Revising My Writing Process

Every writer has a personal writing process. It is not one size fits all. And many writers change and refine their writing process over time.

Sometimes the change is forced on you, such as when my writing partner died or when my daughter was born and my writing time got slashed to minutes a day rather than hours. Sometimes technology makes you change, like when I stopped writing longhand and began writing on the computer to save time in grad school. And sometimes you change because you realize something isn’t working and you need to tweak the process.

I used to think my writing process was pretty solid. But lately, it’s just not working the way it used to. My writing is good, but tends to stay on a superficial level, not diving deep like I want and need it to. Then when I try to revise to get the depth, I find it hard to get past the words already on the page.

So I’ve been revising my writing process. I once read about an author who writes the whole book, and then when she revises it, she rewrites the whole thing from scratch. I thought that writer was crazy.

Except that now I’m doing the same thing.

My early drafts tend to be too “telling.” They get the story down, but the depth of character and world-building is missing. But I struggle to go back into the words already there and add the layers. I get stuck on the words on the screen.

I realized that I have done the “rewrite from scratch” thing in a limited way already. When revising The Witch of Zal, my developmental editor pointed out several chapters that she didn’t think I had made “mine.” I tried to revise what was there, but it still fell flat. So I rewrote those chapters completely. And it worked—it freed me from the tyranny of the words on the screen, yet allowed me to incorporate the phrases, images, and dialogue I liked from my original scene.

To add another layer of change to my process, I am experimenting with a return to writing longhand. Yes, with actual pen and paper. I had noticed in writing workshops that first-draft writings I write manually sound and feel much different than what I write on the computer. They feel deeper, richer, to me. So I decided to completely re-write, in longhand, a chapter from the WIP I am currently revising.

It worked. The chapter is almost 300 words longer, with more detail, richer imagery, and better world-building and character development. At least, I think it is—my critique partners haven’t read it yet. But it feels like a step in the right direction. As an added bonus, I do not have the block against changing hand-written words that I seem to have with words on the screen. My one little chapter is rife with crossing out, arrows moving words around, and little numbers referring me to longer insertions jotted in the margins.

So, for now, I am going with the hand-written, rewrite-the-whole-chapter-from scratch second-draft approach, and will see where it takes me. Because I am not a detailed outliner, I likely will still start with a typed, “telling,” first draft just to get the story and characters out, because I find so much out about both as I write—much like Martina Boone’s “discovery draft.” Then I will take that draft and do the Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook exercises, and incorporate all of that into the second draft, which I will write longhand as described above.

What about you? Have you ever had to revise your process? How did you find the right one that works for you?

Because it All Reflects on Me

Publishing is a business and everything I put out reflects on my brand. Everything. Even if it’s something outside my usual commercial writing sphere that few people will ever see.

Most of you know I successfully self-published a genealogy book for my dad’s family. It came out wonderfully, and I was very pleased. I decided to edit the book down to end with my grandparents’ generation (to keep personal information on living individuals private) and release it to the public.

I chose to get the book professionally copy edited, because no author can catch all his or her own mistakes. I did not hire a professional book designer only because I could not afford one. However, I did research the basic design mistakes of self-published authors that make their books look amateur and did my best to avoid them.

My genealogy book is clearly a niche book. I will be shocked if it sells even 100 copies. Because of the small expected sales, and because genealogy books even by the genealogy publishers are not exactly known for their book design, I felt that the business decision of not paying for professional design was a valid one. Had this been a book I anticipated having high sales numbers, I would have thought otherwise. However, knowing the expectations of my audience, I made a calculated decision.

Because, as a business, I have to decide how to spend (or not spend) my limited money.

Time is also money, as the saying goes, and as a business owner, I need to make another decision: How much time am I willing to invest in any given project to make it “good enough.”

After I got my copy-edited genealogy Word manuscript back, I made the changes, went through it one more time, then converted it into a PDF file. I added in all the photo JPGs, checked everything one more time, and then went through the final step of converting that regular PDF into a PDF/X-1a file, which is the required file format for Ingram Spark (and CreateSpace). I had done this exact process for my family’s edition, and it had worked flawlessly.

Then I uploaded the PDF/X file and waited for the e-proofs from Ingram Spark. I got them, and flipped through the proofs quickly to make sure all the margins and layout looked nice. It did, so I Approved the paperback version and ordered a hardback version for myself so I could see the cover prior to Approving it. I got the hardcover (beautiful!!) and happily pressed Approve. My genealogy book was now available to the public.

But.

A few days later, I was at my cousin’s house, and I pulled out the hardback to answer a genealogy question. And I saw something strange in the text. A weird space in a word. Instead of Census, it said C ensus. I flipped a page—d aughters. And another. And another. Odd spaces in random words littered the book.

At home, I pulled up the final PDF/X file. Yup, there were the weird spaces. I pulled up the regular PDF file, the one I had converted from. No weird spaces. I tried the conversion again. The spaces appeared again. To this day I have no idea why they appeared in this conversion, when they did NOT appear in the family edition version. It is a technical mystery that is baffling me. But I had to find some way to fix it, because I could not let the book stay out in public the way it was.

So I went into the PDF/X file and painstakingly found every instance I could of the spacing. I went through the document twice, and used the Text Touch-Up tool to fix it. It took hours over the space of several days. But I finally had a version with no weird spaces. I uploaded the new files—even though I knew it would cost $25 per version to change the interior after I had Approved it.

The second set of e-proofs came in and I vowed to go through the text this time, not just flip through. And I found more space issues. They were more apparent in the e-proof because the font was slightly thinner, enlarging the space between letters. I checked the file I had uploaded. Yup, there they were—not as glaring as the ones I had fixed, but noticeable now that I was attuned to them.

So I fixed the PDF/X again. More (but fewer) hours. Another upload (but this time no fee because I was still in the Approval process).

Third set of e-proofs. I combed through the proof and all was looking good—until page 167. I found a space I missed. And another space on page 304. And another on page 338. But that’s all. Just three spaces.

Did I go in and fix them again?

Yes, I did. (You knew I would, right?) And I also found another space I had missed, and a misspelled name that had escaped both the copyeditor and me. And then I uploaded PDF/X #4.

I am waiting for this set of e-proofs, but I think I have finally gotten to where this result is “good enough.” Nothing can ever be perfect, so there comes a time when you need to let it go. I am at that point (barring some glaring error) with this project. I have spent all the time I want in getting this as close to perfect as I can. No doubt some of you are thinking I have spent far too much time on it, given the small rate of return I expect. But I think my time was worth it. Why?

Because publishing is a business and everything I put out reflects on my brand.

Everything.

So I have to make it good.

 

What do you think? Am I conscientious or completely obsessive? When do you get to feeling that it’s “good enough”?

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Editing: We’re Never Finished; We’re Just Done

I once had a non-writer friend of mine ask, “Aren’t you EVER done editing?”

The answer, as every writer knows, is: “No.” Every published author I’ve spoken to has told me that even when they pick up their published books, they see things they want to change. One said when he does readings, he’ll change the words to what he wished he wrote instead.

We’re never finished—but sometimes we just have to be done.

When you’re on deadline to deliver a finished product, there comes a time when you have to be done, whether you like it or not. But what about before you’ve got that book deal? You could theoretically edit forever.

But you don’t want to edit forever. Eventually, you have to get your work out there—self-published or sent to agents or publishers. If you don’t ever send it out, you’ll never reach an audience. If you don’t stop fiddling with book #1, you will never write a book #2. So at some point you need to declare your book “done.”

For me, that’s usually the 7th or 8th version of the manuscript. There are many more revisions than that, but I usually do “small” revisions with a version, and only change the version number when I’m doing “large” revisions. My revision schedule goes something like this:

Version 1: First draft

Version 2: Clean-up of first draft to make it readable

Then I often do a storyboard to see what scenes I need to add, delete, move around.

Version 3: Draft with all of the above incorporated

Version 4: Do a clean-up, tighten, find typos, etc.

Run it through my critique partners and beta readers

Version 5: Make changes per their suggestions

Version 6: Another clean-up edit, try to make sure hit word count, read aloud

Send to professional developmental editor

Version 7: Make developmental edits. (Often includes banging head against wall and/or crying, “I can’t do this!”)

Version 8: Read through version 7 silently for continuity. Do clean-up edit. Then read aloud for final polish.

So that’s roughly my process. By the time I hit version 8, I am emotionally and mentally done with the book. I know I have done all I can do without further professional input. So I send it out into the world, to agents and publishers, and hope I’ve done my job well enough to attract their attention.

So, no, my non-writing friend, I am never finished editing. I am just done.

How do you know when you’re done editing?

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Slogging Through

Last week I discussed the “black moment” of writing, and Greg Frost commented that author Maureen F. McHugh said that the dark moment was followed by “slogging.” Well, my black moment has passed, and I am thoroughly in the midst of the slog.

My first 7 chapters needed the most revision. Luckily, my husband and preschooler went away for the weekend, so I was forced to move past my dark moment and jump into editing with both feet. No time to wallow in self-pity when you have childless writing time available!

Thus the slog began.

I have been slogging ever since, plowing though a chapter at a time, making sure everything fits with the revised first 7 chapters, as well as deleting repetition (a big one for me) and unneeded inner monologue (another biggie for me). I also need to deepen some setting and make my protagonist’s reactions a little more relateable in spots. So, a long way to go (238 pages as of this writing).

The good news is, having taken the plunge with those first chapters and wrestling them into shape in a 10-hour writing marathon, the slog is getting easier. It’s less like plodding through waist-deep mud and more like wading along the edge of the ocean. My feet are getting wet, sometimes up to my knees, and the water pushes and pulls at me, but it’s more pleasant than torturous. Finishing those first 7 chapters has made the revision of the rest of the book much clearer. I can see the focus of each scene better now, see why it works or doesn’t, and how to make it forward the plot strongly.

So I made it through the black moment and am making progress on the slog. And at the end of it all, I will have a stronger, more marketable product. But most of all, I will have completed the work to the best of my ability–and that is a victory in itself.

Where are you in your project? Slogging or soaring?

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Writing Process Relativity

Last week I wrote about how time is relative. Specifically, I noted that I can accomplish about 4 times as much work in a child-free hour as a child-full hour. I’ve since noticed that the writing process itself is subject to the time-warping effects of relativity. Some parts fly past, some drag–even if they take exactly the same amount of real time.

I don’t do much in the way of outlining and prewriting (although I am trying to do a little more with my latest WIP), so that doesn’t take me too long. I think if I tried detailed outlining I would find the process tedious and draining, which I why I steer clear. While I admire the authors who can write a scene-by-scene outline, I just cannot get the passion for basically writing the book before I write the book. If I tried, that would be a part of the process that would seem to move at a snail’s pace for me.

Some writers say the first draft drags for them. For me, the first draft is fits and starts. Some days the words flow so fast I lose track of time, I am so immersed in the story. Other days the words don’t come and every time I look at the clock it seems the hands haven’t moved. But even though this is one of the physically longer time frames in the process, it does not move slowly for me. I tend to make steady progress, so I feel good about it.

The revision is where time relativity really can come into play. I find large-scale revisions such as moving scenes, deleting scenes, writing new scenes or new parts of scenes to move quickly. I have more of a big-picture brain, so I enjoy this part of the process a great deal. Probably why it seems to go quickly for me.

It’s the small-scale edits that drag for me. The typos and the grammar and the punctuation and the sentence-level structure. Grammar-type issues such as punctuation have never been my strong suit, and, although I am learning, it is still a struggle. The reading the book out loud edit always takes a long time, but it is completely necessary for me. One time I found that my global search-and-replace had failed to change my protagonist’s name in 4 different places. I never would have caught that without reading out loud. My mind, when reading silently, had inserted the correct name all the previous times I had read it–and I was on the 7th major revision at that point!

I don’t know about you, but when I get to the revision stage, I make a list of all the things I need to do. For a while, this list grows instead of shrinks, since often changing one thing will lead to more changes further downstream. Then the list seems to stall, as if I cannot check off anything no matter how hard I work. But then a miracle of relativity happens, and one day I look at my list and there’s only one or two things on it! I experienced that with the non-fiction genealogy project I am working on for my family. Just this weekend I looked at what had been a very long list, and realized I was on the second-to-last thing! What a thrilling moment to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

How about you? Which parts of the writing process fly for you, and which are like pulling teeth?

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A Writer’s Thick Skin: Do We Need One?

There’s been a lot of talk on the Internet lately about the need to have “a thick skin” if you are going to be a writer. After all, being a writer comes with a ton of rejection and a necessary amount of critique. Nothing you write will ever be perfect, and nothing you write will be loved by everyone who reads it. These facts are part of the job description.

Kristen Lamb tells us we need a thick skin, while Rachelle Gardner makes the case that we don’t. Jody Hedlund ignores the thickness of skin altogether and talks about the unnecessary shame involved in getting feedback.

They all have good points, but I think the key to developing a so-called thick skin isn’t in strengthening your epidermis, but in changing the way we approach criticism and rejection. A thick skin simply means we can take a beating and keep on going—but have we learned anything worthwhile from the beating?

I didn’t always take criticism well. I mean, I never screamed at anyone or anything like that, but it hurt a lot when my work wasn’t up to snuff. The first time my Master’s degree advisor ripped apart my work, I was nearly in tears. I suspect that part of this reaction is that I was a very good student in school. I was used to getting all A’s. To be told that my work was not an A was rather unprecedented, and I had no coping mechanism in place.

So I learned to cope. I turned around the way I looked at the red marks splashed on the page. Instead of seeing them as glaring testaments to my worthlessness, I looked at them as a challenge: every red mark was a place I could improve my story. Once I changed my outlook from a negative (“I suck”) to a positive (“look at how much better my story can be”), the ouch factor of criticism lessened considerably.

This doesn’t mean that when I get a bleeding critique back I do a dance of joy. I get down in the dumps like everyone else. The task can seem monumental. Overwhelming. But in the end it becomes exciting, because each change is an opportunity to learn something new about our craft, and the results of the changes are instantaneous: you can actually feel the story growing stronger.

I admit that revision fits my personality. I love to learn—and honing our writing offers endless opportunities to try something new, to push ourselves higher, or to master a nuance of the craft. I am also by nature a troubleshooter: I love to fix things. When I was a video editor, I was the go-to gal when a system wasn’t working. Tracking down and fixing the problem thrilled me. The same goes for my writing. Figuring out what the problem is, and then finding the solution is an adrenaline rush.

So, back to the thick skin. Do you need one? I don’t think so. Becoming impervious brings with it the risk of becoming immune to the helpful criticism as well as the bad (and there is bad criticism out there that should simply be ignored). I think Jody hit it on the head that our task is not to grow rhino skin, but to change the way we approach criticism altogether.

What do you think? Do we need a thick skin to survive as writers or not?

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The Revision Exercise Regimen

Revision is a lot like starting a new exercise program. They both have very distinct stages you have to pass through before arriving at the end.

The hardest stage for a lot of people is getting started. Most of us need to exercise more, and we know it, but getting started is tough. It means finding time to exercise instead of doing all the other, more fun, things I want to spend time on. Revision is the same way, particularly when it’s a large revision. It’s overwhelming and I feel like I’m never going to be able to get to the end of it. So I procrastinate, doing all the “fun” writing things instead.

But finally, I have to take the plunge.

That first week on a new exercise program is tough. Aching muscles. Fatigue. Sweat. I so want to give up during this first week, and the revision process can be equally as painful. Those first few revision sessions are spent planning my attack, marshalling my details so I don’t forget to do something. My brain aches from juggling all the revision details, my eyes are tired from looking at the screen, and I’m sweating because I am positive there is no way I can get this done.

It is so easy to quit at this point. But I can’t—not if I want to reap the rewards.

Slowly my body adjusts to the new normal. The achy, tired muscles go away. My metabolism ramps up and I find myself haunting the kitchen for snacks (which I do not buy for this very reason). The revision program hits this phase, too. When I’m actually doing the revising, checking things off my lists, my brain ramps up—it’s playful, creative, eager to move forward. Ideas flow and connections get made that I didn’t see before.

After a while, I notice a change in my body. I feel stronger. I have more stamina. In revision, I grow in confidence, I am energized by the process. I can see the finish line, glowing like a beacon in the distance.

In the end, if I’ve persevered, I end up with a leaner, stronger, healthier body. The same is true with my novel. After the days of disciplined revision, the book is leaner, the story stronger, the whole healthier than when I began.

For me, sticking to an exercise regimen is really hard, because I find no joy in exercise at all. I’ve never once experienced the “exercise high” others have. Revision, on the other hand, I do enjoy. I love cutting the chaff and strengthening the story. “Writer’s high”? Maybe the difference is that to maintain my body once I reach a goal, I need to keep exercising, while with a manuscript, there’s a finite end point. While you may have to revise multiple times, at some point you stop and call it “done.”

But the key to success, as in so many things in life, is perseverance.

So get started, stick to it, and reach your goal!

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Patience Is A Writing Virtue

After reading my Facebook post on completing my 2nd round of developmental edits and beginning my polish edits, my best friend (not a writer) commented, “Geez, aren’t you ever allowed to FINISH a book?” I laughed and replied “After agent edits and publisher edits, yes!”

Still, her comment got me thinking. Of course I can finish a book—I have completed drafts of more than 16 novels. So getting from beginning to end of a book is not an issue for me. But finishing a book and completing a book are two different things.

Most of those 16+ novels will never see the light of day. And while I may poach themes and characters from them, even plot points, they will never be completed in their present form. Completing a book—making it shine in all facets—takes a whole slew of skills I didn’t have back then. Some are life experience skills and some are craft skills, including both techniques on the page and story theory, learned from thousands of hours of writing and reading.

But the most important skill I learned is patience.

It takes patience to complete a book. As a new writer, I’d finish a manuscript, give it a couple of proofreads, and it would be “done.” Of course, I was mostly writing for my own amusement back then, so the bar was set much lower. Now, with my sights set higher, that level of “done” would never cut it.

Now, instead of saying, “It’s good enough!” I ask myself, “Why isn’t this good enough?” In other words, I look for ways the novel can be stronger. Yes, I actively seek out ways to make more work for myself! I ask critique partners and beta readers and professional editors to poke all the holes in it they can so that I can fill them, learn from them, and raise my writing to the next level.

And that takes a lot of work. A lot of time. A lot of patience. To go back into your manuscript for 7+ revisions can make your head spin. You can get sick of your own novel. You can lose perspective and wonder if it’s any good at all. You can want to throw it in a drawer and move on to something else.

When I was a new (and young) writer, I never could have done what I am doing with my current WIPs. I never could have approached yet ANOTHER revision with eagerness and excitement. I never could have made myself stay up late, eyes like sandpaper, to edit this for the billionth time.

It takes patience to do that. Patience with my work (understanding that this process is not infinite, it will end), and patience with myself—allowing myself the mistakes I make, and learning from them.

The result? I am more excited about my current WIP (now in revision 7 and headed for query land next week) than I have ever been about any other work. Or rather, I am more realistically excited about it, since I now have also learned what goes into making a marketable book.

I said to my writing buddy Nancy Keim Comley the other day that this is the first manuscript I really feel has reached that professional bar. And it only took 16+ novels and 28 years to get here.

Patience. It’s a writing virtue.

 

Using the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

I’m currently about 2 revisions into one of my middle grade books. It’s about this time, when I know my characters and have worked out the kinks in my plot, that I turn to Donald MaassWriting the Breakout Novel Workbook. This is only the second time I have used it, and I am having a heck of a lot of fun with it!

The workbook forces me to look at my novel from different perspectives. It can help pinpoint problems I didn’t know you had, and point out my strengths as well. I thought I knew my characters well? Think again. Thought my plot was as strong as could be? Think again. Using the workbook is humbling, frustrating—and exciting!

It’s humbling because I find out how much about my novel I didn’t know. Because it shows me how much I have to learn about the craft of writing. I will admit that there are a few chapters where I simply do not know how to do what he is asking. I understand what he wants—I can clearly see it in the examples he uses. But I have no idea how to find appropriate moments in my own work, and even if I could locate them, I wouldn’t know how to do what he suggests. But I will learn.

Mostly, I find using the book exciting! It stirs the creative pot and sets it boiling. I start seeing the book with different eyes, and my brain begins making all sorts of new connections. I know immediately that most of the new ideas bubbling up are better than what I have, will strengthen what I have, and will elevate the end product.

So where’s the frustrating, you ask? I end up with SO MANY new ideas! Volume of ideas is not bad, mind you. It is precisely these new ideas that make using the book so exciting. The problem comes when I look at all the new ideas and contemplate putting them into practice. It’s not the doing that I find daunting—it’s finding the TIME for doing this major revision.

Like many writers, Time is a four-letter word for me. When I look at the amount of revising I will need to do on this book, I don’t see how I’m going to get it all done before my toddler graduates high school. I despair sometimes that I will be the first 90-year-old debut middle grade author in history.

But then I gather myself. I remind myself that even though I have 6 pages of typed notes and a copybook with even more hand written, all I need to do is focus on one change at a time. Do one thing at a time and eventually I will see the end of the road. I have done it before, I can do it now.

By cutting that daunting revision down to size, the despair lifts, and I am left with the excitement I started with. New ideas, new connections, new depth…

I can’t wait to dive in!

Do you use the Breakout Novel Workbook–or a similar book? Has it helped you?

Writing During the Holiday Madness

I don’t know about you, but from Thanksgiving on my life has been a runaway train going downhill. I haven’t stopped for over a month. I feel like I haven’t breathed in about as long. An exhausting combination of travel, family obligations, illnesses, classes, and the requirements of survival have drained me. My gas tank is well below “E.” And yet, I’m still going.

So did my writing fare in this whirlwind? Did I even manage to get a single word written? I am pleased to say that yes, I did.

I did more than just eke out words, too—I was quite productive. I attribute this productivity to the fact that I am in between books. I finished a draft of one middle grade book and got it out to beta readers before the insanity began (which I had planned). The rest of this month was taken up with back-and-forth between my co-authors and me on the major revision to The Egyptian Enigma.

Mostly this consisted of new suggested timelines/outlines. Jim Kempner and I started with two separate outlines and the subsequent discussions (via email) slowly merged them into one outline that we felt contained the best of both. It helped that we were not that far apart on most major issues.

I would say that coming to an agreement on a completely new outline for our revision (and all the writing of those outlines to get there) is pretty productive.

Today we met face-to-face to hash out the details of things we had not been able to resolve online. We ended the 3-hour meeting with a finalized new outline—one that will cut some 30,000 words from the book, streamline the plot, and sharpen the focus.

Now we just have to implement it. We’re thinking of trying something new in our process. We’ll see how that works out. Working with three of us is an ongoing experiment to find the most efficient way to get from start to finish.

How did your holiday writing go? Or did you simply decide to take the holidays off?

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