Category Archives: Writing – how to

In which I tell anyone who will listen things about craft I have figured out the hard way.

When you have to micromanage your plot

YOU CAN’T PLAN EVERYTHING AHEAD OF TIME

And the farther you are from the beginning and the end (if you’re an extreme plotter as I am), the more likely you are to get to a point where a scene just isn’t obvious.

You know what the chain of scenes has to accomplish (connecting beginning to end efficiently and while keeping the reader entertained), but the specifics of some of the scenes just don’t set off the process which ends in writing the scene as if it had always been there.

I wasn’t surprised to find out it happened on this timeline

On the story that is not primary right now, the character timeline that is keeping one of the three characters off on her own while the other two are doing a very personal interaction necessary to the story, together.

So I know exactly when this character is rejoining the primary thread, and what is going to happen from that point on, but the notes I took on what she does meanwhile, in scenes that have to make her emergence exactly right when it happens, were placeholders, and they don’t satisfy, precisely because they are placeholders.

You can’t let the reader completely lose sight of a character

Not for chapter after chapter. Because in real life, a character is always the main character on her storyline.

It is possible that the time spent alone on her story is not all that interesting to the reader.

In GWTW, many long pages go by when we don’t hear what Frank Kennedy is doing – because Scarlett doesn’t care yet. Then, when her story demands another husband, and she decides she deserves what he has, and her sister would just waste it, she grabs him, and he has a presence in the main story until she manages to get him killed.

That’s one way to do it.

It’s better if that character is doing something

Something that needs reporting back to the reader, and something that will cause major problems if not resolved by the right time in the right way.

Something that really worries the reader.

Something that heads off in a direction far away from what the reader wanted the character to be doing, and that gets worse with each peek we get at what she’s up to and why.

In other words, I was missing an opportunity

And that’s why this scene I’m working on (31.5 for those keeping count) is giving me trouble.

It doesn’t yet have the danger coefficient it needs.

I don’t allow ‘middle’ scenes. Waste of good space and plotting sequence work. If the scene isn’t enhancing the story, it shouldn’t be there, but I have my other constraint which says we need to see what this character is up to.

The reader deserves that: my implicit contract with readers is that I won’t waste their time. If something is there, it can’t be removed (and the books shortened) without doing violence to the story and leaving a hole.

I just hadn’t thought out this particular sub-plot in the detail it needs, and my subconscious noticed – and stopped a perfectly good, if unnecessary, scene from being written.

It was okay.

But not good.

And it is going to have to be much better before I can enjoy writing it, and if I don’t enjoy writing it, why bother?

So I apologize in advance to my beta reader – this is going to make you very unhappy, and that’s exactly what I want to do, because the depth of despair predicts the heights achievable every time.

I made some lists, and I found all kinds of fodder.

I may end up using all of it in various degrees.

I have a bunch of decisions to make about relative strengths and what to summarize versus what to make the reader live through, but the thought processes have generated far more than I needed, and now I get to choose only the best.

I felt a bit lost, and I’ve been struggling with that feeling since I finished 31.4, and now I know how to proceed with making this timeline contribute to the rightness of the conclusion, instead of merely walking along the side track until it crossed the main path again.

Thanks for listening.

This is how I make progress, by understanding what I’m doing – and then writing it down.

I’m trying not to make too many mistakes twice.

That ol’ subconscious knows what it’s doing.

Every time.

**********

Happy New Year – and I hope you survived 2020 intact!

May 2021 bring you joy and peace.

**********

Major stress doesn’t just END neatly

A peaceful setting on the greenway, mother with stroller and child

GETTING BACK TO NORMAL?

Outside stress

I told myself that when the Electoral College did their thing, the stress about who the next president will be would lessen.

It did.

But not enough.

There’s a pandemic going on.

I had hoped the arrival of vaccines would help, and it did – until I realized that even though we’re over 70, and living in a care facility, those of us in Independent Living will not qualify for the vaccine for quite a long time. Staff will be ALL vaccinated first – not a bad thing, as they are the ones who DAILY go back into the community.

People in Assisted Living, Memory Support, and Skilled Nursing will be vaccinated.

We will not. Not at first.

And it will be a VERY long time before I don’t have to worry about my children (late 20s, early 30s), because they will be among the last vaccinated, which means their quarantines (and ours) will not end for many months.

Medically-induced stress

I told myself that when I found a new doctor, completing the process of picking one more deliberately than how we found our first Primary Care Physician (PCP) when we moved here over two years ago, and met him or her, and things seemed more to my liking (the first physician was fine, but we are not, it turns out, on quite the same page philosophically as I had hoped), that I could relax.

It did – I had a wonderful first visit yesterday during which all we did was talk, and at the end. I had asked the nurse, ‘Could we do this at the end?’ when I got there, and she agreed with no hesitation (good sign), because I was so stressed about having done that horrible thing, CHANGING YOUR DOCTOR), so that when she took my blood pressure, it was fine (Note to self: make sure I send a note to the cardiologist).

It would have been lower, I’m convinced, if I didn’t have to fight so hard to have the American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines for accurate BP measurement followed.

I get it: they’re busy, and they have to process people through quickly. For most people it doesn’t matter much if the nurse talks to them continuously through the process, they’ve exercised (getting to the doctor’s office DOES constitute exercise) within the past half hour, or they’ve not been allowed to rest quietly – or any of the other guidelines.

But for those of us for whom going to the doctor brings up a whole host of issues, stress significantly raises the measurement taken under not ideal conditions – and that is the number that goes into your permanent medical record.

So that particular medical stress has been lowered – but is not gone. And the contortions I had to go through in my mind and in person left me completely exhausted and unable to write a word yesterday. I couldn’t even nap!

And, of course, my medical system still doesn’t have someone with expertise in ME/CFS I can talk to – I continue to be completely responsible for whatever self-care measures I can find and execute to deal with what, for convenience and so readers can understand because it’s FRESH, is exactly like what the Covid-19 long-haulers are discovering: no one knows enough to help them get themselves back after a virus, and for some it’s been almost a year.

Removing the stress isn’t a panacea

In many ways, it dumps you back into the situation you lived in before the stress started, but at a significantly lowered coping level.

There’s the long-neglected to do list.

There are the problems with money, which for some are an annoyance, but are a major new source of stress for those getting unexpected bills, do not have the expected income, or are even worried whether their investments will be ravaged by the stock market rollercoaster – and they will have to depend on their children to pay the bills because their nest egg will not get them through!

I won’t be able to relax completely about the election until Biden is IN the White House, either – too much nonsense has gone on.

There have been some new health challenges – notably the blood sugar rollercoaster (much better, thank you) – which consumed lots of time and caused much worry. The kind that RAISES blood pressure (yup, all stress reinforces other stress).

I don’t know how to get back to – or to – ‘normal.’

Nobody does.

My resilience has been challenged by 31 years of chronic illness.

And we’re still in lockdown, not particularly conductive to relaxing, abetted by the news that California’s screwed up bigtime. If you look at all the graphs, it is likely much of the soaring covid and covid death rates were NOT helped by Thanksgiving, and we’re about to repeat that with the year-end holidays.

We take it day by day.

But it’s been incredibly hard to write. To create NEW fiction. To find a time during the day when the brain is functional (not just in survival mode) so I can use it.

And ignore the guilt that comes from not using some of that ‘good brain time’ to do things that really should be done, and which I’ve been planning to do in the evenings AFTER writing – something that just keeps not happening.

Be kind to yourself

And everyone else.

Be especially kind to those who have been working because they have to – we have an amazing staff here, but they are human, are working under plague conditions, and have had to live with weekly testing, knowing some of their colleagues have tested positive, and that a mistake on their part might severely damage one of the old people in their care.

And don’t expect to get back to normal easily or quickly.

Because we don’t.

Stress stays there, like a phantom limb, even when it’s technically reduced or gone.

**********

Using Autocrit to combat combat fatigue

IF YOU DO YOUR OWN EDITING, BE MERCILESS

Despite the recommendations of every editor on the planet, some of us do our own*.

Editing’s no different from any of the other tasks a self-publisher tackles:

  • You are not going to do it perfectly
  • It is a skill – and you are not born with it
  • Learning has many steps
  • There are books which will teach you (or you can take a class)
  • It takes time to do it well
  • It is not inexpensive – if you count your time
  • The professionals started somewhere
  • The results are there for everyone to see
  • No matter what you do, someone will criticize you
  • There are objective standards – but not everyone agrees what they are
  • There is great satisfaction in doing it yourself

Why do your own editing?

Because, in the long run, everything you learn makes you a better writer. Because you can. Because it is always available, on your own time schedule, at your own price (but don’t forget that the time you spend editing might be better spent writing). Because you can’t afford what a good editor costs, and a bad one is useless.

In my case, because I am incapable of interacting with someone else about my own work. Call it a feature – or a bug.

How to have an editing program assist you

After I have almost everything written, polished, listened to, and in what I consider final form, I run it through AutoCrit – and all of the COUNTING it does for me:

  • Duplicate words.
  • Overused words.
  • Two-, three-, and four-word phrases repeated (ouch – unless deliberate).
  • Unusual words.
  • Cliches.
  • Generic words.
  • My own personal word list.
  • Adverbs.

Each and every one of these flagged items gets put through a wringer: Context. Intent. The possibility of synonyms, and a consideration of nuance. Number of repetitions. Whether the repetition is by accident or design.

In other words, everything that has bitten me before.

What I don’t let it ‘help’ me with

Anything else.

Why? Because I don’t trust its judgment on ‘passive voice,’ or ‘subject verb agreement,’ or ‘tense.’ Or ‘readability.’

I have a set, but complex, style. Autocrit doesn’t see italics, for example, but I signal to the reader that something is a direct thought by changing to first person and putting the text in italics. So if you read:

There is no way I’m telling him that.

you’ll know it’s a more intense thought, in those exact words, than general internal monologue:

She wasn’t going to tell him that.

It’s too complicated for an automatic program.

But the counting alone is an amazing help for me

When and where I need it.

This is my reason for having a lifetime membership – my brain is tired more than lazy all the time due to chronic illness and disability, so I let it serve up the most convenient word WHEN WRITING. But I’m not going to let first words stand – not without a raze-to-the-ground fight.

Because my readers deserve the best I can provide on the LANGUAGE side of the writing.

Self-editing with a program is a tool

It takes a fair amount of time per scene, but I think of it as the best investment of that time I can make, because the final product is improved in so many ways. I look for strong verbs instead of verb + adverb combinations, more precise nouns instead of common nouns, and also places where I can reinforce a motif or thread I want to keep.

And I don’t have to count or do the time-consuming searches because Autocrit is merciless.

Last tip

After the scene is polished through this process, I put it through several of the steps one final time – because I have had the experience of working on synonyms and nuance, and finding out that to reduce the count of one way of saying things, I have increased the count of another!

*Adapted from an online comment – you may have seen some of this material before.

———-

Do you use an editing program to improve your own writing?

How?

———-

Laying out my writing wares for the passersby

I’m planning to revise the prideschildren.com site, and one of the things I’m mulling over is how does a fiction writer provide value for a visitor to her books’ site?

My personal blog here is all over the map, by design – the readers I hope to attract to buy and read Pride’s Children PURGATORY (Book 1), the prequel short story, and, as they are available, Books 2 and 3, NETHERWORLD and…? are not necessarily interested in my opinions and experiences as an recent inhabitant of a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC).

What do I hope for from readers of my fiction who get to the other site, say, from the link in the back of Book 1, or from a recommendation from a friend?

Without answering these questions, I have no hope of supplying these readers with something they value, preferably something they NEED.

What do my readers NOT need?

I decided to visit the Amazon reviews of several novels that could realistically be called ‘comps’ – books that by their general complexity, genre (contemporary mainstream), style (reasonably realistic), length (big fat books), and language (literary) are similar to Pride’s Children.

There I’m going to check out the negative reviews, and found what made readers unhappy. I’ll ignore the reviews which are too general, and look for specific buzz-killers.

And then I’ll pull some quotes from my own reviews (many fewer, of course) that point out I don’t commit these sins. If true.

Here’s the list, paraphrased for conciseness:

  • unbelievable due insufficient character development
  • The sentences, paragraphs, passages… all just SO incredibly long
  • I got halfway through and I felt as if nothing happened
  • There was not a single character that I cared about
  • The dishonesty of most characters was so out of my comfort level
  • two of the least interesting characters I’ve ever encountered in literature
  • digs in to all the nasty-ness entailed in living a life of degrading self abuse via abuse of various substances
  • I made it to page 354 and then skipped, skipped, skipped
  • a blow-by-blow, second-by-second rendering of the narrator’s life
  • I thought it would never end
  • I simply didn’t enjoy the story enough to appreciate the pages and pages about the meaning of life.
  • Lacks: an interesting narrative, a plot, a satisfying ending
  • pretentious, long winded, tiresome, tepid novel
  • unedited and rambling and somehow that’s supposed to make it literary
  • why did it take [almost 800] pages to tell that story
  • filled with so many ludicrous plot holes that it’s just not something I can stomach
  • a descent into a bottomless well of self-pity, gloom, and urban angst
  • the punctuation and structure of sentences is horrid to the point that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to follow the thought process of the author
  • there are missing words, wrong words and misspelled words throughout the book
  • goes on about [X or Y topics] too long
  • … talks about how precarious [character’s] finances are and yet they live in a [very fancy place], take cabs everywhere and seem to eat out all the time.
  • …why wasn’t author consistent?
  • illogical transportation
  • The character’s conversations were completely unbelievable. He’s supposed to be a X, give him the voice, thoughts and mannerisms of X!
  • Author seemed to be grandstanding about how much she knows about Z.
  • I find the reference … overly coy. Just name it, or make up a name.
  • [Plot point] was excruciatingly long (not in a you-are-there way; in a boring and overly-lengthy way) and repetitive. Author could have accomplished so much more with so much less.
  • Author overused words that tend to jump out at the reader like “loitering” and “grappling.” Does author not own a Thesaurus? It would be so easy to substitute synonyms…

From my reviewers (completely unprompted – I didn’t know these readers when I wrote PC):

  • I just read PC in 10 hours straight, and I am speechless.
  • …you have managed the best instance of “the story is not finished, but this segment of it feels finished” that I have ever encountered.
  • just wanted to say its VERY GOOD, and what an ironic and sharp eye you have for le mot juste, and the silence pregnant. Very enjoyable, no sign of the damaged mind but I resonate strongly with your main character
  • I had meant to read up on it ages ago and just never did, so I glommed everything last week. Now i’m like, damn it, i have to WAIT for more?! Noooooooooooooooo
    So just keep it up. No pressure of adoring fans or anything.
  • Very character-driven, very slow burn, very subtle. I loved it. The characters are rich and real. The scenes build upon one another with clear purpose. The writing is exquisitely careful.
  • I read chapter 1 out of curiosity, chapter 2 out of interest; the rest of the story will keep me up all night. Beautiful.
  • I put it off because it didn’t really seem like my kind of story. But I loved it. You did a great job.
  • Your writing puts me in mind of the classics only in modern era. Those are the stories that will live forever. They scream for detail and need the long way around.
  • Pride’s Children has helped me to look inside myself and see many things I need to see and deal with. I have never read a work of fiction that has touched me so powerfully! I love it and will be rereading many times. You did not cause any pain .
    You gave me increased awareness of myself.

  • Just finished reading and posted a review on Amazon. I loved it! I’m impressed by the infinite care that you put into it, the choice of words (so sensitive!) and the absolute lack of typos, that’s something of a record!

And more.

Is tooting your own horn a good or a bad thing?

In the indie writer world, if the author doesn’t do it, it doesn’t happen.

I didn’t write the words in the section above – I somehow inspired them. I have permission from their authors to use them any way I want.

It still feels like something my mother would disapprove of, as she reared me to be a proper woman so many years ago, in Mexico, in the 60s – with a style and morality more like the US in the 40s.

Modesty is a virtue, but women have come a long way from that upbringing.

In any case, I plan to use both my reviewers words and my own published and pre-published words to reach the readers I want to attract.

It is my hope that if I can get the right readers to try – a few words, a few pages, a few chapters – that they will stick, and they will like what I have written for them.

Because I love having this effect on another human being.

Please join in with your pet peeve about writers or books – I’d love to read them!

And will try to avoid them.


 

Target reader emotions when you plot

WHAT DOES THE READER REALLY WANT?

I just had a tough decision to make in a scene.

I waffled – there were two ways to write the thing, and there were pros and cons for each of the ways.

Until I hit the right question.

The two ways were:

for a character to stew all day hoping she could achieve her goal that night

-or-

to be confident all day that she would achieve the goal, and spend the time planning how she would enjoy it.

The first way is more dramatic – for the character.

The question?

What is worse – for the READER?

The actual plot will go to the same place: either she will or she will not get what she wants; that was predetermined in 2000 when I started this.

But now that I’m writing the scenes, I need to shift a bit from ‘what happens’ to ‘how do I PRESENT what happens’?

I know where it’s going – the reader does not.

I created the rollercoaster – the reader wants a good ride and a thrill.

My virtual teachers (writing books) teach me that the reader can handle the centrifugal force from being thrown around curves in the plot.

More than they can handle being on a nice calm piece of exposition which is BORING.

Once I asked the right question

the answer was obvious.

The ride for the reader is MEH if they see her seethe all day – they can hope she won’t achieve her goal, assume something will come along, again, to defeat her.

Instead, if I write it right, the reader will see her confident – and reviewing all the reasons she is sure to get – what they don’t want her to get!

And that will torture the reader more than the feeling of ‘she has failed before, she will fail again’ READER certainty.

Can’t have the reader comfortable, now, can we?

Process

This is why I spend the time arguing with myself, in writing, and asking myself why my brain isn’t letting me go ahead with the writing – because it needs to know which plan we’re following here before it will set out the tea lights in their little tin holders and illuminate the path we’ll walk.

I never get much lighting beyond what I need strictly not to tumble over roots and rocks. Then I pick my way along.

It works better for me to know – and the reader to have to guess – where we’re going. I already discard great gobs of ideas and executions which are not what I need. I can’t afford to make decisions on the fly.

I like my shiny new toy. I’ve been using an intuitive version of it for a long time, but I love having the tool be something I am conscious about, in the top tray of the toolbox. Makes it more likely that I’ll pick it up.


If you’re a writer, do you do this?

If you’re a reader, admit it – you want drama, not a smooth ride. You want that ending EARNED.


 

There is only one way to the ending

DO YOU TRUST YOUR AUTHOR?

And it goes THROUGH the plot, through the characters, through the planning that an extreme plotter like me goes into great detail to connect.

Novels start with ‘WHAT IF?”

And must continue to the bitter end, or their promise is compromised by the very one who created them, because of FEAR.

I admit it. It’s going to get rough, very rough, for my characters – as I’ve known since this story came to me.

There is no way this ‘WHAT IF?’ works – except my way. The way I designed to answer that question TWENTY YEARS AGO.

A great portion of that time has been spent making sure it is the ONLY way I can write THIS story.

The Resistance Journal tells the story

Saturday July 25, 2020 at 6:02 PM

All I need to do is in front of me: finish this scene, finish the next, … – get on with it.
Nothing is going to change in the plot.
I can’t make it sweeter or more palatable – and it is NECESSARY.


And then … steps up and decides to fight for what … wants.
This is what I’m writing.
This is what I designed.
This is what’s foretold in the …
Nothing has changed.

I have removed (…) the pieces that would give away too much of the plot.

The angst is real. Writers bleed with their characters.

We don’t LIKE causing pain: it is NECESSARY.

Our characters have to grow, change, evolve, show us the consequences of their decisions in their lives – because this is the entire purpose of fiction: showing readers what happens when different life choices are made.

Have readers ever thought about this?

I know I never did, as a reader. When Agatha Christie killed someone off, I never wondered if it caused her personal pain.

When Dorothy L. Sayers denied her detective the woman he loved, I cried (metaphorically) into my (metaphorical) hanky – but I never wondered much what it cost Sayers.

Now I understand – because I WRITE

No mother ever reared a child without that child crying. Not successfully, anyway.

Not with a child who grew up with the tools to become an adult (they still have to do so much work after we leave them be).

Writers get to be judge, jury, and executioner.

We also get to commit the crime, and be the detective, and work in the hospital where the crushed bodies come in to be healed.

This is what we do:

We torture characters after we make readers care for them.

To show their humanity.

It’s getting harder.

My beta reader tells me she gets what I’m doing.

She calls me a horrible person, too. Which is fine.

You don’t get to have an influence without challenging the status quo.

And it’s going to get a lot worse before it’s better.

I promise: eventually it will be better.

But it has to be EARNED.

Thanks for listening

It’s particularly hard right now.

And I worry about whether readers will decide this is the place where they stop reading.

But then I remember they sat through The Silence of the Lambs.

I’m not THAT bad.

And I mean well. Really.


 

The point in writing with care

EVERY WRITER ANSWERS THIS QUESTION

It has become common for writers to tell other writers how to write.

Unless they are discouraging other writers deliberately to keep the competition down!

And every writer who has any control (beginners can often see only one way to do things) constantly makes choices:

  • Is this word the best word for this use?
  • Will MY readers think this is pretentious – or the reason they read ME?
  • If I use a sentence fragment as part of my style, or this particular character’s mental processes, or [select reason] – will MY readers get their panties in a twist?
  • Can my intended readers follow plot complexities?
  • And – most importantly – am I limiting myself by the way I prefer to write?

All of these are valid questions, all have to be answered regularly, all have many answers.

How to choose?

I’m asking myself these questions, as usual, because I just finished the last two scenes in a chapter, and it took me two whole days of using AutoCrit (my online editing program) to get the text the way I wanted it.

Two whole days of whatever brainpower I could muster is still a lot of hours.

And they are hard work. Choices come down to nuance, nuance to familiarity, familiarity to everything I’ve ever read – and processed.

For an example, I’ll put up a section of these scenes, and show the differences:

Sample edit from Chapter 27

There are hundreds of little changes between when I’m finished with the story and when I’m finished with the language.

Why change?

The original was fine, with nothing hugely wrong.

But I’ll find I overused a particular word or phrase.

Or a piece of dialogue doesn’t sound like the character (Cecily, like Andrew, is Irish).

In fact, just as I finished checking the above comparison, I realized I’m missing two places where my tiny intimation of the speaker being Irish is incorrect (I use ye’re – but still have you’re) – and that will be checked several more times before publication.

This section comes from Scrivener – and is missing italics. I’ll have to check to make sure those are as I want them, as discussed in a post on my stylistic choices.

I do my own editing

This is a statement of fact, not a battle-cry.

I found early that my brain is too damaged to do the negotiating, arguing, back and forth, discussing – that goes with having someone else edit your work.

And that it was easier for me to take on the task, plus it forced me to improve my bad habits immediately.

I like the control. I accept the responsibility. And the mistakes I make will get corrected asap if egregious, with the next major revision if minor.

And there isn’t an ant’s chance with an anteater that I’ll have to defend my own choices: nobody can possibly know my style better than I can.

I have the sense to use an excellent beta reader – and always pay attention to what she catches or notices (she’s usually right).

For someone like me, it even saves a lot of time (a relatively expensive commodity for me). Because I handle a single scene (up to maybe 3k) at a time, and it’s familiar to me because I just wrote it, so I don’t have to reload anything into my memory.

The pitfalls of that are obvious: the mistakes will get overlooked because they are so familiar. So I have many passes for just one thing. I have checklists. I keep a list of the things I haven’t mastered.

Nothing’s perfect, but that does get a lot of the little typo buggers.

Is it ‘good enough’?

Yes – after I put the hours, the work in.

Is it getting easier? Yes – if I still put the hours in, and the work, and don’t try to shorten the editing phase by getting impatient to finish.

I think it matters.

It does make me very slow.

I think it’s worth the effort.


Does lack of editing in published work irritate you? Do you notice it?


Thanks again to Stencil for the ability to create graphics – and their free account. If I ever need more than ten a month, I’ll get their paid subscription!


 

Creating and maintaining tension below the surface

BOOKS ARE NOT WRITTEN FOR THE WRITER

You’d think by now this would be obvious: the writer is the FIRST reader, but not the INTENDED reader.

Because writing is a split-brain activity, it is easy to forget that what bothers the writer may not bother the READER, by design.

And you don’t want to go to where things bother the reader.

Annoy, make uncomfortable, show up, irritate – all good words of what the writer should do to the reader – which is SHAKE THE READER UP.

Get under the reader’s skin. Make the reader think. Create a discombobulated feeling in the reader that can only be fixed by the reader changing.

All those are good – but bothering the reader means the writer did something wrong.

And this is where the split personality is required:

I have just written the final two scenes in a chapter.

They were hard to write. There is a lot going on sub rosa. By the end of the book, these two characters will loathe each other.

And right now they are thrown together in an unexpected way, with no warning to either.

But the rules of polite society apply, and they must be civil, even cordial, to each other for a period of time that may be up to two days long.

And one would very much like to get something the other has.

So the scenes are currently driving me a little batty

because the surface must be unruffled – at this point in the story there is no basis for which one person can truly dislike the other.

Which bring me back to the title of this post: Creating and maintaining tension BELOW THE SURFACE.

And the words I put on the graphic:

Books are written

for the READER

To remind myself that, when it’s all over, I have to do better than the street repair team in my previous township. I need the surface to look like the original street, not the repaired street.

A repaired street has a visible patch of asphalt or concrete – of a different color.

A repaired street patch may create a dip in the road as the subsoil settles.

A repaired street show where the damage was.

But a book can’t show where the choices were made

A novel must be seamless.

The scenes must flow.

The reader must be able to know a great deal of why the scene is happening now – as she reads it.

And the writer is not allowed (not by my standards) to stuff description and exposition into a scene just because there is space.

It is work to get it right – it would be much easier to just relax the standards and throw something the reader might need later into the present scene.

But here’s the rub: readers know. And when they run into chunks of exposition, they skip or skim.

And then they don’t find out what the writer was supposedly trying to tell them anyway.

I really, really hope I didn’t do that

I’ll find out when my first reader lets me know; I’ll find out when reviewers speak their minds.

I think I managed it.


 

How to profit from a plot hole

A PLOT HOLE CAN BE AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER

And I’m not going to tell you the size or the significance of the one I just wrestled into submission. Just how.

It’s in Chapter 29 of the WIP, Pride’s Children NETHERWORLD, the second volume in the trilogy, and you will have to remember this AND suss it out yourself when NETHERWORLD is available.

That’s not the point.

The point is that I’m pleased as punch with myself for finding out how to deal with one, and my struggle may save another writer some angst – and amuse readers who wonder if this ever happens and how writers deal with them.

Plot holes

It is almost impossible to invent a world – and not run into a few.

In fact, in the world I’ve built, I’ve been surprised time and time again when the plotting does work out, or a small change in a relatively unimportant date or fact renders everything copacetic again.

Because you do know writers make an awful lot of fiction up out of whole cloth, right?

No matter if ‘inspired by a book’ or idea (even fuzzier) decorates the credits of a new movie, or if ‘inspired by characters created by’ [name] is attached.

And if it did actually happen, there may even be apparent plot holes.

But if it didn’t, well, a writer does the best she can, and leaps into the void with a ribbon between her teeth attached to – a plot.

It depends on when you find the plot hole

If before you write a word, and you can’t find a way to get around it, you can dump the whole project.

But that usually entails dumping a lot of good stuff. Just with a plot hole or two in it somewhere.

However, your options are more limited if you find a reasonably-sized one (for your character’s definition of reasonable) in the middle (almost literally) of the second volume of a trilogy, and it is supporting a plot point you are not willing to change.

What to do, what to do?

First of all, OWN IT

Do not leave it there for an astute reader to find it, not if you’re planning to leave a legacy to the ages.

Readers blab. They leave reviews (if you’re very, very lucky). They tell each other. And for some reason feel they have to mention it when they recommend it: “It’s a lovely book, you know, but it could never happen because it has a few little flaws…”

And, if you’re an extreme plotter like me, it’s plausible – it’s just that it isn’t quite possible or true.

Or the author would have noticed it sooner, and taken care of it in development or plotting or outlining or the calendar or… You get the idea.

So I did what I do with a lot of problems:

I gifted it to a character

And that’s where I’m rubbing my hands with glee.

Because now the CHARACTER has to come up with a solution. And once the CHARACTER has a solution, they have to deal with the problem of whether to cough it up right away and admit they screwed up, or to keep a good and almost logical solution tucked away in their head to be used if someone else notices.

And you then get extras: You can have them get away with it – for a while.

And have it bothering them.

And then, if you’re evil enough, you can have it come up at a most inconvenient time, force them to do their little song and dance, and let another character realize they’re not being entirely truthful.

Which has been kind of delicious.

And is exactly what I mean by profiting.

My readers will tell me

If it worked.

I’m assuming most of them will not be through my gleeful blog posts about writing – I can think of nothing worse to destroy the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ than lifting the skirts and showing readers the machine under the table.

But what I’m hoping will happen is that any reader who happens to notice that little glitch will also notice that somewhere very soon, before they got too worried by it, a solution popped up to take care of the problem – and the itch is scratched.

And they hurry along, reading, to see what other little problems might crop up – as that is the way of fiction, problem/solution/problem/solution… until the final happily-ever-after, mostly, solution at the end.

So that’s what I spent the last three days on

And a couple of thousands of words in my notes.

And images and calculations and links to places where I got my data from Mr. Google.

And then this tiny little hand-polished paragraph which will get read, absorbed, and left in the reader’s wake.

After all, one must tell one’s readers the truth most of the time, so they will not notice the occasional little lie we have to sneak in – or this wouldn’t be fiction.

On to the next author problem!


If you’re a writer, have you ever had this particular little problem?

If you’re a reader, have you ever noticed this problem? What did you do?


 

 

My writing is a walk through a minefield

I AM ALWAYS MY OWN FIRST READER

One piece of advice to writers I’ve always followed is to “Write the book you want to read and that you can’t find.”

I guess as a writer I’m looking for the readers who FEEL the way I feel.

I’m having trouble finding more of them because WE tend to hide our feelings as too intense, too troubling, too deep – and are much less likely to discuss those feelings with other people as we recommend a book.

It is too close.

I am not my characters, and my characters are NOT me.

Because, if anything, there are significant parts of me I’ve consulted when writing all three of the main characters in Pride’s Children PURGATORY, and now Pride’s Children NETHERWORLD.

Readers know what it’s like to be inhabited by warring camps, typically portrayed in cartoons by a little angel over one shoulder, and a little devil over the other.

I contain multitudes.

But I AM an actor

The training, and the thinking, and the practice come in very handy when you have to split parts of yourself off for a character – and maintain some distance from your self.

I’m sure you can’t play Macbeth without finding justifications for killing your king.

So, before you go traipsing through one of my scenes, I have to do the hard work of feeling my way from the First Line to the Last Line, so that it is smooth and satisfying for a reader who goes that way but once.

It’s part of what makes me slow.

Adrenaline is hard for my body to process – and all hormones are big parts of the emotional states that accompany their surges through the bloodstreams of humans.

I have to feel more than usual, and have a smaller capacity for recovering from the emotional hormones, than most people.

You have to get very close to emotions to write them.

Yesterday, as research for the next chapter in NETHERWORLD, I had to go through, over and over, a part of life that, as a married woman who just celebrated 45 years with her first and only husband, was very far behind me.

No one knows the future – it could be useful in some cases, but I’m hoping I won’t need what I went through yesterday, because, as all important decisions, it was exhausting!

And I can’t stop writing these sections until I can recreate that on the page, in words, first in myself, and then, with some degree of certainty, in both men and women.

Models in literature

I had myself wondering today how close Margaret Mitchell got to Scarlett O’Hara, or Charlotte Brontë to her Jane.

I’m not sure Mitchell was fond of Scarlett – Scarlett and my Bianca have a lot in common – and Mitchell gave Scarlett no HEA: she prevailed, but her victory was Pyrrhic at best: never being hungry again is pretty low on the hierarchy of needs.

I take some of my examples from Dorothy L. Sayers, who at least left Harriet and Peter happy and married, but made them work very hard for that win: the hard work is, to me, essential to the outcome.

I don’t take shortcuts.

All of this may make more sense when the next book comes out, if you’re one of the clan.

I hope you are.

When this is all over, I’d love to talk about it. Right now I’m too raw.


If you haven’t read PURGATORY, and do so now, you’ll have a much better idea of what I’m talking about – as well as an appreciation for why it took so long. I had to learn to do the writing/feeling connection – and do it in EVERY scene.


Drop a line if you have any idea what I’m saying. It gets lonely out here.


 

The mainstream literary pleasure of highly literate readers.

STUCK WITH THEIR HEAD IN A BOOK

That’s where the young readers are, when they can get away with it. I was.

I kept books in three locations in our house in Mexico City, and snuck around so my mother wouldn’t find me and want me to do something – but I always had a book. In English. Of what was around the house, including my parents’ collection of the Great Books (only the half I liked) plus the James Bond novels and such my father brought home from business trips..

It is like an addiction, pouring words into your head.

Many people learn the pleasure of reading later – and do perfectly fine with it. But there is a subset of humans who are bookworms from a young age, and once they discover the printed word, can’t get enough of it.

My readers tend to be in that group.

Figuring out words in context is a big part of that

If you read material that is probably too hard for you, you’re going to run into words you’ve never seen before. That’s when the vocabulary starts to build: you don’t understand the sentence a word is in until you have some tentative meaning for the word, so you guess, store it away as a ‘possible,’ and move on with the story.

Do this enough times, and that word will get its meaning altered a tiny bit each time you run into it, because each place you see it will give it context, and eventually most words will have a complex meaning that settles pretty close to what you’d find in a dictionary.

Or you could ask someone (mom, teacher…) or look it up, and nowadays touch it on your Kindle and have the meaning pop up, but all those things take more time and interrupt the flow of the story, so many of us reserved that for rare occasions, and just kept reading.

The literary mainstream novel

English is an incredibly rich language (we steal anything we don’t have, and, voilà, it’s English now), and I can find the perfect word for most applications – with the nuances I’m looking for.

My readers don’t need anything explained: they either know it already, or they will be fine figuring it out in context.

Mind you, I’m not looking for the truly ‘literary’ one-of-a-kind only an English professor would know them words.

Just the words that I’ve acquired from all those books I’ve read – without paying specific attention.

The only ‘class’ I’ve ever taken in ‘English’ was the Freshman English course I took when I transferred as a junior from UNAM in Mexico City to Seattle U., which it turned out later I didn’t need to take.

That class also got me to write the only term paper I ever wrote, something wild about the psychological significance of Wuthering Heights, and for which I immersed myself in the literary criticism journals at the SU library, which had articles such as ‘The Window Motif in …’

I had fun, I got an A+, and never before or since was exposed to language that way.

I am not a literary writer; I’d have to have an entirely different background for that, and it wasn’t my path as a physicist. At this stuff, I’m an autodidact. They’re at an entirely different level.

Pride’s Children is just where it all came to roost.

They said, “Write the novel you want to read, and can’t find.”

‘They’ were right. It has been great fun just letting a novel be what I wanted it to be, and using everything stored in my very odd and now damaged brain exactly the way I want to.

And my readers like it!

That’s such a charge.

Here are some of those words from Chapter 27 of Pride’s Children NETHERWORLD, which I just finished writing, and am now polishing up to send to Rachel, my wonderful – and omnivorously trained like me – beta reader. AutoCrit, my editing assistant software, flagged them as ‘uncommon in general fiction.’

  • interlocutress
  • verandah
  • malevolence
  • illusory
  • epigraphs
  • attribution
  • obeisance
  • dopamine
  • quintessence
  • scrupulous
  • galvanized
  • volition
  • tableau
  • pragmatist
  • modus operandi
  • bafflegab
  • choreographed
  • Janus
  • excoriated
  • impeccable
  • preternatural
  • demotion
  • demonstrably
  • asunder
  • pique
  • bawdy
  • Uttar Pradesh
  • pachyderm
  • impunity
  • wafting

Not really that tricky, are they?

But you don’t hear them much, and they like to get some attention, too.


Thanks again to Stencil, which allows me to create graphics with very little effort – and wonderful photos. When I need more than a few a month, I will definitely get their paying version. Meanwhile, I mention them here every once in a while, in case others need the same capacity.


 

The enervation of being unable to plan

IT FEELS LIKE A BLANKET OF LEAD

I signed up to refresh my French at Duolingo.

Every day they nag me to do the 5 minutes I signed up for.

I usually do more once I get there, but it is like lifting boulders to get myself over there and start.

Yes, I will look back when this is over (assuming I survive), and wish I had spent my time better, but…

But…

I will be better once my head clears.

Two days ago, I was struggling with a scene. This is normal for me: they don’t come easy, but I don’t care – it’s work I love.

Getting started writing every day requires a brain, and I struggle for hours most days trying to find something (other than time) which will encourage that brain to turn on.

And yes, I’ve tried writing when the brain isn’t on – pretty similar to making mudpies, for all the results.

Back to the point:

Two days ago I had a reasonable working day, got half the current scene into shape.

Yesterday, after two days of NOT riding the trike, I decided I had better get out there before I start making monkey noises, and went for a short trike ride around the greenway.

Except that we’re into a hot week, which means I can’t even go down to the garage to hop on the trike after about noon – because the garage is so hot I can’t function.

So it had to be in the morning.

And riding in the morning meant I was severely brain fogged the rest of the day, and could simply NOT focus.

I haven’t had carbs in days

Eating carbs usually results in me being brain fogged until the residue is out of my body, and I’m once more working on fat and protein. I haven’t been as strict with myself in the past, and it is REALLY hard not to have the only good dessert the dining staff sends in a week – after all, food is our only comfort provided by the facility now, and the lack of choice is getting me down.

But I’ve made the effort, and I can’t blame the current situation on carbs.

Today is merely the result of yesterday’s trike ride, as was all of yesterday afternoon and evening: having ME/CFS MEANS there is no way to get the energy back.

Not being able to do anything is also a sign of depression

in normal people.

We’re used to it, but I have to ask myself if I’ve let the situation and my limitations bump me into that territory.

And then I have a day in which no interruptions occur, and I keep my nose to the grindstone until it finally sharpens enough to write with, and I know it’s not discipline – it’s the disease.

What it is is a sign that I can’t expect to get a writing period on a day I go out for a mentally-necessary trike ride, which is in itself frustrating.

I can’t plan around it.

There is no plan C. I ride OR I write. And if I go longer than a day or two without writing, my brain seems to think we are doing something new, with all the Resistance to starting that comes with new things.

If you wonder why it takes me so long, that’s part of it.

The pandemic is just more of the same. A lot more.

Don’t worry about me, because I’m still doing this: there isn’t anything else.

But it gets pretty frustrating each day to have all this time – and not be able to plan or to count on myself. For purely physical reasons I can’t control.

I just hope I finish these books before the virus gets me.

Oh, and put on the list somewhere the end of the story – for those who might care – if I don’t make it.

Can’t plan that, either. Making it.


It’s hard writing one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the novel from a place of such flat affect. The first half is great (IHNVHO), but I want the second half to hit you in the gut, too.

So no trike ride for me.


 

Scene not working? Change something MAJOR

NOVEL SCENES HAVE A PURPOSE

They are not just ‘something that happens next.’

There are many different ways to accomplish that purpose, but there’s a tendency, as a writer, to have things happen in a particular way, and to have that way get stuck in the chute.

The more things a scene needs to accomplish, the longer it may end up needing to be.

But writers’ brains have the same habit of getting stuck behind the wrong idea as any other brain. And maybe my ME/CFS brain does this more than most writers’ brains because change is so difficult for me.

When it isn’t gelling

So the first thing to do when a scene isn’t writing itself, after a reasonable amount of time expended trying, is to separate the essentials from the window dressing, and consider finding a different way entirely to enact the required elements – and change the window dressing to something else entirely.

A scene could be huge, with many characters interacting.

Or a scene can be small and intimate, or small and intimate within a chaotic outer setting, or the kind of scene where it isn’t until the end that you realize a whole bunch of things have come together.

A paced novel will have all kinds of scenes, to avoid monotony, to keep the feeling of surprise and discovery going.

But few scenes have only ONE way to accomplish their task.

When I started writing this post, I had just made a deceptively small change – the hour of the scene went from 4pm to 8pm – taking it from mid-afternoon to sunset – and was able to unstick a line of attack completely. The number of participants also dropped – from crowd scene to two principals.

Lawrence Block says that when things get stuck and you don’t know what to do next, you should bring in a man with a gun.

That’s a pantser’s move.

I’m an extreme plotter, so that’s not really an option.

But one of my writing guides, Armando Saldaña Mora’s Dramatica for Screenwriters has a whole section on how to change the scope and size of a scene, and still accomplish that scene’s purpose. Which is the real advantage of my kind of plotting, where everything has a place.

Changing a scene completely is often a budget move for movies

If the purpose is for the Protagonist to say goodbye to the Antagonist, say, the scene can be large and showy and done in front of hundreds of extras – or it can be small and intense and private and done in the back seat of a taxi (“I coulda been a contender” speech, Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront). Where the taxi isn’t even really moving.

It is something only the novelist will know in a novel, where words themselves are relatively cheap, even if producing them costs blood: was this scene completely different at any point before publishing?

Changing the scene in NETHERWORLD

You don’t have to choose between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ a scene; there is more than one way to ‘show.

The original scene was going to happen while ON the set of Opium, filming in India, where the main character would watch the filming for an hour or so, and then form her own conclusions about the undercurrents in the cast.

It works much better without the actual filming being observed, and the scene purpose is fulfilled in an even more intense way. Since the details of filming were background in PURGATORY, the reader gets the idea – and I don’t have to repeat it.

The result:

  • An unstuck scene
  • A better scene
  • A scene between two main characters, instead of one with many to track
  • Advancing the plot
  • Better dynamics
  • Definitely better dialogue

So if it isn’t working, and you’ve spent enough time that it should have gelled by now: consider that you can use a lot of what you already figured out – but reframe how the reader is going to learn what you need the reader to know.

Be bold; try something different.


Really different.

Have you done this?


 

Creating a roadmap for scene arcs

I’ve done this before – and didn’t realize it actually needs to be a ‘thing,’ a part of my regular writing ‘process.’

Most of the time, my plotting assigns all kinds of details to scenes, leaving the actual writing to when I get that far in the list of scenes, as I work one at a time until it’s finished.

So I can concentrate on writing one scene, one little visual polished bit, at a time, knowing that the scene will fit into the story like a jewel into a necklace.

But a scene can be too small an entity to work with when the story arc needs several scenes to tell a part of the story, during which point of view will shift in each scene (I stick religiously to a single pov per scene), but the story will continue, and, if I’m skillful enough, the reader won’t notice the patchwork quilt squares, but only the whole.

IF my plotting is good enough initially, and thought out in enough detail, I can trundle along, scene by scene, and the bits will connect.

But when the plotting was changed in the great 2007 reorganization?

Then I was forced to make some large decisions and some fine grained decisions about what would go where of all the bits in the story, and some of those details were tentatively assigned to a scene, or a point of view character, and I knew I would have to rearrange some of the bits when I got there.

I’ve done the several-scene roadmap idea more than once before. The first three chapters of Purgatory, for example, are all about the Night Talk show where two of the main characters meet in New York, while the third main character watches the show from Los Angeles.

So I’ve worked with the concept before, that plotting can have arcs even within the larger story, but I never stopped to formalize that for myself.

It’s a lot of work

I think of it as fractal in nature: pick a scope – sentence, paragraph, beat, scene,… and plot first, then write – and the dialogue will happen, the interior monologues will support it, because we all know where we’re going, together.

Sometimes a film director will allow actors to improvise – but it is always within the director’s (and the script’s) larger vision of the whole. Within that whole, individual pieces can be executed in many ways, but all have to serve the story. Or they will have to be expunged (kill your darlings) from the final product, which will otherwise be a mess.

But for extreme plotters like I am, breaking up the process, and doing the structure solidly FIRST, allows me to just write when I get there, to listen to the characters in my mind, and write down what they say, because I’ve given them the setup – and the writing part of my brain seems to have a mind of its own.

Back to my skyscraper analogy

Get the plumbing and the elevators and the water lines and the steel structure right first – or the sewage from the 29th floor won’t proceed to the treatment plant, and the first time someone flushes up there won’t be pretty for those on the 28th floor.

But after that, interior walls may have some variation (as long as they aren’t load-bearing), so that one floor can have a large open conference room where the floor directly above has offices or apartments. That is my roadmap idea. Within the plan for a whole building, there can be individual floor designs – followed by the decorating (writing) of the individual rooms which is the ultimate purpose of the skyscraper – interior spaces of all kinds and sizes within the plan.

Sometimes I can plan a whole building at a time, others a floor at a go, sometimes just one room, and sometimes a perfect grouping of furniture before the fireplace where we will sit and talk.

And the roadmap part?

Think of the roadmap as linear, while the floorplan of a skyscraper’s floor is 2D, and the building itself is 3D.

The ROADMAP allows you to visit every room on each floor – in a particular order, the one chosen by the storyteller.

Think of it: the last time you let a Real Estate Agent show you a dwelling, did they arrange your tour so you ended up in the perfect room? The one the agent knew would close the deal?

The ROADMAP is how I get you where I want you, the Reader, to go.

I work and plan and think and manipulate – so you will say wow.

The whole idea is to tell the story for YOUR pleasure – and for that you have to let me be dramatic, and show you everything in an order I hope you will like.


Just when you think your writing process is a lock – there’s something more to write ABOUT it. For me, it’s one more thing nailed down that I won’t forget to do because my brain isn’t working.

It’s an interesting way to work, with a limited brain as my tool.


 

Maggie2 is here with nowhere to go

s-l500

MY NEW AIRWHEEL S8 IS HOME

I thought she wouldn’t get here until April 2, and she was several days early.

Shipping is erratic in these times.

It was so easy – plugged the one connection between the saddle and the supporting column, put it on the charger, and a couple of hours later everything was charged up and ready.

The next day I hopped on, went down in the elevator, and brought home the mail – just like before.

As if the entire time between Jan. 29 and March 31 had been erased at a single stroke.

But things have changed so much in the interim!

The entire world is now upended – and I have very few places I need to go, as today, Yolo County, CA, told us to close the pool – not even supervised socially distanced hours are to be allowed.

It’s a big loss – and not necessary. I hope they take it back in a while – I don’t see what could possibly contaminate people who don’t even get to use the dressing room, are in chlorinated salt water, and go home to take a shower. Abundance of caution.

But I can run around the corridors at night with the wind in my hair if I want – even in normal times there’s never anyone around after about 9pm.

I could even do it in my pajamas!

When the world returns slowly to some kind of normal

I will already be in position to move around.

Because I am in the vulnerable cohort, older, with chronic illness, and physical disabilities that keep me from walking or standing long or comfortably (which is why I got Maggie in the first place), I assume it will be a long time – on the scale of a year – before we’re even allowed out of quarantine.

Just having beds available again in hospitals will still not make covid-19 easier for us to survive – although it might make it possible in the few cases where a ventilator makes a difference. The illness itself is hard on my group – and most people here are older than we are.

We have to wait for the vaccine – and hope it is effective (the flu shot is around 60% effective, I understand). We have to hope the immunity it – or surviving the disease – confer on people of my condition is long lasting.

The future is not known

We have to hope they learn enough from dealing with this that there isn’t another pandemic for a long time.), and

But maybe they’ll reopen the pools, and limited visitation (maybe for those who are certified survivors (if that makes them unable to infect us), and I’ll resume riding my little steed to the pool. One can hope.

It is a mistake to expect the worst. But it is life-threatening to risk what you know may kill you even with a lot of medical help.

I’m just happy my long hunt for a mobility device is again satisfied – for now.

The original Maggie will be repaired as soon as I can get a control board (assuming that’s the problem) and someone willing to watch the Youtube videos and install the board for me, and a backup now sounds like a very solid idea.

There is still nothing on the market that I find as perfect a solution for me.

Now back to writing NETHERWORLD.

Today was a good day – I made progress into the next scene – all my process still works, plus I added some new strategies from Donald Maass’ Writing 21st Century Fiction – heartily recommended.

I can’t do anything about the world out there – younger healthier people will have to gather the data and do the research and create a safe and effective vaccine – but I’m still excited about where the current scene is going (Rachel will be pleased), and how the end of the Chapter is designed, and how the plot keeps kicking.

That is my job. I’m not bored. I’m not looking for other things to do. This I can.

Wish me luck.