Story as a pinball machine

This week, once I decided I was going to stop striving for novel-length, I looked at my mystery, changed one line at the end of a chapter and realized I was in the climax.  It’s amazing how what seemed like a simple goal became so distracting!

(It’ll be in the 30K range).

What then ensued was a cycling pass over the story.  I actually like cycling.  It’s evolved over time for me.

Cycling is a pantser tool that’s rather difficult to explain.  Writers hear it as “revising as you write,” but it’s not revision.  If you write a story too thin, you add more; if you write too much, you take something out.  That’s the core of cycling.  It can be setting, and that’s most commonly done with cycling because it’s both easy to put too much in or leave too much out. Revision is more like going through, finding fault (sometimes erroneously), and then correcting it.

The change of the one line triggered a round of cycling for the entire story.  I knew who the villain was and the story needed some additions to sneak him in.

And I’ve needed my Thinking Cat for some of these.  Cats are good at that (when they aren’t knocking stuff off).  A lot of the additions were more story.  Most of them were a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph at the longest. 

Except for three scenes.  Those ran into my weak area with time.  They have to be in the story because the story is about Hollywood and the victim is an actress.

Golden Retriever Muse put the scenes in much later in the story.  But the scenes kept nagging at Golden Retriever Muse: “We’re in the wrong place.  We’re in the wrong place.”  Like that commercial where all the insurance people come out of the cornfield.

Writing Nerd does not think sequentially—my brain is more like a pinball machine.  It does not like sequence.  At all.  When I dial a phone number sometimes, I know what the number is, I look at the numbers, and my brain’s going “I don’t like the order.  I must change it!”  Maybe there’s a cat up there, whacking at the pinballs.

To figure out where the scenes were actually supposed to go, I had to do a full cycle through the story.  The place was obvious once I did.

Fixing it…


It was early in the story, so I had to change scene numbers.  Brain.  Pinball.  Bzzzz! And this was all about getting the numbers numbered right.  Without goofing them up.

So it was move one scene into place, renumber it and all the ones that followed.  Then repeat on all the scenes and shift them forward in their chapter folders (this is Scrivener for Windows).  Then move the next scene and repeat, and the third, same thing.

Golden Retriever Muse is wagging her floofy tail now. 

Editing vs. Revising vs. Rewriting

I’ve been taking a workshop on Editing Yourself.  It’s not the first workshop I’ve had like this; I had another one called Keys to Editing, which covered the topic if you wanted to go in business as an editor.  The Editing Yourself is very different from that one.

The editing class is on essentially taking care of the story while you’re creating it.  Like when I plopped a description of a character in the story early on and then he evolved into something different so I had to create a new description that reflected that evolution.

But one of the things that strikes me is that the writing community generally refers to editing and revision and rewriting all as the same thing when they are very clearly not.

Except in one place.

And that’s when they’re creating the story and they go back and do what I described above for the class.  They called it “revising as you go along.”  And with using that terminology comes actual revision, and often endless revision.  I used to call it that myself and had to learn what I could change and what I couldn’t.

It’s what got me into trouble working with a cowriter who was suffering from fear of finishing and me not knowing that he had this fear.

After a disastrous book where I kept getting stuck so I’d go back and “revise as I went along” until I solved the problem, I decided on the following guidelines:

  • If I was stuck, I had to work that out.  I could go back a few scenes to see if I’d bounced off the tracks, but I couldn’t go all the way to the beginning to tweak words and sentences.
  • I could go back and change things like adding more foreshadowing for a later scene, correcting a name I’d just changed, or a gender of a character.
  • No fixing!  No tweaking of sentences or words to make them perfect.  If I didn’t have a good reason to change something (i.e., I don’t understand what I was trying to write), it stands as is.

My writer friend would have happily revised the first chapter for years.  And this is so easy to do because you think you’re making progress and suddenly the novel takes 25 years (that’s from a writing board I’m on) and never gets done.

The only progress you make is when you can type “The End” and move onto the next one.  Sometimes the tools provided to us by “experts” get in the way of that.


Not Fixing it on the Revision

One of the “rules” I’ve seen around is not to edit or revise as your write.  It leaves writers to race through the draft and deal with a more worse problem:

I’ll fix it on the revision.

Last week, I hit about 10K on my science fiction novel Sinhollow, and I realized I had a problem.  One of the characters wasn’t working.  I included her initially because I wanted to make sure I have enough women characters.  I didn’t want my heroine to be the only woman.

My choices were to leave the character in and deal with it on the revision, but I know that’s a way that leads to a whole lot of unnecessary work (having gone down that path before).  I spent about an afternoon pulling her from the scenes and adding new dialogue.  Wasn’t all that hard to do.  But if I’d waited until the story was done, a lot more would have been tangled up, and each change would have rippled into other changes that would have in turn caused other changes.

And it made me think about the character, because I didn’t want to get rid of her.  So she has a new role, and I’m going back to add scenes.

Not revision.  No editing.  It’s creating.

Not leaving it for the revision

I’m on a Facebook page where everyone’s focus—especially now with NANO—is to simply get the first draft out of the way so they can get to the revision. It’s like the first draft is so distasteful, it’s like, “Let’s just gulp this down and get it out of the way. Everything can be fixed on the revision.”

I used to think that, too.

And it’s like the hatred of the first draft feeds on that thinking. I remember working on the first draft of one particularly problematic book. At that point, my writing was starting to really clash with all the outlining advice that was out there. Little things like “Know your plot points” that are sternly recommended for pantsers were interfering with my story, and all I could think about as I was writing it was that I was looking forward to fixing it on the revision.

Then I got to the revision, and it was a terrible mess. It seemed like every decision I made in first draft affected events that followed. If I changed A, then B, C, D, and X also changed. But I wasn’t done! A changed P, S, and T, and changing P changed C, which changed other things. It just snowballed into a mass of revision that had me pulling out my hair.

But if you’d told me that it was how I was thinking about the first draft at the time, I wouldn’t have believed it. A lot of emphasis is put on that the first draft is always terrible and revision is where the story really comes out.

I saw this first hand when I took Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel. I had this tangled mess that looked like the cat had taken the ball of yarn outside and unrolled it out in the leaf pile and then dragged it around in the dirt and picked up the fox gloves. One of her lessons was to look through the entire story and simply identify what was wrong. I couldn’t believe the amount of problems that I had created by the magic words, “I’ll leave that for revision.”

It was horrifying when I realized what this was doing to the story. Each part of the story connects to other parts of the story, so if one decision isn’t made, it’s like a car hitting a pothole. The alignment gets thrown out of whack, and every decision that follows is based on that part that’s out of whack.

I ended up tossing out that entire story and redrafting it from scratch—essentially pretending like that mess didn’t exist and doing a new first draft. It was much easier than trying to fix what I left for revision!

Now, if I get stuck in the first draft, I stop and figure out why.  Sometimes this takes longer than I really want, but it’s far better than the old way of “leaving it for the revision.”

Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #3

Number three in my mis-advice, and this one’s probably going to be a bit controversial. But all five relate to each in some way.

Give yourself permission to write crap.

First, I do get the principle behind his particular piece of advice. It’s “Don’t let yourself get bogged down by trying to be perfect.” Some writers will write the first chapter, think it sucks, toss it away, and start a new chapter, then toss that away, too because it isn’t perfect. I saw a writer do exactly this and never write anything.

The problem with the advice is the word “crap.” Most writers start out thinking their writing is terrible. It’s hard thing to overcome because we’re bombarded with so many messages about not being good enough. I had to get off the writing message boards because I kept hearing the negativity of “you’re going to screw it up anyway” and every other writer saying, “My writing is crap.”

If anyone starts typing in the comments that their writing IS terrible, stop and think why you’re saying that

Open with a hook.

This is focusing on the words and not on the story. Story is what sells.

Your first sentence has to stand out.

Also is focusing on the words and not on the story. Story is what sells.

Leave out the boring parts.

What does that mean?! Unfortunately, it tends to mean to leave the description out, which causing the next problem …

Revise, revise, revise. It’s where the true book comes out.

First, I’m defining revision as it applies to this piece of advice as finishing the book, and then going back and taking it apart by piece by piece, fixing big picture items like the entire plot, messed up characterization, or that the setting has been completely left out.

I’ve found that this is a terrible piece of advice. If the true book doesn’t come out on the first draft, I really screwed it up and no amount of revision will fix it. Worse, if I left something as major as setting out of the entire book, then the book is unrecoverable (I’ve had one like that).

The problem, I think, is computers.

I was in the Army right went we first got computers. We printed slides on paper and then copied them on transparencies. We learned to get it right on those slides. Now, because the slides are shown live, presenters continually tweak and make changes to those slides, even five minutes before giving the presentation.

So, with a novel, it’s easy to say, “I can’t figure how to do this, so I’ll leave it for the revision.” Because the computer makes it easy to go back and tweak files. I know. I remember saying that on a novel instead of stopping to work through the problem or go back and try something different. That single decision made a massive revision because it connected to other parts of the story.

So, picture this then, borrowing old technology: You’re on a manual typewriter, and you can only do one draft because it’s awful typing and takes forever. How would you change your approach to writing so you didn’t have to make major revisions like what I described above?

This is what the pulp writers did, by the way. They got so much per word and didn’t get paid for the revisions.

Rule S: don’t beat a dead Story

Linda’s Rules of Writing

Three monkeys: Hear no eveil, speak no evil, and see no evil.
Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil, remember no evil. Yup, it was an amnesia novel.

We’re onto the letter S in Linda’s Rules of Writing of the A to Z Challenge, and don’t beat a dead Story.

My first novel was a dead story that I kept trying to fix.  It was called “Remember No Evil” and was a thriller.  I’d get about to the first 100 pages and the story would stall out.  I could see the whole story, but I couldn’t seem to get past that first point.

So I rewrote it.

And rewrote it.

And rewrote it.

I got hung up having to finish it because I’d invested so much time in it, and I didn’t want that to go to waste.  It was a story though I should have walked away from much earlier than I did.

When my former cowriter approached me about doing a book, I realized that if I wanted to actually finish a book, I needed to go to a new project.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up on RNO, so I set it aside.  Then I was able to finish a new project, which was Valley of Bones, later revised into Audacious Run.

When I returned to reassess RNO, I realized that I had been writing it for long that I had grown out of the original story.

Sometimes finishing a story isn’t always the best thing.

Do you have a trunk novel you had to give up on?

Caption: A to Z Challenge Logo

Rule H: treat line editing like Housekeeping not revision

Linda’s Rules of Writing

A sailboat set against a pink sunset, palm trees in the foreground.
I admit it! This was an excuse to show a sail boat at sunset amidst palm trees!  In case you’re wondering, my book Miasma is set an alternate Hawaii.

We’re onto the letter H in Linda’s Rules of Writing of the A to Z Challenge, and treating line editing like Housekeeping, not revision.

One of the things that Holly Lisle mentioned in her course How to Revise Your Novel was that a lot of writers start revision by line editing, instead of focusing on the bigger issues that revision really entails.  It hit me that I’d been doing exactly that in my early “revisions” of my contemporary fantasy, and it also hit me how much of a waste of time it was actually was.

Because I’d line edited scenes, then discovered a major problem in the story that needed fixing.  I’d go through the manuscript and fix the problem, and three scenes that I’d labored over to do line editing came out.  Then I’d go back and start line editing again until I ran into a big problem and repeated the process.

I felt like I let the wind out of my sails. 😦 And all on my own, no wind required.  It made the revision process frustrating and time consuming — and a lot MORE work.

Time to write is hard enough to find without me making more work for myself!  Now I try to think of editing as a form of housekeeping.  Because it really is clean up work: Fixing grammar problems, word choices, getting rid of repetitions, fixing unclear sentences.  And all of these get done AFTER I’ve done all the major work, because there isn’t any point to line editing 24K of scenes and then dropping them.

What have you learned about your editing process?

Writerly Adventures

Sand Dollar Wishes was a very short (under 250 words) flash fiction piece that I wrote for Writer Unboxed’s Flash Fiction Contest.  The story won an honorable mention.  I had to do a lot of editing to keep it at 250 words.

Caption: Banner for the A to Z Challenge