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Scorched Earth Revision

“It became necessary to destroy the book in order to save it.”

Okay, that paraphrase of an infamous justification for a Vietnam war atrocity might seem a bit over the top, but, when it comes to writing, there’s a bit of truth in it. Sometimes it really is necessary.

You finished your novel, written, revised, edited, polished, beta feedback, everything you’re supposed to do. But you aren’t done. Some people can dash out a book and have it take off, but inevitably they have other things going for them: a great bio, or a really strong pre-established fan-base, or maybe just the greatest resource of all, knowing somebody in the publishing industry. If you don’t have those things, you have very little chance of getting published. You wrote a book, but so did everyone else. Seriously, the second most popular search on line is “how to publish a book,” second only to “teen sex.” I’m not kidding. So yours can’t simply be good, it has to be great. It has to be beyond great. If you aren’t getting any response, it may be time to start over. I don’t mean writing a new book. Except, I sort of do. It will look like the book you already wrote, but it will be new. You’ll have to destroy your book in order to save it.

That’s what I have done and, although I now need to resume (or really, start over) querying, I think the book I have now is much better than the one I was trying to sell six months ago. So here’s what it takes.

First, you will need to make major cuts. Cuts to the bone. I did this because my word count was way too high, but, frankly, this still works even if your word count is good. In fact, being in a good place with word count is an advantage, but for the moment, you can’t have the luxury of thinking in those terms. You have to cut and cut. To do that productively, you need to hate your book. Really, it will help if you are coming from a very angry, frustrated place. Granted, that’s my normal mode, so it was easy for me, but you can do it, because you are going to have to cut things that you won’t want to.

First, identify the main, central plot line. The book in a single sentence. I hope you can do this, because, if not, you have bigger issues to deal with. Let’s take a huge, complex book as an example: The Lord of the Rings. What’s the main central plot line? “Frodo journeys into Mordor and throws the Ring into the fire.” Beyond reductive, right? But this is important, because it’s the edge of your scalpel. Figure out the main line and start going through your book. Start at the beginning and, as you go through, cut out everything that isn’t directly on that plot line. All of it. All the detail. All the character moments. All the subplots. All the digressions. It doesn’t matter how much you like them, or how they are what really makes the book good. Get rid of it all. But there’s a catch. Keep notes of what you cut. That’s going to be vital.

Now, before you freak out, I agree with you that you are cutting everything that makes your book good, and distinct, and yours. But here’s the thing: as you go through this, you need to be saving the document, and you need to do it with a new name. The old stuff isn’t really gone, and that’s important. But leave that for now. Continue to cut. This is where anger helps, because you are going on a rampage through your book, and if you can take a certain perverse glee, it helps keep you going.

This process may take some time. I tend to be an all-or-nothing-much kind of guy, so I knocked it out in a couple of days. The thing is to keep at it and not look back. When you are done, with luck, you’ve lost at least a third of the book. Now, step away. Breathe. Then look at what you’ve got. Terrible. A shell of a story.

Step two: remember those notes you kept? Go through them. Look at the cuts you made, and decide why. Revise your notes. Seriously. Write it up into an analysis that will likely be several pages long. Write out what you did, and why. “Lost the whole interlude at the tavern. It was funny, but the humor didn’t really go anywhere and this way the characters get into the wilderness faster, keeping up the tension.” Something like that.

Once you’ve written up a solid analysis of your cuts, it’s time to take a break. This is where a good beta reader or crit partner will help. Send your notes to a couple of people who know your story well. Ask for their response. Ask them to tell you the things where they disagree, where they think you cut something you really needed, and also the cuts that made them say, “Thank God he finally got rid of that!” I color-coded my notes, using green to indicate the things that I was hoping to keep, red for the things that I was confident would be gone unless I got a sold argument otherwise, and black for everything else where I was indifferent. I’m not sure that was a good idea, because the beta reader who was able to get back to me basically said, “You seem to have your mind made up so I won’t address that.”

But the point is, get someone else to react to what you have done. You need readers who will make the time to help you, and I acknowledge those can be hard to come by. And it will take time, so, while you wait, you need to perform restorative surgery. This may well be the hardest part. You still have the foundation of the story, but with huge missing chunks there will be enormous problems with transitions and continuity and structure. You need to take what you are left with and make it a readable (if not especially good) story. This will take a while. I spent nearly a week, working on and off. It’s hard because doing this feels like closing the door on everything you cut. Don’t worry. There’s one more part to this.

By now, hopefully, your reader(s) have gotten back to you. Look over their responses, see how they line up with your own instincts. Figure out what’s gone for good, then look at what you want to keep. Time to bring it back, one bit at a time. But it’s not simply a matter of undoing a cut. You will need to take the cut material and work it into the new version of the manuscript. It is essentially like adding a new scene. Make the restoration work in the new structure. That may mean putting the scene in an entirely different place than it originally was (I did that in at least three cases). It may mean the cast of characters changes, or the context is different. But add the “new” material, and then go through and make whatever adjustments are needed elsewhere to maintain continuity.

Look again at your cut list. Decide what else you really need back. If you don’t really need it, leave it. This will be the most labor-intensive part of the whole process, and, if that discourages you from doing more than absolutely essential, so much the better. What’s happening is that, by making all these cuts, you made your story as tight as it could possibly be, much more so than if you tried to tighten while keeping everything intact. Adding material into an already tight story has forced you to keep it tight. You have also probably been forced to make choices you should have made in the first place, organizing events more clearly than they played out when you were making it up as you wrote.

And finally, you are done. Step back, take a look at your much tighter, stronger, cleaner story. Now you can start querying.

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Writing Process Blog Hop

I’ve been assigned by the Planetary Defense Commander to join the Writing Process Blog Hop. The Commander is tasked with defending the planet from bad science fiction, and we’ve never been more in need of his services. Take a look at his site for a rather different approach to reviews. Meanwhile, the idea of the Blog Hop is to get inside the heads of writers, to find out what makes them tick by asking four basic questions:

1. What are you currently working on?

Hmm. Motivation, mostly. I’m still refining Infinity, the novel that got me going on this journey (not counting the two decades I spend collaborating on a ridiculously over-ambitious Blake’s 7 fanfic). I finished the novel nearly a year ago, but since then my query attempts have not gotten me anywhere, so I’ve been doing massive revisions in an attempt to make it more marketable. Some people tell me to stop and just go with what I have, but I do think I keep making it better. Other than that, I don’t have anything on the front burner, mostly because my teaching job eats up a lot of time. I’ve tossed out a couple of short stories I need to revise and shop around, and I have two other novel ideas, one “Young Adult,” the other definitely not, and I really should start working on one of them in earnest.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

That’s a hard one to answer. I’m not particularly well-read, and these days I don’t much enjoy reading. I know, that’s heresy for a writer, but I read so much in my job that it makes it very hard to read for pleasure. Beyond that, I’m so infamously disenchanted with the state of Young Adult fiction that I can only say my book differs in that it’s basically not like that stuff at all. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all YA is “garbage,” as some people assume. I just think it could be so much better than it is. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there, and readers deserve better. I am sick of all the darkness, and so my book is upbeat and fun, because that’s what I’d want to read. It’s largely free of violence, and what is there has profound emotional and moral consequences. On the other hand, there’s nudity and sex, and I’m trying to present that in a fun and positive way as well, something also uncommon in YA.

My non-YA stuff is, I suspect, right in line with current trends in science fiction, as it’s quite dark, but in what my readers call a “beautifully sad” way. But it’s not particularly violent, and is more about the human condition, and the human spirit.

3. Why do you do what you do?

In terms of writing? The difficulty of the last question makes this one easy. I want to offer something different from all the paranormal angst and dystopian despair. I firmly reject the oft-repeated mantra that says that writers write because they love to write, and that’s really the only reason to do it. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, that’s a rather self-indulgent attitude. It also sets a very low bar, if you are only writing to please yourself. I write because I have a story to tell and I want people to hear/read it. My book is nothing without readers.

But more than that, I write as response to the problems I mention above. I want my book to be an instrument of change, to be the vanguard of the rejection of all the darkness, to be a setter of a whole new trend in hope and humor and bringing fun back to teen books. That, I think, is the best reason to write. Great writers write because they want to change the world with their words.

This attitude, by the way, has met with great hostility. The ever-supportive folks on Agent Query Connect responded to my negative opinion of YA fiction by informing me that I was insulting every single writer, publisher and reader of YA out there by not loving it exactly the way it is right now. They couldn’t be more wrong when they accuse me of having “contempt” for YA readers. It’s the publishing industry that’s selling readers short, by assuming they won’t read anything unless it’s about teens just like themselves dealing with experiences that can all be correlated to going to high school and stuff, and I want to offer something better. When I expressed my desire for my book to bring about change within the genre, I was told that that was an extremely arrogant attitude, and that I was doomed to fail. An odd thing for one writer to tell another, don’t you think? It may go a long way to explaining how YA has gotten the way it has, if it’s being written by people who want nothing more than to just contribute more of the same, with no real vision, and no desire to shake things up.

Obviously, I don’t go to Agent Query Connect anymore.

4. How does your writing process work?

I start with some sort of observation, which then ferments in my thoughts for a while while I’m doing other things, until I have a basic story idea. Then I just sort of start writing. I wrote one short story loosely inspired by an old Star Trek episode that got me wondering how a multi-generational colony ship would actually work. Another story had its genesis when I saw a breathtakingly beautiful little girl in the supermarket and found myself wondering how her parents felt about that (and about the fact that I was probably not the only person noticing her). My not-yet-started YA novel Hayley and the Aliens came into being because, on a whim, I Photoshopped a crashing spaceship into a photo of a girl looking out at the ocean, and realized that was the beginning of a good story.


Time Passes is a direct response to my opinion of Young Adult fiction, which led me to wonder why we even have to call it a genre. Why we can’t just call Harry Potter “fantasy”; why we can’t just call Divergent “science fiction”; why can’t we just call The Hunger Games “horror”? Why do we have to attach the “Young Adult” label and put it in a special section of the bookstore? We never used to. And why then don’t we target books specifically to thirty-year-olds, or fifty-year-olds, or seventy-year-olds, all of whom have unique perspectives and experiences every bit as profound as teens have. So I set out to write “Old Adult Science Fiction,” with a story that touches on the experience of middle-agers trying to still be relevant in a world that seems to have passed them by. Nothing autobiographical about that.

Once I have the basic story concept, I sketch out the characters a bit, then start writing. With short stories I write the whole thing in one sitting (generally). With a novel, I bounce around, writing anything that has a clear picture in my head. This timey-wimey approach confounds many of my fellow writers, because I can be simultaneously working on chapter four and chapter twenty-seven. But I find this really helps maintain continuity and ties the story together. This only works because I know the end point of the story (although I may no know exactly how I’m going to get there). That’s what’s stalled Time Passes, because the end point is still fuzzy.

That’s surprising because it has my most blatantly autobiographical character, other than the one in a short story I wrote about a frustrated writer who builds a time machine so he can go back and stop himself from trying to be a writer. But the thing is that my characters are real to me, and, as they develop, they take more and more control of the story, sometimes surprising me. I have a key scene in Infinity because one of my characters (the one who’s generally the loudest in my head) insisted. Literally as I was writing, she butted into the dialogue and said, “We have to do this.” The other characters considered, then agreed. And I was sitting there thinking, “Great, now I have to write a whole new sequence.” That’s exhilarating when it happens, but what’s funny is that, in the recent massive rewrite, the sequence got totally restaged, so I no longer have the scene where she insists on doing it. That worked better played out between two other characters. But it was still her idea.

I revise as I go (a side effect of jumping around), so when I’m done with the “first” draft, it’s really already had a fair amount of polish. I bounce ideas off of critique partners and take problem passages to my writers’ group. And sometimes a whole new idea will pop into my head that leads me to make significant adjustments. I’m facing that right now with Infinity. The hardest part, I suppose, is finally declaring it finished. I really thought it was done last fall. But then the query process so thoroughly undermined my confidence that I’ve gone back in, and I wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I’m happy with it again. I suppose that’s why people say you should just write for yourself; you’re the only one who isn’t going to reject it.

Oh yeah, and I always have my famously eclectic iPod playing as I write, sitting right next to whichever caffeine-delivery system I’m using at the time.

Okay, now I’m to tag fellow writers (and friends):

Cheryl Mahoney writes clever, slightly subversive re-imaginings of fairy tales and classic literature, and her stories are delightfully free of violence and brutality. She’s also as well-read as I am not and offers great insights on that on her website. And she gets most of my obscure sci-fi/fantasy references.

Kelly Haworth, despite being a voracious reader of YA, writes things that are anything but. Dark, twisted stories that challenge your conceptions of identity, especially when it comes to gender. With characters who are all extremely damaged. And Kelly loves aliens (if you know what I mean…).

Andrea Stewart is the closest I know to an actual professional author, her quiet, poetical stories having appeared in legitimate anthologies and landing her an actual agent and everything. She’s prolific to a degree that makes my head spin. And she paints. In the words of Tom Lehrer, “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.”


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Exercise: Utterly Distinct Voices

This is an article I originally posted last year on the now-inactive Stonehenge Writers blog.

A good friend and fellow writer (and crit partner) has lamented the difficulty in distinguishing voices in her current project. She is attempting to juggle two POV characters, and has found that they tend to sound the same. That is, they sound like all of her characters’ voices, at least from her perspective. In my novel I juggle four POV’s myself, and I know that it can be a real challenge, which is why most writers tend not to do it (George R. R. Martin notwithstanding). Maybe you have to be a bit schizophrenic to be able to deal with having multiple voices in your head.  Shut up, I was going to get to that.  I said, shut up!

Sorry, what was I saying?  Oh yeah, multiple voices.  So anyway, although I’m nearly done, I started thinking about what makes my voices distinct.  I realized that vocal affectations can go a long way.  Little repeated phrasings and idioms.  We all do this when we talk, and, for most writers, their own such affectations tend to appear in their writing.  The best writers are aware of this and can master and control them.  I don’t know if that’s the case for me, but I try to be conscious of it.  And I decided that finding a key example might be a helpful thing.  So I have developed a little exercise, a simple thing to do when you are trying to distinguish between your characters.

For each of your primary characters (it can work for secondary ones as well), select a single utterance that represents the character.  Not a catch phrase or grammar style, but a single interjection or such that the character would be likely to say in a variety of situations, possibly without even realizing it.  There might be more than one; that’s okay, and consider them all, but also see if you can land on the one.  The one that really sounds like your character.  Here’s how I did it for my four main characters:

Nick is super intelligent, but also very cautious and conservative:  “Hmm…”

Mirana is a bad-ass action girl who is likely to hit first and ask questions later (if she bothers to ask questions):  “Oh!”

Tanya is a mute, traumatized young teen who is afraid of her own power:  *sigh*

Robin is an unihibited little girl who is emotionally tuned in to everyone and everything around her:  “Yay!”

And for people following my story, the Professor’s utterance would probably be:  *ahem*

Now, this was pretty easy for me because I’ve already spent a lot of time with these characters, and it’s only a sampling.  I intentionally also gave Nick an actual affectation, where he tends to say, “Okay,” a lot, but that’s not really a reflection of his deeper character.  And I could just as easily have made Robin’s word “Wow!” rather than “Yay!” but you get the idea.

If your characters are still new to you, you can probably still find something that you are comfortable with.  It might be forced a bit, in which case try again.  And you don’t actually need to insert the utterance into your text at every opportunity.  You have it in your head, and it helps you know what the character sounds like.  And when you know, your readers will hear it as well.

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