How to edit: a pictorial guide

Before I can finish my next novel, I have to make some changes to the first 70 000 words (which, unfortunately, weren’t working very well). Such a task can be overwhelming, so this is what you do.

1. Go to a location far away from phone and internet where you will feel guilty if you don’t work.



2. Write down a one-line summary of each scene in the story, as it stands, on a file card.




3. Arrange the file cards in chapters on a large surface (like a luxury king-size bed) so you can get a bird’s eye view the whole story, or at least the chapters that need attention. Now stop and think for a bit. What needs to be cut? What needs to be inserted (make a note of inserts on different coloured cards)? What scenes need to be combined or moved? Here is some thinking music…


4. Now make a list in your notebook of all those fixes. Make sure there are check boxes next to every point! Colour-code them if you want it to look super purty.




5. Transfer the list onto your computer copy, make a note (using “comments” in Word) wherever something needs to be done. Sometimes it will be a simple tweak, sometimes it will be a big fix. The example at the left shows that I need two new scenes and a bit of rewriting in a third scene. You might have dozens of notes to start with. As you complete the notes, you delete them. The number of notes decreases in a pleasing fashion.



6. Added fun can be had by ticking the check-boxes in your notebook!


My brain is borken

I think I know why this book is taking so long to write. This morning, I spent half an hour rewriting one sentence. The finished sentence is: “The hard ache of missing Rowan had intensified, day by day, since they’d parted.” Not really worth the time investment, as I’m sure you’ll notice. But it started out life as: “She missed Rowan terribly since they’d been apart.” Now I don’t hate adverbs, but the one in that sentence (“terribly”) was propping up a weak-ish verb (“missed”), so I was casting about for a good verb that meant “missed terribly” and couldn’t find one. So I sat here with my eyes closed and imagined missing my own daughter (picture lady in dressing gown, eyes screwed tight, trying to imagine child isn’t in next bedroom). Then I got the idea of an ache, but not a soft sort of bruising or tender ache. Kind of like swallowing around a stone. So I did the whole “stone in her heart” thing but it seemed a bit overused (by me), so then I just put the words “hard ache” together and liked them. So had to rearrange the sentence.

Then I realised I needed to signal to the reader (who hasn’t been in this character’s viewpoint for a while) that the reason she’s missing Rowan so much is that some time has passed. At first I wrote “in the week since…” But again, it was too literal or something. So I tried “moment by moment”. God help me, I’ll admit it, I even tried “moment by agonising moment” but that seemed to go against what I was really trying to say, which was that it hurt but she was getting by. Also, talking in moments meant I could have been suggesting only a few hours had passed. So then I came up with “day by day” and I liked that. It indicates enough time passing, and it has a lovely rhythm and a stoked energy without the hysteria of “day after day”. Also, the parenthetical commas make it sit just outside the sentence, and emphasise the idea and the rhythm neatly.

So then I just had to organise the parts of the sentence so that they fit together without being too complex, because I don’t want the reader to stumble on the sentence. That is, for all the work I put into it, the sentence should really be invisible, imparting a brief impression perhaps, then disappearing behind the next sentence. Finally, I changed “been apart” to “parted”, just on the old advice that if the verb “to be” is anywhere in a sentence you should see if you can get rid of it. I’m still not sure on that, though. “Apart” is actually a more elegant word, so I might change it back when I have another spare half hour.

I must stress that I don’t do this with every sentence, but I do like to nail the emotional lives of my characters. I guess I could just keep writing, finish the damn book, and fix it in the edit; but sometimes if the sentence works okay (“She missed Rowan terribly since they’d been apart”) you might not notice it in the edit. There’s nothing wrong with that sentence; there’s nothing missing from it. But if I hadn’t spent the time on it, there’d be a tiny sliver of shininess lost from the story forever.

So, yeah, expect the book no time soon.

Plot versus Character

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Queensland Writers Centre‘s magazine Writing Queensland. I thought it might be useful to others here who aren’t members (and if you’re not a member WHY NOT?)

From time to time, aspiring writers ask me what is the best kind of story: one that is plot-driven or one that is character-driven? Somehow the idea that the two are distinct and one can be privileged over the other persists. “Character-driven” is usually seen as the mark of serious writing, while “plot-driven” is understood to be written by hacks pandering to the marketplace. This is a false distinction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. No writer can afford to overlook one or the other: a good story is driven by both good plot ideas and good characters. The trick is managing them right.

1. A story isn’t a story until it has people and problems. These two things (character and plot) cannot in any way be conceived outside of each other. An idea for a fascinating character means little until that character is challenged in some way; and a high-stakes plot idea means little if it isn’t focalised through three-dimensional people whose thoughts and feelings can be communicated to the reader.

2. What the writer must know first and foremost is the relationship between the people and the problems. Why is this person involved in this problem? Is it random? Or is it a function of the very person they are? What kind of attempts do they make to solve the problem, and where do those attempted solutions lead them? You must always think of the problem as belonging to somebody: a story describes that relationship between people and their problems.

3. Use the problems to create the narrative steps. How is your character going to get out of their predicament? What new problems can arise? The problems create the horizontal movement of the story, from beginning, through middle, and to the end; the movement that sustains narrative interest and keeps your reader turning pages. In some respects, the plot is driven by character: it evolves uniquely from the people and their responses to the problem they were given on page one.

4. Use the people to create the emotional connection. How does it feel to experience this problem? What history of acts and ideas does the character bring to the problem at hand? What do they think of their problem? This creates the vertical depth of your story; the depth that makes the story emotionally meaningful to your reader. In some respects, the characters are driven by the plot: they evolve uniquely from the narrative trajectory, which brings about their transformation from the person they were on page one, to the person they are when you write “the end”.

A first scene

I’ve written a prologue and a first scene for my new book, an intimate epic fantasy called “The Garden of the Mad King.” I’ve been fiddling with a few ideas for a while, and have mapped out the first couple of chapters vaguely. But books are made of more than vague ideas, they are made of concrete scenes. Scenes that start somewhere, do something, then end somewhere. So “character A finds a portentous symbol on a guy she just killed” is not made of the stuff that people like to read. But once you set the scene: twilit snow, blood, a horse breathing hot fog; and imagine how it feels: the post-battle ache, the angry fear; and shade in some history to fill in what it all means, then you have a scene. You just need a killer opening line to drag the reader in, and a killer closing line to spit them back out the other side with enough momentum to land in the next scene.

I must warn in advance: don’t look for superfast word counts with this one. I’m taking my time. I’ve been influenced by the Anglo-Saxon elegies, and I want to imbue every scene, if I can, with that feel of melancholy longing. I intend to spend at least a year in this world, because ultimately I am writing it for my own pleasure, to recapture the feeling I had as a child: new, crisp-paged notebook; quiet place where nobody will bother me; head full of delicious ideas. For the first time in many years, I’m writing without a contract. If it sells to somebody, that’s great. If it doesn’t, look here for the free downloadable pdf!

Cambridge calls…

I’ve been asked by the editors of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing to contribute a chapter about creative writing in the genres. This is a very great honour, of course, but also a real pleasure for me to note that genre fiction is at last being recognised as worthy of academic consideration (and Cambridge University Press is obviously a very big deal in terms of shaping opinion in the academy). Do academics really have issues with genre fiction? Well, yes and no. Some genres fare better than others (crime is usually well regarded) but it is still seen as some kind of poor cousin to literary fiction (and when somebody can define that term for me adequately, give me a yell). For example, in a 2003 paper Judy Wilson wrote that genre fiction is “production line work” and “words poured into a mold” and says it has no place in a university creative writing course (this article has rather a tortured metaphor about weeds and how, even if they’re pretty, they need to be pulled out lest they ruin the more esteemed plants they surround). And in 2002, philosopher Nancy J. Holland created this list of adjectives to describe genre fiction: “low-brow”, “transparent”, “not artful”, “flat, without depth”, “the exact same thing.” Apparently, too, its* “cardinal rule” is a happy ending. Hey, Nancy! Go read a couple of my books. You might get a nasty shock.

So, the tide is slowly turning, thanks to the very clever editors of this new collection. Will keep you posted on developments, but I can’t see it being published before end of 2010.

*the easy way to remember which form of “its” to use is this: use its (no apostrophe) where you’d use his (which you’d never apostrophise)

Adventures in first person

Have you tried first, second, and third? No, not bases. Persons? I’m talking viewpoint, not teenage sex (that should get me a few extra hits this week).

After feeling despondent about my first chapter of my new book, I had a 3am epiphany about what was wrong with it. I had written it in 3rd person (“she did this, she did that”) when I really should have written it in 1st person (“I did this, I did that”). All right, it wasn’t so much an epiphany as a strong suspicion, and the only way to test if I were right was to rewrite it. I balked at this of course. I am Dr Decisive when it comes to writing (usually, until book #20 stole my mojo), so it was very painful for me to have to go back to the drawing board over such a small mechanical thing.

But wait, not so fast. Not such a small mechanical thing at all. Not just changing the pronouns. Because I chose to rewrite rather than just edit, I found that the moment I switched into first person, good stuff started to happen.

You see, the usual argument over whether to choose first or third person is simple, and goes like this:
First person = direct & engaging, but limited access
Third person = great access, but loss of directness
Second person = only crazy people write this way

I’ve never had much trouble creating a direct, emotional connection in third person, so it’s my usual preference. But on this occasion, I found that using first person forced me to account more fully for the character’s feelings and motivations; that I couldn’t gloss over anything anymore; that I had to be specific. Compare for yourself:

Beattie Blaxland had dreams. Big dreams. Fashions and fabrics and fortune. In her hurley bed, rolled out on the floor of her parents’ room in their finger-chilling tenement flat, she imagined in vivid, yearning detail a future version of herself: poised, proud, almost regal. She had never imagined-nor believed it possible-that she would find herself pregnant to her married lover at the age of only eighteen.

I had dreams. Big dreams. Not the confused patchwork dreams that invade sleep. No, these were the dreams with which I comforted myself before sleep, in my hurley bed rolled out on the floor of my parents’ finger-chilling tenement flat. Vivid, yearning dreams. A life of fashion and fabrics; and fortune of course. A life where the dismal truth about my dismal family could never touch me again. One thing I never dreamed was that I would find myself pregnant to my married lover, just before my nineteenth birthday. All through February, I obsessively counted the weeks and counted them again, bending my mind backwards, trying to make sense of the dates. My stomach flipped at the smell of food, my breasts grew tender and, by the first of March, I had finally come to believe that  a child-that Henry MacConnell’s child-was growing inside me.

Please don’t take this to mean that I think all stories should be written in first person: far from it. First person has massive pitfalls, especially for the inexperienced writer (where every first person character winds up sounding exactly the same as the others). But this actual switch of perspective has me feeling like I’m inside the story well and truly now, that it’s possible to write it well and on time, and that I will enjoy the company of my latest imaginary friend.

Writing is so fucking easy

I don’t know what I’m thinking, putting the words “easy” “hard” and “fucking” so prominently on my blog. Given that, when I check my stats, the phrase most commonly googled to hit my site is “my head hurts”, perhaps it could work well in my favour to have all that profanity for search engines to crawl over.

I’ve been sitting here this morning writing. Ooh, feels so good! The whole Mount Doom thing has gone away, and thank you for all of your concerned Sam-like comments (though I should stress I was never seriously worried… was I?). All I can say is, when you’re lying in the gutter, even the kerb can seem a long way up.

As always, the only way to solve any writing problem is to write. That’s it. The only solution you’ll ever need, forever and ever, amen. Sometimes it feels like you’re stuck outside the story, and it’s all going on in there but you just can’t get in. Your characters are partying down, listening to doof-doof music (which you can hear faintly), possibly wearing tropicana-coloured eighties clothes, and drinking their vodka with red lemonade; all the while laughing at you. While you’re outside and it’s dark and cold and drizzling slightly but in a miserable way, not in a nice way. Like, it’s getting in your shoes. And you know you could get into the damn party if only you knew the secret password.

Well, the secret password is any combination of words as long as there are 500. If you can write 500 words, even if they are absolute shite, you will be in the party. I’m not saying that the party-goers will necessarily behave when you get in (and they may insist on keeping their turquoise bubble skirts on), but at least you’re in and you can start trying to boss them around.

Warning: they don’t always behave.

Just who is Hexebart, anyway?

For those of you who’ve read my novel The Autumn Castle, the name Hexebart will be familiar. She’s an old witch who lives in a well in fairyland. Her name is German for “witch-beard”. Why have I adopted it as a username? I do not know. It’s certainly not over-identification with the character: thanks to the wonders of modern cosmetic intervention, I have far less facial hair. I guess I just liked her and one day, when I am a billionaire and drive a Jaguar, I may have a personalised plate with her name on it. Besides, who knows? Perhaps I will come to resemble Hexebart as I grow older. One thing you can’t fight is dem damn wrinkles’n’shit.

But I am thinking, now, about the predisposition some authors have to over-identify with their characters. I shan’t name names and piss off influential people who write vampire/sexy-fairy stories (a few of you will know precisely to whom I refer), but there are quite a few “Mary-Sue” characters out there in SF land (and probably in other genres, but what would I know? If Peter Carey has done a Mary-Sue I’m hardly likely to read it). What is a Mary-Sue? Essentially, it’s a fictional character who is a leeetle too much like a wish-fulfilment version of the author, usually delivered without irony, and obvious to everybody except the author him or herself. I have read quite a few Mary-Sues in my time, both published and unpublished, and they still make me squirm. You don’t want to make your reader squirm, people!

So, to keep you busy while I’m off in the land of the long white cloud (though I will endeavour to drop in at least once or twice), why not take a Mary-Sue Litmus Test for the characters in your current project? Did you pass? Or perhaps you want to post comments about some of the Mary-Sues you have read over the years (please, keep it nice).

By the way, if you’ve never posted before, WordPress will ask me to moderate your first comment and that might take a couple of days, depending on my internet access in NZ.

What are you waiting for? Mary-Sue me!

Your grade 5 teacher wasn’t qualified to teach creative writing

Okay, perhaps that’s a little harsh. Perhaps your grade 5 teacher went on to win the Miles Franklin. But in general terms, you need to be careful of those things you learned a long time ago at school. I am always surprised and amused by the resistance I meet in some creative writing classes, from students who still hold firm to what they were taught when they were nine. It’s really quite sweet… until a sentence gets hurt. Here are the most common grade-5isms you need to shake.

Vary speaker attributions. I remember doing this one in class, where we all had to suggest a different word to use rather than “said”. The blackboard was duly covered in lists of words: asked and replied, whispered and shouted, laughed and ejaculated (I contributed that one because I’d read it somewhere; I wonder if my teacher was giggling on the inside). But in fiction, there is no better word than said. Said is as invisible as the quotation marks around your dialogue. Sure, you can vary it from time to time: it’s a verb, after all, and it’s nice to pop a fresh one in if you want to  show off. But too many variations make it difficult for the reader to follow the dialogue. If you really want to achieve variety, pare back the speaker attributions and slot in some tasty little beats of atmosphere or description instead.

Don’t put a comma before “and”. Pah! The serial comma is a beautiful thing: clear, bright, and sparkling (there’s one! right there!) It creates lightning-flash clarity in sentences that try slyly to mislead. Use it, love it, and don’t feel a moment’s guilt.

Vary your sentence openings. This little gem is responsible for a billion mangled sentences, twisted on their syntactical spines so that they are looking at their own arses. “Closing the door behind him with an ominous thud, he inched down the dark hallway to the candlelit back room.” There is SO much wrong with this sentence. (1) he can’t close the door and inch all the way down the hall to the back room at the same time unless he has Mr Tickle arms; (2) because the subordinate clause has moved to the front of the sentence and we’re trained to read through subordinate clauses to get to the “meat” of the sentence, the ominous thud loses its impact; and (3) it sounds clunky and amateurish. “He closed the door behind him with an ominous thud, and inched down the hallway…” is just fine. If you want to break it up a bit, add a tasty beat: “He closed the door behind him with an ominous thud. The sound rattled through the silent house. He inched…” and so on. But avoid contortions; be kind to your sentences and they will repay you with years of good service.

Intensify your sentences with adverbs. I remember writing lists of adverbs on the blackboard too, but adverbs can be the enemy of tight sentences. Good verbs are the key to good sentences, and piling on the adverbs tends to undermine good verbs in two ways. First, because adverbs make you lazy. “She hit him violently.” Adverb indicating violence? Check. My work here is done. NOT SO FAST! Change the verb instead. “She gut-punched him”. Much better. Second, adverbs are often unnecessary additions to a sentence, and dilute the value of your good verb. “She moaned mournfully.” Erk! Caveat: adverbs work best if they are unexpected or beautiful or rhythmic. I’m actually pretty fond of them; but I always aim to use them prudently, carefully, and lovingly.

If you are a grade 5 teacher by any chance, pass it on.