Kill your darlings

Sometimes it’s not how many words you write, it’s how many you cut.

Now, there’s no doubt about it: it feels more fulfilling–and it’s more fun–to rack up big word counts of shiny new words. 1,000 words written? Yeah, not bad. 1,500? Right on. 2,000 or more? Now we’re talking’! But writing is more than churning stuff out. Writing also means revising and editing, rewriting and proof reading. And it means cutting.

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A lot of red ink. Some rewriting, a few word changes, but mostly just hacking out stuff that was slowing the story down.

Today was all about the cutting. Over the last few weeks I’ve taken a break from my novel to work on some short stories–to clear my head, get a little perspective, and have some fun whipping out some stuff I can finish in short order. One of them I drafted  entirely in longhand before typing it up, which was a nice breather away from the computer. Going through it a few times now, I’ve managed to hack out 450 words (about 5% of the total) and I hope to cut at least that much more. Already it’s leaner, tighter–and better. Sometimes less really is more.

Not to get overly spiritual, but–actually, let me just dive right in: this is a spiritual thing. In the Gospel of John,  Jesus compares himself to a vine, his disciples to branches of the vine, and God the Father to the gardener. He says that God prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they will be even more fruitful. He prunes the good ones, the fruitful ones.

Whether it’s a story or our lives, pruning means cutting away at good stuff so it will be even better. And it’s not easy. With the story, it means cutting away stuff I spent time on. A lot of time. Stuff I like. Stuff that I think is pretty well written–but that needs to go so that the whole piece will be better. (It’s called “killing your darlings” here in the land of writing.)

The same is true of our lives. More isn’t always better. Trying to do everything usually means not doing anything very well. “A mile wide and an inch deep” isn’t a good thing. We have to be willing to be pruned (probably in lots of ways).

The pruning of my story isn’t done. I’ll be doing another round of it tomorrow, trying to get those next 500 words cut. It’s not going to be easy; after all, pruning well is pretty much just as hard as getting the words down to begin with. But the pages are printed–and the red pen is ready.

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Audacious writing week

Put on the coffee, log off Facebook, and get the laptop charged up–it’s time to write. A lot. Yes, it’s time for an audacious writing week (came up with that myself). Okay, maybe that’s a bit much. Maybe aiming to write a whole mess of words doesn’t quite fit the mold of “showing a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks.” After all, it’s just writing; it’s not like I’m going to be swimming the English Channel or climbing the Eiger. But it does mean putting everything else aside, putting in the hours, and putting down the words.

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Here’s a distraction I can handle: a lovely view of Notre Dame from Shakespeare & Co.’s new cafe.

Why now? Well, Merideth is off to D.C., the girls are on a ski trip with their school (gotta love the schedule of vacances scolaires in France!), so for me, it’s the perfect opportunity for a mini-NaNoWriMo of my own.

Now, I could use the time to get out of Paris to see another part of France; I did that in the fall and had a great week in Colmar and even got some good writing done. But doing that also means a lot more planning and energy spent finding places to write. So this week I’ll stick to Paris and see how much I can get done.

Planning the work, working the plan

Planning for this week has already paid off. Leading up to it, I spent time going through the manuscript, evaluating which parts need the most work, where the gaps are, and seeing what I could hope to get done in a focused week of writing. Suffice to say, I’ll have no shortage of material calling for my attention.

Having some specific writing goals helps, but the real enemy to getting the writing done isn’t found in the writing itself–it’s in all the distractions that clamor for my attention. (Like blogging, maybe? Hmm…) So, the more important planning I’ve done for this week has gone into how I’m going to organize my time, such as:

  • Getting to bed at 10. No binge-watching Netflix and noshing on Cheetos (can you even find those abominable things in France? I hope not!) and then waking up too sleepy and sluggish to get the writing started.
  • Getting up at 6 and getting ready for the day. (So far so good!)
  • Planning out some reading to give my brain a break from writing, since I can’t just write for eight hours straight. I’ll be starting each day with a chapter from 1 Peter and then dip into The Elements of Eloquence throughout the week for some writerly inspiration (I blogged about finding this fantastic book here. Check it out. Everyone who writes should read this book!). I’ve got a couple other books cued up as well.
  • Being intentional about exercise and meals and even chores.
  • Planning some lunches and coffees with friends and even a game night. I’m hoping to get a lot of writing done, but I still need to see other human beings!

So: here’s hoping for 15,000 words–or more–this week. I’m already more than 10% of my way there.

And now it’s time to get back to it. The next chapter is waiting.

 

The Death [of a] Star

Writing means learning, because “write what you know” only gets you so far. And so that means research.

Do you know how a supernova works? It’s one possible way a star’s life can come to an end—a violent, catastrophic, glorious end. That much I know. But beyond that…

So over the last few days, doing research has meant all sorts of fun exploring astronomical phenomena having to do with novae and supernovae, including gamma bursts, accretion disks, star clusters, pulsars, binary systems, even the “Chandrasekhar mass limit”—a term I will not be using in my prose. After all, I’m a novelist, not a physicist!

Getting back down to earth, it’s also meant learning about various forms of energy production, as well as flight technology (or the lack thereof in an otherwise modern society—which is turning out to be a bit of a trick to make plausible). And very much back down to earth, I’ve been reading up on epidural hematomas (a kind of traumatic brain injury), since I have a character who—well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it.

A word to the wise: it’s not enough to rely on google and wikipedia, as helpful as they are, especially when it comes to highly technical matters like medicine or astrophysics (which kind of is rocket science). So that means calling in the experts. And that’s where it really gets fun: talking (or at least emailing) with friends who know all sorts of things that I sure don’t about such topics.

And no doubt about it: it’s worth it.

  • I’ve learned more about how cultures develop energy sources from a single paragraph in an email from a friend than I ever did in twenty-two years of formal education. (Granted, I studied music and theology, although I’m pretty sure I got an A in “Rocks for Jocks”—I mean, Geology 101—back in my college days… not that it helped me understand mining or the importance of hydrocarbons in starting an industrial revolution…)
  • I’m getting closer to nailing down the workings of a significant stellar event that occurred prior to the start of the story. This part is taking some doing; just like writing the darn thing means multiple drafts, so I’ve gone through multiple versions of what exactly happened in the past and how it’s all playing out during the time of the story.
  • That business with the epidural hematoma? Thanks to a tip from a friend in the medical world, figuring out how that works means I should be able to sidestep the tired trope of the character who is mortally wounded but manages to talk and talk and talk, conveniently offering up their significant story revelations before expiring (like the coloratura soprano who sings beautifully and delicately—and for a seeming eternity—as she lies dying on the stage).

All this means I’ve been doing more reading and studying and pontificating than actual writing lately. But the research is worth it, right? And yet we can all point to huge scientific errors and implausibilities and plot holes and general sloppiness in books and movies and TV shows that we love—in spite of the fact that TIE Fighters wouldn’t really make that awesome sound as they zoomed by… So is it really worth it? Or should I just pretend there’s sound in space, make that supernova behave however I want it to, and let my dying character hang on as long as the plot requires?

Well, if nothing else, I appreciated reading this from my personal physics answer-man:

“As for your questions, congrats… you’ve already performed more due diligence than JJ Abrams did for either Star Wars or the Trek reboot. Watching the astrophysics in those just makes my teeth hurt…”

So yeah, it’s worth it.

Mugging on the métro

Ten seconds. Ten seconds—if even that—and the moment was over, the only thing left to do was head home.

FullSizeRenderI had just caught the métro at the Dupleix station in the fifteenth arrondissement. Blue skies, bright sun, but only a few degrees above freezing. It was 3:40 in the afternoon and I only had to go two stops on line 6.

I’d spent the last hour or so at a little bakery where you can get a coffee without paying extra to sit at a table. Nice! (But really, what’s wrong with that place—don’t they know they can charge at least an extra euro for that?) Sixty minutes of organizing a whole load of documents I’ve created over the last year full of backstory material, character notes, and world-building ideas. I’m a little over a month into working through the second draft of my novel, and when you’re inventing a fictional world from scratch, there’s no shortage of things to keep track of—technology, architecture, history, religion, even just what kind of things people eat for dinner… and on and on and on. It had been a good session but I was ready to shift gears. I was even thinking it might be good to write another blog post. You know, set the sprawling multi-year project aside for a bit and write something fun.

So: laptop packed up, scarf wrapped tight, baguette for tonight’s dinner in hand, on the way to the Passy stop. Throughout most of Paris the metro runs underground, but this stretch is elevated above the street and affords some nice views, even crossing over the Seine just southwest of the Eiffel Tower. It was a typically quiet ride. People almost never talk much on the métro; when I do catch snippets of conversations it’s as likely to be among tourists as not.

I found a place in the front of the car where the folding seats are as well as a pair of vertical poles to hold on to. It wasn’t particularly crowded. I easily could have found a seat, but for such a short trip I didn’t bother, so I was leaning against the front wall of the car. Sitting on one of the folding seats was a woman with a mane of curly hair spilling over her scarf, tapping away on her phone. Texting, or surfing the internet, I didn’t notice, but whatever it was, she was very intent. Across from her, a youngish guy slumped in his seat, hardly anything distinguishable about him under his big winter coat. A middle-aged man with thinning black hair got on and I stepped back to give him some room. The doors closed and we sped off to the next stop: Bir-Hakeim, the one closest to the Tower.

We got to the station and the doors opened. I was facing the open doors, not particularly focusing on anything as a few people stepped into the car. And then: a blur of movement burst into my peripheral vision and I spun my head to see the young man in the big coat rushing the woman and then he instantly tore away and lunged out doors and onto the platform. Immediately she was yelling. But it wasn’t a scream; he hadn’t hurt her. It was shock, it was alarm—it was anger. And then I realized what I’d seen: he’d snatched her phone right out of her hands and was running away with it.

Those who had gotten into the car poured right back out and a moment later at least three people had the thief pinned against the wall of the platform. The woman got right into the fray and ripped her phone back out of his hands, all the time berating him in a steady stream of loud, angry French.

It’s still hard for me to understand spoken French; Parisians in particular are known for speaking so quickly that comprehension can be a challenge for novices like me. So I didn’t catch a word of the torrent of outrage that she was blasting the young man with. But her tone of voice, her body language? That I understood.

Ten seconds: that’s all it took from the time he grabbed the phone out of her hand to the time she tore it from his. I was still on the métro, still stunned by what I’d just seen. I looked down and noticed a small shopping bag on the floor where she’d been sitting. It appeared to be a few frozen meals. I picked it up and joined the circle surrounding the would-be thief. One of the men holding him was dialing on his phone, calling the police, I assumed. The woman was still venting her anger. When she took a breath I held up the bag to her. “Excusez-moi…” She took the bag, turned back to the young man and started in again. I watched for another moment and then got back on the métro.

The buzzer sounded, the doors closed, and we pulled out. The Seine was soon passing beneath us, the Eiffel Tower standing starkly against a cloudless sky. I got off at the next stop and walked the few blocks home.

As I made my way, it occurred to me: if the thief had just timed his crime better he might have gotten away with it. If he had grabbed the woman’s phone when the buzzer sounded, he could have dashed through the closing doors and been running down the platform before people knew what had happened. For her sake, I’m glad he hadn’t thought of that.

I can still picture the look on his face as he stood on the platform, held by the Good Samaritans. He didn’t look like a hardened criminal. He didn’t look like anyone who would even make me nervous or make me check that my wallet was still in my pocket. He looked like a kid who had just gotten a bad grade on a test or who had been scolded for not making his bed. It was hard for me to tell how old he was. Sixteen? Twenty? Should he have been in school? Did he have a bed? Had he done this kind of thing before? He didn’t look homeless, but whatever his situation, I’m sure I wouldn’t want to trade places with him. What would happen to him now? I have no idea.

It’s a bit ironic: this morning I was perusing a forum where people were discussing an area in the outskirts of Paris known for pickpockets, where you probably don’t want to go alone at night, and where you need to have your wits about you at any time. But there’s a great cathedral there, so it’s on my list. I was thinking of going out there today, but decided to save it for another time.

Instead I stayed close to home, on familiar turf. And witnessed something I’d never seen before. Bad things can happen anywhere, anytime. Paris learned that lesson last year. I was reminded of it again today.

A day in the life of revising a manuscript

November is NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. But while literally thousands of intrepid novelists are well on their way to their goal of 50,000 words, I’m neck-deep in the midst of revising the novel I started plotting in the fall of 2014.

I wonder if this is what it feels like to shoot a film. Hours of footage that have to be crafted into a coherent story. Endless editing of scenes to get them down to their essence. Cutting other scenes entirely. Realizing that even with all that’s been done, new scenes still need to be shot. Then going over it all again. And again.

In the last few months I’ve radically reconfigured my opening at least twice. Probably three times… maybe more! A pivotal moment at the end of the first act has been surgically removed and transported to its new home in the middle of the novel–as well as transposed to an entirely new physical location in the story, and most of the characters involved have been cut from the scene. So: pretty much a total rewrite. (Deep breath.) But not today.

I’ll pull back the curtain and give you a peak at what two cups of coffee and three hours at Coutume Café near Napoleon’s Tomb got me this morning (actually, this work carried over into lunch and then into yet another cup of coffee back home):

  • I gave one of my characters an addiction. Another one finally got a name—at least a provisional one (it’s a character I only started developing when I started revising the first draft).
  • I wrote yet another page of longhand notes on the what the main character is like.
  • Since writing a novel always means coming up against one’s own limited knowledge base, I compiled a list of questions related to astronomy, communication and satellite technology, etc. that I need to send off to a smart person.
  • Other tasks are mundane, but necessary to keep everything straight: I added a bunch of internal headings, not to be included in the final product, but to help me keep track of where all the pieces are.
  • I picked a few of the new scenes I’ve come up with that need to be added and started outlining them.
  • And, joy of joys, I actually even wrote actual words in actual scenes.

Revising isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s worth it. Want to know more? Check out this fantastic post by Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog for a great overview of how and why to revise.

As she says, “One small change can create the need for cascading changes throughout a manuscript.” Don’t I know it!