented this from being a video interview, but I probably look better in your imagination, anyway!

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/281100268″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Reefs of Time, Coming Along

I’ve promised to give occasional updates on my progress with The Reefs of Time. If the average picture is worth a thousand words, this one’s worth 125,000 words. That’s how far I am into the major rewrite of the manuscript, which as you can see from this picture is a little more than halfway through the 240,000-word monster total. For comparison, Sunborn was about 140,000 words total.

In pages, I’m at around 620 of 1200. So, I’ve come a long way, and still have a ways to go. But I’ve gotten through some really thorny rewrite problems, and what’s behind me feels solid. I think it’s a good story! I’m making excellent progress now, better than I have in a long time. Pray for it to continue!

Reefs of Time progress

Plot Problem Solved!

Here used to be a picture of me after licking a thorny plot problem in the chapter tentatively titled “Chapter 29” in The Reefs of Time. This would be the chapter that, in the first draft, caused me to type, “I HAVE NO FRICKIN’ IDEA WHERE THIS IS GOING! FIX IT IN REWRITE!” and then move on. When the rewrite came around, the situation was not much improved. But this time, I didn’t think I could do the same thing, so I just kept pounding my head on it until it relented and gave up its secrets. So, this time I’ve solved it and moved on. Having solved it. I think. You never know about these things until you circle back on the next pass and see it all in the context of the whole story arc.

Have I mentioned that this is a long and complex book, with many threads, and it’s taking me a long time to (re)write it? Think Game of Thrones… but without the thrones, the kingdoms, the backstabbing murders, the dragons, the dark magic, etc. Actually, it’s nothing like The Game of Thrones, except for the length, complexity, and the time it’s taking me to finish it. But that’s not nothing.

 

On Creativity

Jasck-smileI’ve been listening to a book on creativity and writing by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. The book is called Big Magic.

One line so delighted me that I had to stop the playback and transcribe it. Here it is:

“Possessing a creative mind… is something like having a border collie for a pet.  It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do or else it will find a job to do—and you might not like the job it invents: eating the couch, digging a hole through the living room floor, biting the mailman, etc….

I firmly believe that we all need to find something to do in our lives that stops us from eating the couch.”

The book is a good listen, in the author’s own voice.

Here, you can listen to Ms. Gilbert talk about some of the same aspects of creativity in her TED Talk:

 

Watching a Writer Work

Watching paint dry1_sm
Here’s Moonlight and Captain Jack keeping me company in my office while I work. I’m pretty sure they think watching me write is a lot less interesting than watching paint dry. At least with paint, you can walk across it and then track it around in artistic ways. Watching a writer work?

Zzzzzzzz…

Hitting a Wall Writing?

Writing can be so frustrating. You start out with a brilliant idea, and you fling yourself into it with abandon. And you write up a storm. And after a while…

Jim C. Hines says exactly what I feel. Happens to me every damn time. Here’s what he wrote:

I decided to talk about that part in my process where the novelty and shininess has worn off, and I realize my outline is broken, and suddenly it feels like the story is crumbling in my hands, and what was I even thinking???

It happens with pretty much every book I write, usually around 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through the first draft.

Here’s an excerpt from the pep talk:

This is the time in Jim’s writing process where, like Charlie Brown kicking at that elusive football, I lose my footing and end up flat on my back, staring into the sky and wondering what the heck just happened.

My shiny new idea isn’t quite so shiny anymore. I’ve gotten lots of words down, but they don’t exactly match what I was imagining. And this next part of the outline doesn’t make any sense at all, now that I think about it more closely. Good grief, the Jim who was outlining this thing last month is an idiot. And now I have to fix his mess.

Everyone’s writing process is different, of course. You might zip through the entire month with never a doubt, never a stumble. (In which case I hate you a little bit.) But most of the writers I know, beginners and pros, hit a point at least once in every project, sometimes more, where everything feels like it’s falling apart.

[Read the rest on Jim’s blog. Or the longer version here.]

All I can say is, Amen to that. And to everyone doing this year’s NaNoWriMo, good luck, and write on!

NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle!

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for 2015 is coming up, and I imagine there are a lot of writers who would enjoy another good book on writing or two. Or five. Or how about twenty-five, all in one bundle? It’s a great collection—and no, I’m not part of it.

Here’s the full scoop, which I’ve shamelessly lifted from the Book View Café blog:

BVC is delighted to be included in StoryBundle’s 2015 NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle. Not only is our Brewing Fine Fiction anthology part of the bundle, so are two additional guides by BVC members: Writing Horses by Judith Tarr and Writing Fight Scenes by Marie Brennan.

Never heard of StoryBundle? It’s where you can get fantastic ebooks at one low pay-what-you-want price. DRM-free means you can read them on just about all the devices you own, no matter who makes it.

  • Pay the minimum $5 and get Brewing Fine Fiction plus five other great titles.
  • Beat the bonus price ($13), and get seven more books including Writing Horses and Writing Fight Scenes.
  • Opt into the 2nd tier bonus ($25) and get the 2014 NaNoWriMo bundle as well, for a total of twenty-five fantastic writing books!

Plus Bundle buyers have a chance to donate a portion of their proceeds to charity.  
National Novel Writing Month happens every November. Thousands of writers all over the world take up the challenge to produce a novel in a month.

This toolkit offers great advice from a multitude of seasoned professionals including Kevin J. Anderson, Lawrence Block, Algis Budrys, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and Al Zuckerman. Curator Kevin J. Anderson writes:

Here, to get you ramped up for the marathon, I’ve curated a baker’s dozen of instructional books on all aspects of writing, from craft, to productivity, to business, to career advice, to specific areas of expertise. Presenting, for the second year in a row, the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools StoryBundle: a massive batch of useful books that will help you survive—and thrive—during National Novel Writing Month—the full spectrum of useful information. You name your own price, whatever you feel this batch of books is worth, and part of the money you pay goes to help the supportive non-profit NaNoWriMo organization. 

I put together these books from the general to the specific, a treasure chest of books vital to your success—not only in writing your novel but in launching your long-term career as a successful writer. This is a toolkit, a drill sergeant, a mentor, and a cheerleading section, all in one.

For complete details and to pick up your bundle, visit 2015 NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle.

Me again. I picked up my bundle last night. Limited time offer. What are you waiting for?

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