Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I think I’m starting to lose my mind.
I’ve been with my current novel a long time. You can read about it’s more detailed history here if you’d like, but long story short, I started writing it more than a decade ago and the first draft was finished about five years ago. That’s five years of editing that I have poured into this thing, and I’m having a hard time figuring out where I go from here.
My first draft wasn’t great. Even my wife said so which really probably means that my first draft was much closer to a steaming pile of crap than I would have hoped. That said, I’ve been banging away at it for years since, sometimes crossing out entire paragraphs and pages, adding new chapters, and heavily revising everything in between. If I had to estimate, I would say at least half of the original novel had been binned entirely, while the rest has been revised, reduced, chopped up and rearranged.
It’s not the novel that formed my first draft. But is it good enough?
I’m familiar with the feeling of never being quite satisfied with your own work. The saying goes that an artist should always be one’s harshest critic and never happy with the work produced. I think that last part is taking the general advice too far – not sure how good it is for your mental health to never be happy with your craft. If you’re not happy with your craft, then really what’s the point? Yes, it works for some people to fully assume the role of tortured artist, but for most of us, you have to draw the line somewhere and be satisfied.
Problem with this particular work for me is I’ve been with it too long, and it’s been with me through pretty much my entire growth as a writer. I’m miles ahead of where I was when I first started writing it, and there’s still shades of that old author that can be found throughout that book. I’ve tried my best to purge it, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if I think someone is a good idea or sentence because it’s actually good or because it’s been with me so long that I can’t let it go.
All I know is I’m getting close. Maybe not to the sense of satisfaction I yearn for but at least that cutoff where I say that it’s the best it’ll ever be and I should repurpose all my energies that I’m still putting into this project into something else.
Where I’m losing my mind is I’m not quite sure how to get there. Should I still be adding more chapters, doing major cuts and moving things around? Or should I focus on polishing my prose by micromanaging my word choices? This week, I’ve decided to focus on the latter.
I opened up my spreadsheet that helps me track my editing efforts and went to what I lovingly refer to as my “shit list” – the list of words that are either week or overused. Examples include ‘like’, ‘just’, ‘very’, ‘know/knew’ and ‘feel/felt’. Words that don’t necessarily need to completely not exist in my writing, but those I could use less of.
Earlier edits would simply highlight the words throughout the text and I would edit them out as I go, but this time, my approach is more methodical and far more mind-numbing. I’m going through each word in the list and then using Ctrl+F to find each instance, spending some time to figure out if it’s a candidate for deletion, revision, or keeping around. Going through two hundred instances of the word ‘like’ in a 70K word manuscript is probably the least glamorous thing I’ve done as a writer. It hurts not just for its tedium but also not being fully convinced that I’m actually accomplishing something.
It doesn’t matter how well it’s written if it’s just not good.
Yet these are the depths I’ve descended to with Wake the Drowned. It’s my first novel – the first amongst many that have drowned before reaching the end of the first draft. I feel like I owe something to this accomplishment – to sink my absolute most into a story that has become so intimate to me, and not just because of how long we’ve been together. Maybe I’ll get completely sick of it before I finish editing and it will go into that dusty drawer of “also rans”.
Whatever happens at the end, I’m sure I can mine enough lessons learned from the project to fill many my blog entries. And heck, maybe I’ll actually learn something while I’m at it.
I am sometimes in complete awe at the kind of technology that is available to writers on a daily basis. And I don’t mean specialized programs like Scrivener, which I don’t use because I’m a Microsoft Word using normie, and like the proverbial old dog, new tricks come pretty slow for me. What I’m talking about here are things as simple as the Ctrl+F function. Our predecessors that toiled prior to the advent of computer word processors had no such luxury – a perfect shortcut to clean and tighten up their prose. Now, you can throw in any word whose use you want to cut down on in your manuscript, and you’re off to the races.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about combining this technique with the use of word clouds to pin-point your crutch words, and also about how I’ve used it to zero-in on my uses of the word ‘but’ in order to vary my sentence structure. In today’s entry, I want to go through a few examples of common words that can be trimmed using Ctrl+F – a simple and quick exercise to improve your prose. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions and by no means should every instance of the identified words be deleted. I don’t advocate for any hard rules, so please use your judgement.
The English language is rich with synonyms that render the word “very” redundant in most cases. “Very angry” can be “livid” or “furious”. “Very wet” can be “soaked” or “sopping”. And “very hot” can be “sweltering” or “burning” or “scorching” and so on. As you can see, there are subtle differences in meaning between these various substitute words, so be careful not to start fishing for alternatives in the thesaurus. However, also don’t be afraid of using a word you’re not entirely comfortable with – as long as you have beta readers or others in your life whose opinion you trust, they can help you refine your word usage.
As an example from my own writing, as I edited my novel Wake the Drowned, I’ve gone from 44 instances of “very” down to 15. I didn’t eliminate it entirely, nor do I intend to. Even a word like “very” has its uses. For example, in dialogue – it’s perfectly natural for a character to use “very” as there is no reason for them to talk in the style of your prose. Another potential use is for contrast, like in the following sentence from my novel:
“[…] still undecided as to whether I should eat a late dinner at my desk or a very late dinner at home”
Another good way to use “very” is to intentionally set a particular tone. For example, this sentence from the same novel:
“Middleton was not having a very nice day.”
Here, we can potentially use a synonym like “lovely” or “pleasant” or “wonderful”. But that would not have the same impact. I wanted specifically to use the word “nice” and slapping “very” right before it hopefully struck the flippant note that I wanted it to.
So while there’s a time and place for everything, overall “very” serves as a marker for where a stronger word can be used, so go ahead and make those edits.
While “very” can indicate where the sentence is thirsty for a synonym, a lot of uses of “that” are just straight up redundant. “I thought that”, “I saw that”, “I knew that”, etc. setting aside for a moment that these are fairly weak verbs, the “that” following these in most instance can be dropped completely without affecting meaning and only tightening up the prose.
The best part about this particular edit is that it is mostly easy and mindless. Although you can pretty safely go delete happy, there will be instances where you have to try your new sentence on for size and sometimes will decide to keep it anyway. For instance, here’s one I have from the opening page of my novel:
“[…] only the occasional tire swing or empty dog leash gave any indication that there were houses hidden on the other side of the trees.”
It’s a bit less obvious that the “that” here can go, but reading the resulting sentence out loud several times convinced me that it should. It is on the borderline, so if you feel like you prefer to keep it, you should follow your gut, as there should be no hard rules when it comes to editing.
Watch for context though, as not every “that” serves the same purpose. For example, this sentence:
“There’s only one way out that isn’t the terrible mouth of the beast.”
“That” in this instance serves an absolutely integral grammatical function and the sentence reads “wrong” to most English speakers. For this reason again, exercising judgement is key and mindless deleting could do more harm than good for your writing.
The word “little” is a sneaky one in that it serves a very clear descriptive function, yet I’ve found that not only that it’s similar to “very” in the sense that it can indicate the need for a synonym, but even when it can stand up on its own, it adds little value to prose. My growing dissatisfaction with it as an adjective can be evidenced from the frequency of its uses through the drafts of my novel: coming down from 249 to 77. Here’s a couple of examples of sentences that ended up losing their “little”:
“I throw my head back in my chair. It rolls away a little bit, detaching me from my desk.”
Then four drafts later we have this:
“I throw my head back and my chair rolls away slightly, detaching me from my desk.”
Sure, I’ve replaced the use of “little” with the oft-maligned adverb, but I generally reject the persecution of this part of speech and think the second sentence works much better.
Here’s a somewhat different example:
“Along with Danny, she was the last of the little dolls that Charlie’s father had given him […]”
This sentence currently reads as follows:
“Along with her husband, Danny the Foreman, she was the last of the figurines that Charlie’s father had given him.”
My problem with this particular use of “little” was that I had previously clearly established the size of these figurines by saying that they fit within the palm of the protagonist’s hand. So what is the point of describing them again as “little” when the reader already knows what the approximate size is. Ideally, each word you use serves a very specific purpose. This isn’t a standard that’s plausible to reach, but with it in mind, it should improve your writing tremendously.
I’ve pulled three fairly arbitrary examples out of my hat to illustrate my point, and there are plenty of other words on my delete list that I can profile in more detail with examples from my own writing. Hopefully you’ve found this useful, and I can certainly continue exploring this in future posts and talking about other words.
As I spend a Sisyphean eternity editing my first novel, I’m busily working on my second one. It went over the threshold from “idea I’m toying with” to full on project sometime in 2018, but overall it’s been slow going since.
As a result of my weird pandemic productivity boost that I experienced in the months before our third baby was born, it more than doubled in word count and is now at a respectable 40,000, though I recognize that a sizeable chunk of it is first draft bloat. I’ve been enjoying this particular project immensely, and a little while ago I talked about how I was using Google Street View to explore the city of my childhood.
Despite the level of enjoyment and how well it’s been progressing, I have run into some growing pains, which I think is an important subject for writers to be able to talk about freely. Sometimes there’s this tendency to subscribe to one of two extremes – either you’re a writer to the core and enjoy every aspect of it because it is the essence of your being, or you’re a tortured artist’s soul who is but a vessel for your writing, which rips you to shreds as it crawls out of you. Cute, but not the way things work.
I think there’s nothing wrong in recognizing the stumbles we all experience. Writer’s block isn’t a sign of weakness or a disease to be cured – it’s a natural part of the process. It also comes in all kinds of variations from writer to writer and within writers themselves. Not every case of writer’s block is a 100% stupor where no amount of internal turmoil will bring even a single word onto a page. Nice for relatable writer comics, but hardly ever happens.
What I’m going through right now with Maple Vodka (placeholder title, so bear with me) is something I like to describe as a “working” writer’s block. Kind of like “working notice” – where you’re fired from a job but stay on for the duration of your notice period. So in my case, it feels like writer’s block, but it’s not stopping me from actually continuing to write, or rather, I’m not letting it. The symptoms I’m currently experiencing are the following:
The current chapter is overwrought: I feel like the section I’m writing is entirely too long for the pacing of the novel and how much it actually brings to the plot. It started with the protagonist going to work and then moves into him remembering the long journey that led him to this dead-end job. Sure, it’s important to establish that his career stalled, but is this the best way of doing it? I’m not sure. I’ve certainly found the character exploration fascinating, but will it fall flat with readers?
There’s not enough here for a novel: this fear is closely related to the first one – because this particular fiction feels like it’s padding word count, I’m wondering if there’s even enough idea here to stretch into a novel length, or is it all just filler? Sure, it looked good as a synopsis, and then as a full-blown outline, but sometimes when I put meat onto the skeleton I quickly run out of material and end up with a half-dead being of abject horror. Is this the fate of this particular work, or are my perceptions suffering from recency bias, and I just need to get through this stretch to greener pastures?
It’s poorly written: hardly any of us do their best work when we’re forcing ourselves. So the last dozen or so pages haven’t felt like the kind of writing that I should be doing. Maybe that means the whole work is utter garbage and I shouldn’t subject anyone to the final product. Equally likely is that I’m too close to this particular piece of writing, and need some perspective in order to properly assess its merits.
As I’ve summarized them, these might seem like fairly sizable problems. On a bad day, it’s enough to discourage someone from continuing their work, throwing it in the discard pile, and moving onto the next project hoping this will be the perfect fit. As much as I do think sometimes you do just need to cut ties with something you’re working on, a technique practiced even by the most seasoned authors, I think it’s too early to do a post mortem. Like I said, difficulties are a natural part of the process, and it’s an intricate balancing act to learn when those difficulties are truly insurmountable.
In this case, I don’t think the threshold was crossed. Why? I’m not sure. There’s no bright line test here so at the end of the day, I have to trust my gut and believe that the solution to all three of the stated misgivings is: keep writing.
Despite the fact that I don’t bring it up here all that often, I’m still very much working on my first novel. The reason it doesn’t really come up is that it has been undergoing an editing process for more years than I’m willing to count. It may not be as glamorous as using Google Street View to explore the streets of Moscow, or coming up with character names for a sci-fi setting, but it’s honest work.
I feel writers generally steer clear of discussing editing or even acknowledging its existence. Sure, there are those strange creatures that profess to actually enjoy it, but those people are either lying, or are gluttons for punishment. Editing is grinding work; it’s tedious and sometimes mentally crushing. It’s where all the self-doubt and self-criticism that I would normally block out come to roost and become an essential part of the craft. Was that the right word? Does this sentence make sense? Is the pacing of this chapter off? Is there even a point to this novel or should I send it to the proverbial trash bin and take up knitting instead? (I should take up knitting anyway, but that’s a different story).
I share insights into my editing process here and there – from general advice to how I use word clouds to clean up my writing, but beyond that, I have a hard time describing the process. You just dive into your work and comb through it, over and over until all the tangles have disappeared and it’s as perfectly coiffed as Tan France’s hair (if you don’t get this reference I recommend binging “Queer Eye” on Netflix, or if you're that short on time, at the least check out the following few seconds of Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video). For me, I find I have too focus on the blemishes too much and it becomes too easy to lose sight of how my work can ever reach the stage when I’m satisfied with it.
When it comes to Wake the Drowned, I currently only have one chapter left before I complete the fifth draft. In terms of next steps, I already have one wonderful friend who provided me with detailed beta reader comments, with more hopefully drifting in. As far as I can tell, though it’s hard to predict with these things, I’ll need another three edits at most, ideally two, so either way, the job is well more than halfway done. That said, at my pace that could still be another two years.
I’ve got some mixed feelings about this edit. Some stretches are turning out really well – two or three pages can go by with only a few minor revisions. Other sections are still giving me serious pacing concerns. I think one of the main focuses of the next edit should be aggressive deleting, which may put me in trouble with the word count, but I can solve that problem when I come to it.
I’ve been with this project for so long it’s hard to conceive that one day, win or lose, it will be set aside as the best I can do for this story. My sincerest hope is that I will be able to share it with the world, but if not, at least it will live on in the rest of my writing through the lessons I learned along the way.
The internet can be a powerful and versatile tool in the arsenal of a writer. And I’m not just talking about Googling weirdly specific forensic questions that in the eyes of a law enforcement algorithm make one indistinguishable from a serial killer. The amount of research a writer can do from their comfort of their own living room is incredible, including visiting faraway places without ever having to leave the house. Or, in my case, revisiting long-shuttered corners of my memory in full colour.
One of the novels I’m currently working on is set in Moscow, and though that was the city of my childhood, I hadn’t been back there in almost twenty years. My main character shares a lot of the same places that I had grown up around, so you’d think it would be easy for me to replicate the setting.
Honestly, if I’d relied on memory alone, it would probably be passable. Any reader who’d never been to Moscow would certainly not know the difference, and even lifelong Muscovites, unless they specifically visited the neighbourhood I was describing, might not immediately notice that something was amiss. That is, won’t notice anything amiss with respect to the general locations and the broad stroke descriptions.
Once we dig down to the details we discover the little problem inherent in the passage of those twenty years. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the protagonist finds themselves uprooted from a life as an immigrant to Canada, and placed into an alternative universe existence where he never left Russia. A lot of the novel therefore revolves around the changes that had happened in Russia and Moscow since he moved, and the contrast to the expectations he had of his homeland after a long separation.
Memory alone would not permit me the experience to write this well. Short of going back to Russia for a tour myself, something that is presently not possible for me, all I’d have to rely on is hearsay. Not only would someone familiar with Moscow likely see through the inevitable missteps, but it would compromise one of the integral themes of my novel and would be a slap in the face of an ever-changing home city and country with which I share a complicated relationship.
So out came Google Maps. I touched on this process in an earlier post about the novel, but this time, I took a stroll through my own neighbourhood, taking intermittent moments to catch my breath while nostalgia and the slightest touch of what could probably be best described as homesickness gripped my chest. Following the path of my protagonist who traced my own childhood steps not only allowed me to remark on what has changed and what stayed the same, but also lent some more ephemeral elements to help with storytelling. A little old lady captured by the Google Street View camera would turn into a side character; a specific piece of graffiti would inspire an internal monologue in the protagonist. It almost felt like plagiarizing real life.
Each of my own observations could be downloaded into the protagonist, since he was essentially experiencing what I was – taking in familiar surroundings after a long separation. When it comes to the first draft, I’m pretty much throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it – every observation, every unlocked memory, gets tossed into the narrative. It’s probably too much at this point. As the novelty wears off and the novel eventually enters subsequent drafts, I’m sure a lot of these tangents would be pruned. In the end, I’m hoping the result is something close to an authentic experience that combines vague memories with refreshed visuals to create a picture of a city.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the kind of information available at our fingertips these days. This is an opportunity that just wasn’t available to our predecessors. To write even remotely believably about a place, the writer had to either absorb a multitude of first-hand accounts to paint their own picture or actually be present there physically. Now, for any major city around the world, a simple click of a button and we’re looking up at world-famous landmarks, sneaking around forgotten side streets, or cruising through the countryside. It’s a convenient and reliable way of providing support to a setting we may not have personally experienced.
A word of caution is that this is in no way a panacea. I’m not entirely convinced that this method of research would be sufficient for an entire work taking place in a setting that the author has never visited. Visuals go a long way but the feel of a place is harder to pin down through a computer screen. Not to mention the flow of life, its people and its culture. More serious research is required here, though I believe a reasonable product can be achieved here as well, made that much easier by all the other research tools that are brought to us by technology and the internet.
The need for proper research, and perhaps some self-reflection as to the advisability of the story/setting combination in the hands of the author, is heightened for certain settings, depending on their relationship to the author themselves. An ethnically WASPish North American author sitting from the comfort of their desk chair may be able to set their whole story in a rural Indian village or the streets of Caracas, but should they? A special sensitivity to place, culture and people is required here, and a reminder that technology is just that, technology, a tool, not the end all and be all of human experience.
So like any literal tool in a handyperson’s toolbox, tools should be used with caution and for their intended purpose, but I encourage playing around with dropping yourself into a setting you’ve never been before, and using that to grow your writing.
There is a distinct possibility that I will never be truly happy. No, no, not with my life, I’m riding a wave of contentment that had been uninterrupted since the last time I shook the blanket of negativity earlier this spring. What mean is, never be happy as a writer, and specifically, with my writing, and more specifically, with this novel that I swear to eff I will one day complete.
I’ve recently finished my third major revision of Wake the Drowned, and I was sure to drown that bad boy in a sea of red. So naturally when I opened it up for a fourth crack at it, I thought it would be relatively smooth sailing from here. Woefully, this has not been the case for this last month and red ink is still being liberally spilled. I’d be curious to run a comparison blackline at this point to see just how much has changed since the first draft, because it feels that the cumulative changes must be massive.
So, like any true writer, this makes me question everything about myself and my art. Will I ever be happy with the finished product? Part of me likes to think so, especially when I do have that stretch of several paragraphs that I glide over without making any changes (this uncorks a whole different batch of paranoias, but let’s not get into those right now). I also admit that the beginning of the novel has always been a challenge not only because of the pressure to make it a good hook, but because the initial draft was written so long ago that I’m still trying to wash out the ghosts of my previous writing mistakes. I suppose that’s one of the challenges of working on a novel for so long, especially during such a formative time of both my life and my writing. Part of me doubts that it’s necessary to keep working on it, but a bigger part of me wants to see this story through and told well.
Given my natural struggles with approximately the first quarter of Wake the Drowned, I’m not surprised I’m hitting the doubting blues. If I recall correctly, I suffered the same fate during the last two drafts as well. I want to believe that pushing myself through this is the right thing to do for me and my craft. But even through these questions I have to remember that every word and every red mark counts in the end. They’re the drops that add up to make me the writer I am. Even all those stories you may have discarded, or novels that died after three chapters, they’re all worth something.
I think you’re writing is similar to faith – it’s not worth much if you don’t freely question it. And for that reason, I believe the occasional frustration is not only unavoidable, but desirable in a good writer.
So even if I’m feeling a bit dull about the novel, maybe after I’ve hit a few pages that made me stare at them in awe of a bungled transition or ham-fisted metaphor, I find that I just need to take a deep breath, and turn the page and keep plowing away at it until I get to a stretch that reminds me that I’m a decent writer. Because if I can do it for a few pages, then with enough thought and tinkering, I can sustain that momentum for a few hundred pages, and a quality novel would rise from all this effort. Or it could not, and it will simply become the foundation on which I will build my next work, and the next.
The important thing is not drown in your own sea of red. The fact that you’re fixing and rewriting so much is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It means you’re constantly accepting your errors, you’re learning and improving. It would be far worse if you were incapable of putting a critical eye on your work, or if you were afraid to accept that sometimes what you wrote didn’t work.
To borrow a bit from Ms. Frizzle – here’s to taking chances, making mistakes and getting messy. And also conquering your writing fears. Mine seems to be the fear of never being good enough. But what I need to remind myself is that succumbing to this fear is the main threat to being good enough. So I can either wallow, or I can keep writing and keep editing. Keep building, and keep destroying. And one day, Rome will be built.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mentioning how I was close to the completion of the fourth draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. Today I’m happy to share the news that the draft has been completed, bound and printed, and now sits on my desk as I begin work on the next draft. This particular undertaking took about nine months and found me sometimes breezing through 2-3 pages at a time, and then being stuck on a single paragraph for two days. This is definitely not the smooth reading experience I would expect from something that’s a final draft, not that I expected this to be the one.
Even with the first couple of pages, on which I’ve probably spent the most amount of time over the last few drafts, I knew that the sea of red wasn’t a particularly encouraging sign that I was anywhere near done. But I didn’t let that discourage me, liberally spilling red ink over the next 245 pages.
This draft is also a product of me taking research seriously. It’s not as if I was talking out of my ass before, but there’s always room to do better. I was pleasantly surprised how accurate some of my details were and also humbled by where I stood to inject some realism. I strongly encourage reading both non-fiction and fiction books on your subject to look both for inspiration and to bolster the credibility of your work. I’m certainly not done the research portion of this writing process and I expect the next couple of drafts to reflect this.
I also ran through all the graphs and metrics I use to improve the productivity of my editing process. This includes the plot graph, my word clouds, my “shit list”, and others. I’ll elaborate all on these in upcoming entries though you can read a bit about my word cloud process here. In any case, I saw improvement, some modest, some significant, on all of my metrics, which again pumps me with excitement for the following drafts.
But I think the most important aspect of draft 4 is that this is the draft that I have chosen to share with a small group of beta readers. I have previously talked about how my wife was subjected to a largely undigested first draft, but with three major rewrites since then, I felt I was ready to go into a slightly wider world.
This is where the excitement really begins and my stomach is aflutter with all sorts of butterflies. Sharing my writing with other people has always been an exhilarating and terrifying experience for me and I look forward to it every time. I can’t wait to see what they enjoy (hopefully something) and what I need to improve (hopefully not everything).
I’ve heard time and time again that writers should just write for themselves and not worry about what other people think. But I see the writer as primarily a storyteller, and for a story to be told, it needs to be heard. So while I want my beta readers to like my novel, I don’t want them to do so unequivocally. I want them honestly to tell me what they think about my story, because my story is not for me, it’s for the world.
After this, I estimate I have about three drafts left (two of them post-beta readers) until I might be in a spot where I think I’ve given the story all I can give, and at my current pace, this should take about a year and a half. After working on Wake the Drowned for more than a decade, this feels like almost no time at all, the proverbial light at the end of that tunnel. At this point, I’ve got an unquenchable craving to see it through, which is why I didn’t bother to take a break between drafts four and five and dove right into the next one while my beta readers go through my novel at a comfortable pace.
I hope this novel is the one, but at the same time, I know it’s my first novel, and it should be treated as a learning experience. So wherever this journey ends up, I’ll just be content to bask in the excitement of a long and massive project slowly nearing its completion.
Recently I’d tweeted something about the fact that one of my most satisfying moments in editing are deletions. This has stuck with me since then, and I’ve been taking a more critical approach to phrases, sentences and passages that I’m editing and I feel like I’m onto something here, so I thought I would expand on this.
I’ve previously talked about writer’s block and the various ways I deal what that stubborn bit of writing that just won’t let me be. But what if making it perfect isn’t the answer? What if making it disappear is what makes your writing stronger?
At first, this sounds like a quitting attitude, and I do agree that a deletion decision needs to be critically assessed. It’s tempting to interrogate yourself and ask whether you’re just giving up on something and whether a better writer would be able to write their way out of this one. But good writers delete, and you should too.
Secondly, I acknowledge that deleting your own writing hurts. This is your baby, come from within the depths of your creative process, and now you’re expected to unceremoniously sever it and discard it? As traumatic as the experience might be for you, there’s a reason why “kill your darlings” is a bit of writing advice that’s been driven into the ground. Sometimes, no matter how attached you are to the smaller piece, its removal might be an overall benefit to the whole. And if you really do think it’s a good line that just happens to be in the wrong place in the wrong time, save it somewhere else. I have a whole file with deleted sentences and paragraphs to use to inspire myself later. It may find a home a yet.
So let’s look at this in the context of the actual deletion I made last week. This was in Wake the Drowned, the novel I’m currently editing, and the protagonist, Charlie, is struggling about whether or not to enter a room and help another character, but then this character says something completely inappropriate, and the protagonist leaves instead. The immediate next sentence after the protagonist makes his decision and is described as leaving the room is as follows: “There was no need for Charlie there.” While there is nothing wrong with that sentence by itself, something didn’t feel quite right.
My first suspicion was that it didn’t show my character’s motivation or decision making enough. After all, the preceding sentence never explicitly states that Charlie couldn’t or wouldn’t help this other character or why. So I fiddled with the following alternatives: “There was nothing Charlie could do then” or “Charlie realized there was nothing he could have done” or “There was nothing Charlie could do for [character] now.” While about as short and punchy as the original sentences, all of these options didn’t sound right. So I went with a more complicated structure to the tune of the following: “Despite what twisted Charlie on the inside, if he’d cross the room then, he would soon discover that [character] had now sunken out of reach of his help.” This seemed to somehow make things much worse.
So I stared it for a few minutes, wondering why this little sentence, with its expression of hopelessness in a hopeless situation, was bothering me so much. And then I just put a fat red line through it, and read the paragraph again.
Now the scene ended with Charlie leaving the room, without any epilogue-type commentary. That’s it. Here he is contemplating helping, the character saying something inappropriate, then Charlie leaving. Sure, I can add extra details about what Charlie felt at the moment, but what would that accomplish? He left. The reader understands what the decision implies, and if Charlie’s exact train of thought isn’t set out, what’s the big deal? So I figured out what was wrong with the sentence. The sentence couldn’t be editing or improved, because the problem was that it should never have been there in the first place.
I’ve always struggled with the mother of all writing advice: “show, don’t tell”. I don’t pretend that I truly know what it means but I caught a glimpse of it at that moment. “There was no need for Charlie there” was doing precisely that – telling us what Charlie felt, instead of showing us that he left.
There is, of course, the lingering possibility that I made the wrong choice. Perhaps some beta readers will feel like something is missing from this paragraph. And if that happens, I would need to rethink my choices. At this point, I found the red strikethrough to be liberating. I liked the sentence and how it sounded and how it capped off a previous much longer sentence. But ultimately I decided that it detracted from the work, and out it went. I’ll move past whatever pain that causes, because the next sentence calls.
Today I want to introduce you to a novel project that has been very dear to me for quite some time. I’ve recently discussed my struggle with transitioning into my next novel, and blamed this on my addiction to outlines. A half-dozen ideas are all percolating still in my mind for varying lengths of time, but one project has now crossed the magic 10,000 word threshold for when I consider a novel to actually be in progress. And the two main reasons why this one seemed to pull ahead are that it’s my oldest unwritten projects that I’ve had and because, unlike the rest, it has a fully-fleshed out outline. Old dogs, am I right?
The novel doesn’t yet have a working title, partly due to the fact that titles are a bit of a weak spot of mine (or one link in a chain mail armor of weakness). What it does have is a code title for the document, so for ease-of-reference let’s just use that until something more acceptable comes along than “Maple Vodka”. The reason why I refer to it as “Maple Vodka” will become clear soon enough, but first let me tell you a meandering background tale that I insist, at least to myself, will not bore you to death.
As you’ve seen from my introduction to my first novel, Wake the Drowned, I brew ideas sometimes for years at a time before they ever see their first words committed to paper. Like Wake the Drowned, Maple Vodka has its roots from over a decade ago.
I was still riding the high of having one of my short stories adapted into a short film, an adventure whose telling is best left for another day, and was trying to explore the lucrative screenwriting career I was obviously going to have. Back then, the regrettable Kevin Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street Productions, ran a peer-review site for amateur screenwriters. The premise was if you read and reviewed other people’s scripts, you could eventually post your own script and have it reviewed by complete industry noobs like yourself. For a year I eagerly worked to add my piece of garbage onto the communal landfill (to be perfectly honest, I did read a couple of scripts that were, in my opinion, worthy of Hollywood productions, but the overwhelming majority was similar to my own puerile attempt).
After having that script excoriated by the reviewing community, I decided to move onto my next project. This one would serve two purposes – my next script to be offered up to the Trigger Street masses, and also a way of outlining my next novel. As an outline, this was actually a decent idea because it allowed me to hash out my dialogue, which at the time was by far the weakest point of my writing. So I wrote up the first couple of scenes, made the most skeletal of outlines, and like every other large scale project I touched up until that point, off it went into the Land of the Forgotten, sort of.
When I decided to take Wake the Drowned to an agent, I thought I would hedge my bets. After bits and pieces of my novel swam around in my head for about four years, on a long walk around the city I decided to hash out the same full outline that I did for Wake the Drowned. The idea was snuck into my email to the agent and because they never addressed it, instead choosing to opine on Wake the Drowned, nothing came of that outline, but it sat there for years on my hard drive whispering into my ear every so often.
It's both a project that I’m excited to write, and one that terrifies me in its scope. I describe it simply enough – an alternative biography, a sort of personal alternate history. At least, that’s how it started.
Imagine if, at the age of thirteen, I never moved to Canada. What kind of person would I have become? What parts of my personality and my future were shaped by my environment and what was inherent to me? Could I really be considered the same person? These are all the questions my protagonist, Paul, ponders during one of his identity crises, until one morning he wakes up, and finds out he never actually moved to Canada and has to deal with the person that he became in his native country. You see? Russian immigrant in Canada? Maple Vodka? As far as working titles go, I’ll say this one isn’t half bad.
In the decade since I first thought of this idea, there have been significant changes, both to myself and my story. Firstly, even though it was going to be a literal exploration of what I would have been like if I had not moved, Paul had slowly diverged from me in terms of personal experiences and personality. Sure, he still shares a lot of my childhood experience and certain traits, but changes needed to be made to provide at least some objective separation, and artistic liberty was required.
The novels relationship to the origin/destination dichotomy had also shifted. The novel was conceptualized to show a very obtuse picture of Canada being good and Russia being bad. But the country I had not visited in almost twenty years has changed in unprecedented ways. At least in Moscow, beautification projects have changed the face of the city, modern apartment blocks repaved outdoor farmers’ markets, pedestrian crossings have transformed the streets.
But at the same time, whatever hope remained in the 90s seemed to have been sapped. The country has reshaped itself as a pariah, as one against the world, steering the people against external enemies instead of the internal ones sitting at the top of the food chain. Not only that, but I myself have developed a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between person and place. We are a product of our own free will as much as we are about where we are from. The novel has thus become more introspective to the main character.
So as I’m starting to work my way through the first quarter of the novel, all these things are rearing up and threatening to scare me away into safer waters, you know, the ones where I’m bouncing from idea to idea unable to commit. I’ve embraced the challenge of writing about a country I personally haven’t been to for more than half my life, but one that has given me an inexorable part of the soul that longs to write. I’ve got a few windows into Russia I can still use, so I’m not flying completely blind. I also know that this can’t be a long-winded essay about my own opinions. Paul needs to be real to me, he needs to be thrown in this situation and genuinely try to find his way out of it, to genuinely react to the face that he sees in the mirror.
So there it is, what is likely to become my second novel if things go well.
Meanwhile, I should write some outlines, otherwise I’ll have nothing to do once this one is done.
I have recently put the finishing touches on the third draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. It’s been a process that has lasted almost two years, so I hope that not only did I improve the manuscript, but actually managed to learn something along the way. So without further introduction, here is an arbitrary number of writing tips I have distilled out of the editing process for draft 3.
Tip 1: Just let it spill out
Self-editing as you go is probably one of the worst sins a writer can commit against themselves. I still find myself, during what should be a breezy first draft, questioning “is this scene dragging on too long?” or “wouldn’t this be better in another part of the book?” or “does this aside actually serve any purpose?” These are all extremely valid questions and answering them will go a long way to improving your work. However, they shouldn’t be asked at the writing stage and are best left for the editing stage.
I spent years writing the first draft of the novel. And then another year editing it into the second draft. You’d think with all the self-editing I did along the way, everything would have come together by then. Wrong. So much of draft 3 did not just involve editing for phrasing or brevity. I was moving around chapters, adding new chapters, merging chapters from different parts of the book into each other. All that time that I spent overthinking as I wrote was largely wasted, because difficult decisions are being made right now.
So when you’re writing that first draft, just write. Put down every scene you think of writing onto the page. At least now it’s there, saved, and ready to be dealt with later. Then, when you’re editing, apply a liberal does of the following tip, and then you’ve done yourself and your work a great favour.
Tip 2: Be merciless
My first draft clocked in at about 95,000 words, and after the first set of revisions, the second draft came it at around 73,000 – that’s almost a quarter of the original manuscript gone, so I thought I was in a good spot.
The third draft of the novel included additional chapters and material that amounted to approximately ten thousand words, yet the length of the manuscript remained unchanged. That means through this edit, another 10,000 words came off the books. Now a full third of the original was gone. Granted, this process was gradual and didn’t feel so drastic, but think about what this means. Imagine writing 32,000 words and then just … deleting them.
Not everything you write will be gold, and part of editing is panning for that gold so that the end product is a distillation of your writing. Imagine yourself as an athlete with the ability to take away some of your failed attempts. Imagine the career you could have. This is presented to you as an option in writing, so it would be a crime against yourself to not seize the opportunity. Cut. And don’t let the writer you used to be dictate what your writing should look like.
Tip 3: There no such thing as too slow
Slow and steady wins the race. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. On the surface, all platitudes to make yourself feel better about procrastination, but I found them to be strangely true.
Yes, looking back at the fact that I finished writing the first draft in 2015 and it’s been more than three years later and I’ve only made it through two major revision cycles may sound a wee bit discouraging, but what’s the rush? I’ve got a day job, a family, *gasp* other hobbies. I can’t afford to throw myself in, to marry myself to the “writer’s lifestyle” whatever that might mean to you. So why should I be hard on myself for taking my time?
I’m in my early thirties. I’m still learning life, still reading, still improving my writing. They still make “Top 40 Writers Under 40” lists so I’ve got a lot of room here. No one wins a lifetime achievement awards for a decade worth of work. No one writes an autobiography before they’re twenty. Okay, that last one may not be true, but you get the point.
Tip 4: You are not an ostrich
It’s easy to breeze through an edit, correcting typos, changing wording, maybe even tweaking dialogue to make it more natural. But then you get to a page, or maybe a whole scene, and something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the pacing, or maybe it doesn’t serve the plot, or maybe the tone is wrong or the characterization is inconsistent. Maybe it’s just a feeling that something is amiss. Do you a) wrack your brains about how to fix the problem, or b) do you stick your head in thee send and pretend you didn’t see anything.
I’ve certainly done the latter with some of my previous edits and have paid for it in this draft. I’ve already got my eye on the next draft and have a feeling I know what I need to tackle. For years I’ve ignored an uncomfortable feeling about a certain aspect or my story. But now that we’re squarely in 2018, I find myself needing to make some significant edits to avoid what I find to be cultural appropriation.
I won’t be happy until all those wrinkles are ironed out. So why dodge it? If something doesn’t feel right, try to figure out why, and how to fix it.
Tip 5: You didn’t marry your outline
I’ve already lamented about how I seem to be unable to start a project without a robust outline in place. While this so far appears to be a prerequisite for me to actually get writing, the outline is just a skeleton of the work. But bones break, get re-set, limbs are amputated, okay, maybe the choice of metaphor was a mistake, but in any case, what you thought your story would look like before you even started writing it should not dictate how your story should develop.
I’ve already gone at length about at the transformations Wake the Drowned has taken over the years, and it only really took off once an outline was in place. So I owe that much to it. But I recently found one of my early outlines for it and almost laughed at how much it has changed.
For this particular draft, I found significant “dead zones” in the plot, or as I like to call them “doldrums” where there’s neither moving action nor character developed (I’ll go into more detail about my plot graphs some other time). I worked hard to whittle these down and yet the problem was right there from the beginning – so much of my outline was basically “and then Charlie walks around for a while and basically does fuck all”. How I thought that would make for engaging story, I’ll never know.
So once the first draft is complete, the outline has served its purpose. Your story is now an organic entity in your hands and you need to help its development. If that means throwing your original plot twists into the dumpster, that’s fine. Save them onto a file somewhere on your computer so you can maybe go back and be inspired by them later.
So that’s about all the drops of wisdom I have to share – felt like juicing a turnip with your bare hands. Hopefully this will make the road through draft 4 a less painful affair.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.