If three wells make a river, what do three wases make?

Ah, revision – guaranteed to bring a writer’s ego crashing back to earth.
Dean Wesley Smith, a multi-published author, advises never to revise. He writes his first draft, checks for typos and publishes.
Maybe when I’ve written as many books as he has I’ll be able to do the same, but for now I think my readers (and my reputation as a writer) will be better served by removing some of the first-draft suckitude from my manuscript. And even the second-draft suckitude.
I was still finding gems on the second revision pass. The prize for most uses of one word in the same short sentence goes to:
“The worst part was, he was probably right, but I was out of options.”
That’s three occurrences of the word “was” in a total fourteen words, or 21%. Not bad, eh?
“Was” is a particular problem child of mine. I’m aware that when I’m writing first draft, creating the story, I tend to overuse basic sentence structures like “there was a something-or-other”. That’s fine. First draft isn’t meant to be about crafting beautiful prose. First draft is when I’m discovering the story, dealing with plot and characters and “big picture” issues, and I don’t want to break the creative flow by considering syntax too much.
But it means I end up with a lot of sentences like: “There was a lot of junk in the drawer.” That’s a grammatically correct sentence that conveys the necessary information, but it’s passive and dull. Too many of those suck the life out of your story. A better sentence would be something like: “The drawer bulged with junk”, which brings a picture to life in the reader’s mind.
Which is where revision comes in!
In revision “he was much taller than me” becomes “he towered over me”. “I should know what this little piece of rock was” becomes “I should recognise this little piece of rock”.
Cool, isn’t it? Swap out “was” for a more active verb, and the writing automatically improves.
After I’d finished two major revision passes through the novel I went hunting specific words. “Was” occurred 1467 times. Eek! Obviously a lot of those had to stay, but the tired old “there was a something” ones came out. I managed to kill off almost 300 of those suckers.
“Just” is another one I can’t seem to resist. There were 240 of those. That shows up a lot! The Find function commented jauntily. Rude piece of software. Bet it had a conniption when it counted the “wases”.
Actually I was expecting a lot more “justs”, though I did nuke what felt like a thousand of them on the second revision, so that might explain it.
The manuscript is just about ready (see? those pesky “justs” sneak in everywhere) to show to my beta readers. I’m pleased but frankly astonished to have made it this far – a real live almost-finished book! One small step for man, one giant leap for procrastinators.
Fingers crossed they don’t want me to rewrite the whole thing. Or add any wases.

Elsewhere, on the glorious internet …

(I’ll just sneak one of these in here while Baby Duck isn’t watching.)

Australian marsupials for the win! The male antechinus kills himself with marathon mating sessions. “His fur falls off. He bleeds internally. His immune system fails to fight off incoming infections, and he becomes riddled with gangrene … He’s a complete mess, but he’s still after sex.” Hey, I think I married one of these.

Despite being scared of heights, the tree dwellings of Lothlorien caught my imagination as a child more than any other location in The Lord of the Rings. Here’s an architect’s idea for making similar dwellings.
Tom Simon discusses economics in fantasy, or the lack thereof. Something to think about for fantasy writers.
Elle Casey talks about how she writes so fast (18 novels in 15 months — makes NaNoWriMo look like a doddle!).
Kristine Kathryn Rusch is very interesting on the difference between “storytelling” and “writing”, and how good storytelling trumps beautiful writing every time. “If you finish a story or a novel, and everyone tells you how lovely the writing is, then you’ve probably screwed up. If they demand the next book, you’re doing a very good job indeed.”

Follow the spark

Once upon a time, a writer wrote a book full of twists and surprises, about dragons and werewolves, mothers and lost children, loves and betrayals. The first draft was completed in the rush of blood called NaNoWriMo, and for once the writer was so pleased with her story that she stuck with it and started the laborious process of revising and beautifying.

The plan was to finish this process loooong before Nano rolled around again the following November, which would leave her plenty of time to plan the next novel, which would be a continuation of this exciting story.

Can you guess what happened next? Or rather, didn’t happen?

Yes, that’s right, I didn’t finish the revision. I still have seven scenes to go. As November loomed closer I began pushing myself to plan the next novel while still madly revising – not an impossible task, certainly, but every time I tried I ran up against the same problem. I knew, in very large terms, what needed to happen, but everything I loved about the first book was missing. The twists and mysteries were what made the first book exciting for me, but they’d all been revealed, and the second book would be a much more straightforward “kill the baddies, win the battle” affair.

And I couldn’t think of any way to make it interesting enough that I wanted to write it.

I’m sure, ultimately, I will be able to, but with mere days left in October I knew I couldn’t come up with anything in time. It looked like I’d have to sit Nano out this year.

Then, on the 30th of October (why do I do this to myself?), I thought: Self, don’t be such a piker. Why don’t you just write something else?

Oh, sure. Last year I was so organised. You should have seen me! I had characters, plot twists – scenes planned out on index cards. Me, the ultimate pantster, and I even had an outline! I was so proud of myself. No more flailing around in the dark! And Nano had gone so smoothly as a result.

And now here I was, getting ready to buy a ticket on the express to Flailsville again. What was I thinking?? I didn’t even have an idea. What could I possibly find to write about in one day?

Well, said the little voice, you always said you wanted to write a version of the fairy tale Toads and Diamonds. Even as a kid, though I’d loved it, it seemed to end too soon. But what happened next? Maybe I should write it and find out.

A little spark of excitement flared. Okay, get out a pen and piece of paper, and write down half a dozen different ways you could approach it. Change the sisters to brothers? Set it in an unusual location? Tell the story from the “bad” sister’s point of view?

Soon I had a bunch of ideas and a whole lot more excitement going on, and that’s what decided me. Write the book I felt I should write, or the one I now really wanted to write?

Easy decision. Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re not bursting with excitement at the beginning, the chances of making it to the end aren’t good. When you have two (or more) ideas to choose between, go with the one that sparks for you. 

So that’s how I came to be 13,361 words in to Attack of the Fairy Tales, a novel I had no inkling of a week ago. I’m living in downtown Flailsville again – crazy place, but a lot of fun sometimes.

So there’s my writing tip for the week: follow that spark!

Elsewhere, on the glorious internet …

From the “I could have told them that” files: Google discovers putting M&Ms in ceramic containers and healthier snacks in clear glass ones encourages employees to go for the healthy food rather than the confectionary. Well, derrr.

This is the same reasoning that leads me to ask the Carnivore to store his chocolate in the downstairs fridge. I know it’s there, but because it’s not staring me in the face when I go to the fridge, I don’t raid it.

On the writing front, a couple of interesting links about characters:

Ever noticed how “strong female characters”are just women who can fight like men? They aren’t allowed to be “strong” in any other way, nor can they have any other attributes. Male characters, of course, can have multiple facets to their personalities.

“I don’t think it’s my job to make likeable … characters. I think it’s my job to make compelling characters” says author Deborah Levy. Good characters have to have complexity. Instead of one-dimensional caricatures (like “strong female characters”), they show “the nuance and ambiguity behind seemingly simple behaviour”. Just like real people.

In the world of fitness, a new university study has shown that interval training can accomplish as much in seven minutesas a long workout in the gym. This is very timely for me, since I’ve just completed my second week of just such a program, the 12 Second Sequence by Jorge Cruise. So far I don’t have muscles on my muscles, but I’ve got my fingers crossed.

And finally, for a lovely rainbow of luminous colour, check out Faith’s lighthouse quilt top. She’s going to be doing a quilt-along of this pattern soon. I’m tempted …

Reproachful software and other motivational writing tips

My new version of Word has this cute little feature. When I open an existing document a message pops up asking if I want to start again from where I stopped last time. It’s quite handy, but if it’s been a while since I’ve worked on the book, that little message can seem more reproachful than helpful.

Welcome back. Pick up where you left off: Thursday?Thursday! But it’s Monday now! Aargh!
Yes, folks, guilt has been motivating Catholics everywhere for over 2,000 years, and it can work for you too. It’s a powerful force. (Though Protestants should not despair, as there’s always the Protestant Work Ethic to fall back on if you can’t manage Catholic Guilt.)

But of course guilt is interdenominational and, ridiculous as it seems, this perky little message from my software does make me try harder not to leave it so long between writing sessions. Pick up where you left off: 2 hours ago?gives me the warm fuzzies and certainly ensures speedier progress.

My constant battle to triumph over the perky “pick-up” feature led me to wonder what other weird things could be motivating. We procrastinators writers are always looking for tips on how to actually, you know … write.

To-do lists are another thing that work for me. What’s so weird about that? you ask. To-do lists are mainstream. Everybody’s doing them.

Very true. Most people have at least tried them, and for the right personality the satisfaction of ticking those suckers off can be highly motivating. What’s weird about them, for me, is that even when the to-do list isn’t writing-related, the sense of achievement I get from ticking off mundane chores makes me feel all accomplished and cheerleady. You wouldn’t think paying bills or organising an in-tray would put anyone in a real yes-you-can-do-it frame of mind, but that’s how it appears to work. Buoyed up by little successes, tackling the revision seems a challenge to be enjoyed rather than something fearsome.

Two key factors with to-do lists:

1)      Keep the items small and do-able. Finish the book is too big a chunk to bite off; it’s more likely to lead to drowning your sorrows than making any progress. Write 5,000 words this week or Revise three scenesis better, and will keep you happily busy at your desk instead of throwing yourself off the nearest cliff in despair at the enormity of the task ahead.

2)      Tackle the thing you’re dreading most first. It’s tempting to leave something difficult or uncomfortable to deal with till last, but then it just hangs over your head, blighting everything else and causing unnecessary stress. Bite the bullet and get it over with, then enjoy the feeling of sweet relief at having it out of the way. Usually, once you do it, it turns out not to be that big a deal anyway, and you wonder why you were so worried about it.

And don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get everything ticked off in the allotted timeframe. You may not have accomplished everything you’d hoped to, but usually just setting those targets means that you’ll accomplish more than you would have without them.

So what about you? Do you have any tips on getting things done?

Elsewhere, on the glorious internet …

For a beautiful burst of colour, check out Matt’s Japanese flower blanket. So gorgeous! I’m making a scarf with this pattern, but so far  my scarf is only six flowers long, so it could be a long while before I get to wear it. In the meantime, I’ll just have to admire his.

Elizabeth Bear on how to move past that stage where your writing is getting “rave rejections”, ie I loved this but …

Seth Godin muses on the end of bookstores: Basically, people have too many other amusements to bother with reading, especially when so many have suffered under well-meaning but dull education programs that make reading a chore. “More than once, friends have said, ‘you should be really pleased, I even finished your new book.’ My guess is that no one says that to Laurence Fishburne about his new movie.”

Had to laugh at that, and it’s a valid point, but I don’t believe you can therefore assume reading is dead – only that there might be many more readers if education didn’t insist on foisting “worthy” books on kids. But judging by the kind of books my girls are assigned (eg Uglies by Scott Westerfeld), things have changed a lot even since I was at school, and the future of reading seems pretty healthy.

Elsewhere, on the glorious internet: Netball Barbie!!

OMG! Barbie’s a netball star! You’re all going to think I’m obsessed with dolls after ranting about Disney’s Princess Merida doll in my last linktastic round-up, but it’s not true, honest.

However, I freely admit to being obsessed with netball! One of these dolls may already have made its way into my house … what can I say? She comes with a netball! And a drink bottle! And a sports bag – and even A TROPHY!! How awesome is that? Plus she’s a Goal Attack. Shooters rule!

It’s nice to see a doll that encourages little girls (and the odd big one) to focus on their love of a great sport, instead of continually pushing the beautiful helpless princess ideal.
Still in the land of toys, an interesting review of Minecraft, a computer game that is Baby Duck’s latest obsession. Him and umpteen billion other small boys around the world! We have a rule in our house that “the M word” is not to be mentioned at the dinner table, otherwise the Minecraft chatter would be non-stop.  Despite that, it’s a good game, just like playing with Lego onscreen, with the odd monster thrown in to make things exciting. You build during the day and defend yourself at night – “it makes clear the ancient ties between creativity and survival”.
Teeth-grinding stuff on “the lack of books for boys” in the YA section: It’s ironic that people complaining about this can’t see “that YA is so female-centric because coming-of-age stories for young men have already been staples in the ‘real books’ section for decades. Because being a young straight white man is universal, see, while being a girl is something that’s impossible to care about unless you’re both a girl and stupid.”

Hey, maybe all these boys who aren’t reading are too busy playing Minecraft.

On to writing advice:
An interesting take on the old “show, don’t tell” maxim: “Think of your book as a movie. Telling is anything you write that the camera does not see.”

Fantasy writer David Farland is wise on “being prolific”. There’s no magic to it. Work hard, focus, find little bits of time between other things and use them. Don’t fritter your life on Facebook or watching television.

Which brings me to indie publishing, which is a field where the successful writers seem to know all about being productive. The question is not “write a series or stand-alones?” with them, it’s “one series or more?”. Writing fast is no longer the problem it was when a writer had to wait on a big publisher’s schedule. Now it seems to be the key to success.

It’s an exciting time to be an author. As Kristine Kathryn Rusch explains, “indie writers, indie books, indie publishers now have the same access to bookstores that traditional publishers do. The playing field has just leveled.”

Which means that a lot of authors are leaving traditional publishing, or at least combining it with indie publishing. An interesting story from Elisabeth Naughton explains how traditional publishing wasn’t as great as it seemed from the outside, and how self-publishing came to the rescue. “I even hit the USA Today bestsellers list! But what no one saw was the hard reality: I wasn’t making any money. I was working my ass off for a couple thousand dollars, which I was then spending on promotional materials, conference travel and expenses to write MORE books. In fact, I was spending more money than I was making.”

Did you guess I’ve been spending a lot of writing time reading about indie publishing instead? Bad Marina. No biscuit.

One last link, from Lindsay Buroker: on establishing a fan base before you have a book out. 

The long and the short of titles

Over on Magical Words, Will McIntosh raises an interesting point about story titles: that you have a lot more leeway in naming short stories than novels, because a short story is usually part of a collection (either magazine or anthology) that people are reading, and most will try each story regardless of whether the title grabs them.

With a novel, however, the title is one of the holy marketing trinity that makes a browser pick up a book in a bookstore, or click on it on a website (the other two are the cover and familiarity with the author’s name). A good title is a selling tool that hints at what the reader can expect to find in the novel while making it sound enticing. A lot to expect from a handful of words, no?

Some writers don’t worry too much about finding the perfect title, knowing that their editor will probably want to change it anyway to suit what the marketing gurus think will sell. Many publishing contracts specifically say that while the author may be consulted on the title, final say lies with the publisher.

Other writers obsess over their titles, feeling that their knowledge of the book makes them the best person to find a title that perfectly encapsulates it – and who wants to get stuck with an awful title? Better at least to have some suggestions ready when the publisher starts to talk titles.

But what makes a good title?

Till last November I always thought I had a knack for titles. The “perfect” title usually leapt into my brain along with the story, usually something drawn from the writing itself. Easy peasy. (I say “perfect” since very few of my stories have been exposed to the rigours of the outside world, so they could be atrocious titles in reality, but at least I haven’t had to strain my brain too much to think of them.)

Then I started last year’s Nano novel. Step one: open new file. Check. Step two: name and save new file. Er …


Despite being unusually prepared story-wise, nothing leapt to mind. Oh well. “Nano novel.doc”. Brilliant, I know.

Never mind, something will occur to me as I write the story.


I’ll think of a title when I finish writing it, then.


I’ve now been working on the revision for two months, and it’s still called “Dragon novel”. It’s like having a six-month-old baby called “Hey You”, because nothing better’s occurred to you yet. Very frustrating.

So. Back to the elements of a good title, courtesy of another post on Magical Words:

You want something punchy, and short enough to fit on the spine of a book and still be legible (a very practical consideration that I hadn’t considered!). It should raise a question in the reader’s mind, so avoid common words – uncommon words, or unusual combinations of words are intriguing, like A Game of Thrones, or Fahrenheit 451. And make sure you don’t have to read the story for the title to make sense.

All of which are good tips, though sadly not helping with “Dragon novel”. There are a couple of huge secrets at the heart of this novel, and every title I’ve thought of is too spoilery. I guess I’ll just have to keep plugging away at the revision and hope that something brilliant comes to me eventually.

In the meantime, have you come across any intriguing titles lately?

Elsewhere, on the glorious internet …

A fascinating article on a concept called “survivorship bias”, exploring the misconception that to be successful you need to study others who’ve been successful. In fact, the truth is that “when failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible”: Survivorship bias

Author Kameron Hurley takes the idea into the world of writing and marketing books: Survivorship bias and writing better books with bonus marketing chat: “The more we focus on ‘success’ the more we focus on the one-offs, the quirks, the outliers. It’s focusing on failures and middle-of-the road pieces that teaches me how to improve.”

Still on the topic of writing, a helpful post on the NaNoWriMo blog on turning those cardboard characters into living, breathing people: Occupy Steve: how to flesh out your characters

Disney “pretties up” their new Princess Merida doll. Sigh. What’s the world coming to when even a Disney-created princess, all tiny waist and huge eyes, isn’t considered appropriately princessy? Merida, from the movie Brave, had messy hair and freckles to go with her independent I-don’t-need-a-prince-I’ll-do-it-myself attitude. At last! An imperfect princess who didn’t wait to be rescued for real little girls to admire.

“The freckles had been erased and the fabulous tangled hair was pageant coiffed. She looked like a titian-hued Cinderella. Even the dress is blue. Fierce, awesome Merida had joined all the other Stepfords on the shelf.” Where have the brave girls gone? 

On to something more cheerful: Full of colour and quilting delights, Kathy Doughty’s always-inspiring blog here features, among outrageous chooks and beautiful medallion quilts, a shot of me contemplating a wall full of pink and orange triangles as I ponder the layout of a new quilt: The creative bug

And for pretty crochet goodness, Lucy from Attic 24 has some lovely mandala flowers. I’ll have to give these a go!

‘Twas the night before Nano

’Twas the night before Nano and all through the house
Every writer was panicked and glued to their mouse
The outlines were dodgy and full of plot holes
And 50k words seemed impossible goals

Okay, so now you know why I write novels and not poetry. But yes, Nanowrimo starts tomorrow, that month of mass insanity where writers all over the world egg each other on to write a 50,000-word novel during November. I’m equal parts excitement and terror. 50,000 words in a month – even though I’ve managed it four times before – is very daunting. Or maybe that should be “because I’ve managed it four times before”. I know exactly what I’m getting myself into!

On the other hand, knowing what’s ahead is also kind of exhilarating and I guess that’s the reason I keep coming back – the excitement when marvellous plot twists come to you seemingly from nowhere, the buzz when the writing’s going well and, above all, the rush of making it to the end. (And maybe the joy of collapsing when it’s all over!)

This year we have four Nano-ers in our house. The girls will be doing it again for the third year, with Drama Duck aiming for 15,000 words and Demon Duck going for 5,000. Baby Duck is joining the fun for the first time, with a goal of 1,000 words. I don’t think he’ll have any trouble. Some of his dinnertime monologues about lego or Skylanders are waaaaay longer than that.

If only he could find a way to write a story using lego bricks he’d be set.