Thoughts from the Writing Trenches – Part V

Broken teacup art - bruce witzel photoNow is the moment of my discontent – 99,000 words and I’ve reached a part of the novel I always struggle with – the middle. Writing all the characters into the story is challenging but at the same time, vastly rewarding. Writing the end always races away in a flurry of heightened tension, climax and the tying up of loose ends. But this middle section – putting actual words to character arcs, building that all-important tension, foreshadowing what is to come and walking the characters to the climax in ways that make sense – this part is hard work. No other way to describe writing the middle.

For me, creating my first draft is a constant process of zooming in and zooming out. When I get stuck, like I am right now with the middle, zooming out is what is needed.

Geranium inside cabin sunspace, feb. 26, 2017 - bruce witzel photo

I do this by creating lists, tables and maps. I went chapter-by-chapter listing the characters mentioned in each one. I don’t want to lose track of anyone and I don’t want readers to get to know an interesting character, only to have that character disappear then pop out of nowhere near the end of the book. If you’ve ever had this experience as a reader, you know it’s darn disconcerting. Another stepping back task was to create a table linking characters with their storylines, number of point-of-view scenes and how the storylines cross over from character to character. That was a colourful chart. Next came multiple attempts at mind-mapping major themes. I ended up with a simple chart of overarching themes with three subthemes and a few points under each of these. Every storyline can be subsumed within these themes.

Lakeview from the bathroom, March 9-2017 - bruce witzel photo

After those exercises, I felt back on track. How do you find writing in the middle? If you had a preference, would it be beginning, middle or end?

Moving On–For Now

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Maelstrom – a powerful whirlpool in a sea or river; a situation or state of confused movement or violent turmoil.

As hoped – the first draft of Maelstrom is done. In the hopes that it would stop me from tinkering and obsessing, the draft has flown the coop – gone to my editor for a read through and comments. Whew! It weighed in at 195,000 words. My drafts are written in Word, double-spaced in Times New Roman at 12pt. with standard margins. That amounted to 599 pages. Thank goodness I didn’t cross the line to 600.

The work of the last two weeks was the most intense writing experience I’ve ever gone through and it truly resembled the above definition of the word, maelstrom. Twelve to fourteen hour days living, breathing the world of the characters – all their ups and downs in my head twenty-four seven. Not easy as this book is much more of a suspense novel than the Crater Lake series. I knew what was coming and I was biting my nails.

I reached the two chapters that would form the climax and got stuck. Technical issues had to be worked out. Meanwhile, I skipped ahead and wrote the final two chapters and got that little chill when I typed the words – THE END. Bit of cheating but we do what we have to. Then I came back to the climax. Not sure that I’ve totally nailed those technical issues but we are talking first draft.

So – what comes next? I have been a poor blog friend the last month and hope to rectify that in the coming days. I’m looking forward to finding out what everyone else has been up to while I’ve been in self-imposed exile within the town of Haddon in the pages of Maelstrom. I’ve also got at least five books lined up on my Kindle that I am anxious to read and review. I’m looking forward to that I’m-all-caught-up feeling that I can see glimmering down the road a ways.

I’ll leave all of you writers with this great little quote Smile

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Let Your Questions Dig Deep into Your Writing

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I’m feeling weary but great on this rainy Saturday afternoon. The writing has been going well. I finished the first draft on Book one of The Light Never Lies a week ago. I kept up a decent daily word count on the writing for Book two all of last week. Today I managed to get my detailed outline for Book two completed. For me the outline is very much a back and forth process – I write a bit, outline a bit, go back and write a bit more and then outline some more. The best part of this kind of outlining is that it leaves lots of leeway for new ideas to emerge

This time around I have been using all kinds of outline props – coloured post-it note chapter pages, calendar pages, a story grid. All of these methods are a means to gather a lot of information together in a way that keeps the pertinent points in the forefront of my awareness.

Book two contained some emotional scenes and I found myself writing with tears flowing more than once. My novels attempt to deal authentically with difficult situations that can occur in young people’s lives from the point of view of young people themselves. I also examine the ways that the adults who surround these young people act and react within the contexts of their own life experience and circumstances. Lots of room for emotion.

I’m now looking ahead to the tools I will need when the first draft of The Light Never Lies is complete and I embark on the long and painful process of rewriting. Last night I came across a great article written by C.S. Lakin. Five Key Questions to Ask as You Write Your Novel.  Lakin is an author, copyeditor and writing coach. The questions I’ve summarized below struck me as being exactly what I will need.

1. Where does this scene take place? All you might need here is a whisper of information to drop the reader into the setting or there could be room for bringing in the various senses with richly textured description. You have to make sure the reader can get into the setting with your characters.

2. How much time has gone by since the last scene? Scenes need to string together in a cohesive fashion. If you jump forward or back you need to provide the reader with enough information so they can make the jump with you.

3. What does the point-of-view character think and feel as the action of the scene unfolds? Characters are revealed in the way they react to situations. This can’t always be told only through dialogue. Characters react viscerally, emotionally, physically and finally intellectually. Sometimes the scene requires that we allow the reader into the point-of-view characters head.

4. What is the point of the scene? If there is no point, it shouldn’t be in the novel at all. Every scene must either reveal character or move plot along or do both at the same time. And every single scene should be building toward that high moment in the story arc.

5. What is your protagonist’s goal in the book? You really should reveal this to the reader as soon as possible. This goal needs to be the driving force through every single scene you write.

Lakin recommends that a writer get in the habit of asking questions of their work at every stage of the writing process. I think this is one of the most useful suggestions I have come across.

This morning I started off my writing time by reading over what I wrote yesterday. Then I imagined I was a beta reader of my own novel. I wrote down about five questions – things I would wonder about or worry about or need clarified if I wasn’t the writer of this novel. Then I went back and tried to answer those questions. In the act of answering, I realized what made sense and what didn’t. I could see where to write more, where to cut and where to change direction.

So – here is my tip of the day – come up with a few question with which to explore your current writing. Questions allow us to dig in, poke around a bit and shake things up. There is no such thing as a stupid question and nothing so perfect that it can’t be questioned. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

(the above picture is a photograph of a painting that hangs in our living room – it is an oil on canvas entitled The Secret Garden by Mangus – it is a piece worthy of pondering, poking around in and settling down for a good think.)

A Weary Writer’s Lament

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I’m not quite as doubled over as Amarante out walking his pig in the movie, The Milagro Beanfield War. We had an opportunity to visit the little town of Truchas, New Mexico where Robert Redford directed this beautiful movie. We took the above photo in the State Capital Building in Santa Fe. It’s informally called the roundhouse and is the only round State Capital building in the US. Well worth a visit if you’re ever in Santa Fe. And please see this movie if you ever have a chance.

I am feeling a bit weary with writing. I thought it would be wise to assess my progress. The output on The Light Never Lies has been good – averaging about 2000 words per day. The first draft of the first section of the book is almost complete and that is weighing in at about 60,000 words. In my outline for the novel, I had blocked out the first section to set everything up, place all the characters on stage and get most of the back story that needs to be told out there. The second section will probably be about the same length. All the major action of the story will unwind, leading inevitably to the climax. Section three will be much shorter. I’ll get through the climax and then wrap everything up.

A little aside here – what does first draft mean? For every writer, this term probably amounts to something different – from point form ideas, to a wild writing marathon of spewing thoughts onto the paper as fast as one can type, to a piece of writing created according to a strict outline, it could even mean that preliminary editing has happened.

My idea of first draft is that the bones of the story are there. There may be far too many bones and I will definitely have to flesh some of them out more. I’ll probably have to rearrange some of the bones and of course there will need to be a lot of bone cleaning. But after that first draft, someone reading the novel will know what the story is about. They will know the characters, understand the main conflicts and the story arcs. They should have a clear sense of whether the book is any good.

I’ve done much more work with my post-it note outline for this novel that I did for the first draft of Disappearing in Plain Sight. I’m hoping this will mean less need to rearrange blocks of material as the novel progresses. We’ll see.

At the same time as knocking out the words for The Light Never Lies, I’ve been taking care of the final edits on the e-proofs for Disappearing in Plain Sight. It seems like I’ve been saying that over and over. How many times can one do the final edits? Good question.

Friesen Press offered me two rounds of revisions with the package I purchased. When I saw the e-proofs on the first round, I had requested several formatting changes and about 150 small text edits. When the e-proofs came back, I had to go through and ensure that all of those requests and edits had been done. Naturally some were missed. This is to be expected. On that second round, I had five formatting requests and about 60 small edits. Yesterday, I received the e-proofs that should have had all those changes. I still couldn’t move to final approval because a very small number of things I had asked for hadn’t yet been done or having been done, they created other problems. For example, asking for a word change at the end of a piece of dialogue was done, but in so doing, the quotation mark was lost.

Apparently, we are nearing the finish line. All the formatting issues have been taken care of, I really like the way the cover has turned out. I’m feeling good about my author bio and pic. I should be able to approve those final few little-bitty changes by next week and then sign off.

My reflection on this e-proof editing is that is an extremely difficult and time-consuming stage of the publishing process. Every requested change has to be checked and rechecked. And working with the pdf tools to make changes wasn’t exactly user-friendly.

The other challenge I’m experiencing has to do with moving back and forth between first draft writing and intense proofreading, between a sequel and a first book. Pouring out a story for the first time then switching over to proofreading involves a major shift of gears. And it’s hard to keep skipping back in time with the characters and the storylines.

No wonder I’m feeling a bit weary. I’m glad to say that writing for the blog is one of the bright spots in my day. I love the way a blog post cleans the palate. Short enough to give satisfaction, but long enough to really say something.

Today I’ve decided I won’t write anything but this post. I’m going to go for a walk and do some housework and relax. Where are you at in your writing process? How do you switch gears between tasks? What do you do to rest and refresh your weary, writer’s mind?

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