Category Archives: Writing – how to

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

The necessary odd story pivot scene

WHEN YOU DIDN’T REALIZE HOW IMPORTANT A SCENE WAS

I write these posts when I get an epiphany (and interestingly enough, it is set right before the real Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, 2006).

I did what I always do, and gathered enormous amount of material related to the scene in progress – and went through my usual process of trying to turn the most important parts of what the Reader needs to know at this point into a coherent scene.

Almost always when I get to this point in my writing process (and I’ve written much about that), the scene almost self-organizes, includes some of the bits of dialogue I’ve developed during the process, and gives me trouble until I get it written.

Then I clean it up, check against my lists, run it through AutoCrit, and am usually happy to move to the next one.

And occasionally I get massively stuck

Which drives me crazy, and then drives me to picking apart what I’ve done, writing in my Fear Journal, and generally making a mess of everything.

Until suddenly the subconscious hits me upside the head with a ten foot Pole (to thoroughly mix metaphors), and I somehow figure out what’s wrong.

And then add it to another list: THINGS I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN.

Or at least expected!

Which are embarrassingly obvious after that point.

Sigh.

Endings and beginnings are fraught

This scene is essentially the last one in this section of the plot. I knew I needed it, structurally, and threw it in, moved some content around, and left it as a stub in my very detailed Scene list in the Dramatica file.

But I did NOT have a rough draft (the very rough draft of everything I have has been proof of my ability to create a story from nothing, and still serves as an anachronistic paper map to the path) for this scene.

Because, in many ways, I was still learning plotting when I finished the first plot (for Dramatica initiates, had my storyform down to 1) and wrote the rough draft to flesh out the ideas. Only Sandy, my long-suffering writing partner at the turn of the century, has seen the rough draft – and I hope she’s forgotten.

The storyform was then revised permanently in the great Reorganization of 2007.

So, I had somehow known SOMETHING WAS NECESSARY HERE,

thrown it into the mix, and moved on to more important things, such as writing PURGATORY.

And of course that’s what landmines are for: to make you sit up and pay attention.

To put this all into something more understandable: my usual process led me to gather enough material for this important transition pivot, but I hadn’t realized it was an important scene.

I thought it was a simple ‘cleanup and move on’ scene.

And of course it did no such thing as self-assemble.

The important ones on whatever scale never do.

Because they’re something new, and you haven’t done it quite that way before, and your subconscious doesn’t know HOW.

So, no template. So, no assembly possible.

And then, in the wondering and thinking and journaling that goes about when I get stuck in these little quagmires, I suddenly realized that we had reached the top of one mountain, the view was spectacular in all directions (see image), and it was going to matter, a lot, exactly how we got down.

For specifics, and so you might recognize it later, we move from the Czech Republic to Ireland. Over the course of a couple bits in several scenes.

And it is a major turning point in not only this chapter, but this book, and the whole trilogy, because the bottom has been hit, and the Reader doesn’t yet know how the characters are going to climb out, because climb out they must.

Apologizing for the contradictory images and the many cliches, I go now to write this scene, somehow, because I have to.

And that’s not bad.

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As a question, do you remember your turning points, and how wobbly they felt?

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Oppression and misrepresentation rampant in fantasy fiction?

The following is a reblog from Janna Noelle, a writer I’ve been following for a long time. She writes fantasy and is very careful and systematic about it (I’m still waiting to read the debut novel when it’s published), and always has interesting things to say):

I’ve been thinking about how magic is often represented in fantasy.

I’ve written previously about how many SFF stories (poorly) represent post-racial societies. My issue with magic is a close cousin to that topic.

Magic is frequently connected to oppression within the story world. Often it’s illegal, with practitioners doing so in secret while on the run and/or in hiding from the armed forces of a state-sanctioned death squad seeking to exterminate them.

It’s an obvious attempt by fantasy writers to draw a thematic comparison to the real-world oppression of marginalized people.

It doesn’t work…”

Please go to her blog to read WHY it doesn’t work – Janna is very coherent.

I don’t read much fantasy, and don’t write it, but it hit me immediately that she’s nailed it.

She has all kinds of other great posts, too.

Do self-published authors owe other SPAs?

IS SAYING ANYTHING THE HEIGHT OF ARROGANCE?

On this blog – and in comments – and on Facebook…, I am constrained by the available options for text and emphasis and images.

I live quite happily between the limits imposed by the constraints, find my own way of doing what I need to do (most of the time) so I can write the way I prefer.

And, as a member of various online groups, come into contact with other authors.

On occasion, we will exchange or list our book titles with/for each other, and I will see what choices someone slowly becoming a friend has made in self-publishing, from cover to content to interior book design.

And then the hard part comes: if I see potential that is not realized fully because of relatively small, benign problems, I am, mother-hen-like, pulled strongly toward saying something, making a small suggestion that would improve, IMNVHO (in my not very humble opinion) their work.

Their PUBLISHED work.

Who am I to make recommendations?

Someone who has read an enormous number of books – and has self-published exactly ONE so far.

Someone who went into excruciating detail in preparing Pride’s Children PURGATORY to look as good as the best traditionally published work (limited by Amazon and their paperback POD (publish on demand) capabilities), and, of course, my own learned-in-time skills, and spent months getting the ‘look and feel’ of the paperback, and the look of the ebook, to my own standards.

Someone who took a lot of advice from people who would give it.

And who rejected gobs more from people I didn’t end up respecting for their opinions.

Traditional publishing is not mine to condemn

Because, although every one of my opinions had been informed by what I’ve had to deal with in READING those books, I have no control over their choices, nor do I crave any.

Things such as tiny text on the page, double-spaced, surrounded by huge amounts of white space, and with a gutter so narrow you have to break the spine to read the words that edge it.

Or as pale gray text.

Or as fonts (leave that one alone).

Or… (insert here the things you hate the most about traditionally-published books that seemed deliberately designed to make it hard to read).

But self-publishing has an image problem

We are accused – and all SPAs are tarred with the same brush – of being, well, crap.

We are assumed to not be able to find a traditional publisher who will takes us on, regardless of the small to non-existent advances, predatory contracts, miserly royalties, accounting mysteries, and complete lack of control that we are pretty sure we’d have to live with if we tried.

And, unfortunately, I have to agree with a lot of the complaints (again, regardless of the fact that much traditionally-published material is of poor quality itself).

So what should I DO?

The question crops up almost every time I read an SPA’s work (and buy, usually because I’d like to find out how the story ended, and the price is usually quite reasonable (<$10) if you buy an ebook, compared to the ridiculous prices for traditional ebooks): do I say anything?

To the author, directly, in an individual and gently-worded email which he or she can peruse – or not – in PRIVACY.

Should I couch it in ‘best practices’ language?

Should I include a copy of something with some of their particular awkwardnesses minimized (including, but not limited to, a piece of their own work)?

Should I point to an example that I consider ‘correct’ and make a comparison?

Because what I DO do, is to never buy a book from them again.

And never (okay, once so far) recommend their book.

IOW, leave them in their happy ignorance of my elevated standards and practices, happy in their own devices, which probably include… what?

Intelligent authors make unintended or misguided choices

There are basically three explanations:

  • they don’t know
  • they know and don’t care
  • they know – but have no clue how to fix the problems

And may or may not appreciate a busy-body telling them.

But lack of quality affects many things down the chute from just writing the damn thing: read-through, recommendations, reviews, and ultimately the ability to write fiction profitably.

I have kept my mouth shut – so far

Figuring nobody appointed me standard-bearer.

Figuring that as long as I monitor my own work, I’m doing the most that I should.

Except that that niggling perception among many readers that self-published work is crap affects ME. And I have to work very hard to distance myself from the crowd when trying to persuade a reviewer to read MY stuff.

So I’m throwing this out there to see what my readers think:

  • Should I try to improve the breed? Or
  • Should I try to make sure the readers I want think of me as a good outlier?

And should I ever use my own pretty work as an example when interfering in other writer’s God-given right to make their own choices?

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Writer’s difficult decisions mirror human life

THE HARDEST PART OF WRITING…

is what you put your characters through, to tell your story.

Yes, this is what you created and delivered them for. They are your babies, but they were always meant for sorrow, because no good story avoids sorrow.

Writers of fiction are making a point: if I extract the relevant parts of human life, and clean them up so they are tidier and cleaner than the mess that can be real life, can I show that the story has a moral, something I’m trying to say?

There is so much to tell

that it is impossible to tell it all within the confines of the longest epic poem or novel series.

The clock starts counting seconds even before the birth, and doesn’t stop until reaching ‘The End.’

And still the writer, even the one who creates a world which encompasses the whole life of a character in one piece, must discard MOST of that life, and pick only a few high points, hoping to use those to tell you something.

Stories teach

So what will the writer choose to teach?

And what pieces of that character’s life will the writer use as salutary or insalubrious examples the Reader should consider following?

Not the boring parts, not necessarily the exciting parts.

But often the points where the character, a relative unknown to even the author at its conception, makes mistakes. BIG mistakes. Very BAD decisions.

And when we get to creating and writing those mistakes, we may suddenly find that we really wouldn’t have ever done this to our now-child if we had been thinking more clearly – because we love them, and this will HURT. A lot.

Not a bad place to be – as a parent or an author

Our writing choices are better if we care.

If we are going to hurt, damage, punish, instruct a character, it better be worth it.

To both of us.

But it is natural, first, for the author to flounder about, wondering if this torture can be bypassed, whether it is really necessary, whether we should be the ones to inflict the damage.

It’s a testament of a kind to Pride’s Children

that every single time I have hit this point, I have steeled myself, stuck to the original plan which came to me in one piece, ‘vouchsafed’ as I like to say only to me, and written through the pain (mine) and the sorrow (theirs) because that IS the story.

Characters become very real to you when you spend twenty years with them, which I will have spent sometime this year.

They also become more determined, and more pigheaded, more what you made them, more willing and able to carry the burden.

Like the actor chosen to play the villain, they have gotten enamored of their role, and are giving it everything they have.

They would be quite annoyed if the author watered down their part – which now belongs to them and is their chance to shine on stage.

I have enjoyed very much the preparation of Shakespearean actor Anthony Sher, which he writes about in The Year of the King, as he prepares for the role of King Lear. Whether the king is the true villain of the play or not, his decisions are momentous and affect the lives of all the other characters.

Actors live for such a role.

My characters are fictional, but…

Sure they are. I tell my brain that all the time. It doesn’t listen.

No real people are harmed by whatever I do to them.

Yup.

So why do I keep finding myself at this point, where I have to justify to myself what I am about to write them through?

Is it more that it exposes MY worldview?

There is some of that.

But I sat down with this feeling today and realized I get my worldview from the world, the one we all live in.

I’m not one of the experimental science fiction authors who create entire races of very different characters (Olivia Butler does a superb job of this).

I strive for such absolute realism in my writing, from ‘right behind the characters’ eyeballs,’ that you will feel this happened to you – until you close the book.

I want you to live another LIFE

I want you to think very hard about what you would do if faced with the kind of consequences that are determined by the behavior I’m espousing by showing you a character doing it.

And be glad, or maybe experience regret and longing, that they don’t actually happen – to YOU.

So this is my job.

And I go back to it with all my prejudices reinforced.

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Is deep research a writer’s peril?

RESEARCH IS GOOD, RIGHT?

Writers like me spend a LOT of time doing research to set a novel in time and place, to select the best time of day for a scene, to subtly (we hope) slip a reader into an alternate reality where we are going to tell a story that should keep the reader turning pages far into the night.

To create a world that the characters and the reader can explore for a certain distance off the main story path, we have to know a LOT more than the reader, or the shallowness of the setting will show through the words somewhere, and the lack of fit among all the pieces set down as background will leak through into the reader’s subconscious, taking the reader out of the story to wonder ‘if that could even happen.’

NETHERWORLD has several movies in it, and my current section is the shooting of a movie based on certain parts and unanswered questions in the life of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, author of what is commonly known as ‘the Alice books’:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

The amount of ‘information’ out there on this popular author (and mathematics teacher at Christ College, Oxford) is staggering.

There are entire societies dedicated to his books, his life, his work.

He is a well-known historical character, and many others have staked their reputations on writing about him.

What’s my motivation?

Even non-actors have seen an actor in a movie ask the director, What’s my motivation?

Because HOW you say something, in fact, how you use your whole body to say something, depends on WHY you say it, the motivation that gives the lines written by the scriptwriter a connection to the whole world of the movie.

Good actors go much deeper than that to create their own version of a character, to use their time on screen to make us believe the character so deeply that it’s a shock to see that actor – in a different role! “But he was so good at…” is a common reaction.

A good movie has more

The motivation for making that movie at all, for expending what can be millions of dollars on a particular story, for bringing that story to a fully-realized version that may some day be an immersive 3-D experience for viewers who participate in the movie as a character (we’re getting close with virtual reality – it’s only a matter of sufficient processing power in computers), depends on whether the investment can be justified, made to pay because there are so many people, worldwide, who want to watch (and later, to be).

Go on about how the good stories are distillations of an internally consistent process that requires knowing all the possibilities – and choosing the ‘best’ for the gut of the movie. And the actors work hard at figuring out why.

Which brings me full circle to research

And a character of mine, an actor, doing the research for a role he will play, but deep research, research that goes beyond reading the materials handed to him, or discovered in the easy-to-get-to online sources such as Wikipedia (a huge resource I support every year).

But the characters all come from me, so if they need to do research, guess who’s doing it for them?

It takes time.

It takes time away from the writing. That’s the dangerous part.

It is real research, research into primary sources such as biographies, sometimes histories.

And it is research that has to be stored, savored, coordinated (all those sources don’t agree with each other), until it is used to produce action in the character in the novel – and writing of that action by the author of the character in the novel.

Well, I have been down the rabbit hole again. Found all kinds of fascinating things, some of which I did not dig deep enough to find when I set this section of NETHERWORLD up, years ago. The slow brain makes it even slower.

And now, darn it, I have to figure out how to use all that research to give the character his motivation, and the readers something that keeps them turning pages late into the night.

My kind of author works hard for the readers she craves.

We aim to please.

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Tagline, logline, pitch are the hardest writing ever

A PLOTTER SHIFTS WORD ONE TO CHANGE WORD LAST

One of the hardest tasks a novelist faces is answering the question:

“What is your book about?”

And every writer will face that over and over and over.

I’ve saved this post from Writers in the Storm since 2013.

When the novel you’re trying to describe is going to be as long as Gone With the Wind, and tops out over the course of a trilogy at around a half-million words, reducing ‘about’ to a few words is a feat that brings most writers to their knees.

The lucky ones, traditionally published, probably don’t have to/get to make these decisions (for which they trade complete control of their work and pitiful royalties forever) – because their publisher makes the decisions for them (usually without much input from the writer), and then, again for the lucky ones, uses the results to market the book.

I’ve known since the beginning

Which is why I spent a long time learning exactly how to achieve the ending I wanted for Pride’s Children: and ran scenarios from beginning to end over and over until the beginning made the ending, in my mind, inevitable – and I was ready to write the definitive version.

The process is a time loop for plotters like me, and doesn’t determine the words readers will ultimately get – only the story that I want to leave in their minds, the life lived, the consequences of the choices, the necessary paths.

As in a play, what the theater-goers see as spontaneous and happening before their very eyes needs to be so completely memorized and rehearsed that the actors never say a word out ot of character.

Other people write differently; this is how I do it.

What I’m trying to say here is that I have many versions of tagline, logline, and pitch, created and struggled with over the years since 2000, but I’ve never comfortably answered the question of ‘about’ when asked, and stutter like an unprepared schoolgirl when it comes up.

But I hadn’t dared. Which seems silly.

Those who forget the past (or ignore it) are condemned to repeat it

All that happens is you have to keep doing it, over and over, like Groundhog Day or Russian Doll, because the question doesn’t go away.

Can’t go away – as long as there are readers.

Why now, halfway through NETHERWORLD?

Because I am exhausted from fighting this particular battle, and stuck in the deep chasm of having to write what I planned to write way back then.

Because challenges not faced come back to haunt you.

And because I think I got it.

Finally.

Sidetrack for a minute into the writer’s greatest fear: Appearing ridiculous

Also sometimes known as biting off more than you can chew.

And choking on it.

But what I didn’t know in 2000, when what I’m about to post was almost as clear as it is now, except that I wasn’t sure, hadn’t put in the hard work to make sure, that I could come anywhere near to achieving what I was setting out to do.

As you probably know, mere appearance never works.

Failure is fine – there is no shame in attempting to become an astronaut, and not making the cut (I did, and didn’t). But you have to try, and you can’t skip steps. And you can’t wish for proficiency when what you need to do is find a way to learn (ie, the 10,000 hours trope, which is really a lot more hours if that’s what it takes).

Delusions of grandeur, Impostor Syndrome, Fear of Failing

They take their toll.

Why does it matter so much?

Because the world has removed so much of what I can do that what’s left is pitiful.

Because I have this one thing that I value, that keeps me sane, called writing.

And where I have all the control and all the responsibility, because not a word goes out without my say-so.

So I thought about all of this, and worked on it for months, and then let it sit.

I’m ready to let them be public, even though some will not be fully realized until the end of Book #3:

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Tagline: Pride’s Children is

The Great American Love Story.

Logline:

To safeguard a powerful actor, a damaged writer must first salvage herself.

Pitch:

When a reclusive bestselling novelist crosses paths with the rising actor of his generation, she finds her capacity for obsession is not dead. The friendship that develops when his next movie films near her rural refuge, and he fulfills his promise to visit, creates a challenging bond that threatens to destroy her. But when America’s Sweetheart decides she’s the one who will engender with him Hollywood’s supreme dynasty, can the writer navigate the razor’s edge from friendship to forever love, and save his unborn children?

Mission statement: what you are trying to achieve

To make the mainstream reader live three lives so closely from the inside, right behind the eyeballs, that reading Pride’s Children is a roller-coaster ride which makes the ending inevitable and utterly believable.

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For better or worse, they are now on record.

The writing proceeds.

The writer’s Kindergarten: cut and paste

WHEN STUCK I GO BACK TO BASICS

And I’m writing this post now for two reasons:

  1. I just had to go through this – again – and other writers might need the same trick
  2. When I woke up this morning and reached for something on my desk, I disturbed the page I used (photo above), scattered all the little pieces of paper, and realized I don’t need to keep them around forever, even if they did rescue me.

I’m an extreme plotter by nature and by practice and by brain damage.

Things have to be organized so I know what goes in each scene, because I can only work with the content of ONE scene at a time (and yes, if you’re wondering, I have used this trick on paragraphs, beats, and scenes as well, when my brain refused to do the organizing internally).

When I got to the current piece in the middle of the WIP, I realized that, inexplicably when I stared at it, the next scene was NOT ready for my ‘process.’

I came to a standstill

For several days.

Abortive attempts to write the next scene failed to make that scene gel, despite having a title and the usual nubs I use to attach words.

Since I was worrying about politics, and in the middle of getting vaccinated for the coronavirus, it took me a while to track down the reason: when I was doing the Great Reorganization of 2007 (GR07), I had had the same reluctance, created something that sort of worked at the time (a list of scenes covering what would happen in this part of the story), and decided to DEAL WITH IT LATER.

Unusual for me, but I was trying to get to the end of GR07, we had half the way to go, and I only had a few more days of the concentrated time I had been saving for the reorganization.

I believe in football American style they cause it punting.

In 2007 I moved on

Never thinking that it would be 2021 when I got to this point in the writing.

I was young(er). Naive(er).

Trying desperately to take that original rough (very rough) first draft of the whole story to the next level – which required the complete reorganization AND a committed devotion to upping the quality of my writing (no, you are never going to see that draft).

and it worked

I moved on. GR07 became the reality.

By dint of work, the writing problems got solved one by one.

Pride’s Children PURGATORY was written and published in 2015 (yeah, I’m slow), and I immediately moved on to NETHERWORLD.

I believe they call it a poison pill

Maybe not so bad.

But a buried little landmine all the same.

Because there was a reason. I know it now and I knew it then: this piece was going to be very hard to write.

And, as is usual with such, incredibly important.

I couldn’t handle it in 2000, when the story came to me.

I couldn’t handle it in 2007, except to realize there was no way around it, and I would have to deal with it during the writing of the second book (nameless at that point).

And I couldn’t handle it at first when it got to be late 2020 and I hit the red flag marking the mine.

I couldn’t even have written this post.

You can’t skimp on the hard parts when you write

The hard parts are WHY you, and not someone else, is telling this story.

The hard parts are where your writing should shine, and, given enough work and time, where they will.

If your story doesn’t have hard parts well executed in it, it’s not going to be the best book you can write.

Because you shirked.

I don’t shirk.

I kick and scream and complain and try to find ways around the roadblock and hope some insight will just remove it.

And then I admit it needs the work, and I do it.

On this one I had to go back to Kindergarten

Yup. Basics. Writing things on single lines. And cutting the sheet into real-life strips of paper.

And rearranging those strips, edited as necessary (in pencil), into the RIGHT order, with the right words, plus any surrounding fill text, until the whole emerged.

Somehow.

That’s the level I have to go back to when things get really bolloxed up for whatever reason.

Eventually, it works, and I find it all amusing. Sometimes I blog about it.

But you’d think that by now I’d be out of Kindergarten, wouldn’t you?

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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.

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

May 2021 bring you joy and peace.

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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.