Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The "I Have Other Things To Do" Rule

The last posting deals with the frustration of finding too many possibilities while editing and needing to keep focused around THE PLAN (outline, whatever) for the story. In addition to the KISS Rule I mentioned in the last posting, there is another rule I should mention: the "I Have Other Things To Do" Rule.

During the planning and writing phases, this rule was one of the most helpful when I felt bogged down with the enormity of the task that at earlier points in the process still lay ahead. Now, as I'm in the editing phase, with the bulk of the effort behind me (although there is still a substantial chunk of work to do here with editing), it should come as no surprise that this rule would continue to be of value. In fact, I think this rule is of value at all times, whether in the midst of working on a novel, taking a break between novels, or at any other time. It's so tremendously helpful.

The gist of it is this: the task at hand may seem daunting for whatever reason (and there are plenty of good reasons to make the work daunting at any particular point in the process), but it's important to bear in mind that whatever you are working on at the moment is ultimately just one task in a very long series of tasks. If you're having a problem figuring out some detail in one scene, remember that there are other scenes still to work on in the present chapter. If the present chapter is a hassle, remember it is just one of many chapters. If the current novel seems to be overwhelmingly difficult, remember that it is only one novel of many that you intend to write.

In other words, "zoom out" and take in the larger picture and remember that any given struggle is just one small piece of a much larger puzzle. While this realization could cause you to throw your hands up in the air and run screaming from the room, swearing never to write again since it will always be endless confusion and difficulty, a better way to look at this is to see the present challenge as just a small thing and you have many other things to do, so simplify the task at hand, find a solution, and move on -- you have so many other things to do!

Therefore, don't make the current task any larger than it needs to be. See it as a smaller challenge, demystify it. Consider using the Q&A approach to find a solution -- write out your questions (makes them more concrete), then figure out your answers. If several possibilities exist, consider the main ones briefly, then review your findings, and choose the best solution. Yes, Keep It Simple (KISS Rule) and also keep things in perspective! You have so much to do, any given challenge can only be so big. Find ways to make it smaller, less challenging, to gain victory over it. Time and time again. Don't spend "forever" on this one task ... you really do have other things to do!

Obviously, I'm having this problem as I have hit yet another "pivotal moment" in Chapter 4 and am seeing far too many possibilities in the editing....


KISS Rule vs. Excessive Creativity

As I'm diving deeper into the editing of THE REFLECTING STONE, I am finding an endless series (the entire novel!) of "pivotal moments" -- moments where I have written the existing draft such that one thing happens, but in the editing I think of some other thing that could have happened, that might have been more interesting. That is part of my task, to take an interesting scene and make it even more interesting. However, this quickly creates a "veritable plethora" of possibilities and can lead in no time to absolute confusion. Which direction? Which choice? What if this -- or that? Suddenly a tightly-wound story becomes an unending series of potentials, of "what-if's", and I'm thoroughly lost in how to proceed. I've dived into the abyss of creativity and I cannot find my way back to the simplicity of a coherent story line.

Except I can -- it's called the "KISS Rule", which, as you probably already know, stands for "Keep It Simple, Stupid!". No, I'm not really calling myself or anyone else stupid, but the point is where we make things complicated, we sometimes just need to stop and simplify and then keep things simplified. Get back to the basics.

The reason I was able to get through the entire manuscript in the writing phase was because I had a plan. Now, as I do the editing, I must remember to stick to a plan. The plan I had was a good one. A lot of what I've been reading from the existing draft fits very well together and I'm thoroughly pleased with it. So, when those moments come along and I suddenly see too many possibilities, and then try to figure out how each would affect the remainder of the story ... I need to keep it simple, and remember that a plan is better than wallowing in the abyss of neverending potentials, and just refer back to my original plan and limit whatever I might contemplate so that it will fit in with the original plan (and therefore automatically set aside any possibilities that call for major rewriting of every scene to follow thereafter until the conclusion of the book). The goal is not to find a whole new way of doing something, or changing the story, at this point, but simply to take what I do have and look for a better, more dramatic or expressive way of showing it in the manuscript.

To do this, I need to know for each scene what it's original purpose was, including goal/complication/resolution. I already know all of my scenes are justifiable, having gone through a review of scenes in the pre-planning and while writing and before starting to edit. However, I can still consolidate, add a scene, etc., if I find better alternatives or the need to draw out more detail of the story. But, keeping a firm grasp on the original plan, I can limit my brainstorming of potential editing routes to just those routes that are in keeping with the intent of the original plan. I really don't want to rethink the entire story at this point, and see no indication whatsoever that the story needs such drastic rewriting.

It's tough, because I tend to see a lot of possibilities, but applying the KISS Rule and keeping myself grounded in the original plan will hopefully help me to keep the editing moving forward rather than digressing into too many potential variations and wallowing in a sea of excessive creativity. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Working on Scene Structure

I had a goal when I started work on my recently set-aside novel, HARRY VS. THE TRUCK, to work on goal/complication/resolution patterns, making sure each scene had a very clear goal for the point-of-view character. I feel this mindset has stuck well enough by now: I've internalized it, and am fairly consistent now as I strive to apply it at all times. As I approach the editing of Chapter 4 of THE REFLECTING STONE, I am focusing on other details of scene structure to continue and refine that focus. In particular, I am trying to get a handle on the concept of action/reaction sequences.

While it is important for the writer to know clearly the POV character's reactions to each setback or complication along the way, it is not necessary, as I understand it, to actually express that in a distinct scene in every case. If the stakes were high in the action scene, the defeat or twist particularly difficult for the POV character, then it is important to show the character's struggle with the undesired outcome and the process of moving from emotional reaction to rational thought to decision making as a new course of action is chosen. However, if the reaction is obvious, and can be shown "along the way", the essential elements of the reaction (emotion, reflection, decision) can be expressed without drawing significant attention to them, even in a very short space such as a sentence or even just a phrase, and can even be ommitted and fully implied, because they are in fact obvious.

Disclaimer as I apply this focus on action/reaction sequences: As I mentioned in the last posting, I am focusing on the characters having their own agendas, their own goals, and allowing them room to pursue their lives in whatever way they feel is best for them. I keep my goals as the writer separate from the characters' goals, and try to work them in without interfering with the clear development and expression of the characters' own desires, needs, wants, etc. The characters are experiencing the story, living it directly. I am watching from a distance, giving them a nudge here or there.

Some specifics....

I found one scene in Chapter 4 where there is a transition from one location to another. The main character is being held prisoner and must escape. That's my goal, but more importantly it is his goal. His life depends on it. As previously written in the current draft, he did a minor amount of reflection while in captivity about the events of the preceding chapter, which resulted in his present predicament. He escaped, then made his way to a new location to distance himself from his captors.

In the editing, I recognized the need here for more significant reflection. In essence, his old life is now being left behind, and he is taking steps toward his future, unlocking the course of his destiny, bit by bit, though he does not know what it will be. The events of the previous chapter were enormous in their emotional impact on him. This is one of the few really key points in the story where a longer reaction scene is in fact fully justified. My focus on action/reaction sequences and scene structure helped me to see that and correct it.

Another issue that came up in the editing is the transition between locations. The character escaped and set out for a new destination, but I took that as a matter of course in the previous draft and did not show more reflection than enough to establish his basic plan to get away, and in which direction, with what general goal for his safety. I realized there was in fact a choice to be made here, one that touches back on foreshadowing from earlier chapters. I allowed for a continuation of the reaction during his escape, so that he pauses literally where there is a fork in the road and considers which route to take. This brings the focus back squarely to major story questions, which must be done periodically.

I think the expansion of the reflection in two places in this chapter were needed, and the story is much stronger now. This also provides the reader with a chance to get into the character's head, to better understand what he is dealing with, and his personality as revealed in how he solves problems, deals with his emotions, plans for future actions. Hopefully, the reader will be able to identify more the with character in some sense, and will feel closer to him.

The only drawback has been a pattern I noticed in the writing phase over the past several months: the more I work with the same section of text, the more I lose my objectivity about it, until I can no longer tell if it's any good or not. I'm seeing the need in the editing to avoid going back over the same text too many times, and not to go back and reread earlier chapters. I just need to keep moving forward, and read only as many times as I need to until I get the elements in the text that need to be there, and the section seems to read well enough. I should then let the newer version sit, move on and edit new segments, and later come back to reread and polish. I'm really just trying to catch the bigger stuff on this first run-through, and will certainly go back through it all again a few more times before I'm through.

I put in several hours of work editing Chapter 4 and am still only about 25% of the way into this chapter. I remember back in January, February and March that when I slowed down to edit the first three chapters, it likewise was slow going at times. I think I do have to read over problem areas several times and play with the text, changing this, changing that, trying this version, then another, each time the changes giving me something new to think about. It takes time sometimes to explore a scene in-depth and really find all the material that is there to work with. It's not necessary to explore every possibility in the final text, but I think it's important to explore all the possibilities you can find so that you can discover important things that you might have missed. Sometimes we overlook the obvious, and it takes a while to see what was sitting in front of us all along. In any event, quality first! I'll take whatever time I need to do this right, while trying to work as quickly as I can.


Friday, July 21, 2006

First 25% Solid!

I've worked through the first three chapters of THE REFLECTING STONE, reading them, writing a few brief notes of things to think about, minor fixes, but basically the first three chapters are very solid as-is and require only minor touch-ups, no significant editing. That's about 30,000 words worth! The first quarter of my editing work is a breeze! That's because I took the time back in January, February and March to go over these chapters several times and do a lot of editing, to make sure I had a very solid footing to build the rest of the novel on. That work sure paid off. In fact, I found the endings of the chapters to be very hard-hitting, or impactful. They generated a significant response on an emotional level as I reread them for the first time in two months. I was really pleased with the overall quality of the story. Act I is in good shape.

I'm now working on Chapter 4. Sections of it are similarly very polished already. I change a word or two here or there, drop a part of a sentence, recombine a few words into a new phrase, but only minor touch-ups. However, I am seeing the first of the sections now that do require a little more work, some rewriting within paragraphs. It's the first substantial editing work, still very minor. I know there will be much more to come. The later chapters will require a lot more work, some entire scenes will have to be rewritten from scratch, some of them several thousand words long.

With such a solid start, though I feel really confident about bringing the rest of the novel up to the same level and keeping it consistent. I am taking the approach of solving questions as I come to them in the text, in the order they are raised. Any issues I didn't fully grasp or resolve at the time, such as how two characters feel about each other or an issue they face, which will guide how they act toward each other in later scenes, I am resolving now as I come across them. I had a lot of depth and breadth to my vision or understanding of the story as I wrote it, but still I see a few examples where I didn't fully figure some things out. Still, these loose ends are relatively minor and there is so much context around them by now that I can fairly easily resolve them.

I am remembering to separate "writer's need" from "character's need" -- what I want the scene to accomplish is not the same thing as what the character might want or need at a given moment. I have to let the characters follow their own agendas, allow them to act according to their own motivations. That is the primary source for solving questions, but I take that and also compare what my goal is and whether I can still work that in while keeping the characters true to their own motivations.

I'm sure as the editing progresses that I'll find some larger and more complex tasks waiting for me. For now, at least, the editing is a breeze, and one thing I can definitely say is that I find this story to be very interesting. If I hadn't written it, I would certainly enjoy reading it. The basic premise, established in Chapter 1, is intriguing, and the story is full of possibilities, making me wonder what will happen as a reader.

Will keep editing this weekend and update again soon.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Back to Work!

After a two-month hiatus to let the manuscript "cool", I'm officially back to work on THE REFLECTING STONE and I'm happy about that. I went over my editing notes, special notes I had set aside in a folder in my computer just for the editing process of this novel, about eleven files, I think. Good to refresh. I'm now beginning Phase Two of my editing process, "Planning What Will Be" (for details, see the TIPS & TRICKS blog for a description of "Step Three: Editing the Novel").

I read over the notes and also worked some more on the Mythology. I worked out an alternate shorter and simpler version of the Mythology (the last task I had to do as part of Phase One of my editing process, "Documenting What Is"), but I'm going to wait and see as I go over the story in detail whether I can still use the added complexity. Part of the humor of that is that no two people have the same version of history in the novel. Everyone has a different view of how things happened long ago. If I simplify the actual history too much, it might take away from this running gag, and it's actually pretty useful as it is. However, I do want to make sure at some appropriate point in the story I am either saying "it's so complicated no one really knows what's what and so it doesn't really matter, we all have our opinions", or "this is the correct version -- and it's simple and easy to undertand".

I've been updating the TIPS & TRICKS blog. As mentioned, I posted the plan there that I intend to follow for editing, but I'm already off it slightly. I think the point is do whatever works, don't just follow a script. The value of advice is that it gives us a focus, helps us consider out options, but we have to pick and choose what to do in a dynamic way according to the reality of our particular situation at any given moment. Instead of spending a lot of time planning what to change and then rereading the manuscript, I simply refreshed on the notes I had previously made while still writing, and am now diving in to read the manuscript. I'm so curious to see what I wrote after TWO MONTHS have passed!

I read Chapter 1 for the first time in at least two months. I didn't know whether I'd like it or hate it. Turns out I loved it! I was really impressed with it. I had previously put a lot of effort into editing it to get it as close as possible to a finished draft, and I see no need to do any significant editing to it. I'll tweak a few sentences here or there, just final polish stuff, but the chapter is essentially done. I know the first three chapters were heavily edited, so it will probably be similar for Chapters 2 and 3.

Reading Chapter 1 gave me a very strong feeling that this novel is really interesting, the plan for it was really good, it unfolds in a way that captures a reader's attention and pulls him along, it deals with significant conflicts that readers can identify with along the way, and -- I can write! It's ultimately up to others to say whether that's true or not, but to my own satisfaction I feel what I wrote is good stuff and I'm quite pleased with it. If I can get the rest of the novel to match the level of quality of this first chapter, this should be a very publishable novel. I know the story is there, but I will need to do more editing the farther and farther I progress into the story. The story becomes more complex and I need to make sure it is consistent throughout in how things develop plot-wise. Stories tend to evolve under our feet, if that makes sense, and that certainly happened over the course of writing the complete draft.

Anyway, I'll continue the re-read this week, and make notes along the way if anything stands out, but I want to try to capture a sense of the novel as a whole, the larger picture, first. Then I'll get into the details. Rereading will help me react to it after it has sat and those reactions will guide me in planning what to change.

I'm also getting good ideas for the SCI-FI novel, which is a really fun story. I am so looking forward to writing that one! Now that I have a template in my mind, a process to use over and over in planning, writing and editing novels, I'm seeing how my ideas begin to attach themselves to specific anchor posts more easily. I hope that makes sense. It's hard to describe mental processes. I get ideas and before they were just a flurry of ideas. Now they can be sorted and categorized immediately as to where they belong in the story (I have the basic 12-step outline worked out for the SCI-FI novel already), and where I will deal with them in the process, as the work unfolds. The ideas tend to be naturally more connected, to fit together better from the get-go. It seems every idea is a good detail that belongs in the story, rather than "just another idea" that I have to sort through, most of which I would not end up using. I guess this means I have more focus and a better understanding of the process!

Growth comes to those that strive for it.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

Shelving HARRY!

Thanks for your wise comments, Debra! You described it to a "T". I'm going to shelve Harry for now, and get back to in at some future time after I've found a way to make my peace with the heavy issues involved in that novel. It's a worthwhile story but too much for me to handle right now. I have other priorities!

So, I'm "officially" back to work on THE REFLECTING STONE now after the post-writing break, ready to gear up and dig in on that editing. I am looking forward to doing enough editing that I will have a copy ready for readers to give me feedback in the coming weeks and months. I don't know how long it will take to complete the editing. I will take as much time as I need, trying of course to finish as quickly as possible while putting quality first.

I'm going to continue work on the SCI-FI NOVEL as well, using that to provide me with a break from the editing work whenever I need it. Juggling the two things might help push me along, stimulate my creativity, but the editing work will be Job #1 until it is completed.

I'm happy about this decision. It's certainly the right one, without any question. My goal is to write and get stuff done, not make myself suffer needlessly in the name of art. I need to focus primarily on getting things done, until I've completed a few novels and shopped them around (and hopefully gotten published somewhere in the process!). After I have more experience at completing things, I can turn my attention to more challenging novels in terms of story lines that really move me on a deeper level. For now, I'm already putting a lot of work in and my focus must be on navigating the writing process and achieving skill in the enormous juggling act that it is. There is so much to take into account in planning, writing and editing and I want to work on stories that don't offer unnecessary additional pressures, issues or challenges due to subject matter. I think THE REFLECTING STONE is already an epic novel with major issues, but they are not ones that upset me emotionally to think about or write about. I like the story, and enjoyed seeing it develop during the writing phase. Now I look forward to seeing it transform itself before my very eyes into a finished manuscript of the best quality I can possibly make it be!

I just updated my TIPS & TRICKS blog with the plan I will use to guide my editing work. Phase One of that work is essentially already completed, except for some tweaking on the Mythology notes, which I'm working on now. I'll get my attention focused back on THE REFLECTING STONE and start Phase Two this weekend!

I'm also working in bits and pieces every day or two on the SCI-FI NOVEL. This week I completed culture notes for the alien race and also started creating their language. Language and culture go together, of course, hand in hand. The way they speak reflects their culture, who they are, their world view, their social patterns. This story is going to be a lot of fun to write, I can tell. I am very enthusiastic about the possibilities as the Earthlings encounter the aliens and interact with them. I'll continue the planning phase for that novel while I'm in Phase Two of the editing of THE REFLECTING STONE. I feel like a heavy weight has been lifted and my creativity can start flowing more easily again.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sincerest Thanks for the Comments!

Yes, it's "struggle time", when in spite of the best intentions it becomes difficult to make much or even any progress. I really appreciate the recent comments. Just knowing others out there understand helps somehow. I always appreciate any words of encouragement. They really do make a difference and help me manage to push on when that's about the last thing I seem to be able to do.

To help get my creative juices flowing, yesterday I spent a couple of hours doing some initial planning work for another novel, which I'll refer to as the SCI-FI NOVEL. I'm excited about that story, always have been since I first thought of it a few years ago. I was able to work out a twelve-step outline with ease and with depth and breadth of vision. It's a first-rate outline and I had such great clarity of vision while creating it, able to see details as needed to understand all the main anchor points and the flow of each of the acts, how each builds to its own climax and how they build on top of each other to the final climax. It's a rich story idea full of possibilities. Working on that showed me yet again how I am learning so much and growing so quickly. Each time I sit down to to that type of work I have a strength I bring to it that surpasses anything I've ever been capable of before. By applying the same process over and over, I'm getting good at it and the pieces just fall into place. Doing this work helped me revive a sense that I can accomplish something.

I've found it very difficult the past couple of weeks to make progress with my current novel, HARRY VS. THE TRUCK. The work is essentially stalled about 20% into the first draft. Struggling enough with this, I finally got to the point in the past few days where I was ready to sit down and problem-solve and try to find some solutions. I applied my own advice for handling writer's block (see my posting on Phase Two: Writing the Novel, in my TIPS & TRICKS blog). Writer's block is something I only occasionally suffer from, and usually not to any great extent. The basic solution that applies here is simply to make a list of questions that are unanswered. What do I need to know in order to continue? Usually it's about story issues. The idea is to bring your unanswered questions into focus and find answers for them, clearing the way to build on that information and continue the story. In this particular instance, I really have only one question and it does not relate directly to plot details. I came up with two answers:

THE QUESTION: "Why am I finding it so hard to write this story at this time?"

1. A part of me wants to finish editing my last novel, THE REFLECTING STONE, so I can start shopping it around to publishers and agents, before I will be willing to invest too much emotionally in another novel.

2. This new story deals with some heavy subject matter that I find too depressing to write about at a time when I'd rather be enjoying the beautiful summer.

My plan had been to quickly write a complete first draft of the new novel, then get back right away to THE REFLECTING STONE to edit it. I had hoped to be at least half-way through the new novel by now. If there is still a chance of getting on a roll with it and finishing it within July, I would be willing to continue to try to do so.

The second issue is not one that I foresaw. I knew the story of HARRY VS. THE TRUCK, but I did not realize going into it that it would have such an effect on me. I haven't posted any details about the story, and don't want to give the story away any by commenting on it. As I have posted, it's ultimately one with a positive message and the characters manage okay, but there are some dark and difficult things for the main character to wade through, particularly in the early chapters. I think although it is not my story (I don't write autobiographical fiction), it is a story that resonates too much with my own life, and with the realities that many of us face, and as such it's one that evokes a strong emotional response in me as I work on it, moreso than THE REFLECTING STONE or the SCI-FI NOVEL that I just did some planning work on. Every story I think of connects with reality, no matter how fantastic the story line. Some just hit home a little more than others.

At this point, I have to decide whether to set HARRY aside and get back to work on THE REFLECTING STONE, completing the editing of it before resuming work on HARRY, or to continue to try to finish the first draft of HARRY within the next few weeks. I think I'll give it one last try, and if it "ain't happenin" soon, then I'll make that switch. I do want to write HARRY, and feel it's a worthwhile story, but it may be one to work on during the winter or something. Perhaps letting it sit will allow me to make my peace with it, and when I return to it I'll fare better. It's tough enough to manage the ups and downs which are inherent to the writing process without also having to navigate such difficult emotional terrain of a story that is itself troubling. This is why I chose THE REFLECTING STONE: I knew I did not have strong emotions tied to it, and that I would be able to look at the story and the process of writing it more objectively because of that fact. The SCI-FI NOVEL is another one like THE REFLECTING STONE as far as I know. A fun and interesting story with lots of potential. Although there are meaningful issues that underpin it, they aren't ones that stir such deep emotions in me. Perhaps if I edit the STONE then I can write the SCI-FI NOVEL and get back to HARRY after some months have gone by.

But, before making that decision final, I'll give HARRY one final try.

Thanks again for the words of encouragement. They really do help.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Making a Little Progress

I will hold off on making a more detailed report on my progress until there is more progress, but at least I can say I have written during the past week and am on the way to reaching the goal.

I definitely feel I'm writing a first draft. It's rough -- on me. The work itself is not all that bad. That's usually how it goes.

Anyway, I'll keep at it! I'll report back when there's more to report on.

By the way, I'm updating my two other blogs these days. Glad to see them growing. This is a time when I should read my own advice and take it (see "Step Two" posting on the TIPS & TRICKS blog!).