Beyond the Trope is a weekly podcast about writing, hosted by the lively and welcoming Michelle and Giles. This week, they pick the brain of moi, and we talk about writing in general, touching on research, teaching, and television hosting. I just listened to it, and I was not disappointed! Hopefully you will be, too. Er, not. You know what I mean. Check out all of their podcasts!
A few weeks ago, I had a really good phone conversation with Kristine Raymond for her podcast Word Play. We had fun talking and laughing, especially when we were trying to redo the open after searching for a better cell signal in my house. We talked about some of the ins and outs of writing, and compared notes on our methods. She’s put it up in a bunch of podcast channels, and you can listen to it on any of the platforms she provides links for. (And a lot of other podcast channels, she assures me.)
Check out her page =here= and maybe see who else she has interviewed, as well.
My guest spot went live today on Edward Willett’s podcast series, The Worldshapers! Ed is a writer of over sixty books, and his podcast series has included a slew of great science fiction and fantasy authors talking about their writing process. He has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to publish an anthology of stories by authors who were guests on The Worldshapers podcast in its first year. Take a look! Give them some love!
Meanwhile, you can listen right here to the interview, or go to the podcast site.
Lest you think that veteran (i.e., experienced, tempered, refined—don’t say old!) writers are immune to beginning writer mistakes, all I can say is, think again. It’s confession time here in the Star Rigger foundries, where we labor 24/7 converting raw words into story for our ravenous audience. I’m going to share some revealing facts.
My editor, in the course of a long email full of editorial suggestions, helpfully provided me with a list of words and phrases I used too often. Now, all writers have verbal tics—that is to say words and expressions that they use habitually, without even noticing. Turns out, I have my fair share. And with my editor’s list in hand, I used the Find functions in Scrivener and Word to, er, find them and see if I could root some out. Turns out I could—by deleting, by using other words, by recrafting sentences (usually making them stronger in the process). Here’s part of the list, followed by the number of times I used the expression initially (in the 268,000-word book), and then the number after I’d gone through and cleaned things up:
indeed 50 / 14
very 323 / 96
draw(n, ing) 68 / 28
drew 89 / 29
further 76 / 27
farther 31 / 43 (some furthers got corrected to farthers)
clench(ed) 27 / 7
knot(ted) 25 / 9
. And 546 / 209
Did I really use “very” that many times?? Turns out I did. Usually in phrases like “very much want to…” And the last one, in case it’s not clear, is sentences starting with “And”—not unlike this one. Sometimes that’s a very—um, an effective usage. Other times, it’s just lazy habit. I still haven’t gone through and looked for excessive em-dashes—or ellipses… but I will.
I spent literally days of the most tedious editing imaginable doing this. But it was necessary, and you will all be happier for it when you read the story, though if I did my job right, you will never notice.
Most of this happened when I was in Florida helping my brother. I was intending on my flight home to sprinkle all the deleted very’s and And’s and clenched fists out the window as bread crumbs for the birds and the fish below; but alas, I did not get a window seat. I’ll sell them to you for cheap.
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.
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.
What 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.
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?
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.
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!
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!