The Swampy Middle

Two NaNoWriMos ago, I generated the first draft of a story. I was so impressed with myself and the complexity of my story. It was the best thing I’d ever written. Now, after more than a year of fighting with the revision, I’m not sure I’ve made it structurally any better, but the quality of writing in the chapters I have edited is much, much, better.

In general, I’m stuck. Something sucks and I don’t know how to massage the text into a workable piece of art. Forcing myself to work on the book ends on Facebook or Netflix. I’ve complained to my closest confidants, receiving little sympathy in return because we all know writing is hard and perseverance is the key to finishing that book. “Butt in chair” should be the only advice required, but it hasn’t broken through my block.

My search for resolution, for answers, turned to educational resources. The first idea that resonated with me and it took a couple weeks to understand it, came from the DIY MFA author. She was discussing writer’s voice. She stated that she doesn’t revise sections, but rewrites them when incorporating her changes. In doing this, you avoid editing your voice out of the writing.

Take what you wrote before, set it aside, and start again with a blank page.

In the story “Martian Strain” that I’d published in Voices From the Dark anthology, I now feel confident that I edited all voice out of that horror story. It’s got horror and suspense, but the “voice”, the words I string together uniquely in a way no one else would, became something flat. Publishing the story was worth the experience toward learning the process, but should it have been published? I don’t know.

My current novel, the one I can’t quite make myself edit, doesn’t have the over edited voice problem yet. I’ve been revising and making things cleaner, but still not clean enough to send out for feedback. The want of feedback might be my second problem, however. Lately, I’ve been asking questions of other writers and finding that I already know the answers. All the words I’ve been rearranging, polishing and crafting have been so that I could send it to someone else for answers. Writers need input from others to improve and grow, but the kind of answers I’m looking for are really the meat of what it is to craft a novel.

Writers need input from others to improve and grow, but the kind of answers I’m looking for are really the meat of what it is to craft a novel. It’s my job to provide those answers and I’ve been fighting with myself.

Until I talked to my mother. She is not a writer, nor has it ever been her passion. She cut through all of my whinings with a clarity only a parent can provide.

“Rewrite it. Stop revising and editing. It’s all in your head. You already know the story. The words might come out different, but it will be better.”

And she’s right.  I’ve been stuck in the Swampy Middle for too long with this story, trying to fix it, trying to make the words better.

When I put the DIY MFA author’s advice together with my mother’s, it’s so straightforward. I know the middle doesn’t work. I know something needs to change, but massaging the text hasn’t been bringing forward the ideas. The blank page spurs my imagination better than a framework of existing words. The fix is in the creativity. The beginning isn’t horrible, the end is usable, but the Swampy Middle is like a giant game of connect the dots. Right now, I have a collection of dots that don’t form a usable picture, so by setting them aside, I open up my options to take my three-legged dog and turn it into a stallion.

I’ll keep working on my purple prose problem.

How to Edit Your Novel – Gwen Style

For those of who you missed the meeting last weekend, I gave a workshop on how to edit a novel. The full PowerPoint presentation can be found on the Journey Drive, in the “General Meetings” folder. But, to re-cap and skip the exercises, here’s what to do with your NaNoWriMo rough draft.

The editing cycle as described by Gwen Tolios

(Note, the double arrows are because these often overlap)

1) Recall

Think back on your draft. What plot holes do you know you have? What needs more, or less, foreshadowing? Is there anything you need to research, be it for world, character, or plot? Do your characters stay consistent throughout the story?

Discovery Writers/Pantsers – Does your plot flow from action to action? Does it move too fast? Too slow? Did something you discover 1/2 through need to be brought to the front?

Plotters – Do your characters stay consistent? Does your world need more detail? Do you invoke the senses? Are your characters flat?

2) Self-Edit

Word cloud for One for Sorrow, Two for Mirth (draft 1) by Gwen Tolios used as an editing tool.

One for Sorrow, Two for Mirth word cloud

Go through your draft and make the changes you noted when recalling it. Then, during the same pass or the next one, go through the story line by line. Keep your eye out for misspellings, especially of names or items you made up, and note your use of grammar. Fix awkward phrases, get rid of passive voice. It might help to do continuity checks too. If your hero breaks his arm in chapter 7, where is the cast in chapter 9?

A useful tool is a word cloud. Use it to determine what words you overuse, then use Word’s find feature to help you replace them.

3) Critiques

You have a front row seat to your novel, which often means you aren’t the best judge of it. Critiques help you identify trouble spots, areas that are confusing, and whether you have correct information. Give your novel to different people, other writers to identify craft issues, readers to pick apart enjoyability, or experts to make sure you covered a subject accurately.

Keep in mind, multiple crits (try to get 2-3) will give you multiple opinions.

4)Aggregate/Recall

Aggregate all the crits you received and decide which suggestions and edits you want to keep. If 3/4 readers suggest something, you should probably take a look, but if the vote is tied there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  1. How similar is their preference/work to yours? (A romance writer’s thoughts on how your magic system is built might not be the best advice. But listen to them about character interaction.)
  2. Are they familiar with the whole work, or just a chapter? (Because some things might be addressed before/later)
  3. What fits better with the story as you imagine it? (Do they want you to dive deeper into emotions when you want to keep it a light hearted tale?)
  4. How much do you trust them/their edits? (Are they actually making suggestions to be helpful, or just like to nitpick?)

It easier to answer these questions if you build a rapport with critique partners, so try to be active in a community, be it coffee shop meetups or an online forum. Take everything you’ve gotten, recall and compress it all in your head, and get ready to use that information for another self-edit.

Editing is a Cycle

How do you know when your work is ready? You never do. You should go through the cycle at least twice before querying to agents, but don’t be obsessed with making it perfect. Once you have a contract, you’ll go through all this again. But don’t let few of it not being ready hold you back!

Showing more work

Anna_Brassey_woman-writing_web wikimedia commons image, artist unknown
Second in a series of indeterminate length, showing revision work on a novel-in-progress, currently titled Dr. Miracle’s Medicine Show Here’s another early section of the novel, which introduces new characters:
Mary poked the campfire for the hundredth time that evening, wishing there was some way she could help. A sound brought her head up. Thérèse’s black cat, Noir, leapt from the opening just before Thérèse eased down the canted steps. Thérèse looked fifty years old tonight, though Mary knew she was no more than twenty-five. “How is he?” Mary asked. Doc hadn’t wanted Mary in the wagon, and she hadn’t wanted to be there. His gray, drawn face had made her uneasy. “He’ll be all right. For now.“ Thérèse came over and stirred the fire as if even on this warm night, she felt cold. She didn’t meet Mary’s eyes. “It’s just—he isn’t getting any younger.” Mary didn’t know how old Doc was, not for sure. He seemed to have aged a lot just in the last few months, though. Therese wasn’t telling her everything. Despite her fear, this annoyed Mary. She might be just a kid, but she wasn’t a fool. When the silence stretched too long, Mary finally said, “What’s wrong with him?”
And here’s the above section, revised:
Mary poked the campfire for the hundredth time that evening, watching sparks dance and settle and wishing she knew what to do. Doc hadn’t wanted her in the wagon, saying she was too young. Normally when he said that she would argue, but his gray, drawn face kept her quiet. A sound brought her head up. Thérèse’s black cat, Noir, leapt from the wagon opening just before Thérèse eased down the canted steps. Though she was no more than twenty-five years old, Thérèse looked more like forty tonight. “How is he?” Mary asked. “Comfortable, more or less.“ Thérèse stirred the fire as if even on this warm night, she felt cold. She sat on a camp stool, not meeting Mary’s eyes. “It’s just—he isn’t getting any younger.” Stupid thing to say. Mary had seen how fast Doc had aged in the last few months. She didn’t know exactly how old he was, not for sure. She didn’t even know exactly how old she was, though according to Doc’s best guess, she was ten or eleven. She challenged Therese. “You ever met anyone who gets younger?” Therese stared into the fire. Noir jumped into her lap and she stroked him absently. When the silence stretched too long, Mary said, “What’s wrong with him?”