Hard Work Rewarded

My latest manuscript, soon to be a YA novel

The YA novel I’ve been working on for the past year, All Good Children, has found its home with Orca Book Publishers. My editor loves it and sold it to her board and they’re already asking if there will be a sequel. (And just so you know, my editor rejected other manuscripts in between Walking Backward and this new one. It wasn’t a sure thing at all.)

I went through withdrawal after finishing the book, which may be why I haven’t blogged. I’d fallen so in love with my fictional heroes, and I’d been so deeply stuck in the head of my narrator, that returning to real life was a massive downer.

My arms will soon look like this

To combat the blues, I ignored my writing and focused on other aspects of a healthy life. I started a new weight training program. (Lifting, not losing, weight. My muscle-building motto is “Eat, eat, and eat some more.” What’s not to love?) I started a new quilt (log cabin patchwork in blues and oranges; it’ll be gorgeous). And I’ve been hanging out with my family and friends who, although not quite as endearing as my fictional circle, have the advantage of being alive.

Rough draft of a new quilt

The idea of writing a sequel to All Good Children is appealing in the way that cigarettes are appealing after you’ve just quit smoking. I want it, but I know it will bring trouble into my life. 

I have absolutely no idea what might happen in a sequel, and it would take another ten months of emotionally exhausting thinking and feeling and writing and revising to figure that out. I’d have to subject my poor heroes to an awful lot of turmoil and, really, they’ve been through a lot already.

Cabin time with the family

I was a mess writing All Good Children. Can I go back there and torture us some more? Maybe. It’s like childbirth — already I’m forgetting how awful the process was because the end product is so very wonderful.

For today, it’s enough that the past months of hard work have been rewarded. I can’t wait for the world to meet Max and Dallas. All Good Children should be released in Fall 2011.

My picture book, My Cat Isis, will be out before it, in Spring 2011 from Kids Can Press (I’ll blog on that again soon).  As to what will follow it, I don’t yet know.

Coming Up for Air

This is not Dallas

Sunday night, I tied up my sneakers and called my younger son to hurry up for drum lessons: “Come on, Dallas, we gotta go!” 

Strange? Yeah. Because Dallas isn’t my kid’s name. Nor is it the name of my older son, my husband, dog, cat, nephew, neighbour, or anybody else I talk to regularly and might mix up in my mind when I’m calling out in a hurry. No. Dallas is the best friend of my new novel’s protagonist. He’s not even alive.

Maybe I’ve been working too hard? (On the novel, that is. I’m two days late on a paid contract, my house is a mess, and there are trays of plants wilting beside a flower bed I haven’t finished digging, so I’m obviously not working too hard in general. I’m in my pyjamas at 8:00 a.m. as I type this.)

Banksy's graffiti

Maybe I’m stuck in the head of my 14-year-old protagonist and I’ll go through my forties pulling pranks, playing football, and painting graffiti? Actually, that sounds awesome. (Except the pranks–they’re mean. And the football–I’m delicate. And the graffiti–spraypaint gets in my lungs.) Okay, no risk there. I’m comfortably middle-aged. (I’ll just read a book about Banksy. He’s awesome.)  

Whatever the problem, it’s a good thing I’m almost done the novel. (Again–and I mean it this time. I’m polishing the last 30 pages and passing on the first 50 to a friend for review before sending it to my editor.)

First time with spraypaint

I’ve been neglecting my real children in favour of fictional ones. I used to listen to little Dallas’s drums; now I sit outside the lessons and edit a chapter with the din in the background. The teacher occasionally drags me in to show me something and I say, “Oh yeah, that’s great, honey.” (“Honey” is a good name for every occasion.)

I wrote “Dallas” on purpose in that last paragraph. My youngest son is Daimon, the name of ancient Greek spirits, including muses. 

Daimon didn’t mind when I called him Dallas. He’s happy to inspire.

In Defence of Outlines

I’ve met so many writers who don’t outline. They say, “If I knew what was going to happen, I wouldn’t care enough to write the story.”

Those words always make me feel odd and out of place, for I am not that way.

I outline. My outlines are twenty pages long. Even before I outline, I play out a story in my head thoroughly, repeatedly, until I have a hold on it. I’d say, in fact, that if I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t care enough to write the story.

I used to draft without an outline, with just a premise or a character or a moment. I’d run with it, typing as I went, seeing where it took me. That worked well with short stories but not at all with novels. My longer works started out well, then wandered aimlessly for several hundred pages while I kept at it, hoping the road would eventually clear.

I don’t do that anymore. I still come up with stories that peter out, but they fail in the imagining-it-in-my-head stage. I’ll waste a few days that way, but I don’t waste months of drafting. It’s so much easier to let those failed stories go because the investment is small.

Winging it sounds creative: just me and my muse at the computer, ready for whatever might happen. But I’ve come to learn that, for me, following an outline is a far more creative process.

If anything can happen, I only have to skim the surface of my imagination to come up with the next step. But if something specific must happen to carry my plot—within the confines of a certain setting and particular characters and future plot points that rest on it—then I really have to dig deep. Then I’m grappling with all my imagination.

And it’s still a process of enormous discovery. Storylines change as details fill in. Certain actions prove impossible to execute or certain characters just won’t do what I’d planned for them. Supporting characters become dispensible while minor scenes become critical. My protagonist grows before my eyes and finds his voice. Subplots blossom and themes pull together in ways I didn’t dream of. (Yet I always have my outline to refer to if I’m stuck or my energy lags.)

But the greatest discovery, the most exciting thing for me, is finding out how I’m going to tell the story. My lengthy outlines don’t spoil that discovery. Because what the story is and how the story is told are completely different things, and for me it’s the latter that fascinates. My first draft is not me figuring out what’s going to happen. It’s me figuring out how to show it in an authentic and compassionate way, how to feel it from my characters’ points of view, and how to manipulate language to make a reader care. That’s the discovery I treasure most.

I don’t wander aimlessly anymore. I speed toward my goal. And I work so much harder to get there.

So if you never outline and that works for you, godspeed. But if you’ve written a couple of novels that led nowhere yet you’re reluctant to outline your third because it seems too stiff or uncreative, let go of that reluctance. Envision. Outline. Then—if you’re still gripped by your story—draft. See where that takes you.

Always Someone’s Story

I’m halfway through scene-by-scene revisions on my novel. (These are the big revisions; I’ll still have cutting and polishing after I’m done—it never ends).

Saturday morning, I reread the revised 140 pages and grew depressed because the first few pages were dull, dull, dull. It gets good—it gets REALLY good—but it takes a while. A cover letter claiming, “You’ll be glad you slogged through the beginning,” is not a winner.

I’ve had a terrible time with the beginning of this book since I started it. I’ve rewritten it repeatedly, read a dozen how-to-write manuals, took all their advice and wrote it again and again, creating seven boring beginnings instead of one.

Here’s the thing. My narrator, Max, has just missed the first week of grade nine because he was away at a funeral. He’s flying home, eager to get back to his friends, football, work, life. His first line—in the most recent revision that so depressed me—was “I’d never been on a plane before.”

Boring, no? And Max’s musings grew even more boring for three full paragraphs before they became slightly more interesting. The first genuinely funny moment was on page four. Seriously. It was awful. (And the kid is a wiseass—there’s really no excuse.)

So I did the old, “I should chuck the whole thing out, I can’t believe I wasted six months of my life on this, it’s not worth another six months, maybe I’ll never write a decent thing again,” shtick. Then I dusted off my ego and let it lie, trusting that the beginning would come to me when it was ready.

In the library yesterday, I had my epiphany (less than 24 hours later!). I was picking up books and glancing at the first paragraphs, deciding what to borrow, when I realized that I should write a beginning I’d like to read. (The obviousness of my epiphany may explain its speediness.)

I’d been trying to do way too much on the first page. But as a reader, I don’t ask, “Is this the right place for the story to begin? Does it establish setting, foreshadow disaster, suggest the theme, introduce the narrator and his conflict, showcase the writer’s style?” No. All I ask is, “Do I want to read this person’s story?”

As a writer, all I have to do with my first page is make someone want to read this kid’s story. That’s it.

Theme, setting, conflict, etc.—those elements will come out but they can’t be forced in. The story comes first. And it’s always someone’s story. That was my real epiphany, I guess. I’m not writing my novel, I’m writing Max’s story. And Max would never start his story like that.

So I scrapped the first couple of pages of laboriously chosen words. I stopped trying to be a writer or adhere to any writing advice. I just got into my character. I walked around feeling like Max, his excitement building at the thought of getting home to his friends, his frustration with the ticket booth and baggage check and body scanners standing between him and his life on hold. And I wrote his flying-home scene from scratch.

Max’s new first line is: “The airport security guard was not amused when I dropped my pants in front of her.”

Much improved, no? Maybe this won’t be my last first line. But it has me on track and happy again, ready to face the godawful process of finishing my last half of revisions.

Stone by Stone

I am slowly but surely building a novel from my messy draft. Some days I only have time to edit a few pages – slim progress on what seems like an impossibly large job. But even pyramids were built stone by stone, so surely I can finish a book the same way.

There are writers for whom editing is not such a huge task. The talented ones who revise as they write, creating draft manuscripts that are almost ready for submission.

I am not one of those. 

I make no corrections while I draft. I rarely reread a single page and I don’t even write them all the first time. If I can’t work out a scene, I insert an asterisk with instructions to my future self [*introduce football team; Max annoys coach and gets detention*] and I move on. I don’t pause. I know my story is being chased by a scared and lazy perfectionist who’s certain to destroy it if she ever catches up. (It took many unfinished novels to learn to stay ahead of her.)

Built stone by stone

As a consequence, I spend three times as long revising as drafting. I’ve developed a revision to-do list to help me.

1. Read the manuscript for pacing and impact.

I read the entire book in one or two sittings and mark anything that rushes, drags, or feels inauthentic. I note unclear motivations, aimless characters, dull narrative, factual uncertainties, etc. But I don’t rewrite yet. I want a feel for the book as a whole, what works and what doesn’t.

2. Write a 1-sentence summary of every scene, who’s in it, and how many pages it takes.

This allows me a view of the book’s skeleton, to judge if it’s sound. If a key confrontation takes two pages while a digression goes on for ten, it needs fixing. If a minor character appears in every scene while the hero’s best friend barely shows, it needs fixing. If the plot pauses for several scenes, if the summaries don’t fit together logically, if it tells a story that’s not the hero’s story, or if the solution to the conflict is just plain stupid when reduced to its bare bones, then it’s really broken.  

Walking Backward book cover
Also built stone by stone

3. Rewrite and reduce (and sometimes recycle) one scene at a time.

I address everything I noted under step one and more. For each scene, I try to ask: Does it move the plot forward? Does it pull in the reader (via the hero’s point of view, with action shown not told, and steeped in the right mood)? Does it leave me wanting more? Is it necessary and interesting or can it be condensed or deleted? 

Beginnings need special consideration (Does the story really begin on page one or should I cut straight to page ten? Are the conflict and solution hinted at?), as do endings (Does the hero solve his own problem? Is it inevitable and yet surprising?). And somewhere in there I ask: Does each character have a unique consistent identity?


Chop out every stone not holding up your book.

4. Cut as much as possible.

About 10% of any draft can be cut through improved sentence construction and word choice. But more is often required. Entire scenes and characters may have to go if they don’t bring something new and critical to the work. 

I’ve read drafts in which the central story is buried under background information or irrelevant asides, and where the simplest action like crossing a room is lost in a detailed description of the floor plan. This is information a writer must know to work out plot and character, but the reader doesn’t need it. It derails the story and dilutes its impact.

For me, cutting requires several readings, a fearless heart, and a clear sense of what the book really means. I sometimes have to pretend it’s someone else’s book so I can dish out the tough love required.

5. Polish until you can’t polish any more.

I go through the book over and over, to check grammar, vary sentence length, cut adverbs, replace vague verbs and nouns, insert a little style, ensure consistency, etc. I read it out loud (or listen to the computer read it). I put it away for a week before polishing it some more. I keep making improvements until I read it and say, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

That feeling doesn’t last long. But if I get it in the mail quick enough, I’m on my way to a whole new story. Then it’s back to the very first stone.

%d bloggers like this: