The Art of Rewriting Fiction

Right now I’m working on a new short story called “The 9th Street Gang,” part of my calendar mystery series set in Kansas City starting in January 1899.  Here’s the cover for the story that about twenty of my friends and kin helped me with.

Now I’m revising the story itself. And it’s taking me longer than I expected thought it would. Why I should be surprised I really can’t say given the length of this hand-out, one of my favorites from when I taught writing at the college level. This particular version that I prepared for a post NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) workshop focuses on fiction, especially the novel. But really you can use it for any kind of writing you do. Reviewing the handout today is helping me out, so I thought I’d share it with you, too.

Congratulations! You’ve completed the first draft of your novel and the joy of creation still surges through your veins. But don’t rest on your laurels too long, for now you have to rewrite. No I don’t, you say. I just run the spell checker and shoot it off to an agent, right? Besides, did Shakespeare rewrite? Apparently not, but his contemporary and friend Ben Jonson said, “Would that he had blotted a thousand lines.”

So now comes the time to get busy “blotting a thousand lines” (or more) because rewriting is a vital part of writing, the part that “makes the work come alive,” to quote Nancy Pickard, author of several popular mystery novels including Kansas Book of the Year, The Virgin of Small Plains. During rewriting, you “re-envision” the work and bring it closer to your original intention, obscured or lost in the heat of creating the rough draft.

Though often the writer comes up with new material during the rewriting phase, generally this last stage involves more analysis than creation, less the right side of the brain than the left. While new writers often think they can’t write unless they get it right the first time, most professionals rely on rewriting to bring their work up to par.

Effective, interesting, and vital writing is clear, coherent, concise, concrete, correct, and varied. Rewriting helps you give your work these qualities.

Okay, okay, I’m convinced, you say. So how many revisions should I do? As many as it takes, the mentor answers. If you’ve completed a work that you first drafted largely in your head, such as a flash fiction short story, you might not need many overall revisions. On the other hand, many pros freely admit to doing up to twelve major revisions of their novels. The average romance author does two and a half to three drafts, but Nancy Pickard says that she rewrites virtually up to the day of publication.

To rewrite a piece of fiction, you cut, add, change, move, and combine. But verily I say unto you, the greatest of these is CUT.

In rewriting, concentrate on these areas in this order: content, style, and mechanics. Why this order? you ask. Simple. It makes sense to get the content right before you spend hours polishing a sentence (paragraph, scene, chapter) that you might have to cut later–or worse, refuse to cut (though it no longer fits the work) because you worked so hard on it. Take the advice of Tony Hillerman who used to labor over his first chapters until he discovered that later chapters changed the first ones too much for him to use them. (He claimed to have had a drawer full of discarded but wonderful first chapters.)

On the other hand, if you’re rewriting the content of your novel and notice a sentence you can improve quickly or an error to correct, go ahead. Similarly, if you think of a great new bit of dialogue in a later stage of revision, by all means add it. (But be sure to reread this added section carefully, for often errors abound in such passages.)

ADVICE

1) To keep up your momentum and improve your chances of completing your novel, work on it everyday.

2) To minimize the number of corrections to make later in the process, initially format your manuscript in the correct form for submission later on to an editor or for production as an eBook or POD.

3) Follow the rules of punctuation like putting periods and commas inside quotation marks, etc.

4) For ease in rewriting, make separate files for all the chapters of the work.

5) If you use Microsoft Word, go to the Authoring and Proofing Tools in the Preferences menu, and in the Spelling and Grammar menu, click on “Show readability statistics.” Run your spell checker on each chapter as you complete revising it. The information will be especially valuable to you in later phases of the revising process. This document, for example, has 4% passive voice (much higher than my usual fiction percentage of 0%), 63.1% Flesch Reading Ease (considerably lower than my usual fiction reading ease of 85%), and 8.7 Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. No, I’m not related to that Kincaid, and my fiction averages from 3.5 to 5.2 grade levels.

6) Cultivate good stylistic writing habits like avoiding passive voice and employing showing writing instead of telling writing.

Still, generally, as John Braine advises, it’s best to write the rough draft as fast as you can and take as much time as you need for revision. Danielle Steele, for instance, takes six months to research a novel and six months to rewrite, but she blasts through the rough draft in a month of crippling twenty-hour days.

REWRITING FOR IMPROVED CONTENT

When you’re ready to start rewriting your novel, be patient and don’t just dive into revising. Instead, sit down and read the book through. Then skim it and take notes on what you see and patterns you notice. For instance, does your novel have a clear “Who wants what?” established very early. Does your protagonist clearly “drive the plot car” overall? Is the outcome clear at the end?

Especially pay attention to the big issues of structure. For instance, does your novel have a clear beginning, middle and end? That is, does it have a hook in the opening and a plot point near the end of the beginning part to set up the major story line? Is there some sort of important development in the middle section of the novel, that is, about halfway through? Is there a plot point near the end of the middle part of the book that sets up the end of the book? Do some math to see where these plot points fall in relationship to the overall length.

Consider your narrative line. Once you start your story, do you continue in a straightforward line or do you switch back and forth in time, from past to present to future to past? Think about your audience and this maxim: The larger the market you want for your novel, the easier you want to make your novel to read. That is, employ the K.I.S.S rule especially when you’re writing popular fiction and want lots of people to read your book.

Consider the type of novel you’re writing and reader expectations for that genre. If you’re writing a categorical romance, for instance, do you have at least one love scene? If you’re writing a mystery, is there a body or at least a crime?

On the basis of your observations, prepare an outline or write a narrative synopsis. Advice: Do not consider your outline or synopsis as engraved in stone.

As you write a second draft and concentrate on content, you might want to CUT all or part of ground clutter (action that leads nowhere), sections of dialogue that run on too long, unneeded characters and everything related to them, sections of description that run on too long, scenes that contribute only slightly to the plot, extended sections of background or exposition, unneeded transitions between scenes, sections that tell the reader what to think instead of letting them draw their own conclusions, unneeded or overlong passages of thought, unneeded material between the climax and denouement, and any element that impedes the pace.

On the other hand, you might need to ADD details that explain later action, descriptions to make a character or setting come alive, character development and motivation, background information, more dialogue, significant action, reminders to the reader, foreshadowing, clues and red herrings, symbols and metaphors to highlight theme, and transitions between scenes.

Often you will want to CHANGE from telling writing into showing writing, from indirect to direct speech, from indirect to direct thought, or from one point of view to another.

Sometimes, too, you might find that, in drafting, you got in a rush and tried to do everything at once. So you might need to MOVE introductory exposition to later in the story, exposition closer to the action it relates to, and thematic commentary or epiphanies closer to the end. You might also need to move scenes and plot points.

Finally, you might need to COMBINE one character with another or one scene with another.

GETTING FEEDBACK

Once you have the content about right and can think of nothing much else to do to the work, let gentle, sympathetic, knowledgeable people (preferably not family members) read your novel and give you feedback on what it’s like to experience the work for the first time. When you get your novel back from your readers, look over their comments and rewrite to improve the content at least one more time.

Once the content seems about right, move on to the next phase of rewriting, the PEP phase. Advice: At this point it’s often best to put all your chapters into a single file at this point, so you can also spot glitches in formatting for your eBook or POD versions of your novel as you edit.

REWRITING FOR IMPROVED STYLE

Now, you will P(olish the style), E(dit for grammatical correctness), and P(roofread for misspellings and typos).

Verily, again I say unto you, the greatest of these is CUT. Overall, including cuts for both content and style, try to make your final version at least ten percent shorter than earlier drafts. (Some writers draft very long and cut out nearly half.)

For concision, CUT redundancies; one, two or even three adjectives out of every three; there is/are, which is/are, it is . . . that; excessive or elaborate dialogue tags; and most adverbs.

For clarity and coherence, you might need to ADD transitions and dialogue tags.

For clarity, vitality and ease of reading, CHANGE long sentences and paragraphs into shorter ones; big, fancy words into smaller ones; uncommon words into more usual ones; over-used words into less common words; passive voice into active voice; states of being verbs into action verbs; progressive verbs into straight present or past tense; general into specific; abstract into concrete; unclear pronouns into nouns; and fuzzy word choices into just the right words.

For clarity and variety, occasionally MOVE phrases from their usual spot into more unusual ones.

For coherence and variety, occasionally COMBINE many short sentences into longer ones and many simple sentences into compound or complex ones.

But as Strunk and White say in The Elements of Style, break any of these rules rather than commit a barbarity.

REWRITING FOR CORRECTNESS

Always edit a completed manuscript with extreme care because mechanical errors and misspellings betray you as an amateur to agents, editor and readers. If you can’t spell, learn! Use a spell checker (but still proofread for homonyms, like “too,” “to,” “two”). If you don’t know how to punctuate, take a review course. And no matter how sharp your editorial skills, always proofread your material several times before you submit it or publish it.

In the PEP phase, you might find it helpful to read your manuscript aloud. (James Michener and his editor read one of his big novels to each other five times.) Run your spelling/grammar checker and get your overall stats on readability, etc. It’s also good to use “find and replace” to locate your personal trouble spots (one of mine is over-using the word “then”). If you have fellow writers who proofread well, you might ask them to proofread our work. Or you could hire a professional proofreader or copy editor.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PROOFREADING

As Jack Riley topped the final rise before town, he saw the buzzards circling above him. Not this time, he thought, a half smile on his face. He had just been through eighty miles of the roughest dessert anywhere . . .

 

Better Busy Than Bored

WiP Report # 15

Hi, All!

“Better busy than bored” has become my motto in life, maybe even more after retirement than before. Here’s what has kept me busy (and certainly not bored) lately.

FATAL FEBRUARY

The fourth draft of Fatal February, the second Calendar Mystery is done. (Way late. I’d planned–foolish me–on having it out in February 2015.) Still I revised 100,000 words in 26 days. That means I booked along at the pace of 3,846 words a day. (Yeah, that pun was intended. They usually are, you know, especially when people claim, “no pun intended.”)

But I didn’t have a lot new to add or too much to change this time through, just mostly tweaks. Somehow, though, I managed to add 7,000 more words. If I cut 10 percent–as Stephen King claims he always tries for in revising his books–that would bring the total down to 90,000 words. But we’ll see.

Here’s a picture of Draft 4 on top of Draft 3. Please notice that the new draft only has chapter tabs, not a whole bunch of tabs for corrections that create a hula skirt effect.

IMG_1097

I hope the fifth and final draft of the book won’t require much so I can get it done fast and out soon. It’s feeling about right to me except for the last few pages. Still, I’ve had lots of fun with Minty Wilcox and Daniel Price in their second outing. Sparks and repartee just seem to fly when they’re together.

Of course, there’s always something that slips by even the most cautious editor. For instance, recently, I pulled a sentence or two out of the book to use as an example in a writers’ group. And I discovered I’d left out the verb, unintentionally. Yikes. My early readers will tell me what else I messed up, I’m sure.

CINDERELLA, P. I. STORY COLLECTION AUDIOBOOK

This is really exciting news!

Several weeks ago I posted a request for auditions for Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories through Amazon’s ACX. Just about when I’d decided no one would bite, a wonderful lady named Alyx Morgan sent me a reading of the first five minutes of the first story in the collection. And hearing it, I found myself smiling even though I know that story very well. So we signed an agreement through ACX and she’s working on the audiobook. I’m really loving what Alyx is doing, making all my characters coming alive and all so different from each other.

Meanwhile, for assorted reasons, I decided to design a completely new cover for the audiobook instead of modifying the existing cover. That means this self-publisher has to climb yet another learning curve, this time in Photoshop. Huff, puff, get on up that hill. But practice makes perfect and all that stuff.

Here’s a peek at the audiobook cover. Yeah, I know the title isn’t quite centered. (I’ll fix it.) What do you think about it otherwise?

CPIaud81815I thought that a path through  woods would work since this collection contains stories in which Cinderella goes into forests. (I took the photo in an old Osage orange hedge row near my house.)

Best, Juliet–definitely busy instead of bored

Myself as a Work in Progress

IMG_0972WiP Report # 13

Boy, howdy, how time flies.

When I recently checked my files, I discovered that it’s been a year and nine months since WiP Report # 12 in which I reflected on my decision to quit trying to go the traditional route of getting published with the help of an agent and editors.

As I looked over that blog installment, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far I’ve come as a self-publisher since I posted it. By July 25, 2013, when I posted that blog, I’d published only five Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mystery short stories as Kindle eBooks. I had also nearly finished writing Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel. But as I said in the blog, besides publishing Walls, I wanted to revise and publish Wings, its sequel; two or three Cinderella, P. I. story collections; and up to five more novels sooner or later. Also I wanted to write a contemporary series with a baby boomer amateur detective “before I check out.”

There’s nothing like the devil on your tail or at least time’s winged chariot bearing down on you to speed matters up. And it certainly helped that I’ve been writing with the aim of being a published author since 1986, so I had about ten novels and other completed manuscripts in my files.

Still, I’m a little amazed to report that in the year between October 9, 2013, when I published Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel as a Kindle eBook and October 9, 2014, I published three novels altogether including January Jinx, the first in a historical mystery series; two story collections, and an additional short story. All this added up to more than 300,000 words or the equivalent of 1,100 print pages. Plus in National Novel Writing Month, November 2014, I drafted a 50,000 novel set in a community college and tentatively called Fall into Murder. In the months since December 1, I’ve written another draft of Fatal February, the second Calendar Mystery. I missed my February 2015 deadline to publish Fatal February, but still I aim to have it out this year along with a third Cinderella, P. I. story collection, possibly a collection of essays about mystery fiction that I originally wrote for this blog, and a stand-alone thriller called Death in Shining Armor. Besides the sheer output, I’ve also taken on more of the tasks of self-publishing such as doing some of my own covers and formatting instead of hiring someone to do those things for me.

Perhaps most important, I’ve gained a lot of confidence in myself as a writer and self-publisher. For example, I used to get all bent out of shape with “hi tec anxiety,” but not so much anymore. I still beat myself up sometimes about my low sales figures, but they’re improving.

FYI: These five books are all available as Kindle eBooks and trade paperbacks at Amazon.com. If you enjoy these novels and stories, please review them. Even a few positive words help.

Till next time. Best, Juliet.

P. S. Didn’t my daughter do a beautiful job on the cover of January Jinx?

AUTHOR BLOG CHAIN

Author’s Blog Chain

My friend Lisa Daly has tagged me to follow her in the author blog chain. I’m very excited about the publication of her first novel, Mystery, Ink: A Novel Way to Die. You can find more information about it on Lisa’s website: http://www.lisakaydaly.com.

Here are my answers to four basic questions about my work.

1. What are you currently working on?

Right now I’m about a quarter of the way through the first complete draft of Wings, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel. (I’ve already written parts of it.) It’s the second of two novels about Cinderella, twenty years, three kids and a few extra pounds after the ball. In the first she’s been convicted of a heinous crime she didn’t commit and exiled far to the north of the Kingdom of AzureSky. And she has to escape the walls that confine her. In Wings she flies home on Mother Goose to save her loved ones and to set the Kingdom straight after a villain and his minions have severely messed it up.

2. How does your work differ from others?

Typically, stories about Cinderella are for the young. Mine are for grown-ups, though they often contain some of the whimsy, charm and humor that people of all ages like in fairy tales. Though firmly in the fantasy realm, the Cinderella, P. I. novels and stories have a contemporary edge and are also mysteries.

Besides the Cinderella, P. I. novels and stories, I have begun publishing a series of historical mysteries set in Kansas City beginning with January Jinx in 1899. In these books, I’m trying for a light approach to historical fiction. I include humor, let my protagonist flirt with a good-looking stranger, and avoid extreme violence.

3. Why do you write what you write?

The simplest answer is that I habitually read mysteries, so that’s why I write mystery fiction. My second favorite fiction genre to read is fantasy. This partly explains my gravitation to fairy tale fiction. (I wrote “Cinderella, P. I.,” the first story in the series in 1996, long before the debut of Once Upon a Time and Grimm on television.)

The longer and more complex answer is that I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction that allows me to escape from my fairly pedestrian life, that is, to go on adventures in faraway places, long-ago times, and never-never-lands with characters I can identify with. I don’t like being in the heads of creepy people and I prefer happy endings to sad ones. I enjoy humor and wit. And I try to write the same sorts of fiction as I like to read.

4. How does your writing process work?

As a retired teacher of writing, ironically I find this question a little hard to answer. I guess this is because what gets me started on a story can be so mysterious. For instance, I wrote the first Cinderella, P. I. story as an experiment. I’d been to a writers’ conference and heard someone say it’s very hard to write a complete short story in fewer than 2,000 words. (This was before the rise of flash fiction.) So I decided to try to write one. I fixed on Cinderella as a protagonist because a textbook I used in a course I taught had eight different versions of the fairy tale. Plus I was intrigued with “happily ever after.” To my mind, if you’re bored, you can’t be happy, so what could Cinderella do twenty years, three kids and a few extra pounds after the ball that would keep her busy instead of bored? Well, solve cases. I decided to use first person, so any exposition would sound like dialogue, and present tense to avoid using “had” too often. Then of course, my Ella started talking to me, and the story took off.

A few pointed questions help me on my way. Here they are and in the order I like to ask them. Who wants (or needs) what? Does (s)he succeed? [“Yes” and “no” are less fun than “yes but” and “no but.”] What obstacles can I throw in this individual’s path?

Once I get tentative answers to these questions, I start shaping the plot according to standard plot structure described in books like Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist: Part 1, the Set-up; Part 2, the Development; and Part 3, the Resolution. Part 1 needs a hook to start the story and to grab the reader’s attention and plot point one to set up Part 2; Part 2 needs to develop the set-up plus a midpoint or turning point and plot point two to set up the ending in Part 2; Part 3 needs a crisis and a resolution/denouement. When I have only a few obstacles, aka plot complications, I write a story. Lots of obstacles and I write a novel.

Once I’m involved in a project like Wings, I try to work on it everyday so I don’t lose my momentum. Also, I try to follow the common advice to write the initial draft from start to finish as fast as I can. The revising process takes longer as I do lots of revisions, often attacking different issues in different drafts. For example, I try to fill “plot holes” in earlier drafts and work on style including readability in later ones. Early drafts go fairly slow. Later ones can go very fast.

You know what? There is another question, sort of a Question 3b. Why do you write? My answer? Writing makes me happy. It’s as simple as that.

You can buy Cinderella, P. I. and Other Fairy Tale Mystery Stories as a Kindle eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00GMMUSTI) or trade paperback. Walls, a Cinderella, P. I. Novel is available as an eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00FQLQ2WI) and trade paperback. January Jinx is now available as a Kindle eBook (www.amazon.com/dp/B00HSSSBE4) and the trade paperback is coming soon.

It’s my pleasure to end my contribution to this Authors’ Blog Chain by tagging my friend Theresa Hupp.

MTHupp pic

Theresa is a writer of fiction (novels and short stories), essays and poetry.  She is currently working on a series of novels about the Oregon Trail in 1847 and life in Oregon and California during the Gold Rush. You’ll have to read her post next week to find out why she is writing historical fiction on this era of American history. She has worked as an attorney, a mediator, and a Human Resources executive and consultant. You can follow her blog, Story and History, at http://mthupp.wordpress.com/ or follow her on Facebook at Theresa Hupp, Author, at https://www.facebook.com/TheresaHuppAuthor

Theresa is the author of Family Recipe, a collection of essays, stories, and poems about family life.

Family Recipe cover Hupp

 http://www.amazon.com/Family-Recipe-stories-essays-families/dp/0985324406/ref=la_B009H8QIT8_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392327751&sr=1-2