Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Magic? What Magic?

Posted by: Keri Stevens
I spend many of my waking hours in Stewardsville, Virginia. Sometimes I'm lurking in the graveyard, eavesdropping on conversations among the funerary statues. Sometimes I'm on the bluffs of the Miagullet River looking for the flash of a long, long tail. Sometimes I'm competing in the Slurring Bee at the biker bar out off Interstate 52. Sometimes I'm in the basement of the church shoving cafeteria trays into the sink while weary searchers come in and out. No matter where I am, it presents a problem--since Stewardsville is a figment of my imagination.

Note to self: find a better word than "figment"--implies smallness, when, in fact, Stewardsville takes up a huge chunk of my brain.

Sooner or later, however, I must step back, take in the vista of the world beyond my computer screen, and roll up my sleeves. For me, editing is not magical--it's structural and mechanical. If you'd like to believe in the fantasy of the magical writer channeling entire stories a la Jack Kerouac ON THE ROAD, stop reading here.

Otherwise, I'm about to show you the inside of the top hat and roll up my sleeve so you can see where I've hidden the coins.

My first drafts are hot messes. I'm a pure pantser, which means that my first draft is 100,000 words of plotting. My characters talk back to me (and they're never encouraging). My descriptive passages are chock-full of "notes to self" to find better words than I've written--and more often than not, I hack those paragraphs out anyway. But, after one good novel and a few, ahem, false starts, I have process that works for me.

Step 1: Write the crapdraft. 100,000 words minimum. This is the time to stick in all of those pretty little side episodes that don't lead directly from beginning to end. 75% of them will get deleted later. 25% will become major plot turning points.

Step 2: Trim the toenails. Run spell check. Cut/replace to create contractions. Jump around looking for squiggly lines and see if you can make them go away.

Step 3: Cut the hair. Eliminate most dialogue tags. Cut variations of "to know", "to realize" or "to think." Do a document-wide frequency check for words and phrases (God bless the creators of WriteWords ) and edit the overused ones away.

Step 4: Amputate fingers and toes. By now, you've been all over the document at least two or three times. You've already gotten a feel for those paragraphs and scenes that really do not work at all. Move them over to a "bits and pieces" file because you can't stand the idea of eliminating hundreds or even thousands of words at a time.

By this point, I'm narrowing in on a specific word count target--about 85K. Why 85K? By 85% I'm at the target length for the final book. The story of Stewardsville itself is infinite--every character is the potential hero or heroine of a subplot or even a novel of his own. At some point, therefore, each book's content must be an arbitrary choice, or I'll never see my real-life family again. My hero and heroine get 85K to tell the story of their love with the backup singers of their choice. After that, it's some other couple's turn to take over my brain.

Step 5: Wipe up the blood and see what's left. Create a scene list (I divide my chapters out at this point as well). Identify the page, the POV character, the action of the scene and the hook that will take it forward. Discover that you've been in the same POV for 50 pages. Discover that several scenes are pointless. Discover that others are missing. Discover that your scenes have neither action or nor hook. Drink Scotch.

Step 6: Two-day hangover.

Step 7: Go back to page one and fix the problems you identified in Step 5. Revamp that scene list as you go because that's the core of your true synopsis, if you need one (as opposed to that thing you plotters write before you write the book that you CALL a synopsis).

Step 8: Send your file to Kinkos (or whatever they're calling themselves these days) and print it out in hard copy. Read it out loud. Read it backwards. Mark the heck out of it and fix those problems, too.

Step 9: Run spell check again just so you don't embarrass yourself in front of your beta readers, then send it off. And guess what? You'll embarrass yourself anyway.

Step 10: Do what they tell you (or don't--working with critique partners is a whole 'nother blog post).

It's a bloody, messy, unsexy process. But when you're finished, your rough lump of brain vomit is a pretty, polished, princess-cut diamond that glitters especially well under the influence of scotch.


  1. I'm an under-writer rather than over-writer so I have to go back and add lots of stuff after the first draft, but otherwise, I'm completely with you on the messiness of writing. I like to think I'm a swan (or a castle), sailing serenely along the river (or through the sky) while out of sight there's a hidden world of furious paddling (or servant hall activity).

  2. ROFL Jenny when are you a swan vs. castle? Which books or situations stimulate the flip from one to the other?

  3. When the writing is going well I'm a swan -- busy but with delusions of elegant serenity. When the writing is not going well, I'm a castle, hunkering down to withstand the siege of doubt, doom and looming reviews :)

  4. Great post. I love learning about other writer's processes...since mine is so scattered and full of false-starts. I'm beginning to internalize the concept that I have to find my own method, and knowing how many others there are out there is good news.
    And I found On The Road to be completely unreadable. Just sayin'.

  5. I tend to underwrite too. My first drafts are a little fragmentary with little notes like "add some description here" then I jump right into action or dialogue. I also write xxx when I would need to stop and look something up so I can go back and do a search for all the xxx's and fill in the blanks when I'm done. I'm the kind of person that gets bogged down in details though so if I don't do it that way, I lose the thread of the story.

  6. Teri Anne, I really think it is about learning your own process--but I've made leaps and bounds because I've lifted "how-to's" from others.

    Eleri--I always lose the thread of the story. Always. My plots resemble yarn balls after the cats have gotten at them. In the cutting, however, I find the straight lines and lump-free arcs.

  7. Keri - you are a hot mess! I loved this post and getting more insight into your process. I'm a plotser (half pantser, half plotter) and it ain't pretty either! See you on twitter!

  8. It's always interesting to me how many methods there are for cranking out a novel. I'm learning how to be a better plotter. Previously my plotting consisted of bullet points for each chapter.
    I polish each chapter as much as I can before I move on to the next. Anal. I know.

  9. I'm with Barbara. There are so many roads to story creation that I absolutely love getting a glimpse into other people's processes.

    Like some others, I'm an under-writer. I need to learn to put in the notes of (add description here) because it's something that I have a tendency to gloss over (I don't like to read lots of description, so I'm not overly fond of writing it).

    That said, I'm only managed to pants the first draft of an entire novel once, and it took me longer than any other (12 months compared to 2-3 normally).

    Oh, and I prefer vodka during my editing phase...okay, really at any phase ;-)

  10. Great post!! Very interesting to learn others' methods. I'm a hybrid plotter-pantser. My first drafts are very rough, short, mainly consisting of dialogue and a bit of action. This is where I'm making sure the plot works, and I get to know my characters in the process. On later drafts I fill in the details and add word count.

  11. I love reading about how others write. I'm a very lazy person, so I try to streamline before I get anything down on the computer. My brain is a sorry, sorry mess, but it's fun in there. Kudos to you for such a work ethic. I'm all about electronic now. I don't print anything out unless I have to.



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