Underwater Basketweaving

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My writing style has evolved over the years, with a huge change taking place in the past three months.

When I was in college (back in the Dark Ages of the early 1980s), I had a very simple system for writing:  I sat down with a stack of college-ruled paper, and I wrote out my thoughts in longhand.  I read over my words once, editing for grammar errors.  Then, I typed up the pages, either on a Brother electric typewriter (my first two years in college), or using the Script text-formatting program on a mainframe computer that performed batch processing (my last two years.)  I exclusively wrote non-fiction, and this system worked well enough for me to graduate with honors.

When I was an associate in a law firm, I modified the process somewhat.  I still wrote exclusively non-fiction.  While I originally wrote out my documents longhand, I became a relatively early convert to an ancient version of WordPerfect, and I typed directly onto my monochromatic computer monitor.  I edited my briefs (despite their name, long documents intended to make a coherent legal argument) two or three times, often modifying word-choice, and occasionally moving a complete paragraph of text.  I still ended with one final grammar-based editing pass.

When I wrote my first published novel, I followed my more-or-less tried-and-true system.  I drafted THE GLASSWRIGHTS’ APPRENTICE from start to finish.  Then, I went back to page one and edited the story, deleting extra paragraphs of weighty, unwieldy description, adding brief sentences or paragraphs of plot support as needed.  (And yes, once again, I ended with a grammar-correcting pass.)

As I  finished drafting my thirteenth to-be-published novel, BITE AFTER BITE, earlier this week, I realized that my process had undergone a tremendous change.  BITE has represented new writing territory to me in a number of ways.  First, it was the first novel I wrote specifically at an editor’s request — my editor asked me to create a vampire series with “that Mindy Klasky feel” (by which she meant light, humorous romance.)  Second, it was the first novel that I wrote in six months, instead of the year that I had enjoyed before (and those six months became three months, due to a long string of delays-not-of-my-making.)  Third, it was the first novel that I wrote with a Critique Partner (a term of art stolen and modified from the romance field – really, a first reader who read the entire manuscript as a completed novel, rather than the chapter-by-chapter notes that I’ve previously received from my long-time First Reader.)

I’ll be the first to admit that I was underwater for most of time that I wrote BITE.  I was on an extremely tight turnaround (see that three month thing, above), creating an entirely new-to-me world with entirely new characters, and I was treading on vampiric territory that has been so oft-visited that readers have definite expectations that authors violate at their own peril.

As a result, my first draft had some gaping holes.  Those holes weren’t immediately apparent to me, but they were adeptly spotted by my Critique Partner.  I quickly realized how to fix those holes – I needed to weave in new text.  In fact, I wrote five entirely new chunks of 3000 words or more, filling in plot gaps, character development lacunae, and worldbuilding holes.  I also found two places where I’d padded an otherwise-lean plot with 3000-word “patches”, heavy scenes that didn’t add to the story, but only slowed down the action.  Finally, I realized that my entire first chapter was mere character-presentation (no plot, no meaningful furthering of the novel), and I deleted everything but the first 100 words.  Oh – and there were three different scenes that I moved to new places in the manuscript.

In short, I wove an entirely new structure out of the existing fabric of my story.  (OK, for you sticklers out there – not entirely new – but nearly 25% of the material was new, deleted, or moved around.)  At least I finished with a grammar-editing pass (made even more important by the need to match up data acquired and/or lost in the weaving.)

The result is the strongest novel I’ve written in nearly five years. (That’s my humble opinion, of course.  So far, only my agent, my editor, and I have read the final-as-submitted form.)

So.  How about you?  When you revise, do you weave?  Do you “merely” chop, editing down to a mandated length?  Do you “only” add words, fleshing out missing details?  (I still believe that chopping and adding are very valid ways to edit some manuscripts!)  And, as a reader, do you think you can identify “woven” texts from ones that are written in a more linear fashion?

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15 comments to Underwater Basketweaving

  • That’s interesting, Mindy. Thanks. For me, writing and editing are intertwined though I try to get a complete first draft done before I fiddle too much. I also try to keep that draft short because my editing process (though I skim off wherever I can) invariably adds to the word count as I discover other things I want to weave in. It’s not that there are lots of logical holes that ened to be filled (thoguh there are always a few) so much as new ideas that have occurred to me along the way as I finally discovered what the book was about in writing it.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Mindy,

    I write all my novels exactly the way you describle your most recent one…and I think of it as weaving, too…because when I add stuff, I have to find the threads related to the new material and weave them in to the rest of the material–before and after the new scene–to properly support it.

    I see the whole thing as a kind of a weaving, each plotline in a different color.

  • Hi Mindy. This was great, thank you! I’m still very new and working on my first novel, but so far I’m finding that my process is much like your latest (except much more drawn out thanks to the day job). I started writing the novel more than a year ago, but in January I had a brilliant idea that was going to change a significant portion of the background and set-up of the plot, and would require almost a complete re-write. So I started over. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve been weaving in parts of the old version into the new. I also already recognize that there are certain plot holes that will need to be patched and a couple of new scenes that should be added, but I’m trying to get to the end of the first draft before I go back and make serious edits.

  • Mindy, I look back and see a lot of myself in your evolution of process. I wrote longhand, had my first 2 novels typed by someone else. I bought my first PC in the early 90s, and it was huge, heavy, and was nothing but a glorified word processing machine without even spellcheck! And I wrote longhand and transposed everything, revising as I did so. Thank heaven for today’s electronics!

    Now, I do my weaving (most of it. usually) in the outline phase. But I’ve rewoven entire novels as you described when I realised it *Just Wasn’t Working!* It is an amazing feeling when we can do that and see something new and beautiful emerge and fly.

    Thanks for this post! I am so glad you are here at MW!

  • Great post, Mindy. For me, the process has changed in reverse. I use to compost entirely on the computer. Now I tend to do a lot of writing longhand and use speech-recognition software to dictate it into the computer. I started doing it this way mostly to lessen the ol’ carpal tunnel issues that I’m sure will plague me in the coming years, and I’ve found it works pretty well. As for the actual construction of my work, I tend to think of it like a sculpture — I put it together and then step back, look, and decide — oh, a little bit more here, a little cut off there, a huge chunk over here, etc.

  • :) Just saw I wrote “compost” instead of “compose.” One letter difference creating such a funny image. Just made my own day! 😀

  • I always thought doing the grammar/typo check would be the last thing, but I can’t stop making the changes as I go along. As a result, I correct things that get changed/deleted. I found that there’s less energy used in just making the changes than in trying to train myself to ignore them.

    I tend to plug holes and pullout bumps in the first pass of revision. Once I have the first pass completed, I usually have a complete story, with good crisis points, but then there’s multiple refining and polishing steps. I guess it’s like sanding with finer grade paper each time.

  • I love all of the references to other art forms: weaving (basket & tapestry), sculpture, woodworking, composting (okay, maybe that’s not EXACTLY an art form, per se). 😉 There are so many different ways of visualizing the same goal!

  • I have always done a great deal of editing as I write. I find that I can’t move on to the next section in a story or novel until I’m at least mostly satisfied with what I’ve got in the current section. This means that I don’t write as quickly as other people, but I tend to have a shorter rewrite/edit phase. That said, even though I continue to write that way, my editing is becoming more thorough, more extensive, and thus more time-consuming.

    And yes, I remember writing college papers in long hand and then typing them out. I started to compose on the screen with my undergraduate thesis, continued this in grad school, and never went back to long hand.

  • AJ – I find it interesting that your editing adds to the word count. I find that I trim while editing – usually about 5%. I also find that I am remarkably consistent at overall word totals – but that’s another post!

    Jagi – I recently wrote a novel that had multiple POVs in the same chapter (“head-jumping”, which is a convention in that genre, even though I tend to dislike it in what I read.) I used color coding in my Scrivener file, to keep straight how much time I’d spent in which character’s head. I think that there will be a lot more color in my writing future!

    Megan – I recently picked up a long-trunked novel and discovered a “brilliant idea” that would save the day (but completely change my characterization and plotting). I haven’t found/made the time to rework the entire thing yet (and I might just start from scratch, purposely discarding some over-labored prose…) but it’ll be a challenge when I get around to it! (And I agree with you – I love the references to other art forms in people’s replies!)

    Faith – I consider it one of my primary accomplishments as a writer than I can now identify when “it just isn’t working”. I used to write right on through, never recognizing that my weariness or lack of interest was caused by inherent flaws in what I was creating!

    Stuart – A couple of years back, I attended a series of Smithsonian lectures by authors or historical novels. I was amazed that over half of them (5 out of 8) wrote their manuscripts longhand. For some, it was ergonomics, for some it was slowing their physical writing to the speed of their coherent thoughts, for one it was a failure to learn typing at an early age and therefore a speeding up of the physical recording process. I haven’t used voice recognition software yet, but I suspect that it might be in my future (or at least in my wrists’ future, which is the same thing…) (And yes, I was amused by compost/e as I read your post/e :-) )

    Perry – I cheated a little bit in writing up my process – I definitely correct spelling and grammar as I type. (I use my backspace key so often that I try to remember what life was like with that old Brother typewriter…) I *do* complete a final grammar check where I rip out all the overuse of “was Xing” verb formations and similar habitual annoyances… (And I love your fine-grade sandpaper analogy!)

    David – As I wrote my senior thesis (using a text formatter on a mainframe), I noted that any student who had ever written his thesis by hand deserved an automatic A. My, how technology has changed…

  • Sarah

    I write fiction (for myself and hopefully publication) and critical literary analysis (for my job). My process has changed a lot too. Sometimes I wrote outlines, but mostly I used to stare out the window, get it all beautifully organized in my head and type wildly until everything was done. I’d give it a read through, make a few minor style changes, proofread and turn in the paper. It worked for college papers. It worked less well for novels – I’d peter out somewhere third of the way through when I hit a plot snag or a character development that didn’t fit my beautiful vision and, because there were no deadlines to meet, abandon the project and start something else.

    In grad school I learned to do research and to write my ideas down. I can’t organize an article length paper only in my head. I learned what the writing teachers meant when they said writing was a discovery process in itself. For my fiction that’s translated to learning to be more flexible with my plots – I re-plot as the story evolves on the page. But it’s also meant learning to plot more complexly, scene by scene, not big idea by big idea. I write really slowly as a result. I’d love to just plow through, finish and rewrite from there, but I can’t. I’ve learned that if I get serious writer’s block I’ve either missed a plot hole I have to go fix before I can move the plot forward or I have to back up and work on a different character/subplot until I get more ideas for the rest of the characters. It’s a constant step-back-in-order-to-move-forward process. Hopefully, I’ll learn to do it faster as I get more practice.

  • Mindy, I find I write in ellipticals, sort of like a very messy cross-stitch. I get so far and then I switch back back, hammer things out, and then move forward again. Now that I’m in rewrites, I feel the need to outline properly before I go any further.

    I rarely outline. This is going to be fun.

    But I think one of the reasons my writing process takes this shape is that I do it in addition to my 9-5 job and already-overfull life. Half the time, I need a refresher on what I wrote previously, just to get back into that headspace.

  • Gerald and I write together so our process is a bit different, but Gerald always does the intitial draft unless he gets really stuck (usually with girl talk or fight scenes)then I type a really, really rough version to get him moving.

    Before Gerald types the first draft into Word, we plot out the major scenes with the points needed to be covered in each and get anything crucial for setting the scenes like location changes or vehicles needed into our outline.

    Then Gerald types and edits by section like how David described he does it. I’ve finally convinced Gerald it is ok to move on if he gets stuck in a particular scene, because it is easier for me to fix the missing part if I see where he starts the next scene.

    Every chapter or so I read the new parts and anything he added back in previous chapters due to a plot or character hole. I edit for word problems the spell checker misses and for clarity with pronouns and prepositional phrases. Also I try to check for logic errors, but this is more difficult because I helped write the outline. Our mentor read the first 5 chapters with his edits and he will get a round with the entire novel before we send it off to his publisher.

    Wow, technology and how soon we adopted it has really made differences in how we write. I have had a computer since about 1980 and started life in college with one which had an early version of WordPerfect so I have never written a paper or story as an adult without wordprocessing help. Gerald had used mainframe software for wordprocessing before he met me when he was a junior. Kind of handy for him that his girlfriend was an engineering graduate student who required a computer with a letter quality printer for her research. So he hasn’t written anything off the computer since 1989.

    I really feel for you folks with carpal tunnel issues, as I had problems with it some years ago but switched jobs and changed how I sit to use my computer and don’t have issues now. I think Gerald types so slowly that it won’t be an issue for him.

  • Well, I only have my debut to go off of here, but the edits I got from my editor were almost entirely of the general sort, i.e. need to build more suspense in first half of story, pull in hero’s background sooner, get the villain in sooner. Lots of leeway with this kind of editing. I rewrote a lot of the first half of my story and left the second half almost untouched. It was 6k longer when I was done due to added scenes, which seems to go against the adding suspense and pace, but more villain material was put in. I have yet to hear back from editor on these, so can’t tell you how well it worked. I will say that cutting material is very hard for me in general. I plot everything ahead of time, so cutting for me seems to take away from what the story needs.

  • Ryl

    Mindy, your process rings true with me. I also had several pounds of long-hand ms. that I typed out on a Brother typewriter [daisy wheel!] — now I’m using MacBook and Scrivener, but am still scribbling in notepads and on cocktail napkins, and scrawling on the big chalkboard my writing space.

    Can’t stop editing as I go, though — my eyes stumble over the typos.