Tag Archives: revisions

After the Smack (or Stab, or Break, or Burn, or…)

Since I’ve just gutted the middle of Stone because the plot was moving with all the grace of a square-wheeled locomotive chugging over the Rockies, you get a Sunday blog post so I can clear my head before I resume stitching the innards back together.*

So here it is: As I mentioned on Twitter, discussion forums for MMA and other fighting sports are a goldmine of writerly information.

There are bunches of little guides out there on how fantasy writers can realistically and vibrantly portray combat.  Information on everything from edged weapons and individual duels to archery and battle formations is fairly easy to find.  But not as much hoopla surrounds the aftermath of those fights—the small injuries, the crippling injuries, and the physical/emotional life-long consequences.  It’s simple to Google for “broken leg” and come up with a pile of guidance from modern medical sites.  But that’s only part of the story.

From a storytelling perspective, it’s a mere sliver of the story.

The fun part—the part that makes plot and character development real—is what happens after the injury is sustained.

Continue reading After the Smack (or Stab, or Break, or Burn, or…)

Pomegranates and Bats: Details in Revisions

Sand of Bone heads off to its editor and final reader tonight, so I’m taking a little break in order to let me brain think about something else for a bit.

I am not a structured worldbuilder. Before writing, I do not sit down to answer a hundred questions about culture, religion, navigation, textiles, government, livestock, gender relations, history, trade, exploration, child-rearing, and economics. That’s not my process. (For that, check out this post, wherein I discuss altering my worldbuilding to fit the plot rather than the other way around.)

That doesn’t mean I don’t care. I deeply care. I don’t expect to get everything right, but I want it to be right enough to keep the reader with me.

Continue reading Pomegranates and Bats: Details in Revisions

Writer’s Blog Tour In Four Questions

I was tagged by the smart, talented, and generous writer Janice Smith to answer questions about my projects and process. If you haven’t already, go read her answers first!

What am I working on?
Right this moment, I’m finishing revisions for Sand of Bone. It’s the first in a desert fantasy series centered around a woman seeking to escape her wasteland prison, destroy her brother’s conspiracies, and reclaim the elemental mastery the gods took from her bloodkin three generations ago. It’s also about civil unrest, savage rivalries, and a dynasty clutching after the power of their ancestors. Some characters fight because honor won’t permit them to ignore wrongdoing; others pitch in because they’re bored with everything else. And there are caverns with lava tubes, people with eyes that glow and shimmer in the dark, and souls wandering the sands in search of redemption.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?
Umm… Actually, I think the search for novelty within the genre is highly overrated. I’ve never put down a book I loved reading with the thought of finding something completely different. I’ve never loved a story because of its niftiness alone. Novelty of technique or topic is a one-off, and the genre now too wide and deep for anyone to even know if what they’re doing is totally unique. So rather than seek ways to be different for the sake of being different, I’d rather develop skills that – when used over and over again – make readers want more of what I do.

(Consistency is all I ask. Immortality is all I seek.)

So what do I strive to do well? Characters – strong, weak, whatever – who have presence on the page regardless of the size of their part or their role in the story. Dialog readers can hear as they read. Pacing that moves rather than dallies, that holds tension behind even the quietest of moments, punctuated with a touch of humor. Prose that flows rather than clunks. Fight scenes compelling enough I can include the details I want. Worlds in which a person’s competence and integrity – not gender – determine how the person is viewed.

Why do I write what I do?
I write the stories I’d like read.
I write to explore ideas that trouble me. My stories are, in a way, conversations with my own conflicting views.
I write to entertain myself, and love it when I’m also able to entertain others.

How does my writing process work?
Every project is different, but most incorporate plotting and pantsing. A huge amount of writing takes place in my imagination long before words arrive on the page, and I tend to envision them as if I’m a director rather than a writer. I’ll run key scenes through my mind – adjusting dialog and tone, blocking, backdrops, and so forth – then remember I need to remove some of those details when committing the scene to paper.

Most of my process has evolved to include Magic Index Cards. I make one card for each scene (NOT chapter). Each card includes the following: POV character, setting, date scene occurs, the number of days since the story started*, primary events, primary character interactions, dialog, realizations or discoveries (if any), key symbolism and/or foreshadowing, and anything else I want to make sure appears in that chapter. Eventually I’ll set all the cards in their proper order and number them. When it’s revision time, I use the backs of the cards for notes. Yes, it’s messy and manual, and I’m sure folks do indeed find the Scrivener option to be awesome, but I get something intangible out of the kinetic process so I’ll stick with it.

I rarely go back to revise before finishing a project, though I will toss notes onto the index cards at any time. I’d rather remodel a finished project than rebuild. It’s a preference requires me to really think through my choices before putting them down. (That, and the fact I once killed off a character early in a story that could have really used him later on.)

When I’m pretty happy with the novel, I’ll send it off to beta readers. I have the most awesome of beta readers, truly. They’re smart, talented, creative, open to possibilities, and damn fine writers. And I never forget how lucky I am that they share those things with me. That’s not to say I use every piece of their feedback (for one thing, they rarely agree on everything!). But they always give me things to think about and consider. It makes for a novel written with awareness of choices rather than plain “instinct” or whatever.

Once revisions are done, off it goes to a copyeditor. I strive to submit as clean a copy as possible to my editor who is, for the duration of the project, my contract employee. And making life easier for my employees is, in my opinion, a matter of good ethics. (Now that I think about it, I’d likely put greater effort into keeping my house tidy all the time if I’d hire a housekeeper. Hmm.) Besides, producing a clean manuscript is just as much a skill as storytelling. It’s worth doing well.

And there you have it – my answers to the questions.

I’ve tagged three marvelous women to pick it up from here: Casey Blair, Tam MacNeil, and Alena McNamara.

*Remember when I mentioned wanting to do pacing well? Tracking the number of story-days is critical to my ability to do that as I tend to write multiple viewpoint, multiple location, multiple storyline novels, and I tend to cram a great deal into a small amount of time. Sand of Bone covers a long time, by my usual habits (four entire months!). Sword and Chant, on the other hand, all took place in less than a single month’s time.

Festivals of SheyKhala

Now that Serpent Heart is up, my attention turns back to final revisions for Sand of Bone.

Celebrations—when, how, and why—are fantastic worldbuilding tools that can give depth to a culture, move the plot, and reveal character.  The longevity of the celebrations, and how the celebrations have evolved over the years, inform us of the culture’s values.  Whether characters partake in, shun, or are indifferent to the festivals tells us how well characters are integrated into the larger culture.

In the desert and delta of SheyKhala, where the upcoming novel Sand of Bone takes place, festivals mark the turning of seasons primarily through focus on close kin, neighbors, and the greater community.

The year ends and begins with the Feast of Kin — the midwinter festival of family. Though jokes are often made about the different ways one could serve one’s family members at a feast, the festival is critical for maintaining good will among kinship groups as they head into that time of year when close quarters and limited food supplies can raise tensions. For the days leading up to the feast, family members do favors for one another, and the most secret favors are considered to be the ones performed with the deepest love and respect. The feast itself, though, is geared toward indulging the children in all possible ways. Grandparents say the focus on children ensures young adults consider carefully what their nighttime cold-weather activities might engender.

Promise Days happen in the spring, when the seasonal rains provide the low desert just enough moisture to coax short and spiky grass to cover the sands between brush that blooms but once a year. The notion of promise-keeping is incorporated into the river levels as well, since the season’s rains promise to flood the delta once the water rushes down from the high desert. It’s also the time of year consorts decide to make new vows, renew their existing ones, or part ways. It’s one of two festivals that include the ceremony to brand women and men as full Blades in service to the ruling Velshaan. (The other branding takes place during Shades.)

In midsummer, everyone takes part in Givings, which the cold-hearted and tight-fisted call the Mis-givings. Able-bodied folk provide service and work for the neighbors, preferably those less fortunate. (As you can imagine, there can be a snark-fest in determining who among one’s competing ‘friends’ is more or less fortunate.) In larger settlements, Givings is the day set aside for civic duties such as field maintenance, road and wall repair, and sewage care. Moreover, every person must pass their evening meal to someone less fortunate, and will not eat unless someone more fortunate takes pity on them. The two groups most likely to go without an evening meal are the middling poor and the ruling Velshaan bloodkin. In fact, the Velshaan absolutely refuse to eat on Givings Day because they have only the gods above them.  Why the gods don’t provide the Velshaan with their own meals is a subject of speculation only among those who wish to live a life of hard labor in Salt Hold.

Lastly, the welcome cooling of autumn leads up to Shades — three days and nights of honoring and remembering the dead, and (supposedly) spiritual visits from dead ancestors or notable figures. It’s understood ghosts don’t really show up every year to everybody, just like we understand Santa Claus doesn’t really visit every child’s home on Christmas Eve. Shades is instead a time to reflect on past losses. It’s considered wise to think of what you’d say to loved ones if you were a mere ghost able to communicate but once a year, and wiser still to say those things while living. But, as with our Christmas traditions, parents take advantage of the festival to instill behaviors and beliefs in their children. Parents will sometimes leave small notes or symbolic gifts from “ghosts” for children to find, and the final night of Shades is marked by costumed folk going door-to-door masquerading as prominent figures from SheyKhala’s history dispensing advice and warnings.

In addition to the large festivals, smaller celebrations are more often either observed within families or smaller groups, or confined to certain occupations and such. There are feasts on the Dark Moon, when the nightsighted folk see the undimmed beauty of the stars. (It’s a favorite among young people looking for excuses to spend the night away from family.) More ritualistic celebrations occur around the first pressing of olives for oil, the training of horses, the welcoming of new Blades into the ranks, and thanksgivings for salt and iron.

In more recent years, remembrances for the Woes have been added to the festival calendar. Officially, they are held to acknowledge the losses and destruction caused when the Velshaan warred among themselves. But they are really intended to both remind the people of what power the Velshaan can (or, more accurately, could once) wield, and remind the Velshaan bloodkin of what fate they could meet if they stand against the wishes of their family.

How much of this will make it into the final version of Sand of Bone? Only bits and pieces mentioned mostly in passing. Half the story takes place in settings removed from the usual cultural constructs. The sequel, Breath of Stone, more tightly entwines the cycle of celebration and remembrance, and the third (yet unnamed) novel downright depends upon them to trigger… well, to trigger happenings. (Shh, can’t tell!)

But I know the festivals are there — why some people choose to ignore them, why others anticipate them, and why still others will seek ways to use them. It’s another valuable tool in this writer’s Swiss Army Knife.

Treasure In Storage

It sucks knowing you’ve forever lost a beloved story because you didn’t properly back up your work.

Six-ish years ago, about the time life went sideways and put my writing plans on the shelf, my computer did a spectacular crash without warning. I had backs-ups and/or hard copies of all but one novella and one short story. Alas, those were two of my favorite pieces. Lesson learned.

I spent most of last weekend helping my mother sort through and clear out a large storage unit. Amidst stacks and stacks of boxes, we found half a dozen boxes of my things — mostly books, some files over ten years old, Dev’s old toys. But stuffed into a box of books was a stash of spiral notebooks and a large envelope just the right size for a short manuscript. I pulled it out, not at all that interested when it seemed to be nothing but a partial of a story even now sitting on my computer and waiting for attention. But it looked like there was some printing on the other side so I turned it over and…

I jumped up and did a dance of joy. I’d found a full copy of that lost novella!

Second best of all? The story still holds together.

Best of the best of all? I can put back in what I had to cut before, when the only options for publication had firm word-count caps. Clocking in at 23K, the story had all of two professional markets available to it at the time I wrote it, and cutting it down to that length forced me to say goodbye to some depth of worldbuilding and complexity. Now I can flesh it out to the length I want it to be. The additions and subtractions aren’t extensive or lengthy, but will make a difference. Besides, I decided it was best to lay groundwork for future stories should I decide I want to write more about these characters.

So that’s my project for the coming week—and it’s a nice distraction to have while I await beta feedback on Sand of Bone.  With work and cooperation from life’s many demands, I should be able to release it by the end of May.

On Making My Writing Time Matter

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Once upon a time, I wrote two to three thousand (sometimes four thousand!) words a day, in four to five hours, routinely. I thought nothing of it. I wanted to write. Stories poured through my thoughts. And my time was severely limited by caring for my infant son, managing the family business, and teaching the occasional class. So when I had a sitter for the afternoon, or an evening free of responsibilities, I wrote like mad.

Somewhere along the way, those thousands of daily words began to sound immense. Part of it was the paralysis of acquired knowledge—that second guessing of every phrase because you’re thinking of what the story ought to look like after it’s been edited and polished rather than thinking of just writing the damned story. Part of it was the internalization of the “appropriate” writing schedule as slow and measured. And part of it was the increasingly complicated life and schedule before me. A thousand words a day? Damn, that became a stretch.

Here is the contradiction I face today: I don’t have time to write slowly—not only because my writing time is slim and often broken, but because I can’t build the career I want on one book every twelve to eighteen months. But unless I quit all other work, including parenting and homeschooling, I couldn’t see how to make that happen. I just couldn’t get any umph in my productivity.

Then I read this post by Rachel Aaron on how she went from struggling with word count to producing anywhere from 2K to 10K words a day. Then I read it again. Then I set it aside and forgot about it because BUSY.

Halfway through revisions for Sand of Bone, after I’d had days of writing time that produced damn near nothing, I sat staring out the window and longing for those days of fingers flying over the keyboard, when life had been simpler and…

Wait a minute: life hadn’t been simpler at all. Different, yes, but still demanding of my time. So what was the difference, and what impact had that made on my writing?

It took a couple cups of coffee, but once I stopped looking at how I was different as a writer and instead looked at what was different about my obligations, it made sense. Before, many of my daily tasks involved work that was physical. Rocking a child to sleep or sealing and stamping tons of envelopes, cleaning the bathroom or sorting papers requires very little concentration, leaving the mind free to work on other things. So I plotted during those working hours, came up with character dialog, imagined settings and a cast of thousands. By the time I sat down to write, there was no staring at a blank page while I figured out what I was going to write. I already knew. I’d danged near memorized paragraphs from my imagination. The words tumbled out with excitement.

These days, I have few obligations that permit my mind to wander. I can’t teach an all-day seminar on classroom management while considering how a group of warriors are going to react to a change in leadership. I can’t run a karate class while figuring out the connection between an historical event and what a character sees in her dreams. I can’t oversee my son’s high school education while at the same time “rehearsing” the dialog I want to insert into a scene. And I cannot, nor do I want to, quit doing those things.

So I’m screwed, right?

That’s when I remembered the methods Rachel Aaron shared:

Here I was, desperate for time, floundering in a scene, and yet I was doing the hardest work of writing (figuring out exactly what needs to happen to move the scene forward in the most dramatic and exciting way) in the most time consuming way possible (ie, in the middle of the writing itself).

What she then shared as her solution was essentially what I’d been doing in those productive years, only I’d been doing it in my head as preparation for my constrained writing time rather than on paper. Once I smacked down my knee-jerk objection (“I can’t take even more time away from getting words down!” “Why not? You’re not being all that productive anyway!”), I set to work making detailed sketches of what I wanted to accomplish that day. The remaining revisions and new writings for Sand of Bone wrapped up rather quickly. Success!

Now I’m facing a complete rewrite/reimaging/slash and burn of what was once two very long novels into a single volume to follow Sand of Bone. (See picture above.) Since Side 1 of Aaron’s diagram seemed to be my personal key to increasing my productivity, I opted to look at how best to personalize her advice to my own method. So in addition to jotting down those points she suggests, I’m adding two elements I’ve discovered are my own stumbling blocks. First, I’ll come up with the chapter’s opening line. It might be the first thing I scribble down, or it might be the last. But that alone will eliminate Blank Page Syndrome.

Second, I’ll use the word “because” when writing down character actions and decisions, and answer that “because.” My poor skill at communicating character motivations is, I think, a very real and potentially fatal flaw in my drafts. I get so caught up in What Happens that I forget the readers aren’t privy to the characters’ Whys. Using “because” forces me to consider it, put it in the forefront of my mind, so I’m not then second-guessing (and thus slowing) myself during the writing process.

I refuse to take eons to finish Breath of Stone, but I’m not setting a firm date until I see how this new method works over the next few weeks. But I’ll whisper to you, my darlings, that I’d like Stone to be drafted and ready for betas by the end of June. Frankly, I’d like it done my Wiscon, but know revisions for Sand will interrupt things mightily.

Today is the start of writing for Stone. I’ve finished the plot overview, then expanded the overview into sixty or so Magic Index Cards. In a few minutes, I’ll pull the first card and set to work handwriting the larger details, the first line, and the because. While Stone will be an imperfect test of the process, it’ll be enough to go on.

Does this writing method match yours? Is it totally different? Have you found something that works well for you?

Musing on Revisions

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The changes made to Sand of Bone were extensive enough I didn’t bother editing an existing digital version.  I opened a new Word doc, set my handwritten scribbles of chapter overviews and notes and index cards on one side (more on those later) and a well-flayed printout covered in black Xs, arrows, and circles on the other.  Then I started typing from word one.

To my great happiness, past feedback on the partially-revised chapters I’d sent to beta readers months ago was mostly positive, though some of the same going-forward questions were asked by more than one reader.  First was the concern for the number of viewpoint characters.  Second was my choice to open the novel with a certain viewpoint character.

Both are quite valid.  I use seven viewpoints to tell this story.  That’s plentiful indeed, and took much shuffling of Magic Index Cards to balance timing and interactions.  But with a story that has five factions trying to meet different goals—and with those five factions rarely in the same place at the same time—five viewpoints would be the absolute minimum.  A sixth viewpoint better defines what is at stake overall.  And the seventh?  Well, I could make an argument to cut it, but that’s the viewpoint bridging Big Plot with Internal Plot.  And that character becomes very important in the next book, and the character is one of my favorites ever.

I think I made all seven work together.  I think the story is better for each one.  If I’m wrong, I’d rather work to find solutions than cut any one of those viewpoints.

That second concern…  I struggled with it.  I really did.  Then decided to leave it as-is for this round of beta feedback.  I’d like for it to work for readers because I like the way it works.  But I’m probably the odd one out.  We’ll see.

My real challenge in this round was integrated changes in world building.  To me, some of those changes look as obvious as neon green patches stitched onto lavender calico.  Is it because I’ve lived with previous versions so long that any change sticks out, or is it because my revisions skills are inadequate for the task?

And, of course, as I was falling asleep last night, I came up with a couple tweaks I could have made before sending for beta feedback.  Notes have been written, but I’m determined to leave the danged thing alone until I hear from readers.

So… now what?  Notes for the next book!  Unlike Sword and Chant, which works as a stand-alone (though I’d like to write its sequel someday), Sand of Bone was always meant to be at least a trilogy, if not a five-book series.  Plot and revision changes make it simple to edit and squish what was Book 2 and Book 3 into a single volume, but those same changes opened up the what-comes-next possibilities.  Ideas I’d long ago set aside are now in play—not only for this set of characters, but other characters in the same world.  I have my son to thank for that.  He’s very good at listening to me lay out complicated plot and world building issues, then tossing out a simple, “What about this?” solution.

But first, I’m going to do the spring cleaning, and the spring seedlings, and the spring garden prep.  After the winter we’ve had, I’m ready to air out the house and grow things.