Progress on The Reefs of Time, and More Thoughts on the Pain and Joy of Rewriting

With my completion of a challenging rewrite of Chapter 65, “To the Death,” I have updated my progress bar on the rewrite of The Reefs of Time. I am now 91% of the way to completion. Let’s hear it! Thank you; you’re a wonderful audience! I’m a little startled, though, to see that the total length of the book, in double-spaced manuscript pages, has grown to 1299! Yow. That’s one big stack of paper!

This is what happens, sometimes, when I am rewriting, and cutting and trimming, and trying to make it all tighter, leaner, and clearer. Because sometimes rewriting for clarity means you need to add detail and texture, or even new scenes—not because you want to compete with Stephen King or George Martin for length, but because sometimes that’s what the story needs to make the action clearer, the motivations more palpable, the inner logic sounder, or the emotions more powerful.

It’s unnerving, because all this time I’ve been rewriting (years!) I’ve been aiming to make the book leaner and tighter (tight buns and abs!) and thus—I was hoping—shorter. And in fact, I’ve cut a lot from these pages. Lots and lots–zzzzzt, gone! Despite those cuts, the book has grown from 968 manuscript pages in the first draft, to 1299 pages in the second, or from roughly 223,000 words to 262,000 words.

By comparison, Sunborn is 144,000 words. The Infinity Link is 180,000 words. Eternity’s End is 224,000 words. Those were all pretty big books. So I guess this one is honking big.

So, what, am I failing at my job? No, I hope not. Because you know what, I’m starting to think this might be a really good book. Perhaps you’re not supposed to say that about your own book. But if at some point, you don’t start to feel that kind of burn, you may be in the wrong profession—or at the very least, you’re not having enough fun. I wasn’t so sure what I had when I finished the first draft, because I was aware of many, many thorny issues marked “Fix this in rewrite.” Usually when I add that notation, it means I have no friggin’ idea how to fix it, whatever “it” is. It just means I know there’s a problem.

And the solutions come slowly, and sometimes involve days of circling the delinquent chapter, trying to find the pivot point that will make the plot work, or the character spring to life. Often it involves asking What is this chapter here for? What happens that makes it important? This can be a troubling time in the life of any chapter’s rewrite. Because sometimes it seems to call into question the entire book. If this chapter doesn’t make sense, none of it makes sense, and I’ve just wasted ten years of work.

But slowly or not, the solutions do come if you just keep at it. And as I’ve ironed out one problem after another, after another, and another, I’ve found myself developing an attitude about this book. A remarkably positive attitude!

I’m feeling it particularly after finishing this chapter, currently numbered 65—in which, by the way, someone we care about dies. My problems in rewriting it weren’t about the death itself, but about the events leading up to the death. They just didn’t make sense, even to me. I’ll reveal here that parts of this book get pretty cosmic and space-time reality-stretchy—a favorite theme of mine—and this chapter is one of the most like that. It’s a kind of narrative I really enjoy when it’s well done, and groan miserably over when it’s not. A couple of weeks ago, I was doing a lot of groaning. But then, bit by bit (or Bird by Bird, for you Anne Lamott readers), I found my way through it. I think I sorted out why it wasn’t working and reshaped it so that now it does. And I think it carries a pretty good punch, or at least it does for me. I guess I’ll know more when my writing group has looked at it.

It occurs to me as I write this that NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has just kicked into gear. Go, all you writing-heads, write those stories! And if it doesn’t feel like it’s coming out right the first time, just remember, rewriting is most of the fun! That’s where the gold starts shining through.

 

 

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!

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

Great Way to Celebrate the Fourth of July

juno-jupiter-artist-conceptWhat better way to crown the Fourth of July, a celebration of the birth of the U.S.A., than to plunk a billion-dollar spacecraft—Juno, the fastest-moving probe ever launched by humanity—into a perfect orbit around Jupiter? This isn’t just any orbit. NASA had to thread Juno into a precise path taking the craft between the planet’s upper atmosphere and its hellish radiation belt. Too close to that belt, and the instruments would have been instant toast. Fortunately, NASA eats challenges like that for lunch. Juno will be flying a highly elliptical path over the huge planet’s poles, zooming repeatedly to within a few thousand miles of the atmosphere and then whipping way out for a long-distance view.

Jupiter's magnetic field-artist's conceptLike so many space stories, there’s a lot in this that echoes my current work in progress. Readers of The Chaos Chronicles might remember that Li-Jared comes from Karellia, a planet with a fiery radiation belt surrounding it. In The Reefs of Time, Li-Jared (and we) get a chance to visit that world, which features things even weirder than the “beautiful, perilous sky” that its inhabitants know so well.

Take a moment to enjoy this view of Jupiter’s moons circling the great planet, shot by Juno on its flight inbound.

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.

 

Update on The Reefs of Time

I haven’t been present here much lately, and that’s partly because I’ve been focusing on my other writing, specifically the next Chaos Chronicles book, The Reefs of Time. I am without doubt leaving in ruins any previous record for length of time spent writing a new book. But I hit a marker recently when I finished the major part of the rewrite on Part 1 of the book. That might not sound like a lot of progress to you. But to me, it was huge. (Actually, I only figured out a couple of weeks ago that the book needs to have major parts to it.)

I’ve worked my way through a lot of places where the first draft had hand-waving and confident notes to myself that something would happen here, or that chapter would get fixed in the second draft. So far, I think it’s actually working out pretty well.

In July, by the way, I’ll be attending a several-day workshop called The Schrödinger Sessions, which was conceived for the purpose of teaching science fiction writers as much about quantum theory as can be crammed into three days. I can’t wait. As it happens, I’m invoking elements of quantum theory, especially quantum entanglement, in an important subplot of The Reefs of Time. Won’t it be great if I can actually get it right?

Besides, I want to find out what happens to that cat!

Google doodle of Schrödinger’s cat, dead and alive

Writing as an Act of Faith

As I said in my last two posts, I’m on a writing retreat to work on The Reefs of Time. There’s an interesting faith component to this retreat. While the act of writing is almost by definition a leap of faith (Will this book I’m spending years writing actually turn into something good?) there’s a little more to it this time. As part of my church’s annual Leap of Faith experiment during Lent, I have been praying for a creative breakthrough, and also in particular that my writing wouldn’t just sell, but would touch readers in meaningful and uplifting ways. I mean, really, if it doesn’t do that, is it worth all the work and mental anguish? (Yes, aspiring writers, sometimes it definitely feels like anguish.)

Well, on my first night I settled into a comfortable chair with my laptop, in front of a crackling fire (I have a really nice room at this B&B), to begin writing new material. Not moving stuff around, not taking notes, but doing the hard thing: new stuff. No sooner was I settled in than an email came in. Really, I should have been ignoring emails at that point, but I caught out of the corner of my eye, in the little notification window, something about The Infinity Link. Now, The Infinity Link was one of my early novels, not much noticed nowadays, but in my writing career it was a breakthrough novel in many ways. (Not the least of the ways was that it started small, grew large, and took me bloody forever to write—not unlike the book I’m writing now.)

So I read the email. It was from a reader new to my work. He’d found The Infinity Link in a used bookstore a while back, and read it. He’d just read it again, this time via the Audible audiobook. And he was writing to tell me how profoundly the story and some of its images had touched him—and he just wanted to let me know, and to thank me for writing the book!

Before answering the email, I sat there for a few moments, dumbfounded. I don’t know how you would take it, but that sure felt like an answer to prayer to me.

The writing came easier for the rest of that night.

Two Views of My Novel

I found this rock on the first beach walk of my retreat, a sea-scoured nugget of quartz. It seemed to me a perfect metaphor for my first draft: a gem (or crystal, anyway) in the rough, all of its facets and inner beauty temporarily concealed. I probably won’t polish the crystal, but I will polish the novel. (In fact, I’ve made good progress on a couple of thorny problems while down here.) So, here are two different views of my work in progress:

And while I ponder the book, here’s the Landshark scanning the sea for signs of its marine brethren:

First Writing Retreat of 2014

I’m on Cape Cod for a few days, to clear my head and try to get some traction in the rewrite of The Reefs of Time. I’ve got the whole book loaded into Scrivener now, with notes all over the place, and Scrivener has already proved its usefulness in letting me move the chapters of different subplots around like chess pieces. I think I’ve got them lined up the way I want them, though of course I might feel differently as the rewriting proceeds.

Part of what I love about coming to the Cape is a chance to walk along the beach and the dunes, and refresh my brain with ocean air. Whenever I do that, I seem to see patterns in nature that somehow connect with what I’m writing. The tide coming in over the sand, for example, creates little ephemeral rivers that remind me of the starstream, a cosmic structure of my own imaginary design which figures prominently in the new book. (See From a Changeling Star and Down the Stream of Stars for more about the starstream, which was born of a supernova and a long cosmic hyperstring.)

I’m not sure what these vistas of sand dunes remind me of, but I felt strongly that they symbolize something in the story I’m writing. I guess I’ll find out what, later.

In case you think I just stole these pictures off the internet, here’s one of me standing where the dunes give way to the beach and the water. (Would you trust this guy with your daughter? Hmm.)

How about this guy? (He claimed to be rollerblading. But it was way too cold to be rollerblading. What was he really doing?)

The Reefs of Writing — Scrivener?

I’ve been poring over the first draft of The Reefs of Time and taking copious notes on what I need to change as I rewrite it. To my surprise, I found more places that seem to call for further development than places that need extensive cutting. (There’s always a need for cutting and tightening; that goes without saying. But I’m talking about the light-saber approach that’s sometimes needed to excise long, rambling detours. I didn’t find too many of those.) That’s both good news and bad news. The good part is, the first draft is better than I expected. The bad part is—well, remember the picture I showed you of the first draft? The second draft could be longer.

Not what I expected.

To deal with the complexity of the book—I wrote several different subplots as standalone documents, figuring I would figure out how to braid them together later—I have decided to give Scrivener a try. Scrivener is a writing tool designed especially for people like fiction writers, with all sorts of organizational features, including the ability to easily move sections around, as well as keeping notes and research materials at your fingertips. That seems like just what I need. It offers many things that Word does not. Unfortunately, it also lacks a few of Word’s features that I use all the time, such as support for paragraph styles and keyboard macros. An uneasy tradeoff.

I’ve spent much of the last two days with the trial version of Scrivener, loading all my different documents and notes into it, and slicing the book into chapters for easy manipulation. My current plan is do the heavy rewriting in this environment, and then port it back into Word for the final polish. That’s what some of my colleagues do, and it seems to work well for them. (Here’s one such report, from Charles Stross.)

This is all subject to change, as I test things out. Stay tuned.

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