A Journal of Practical Writing

(Updated 1-28-18)








A Revision Technique for Novels




I've been giving a piece of advice for many years to students in my novel writing classes: go through your manuscript once as a reader, sitting on your hands. This is, of course, another way of saying "Don't tinker. Don't start manipulating the sentences. Don't edit, Just read." Notes are allowed, but only at section or chapter breaks. The aim is to get an overview of plot, story, flow, and momentum.

Most of us who love to write are especially devoted to our words and phrases. We are always looking for a better way to say it. We expand here, tighten and cut there. We are often very good at the trees, but we tend to lose our way in the forest. Others of us, of course, are gifted at plot and story line. We may be natural storytellers, or we may have a clear model in mind that gives structure and momentum: a coming of age novel, a life story. Or, we might be mostly drawn to the possibilities of exploring character, slowing down time, going back and forth in time, examining moments and small details.

The best novels, in my opinion, do all these things. The writers of the best novels, however, don't necessarily do the things all at once. Thus I suggest different kinds of revisions, some fast, some slow, some focused on only a single thing. I wrote an essay about this called "Seven Layers to Revising Your Novel" that appeared in The Writer. Most of these suggestions for revision come from my own experience. I particularly like one that revises the second half or even the last quarter first. I also often do the "search for details" revision where you search through the whole novel for all appearances of a certain character (or place, or important object) to see how that element changes over the course of the novel. I also do housekeeping like checking for catch phrases or words that I tend to overuse ("shards" and "gazed deeply").

What I had never done before, however, was the straight-through read I described at the beginning. Since I'm working on a science fiction novel where story is of the essence, I decided finally to try it, and last month, I read the manuscript on my Kindle e-reader. I e-mailed it as a .doc file to my special Kindle address (if you have a Kindle, you have one of these, usually yourname@kindle.com). I kept a pencil and notebook at my side, and while I couldn't quite make myself wait for the end of the chapter, I did scribble only an occasional note, and tried hard not to copy edit or line edit. I concentrated on the story, and was horrified by various discrepancies: I had made certain revelations more than once, and the first person narrator repeatedly overheard conversations like a regular little spy.

The biggest problem, though, was the order in which the characters begin to explore the desert outside their home. I had them learn to ride the local flying aliens out into the desert before they took walks into the desert under their own steam. There was a complicated explanation for why they stopped flying to walk, but as I read, the impatient reader in me said, "Duh, why don't they just walk first and learn to fly later?"

I wrote myself a long note about what I needed to do, but didn't work on it till I'd finished reading. For me, this took a lot of self-discipline. I was glad, though, because once I got over some bumps, the story went very well, at least with the kind of speed read I was giving it, so I was encouraged and ready to get back to work.

I've now put the events of the story in a more sensible order that also seems to have the advantage of upping the ante, as they recommend in script writing--that is, the farther they go out into the desert, the more danger there is. For those of you who see yourself as artists rather than as suspense-builders, keep in mind that your first several drafts should have given full play to your instincts and inspiration. That comes first: getting out whatever it is that you are interested in exploring. Then, as you step back and begin to reshape and polish your sentences, you may also need to reshape and polish the trajectory of the story itself.

This revision technique might help.






Literature, Genre, and Me





I've been trying to understand the difference between literary fiction and genre for a long time. A member of my writers' group used to bring in science fiction for critique sometimes, and sometimes her avant garde work. It was all meticulously written in her delightful, faux naif style, and we could never tell the difference between avant garde and science fiction, except that occasionally the science fiction had some very human aliens in it.

In fact, I believe the best fiction, whether literary or genre, has always combined powerful language with psychological and social insight and story. The way we separate genre and literature in the twenty-first century is, to my way of thinking, mostly about selling, and there is no doubt that writing in certain niches sells far better than others.

I've been writing since I was about six years old, and in the beginning, I was above all interested in the stories. What happened to the Indian Princess? What did she do? What happened next? I went through a long period in college and after when I saw myself as devoted to high art. The truth is that I have always loved some high art, admired other high art, and reacted to some with a big "meh."

I find myself increasingly, in my later years, reverting to the pleasure of novels with a lot of narrative momentum. In our present literary landscape, this often, although certainly not always, means well-written genre books. The problem with highly polished art writing is the danger of creating only static set pieces– bijoux for contemplation and admiration, rather than a river that sucks you downstream through its rapids and sluices.

The novel I'm working on now is science fiction, and I've been trying hard to master how to create that river. I'm writing just as carefully as ever, at least in the later drafts. This probably means I'll never be a commercially successful genre writer because it will always take me too long to write a book, and a prime characteristic of successful genre writers is that they keep new product in the pipeline.

How is writing this book different from writing my other fiction? Occasionally in the science fiction novel, I choose to simplify language for action--but I do that for action in anything I write. I am probably more careful about the geography of my settings because I want them to be very clear in the reader's mind as the action plays out. In language, I pay a great deal of attention to using words that fit the material culture of the world I've created. I avoid images that include objects or ideas that don't exist on this planet. This is part of the pleasure though: I delight in world-creating as much now as I did when I was five years old and my parents bought me for Christmas a miniature ranch with horses and fences and people.

Much genre writing is simply sloppy–hastily written, to meet deadlines, or in the case of some of the mass of self-published material appearing now, written to satisfy personal needs of the writer. This may also explain some of the popularity of even badly written genre: it is probably scratching some widely shared itch. If I'm going to read it, however, I need a level of clarity and clean writing at a minimum. Along with science fiction, I like good detective and crime fiction and I also like fantasy, if it abides by some set of internal rules.

All novels, of course– and this is why genre and literature are more alike than different– create worlds, whether alien planets far far away or south central Los Angeles just after the Watts riots of the late sixties. In my science fiction novel I have to spend more time describing my created world than I would if the novel were set in New York City, but frankly, it's a trivial difference because even though I can expect my readers to fill in a lot of blanks about New York City– that there is one sun in the sky on a bright fall day, for example (in my science fiction novel, there are two), there are still particular streets and waterfronts and restaurants that have to be built out of observation and imagination. A failing of much student writing I see is to assume a frame of reference: that we all know certain clubs or monuments, or what certain catch phrases mean, or that we feel the emotion the protagonist does when listening to a certain song from the nineteen-nineties.

Genre writing gives me that satisfaction of play from my childhood. I am, at least in the initial drafting stages, manipulating the riders and horses of my little plastic ranch, and clopping them over the floor on great quests by the light of the Christmas tree. But as I play, I've also discovered that, for me, science fiction in particular, offers a more direct way to write about ideas and power relationships. In my realistic fiction, I have mostly written about people and experiences and social action that I am familiar with. I don't know– for example– what it would be like to have my community destroyed by an enemy. I can imagine it– and indeed, in my science fiction novel, I'm doing exactly that. What effect will it have on the characters? How will they be changed from their ideology of non-violence?

So in my science fiction novel, along with the fun of imagining lavender shadows from the double suns, I can explore the potential results of decisions based on ideology among the humans and the mistakes different sentient species make about one another's motivations. I can experiment with political structures, and I can have my characters be major figures in their world's history.

That's not what I sat down to do when I started my genre novel. I think I sat down with the urge to play as I played as a child, but as an adult, the topics I play with tend to be issues I see unresolved in this world, and I find I can write about them more directly here, in my invented places.










This is perhaps practical as a psychological matter: the final lines of To the Lighthouse talk about the importance of art to the artist and to the universe, without respect to fame and fortune:

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was–her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blue, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? She asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.








On Using the Omniscient Point of View Successfully


The omniscient point of view is dangerous: it seems easy– you can just tell anything anyhow you want– but, handled badly, it quickly begins to look amateurish.

Virginia Woolf handled omniscient point of view very well, especially in her novel Mrs. Dalloway. This novel links its switches from one character to another by the simple device of having them pass one another on the streets of London, and as they pass, the point of view shifts. At once point, an unnamed member of the royal family drives by in the street, and the mild excitement of this event links wealthy Clarissa out shopping for flowers for her party and Moll Pratt the rose seller. When I think of Mrs. Dalloway, I usually remember it as told from Clarissa Dalloway's point of view. If pressed, I might recall that it also followed the war-damaged Septimus Warren Smith. What I had totally forgotten is that the novel also follows Septimus's wife, Clarissa's husband, Clarissa's old love Peter Walsh and many others, including the flower seller Moll Pratt.

One reason the movement among many consciousness works so smoothly is that the novel dances on the surface of the observed world. This in no way suggests it is superficial, but rather that it often concerns itself with physical surfaces– light glinting on porcelain, the sweep of a gown, the colors of flowers. In Woolf's hands, of course, such things are a direct line to memory and deep emotion, and they become a natural way into the characters. The sense details experienced by Woolf's many characters join with the patter of human voices just below the surface- the more-or-less conscious thoughts of her people, and this becomes the fabric of her novel.

Since all of these people from all walks of life share the same splendid June day in London, and since their one-level-down thoughts are not unreasonably accessible to a sensitive imagination, the omniscient point of view moves smoothly from person to person. Here is a sample from Mrs. Dalloway:



Gliding across Piccadilly, [the car apparently carrying royalty] turned down St. James's Street. Tall men, men of robust physique, well-dressed men with their tail-coats and their white slips and their hair raked back who, for reasons difficult to discriminate, were standing the bow window of Brooks's with their hands behind the tails of their coats, looking out, perceived instinctively that greatness was passing, and the pale light of the immortal presence fell upon them as it had fallen upon Clarissa Dalloway. At once they stood even straighter, and removed their hands and seemed ready to attend their Sovereign, if need be, to the cannon's mouth, as their ancestors had done before them....Shawled Moll Pratt with her flowers on the pavement wished the dear boy well (it was the Prince of Wales for certain) and would have tossed the price of a pot of beer–a bunch of roses–into St. James's Street out of sheet light-heartedness and contempt of poverty had she not seen the constable's eye upon her, discouraging an old Irishwoman's loyalty....

– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1953), pp. 26-27.







Anthony Trollope's Discipline

Anthony Trollope wrote many, many novels. He also worked much of his life full time as a Post Office inspector and surveyor, and in his forties began to write on a travel desk as he made his almost daily train rides. Here is how one biographer described his discipline:


...For years [Trollope] had been making scrupulous records of his daily travels and expenditures for the Post Office, keeping track of every mile, every shilling and penny. In his commonplace-book of the 1830's he had said a young man ought to keep a careful account book of every monetary transaction, that his own failure to do so had brought him near to 'utter ruin'. Now, past 40, he adapted ledger-like columned record-keeping for his writing, marking off the days in weekly sections, entering daily the number of pages written each session, and then noting the week's total. His 'page' had approximately 250 words. He set a goal of 40 manuscript pages per week. He would have preferred to work seven days a week, but of course there were weeks when he could only manage a few days, and some weeks when illness or pressures of other work kept him from writing altogether. He usually managed the 40 pages per week; on a few occasions he pushed himself to more than a hundred pages in a week....


(N. John Hall, Trollope: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) p. 143.)











A Conversation About Keeping Drafts
Suzanne McConnell, Carole Rosenthal, NancyKay Shapiro,
Diane Simmons, and Meredith Sue Willis


At a recent writers' peer group session, NancyKay Shapiro was reading a new draft of a short memoir piece we had heard once before. Suzanne McConnell asked to see the previous version. NancyKay said she didn't have it anymore because she had discarded the old version. She reworks the piece as she goes. Suzanne expressed horror. She told us she keeps all her drafts, prints them out, looks back frequently, and even reverts to the previous versions.

We talked a little more about this part of the writing process, and on the way home, I thought more about it. Most of the members of our writers group are old enough–or old-school enough–to have done at least some writing before everyone had a personal computer. Some writers, of course, still choose to draft by hand. All of us, though, one way or the other, have made changes in our process. For example, I've always been a fast but very sloppy typist, and one of the great gifts of technology for me has been never having to retype. I work on the same electronic file as if it were a lump of clay I can reshape or add to. Only occasionally do I make a digital copy of the whole file (I back up my work every day, of course). I label this version for future reference "Draft of Fall 2014" or "Early notes–spring 2016," etc.)  Also, I sometimes draft a whole novel before I make a hard copy print out. Psychologically, it's important to me not to discard things, and the vast digital storage space on a computer makes this little reassurance practical.

For this article, I invited the group members to tell how often they save complete drafts, whether they print them out, whether they ever use them again. Do we, in other words, mostly rework what's there, losing past versions, or do we systematically preserve everything?

Suzanne McConnell, an award-winning fiction writer and fiction editor at The Bellevue Literary Review, is presently working on a nonfiction book about the writing advice of Kurt Vonnegut. She said, "I do keep drafts. Roughly, I compose something from beginning to end to lay the paint on, and then I make a clean copy and start reworking it. When that gets coherent, I make another copy and revise again. That third draft I may keep re-working until it's final, or maybe make another copy to revise. The piece I read [from the Kurt Vonnegut project], for example, has three drafts, but the last one has been re-worked quite a bit. It's refining work, not discovery or placement. This method works well for the Kurt Vonnegut project because my first draft contains mainly his quotes lined up in more or less the sequence I'll use. The next draft is filling in between, roughly. The third is a much better revision. I do all those single-spaced so I can see it better, and in the final draft [which I'll bring] to the group, I make it double-spaced. (This is only true of the Kurt Vonnegut project where I'm relying on his quotes and want to see the proportions). I also keep a list of something called 'out takes:' Cut or alternative phrases, sentences, ideas, etcetera. I keep track of which draft by dating it and labeling '1' or '2'."

Suzanne also says that in her editorial position with The Bellevue Literary Review, when she is exchanging work with writers, she labels the back and forth by numbers. She tried to do this with her novel, but found that it got confusing and problematic, especially labeling the differences in chapters: she would forget what was in one and not another. She says she will look for another system for her next novel.

NancyKay Shapiro, author of What Love Means to You People, said, "In writing novels, I do a lot more draft keeping, and also tend to have a file called 'Scrap' into which I'll paste anything I cut out that I don't want to say a permanent goodbye to, in case I later decide it was golden and should be reinstated. In writing something short ....it just didn't occur to me to do the draft thing. Now I'm more aware I'll put that into practice. With [my new] novel, though, I tend to find that beyond a certain # of pages, having multiple drafts of the same material ends up adding to my sense of being overwhelmed by it."

Adding to the consideration of multiple drafts as both enriching and a little dangerous, Carole Rosenthal, author of It Doesn't Have To Be Me, wrote," I'm one of those writers who save drafts of what I'm working on.  The reason for that is that I sometimes find an earlier draft more concise, more direct.  I can be myopic when I'm revising, inserting too much detail, too many insights.  However, there is a downside to saving drafts, particularly of long works, and that is confusion, too many similar versions.  Then the process grows unwieldy, particularly with longer works."


Finally, Diane Simmons, whose upcoming book is The Courtship of Eva Eldridge, said, "Like Nancy Kay I find it crazy-making to save too many drafts of something long. So I just seem to truck along. Though if there are significant out takes I try to save them in a file labeled "title.outtake.date." With shorter pieces, at least when it gets to the point of sending it [out], I save the file, labeling it to whom it has been sent, person or publication. Mostly I do this because sometimes there are comments or even an acceptance, and then I can't remember what stage the piece was at when I sent it. Never quite as bad as my friend who once got a glowing acceptance with no idea what piece she had sent!"






On Writers Groups
By Troy E. Hill



While classes can be vital, especially with the right teacher, writing groups offer a number of benefits: low cost (no cost if you have a free meeting space), more frequent opportunities to have your work reviewed due to fewer participants, a safe atmosphere for honest feedback resulting from meeting over a longer period of time, and the chance to have a select group get to know your work in depth.

I've been working with a writers group for more than a year and a half, and it's proven invaluable for my fiction. The ongoing feedback keeps me motivated to rewrite and edit, and all of us seem to be inspired by a deadline. I don't feel the need to implement or address every comment I receive, but almost every one is worth considering. Even if I don't necessarily agree with a particular comment, it can still spur an idea for taking my story or novel to the next level.

The important thing in forming a group, of course, is having people whose criticism is insightful and that helps you write the piece as you envision it—and of course you want to respect the work of the others since you will be reading it frequently. That doesn't mean that everyone needs to work in the same genre. Diversity in the work and members is always enriching.

My group formed out of a novel writing class at a local University. Once the course ended, a few of us who had talked about forming a group reached out to the people we felt would best fit our needs (based on their work submitted in the class and the feedback they gave). We ultimately formed a community of six writers. Over time, a couple of people have had to step out due to business in their lives, and we've brought in others.

Our format is to meet every other week with three members submitting twenty-five to thirty pages for review a few days before the meeting. That way, everyone gets the opportunity to submit about once a month. Sometimes members pass if they aren't ready and others get to submit more often if they are.

We all live and work in New York City and split the cost of renting a small rehearsal space for three hours, which comes to about ten dollars per person. One member moved away, and she joins via Google video chat. While some groups meet entirely online, ours appreciates the sense of community of meeting face to face.

I have attended seminars and heard of groups in which members write during the meeting from prompts and other exercises. This can be fun and result in surprisingly solid nuggets to start new pieces. I've also heard of exercises that help writers develop characters and plot points within a work in progress. For our group, the ongoing feedback is the priority, but I keep these exercises in mind to potentially mix things up in the future.

Online classes can also provide forums in which you may find writers interested in forming a group. I'm currently taking a class through One Story, and there are over a hundred people in the class discussing the assignments on the discussion board. The students are from all across the country and even overseas, so this would more likely result in an online community, though you may find other students nearby.

Good luck forming your group and keep writing!






Those Handy Little Binoculars
By Sarah B. Robinson


I'm a relatively new writer, especially when it comes to fiction. In the course of writing an historical mystery novel for teenagers, one based on actual people, places, and things, at first I used actual names. But during the revision process, over the years I've decided to replace the actual names by substituting fictitious ones.

One Y/A mystery novel workshop leader advised against the practice of using actual names of people, places and things. Obviously, locals who would read the work may take issue with how something they are so familiar with is portrayed in your story. And, when using actual names of places, your accuracy may be called into question, unless you know for certain "Maple Ave. is exactly 1.5 miles northwest of Edgewood Street." Knowing how difficult this could be, I had to ask myself, "Is the writing good enough—without actual names--to stand on its own?" My answer was "I'm not sure." And, "Would the use of actual names in a fictitious piece benefit the reader?" My answer was "Not necessarily." Since my revision process on this novel is ongoing, I need to be willing to ask myself tough questions. Crafting and revising should reward both the writer--and more importantly--the reader.

Once I decided to change the actual names throughout my 60,000 word document, I had a daunting task. I also had a serendipitous moment at a workshop. (Just had to throw in that wonderful word.)

Right before I decided which fictitious substitutions I would use for my story, another workshop facilitator clued the participants in to that little, tiny set of binoculars in the upper right-hand corner of my Microsoft Word program. Clicking on the binoculars enabled me to search for a word I had used, like the city of "Lewisburg." Magically, the tool brought up every page where Lewisburg was found, and even highlighted them all. I was able to click on the "Replace all" option, and type in "Lewisville" (not much of a change, I know) and all of them instantly changed to the new word. I had to be careful, though. Upon visiting further revisions in my text, I simply liked a new word better than one I had used originally. I wanted to replace a town's name, change it from "Clear Springs" to "Spruce Springs." (Kind of sounds like Bruce Springsteen, I know.) But it occurred to me I may have used the word "clear" throughout my novel, as both a verb and an adjective, and I certainly didn't want anyone "sprucing" their throat. In using my binoculars to highlight every time I used the word "clear," I discovered I had made my protagonist and his girlfriend "clear" their throats eight different times, and they didn't even have colds.



Dialogue: The Spine of Fiction

by Meredith Sue Willis


First published in BigCityLit. For the whole article, with exercises, see http://www.nycbigcitylit.com/contents/ArticleWillisPanel.html


Many years ago, while working with some fifth graders, I referred to dialogue as the spine of fiction. "What's a 'spine'?" called out one boy. His friend said, "It's like the back part of the skeleton that holds you up." "No," said a third kid, "The spine is where the nerves go. It carries the messages."

Exactly. All of the above and more. Dialogue does many things at once. Characters show what's on their minds and what they're made of. They may lay out some background facts the reader needs. Above all, dialogue is where the story's essential conflict is dramatically revealed. "Spine" may not be your image for dialogue in fiction—one of my writer colleagues calls it the "spark" and another says it is the "adhesive"—but when you think back over a novel you've read, you most often remember the scenes in which something important happened, and usually it happened as the people were talking.

Of course some fiction, like parables and tales, depends on narrative rather than scene and dialogue. Some experimental fiction has as its subject the play of language rather than character and event. These remarks about dialogue best fit fiction that uses the conventions rather than overturning them. In such convention-using fiction, the real subject is the people and what happens to them, and thus it shouldn't be surprising that the emotional content is demonstrated most vividly when people interact with one another. Indeed, in my writing (although hardly in everyone's), dialogue is often the climax of a chapter or story. Several of my published novels actually end with a line of dialogue, and others have dialogue within a few lines of the end. Do you remember De Maupassant's story, "The Necklace?" Even though much of the story is narrative, it ends with a dialogue between two women, and the very final words are an unembellished spoken revelation by one woman to the other. I'm not suggesting this as a prescription for fiction, only to emphasize the importance of dialogue and how it carries the drama and sometimes emblemizes what came before.

Dialogue is also closer to the thing it imitates (conversation) than any other element of fiction. In real life, a person's appearance is an impression you get in a single glance, and you observe the details piecemeal over time. Description of a sword thrust is much slower than an actual sword thrust and has to be described by analysis or metaphor. But conversations, in real life as in fiction, are actually made of words, and words in print can be read aloud in something close to real time. Description can be extremely well written and important to the story, but it is not very much like the thing it describes, whereas dialogue comes as close as fiction can to an identity between artifact and what it represents; its pacing can thus create a special bond to the real world.

I had a student once who wrote almost no dialogue but lots of long, beautiful passages of description. Her work was the kind that caused people to say, "How well written!" It was highly finished—and extremely static. It lacked the life that fiction is capable of. To me, fiction is not an object to walk around and contemplate. Rather, fiction moves, and moves the reader with it. At its best, fiction gives a reader the experience of plunging into another world and riding as in a flume to another place. Since dialogue is where you often find the drama, it is thus the part of prose that propels the reader through the story.

My student decided to take a play writing course in order to improve her dialogue writing, and when she returned to her novel, it took off with animation and energy. She had learned to see her conflict dramatized and to hear her characters' voices.








Troy Ernest Hill is the author of the recently published novel, MYXOCENE, and the novella, "A Revelation." His work has appeared in Sobotka Literary Magazine, Underground Voices Magazine, and The Circus Book. Learn more at troyernesthill.com.
Sarah B. Robinson has had numerous articles and essays published in newspapers and magazines, such as Outside Bozeman, WV Living and Morgantown Living. “Donovan’s Intuition” is her most recent short story, published in Diner Stories: Off the Menu in 2014.

Meredith Sue Willis is the publisher of this Journal. Learn more about her at her website.