deborahjross: (Tajji in meadow)
“What's new?” I asked my friend, a young(er) writer.

“I finished my book!” she said radiating both relief and excitement.

“Finished, how? Finished, as in rough draft? Revision? Ready to send to your critique group?”

“This is like the eighth revision,” she said. “My group has seen it, in whole or part, many times.” She rolled her eyes. “I was at the point where the only thing to fix were nits, so it was clear that I needed to send it out.”

Although my friend has yet to sell a novel, she has several quite respectable short fiction sales to her credit. More than that, she has acquired an understanding of when revision is helpful and when it is detrimental. In our subsequent discussion, she pointed out that she is a “pantser” (“writing by the seat of your pants”) rather than a planner. With time, she has become better at planning out a writing project, but she still likes the spontaneity of letting the story unfold in unexpected and delightful directions. Hence the need for multiple revisions.

I was like this when I began writing. I had no idea that people outlined stories. When a fellow writer told me that she outlined each scene on a 3 x 5 card before she actually started writing the story, I didn't know what to think. I would just start writing with no idea where the story was going to take me. As a consequence, my stories were riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and dead ends.

I had to learn to revise as a matter of survival. I don’t mean tidying up grammar and punctuation. I mean taking apart large portions of the story, writing new text, rearranging other portions, and so forth, until the final version bore little resemblance to my rough draft. Computers have made this much easier than having to retype the whole thing! Read more... )

Because I often have difficulty discerning the proper point at which to begin a story, in my early years I often had to either add one or more chapters or throw them out. Once I had to discard the first 150 pages of text. It was a good thing that I took to heart the advice to kill my darlings, or I would never have been able to do that and the story might have ended up in a trunk instead of a bookstore shelf.

As I wrote, and later sold, short story after short story and then several novels, my revision process became abbreviated. I learned the literary equivalent of looking before I leaped. I developed my own methods of writing down the structure of a work, either in progress or yet to be started. I say writing down rather than outlining because many of my early techniques involved sketches, maps, diagrams, and flow charts. Later I used text as well, although writing down the contents of each chapter before I have written it has never appealed to me. It takes the fun out of discovering what happens next.

Outlining, in whatever form, reduced the number of drafts, but did not eliminate the need for revision. I often joke that whatever I think a story is about before I start writing it, I'm wrong. No matter how fully developed an idea seems while it is still in my mind, I always find new aspects and connections that I did not know existed. Over time, my process of revision has changed from major reconstruction to deepening connections. Sometimes it feels as if I am Michelangelo, chipping away at that block of marble to reveal the statue that is already inside.

Revision, as indicated in the title of this piece, can also be an excuse not send a story out into the world, where it may be rejected. It is all too easy for a fearful or insecure writer to keep polishing until there is no life left in the story. As long as he can say, “I'm still working on it,” he doesn't risk the possibility of being told by an agent, editor, or critique group that this story does not work. We have all heard of novice writers who spend years, sometimes decades, on a single book. While it is true that some stories take a long time to coalesce, that's not what I'm talking about. I had to write about a dozen books (depending on how you count them) before one was finally solid enough to be to make a publishable novel. And that one, I revised four times before I submitted it to an editor. While previous attempts contained many intriguing concepts and even some respectable prose, I was not yet sufficiently experienced to bring them together in a cohesive way. This is why I almost never tried to revise them many years later. The central core of these attempt unsuccessful novels reflected who I was as a writer at that time. As I matured, I was able to tackle more ambitious themes, more complex characters, more challenging points of view, and so forth.

Occasionally, a story would present itself in those early years before I was skillful enough to do it justice.These drafts and fragments have become a treasure trove into which I dip from time to time. I am able to view my earlier attempts with a more critical eye and to extract what can be salvaged and reworked, often in a new framework, to the standards of my current ability. I should add that these older nuggets face fierce competition from the new ideas that present themselves to me on a daily basis. Like most writers I know, I am not lacking in ideas. To the contrary, I have so many that I must pick and choose which ones will yield the most rewarding results. I doubt I will ever come to the end of my queue of ideas story ideas. The challenge is, as it has always been, to prioritize.

Revision has taught me how to take a story, prune and discard elements that don't work, and flesh out elements the take the work in a deeper, richer direction. At the same time, it has given me a better sense of what stories are worth the energy and time. When I was a beginning writer, every story was the greatest thing I had ever written. This was absolutely true. I was improving all the time, so each story was indeed the best I had written to date. Decades later, however, I have written my share of flops, experiments that did not pan out, and just plain awful writing, not to mention ideas that seemed brilliant at the time but which history has proved wrong. So now when I consider potential projects, I keep in mind that some will succeed better than others. I never want to stay completely in the realm of safe, proven writing strategies, and I’m much more likely to dig into a story that challenges me.

My current process is that once I finish a first draft, I take another pass through it while the way the story has come together at the end is still fresh in my mind. Then I set it aside and distract myself by working on something else. Early in my career, I wrapped the typed manuscript in plastic and put it in the freezer “to cool off.” Computers and experience have eliminated the necessity, but not the humor. Then I’ll do another pass, usually a fairly substantial one. At this point, the story is ready for someone else to see it, usually a trusted reader and then my editor.

Everyone has a different way of revising. Just as it is a joy to some (me) and agony to others, so we approach this re-envisioning as individuals. We have different “signals” that tell us we are about to outrun our inner guides, or our workshop mates are reduced to pointing out typos instead of errors of substance. I find it endlessly fascinating to “talk shop” with other writers, even if I come away grateful that I get to do things my way...and they get to do things theirs. As long as it works, the details don’t matter.

As a dear friend who is also a fantastic writer said, “The only draft that matters is the one on the editor’s desk.”
deborahjross: (sabertooth)
National Novel Writing Month will soon be upon us. It's an international month-long event in which

folks pound out the first draft of a novel, posting the progress, getting lots of cheers every step of the way, and exchanging writing advice. Lots of friends will be doing it, many of them regular participants.

Alas, or perhaps not alas, not me.

I always have specific reasons. This year, I'm very close to finishing a revision of an on-spec novel that I've been working on for some years now, in the time gaps between contracted projects. I'm on the brink of the climactic scene, which spans 4 or 5 chapters and brings together everything that has gone before with a bang and a few nifty twists. If I nail it, the book works. Needless to say, this book not only haunts my every waking hour but has inveigled itself into my dreams. Not the story, mind you -- the writing and revising of it.

I began this book back in 2013 on a lark, one of those what-if ideas that just takes off on its own. It had been a long time since I'd embarked upon an unoutlined, unplanned, seat-of-the-pants story, especially one of novel length. I had not realized how much my creative spirit needed what I call taking a flying leap off the cliff of reality. Working on my netbook, I continued the draft while taking care of my best friend as she died of cancer. The story, with all its open possibilities -- and it had quite a few surprises for me -- gave me an emotional refuge so that I could return, "batteries recharged," to be present with my friend and her family.

Am I going to set this aside and lose all the momentum I've regained during this revision?

Don't get me wrong. I think NaNoWriMo can be a wonderful thing. I've done writing challenges before, way back when, and learned a lot about JustKeepWritingNoMatterWhat. I also think I could use a reminder course from time to time, when I slog through a period of stopping every 5 minutes for another round of online Scrabble. The community support, the exhilaration posting each day's progress, is wonderful.

But every writer works in different ways, and I feel my hackles rise -- not a lot, just a tad -- at the "everyone's doing this, don't be left out" feeling. Maybe I'm creating that in my own mind, or it's an echo of being in the "out" crowd during my formative high school years. I need to remind myself to pay attention to what works for me, and that posting daily word counts does not fit most of the time. For me, daydreaming that leads to a deeper story, a connection between characters, a surprising turn of events, is time well spent. Sometimes, a single insight means a solid day's work, even if no words appear on the page. Other times, if I force that daily page or word count, I end up with something superficial and green, which is not necessarily bad as much of the real work for me happens in revision. But by working well, no matter how slowly, I can nurture that depth as I go along and be sensitive to the openings and connections that I might miss in my haste.

If you're doing NaNoWriMo, more power to you, and may its many gifts be yours! But if not, join me in writing "deep and true and slow."
deborahjross: (Default)

Some delicious things to begin your week:

First, a wonderful story by Rachel Swirsky, to read free online. If you don't know her work, this is a great introduction. Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia on The line between art and magic is a treacherous thing.

Next, another question and answer session on writing with Ursula K. LeGuin at Book View Cafe's blog. To a young writer asking about success, she responds:

I think the word success confuses people. They get recognition mixed up with achievement, and celebrity mixed up with excellence. I rarely use the word – it confuses me. I didn’t want to be a success, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t set out to write successful books. I tried to write good ones. 

Receiving recognition is very important to a young artist, but you may have to settle for achievement with very little recognition for a long time. You ask about me. I wrote and submitted my work to editors for six or seven years without getting anything published except a few poems in poetry magazines – as near invisibility as you can get in print. It kept me going, though. Then I got two short stories accepted within a week, one by a literary quarterly, the other by a commercial genre magazine. From then on I had some sense of where to send the next story, and began to publish more regularly, and finally placed a novel. Each publication added to my self-confidence. Growing recognition added more. But the truth is, I always had confidence in myself as a writer – I had arrogance, even. Yet I had endless times of self-doubt. I think what carried me through was simply commitment to the job. I wanted to do it. 

Talent is no good without commitment. I’ve had students who wrote very well, but weren’t willing to commit to write, to go on writing, and to go on writing better. But that’s what it takes. 

“Feeling successful” – well, that’s something you have to work out for yourself, what it means to you, how important it is. You’re quite right that very good and highly celebrated writers may not feel “successful.” Maybe they have unhappy natures, and the Nobel Prize would just depress them. Or maybe they aren’t fully satisfied with what they’ve done so far, don’t feel they’ve yet written the best book they could write. But they have the commitment that keeps them trying to do it. 

Hang in there. And don’t push it. No hurry! Writing is a lifetime job.

What is a day without a beautiful galaxy to admire?

Like other flocculent galaxies, this spectacular galaxy lacks the clearly defined, arcing structure to its spiral arms that shows up in galaxies such as Messier 101, which are called grand design spirals. ... In flocculent spirals, fluffy patches of stars and dust show up here and there throughout their discs. ... Sometimes the tufts of stars are arranged in a generally spiraling form, as with this galaxy, but illuminated star-filled regions can also appear as short or discontinuous spiral arms.

deborahjross: (sabertooth)

Ursula K. Le Guin recently blogged on Book View Café about how the marketing practices of results in disposable, interchangeable world-pablum instead of thoughtful, well-crafted literature. She wrote:

If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.

The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.

I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese. Fortunately, I also know that many human beings have an innate resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing can reach.

The Guardian responded with an article about her powerful essay, so I expect it’s gotten a lot of exposure now.

Le Guin’s perspective reminds me of an experience I had when I was a fairly new writer. I’d sold a handful of short stories to professional markets and I was perpetually working on one novel or another but I hadn’t sold one yet. Because I was still learning how to write at novel length, I wrote really awful, disorganized first drafts and then revised over and over. It took me a couple of years to get a novel into sufficiently good shape that I felt comfortable in sending it out. That was okay, because each one was better than the one before. They were better written, but also deeper in concept and grander in scope. I was getting personalized rejection letters from editors, which encouraged me greatly. At a convention, I encountered an author who had already sold several novels. In fact, he (nominal pronoun for the sake of the article) was churning out three or four a year. When I asked him how he did that, he told me he never revised. He’d write a draft and that was it.

I was devastated. I guess I didn’t have a lot of confidence  as a writer to begin with, but I remember thinking that if I had to write a publishable first draft (an utter impossibility for me), not once but several times a year, there was no hope for me. Fortunately, I had a good support group and I soon realized that this author and I had different aims and abilities. He wanted to write quickly enough to get lots of books on the shelves, and his first drafts must have been sound enough for his editor. I wanted to write books that readers would savor and return to, books they wanted to keep.

The two goals aren’t necessarily incompatible.  I know successful authors who write more than one novel a year (it takes me one to two years at this point to finish a novel to my own satisfaction). They are dedicated craftspeople, and some of their work is very good. It’s not that one way of working is better than another, it’s that I got into trouble by comparing mine to someone else’s.

Read more... )
deborahjross: (Default)

Over on the Gollancz site, Charlaine Harris offers a few characteristically charming observations on how to blend fantasy and mystery. Listen up, folks. She knows whereof she speaks. It's a short article, full of humor and wisdom.

My favorite bit:

I think it’s also a good idea to make sure the reader knows that being a supernatural creature of any sort does not mean you can live a life without problems. There are always bills to pay of one sort or another, groceries to shop for (even if you shop in a bar or cemetery), and taxes to pay. Yes, always taxes. You can’t swan around in a velvet cape looking mysterious and swoony. The electric bill must be covered, and the telephone bill, too.

I must have been channeling Harris when I wrote "Survival Skills" (Sisters of the Night) back in the mid '90s. Barbara Hambly had taken on the editing of an anthology of female vampire stories and, being much involved in my younger daughter's elementary school PTA, I wondered what it would take for a mother vampire to raise two kids in Los Angeles, where I lived at the time. My vampire's problems didn't involve paying taxes, but did center around managing all the ways our governmental structures look over your shoulder when you are a parent. It was easy enough to imagine a night school for families whose adults worked night shifts in the movie industry, but what about truant officers, PTA fund raisers, school lunches and sports ("don't play with your food"), and translating the skills learned from centuries of dealing with paper-based bureaucracies into computer-based hacking?

"Survival Skills" will appear in my upcoming collection, Transfusion and Other Tales of Hope, from Book View Cafe later this month. Stay tuned for the official announcement.

deborahjross: (Deb and Cleo)
I love Maggie Stiefvater's work, but whether you do or not, she has great insight into her own writing process. THIS IS HER POST, NOT MINE, so go over and give her many hoorays.

Originally posted by [ profile] m_stiefvater at Truth & The Thinking Writer
This is gonna be a writing one.

I haven’t done a writing post in awhile because I feel like, in many ways, I have said all the things that I can possibly say about writing. And in other ways, I feel like I am still trying to figure this whole literacy thing out for myself and who am I to tell you anything. Also, I don’t want to be that tedious person who talks about their job all the time. Blah-blah-blah-I-make-up-whole-worlds-for-a-living-blah-blah-blah.

However, I feel as if this topic is actually relevant to readers as well as writers, so I’m going to give it a go. I want to talk about how we, as writers, ought to think about how we say things on purpose and also say things by accident. And I also want to talk about how I don’t mean messaging or pedagogy.

Let’s do this thing.

When I first started out as a writer, I didn’t think about any of this. At all. I didn’t think about theme. I didn’t think about what people might take away from my writing. I couldn’t. Writing was a bunch of balloons and it took all my concentration just to hold them all. Sometimes one of the balloons would get away and I would just have to hope it was not an important one, because I didn’t have any hands free to try to grab it.

Now, however, I don’t write a scene WITHOUT thinking about this. Which brings me to:


My novels are character-driven, which means reader satisfaction comes largely from seeing people change over the course of the novel. For instance, I knew I wanted Sean from The Scorpio Races to start out solitary and end up learning the power of human relationships. Right here: this is my first decision. I am consciously choosing to say that being solitary < good family relationships.* Sean Kendrick becomes a thesis statement and the novel’s events become my proof.

*this is grossly over-simplified but basically blah-blah-I-make-up-whole-worlds-for-a-living-blah-blah

At the very beginning of the novel, Sean-As-A-Child watches his father die messily during the races. It’s an action that could have many different effects on a person. As a writer, I have to make a choice for my character in this moment.

So, Sean sees his father die. As a result, he vows to never be afraid — his father had been afraid before he died — and he also withdraws from human contact.

Decision! Done! But if I’m a good writer, I’ll question it: Do I think I’m saying a true thing? Let's look. What I’m saying is I think seeing someone die could make you guard your heart against later damage. But what I’m also saying, you'll notice, is I think a kid can watch his father die and not be destroyed by it. I’m saying if you grow up on a savage island populated by savage creatures and men, you might already be inured to death as a child.

As a writer, I should know that I’m saying not one of these things, but all of them. And as a writer, I have to believe they could be true reactions, or I should change what I’m saying.

Now, this was why I got upset about literary rape earlier this year. Because I felt writers were thoughtlessly and simplistically using rape as a defining moment for their female characters. For instance, I read a novel where a woman was raped and as a consequence became a cold-blooded killer/ sex fiend. What the writer was saying, by choice or by not, was a thesis statement about rape. Yes, the writer says, I think it is plausible that being raped would remove all of your tender emotions and render you without empathy or soul. And also make you crazy for . . . more sex?

If that is what the writer believes, go for it. Write what you believe is true.** But as a reader, I want to feel that the writer has thought about it. That they know what they’re doing and are in control. That they’ve made character decisions they believe could be true. Not just character decisions that are easy.

**and yes, I do think all fiction of every genre should aspire to truth in order to have maximum emotional resonance.***

***and if you're not writing to make readers have FEELS, what in the world are you writing for?****

****fine, fine. But I'm talking commercial fiction here. It's what I do*****


Which brings me to:

As writers, we all have our biases, and a good writer — one that’s learning how to hold all the balloons without letting them escape— will be aware of their own. And a good writer will know that it's hard to avoid saying things by accident. For instance, here’s some things I should know about myself:

1- I have no negative baggage with kissing. So I’ll tend to see a kiss as a positive. Not universally true, Maggie.
2 - I like living in the middle of nowhere. I have to work extra hard to not make all of my characters prefer the middle of nowhere. Some people prefer cities, Maggie.
3 - I play musical instruments. Not everyone plays musical instruments, Maggie.
4 - I freaking love cars. Not everyone cares about manual transmissions, Maggie.
5 - I have a complicated and adoring relationship with my father. Why you write so many daddy issues, Maggie?
6 - You have an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation, Maggie. Remember to make your characters afraid, Maggie!

We bring our own biases and beliefs and politics to the table as a writer. I don’t think we have to try to scrub them all out — specificity and voice are glorious things. But the more we make those subconscious choices into conscious ones, the more control we’ll have. And more control means better writing. Which brings me to:


I don’t like it. People ask me a lot of time if I’m trying to send a good message to the youth of America, since I write for teens. I’m not, I’m afraid. I would if I was writing for middle graders. Because they are young and squashy and their heads are still being formed. But I write for upper teens, and I’m not going to condescend to Teach Them Lessons.

I did worry when I started this post that folks would read it as a handbook for subliminal messages and pedagogy. But when I say I’m choosing what my book is saying, it’s not because I’m trying to say what’s Right. It’s because I’m trying to say what’s True.

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deborahjross: (Default)
Maggie Stiefvater, a successful YA author, offers a step by step description of her own learning process. Everything she suggests may not work for you, but it's a fascinating peek into another author's creative journey.

Originally posted by [ profile] m_stiefvater at How To Turn a Novel Into a Textbook
I'm here on tour in Australia, which is amazing (and if you're Australian and would like to come see me, here's my date for Perth tonight, and my other dates for Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane), though I'm spending more time talking to Australian classrooms than seeing Australian landscape. Later, when I find my card reader, I'll share pictures (of landscape, not classrooms).

Earlier in the week, I was at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and one of the girls in line asked me how I made my novels longer, as in, not just thirty pages longer. I told her it was about description and also about engaging the five senses, but the more I thought about it, the more I considered how that was not what my failing was when I was first beginning. Like a lot of beginning writers, my first manuscripts were short, short, short, and I couldn't understand what they were lacking.

So I did tell the reader that I recommended looking at published novels and deconstructing the pages to learn how to pace her novel, but I wish I would've been able to show her what I meant. One of the finest tools in any writer's arsenal, I think, is the ability to turn a novel into a textbook. For copyright reasons, I'm going to use my own books to demonstrate how I would do it, but obviously, I recommend doing it with whichever books that you love.

Okay. Here's a page from FOREVER. The first page, actually.

You can learn a lot of things from a great first page (also from a bad first page. Not so much from anything in between). Want to know what works as a compelling beginning? Ask a reader you know well: you. When I'm stumped at starting a new project, I still go to my bookshelf and pull off a big stack of old favorites. I sit on the floor or my office and all I read is the first page. You can do the same thing.

Well, please don't do it in my office.

Ask yourself:
What do these first pages have in common?
What is hooking me into the story?
Who is introduced? The main character? a side character? setting?
Is there dialogue?
Is there action?
How does it look on the page? Long paragraphs? Short sentences?
Again: how do these work together to hook me?
I used to believe that a great way to start a story was with some cracking dialogue and some fast paced action, but often, that's totally meaningless to a reader who doesn't care whether or not this unfamiliar character lives or dies. Instead, the hook can be a quite subtle thing. Really, the hook is just an unspoken question that the reader pursues to the next page.
Is there a question on the first page?
There's one other very important aspect of a first page, and it's the first line. A great first line can hook a reader, set mood, introduce character, and start the conflict rolling all in one. Not all first lines do this. And they don't have to. But they should set the tone. So, final question for the first page:
How does the first line relate to the rest of the book?
Here are my first lines:

LAMENT: "You'll be fine once you throw up," Mom said.
BALLAD: I was used to being the hunter.
SHIVER: I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.
LINGER: This is the story of a boy who once was a wolf, and a girl who was becoming one.
FOREVER: I can be so, so quiet.
THE SCORPIO RACES: It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

So, having exhausted everything that a first page can give us, another really, really useful thing to look at is how other authors shape dialogue and description. For that, you usually need to go beyond the first page. Sometimes, when I'm stuck on a very particular problem, I will find a novel that I remember solving the problem well — pacing an action scene that takes place in a short time, for instance — and reread the passage to try to see what techniques helped.

Here's a page from LINGER.

I will confess, that in my beginning writerly years, this page would have read like this:
"I never pegged you for a fan of the obvious, Sam," Isabel said.
"I'm not," I said. "Or I would've said, Hey, shouldn't you be in school?"
"Touche," Isabel replied.
"I've been seeing wolves near my house," Isabel said.
"How close to your house?"
She shrugged. "From the third floor, I can see them in the woods. Clearly they have no sense of self preservation, or they'd avoid my father. Who is not a fan."
In its entirety. It would not have occured to me that anything was missing. I would have merely gotten to the end of an 11,000 word draft and thought: HOW IS THIS NOT AS LONG AS A NOVEL!? IT HAS A BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND END!

It wasn't until I took apart my favorite novels that I started to understand how to manipulate pacing. The thing is, there is nothing wrong with that stripped down 7-8 line page. It's just that it's missing so many opportunities to play with mood, character, setting. It's nothing but plot sitting there like that, and while plot is a crucial enough thing, it's not what keeps a reader reading. People keep the reader reading.

These are the questions I would ask myself looking at a page like this:

How varied are the dialogue tags? ("said," "replied," "shouted")
How is the writer showing a pause in dialog? By saying "she paused" or by inserting a non-dialogue paragraph?
How is setting worked in?
Is there subtext going on? Are the characters thinking something different than what they're saying?
Can I imagine myself there? Why?
If I remove a sentence, how does it change my perception?
If I remove a paragraph, how does it change my perception?

So that's how I would pull a book apart, in a nutshell. If I had a bit more space, I'd actually pull apart a scene line by line here on the blog, but this post is already epic. Let me know if you guys want something like that.

I'm off to breakfast.

Even the crows have accents here.

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Deborah J. Ross

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