April 27, 2012

I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

Earlier this week I posted about the kind of outlining and notetaking that I'm using for this revision. The short version: To deal with the complex three-in-one structure of my novel, I've had to spend an awful lot of time keeping track of the story.

For this third major draft of the manuscript, I worked hard to plan all the big things in advance. But despite the extensive planning, I still periodically encounter gaping holes where I failed to map out the logic behind a required scene. These holes are particularly extensive near the end of each storyline.

As an example, say my outline indicates that in this chapter the narrator confronts his mother and father, separately, about the big family secret he's learned about from his sister. And that in the course of these conversations, he arrives at all the necessary realizations and decisions that will allow him to choose the actions that come next in the plot. Oh, and also that there should be some plausible reason for the topic to come up in this scene after everyone's avoided talking about it for so long.

Well, when I get to this point in the outline, I might be lucky enough to discover that Past Me left some suggestions about how to accomplish all this. But Past Me was a less experienced writer than Present Me, so the suggestions are likely to be pretty weak. And that doesn't matter anyway, because the earlier parts of the story have deviated so far from the outline that the suggestions no longer make any sense.

So then I worry that I may not be able to believably bring about the scenes and realizations needed for the plot to conclude the way it's supposed to. And I panic for a while and stop working and decide to give up writing and become a goatherd. Or maybe a dolphin trainer.

But I eventually convince myself to keep going. And somehow I write the necessary scenes in a way that makes far more sense than I planned, with far more important insights for the characters plus a bunch of exciting new connections for the reader to appreciate. It's perfect! It's brilliant! It might turn out to be horribly forced when I share it with anyone else, but for now, I'll continue deluding myself!

The storyline that remains to be revised is absolutely full of holes, and I intend to give the outline some more attention before I get started. I'm sure I still won't manage to figure it all out in advance. But I'm going to continue hanging on to the hope that ultimately, I'll manage to cram all the pieces of this puzzle together.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Tim Parks writes for the New York Review of Books blog in defense of ebooks: "...are these old habits essential? Mightn't they actually be distracting us from the written word itself? Weren’t there perhaps specific pleasures when reading on parchment scroll that we know nothing of and have lived happily without?" (Thanks, The Millions!)

April 23, 2012


Because my novel has interlocking storylines about the same family in three different time periods, part of the fun for the reader is learning more than the characters about what has happened or will happen. By "fun," I mean "horror and frustration," as in "I can't believe he thinks that's okay when it's going to screw up his son for life!" and "Sure, it's nice that they're finally opening up to each other, but they're still not telling each other the whole truth!"

This aspect of the story is certainly the most fun for me as a writer. And by "fun," I mean "fun, plus a huge pain in the ass." Every draft has introduced exponentially more connections and parallels and misunderstandings to make readers tear their hair out. That's a great thing, but it's been a lot of work to assemble and keep track of.

Last week Christopher Gronlund posted about outlines and why he doesn't use them. I've tried writing both with and without an outline and had some success with both strategies. For the first draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I started out with very simple notes consisting of one line for each chapter that listed the main events. With each revision, my notes have become more complex.

To approach this draft, I created a color-coded paper chart in an attempt to visualize all the knowledge possessed by each character and the reader at different points in the story. I never quite succeeded in capturing all the information I wanted to, but in the course of developing the chart, I made some important realizations about improvements for the story, so the effort was worth it.

I eventually incorporated all of my notes into SuperNotecard, and I've continued to be happy with this software. The cards and decks I've set up in SuperNotecard serve as an outline of the plot, a chronicle of what the characters know and don't know, a record of research done and still needed, and more.

For me, an outline isn't something I create at the beginning and then follow to the letter. So many ideas emerge as I write that the story is constantly veering off in other directions, and often these new paths are better than the ones I'd mapped out in advance. But I still like having an outline that reflects the novel, especially for this book, where I frequently find it easier to reference my notes for the other storylines rather than hunting for things in the text.

So part of my revision process involves bookkeeping. Once or twice a chapter, I review what I've ended up writing and make the appropriate changes to my notes. It's a useful step, because in addition to giving me an accurate record, the bookkeeping tends to spark extra ideas for upcoming chapters. But it's tedious work, and I often dread doing it, especially if I've made major changes or haven't updated my notes in a while. On the other hand, the bookkeeping also serves as a not-quite-procrastination method that can ease me into writing when I'm not in the mood.

Sometimes I think I'd like to write a simpler novel next time. But what would be the fun in that?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Betsy Morais reports for The Atlantic on the future of book covers in the age of ebooks: "A digital book has no cover. There's no paper to be bound up with a spine and protected inside a sturdy jacket. Browsers no longer roam around Borders scanning the shelves for the right title to pluck. Increasingly, instead, they scroll through Amazon's postage stamp-sized pictures, which don't actually cover anything..." (Thanks, Lilly Tao!)

April 16, 2012

What Now?

Now that I've finally finished explaining what's involved in revision, you might be wondering what's still ahead in the process.

The first step is that I have to complete the great big stage I'm currently in. Right now I'm nearly done with the second storyline. It's quite possible I said the same thing a month or so ago. The final few chapters of this story have been a real doozy. But soon enough, I'll be concluding this plot.

Then I'll move on to the chapters narrated by the last, but chronologically earliest, protagonist. I hope to once again benefit from the injection of enthusiasm that comes from beginning something different, even if it's still part of the same novel. Revising the final storyline will take a certain number of months. I'll commit to that much of a time estimate.

At that point I'm sure that all the wonderful people who have volunteered to read the manuscript will be clamoring for a copy, so I want to warn you now that it's not going to be ready the moment I complete the last chapter. In the course of this revision, I've made some adjustments that created inconsistencies with bits I'd already worked on, so I'm going to have to go back and fix up those problems before sharing the draft with anyone. Just want to be clear on that in advance.

Writing out a description of my whole revision process has helped me realize that, hey, yeah, this is a big project, and I'm feeling a little less impatient now. I hope my eager future readers feel the same.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Intern demystifies the glamorous road to publication and explains why you will still be insane after the book deal: "If your forthcoming novel has a scene in which the characters go skinny dipping in a hail storm, you will immediately stumble upon twenty already-published novels with a scene in which characters skinny dip in a hail storm."

April 11, 2012

What Is a Revision?

Today we finally get around to the real answer to the question I imagine lies behind all kind inquiries about my writing: "Lisa, what do you mean when you say you're revising?"

Revision is the process of taking a completed (in the sense of containing a beginning, middle, and end) manuscript, subjecting it to real scrutiny (help from critique partners is recommended for this step), and then making changes (often drastic changes) to improve the story. These changes are likely to include some of the following: making the plot or characters more believable, improving the pacing, removing unnecessary or repetitive scenes, raising the stakes, aligning subplots with the main plot, adding characterization to major or minor characters, fixing continuity errors, adding or removing backstory, adding or removing description, adding or removing clever literary devices such as themes and motifs.

As you might imagine, these kinds of changes take a lot of work, and that's on top of the work of writing a novel in the first place. It would be nice to get all the elements right in the first draft, but that would be a pretty impressive feat. Maybe some writers are able to think everything through in advance and produce a flawless first draft that only needs a little polishing at the sentence level before it's ready to go out into the world. I assert that most writers who believe they fall into this category are mistaken.

After I finished all the planning and procrastinating that led up to my current revision, I had a good idea of what changes the manuscript needed and how I intended to address each issue. The changes were more extensive than I'd hoped. They were also, I'd eventually recognize, more extensive than I understood at the beginning.

I started actually revising in February 2011. I can't remember what timescale I had in mind when I wrote, "I don't have a good idea of how long this revision will take, except for being pretty sure that it will take longer than I want it to." But I seem to recall that my most pessimistic estimate still had me finishing by the end of the year.

What can I say? I'm a fiction writer -- my grip on reality is tenuous. If I'd really thought about it at the beginning, I would have seen that my planned changes were so significant, and my desire to get things right in this revision so strong, that I couldn't possibly write this draft faster than the previous one, which took eight months. I suppose I didn't want to really think about it, because it would have been too disheartening.

There's nothing wrong with taking a long time to make a novel good. You might even argue that it's highly advisable. But I'm impatient, and I was ready to be done a long time ago. And I imagine that I inadvertently passed that expectation on to my family, friends, and blog readers, who are by now puzzled that I'm still doing whatever it is I've been doing.

What revision consists of on a day-to-day basis isn't especially interesting to describe. I take things one scene at a time, consult my notes about the changes needed, and do the appropriate combination of incorporating material from the previous draft and writing new material. Eventually the scene is complete, and I move on to the next one. I always work through a story in order, though in this case I'm revising my three storylines one at a time rather than according to the interspersed order of the novel.

That's the ideal of my revision process, at least. In practice, there's also a lot of reconsidering my earlier decisions, discovering things I failed to take into account, and having potentially brilliant ideas that send the story off in other directions. All of which cause the revision to take that much longer. So at this point, I still can't accurately predict when I'll be done. Someday, and it will be worth the wait.

Now, have I answered all your questions about how my novel is coming along, or is there still more you want to know? Please comment if there's anything else I should address. And thank you again for asking.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meg Wolitzer, writing for the New York Times Book Review, covers the variety of problems with the term "women's fiction": "If 'The Marriage Plot,' by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?"

April 9, 2012

The Revision Planning Stage, or Procrastinating

At the end of last month, I set out to explain what exactly I've been doing to my novel during this revision. As you may have noticed, I'm taking a long time and many posts to provide an answer. This is, of course, all a carefully designed way to demonstrate the slowness of the process. Show, don't tell, and all that. Absolutely my intent. No question.

Previously on this rambling account, after I wrote a second draft of the novel from scratch, I brought the manuscript to my critique group and learned where the story still fell short of what it could be. The work with my critique group took about three months in the spring and summer of 2010, which gave me a good break from actively working on the novel. I've reviewed the records of my life to figure out what else I did during that time -- it was mostly reading, real life stuff, and starting this blog.

My first step in revising the novel again was to plan out the changes I wanted to make. I recommend this step. Whether or not you use any type of outline or notes when writing a first draft, it's valuable to prepare for subsequent drafts by taking stock of what you've written and how it compares to the story you're trying to write. Without this preparation, it's difficult to know how to even approach a revision.

There are all sorts of ways to map out your story. You might want to use index cards and sticky notes, or you might prefer software. I used both in the planning stage for this revision, and both were useful.

Now, if you look at those two posts linked in the paragraph above, you'll notice they're dated six months apart. I would not, in general, recommend that you spend six months on the revision planning stage. Especially if the real delay is not so much the intense planning and research you're doing but instead your tendency toward distraction and your fear of getting started. To be fair, there were also a couple of months in there when life responsibilities consumed most of my possible writing time, but still.

During this prolonged planning stage, besides making notes on little bits of real and virtual paper, I also took the bold step of reading my manuscript so I knew what I was dealing with. And I wrote a detailed synopsis of the plot as I wanted it to be in order to test my intended changes in miniature before applying them to the actual manuscript. I recommend both these steps for anyone preparing to revise.

But again, I advise that you try not to take forever about it. There's a fine line between planning and procrastinating. I'm usually on the wrong side, and that's part of the answer to the question of why I'm not finished revising yet.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Juliette Wade discusses Completion, and Resonance: why the first chapter is like the last: "If you've been writing for any significant length of time, you've probably heard people say that last chapters should come full circle, and that they should resemble first chapters in some critical way."

April 5, 2012

Another Excellent FOGcon

I spent the weekend at FOGcon and had a fantastic time. It would appear that last year I had whole paragraphs of interesting things to say about the con afterward, but I don't find myself feeling so insightful this time. It was fun, I met cool people, karaoke!

Last year I signed up to participate in a couple of panel discussions, which was exciting, but since I didn't volunteer for anything this year, my weekend was more relaxed and unconstrained. I made a greater effort than last year to meet new people rather than only hanging out with my old friends, and that resulted in a lot of great conversations.

This year's theme was The Body, so many of the sessions focused on different ways to think about bodies, both in speculative literature and in real life. I attended an illuminating discussion of advanced topics in body image and an equally illuminating but sillier panel about stories involving sex with aliens.

Some non-thematic panels of note included a discussion of how tropes are used to good and bad effect in creative works and a session on the problem of enjoying a work that presents a flawed depiction of race, gender, etc.

I attended a number of readings, which I didn't do last year, and heard some great work read by the authors. And of course there was karaoke -- over three hours of singing and dancing our hearts out.

It was a fabulous con. I came home tired and inspired and full of thoughts. I can't wait for next year!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jim Behrle offers a few tips on How To Write The Great American Novel: "The entire world economy depends upon the Great American novel to enrich the world with vampire and werewolf love triangles that become giant blockbuster movies that sell popcorn, tickets and movie tie-in gear. Have you ever seen a blockbuster movie based upon a French bestseller? Camus’ Stranger in IMAX 3D? No. And you never will."

April 4, 2012

April Reading Plan

This month, I have a new batch of books to read -- all relatively new both to publication and to my collection:

HOUSE OF DOORS by Chaz Brenchley - Last year at FOGcon I met Chaz, learned that he was a delightful person with many books to his name (and other names -- he publishes under several), and was afraid to buy any in case I didn't like them. This year at the convention while hanging out with him again, I was encouraged by his friends to give his writing a try, and this book was recommended as a good starting place for me. I bought it, but was still nervous until I heard Chaz give a reading from ROTTEN ROW and was relieved at its excellence. I don't know anything about HOUSE OF DOORS, other than that it's scary, and since I rarely get to start a novel with no foreknowledge of the plot, I'm going to maintain that experience.

THE GILLY SALT SISTERS by Tiffany Baker - I enjoyed Baker's first novel, THE LITTLE GIANT OF ABERDEEN COUNTY, so I was excited to learn that she had a new release. I was even more excited to learn that it's about family secrets, a particular thematic interest of mine, and that it's set in Massachusetts, where I grew up.

GATHERING OF WATERS by Bernice L. McFadden - As I mentioned when I purchased the book, I read about it on the blog White Readers Meet Black Authors. The story revolves around a real historical event, the murder of Emmett Till, which I'm interested to learn more about through the story.

THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC by Julie Otsuka - This was a gift from a relative, and I hadn't heard of it previously, but it was a National Book Award finalist. The story follows a group of Japanese "picture brides" brought to San Francisco in the early 1900s. This is another piece of history that I'm curious about.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Julie Wu explains How to Fix a Flat (Novel Scene) in Three Easy Steps: "You have a vague sense that your scene is still pointless.... But you can’t cut the whole scene because it has such important backstory, such beautiful writing, and incredible insight into war, womanhood, and the human condition."

April 3, 2012

February/March Reading Recap

Since I didn't do my regular monthly reading posts in March, this is an extra-large recap covering two months of books. I read everything on my February list, plus a couple more:

THE MIRAGE by Matt Ruff - I've already posted a longer recommendation for this novel, the latest from my favorite author. The short version: It's an ambitious alternate history with a challenging premise, and it's great. As a followup for readers interesting in learning more about the book and the process of writing it, I recommend this in-depth interview with Ruff on the Agony Column Podcast.

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon - I already waxed enthusiastic about this book, too. Another strong recommendation. Since this is the first Chabon work I've read, I'm looking forward to reading more, including the Pulitzer-winning THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY.

THE FLAME ALPHABET by Ben Marcus - I've been puzzling over how to describe this novel. I have to begin with the oh-so-eloquent statement that it's really weird. Interesting, potentially worth checking out depending on your tastes, but decidedly weird.

I'll start with the premise: Adults are becoming sickened by children's language. Speech itself, when delivered by children, is causing terrible illness. That concept was what interested me in the book. It's unusual, but it's not the weird part.

April 2, 2012

What Have I Done?

Last week I promised to give an in-depth answer to the question "How's your novel coming along?" and the real question "What are you doing to your finished novel that's taking so long?" But first I want to provide the context for my revision by explaining what happened before I got to the current interminable stage of the process.

I came up the seed of the idea for THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE in the summer of 2007. I spent some time planning out the story and researching over the next few months, but I was mostly focused on revising a different novel. That November, during National Novel Writing Month, I wrote a complete first draft of 80,000-plus words in thirty days.

The first draft of DAMAGE wasn't terrible for a novel written in a month. It was my best NaNo effort to date (and would turn out to be the last NaNo novel I was happy with). I shared the manuscript with three or four friends who understood the nature of a NaNo draft and knew that the story and I weren't ready for any serious feedback. Then I returned to the novel I was already revising.

I didn't even look at DAMAGE again for over a year. When I read through it, I was reasonably pleased with what I'd written and started to think about focusing on it again. In the summer of 2009, I began the second draft. Only I didn't want to run into the problem I'd recognized in past revision attempts, when the presence of the original text made me too conservative in my edits. So I decided that I'd essentially write a second first draft that was based on the original story but not comprised of any of the same sentences.

I'm glad I used this method for creating the second version of DAMAGE. The original had some good things going for it, but it was only barely the story I wanted to tell. The plot was simple and contrived, and the behavior of the characters often didn't make a whole lot of sense. By rewriting from scratch, I gave myself the freedom to find the novel's true potential.

It took about eight months to write the second draft. I was very happy with it, and I felt it was stronger than anything I'd written before. But the real test would be sharing it with other readers.

I have wonderful, insightful critique partners who are generous with both praise and complaint. Through sharing and discussing the manuscript, I learned about the novel's strengths and its still considerable flaws. This second version was on the way to being a great book, but it needed more. More connections between the storylines, more coherent character motivations, more reasons for the reader to care about what happened.

While I didn't agree with every single thing my critiquers said, they were mostly on target, and the suggestions they made led me to even more ideas for improvement. I started giving the story a really, really hard look and thinking about what needed to change so that this time, I'd get everything right.

Later this week: The exciting tale of spending a very long time stuck in the revision planning stage.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black offers some dialogue advice at the #amwriting blog: "It's not about how you write the dialogue, but rather, how you decide what the characters should and shouldn't say: rely on shared context. When real people talk to each other, a prime strategy for economizing on words is not to say anything the listener already knows."