Time and tide

Word count: 253         Reading time: 1 minute 

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again. – Oscar Wilde

Revise and revert: I know the exercise well. It’s not usually a simple comma that gets removed. More than once I’ve spent half a day revising a scene only to realize it was better before I started to play with it. I’ve torn whole books apart and rearranged them, only to put them back together again with the slightest of changes. Now that you mention it, I am thankful for the gift of word processing. 

I say half a day but I can’t be sure. Time loses meaning when I’m swept away by a story, either the telling or retelling of it. As Mary Novik explained, through her character Pegge Donne, in Conceit: It was true that, when I picked up my pen, it was sometimes hours before I counted a minute gone. Like eating a fresh buttered pike, I could not stop until my belly cried out it was glutted.

Right now I’m revising a novel. For the fourth, fifth, or maybe even the sixth time? The fact is I love the characters and they drift around me like phantoms wailing to be heard. So when I pick up the hard copy to move a comma or two, the clock stops ticking and the walls recede. 

Are you lost in any projects right now? What stops time for you?

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Photo by: Kris Jacobs

The unexpected

Word count: 428            Reading time: 1-2 mins

On a recent ferry ride home from the Gulf Islands, I sat in front of a couple who talked non-stop the entire trip. They spoke French with soft Parisian accents and as I eavesdropped, trying futilely to pick out words, maybe even sentences, I pictured them as the epitome of Gallic sophistication: young, stylish, poised.  

When we approached Vancouver and everyone started to head back to the car deck, I got my first good look at them. They were seniors. Senior seniors at that. He was short, stout, and balding and wore a Harley Davidson hoodie stretched over his pot belly. His jeans were rough and torn but not in a fashionable way. He walked round-shouldered and slumped. Her thin, brassy red hair lifted off her head in a frizzy peak. The Kelly-green vest she wore clashed with the gaudy orange underneath it. Enough gold hung around her neck to pay the National Debt. I laughed at my clichéd assumption and enjoyed the surprise of how they really looked.

I love surprises in fiction too. But I don’t like being deceived or manipulated. I don’t want to get to the end of a story or chapter and find out that sequence was just a dream. I don’t want to be led to believe that the main love interest was cheating on his or her partner only to find out it was just a close friend or relative who was being embraced so passionately. And I sure don’t want a new character or device introduced at the end of a novel, a Deus ex machina solution to a complicated problem.

As I work, I love uncovering the surprises in my own stories and characters too but these appear slowly. In the first draft I find out who the players are. The second draft helps me get to know them better. It’s only in the third or fourth revision of a novel, as I push along the question of what if, that my characters start to reveal their idiosyncrasies and unusual interests. Between each revision, I follow the advice of Steven Pinker and give them all a rest, “Write many drafts, separated by a long enough interval so your writing will seem strange to yourself.” When I go back to a work after a long interval, it’s like opening the box of Christmas decorations from the far corner of the basement: full of delightful things I’d forgotten were there.

Where are the surprises in what you are writing? How do you uncover them?

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Photo by: Royce DeGrie

Critical mess

Word count: 394            Reading time: 1-2 mins.

No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft said HG Wells. I wish I’d known that quote when I sent my first short story to a competition. It was rated Highly Commended and one of the judges asked me if I’d like some help polishing it. Without so much as a by-your-leave, she rewrote it and read her version to the audience on the awards night. Her rewrite wasn’t wrong; it was just different. It wasn’t my voice.

Do-not-rewrite-someone-else’s-work was my first lesson in editing. Here are a few more I’ve picked up since:

  1. It takes courage to share your work; make sure the person who sees it is worthy of your trust.
  2. A good writing partner pinpoints the areas that might benefit with revision. She never replaces your words with hers but suggests solutions to problem areas.
  3. A constructive editor encourages your strengths. Note: I’ve paid for professional reviews where the readers seemed totally unfamiliar with classical thinking like: correction does much, but encouragement does more (Goethe). If you have to ask questions - like what parts worked better than others - it’s time to find someone else to help you.
  4. The more you study and learn about writing, the better your writing gets and the more you have to offer as a writing partner and editor.
  5. Some people want intensive feedback; others only want their typos caught. Remember Somerset Maugham’s words: [some] people ask for criticism but they only want praise. If you’re committed to doing a meaningful review, the latter will waste your time.  
  6. You don’t have to take onboard everyone’s suggestions but it doesn’t hurt to listen. You’re the creator; you decide whose opinions are most relevant.
  7. Still, even when you think you’ve absolutely nailed something, be receptive to the fact that it could be better.

Once books are published and hit the public domain, imperfect strangers emerge from the woodwork to criticize them. Until then, we can select readers who help us strengthen our voices, not drown them.

What are your expectations from an editor or writing partner? Is there something else you hope for that I haven’t listed? Do you use other writers, professional editors, or good friends - or a combination of all three - to help you improve?

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Artwork by: Tom Morris via Wiki Commons

Worth Fighting For

 Word count: 273    Reading time: 1-2 mins

According to Benjamin Franklin, there is no such thing as a good war or a bad peace. Fiction writers – ignore this crazy thinking! In Writing Fiction Janet Burroway advises: Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction, necessary because in literature, only trouble is interesting.

A good story dramatizes conflict or incompatibility between characters or forces. How interesting would the Harry Potter books have been without Draco Malfoy and his evil league of family and friends? Without the prevailing social norms of upper class Russia in the late 19th Century, would Anna Karenina’s choice to love Vronsky have mattered much at all?

No one wants to read about people doing what they should do without incident or challenges. From the moment we are born our lives are filled with tension and conflict – no one knows we’re hungry, someone steals our toys, teachers don’t like us, our lovers are unfaithful, strangers assault and insult us – and we do everything in our power to minimize those problems. But when we pick up a book we want to see someone else’s scrapes, physical or emotional. In writing parlance, those are external and internal conflicts. We want to see someone else’s struggles so we can forget about our own. Or maybe we just want to see another way of winning a war.

James Scott Bell defines plot as two dogs and one bone. How many dogs are in your story and what are they fighting over? Does the tension build as the story moves along? If not, what do you do to turn up the flame?

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Photo by: Surz01