Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Revising the Novel - Performance Update

I may not have been quite as sequestered as the monk in this photo, but it's been pretty darn close, hiding myself away, working feverishly to finish the revision of Deadly Vision. And, after about 6 months of mostly concentrated work, I'm thrilled to say, that I've finished! Yea! Much applause and fanfare (and hopefully some much needed sleep!)

Sunday, I went through the last chapters, made the final cuts and got the novel down to about 100,000 words, which was my goal. Without a doubt, this is the cleanest, tightest, most aggressive version of the novel ever.

Keeping the Ten-Point Revision Strategy on my desk the whole time, I found the points useful in constantly reminding me of what I needed to do. One thing that I realized is that during all of my previous revisions, I didn't really revise the book. instead, I would really just read the book. Sure, I'd make a few changes here or there to wording, expand a small scene to add more detail, fix a grammatical error, but that's about it. It's so easy to get into the pattern of reading our writing, not really revising our writing.

To that end, the Ten-Point Revision Strategy was really helpful.


1) With each chapter, I asked myself consciously, what are the character's motivations here. What does each character (not just my main hero) really want to happen? This brought up lots of previously unseen opportunities for conflict.

2) Does this scene move the story forward. Wow! That one was really powerful for me. I can't tell you how many times I read a scene that I really liked, but on close scrutiny, realized it wasn't necessary to move the story forward. Here's the latest example.

In one scene, my hero needs to use the internet to contact someone. He can't connect from the place he's hiding for fear of it being traced back to his location, so he has to go to the public library to use their computer. In that scene, I loved writing about the elderly librarian who ran the library since our hero was a school boy. I loved the descriptions of the library itself, really imparting the small town feel I was reaching for. I loved the tension, our hero felt by connecting from such a public place.

There was only one problem. None of it was necessary.

The Librarian never appears again. I'd already described the small town. Our hero has been nervous and in fear of being caught for the last several pages. In the end, the whole point of the scene was to mention that he connected with his lab partner to set up an important trial, then steps to the payphone and calls the police officer that's been chasing him. That's it. I wrote 3 or 4 pages to describe what I just wrote to you in one sentence.

So I cut it. All of it. Kill your babies, they say. Librarian, gone. Library in small town, mentioned in passing. The scene now starts with my hero stepping out of the library where he'd just connected with his lab partner and walking into the phone booth. I still have all the tension of him getting caught while he's standing there, fully exposed, making the phone call. I mention in brief back story, that he'd just connected with the lab. Now, I'm moving directly on to the conversation with the cop. Saved 4 pages. probably 700 words.

3) I really loved the "end each chapter earlier," point. I really recommend you try this one. Something so simple, often times had a really powerful effect of increasing tension and drama. Sometimes I just eliminated the last sentence of the chapter, sometimes the entire last paragraph. Either way, what I found was all those cut little pat endings I'd written, the final chapter summary or forced dramatic ending, were usually hampering the drama. By cutting them, and ending the chapter with an earlier sentence, I often felt there was actually more tension. More of a cliffhanger.

4) I paid lots of attention to word choice, avoiding overused words, and overall tightening my word selection. I eliminated writing "he paused," instead, creating the pause. And adverbs became an endangered species in my book. Or as Metallica once said, "Kill em all!"

5) Tightening dialog also worked well. In truth, we tend to never speak more than 3 sentences during a conversation before the other person interrupts us with a comment. Yet, when we write, we have no problem with one character going on for whole paragraphs. I've even seen some characters in books going on for a whole page, or more!!

This doesn't happen in real life, and shouldn't happen in your novel. Keep the dialog tight, brisk. It flows faster, the book flows faster and the dialog feels more natural, less forced.

So now, I just need to let my two writing groups catch up with me, give them a chance to destroy . . er, I mean critique my work, then one more final read through and it's back to my agent.

Just so you know, Warner Books and Bantam had both expressed an interest and both requested this revision, so hopefully we'll hear soon. Either way, I'll keep y'all posted of the developments as we move through this publishing experience together.

As always, you comments are most appreciated. They've kept me motivated to keep this blog going when I felt like stopping.

In the future, we're going to finish up outlining, move to query letters, novel summaries, plotting and other points. Let me know what you'd like read about.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Writing the Novel - Outlining Part 2

Back to outlining.

A while back, when I started the first outlining post I answered the question, "Should I outline?" with a flippant, but honest answer.

Yes, if it works for you. No, if it doesn't.

In truth, very few people are capable of writing a successful novel without some sort of outline. Even the most free-flowing of us has some idea of what the novel is about. And even if they never commit this to paper, in their mind, if asked, they'll have an idea of where the story starts, who the characters are (at least some of them) and a vague idea as to what will happen in the book. Even if it's a totally vague idea, they'll at least know that their novel is a story about Mandy and Mike, growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, and they fall in love, but as economic hardship strikes their town, they break up and have to deal with the question of whether or not to have their unborn child or abort it. Etc.

This little sentence may be all the author knows about his/her book, and they may intentionally say, "I never outline because I want to be free to explore the story where ever it goes." But they're wrong. That little sentence is an outline. Even if it's only in their head, it's still an outline.

An outline is a basic structure for a story. A preconceived notion of a beginning and various events that will happen as the novel moves towards the end. Notice I didn't say that an outline includes an ending. It doesn't have to. If you really want to live the "mystery" of writing and see how the story ends for itself, that's fine. You've still outlined in your head how the story will go.

Let's look at that for a moment, as loose as this "outline" is.

There's a story start; characters and a location.
Story points are laid out; economic hardship, a romance, a break-up, a pregnancy.

That's an outline. Now to take this basic idea and turn it into a more structured outline, one that won't cramp your "creative freedom," all you need to do is add a timeline and vision the obligate scenes that are necessary to make these events happen.

In other words. The beginning. You may start by introducing the town, the characters, the economic setting, what have you. But you've identified your beginning.

At some point you must introduce the characters. So you will need obligatory introductory scenes to bring in Mandy and Mike.

They need to have a romance. It can be already started and we're catching it in the middle or we can watch it start and grow. It's up to you. But either way, there are some obligatory scenes you must have to show a romance growing or maintaining.

She becomes pregnant. Her discovery of this is a pretty obligate scene.

Economic hardship strikes. Another obligate scene (or several)

They breakup. Many obligate scenes here to show how the economy has affected their relationship.

They need to decide what to do about the baby.

Where you go from there is anybody's guess.

It may not seem like much, but you've just outlined the basis of your novel. Now, once you really start to think about this and add a timeline, you'll see that there are really several obligatory scenes that need to happen to connect these scenes. As you fill those in, the outline becomes more clear. And you haven't necessarily written anything yet.

Tess Gerristen, the best-selling author, states that she never outlines. But this isn't true. What she means is that she never commits an outline of her novel to paper. But she knows from before she starts writing at least some of the obligatory scenes she'll be telling. She's also already done a ton of research, which in and of itself, dictates some scenes. By the time she sits down, with all her research, she's ready to start writing. She may not know everything that will happen as the novel unfolds, but she certainly knows where the book will start, the major events that will happen, how the research will factor in, and the obligate scenes she'll need to have those events unfold.

That's an outline.

In truth, I'm a big fan of outlining. And I'll go over my outlining process next post.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Writing the Novel - Another List of Overused Words

I hope everyone's writing is going well and that progress is being made. Again, I'd like to thank all those who've posted comments. Your thoughts are much appreciated and gives me motivation to keep this blog going when I really have so many other things I should be doing.

A while back, I posted a list of words that I'd jotted down during various writing courses. These were words to be avoided, poor modifiers, weak descriptors, over-used words. That post has turned out to be one of my favorites, as I go back to it often as I'm rewriting. As I'm nearing completion of my revision, each word it seems is taking on greater importance, and I find myself commonly go back to that list.

So for today's post, I wanted to update it and expand it. Some of you may remember that the reason I originally started this blog was to share all that I've learned over the years towards publishing, but also for myself. When I came up with my Ten-Point Revision Strategy, this blog served as a thinking pad for me to flesh those ideas out, help me to concentrate and focus in the important details. And I still find I'm doing that. Each time I post, what I write about is as much to help me understand the topics as it is to offer any insights to the readers. Hopefully, we'll both be able to learn and grow in our writing together.

This list has been modified from phschool.com

I present it here as a tool for all of us to remember those weak, overused words. If you'd like any further research on the topic, please visit their site.

Overused Words

approximately, nearly, almost, approaching, close to
absolutely unconditionally, perfectly, completely, ideally, purely
activity action, movement, operation, labor, exertion, enterprise, project, pursuit, endeavor, job, assignment, pastime, scheme, task
add attach, affix, join, unite, append, increase, amplify
affect adjust, influence, transform, moderate, incline, motivate, prompt
amazing overwhelming, astonishing, startling, unexpected, stunning, dazzling, remarkable
awesome impressive, stupendous, fabulous, astonishing, outstanding
bad defective, inadequate, poor, unsatisfactory, disagreeable, offensive, repulsive, corrupt, wicked, naughty, harmful, injurious, unfavorable
basic essential, necessary, indispensable, vital, fundamental, elementary
beautiful attractive, appealing, alluring, exquisite, gorgeous, handsome, stunning
begin commence, found, initiate, introduce, launch, originate
better preferable, superior, worthier
big enormous, extensive, huge, immense, massive
boring commonplace, monotonous, tedious, tiresome
bring accompany, cause, convey, create, conduct, deliver, produce
cause origin, stimulus, inspiration, motive
certain unquestionable, incontrovertible, unmistakable, indubitable, assured, confident
change alter, transform, vary, replace, diversify
choose select, elect, nominate, prefer, identify
decent respectable, adequate, fair, suitable
definitely unquestionably, clearly, precisely, positively, inescapably
easy effortless, natural, comfortable, undemanding, pleasant, relaxed

effective powerful, successful
emphasize underscore, feature, accentuate
end limit, boundary, finish, conclusion, finale, resolution
energy vitality, vigor, force, dynamism
enjoy savor, relish, revel, benefit
entire complete, inclusive, unbroken, integral
excellent superior, remarkable, splendid, unsurpassed, superb, magnificent
exciting thrilling, stirring, rousing, dramatic
far distant, remote
fast swift, quick, fleet, hasty, instant, accelerated
fill occupy, suffuse, pervade, saturate, inflate, stock
finish complete, conclude, cease, achieve, exhaust, deplete, consume
funny comical, ludicrous, amusing, droll, entertaining, bizarre, unusual, uncommon
get obtain, receive, acquire, procure, achieve
give bestow, donate, supply, deliver, distribute, impart
go proceed, progress, advance, move
good satisfactory, serviceable, functional, competent, virtuous, striking
great tremendous, superior, remarkable, eminent, proficient, expert
happy pleased, joyous, elated, jubilant, cheerful, delighted
hard arduous, formidable, complex, complicated, rigorous, harsh
help assist, aid, support, sustain, serve
hurt injure, harm, damage, wound, impair
important significant, substantial, weighty, meaningful, critical, vital, notable
interesting absorbing, appealing, entertaining, fascinating, thought-provoking
job task, work, business, undertaking, occupation, vocation, chore, duty, assignment
keep retain, control, possess
kind type, variety, sort, form
know comprehend, understand, realize, perceive, discern
like (adj) similar, equivalent, parallel
like (verb) enjoy, relish, appreciate
main primary, foremost, dominant
make build, construct, produce, assemble, fashion, manufacture
mean plan, intend, suggest, propose, indicate
more supplementary, additional, replenishment
new recent, modern, current, novel
next subsequently, thereafter, successively
nice pleasant, satisfying, gracious, charming
old aged, mature, experienced, used, worn, former, previous
open unobstructed, accessible
part section, portion, segment, detail, element, component
perfect flawless, faultless, ideal, consummate
plan scheme, design, system, plot
pleasant agreeable, gratifying, refreshing, welcome
prove demonstrate, confirm, validate, verify, corroborate
quick brisk, prompt, responsive, rapid, nimble, hasty
really truly, genuinely, extremely, undeniably
regular standard, routine, customary, habitual
see regard, behold, witness, gaze, realize, notice
small diminutive, miniature, minor, insignificant, slight, trivial
sometimes occasionally, intermittently, sporadically, periodically
take grasp, capture, choose, select, tolerate, endure
terrific extraordinary, magnificent, marvelous
think conceive, imagine, ponder, reflect, contemplate
try attempt, endeavor, venture, test
use employ, operate, utilize
very unusually, extremely, deeply, exceedingly, profoundly
want desire, crave, yearn, long

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Revising the Novel - Word Count

Before we delve deeper into our subject of outlining, I wanted to share what I've learned about a very commonly asked question.

How long should my novel be?

The answer is not "long enough to tell the story." While that may be what we all would love to hear, the truth is publishers and agents have very specific guidelines for novel length depending upon the genre. As I've said before, my work is mainstream fiction, a medical thriller, so that's really all I'm qualified to talk about. If you're writing a romance, or horror, or sci-fi, or literary fiction, you should refer to a good reference book for the answer to that question, like the Writer's Guide. If you're writing a thriller or other mainstream fiction, this is what I've learned. Understand that my goal in writing is publishing and establishing a career, not a whimsical fairy tale of life as an author.

For a first time author, your book length should be 90,000 to 100,000 words, which is about 450 pages. Strict. No more, no less. While you may tell the world's greatest story in 175,000 words, and it may become a huge best-seller, it will be awfully hard, as a first-time writer, to get an agent to look at a book of that length. It may happen. If your writing is so undeniably fantastic, you may be able to hook that agent. And if you are an undeniable talent, your agent may be able to convince a Publishing House to buy your book. But the odds are stacked against you.

Publishing Houses do not like to take chances and invest big dollars into first-time authors. They're very conservative. So what you need to do is follow their guidelines, play their game. They're the ones setting the rules. Once you're as big as Ken Follett you can break the rules and unleash your 1000 page tome. Not now.

So how many pages is 100,000 words?

Obviously, that will depend upon the type and size of font you use. What I recommend, from what I've learned in discussions with agents, is Times New Roman font, 12 point size. Courier is also an accepted font by agents but Times New Roman is the best, and here's why.

The spacing of Courier font adds length to your manuscript. So while the word count may be acceptable, the number of pages is increased. With my manuscript, at 106,000 words (I know, I know, still too long, I'm working on it. Got the Ten-Point Revision Strategy at my side) the page count was 560 pages. With Times New Roman, it is 477 pages.

What this means is that with Times New Roman, your number of manuscript pages is approximately equal to the number of printed pages in an average book. This makes for an easy guide to determine your novel length.

In general, the formula comes down to the average text has 10 words per line, 25 lines per page for a total of 250 words per page. This is comparable to the word count of a published novel.

So while the romantic, walking through the garden, following your lovely muse response to the question would be; "write until the book is finished, not one word more or less." In reality, this just isn't true. It's fine, if you really don't care about publishing. But the honest, business-like, non-romantic, but infinitely more practical advice for a first-time writer, is follow the rules. 90,000-100,000 words for mainstream/thriller fiction. It shows professionalism on your part, writing skill, knowledge and will greatly increase your chances of actually getting your novel read.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Writing the Novel - To Outlne or Not to Outline

Some debates can't be settled with the passage of time.

When it comes to writing, the question I'm asked more than any other is; do I outline?

And the truthful answer is, it doesn't matter whether I outline or not, what you really want to know is; should you outline?

It seems that very little can rile up as much contention, debate, anger and anxiety as this one very simple question. Should I outline?

And the answer to that can only be: Yes, if it works for you. No, if it doesn't.

How's that for a vague way to start a new series of posts?

For some reason, outlining seems to be this mysterious process, knowledge hidden by reclusive writing gurus, kept in secret, protected from the eyes of the rest of the world. Or else it seems to be this amazingly tedious, painful, arduous process, like a scientific experiment, that can only performed in one precise way to get the proper results. If done incorrectly. . . BOOM! The whole novel explodes in a silty smoke of disaster.

Neither of these perceptions are true. Outlining is simply that, outlining. A guide. A short "high points" guide to what the novel is about. A road map to where the novel is going. There is nothing mysterious or scientific about it. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It just is.

Good, now that we're past the philosophy of outlining, let's get down to the nitty gritty. The real deal. How to do it.

Of course, the answer to that last statement will be as varied as there are writer's, and that's important. You need to find a system that works for you. You may try several outlining systems before you find what works in your hands, with your brain. But eventually, you will find that system.

Or not.

Tess Gerristen, the best-selling author of ten billion books doesn't outline at all. She never has, never will. I've asked her about this and we'll talk about her views, my views and other views as we move along through this segment of posts.

We're going to explore all aspects of outlining. And we're going to do it without an outline.