Tag Archives: Editing

Revising Descriptions

Image Source: http://my3000lovingarms.blogspot.com/2010_08_01_archive.html
Image Source: http://my3000lovingarms.blogspot.com/2010_08_01_archive.html

I’ve been working on revisions for Contamination, the sequel to my first novel, Manifestation. One of the important things I try to focus on during revisions is the level of detail I put into certain descriptions, including those of the characters, the setting, and people’s emotions.

The first draft, in a way, is just the skeleton of the novel to come. I write the bare-bones draft down in order to lay out the story and cover all of the key points. I certainly try to be as descriptive as possible along the way, but sometimes I look back at a scene and feel like it needs to be fleshed out a bit more.

When this happens, I find that it helps to pick out certain key visual elements that will serve as descriptive markers for the character or piece of the setting I’m describing. I don’t necessarily need to go into excruciating detail about everything from head to toe. Instead, I pick out the most important and visually distinctive details I can think of to help get the image across.

To give an example, here’s a few descriptions from the most recent scene I was editing today. The first is a grocery store in a small town:

There was only one store in the whole town. It was small and probably family-owned.

Not much of a description. Fairly bleh. And it doesn’t really tell the reader anything about the store, other than that it’s “small.”

I revised it to this:

There was only one store in the whole town. It was a small grocer’s, one that wasn’t part of any chain Gabby was familiar with. The sign above the front entrance, which read “Zeilman’s,” was made of wood and hand-painted. She guessed it was probably family-owned.

That’s not an excessive amount of detail, but I think it does a good job adding some character to the little store. The reader now knows that this isn’t part of a big supermarket chain, and it should seem more quaint and unfamiliar. The hand-painted wooden sign gives it a real “Mom & Pop Shop” type of feeling. The reader’s imagination will fill in the rest of the details, but those details should be “small town” details. For example, you probably wouldn’t picture an automatic sliding glass door or any bright neon signs in this store.

The second description starts off even more vague:

Gabby looked up and peered over the tops of the shelves to spot a police officer who had just walked in.

This isn’t really much detail at all. “A police officer” could mean just about anything. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time describing every visual detail of this officer, but I did add one simple piece to his description:

Gabby looked up and peered over the tops of the shelves to spot a police officer who had just walked in. He was wearing the uniform of a highway patrolman.

Not much of a change, but it tells us something more about this man. He’s not a local street cop. He’s not a detective in a suit. He’s highway patrol. The reader’s own imagination will fill in the rest of the details: perhaps they see him in a tan uniform instead of a blue one, or sporting a mustache.

Let’s look at one last revision, also a minor one:

Carl looked dizzy.

This is a classic example of violating “Show, Don’t Tell.” I shouldn’t have to tell you that Carl (the highway patrolman) is dizzy. I should be able to describe him in a way that helps you figure it out for yourself:

Carl swayed on his feet and held a hand to his head.

That’s not a big change, but it’s an important one. It’s still a brief, simple sentence. But it’s one that shows Carl’s actions and body language. This gives a clear feeling of his dizziness, without me actually telling the reader he is dizzy. I think that’s an important change.

I’m going to be doing these kinds of changes all throughout the current revision, which is Draft Two of the novel. I’ll also be looking for ways to strengthen the plot and develop the themes and motifs. But those are topics for another blog post.


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Combing the Manuscript

I’ve recently completed what should be the final draft of Manifestation. There’s nothing left that needs to be changed on a structural level. The story is what it is and what I think it will always be. That means that at this point, all that I think is left is fine-tuned proofreading. This is basically going over everything again and again, combing through the words until there isn’t anything left to find.

When I was a kid I did NOT get this. That's good old-fashioned racism.
When I was a kid I did NOT get this. That’s good old-fashioned racism.

The interesting thing about this process is how often I find myself going back to earlier chapters and carefully scanning just one more time. I’m about 2/5 of the way through the manuscript now, and I’ll catch something minor, like, say, the right way to format punctuation when you use italics, or a lay/lie mistake. I’ll then remember (or think I remember) three different times in previous chapters where I used the same thing. So I’ll have to go back and check again, and again, and again.

This leads to a sort of “two steps forward, one step back” style of proofreading. But with any luck, I’ll be finished within the next few days. Which means you should stay tuned to hear about cover art in the near future. Probably not in time for Eve’s birthday, like I had planned, but I’ll do the best I can.

Insert gorgeous cover art here.
Insert gorgeous cover art here.

In the meantime, I’ve started posting a few new short stories and poems on the blog lately. It had been too long since there had been any stories here instead of just blog posts. So, in case you missed them, here’s a few fun little pieces I’ve put up recently:

Chasing the Scene – A creative nonfiction piece about my writing process.
Shadow – A poem I wrote awhile back, now with a YouTube clip of me reading it aloud.
Peace – Another poem, also with video.
Where There Be Dragons – A very punny story about weredragons.

Also, if you enjoy those free stories, you should also check out Radiance, the short story I have published on Kindle. It’s about a girl who discovers an amazing supernatural power, and it’ll give you a glimpse into the world where Manifestation will take place. Think of it as a preview of the novel to tide you over until I finish combing through it and making everything as perfect as I can.

Editing and Depression

Editing is a lot like depression.

Explaining depression to people who haven’t experienced it isn’t easy. Mostly because half the time I don’t even understand it myself. The last therapist I spoke to told me my depression was episodic, that it would wax and wane like any other mood. Except this is a lot deeper. I could say it’s like imagining a bad day that goes on for so long that it’s no longer definable as “bad.” It’s just the way it is.

There’s a website with a good explanation that I found tells the story of depression better than I can express. Though it’s related to what I said awhile back about the Midnight Disease. There’s times when I’m so obsessed about and focused on a piece of writing that I barely sleep, that I ignore other responsibilities, and I put everything else on hold until I finish what I’m working on. Then, when it’s finished and the focal point of my life is over, I’m left lost and adrift. I sink back into the depression again and I have no energy or motivation to do . . . anything.

Tuesday I finished the first draft of the fifth book of Arcana Revived. I was in such a rush at the end that I wrote about 10,000 words each two days in a row, cramming the last 20k of the novel in a mad rush at the end. It’s been four days since then, and this blog post is one of the first things I’ve written during all that time. Four days straight without writing is rare for me, and I know it’s because I’ve burned through whatever energy I had.

My next goal is to continue the edits on Manifestation. I’ve been working on them for the last couple of months while continuing my writing at the same time, but now I’ve fallen behind. Trying to get the motivation to start editing is hard when I’m suffering through a bout of depression. Part of it is because dealing with editing can be a lot like the listlessness that comes with depression.

(I bet you were wondering when I was going to start linking the two things together.)

If writing a first draft is like the mad rush and excitement of a new beginning, editing can be a tedious, day-by-day continuation of the same thing for a long period of time. It’s the “hard work” part of writing, where you need to go through everything with a fine-toothed comb. There comes a point where you’ve re-read the same passage so many times that it starts to feel a little bland. It’s like the imagination and excitement are gone.

If you read the page on depression I linked to, you might see the connection here to what the article says about losing the joy in playing with your toys. There’s times where it feels like you’re just going through the motions.

I’m not sure what the solution or cure is, or if there even is one. My current plan is to just keep pushing onward, day after day. But it reminds me of something I wrote for a grad class last year. How sometimes “even hopelessness falls by the wayside when boredom takes over, and you realize that it’s time to get back up and brush yourself off. Not because you want to. Not because you’ve recovered. But because what else is there to do? Nothing, except to keep walking. Sometimes there’s no other choice but to push through and come out stronger on the other side.”

So I’m going to keep on walking, or editing, as the case may be. Because the alternative is to give up and let depression win, and if I did that, Manifestation would never be finished. And that’s not an option. So I’ll keep editing.

In the meantime, here’s the full piece that quote came from. It’s a meta-analytic story called “Gabby & I”:

Gabby & I

Gabby is the poet. I am the author.

Her life is the one I write about. She lives it; I put it on the page. Every tragedy, every tear, every first kiss in a fresh draft seems so new to her. Yet I have seen them each again and again with every revision. Part of me is in her, but it is her that is in the story.

Yet there are times in the story where she is the one who picks up the pen. She is a poet, a creator of her own words. She writes, and the words on the page change from she to I. Her voice comes out, and mine is suppressed. The narrator flees as the words become her diary, her escape from the tragedy of her life, and she pours her heart onto the page. I no longer recognize myself in those words. It’s as if I’m no longer there. She has been released into the page, set free to express her deepest secrets, desires, doubts, and fears:

I thought I might find peace today
But it seems I’ve lost my chance
I wonder if I ever will
Find peace, or hope that lasts?

No, I won’t find peace today
Not ever, not a chance
And even if that peace was offered
I think I’d let it pass

Her poems carry emotions that are not mine. Yet those emotions are so real. People tell me her poems make them cry, and they ask what inspired them. All I can answer is, “Her life.” She uses her writing to express the pain that my writing has brought into the story of her life. Her experiences give her inspiration I cannot claim as my own. When I read her poems, her words bring tears to my eyes. I feel the loss that I have written into her life. I see her loneliness and know that my pen is to blame. I see her cries for help, and know I cannot give her the release that she wishes for. I feel guilt reading her poems, knowing the pain that inspired these words:

Oh, dearest Lord, I beg you please
To you I pray, here on my knees
Forgive my sins, and my mistake
Forgive the life I had to take

Forgive my heart, forgive my soul
And know it never was my goal
To take a life with my own hand
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be damned

I feel shame, knowing that people will read her poems as mine. I know they will look on me with sympathy. They will think I am the one who lived through such loss. They have even thought that it was I, not her, who considered ending it all. That her cries for help were my own.

Maybe they were.

Looking back on those poems, I see a darkness. One that might bring concern, and make others question the writer’s safety. Just as they did when she wrote “I may just do it anyway.” I see poems that speak of blood soaking the ground. The devil’s grin. The emptiness of a soul torn away as hands grasped in the air, trying not to let it go. Someone lost, dropping to their knees, perhaps in surrender, perhaps in prayer. Masks of shadow worn for an entire whole lifetime, torn away until you must face what was hidden underneath. Unmasked, shoulders slumped in defeat, letting the chance for peace slip away. I see a writer left worn raw, exposed to the cruel elements after that mask was torn away. I see a writer lost, with nothing but her words to guide her. I wonder if these will guide me:

So many things are gone today
So much taken from me
So what is left, except to pray?
Whatever can it be?

My words, forever shall they stay
With them I’m always free
The one thing they can’t take away
Because they’re part of me

There can be no darkness without light, and there can be no fall without a rise. Sometimes it just depends which comes first. These poems show the fall. More than anything the fall. Down deep into the dark ravine in a shrouded forest, where Gabby ran and hid. Just as I once had, a child fleeing into the woods to hide from those who didn’t understand me. I came back home each night, hiding no longer than it took for the sun to fall and my stomach to grumble. She had no such luxury; her home was lost and her family slain by her own mistakes. Her path continued onward into the darkness. She fell to her knees in the mud at the bottom of that ravine. It was a place I knew well. A place where I fell to the ground and gave up. A place where she was left with nothing but tears, cold, and the empty stars above. A place with no strength to continue on. Some might say that climbing back out of that place takes courage, or determination. But sometimes all it takes is the fact that you have nothing else to do. Kneeling there, in a wet ditch, without hope, we realized that staying there was pointless and boring. Even hopelessness falls by the wayside when boredom takes over, and you realize that it’s time to get back up and brush yourself off. Not because you want to. Not because you’ve recovered. But because what else is there to do? Nothing, except to keep walking. Sometimes there’s no other choice but to push through and come out stronger on the other side.

I went home. She kept moving onward:

And then I slowly closed my eyes
And cried myself to sleep
My shadow held me like a prize
That she would always keep

But when I woke, the night had come
My shadow was no more
My body shivered, I was numb
Rain had begun to pour

The rain began to fall. She let it wash her clean. This was her turning point, when the words in her poems became stronger. “Bravery is just a word,” she writes through my pen. Just a lie you wear to tell yourself that you can do this, that you can continue on. A cloak you wear to dress up in a warrior’s clothes and pretend you’re something more than a lost writer, searching for purpose. The thing is, though, that cloak starts to feel pretty comfortable after awhile. That armor starts to feel right. It starts to feel real. And so her poem says, “Hold nothing back.” She strides forward. She finds that the bravery she wore, first as a lie, really settles in around her shoulders once she stops holding back. It grows comfortable there and decides to stay for awhile. Lie to yourself long enough, and you start to forget what the truth is. Sometimes I start to forget which one of us found the truth: me or her? Author or poet? Which one of us took off the mask? Which one of us put on the cloak? She wrote that poem, she declared “I’ll keep moving forward,” wielding her bravery like a sword. My pen just set her on her path. She’s the lie I make of myself, giving her bravery and hope and a path so that I can pretend. After awhile, it wasn’t pretending for her anymore. Maybe it won’t be for me either:

Now I can move forward
No burdens on my back
With this axe and this sword
I’ll slay fear in its tracks

This brave soul runs towards
The future, and I’ll act
My burdens are ignored
No, they won’t hold me back

She remains the writer until I write, “She puts down the pen.” Then I am the writer once more, writing about her life. Maybe she’s the cloak I wear, her poems the lie I tell until I start to believe them. The scared little girl who started fighting back, and taught me to hold nothing back.

I think I can live with that.

Cutting like a Samurai

Most writers are familiar with the phrase “kill your darlings.” To non-writers, this can sound like some kind of cruel joke. Writers know, however, that it means sometimes you need to kill your best words, paragraphs, scenes, or even whole chapters, all in the name of the almighty plot.

Natalie Goldberg may have said it best in her book Writing Down the Bones. The book is filled with advice on the writing process and the psychology of being a writer. In one chapter, she compares the revision process to a battle as a samurai warrior:

“There should be no place in your writing for the ego to manipulate things the way it wants and to become picky. Instead, when you go over your work, become a Samurai, a great warrior with the courage to cut out anything that is not present. Like a Samurai with an empty mind who cuts his opponents in half, be willing to not be sentimental about your writing when you reread it. Look at it with a clear, piercing mind.”

The part about not being “sentimental” is the most important thing to keep in mind when killing your darlings. Sometimes a cut is easy, such as when a chapter is meandering, boring, or pointless to the plot. Other times, however, a cut is much harder. You might have a beautiful, riveting scene, one that makes you cry every time you read it. Yet if that scene isn’t crucial to the story and doesn’t fit in the overall plot, it needs to go.

Consider the example of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings. He was a fun and interesting character, and one of the most memorable ones from the book. Yet he is conspicuously absent from the movies. Why? Well, according to the Wikipedia article on Bombadil, Peter Jackson said he was cut because “he does little to advance the story, and would make the film unnecessarily long. ” If you’ve read the Lord of the Rings books, you should have a hard time arguing with this point. Bombadil is fun. He’s charming. He’s a fascinating character. But he appears only briefly in the books and then has no further impact on the rest of the struggle against Saruman and Sauron. Since he has no real connection to the main plot, he had to be cut, and Peter Jackson did what any samurai had to do.

I’ve been doing a lot of revising lately. The progress bar on the right side of the blog shows the progress on the latest draft of Manifestation, based on input from the independent editor I hired. Part of the edits I’m making have been cuts, and some of them have been hard. In particular, the opening chapters (which I’d already cut down substantially from previous drafts) had to be trimmed. There were some excellent scenes in those chapters, and I really enjoy them. However, they amounted to back story that had no direct relevance on the main plot. It hurt to see some of them go, but I had to be a samurai and cut them out.

I’ve cut a LOT of words all said and done. The earliest draft of Manifestation was 124,420 words. The next revision actually expanded on several scenes to fill in some holes, and ended up at 139,312 words. Then I cut a lot of back story and any slow scenes that were dragging down the plot, and it went down to 112,297 words. The most recent set of cuts have dropped me down to 102,663 words. Yet even while I’m cutting, I have to add a bit here and there. For example, when I cut one chapter, I’ll need to add some elements to the next chapter to make sure there isn’t a hole now because of the missing material. What that means is I can’t just take the longest draft of 139k and subtract the current 102k to see how much I’ve cut. When I added up my individual cuts, they added up to a grand total of 58,391 words. Which means I added back in about 21k of new scenes while I’ve been making all the cuts (and the new scenes are a whole lot cleaner and better than the old ones).

Fortunately, “killing your darlings” doesn’t have to mean killing them dead. You can just “critically wound your darlings” and leave them bleeding in a sub-folder on your computer somewhere. Then you can use them again, such as in a future short story. I’ve written a lot of short stories for the Arcana Revived series, starting with Radiance the story of a young girl who has to cope with change when she undergoes a supernatural transformation. I plan on releasing a number of other short stories later this year. Some of the chapters cut from Manifestation may be adapted into short stories as part of that set. After all, an interesting and fun back story might not fit with the main plot, but it could still be a fascinating standalone piece. Such a piece could serve as an origin story for a character, revealing important pieces of their history. By using a cut scene as a short story like this, your “dead darlings” can be brought back from the grave and given a new life.

Writing is hard. Revisions are hard. Some of my writer friends say they think the first draft is the hardest. I disagree. You don’t need to kill your darlings in the first draft. Unless you can keep a cold, controlled samurai view of your work, revisions end up being the hardest part.

Juggling Projects

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently trying to write one novel and revise one both during the same two-month period between now and the end of July. Aside from the fact that I’ll be needing a straightjacket and some medication by the time I’m done, this is leading to an interesting juggling process in my thoughts, ideas, and writing processes.

My writing process over the last few days has gone something like this:

Freelance Assignment > 1st Draft Book Five > Blog Post > Revisions on Contamination > Freelance Assignment > 1st Draft Book Five > Freelance Assignment >Revisions on Contamination > Freelance Assignment > Rowan blog post > this blog post.

That’s a lot of switching gears back and forth. I haven’t really been approaching any of it with any sort of real plan. I try to put the freelance job I’m working on ahead of everything else because it has a deadline, but in between writing 13,500 words on that, I’ve also written over 5,000 words on Book Five, and spent a few hours on revisions, in addition to blog posts. It’s a pretty high volume of work; over 20,000 words in three days if you count all the different projects.

I’m feeling a bit scattered. A bit out of sorts. And stressed because, well, I don’t have a full time job anymore.

Part of me says I should pick one project and stick with it, but I also know that sometimes I need to take breaks. I simply can’t work steadily on 13,500 words of this freelance job without taking a break and doing something where I get to flex my creativity more. My brain gets fried, and then I need to switch to something else.

Though the good news is that the freelance job is almost done (and I have feelers out for some more), and I’m pretty happy with the setup I’m starting in Book Five. I can’t say much about what’s going on in it yet, but I’m very happy with it.

So hopefully I’ll get my brain sorted out again soon, and be able to settle into a more focused routine. Either way, expect to see those progress bars on the side continue to grow. I have every intention of finishing both this revision and this novel draft on time. I’m not going to let a little thing like my brain stop me.

Deadlines and Illness

This is going to be short, because, well . . . read the title of the post.

If you’ve been paying attention (I told you there was gonna be a quiz), you know that I have a deadline this Thursday, March 6th, to send the most recent draft of Manifestation to the editor I’m hiring. My revisions at this point are mostly going through and nitpicking over minor errors and proofreading for grammar and punctuation. I want to clean up as much of that as possible so that the editor will be able to fix the things I couldn’t figure out on my own, rather than fixing the same grammatical issues I could catch if I paid enough attention.

My plan was to get some work done on Manifestation every day this week. Then working 11 hour shifts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday kicked my ass, and I came home and sat and stared at the screen until bedtime. Then, yesterday, I got sick. I went to bed at 11:00 yesterday for the first time in years (I normally stay up until 2:00). Today, I had to focus on school work. Tomorrow, I have to focus on GA work.

So as of right now, I’m on Chapter 18 out of 45. I’ve got to get most of that done tonight, since I won’t have time tomorrow.

Which means I need to go get to work.

Strict Deadlines and a Request for Nagging

I made a fairly big commitment last night.

I’ve booked an editor for my upcoming novel, Manifestation. Angi Nicole Black, who is both a freelance editor and a cool person on Twitter, is running a holiday special on her services until January 15th. Which means if you contact her before January 15th, you’ll get the discounted rate, even if you schedule the services several months down the line. If you’re in need of proofreading, copyediting, or anything else along those lines, you should go check her out.

Now, if you read my blog semi-regularly, you know I’ve been slacking big time when it comes to finishing Manifestation. I needed a serious deadline to make myself sit down and get to work. I’ve already made a down payment for the editing services, so that’s a nice big sign that says “YOU HAVE TO DO THIS NOW!” Or, more accurately, a sign I made for myself in red marker:

This will sit on my desk in plan sight until March 6.
This will sit on my desk in plan sight until March 6.

Having a deadline means no more fucking around. It means I need to finish this novel and have it ready for editing, and then for publication. So I’m setting a schedule, and posting it here so people can hold me accountable for it.

Here is the list of what currently needs to be done:

  1. Finish Draft One of Collapse so I can move from “writing mode” to “revising mode.” In order to have everything done on time, I think I need to finish this draft (about another 25,000 words or so) before Christmas. So the official DEADLINE for Collapse is December 25th. That’s an estimated 3125 words per day.
  2. Finish revising Draft Three of Manifestation and send it out for a first round of critiques. I want to get feedback and critiques done on the book before it goes out for editing, since the editor will then be receiving the most complete book I can provide. I’m currently on page 248 out of 378 (65.6%, typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman). Draft Three is a mix of line edits, general polishing, scene order, and making cuts of the parts that drag. I think that in order to get everything done on time, I need to finish this draft by a DEADLINE of January 15th. If I start on December 25th, that means I need to revise an average of 6 pages per day, which is very doable. Of course, some of the revision involves going back to earlier scenes, making cuts, moving things around, etc. So “forward progress page by page” isn’t a 100% accurate way of rating this. But it’s how I’ll judge progress.
  3. I’ll need to get critiques on Draft Three before starting on Draft Four. I’ll probably be asking around, as of January 15th or so, for people who would like to read the novel WIP and offer feedback and suggestions. From time to time I’ve had some people say they’d be interested, but I never kept a specific list. So around that time I’ll probably make a post either here or on Twitter to see who is interested. I’ll also offer a full critique of your WIP in exchange, quid pro quo. Though in order to ensure I have time for Draft Four of revisions, I’ll be setting a DEADLINE of February 6th, which would be a three week turnaround. Normally I wouldn’t give critique partners a deadline because they’re doing me a favor for free, but it’s the only way for me to hit my own March 6th deadline on time.
  4. After I get critiques back, I’ll work on Draft Four. I’ll have one month to do another full round of revisions, based on the feedback from my critique partners. That brings me to my final DEADLINE of March 6th, when I send the novel off for edits. That’s about 12 pages per day, which is double what I’ll be doing on Draft Three revisions, BUT by Draft Four, the revisions should be easier since in my past experiences revising short stories, a fourth draft is a lot of tiny fine-tuning and goes a lot quicker.
  5. I expect to have the edits back by the end of March, so that in April I can work on whatever else I need to do. I can’t really predict what stage I’ll be at by then. Will it need a second round of edits? Or just proofreading? I don’t know. So I’ll figure that out in April.

And that’s it! Now, if you like nagging people and/or offering them encouragement and support, I hereby volunteer as tribute. Feel free to ask me for updates, here or on Twitter (@cantrelljason) whenever you like. If I make excuses, or say I haven’t hit my goals (3125 words per day on Collapse, then 6 pages revised per day on Manifestation Draft Three or 12 pages per day on Draft Four), I give you permission to demand I cease any other activities, turn off the TV, get off Twitter, or turn down invitations to social engagements. Nothing else is currently a priority in my life. This book is getting published in 2014 (preferably in the earlier half of the year). I’m going into serious crunch-time-mode and getting this done, no matter how much sleep I lose.

Since after all, y’all can’t read this book until I get it done.