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December 18, 2006

Keith Snyder on Novels in Progress
Posted by Teresa at 10:30 AM * 87 comments

Earlier this month I ran Keith Snyder on Novels in Progress as a Particle. I’ve been gradually finding out that not a lot of people clicked through to read it, mostly because it’s a .pdf. (Update: it’s now in HTML. I’ve redirected the link.) That’s too bad, because it’s stellar practical advice. It’s also, rarest of rarities, original: stuff I’ve never before seen, heard, or thought of. Let me give you some samples so you’ll go read it yourself:

No problem is just one kind of problem.

Every weakness is a weakness in more than one way. a problem with “characterization” turns out to be, coincidentally, where the plot also happens to lose track of itself. Lack of sufficient description is also where character voice disappears.

That means several things. First, it means a story is a unified whole, and that discussing “plot,” “character,” and “setting” as though they are separate is a mistake. Second, it means there’s more than one way to attack the problem. In the case of insufficient description, it would be easy to say, “Put in more description!” However, it might prove as fruitful to say, “You’ve missed a chance to let your point-of-view character tell us how she sees the world.”

This may go partway toward explaining why I’m probably contradicting other authors from whom you may have had advice, and why the next author you consult will contradict me: Sometimes, it’s because somebody’s actually wrong, but it’s also possible that we’re all seeing the same weakness, and simply approaching from the particular angle with which we’re most comfortable. We see the same problems, but solve them differently. So if more than one reliable source complains, but they’re complaining about different things, try to figure out the root cause of the symptoms they’re pointing to.

This sheds a lot of light on a rule of thumb I’ve known for years: If someone tells you a passage doesn’t work, they’re almost always right. What they tell you you ought to do to fix it is less certain to be right. I’ve also known that one problem scene can elicit six different authoritative suggestions on how to fix it. These well-known phenomena suddenly make sense if you look at them in terms of there being an undiagnosed root cause of the problems.
If you can identify the function of a scene, it’s easier to solve your problems.

Seeing your novel as a series of scenes, each of which has some sort of concrete purpose that you can articulate, can be helpful when trying to figure out how to attack problems.

For example, figuring out which dialogue to cut becomes clear when you know what the scene is for—you just cut whatever dialogue doesn’t agree with that function. Same with description, narrative, and everything else; there’s always going to be stuff that you keep because it’s fun, or chilling, or sad, or interesting, even if it doesn’t directly contribute to the scene’s function—but when you keep the scene’s function in mind while you’re cutting, it becomes easier to recognize what’s expendable and what’s not, and you’ll start making choices that make the scene feel taut.

This is why we’re forever telling students at Viable Paradise to finish the first draft, write straight through to the end of the book, instead of slowly creeping forward via rewrites of rewrites of rewrites. (“Epicyclic rewrites,” I say, and watch to see whether anyone gets it.) You can’t perfect a scene or chapter until you know what it’s doing, and you can’t know that until you know where the book goes and how it ends. Sometimes we hand out Certificates of Permission to Write Badly, if that’s what the student needs to start moving forward.*
Hide and Seek.

Some new writers love to withhold information so they can give the reader a surprise later. This is not necessarily a bad thing in all cases, but it can mean the reader is being denied the chance to enjoy the book now. It might also mean you’re relying too much on the idea of surprising the reader later instead of entertaining the reader now.

If you’re hiding information, the question I’d ask is why?

If the answer is that you’re writing a story with a twist ending—like The Sixth Sense—and all the hidden information builds toward it in concretely identifiable ways, then you may be fine.

If the answer is “I just like surprises,” then you may be reducing the dramatic impact of your story by sacrificing an interesting story now for a structurally meaningless surprise later.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. For some reason, we think springing a gotcha on the reader will make them go “Wow!” But it often doesn’t work out that way; by the time we get to the surprise, we’ve had to slog through too much that wasn’t interesting on its own.

And then—often—the surprise serves no identifiable purpose. So first there’s a slog, and then there’s no payoff.

Okay, so you got me. Big deal.

If this is one of your bad habits, the solution is simple: If you’ve got something interesting, use it sooner instead of later.

Let me say a fervent “amen” to that one.
Why I’m not line-editing.

In most cases, you’re here because you’ve got a manuscript that you’re not entirely happy with. Usually, the source of your unhappiness will be something structural: A plot that doesn’t happen, a character who’s not really a person yet, an incompletely thought-out thing of some sort.

Line-editing doesn’t make sense in that context; there’s no point agonizing over a single line if the entire chapter might be cut during your next revision. A story with structural problems is like a car with six side-view mirrors, one wheel, and twelve front seats; we can work on polishing each of the mirrors, and congratulate each other on how nice the seat leather is, but how much good is that really going to do when what the car needs is three more wheels, eleven fewer front seats, and an engine?

I’m sometimes asked whether a book can be fixed with a good rewrite. In most cases I say no, because what it first needs is a good rethinking. That makes the outcome a lot more uncertain. Rewriting is a skill, but every rethinking is a different problem.

Now go read the whole thing.

Comments on Keith Snyder on Novels in Progress:
#1 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 12:02 PM:

I've learned a great deal about how to write fiction from studying how to write screenplays. Partly it's because they bring a different vocabulary to the table, and some of those ways of seeing the problem/task are sufficiently novel that they can shed new light. ("That dialog is too on-the-nose.")

But it's also because, more than any other creative endeavor I suspect, they are intensely sensitive to the cost of each bit. It was from a book on directing by David Mamet that I learned that, dammit, every scene must serve a purpose (he called them "beats"), and you should take out everything that doesn't serve that purpose.

The rhythm of the story is the rhythm of those beats.

#2 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 12:20 PM:

Thanks, Teresa.

Is it true that Heinlein was terrified of how-to-write articles? Apparently he was concerned that, if he started wondering how he did what he did, he'd be like the millipede who never could walk correctly after it was asked how it managed to coordinate all its legs.

#3 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 12:41 PM:

Interesting piece.

On the subject of re-writes, though, I feel the need to add: sometimes the novel doesn't work as a car because it's got six mirrors and two wheels and eight seats, but that doesn't mean you have to fix it by adding two more wheels and throwing out four seats and calling it a car -- sometimes it's better to bolt on a pair of tracks and turn it into a half-track. (That is: you can make the novel work properly -- but not the way you originally envisaged it -- by doing something profoundly different and a lot simpler than the obvious course of action if you stuck to your original blueprint.)

#4 ::: Zeke ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 12:44 PM:

I'm one of the people who skipped the link because it was a pdf. Having seen these excerpts, I'll make sure to read the rest. Thanks!

#5 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 12:51 PM:

Years ago Harlan Ellison wrote an article on writing screenplays. In it he described how, on one of his first scripts, an experienced screenplay writer literally glanced at a page of Harlan's script from far enough away that he couldn't have read anything on it, then tossed it aside with the comment "It won't play." Ellison was pissed (I would have been too) and said "How would you know? You haven't read it!"

The other writer had him look at a page of a screenplay and then the page of a book from a distance. Basically, if a screenplay has paragraphs with more than two or three lines, or doesn't have dialog back and forth between two characters, then it won't work--the paragraphs on the page will be in big clumps. And, unless it's a dialog section of a Fletch novel, books have too much material clumped together on each page to work as scripts. Harlan included a little graphic that showed both pages from a distance, but a quick look at a screenplay page and a book page side by side will show what he was talking about.

Mind you, I'm sure there are exceptions: I haven't seen it in a long while, but the "girl on a boat" speech in Citizen Kane probably violates this rule--except it's broken up by the reporter's questions, so maybe not. (I'd go into the details more, but my wife hasn't seen Kane and I'd like to avoid spoiling it for her.)

#6 ::: Nenya ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 01:09 PM:

Oooh, now this makes me want to write again. Ideas for how the fixing of problems can be less hopeless! Hurrah!

#7 ::: Nenya ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 01:10 PM:

Also, Bruce and Alex, that's fascinating about screenplays.

#8 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 01:34 PM:

I'd like to quibble with this:

This is why we’re forever telling students at Viable Paradise to finish the first draft, write straight through to the end of the book, instead of slowly creeping forward via rewrites of rewrites of rewrites.

Because it pinged my there is one right way to write alarm. It's great and necessary advice for some writers, and absolutely awful for others. I know writers who've followed that model and ended up with a draft that they feel needs so many fixes that they are paralyzed by the scale of it, whereas they'd have been fine if they'd adjusted as they went along.

I constantly rewrite as I go, and it doesn't slow me down much at all. But then, I generally know exactly where I'm going with a novel and approximately how it ends by the time I start. There's usually one major readjustment at about 30k words in, but that's because of rewriting and discovery as I go, not despite it.

Other than that, great advice, and I'll definitely take time to look at the pdf and recommend it to my writing students.

Actual email link that I respond to:

#9 ::: ksgreer ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 02:06 PM:

My biggest stumbling block in college was great description, no conflict, and the flattest dialogue imaginable. Everyone sounded the same, and the creative writing classes didn't ever seem to address it. I'd read published works and could see (or read?) the differences in voice, but had no idea how to incorporate those lessons into what I wrote. So I took two playwriting classes, and in two semesters... wow. Everything from The Curious Savage to 'Night, Mother to Bent to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to The Importance of Being Earnest to The Women, and more I can't even remember.

The beauty of playwriting (and, I suppose, screenwriting) is that the story must be carried entirely by voice: if the conflict is not in the voice, if the business is not in voice, then it's not definitively there. At the same time, plays like 'Night, Mother and Bent and Breaking the Code had power because of what wasn't said, the spaces between the voice. (I did round this all out years later by watching Joss Whedon's works avidly, as he has a marvelous ear for voice and a sensitivity to pop culture without pandering to the instant-now and thus dating himself.)

Still not published, but I do always get compliments about my dialogue. I tell other not-yet-publisheds to read/listen/watch plays, to get scripts and read them outloud, try to visualize the play from the dialogue alone, see how dialogue creates so much of the story, can relay the entire story in itself.

Now, if only there were a way to isolate pacing, conflict, or description to improve those as well...

#10 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 02:13 PM:

For my fellow haters of pdfs, here's the html link.

#11 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 02:26 PM:

What's with the anti-pdf bigotry? The thing is RILLY UGLY in cached html, and it's trivially easy to save pdfs and read them later.

#12 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 02:26 PM:

What's with the anti-pdf bigotry? The thing is RILLY UGLY in cached html, and it's trivially easy to save pdfs and read them later.

#13 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 02:36 PM:

Kelly@#8: The other thing we keep telling people at Viable Paradise (well, I keep telling them that, anyhow) is that all writing advice should be be stamped with "IN MY OPINION -- THIS IS HOW IT WORKS FOR ME -- YMMV" in bright red letters at the top of the page.

That being said, novice writers with a tendency to bog down in epicyclic rewrites do tend, overall, to be more common than novice writers for whom incremental revising actually works.

#14 ::: Evelyn Browne ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 02:56 PM:

*And then there's the unique certificate handed out to Ellen Fremedon... but that's another story.

Um. I got so much good advice in such a short time at VP that it's all sort of congealed in my brain, and I don't actually remember which part of it the certificate was for.


#15 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 02:58 PM:

#11 ::: theophylact grouses:
What's with the anti-pdf bigotry? The thing is RILLY UGLY in cached html, and it's trivially easy to save pdfs and read them later.

That's making a bunch of assumptions, starting with "able to save the pdf" and moving on to "read later", while passing through "able to read pdfs [on your particular hardware]".

Everybody has a different setup and different preferences. I almost never download pdfs - I don't have enough space to keep on pulling down random things... nor time to read them if I do. Either they get read _now_ or they won't get read.

#16 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:00 PM:

Very good article. For a pdf, anyway.

I found Atlanta Nights to be some of the best writing advice I've seen. Seriously - it's a brilliant "how not to", and teaches some things better than any non-fiction article could.

#17 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:05 PM:

#8: Kelly, I can confirm that the VP instructors sent the "in my opinion" message loud and clear. (It's in my notes from VP X.)

Thank you Teresa for bring this up again. I have literally spent the past week trying to remember where I had read "Ineffective writing isn't necessarily the result of doing things wrong; it's usually the result of missing opportunities." One mystery solved. Now I know who to credit.

#18 ::: deadmuse ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:07 PM:

To TNH and other Viable Paradise gurus: is there any chance of a book version of the VP experience? Or even a book version of the "Uncle Jim" column? I realize the interaction and intensive process of VP is irreplacable, but the lecture titles I've seen at the VP site sound like chapters in a book that I'd love to read.

Lastly, thanks for all your work on this marvellous site. I'd feel a definite void without my visits to Making Light.

#19 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:20 PM:

I followed the link the first time. Do I get a gold star?

What's interesting is how much this all resonates with the work I've been doing on writing sonnets. The ones I've been writing (not just for here) require the same sort of focus on what I'm trying to say, but even more intensely, since I've nly fot 140 syllables to say it in.

#20 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:22 PM:

A book version of "Uncle Jim" is very possible. I've talked with several people about that.

In standard manuscript format, just my own remarks in that thread come to well over 1,000 pages. I'm sure I can find 300 good ones.

#21 ::: Jen Roth ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:33 PM:


It's not bigotry. PDF as a method of presenting documents on the web has usability problems, including:

* Changing the user environment -- you were in your web browser, now you're in Acrobat Reader or Preview or xpdf or whatever. The controls and menus are different. Preview doesn't scroll smoothly, but rather jumps a (print) page at a time. (And print pages are a totally useless measure for an online document.) The interface to search within the document is probably different. Etc.

* Inflexibility. You can't change the background or font color of a PDF to improve readability. You can change the font size, but only by increasing/decreasing the size of the window -- the text doesn't flow the way it does (well, should) on a web page. Depending on your PDF reader, you might not be able to copy text to paste into a different document.

* Having to load up another application. I don't know about xpdf, and Preview is reasonably light, but Acrobat Reader is a godawful resource pig _and_ (in Windows) it sometimes stays resident after you close the PDF you were reading. That's why I don't click on PDFs unless I have to for work, or unless I know damn well that the content is worth it.

* Accessibility. Not all PDFs are able to be read by screen readers for the visually impaired, although I understand that's improving.

All of this would be acceptable if the contents of the file made it necessary, but a lot of documents are presented as PDFs that don't need to be. There was nothing in the article in question but text with a few italics, and it could easily have been rendered effectively in HTML.

Realistically, I understand that Snyder probably just scanned in the documents he had on hand rather than having the time to re-enter them and format them as HTML pages. But that doesn't make PDF a *good* format to use in this case, just better than nothing.

(Having said all that, I am nonetheless squirreling the file away for later perusal. Ironically, I have a story due tomorrow and won't be able to digest this writing advice until after that. ::sigh::)

#22 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:37 PM:

I'm an epicyclic rewrite bogger-downer. I've been known to spend 10 or more cumulative hours on a single sentence, and have it end up in exactly the same form it started in, simply because I had to find every possible way of recasting it, to prove to myself that there wasn't a better one.

I have some exquisite sentences. Sometimes even paragraphs! Nothing finished, though, unless you count the second-person stream-of-consciousness thing I wrote back in 2001, and why should you? (The ending dragged anyway, and I was gonna edit it, but turning the whole thing into conventional narrative would have completely sucked the life out of it. One problem I don't have in that story is character voice; you know just how this guy talks just from reading the damn thing, that's how SOC works, if it works at all, what was I talking about? Yeah.)

I know I have Permission to Write Badly. If someone would only give me the ABILITY to take that and run with it...not that I think I'm incapable of writing badly, except in the sense that I'm apparently incapable of writing* at all.

*Where 'writing' is defined as FINISHING things, at least occasionally.

#23 ::: Jen Roth ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:41 PM:

I know I have Permission to Write Badly. If someone would only give me the ABILITY to take that and run with it.

NaNoWriMo can be helpful in that regard. If you are trying to crank out 50,000 words in one month, you really have no choice but to use your Permission to Write Badly. (Well, I certainly had no choice, anyway. And it turned out that a lot of what I wrote was surprisingly acceptable.)

#24 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:45 PM:

I tried NaNoWriMo in 2005. I got two chapters of a novel written that way, and gave up in despair.

Part of the problem may be that I knew where I wanted the novel to go before I started. That made it impossible to just plow through it, because I had already set up the structure, and I had to keep making adjustments to get it to fit.

I was going to try again this year, starting with the first thing that came into my head when I sat down at the keyboard November 1, but life intervened, as they say.

#25 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 03:58 PM:

Jen Roth @ #21: You don't want to open Acrobat Reader as an application; you want it to function as a browser plugin. And what browser do you have that won't play well with Reader?

I agree that it's hard to reformat a pdf for ease of viewing; but on the other hand, it does preserve all the formatting that the author intended. That's often pretty important, especially when tables or special characters are involved.

#26 ::: Jen Roth ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 04:07 PM:

It does open as a plugin, in Firefox. Still hogs a lot of resources, though.

As I say, sometimes documents do require it, and I don't object in those cases, but PDF gets used for a lot of documents that don't really need to be presented that way.

#27 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 04:09 PM:

Debra, 13 and JC, 17,

Thank you, that's fabulous. I just wanted to make sure that the other point of view was heard and I will freely admit that the epicyclic issue is a more prevalent problem. As you do, the thing I constantly emphasize when I'm teaching or on a panel about writing is the message: This is what works for me. If you can use it, great! If not, find what works for you. And then I do the usual song and dance about writers with wildly varying processes.


Actual email link to which I respond:

#28 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 04:09 PM:

I know I have Permission to Write Badly.

"It was a dark and stormy night and as lightning struck, illuminating the salon, I could see that the wench was dead and, judging from the smell, had been for a long time."

License revoked?

#29 ::: Joe J ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 04:16 PM:

This is funny in a "life is funny that way" kind of way.

Right now, I'm sitting here reading complaints about Adobe Acrobat, while I have a supervisor in my office waiting not so patiently for me to finish up eight PDFs to post on our company website.

I wonder if people will grumble about them when they're done.

#30 ::: RichM ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 04:26 PM:

PDFs are somewhat more resistant to plagiarism than plain old HTML, since you cannot just highlight and paste it someplace. I don't know whether this might have been a consideration for the author of this set of notes. This feature also makes them less likely to be cited by bloggers and the like, unless they are willing to look up the HTML-ized version where they can have their way.

Certificates of Permission to Write Badly: can these be put onto a T-shirt? Please?

#31 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 04:32 PM:

This is wonderful. How on earth did I miss this the first time around?

#30: PDFs are somewhat more resistant to plagiarism than plain old HTML, since you cannot just highlight and paste it someplace.

Er -- this may be true of some .pdfs, especially ones which have been poorly scanned, but it isn't true of the one linked to in this post. (I just got curious and tried it. CnP was fully operational. I have Adobe Acrobat on this machine, if that's a datapoint.)

I like .pdfs for reading documents. They're not perfect, but neither is html; and they're much easier to save and bring with me on my machine for reading in airports and the like.

#32 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 04:43 PM:

Since I've just thought of it, there's a better metaphor for how I use html versus pdf docs: HTML docs are part of an enormous library full of large and unwieldy books. I can read anything I like, but I'd better be in the library to do it. PDF docs, by contrast, are lightweight magazines I can pick up and bring with me. If they were available in large books in the library I could read them there, of course, but I don't always have library access.

YMMV, boulders of salt, etc.

#33 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 05:02 PM:

Here's why I don't like PDFs:

In order to get the text to a readable size, I have to blow it up. Then I can only see part of the page. I have to be very careful how I scroll, because it'll leap to the next page, or leap back to a previous page. That means I have to take my eyes off the text to look at the scroll bar. The only really practical way to make sure I can read it is to print it out, which removes the only advantage an on-screen presentation has.

The only time PDF is worth using is when the exact formatting must be preserved, and when the document is intended to be printed out.

Neither of those cases hold for this article.

#34 ::: KristianB ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 05:25 PM:

Jim 33: I have to be very careful how I scroll, because it'll leap to the next page, or leap back to a previous page.

I'm quite sure there's a Thing that can be checked off that allows you to scroll normally between pages. I know I do. But since I've had it that way for years, I no longer remember where I found it, and can't immediately seem to relocate it...

#35 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 05:28 PM:

On epicycles ...

One technique I use to avoid epicyclic polishing -- which may or may not work for you, YMMV -- is: every day, when I begin writing, I start by polishing. But I only allow myself to polish what I wrote the day before. This serves a dual purpose. It reminds me where I've been, and it ensures that the trail of words I'm leaving behind me isn't raw first-draft, it's relatively polished. If you work regularly and plough through a first draft, then surprise! -- when you get to the end, you may have structural problems, but it won't lack the basic polish.

This runs into the ground when I have to put a project down for a while (usually more than a couple of days). At that point, I've got to warm up again by reading through the entire story so far, and I can't read through a partial novel without polishing a little bit. But this is a momentum problem (if you lose momentum you forget bits of the little details that go to make up the whole; momentum is more about maintaining memory and persistence than about a raw word-count target to be achieved at the end of each day).

In general, if you've got momentum you don't get stuck in epicyclic editing. And if you're in epicyclic editing, building momentum is hard work. Hmm ...

#36 ::: Joe J ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 05:31 PM:

Jim and Kristian,

The button for continuous is on the toolbar at the bottom of the window. It is in line with the buttons that show a single page at a time and facing pages.

#37 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 05:50 PM:

I read the sidelight when posted, and enjoyed it as much then as refreshers now. I've recently enrolled in the USC MPW program, where I'm studying and workshopping with a bunch of writers I've admired greatly, and last year did the QWERTY thing with Will Shetterly. The thing I've found interesting is that, in some small way, I figure from participating over at the Well and here, I'd picked up Snyder's way of viewing things, and brought that to the workshops I've been participating in. At first I felt a little out of place; a lot of my classmates would be well at home in an MFA program (I don't think I would be), and I've found a wide cross-section of work we've been submitting, but I always end up with plot/character/story/structure comments. Making them has helped me critique not only their work better but also my own, and understand a little more deeply how I approach things when I write.

Re: novels and screenplays-- based on Will's advice, I rewrote from scratch my entire novel, and completed it just before I began a screenwriting class. I wanted some time away from the novel but not the story, and so I decided to adapt it. Which forced me to break it into beats and pauses, pacings and rhythms, really distilling it into an essence of the story. It was a revelation.

I have a feeling that, when I do the revision, the reverse will be true; I'll learn more about the subtext/etc. of the novel and the characters therein. Explore more details and more of the world in a way that doesn't go into a screenplay.

Next semester I'll be studying screenwriting with Syd Field and fiction with Sid Stebel, and I'm thinking, as an experiment, I might just do the same project in both classes to see how it turns out.

#38 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 05:52 PM:

In general, if you've got momentum you don't get stuck in epicyclic editing. And if you're in epicyclic editing, building momentum is hard work. Hmm ...

A writer in momentum tends to remain in momentum, while a writer caught in the Torrent of Overwriting tends to remain so caught? For every protagonist there is an equal and opposite antagonist?

#39 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 05:52 PM:

Now go read the whole thing.

Think I was halfway through it the first time you posted the particle, and then I got pulled away from the computer and didn't finish it.

Just finished it. Good stuff.

Await further instructions.


#40 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 05:59 PM:

The drawbacks of both formats have workarounds:

--PDF-reading applications can generally be set up to scroll rather than page. (In Preview, it's View->PDF Display->Single Page Scrolling.) Then you can scroll with the space bar and/or arrow keys at the size you prefer, ignoring pagination.

--Multi-page HTML documents can be downloaded in their entirety for off-line browsing using wget.

#41 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 06:17 PM:

I have a question for Charlie and Jim and PNH and TNH and other seasoned pros here:

What do you do when you're well into your first draft and you find you want to make a significant change in the story?

I started writing a novel-in-progress as a high fantasy, but I realize now that it's better as soft science fiction with a low-tech society. Also, I thought I wanted the novel to be about a thug with a social conscience and mission, now, I realize it would be better as a story about a thug who acquires a social conscience and religion.

I guess what I'll do is write a few notes to myself and just keep going forward with the new backstory and story line in mind, then revise the beginning when I've hit the end of the story. If that doesn't seem to be working, I'll revise from the very beginning.

But I'm curious to see what the Seasoned Pros would do and recommend in this situation. Or do Seasoned Pros even run into this situation -- is this a mistake only a beginner makes?

(When I describe myself as beginner, I'm not beating up on myself. I am a beginner, and every time I catch myself making a stupid mistake, well, that's exactly what I'm supposed to be doing at this stage of things -- making stupid mistakes.)

#42 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 06:25 PM:

PDF Viewers: there are alternatives to the Acrobat software. I use a program called Foxit Reader, from

Polishing: I can see the point of not wasting time. If it was on paper, I think I still might scribble notes in the margin. I've seen a couple of pieces about using other software to keep track of a story's structure--one was referenced from Elf Sternberg's LiveJournal. I reckon the ideas are a way of scribbling in the margins,

Doing that sort of annotation might involve structuring the manuscript a little differently, and maybe talking of scenes, rather than chapters, would be the way to go. From what I've picked up over the years, a scene in a screenplay is tied to the setup needed for the technology. It's a combination of actors, place, and camera.

So if two characters start out talking in one room, and move into another, that's two scenes.

If you're doing annotation, that's the sort of level you need, I think.

And an off-the-wall thought. Howard Goodall has been presenting a series on TV, here in the UK, called "How Music Works". The programme on Rhythym set me thinking a bit. Cross rhythyms, for instance. Something to think about on a macro scale--chapters and scenes--as well as how speech rhythyms can be used to distinguish characters.

#43 ::: Evelyn Browne ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 06:49 PM:

#41-- Mitch, I'm having that exact problem with my novel-in-progress. I had been writing straight through, keeping notes on everything I was going to change-- and it was a lot of changes, since I'd started out aiming for a novella and really underwriting, and then realized I had a novel on my hands and started letting myself include some of what I'd been squelching in the early chapters. Then this summer, when I got into Viable Paradise, I rewrote the first two chapters, since I didn't want to show up to the workshop with a draft full of things I'd already decided to change, and rewrote the next two before the workshop. When I'd absorbed and digested all my crits from VP, I decided my protagonist should actively choose the role that had been thrust upon him, and started rewriting from the beginning again, because I knew I would need to make some major structural changes to the first two chapters.

And I completely bogged down; I can't find any foothold for revising now that I've rewritten those chapters once. But I'm very nervous about just writing the end and coming back, because the draft is such a mess palimpsest that *I* can barely figure out what's going on, and my notes on what to change in the revised draft are getting out of control.

Maybe I should just trust myself to be able to sort out the revision of the beginning and the mess of the middle of the book once I reach the end. The most recent chapters actually are more-or-less in line with where I want it to go.

#44 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 07:19 PM:

The problem with PDFs for me is that they take forever to load. If I have something else to do and the PDF sounds useful, I'll do it, but not otherwise.

RichM, you can c&p from PDFs by clicking one of the buttons in the toolbar first.

#45 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 07:19 PM:

FWIW, the former WebTv now property of Microsoft doesn't play at all well with .pdf files. I've watched my mother get thoroughly frustrated when she tries to read one of them. This is despite the software's claim that it can so read .pdfs.

The trouble is, I think, that WebTv is such an itsy-bitsy part of the Microsoft user population that it's darn near an orphan and gets very little attention. I have a mental picture of one developer up in Redmond (or maybe in Bangalore) who periodically reviews new developments in file structures to determine whether WebTv can read them, discovers they can't be read, and adds them to the pile of pro bono things to be done.

#46 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 08:00 PM:

Mitch #41: What do you do when you're well into your first draft and you find you want to make a significant change in the story?

I continue writing from the point I made the realization as if I'd written it with the Big Change in place from the beginning. Then go back and readjust the front end.

It's entirely possible that by the time you reach The End that you'll realize that it was better the first way.

#47 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 08:14 PM:

Thanks, Jim. That seems like the best path to me as well.

I'm still curious to hear other viewpoints on this issue, if for no other reason than because I'm enjoying the discussion.

#48 ::: MWT ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 09:15 PM:

Thanks, Uncle Jim. I didn't ask Mitch's question but it applies to my current WIP too. ;)

Namely, my backstory and setting is about as solid as quicksand, and it shifts every time my characters decide to do something completely different than what I thought they might do. I guess the thing to do is make a note of the changes and keep going.

You can’t perfect a scene or chapter until you know what it’s doing, and you can’t know that until you know where the book goes and how it ends.

The biggest lesson I learned during this year's Nanowrimo, right there. Half the time I have no idea whether my scene is even going to be in the final story. Mostly it's been a matter of "characters X, Y, and Z were doing things A, B, and C. What was character W doing during that time?" But I write it anyway, if only because it's amusing to do mean things to my characters. ;) And even if it doesn't make the final cut, it still helped me clarify my backstory/setting, and therefore it wasn't a total waste of time.

I manage to keep going because I decided that what I do is "record", not "write." Therefore it doesn't matter if the phrasing is flawed, or I hop POV all over the place. The important part is just to make sure when I go back, I'll know what everyone was thinking and why they said/did whatever they said/did. Therefore if I need to render it from a different direction, all the motivations still stay the same.

I think that means I've finally figured out what the first draft is for. :)

(or I could just be blathering again ... that happens to me a lot too.)

#49 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 10:21 PM:

With a little search and replace on the terminology, it would make excellent advice for software developers.

#50 ::: elizabeth bear ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 11:14 PM:

This is the wrong point at which to mention that I do epicyclic rewrites, isn't it?

(I actually do just about every single thing that writing advice books tell you not to do. I talk about my work in progress, I work on several things at once, I revise as I go....

...on the other hand, for me it works. So I can always serve as a bad example, I guess.)

#51 ::: elizabeth bear ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 11:22 PM:

Evelyn & Mitch:

For me? I curse and swear and go back and fix it. This happens, oh... every book. At between 100 and 150 pages. Because that's when I figure out what the story is, you see, and then I have to go back and rewrite the beginning so that it will support the rest of the story.

I can't do the keep notes and revise later thing. Because I can feel how rickety and teetery the structure is, and I *can't* feel the emotional arc of the story that way.

I gave to be able to pick the book up and swing it, to get an idea of how it and what the weight and shape are.

#52 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 11:32 PM:

I have to be able to pick the book up and swing it

I've never thrown one of your books against the wall, so I wouldn't know.

#53 ::: elizabeth bear ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2006, 11:56 PM:

...and while I'm comment spamming, I am particularly enamored of this essay in general. In specific, that he talks about what Charlie Finlay calls "doing stuff right," which is to say, the important thing about good writing is not not doing things wrong, but doing stuff right.

Good essay.

#54 ::: Steven Gould ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 12:14 AM:

Mitch, I couldn't do it the way Jim or you can--I'd have to start over again.

Or even write a different book first, before going back to rewrite the change-in-mid-stream book.

No advice is so good that it isn't wrong for some writer.

#55 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 12:50 AM:

Steven - I don't know if I can do it the way I said either. I'm still figuring things out.

#56 ::: Anaea ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 01:15 AM:

Serge at #2, I'm not sure it was true but he definitely said that once. He also insisted that no writer good enough to make a living off writing would actually be willing teach writing, and the only people qualified to teach were the ones who could make a living at it. (or something to that effect. It's been a while. I'm pretty sure it was in one of the essays in Expanded Univers but I can't seem to find my copy in order to verify).

Mitch at #41, when I'm a good girl I'm writing so quickly that I don't really notice when my backstory takes major shifts until I'm finished and reading through it. In one instance my ending wasn't quite how I'd meant for it to be because the relationship between two of my characters didn't click into place right. So I wrote a prequel to get my backstory straightened out and now I'm rewriting from scratch. Now I know all the backstory, so most of the major structure issues are fixing themselves as I go.

When I'm a bad girl and let weeks go by without doing any work I have major earth-shattering revelations about plot points and go back to revise just to make sure that they actually work before I go on to write them. I don't really count as a seasoned professional, but that's my experience.

#57 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 02:42 AM:

FWIW: My rule of thumb is to write a skeleton as fast as I can, with as much detail as I need to get the points and details down that I want, and then flesh it out later. This does a few things for me:

* Keeps things fresh and hopefully surprising. My eneral theory is that if I can figure out where the story is going, so can the reader.

* When I go back and flesh it out, it allows me to minimize writing the stuff that readers tend to skip (a direct steal from Elmore Leonard). It allows me to flesh out the good parts first, the parts that sing well, and then write the parts that connect them to be tight and/or as artfully as needs be.

The biggest drawback with this method, depending on your POV, is that it tends to make my word count run low. But I'd much rather do that than pad needlessly.

#58 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 03:58 AM:

I have Win98 and I use Firefox 2.0--there's a reasonable chance that pdfs will make my computer seize up and need to be rebooted. Also, I find that pdfs are less readable for a given font size than html. is a web designer's take on why pdfs are generally hated.

I knew it existed on a site called [something]box. Searching on [hate pdf] turned it up immediately, and what's more, 9 out of the first 10 hits were about hating pdfs.

#59 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 05:26 AM:

re: PDF-phobia

I tend to get annoyed with PDF files because they aren't actually a *document* at all. They're a very pretty *picture* of a document. I discovered this when faced with the joy of explaining to people at Irk that they had to choose "print as image" in order to be able to get a PDF to print from our intranet. I've never been that keen on them anyway - partially because they're a mess to read (the standard readable size of text for my eyes and my screen winds up being about three-quarters of an A4 page) and they're a ruddy lousy workaround for the problem of transforming paper documents to electronic ones. They aren't easy to edit with the standard workplace tools (ie most word processing suites) but instead require a large expenditure in order to obtain the latest version of Adobe's PDF editing tools.

In their place (as a form of electronic storage for infrequently used, multi-colour, strangely formatted documents) they're fine. However, the problem is that PDF creation is a very handy hammer, and it results in a lot of completely unsuitable things being treated as nails. Give me Rich Text format any day - minimal formatting, cross-platform compatibility, and generally a lot easier to read.

re: Epicyclical rewrites

I'm someone who gets caught in those, in a way. I tend to find in order to continue a story I've already started, I'll have to go back and re-read it from the start. While I'm re-reading, I'm usually also polishing grammar and sentence structure, catching the occasional misspelling, and sometimes scrapping whole sections because my brain says "what the hey is this for?". I also find I have a lot of trouble writing from a structure - for me, the process of writing is the process of discovering the story, which means if I have a structure, I don't have the impetus to flesh things out.

This has been changing, however, over time. Now, I'm finding my writer's notes (which I tend to chuck at the bottom of the text I'm working on at the moment) tend to have dot-point structural notes about things which need to be mentioned in the next section of text, or somewhere else in the story. I'll also have sections of my first draft which I'll just skim-write ("and then they got from A to B in time for the next bit to happen) and I'll flesh these out some more in the process of working through the polishing, because now I know where I'm coming from and where I'm going to, I can see what has to happen on the way there, and why. So I suppose I've managed to make the epicyclical rewrites work for me.

My biggest problem as a writer is I have to remember to sit down and bloody well *write*.

#60 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 07:07 AM:

Mitch: I sometimes do what Jim does -- carry on writing as if I'd already made the change I came up with. But more often I go back and tweak the first part a little so it matches up -- not a full re-write, just some tightening of screws and/or countersinking to make it work better. Then I polish everything after I finish the draft.

On the other hand, if it's a really big change I have to go back to the beginning and edit my way through the whole damn thing, until it works. I like to know I'm building on solid foundations, and while I'm okay working with a list of bugfixes to make later at my left elbow, I prefer not to let it get out of control.

(This happened to the novel that became "Singularity Sky" at, oh, 135,000 words into the first draft. The finished book ran to 118,000 words, and the big change happened in the first chapter, which is how come I ended up writing about 260,000 words of material for a 118,000 word book. I try not to do that these days: you could go broke trying to earn a living if you're that wasteful with your work. On the other hand, the initial draft was broken, and the remix ... wasn't.)

#61 ::: Shannon ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 07:10 AM:

The beauty of playwriting (and, I suppose, screenwriting) is that the story must be carried entirely by voice: if the conflict is not in the voice, if the business is not in voice, then it's not definitively there.

This is certainly true with comics as well. The pictures and dialogue tells everything (unless it's a journal comic like Maus, but those are rare), and so if it isn't expressed in one of those places, then it isn't expressed at all. That's one of the hardest things I'm learning while writing my own graphic novel - how to make the voices distinct without being cliched. In my semi-Roman Empire-era fantasy, I have a young teenage character whom I tried to give a distinct voice. Unfortunately, she came out sounding like a 13-year-old from the 1970s. Sigh.

#62 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 08:58 AM:

Anae @ 56... Thanks for confirming that I didn't imagine that Heinlein comment. Whether he truly believed it or not, that millipede comment certainly applies to my wife's own writing. She has a tendency to second-guess herself.

One thing she does is to work out as much of her plot in advance as she can. It's not a rigid outline. If she realizes that something won't work after all, she'll deviate, and she'll immediately go back to fix things - after all the 'solution' might not work and she wants to know that asap. And, with her tight deadlines, she can't afford to make things as she goes and then find out that she painted herself into a corner and has to throw away the last month's work.

#63 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 09:29 AM:

Thanks, Teresa, for the great advice.

I guess the best advice would be to write whichever way you need to get the story out and finished. If you can't start the next chapter until you polished the first to a shine, then by all means, polish. If you have to write it all out and then figure out the story, do that.

However, if you never get the story done, change what you're doing. If you're rewriting that first, excellent, opening sentence endlessly while the characters, tapping their toes, wait for you to get on with it, change what you're doing. If you've race ahead and lose the path only to find the characters waiting back at the fork in the road watching you through binoculars, go back and rewrite from there. Do whatever works to get the story out and finished.

The best advice I ever received was contrary to all the other advice I had ever read. Most second drafts are shorter than the first draft. I was given permission to make mine larger. That has made all the difference.

#64 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 09:42 AM:

Mitch, Elayne: what I'd do would be to rename the file with the wrong stuff in it "thinga" and start a new file and write the beginning again, perhaps occasionally looking at thinga to extract things (occasional lines of dialogue etc.) that might still be of use.

I haven't done this very often, but when I do need to make major changes to where something is going, burning it back to bedrock and rewriting is what works. Revising, or going on and leaving the beginning broken, just leads to a morass.

I do revise as I go, and if I have an idea for a minor change I'll go back and put it in everywhere it should be earlier. I find that easier than making notes for fixing it later -- when I'm working on it, I'm fascinated to go and add the stuff, but right afterwards I often don't even want to look at any of it.

#65 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 09:57 AM:

#63:if you never get the story done, change what you're doing

That pretty much covers it. The "right answer" is whichever one that ends in a completed story for the writer in question.

#64: what I'd do would be to rename the file with the wrong stuff in it "thinga" and start a new file and write the beginning again, perhaps occasionally looking at thinga to extract things (occasional lines of dialogue etc.) that might still be of use.

Ah, yes. The other great piece of wisdom: Never throw out your discarded text; you may need bits of it later.

#66 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 10:25 AM:

Mitch, my model would be much closer to Elizabeth Bear's since I rewrite as I go. And, like Elizabeth, I typically hit a major revision point somewhere around twenty percent of the way in. In my case it's usually character revision rather than setting since I always start with world and plot, and I generally need to go back in and rewrite character back-story to put them in the place they needed to be in to get to the place they're going. Also like Elizabeth, I'm not comfortable knowing the foundation doesn't fit the story as it follows.

Over at the Wyrdsmiths blog (me, Eleanor Arnason, Lyda Morehouse/Tate Hallaway, and Naomi Kritzer, among others) we had a discussion about ongoing rewrite a while back. The discussion is centered here with later posts that also reference it.

Actual email if you want a response:

#67 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 11:10 AM:

The reason this is a PDF:

I'm the father of twin toddlers, I'm in film post-production, I have a backlog of writing to catch up on, I have a day job, it already existed as a Word file that I printed out for my students, and I stuck it up on my blog as a PDF because I thought somebody might be interested.

Thanks for the interest. I'll see if I can find time to resave as HTML. Maybe when my boys are in college...

#68 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 11:41 AM:

For what it's worth, my hatred of pdfs doesn't mean I think everyone has to do extra work to not put pdfs online. I'm ok with using the google view-as-html.

#69 ::: Kellie Hazell ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 11:50 AM:

Charlie @ #60: This happened to the novel that became "Singularity Sky" at, oh, 135,000 words into the first draft. The finished book ran to 118,000 words, and the big change happened in the first chapter, which is how come I ended up writing about 260,000 words of material for a 118,000 word book.

I just encountered a big snarl at 80,000 words and felt awful about going back to Word 1 to fix things (though I knew I had to; I was writing in an outward spiral trying to get from A to B and I couldn't afford to waste the time and words to take me to the end of the novel that way when I knew how to fix the 80,000). Thanks for sharing your story.

I actually knew back at around 50,000 words that the structure of the novel needed some major adjustments, but I had used epicyclic rewrites as a procrastination tool before and didn't want to get caught in that again. This brings me to the next best piece of writing advice after "Find what works for you." It is "Every novel is different."

#71 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 02:23 PM:

I think it's only a bit off-topic to note that "Miss Snark" solicited query letter hooks and is commenting on them at the rate of about 40 to 50 a day on her blog, and it's really, really interesting.

Out of about 150 or so she's posted so far, maybe five are "send me pages" quality. Some of the rest are deeply, almost horrifying bad. Some are horrifyingly bad, in fact.

Anyway, her comments make edifying reading (though she doesn't know much about SF/Fantasy but at least admits it).

#72 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 02:41 PM:

Man, if there were ever a case study for .pdf v. HTML, Keith has just provided it. The difference in ease of use is palpable in the HTML format. Thank you, sir.

#73 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 03:20 PM:

I did a Google-search using 'convert PDF HTML' and got a lot of options. Most seem to be for software products which will do this task.

I was looking for something like this a couple of years ago, thought I'd saved some bookmarks (apparently I hadn't). In the end, I didn't have the money to spend on any of the products I had found at the time, and decided I could live with the PDFs I had on hand.

PDFs were a god-send in the service bureau environment. I recall trying to print someone's involved Corel file to an Imagesetter (having loaded the file into Corel, making sure all the fonts the client used were installed, printing through Windows 3.1 Postscript printer drivers); it would take three-quarters of an hour before it would decide it wasn't going to print after all.

Nowdays you could ask the client to give you a PDF file; easy for him to create (many programs can 'print' to a PDF), and the file itself is essentially a pre-processed Postscript file that is easily handled by any Postscript printer.

#74 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 03:53 PM:

Charles Stross writes: "This happened to the novel that became "Singularity Sky" at, oh, 135,000 words into the first draft. The finished book ran to 118,000 words, and the big change happened in the first chapter, which is how come I ended up writing about 260,000 words of material for a 118,000 word book. I try not to do that these days..."

I know that feeling well... before I finished the first draft of my first novel and realized it needed a major overhaul before it would be able to walk on its own (it has several problems), I worried that I'd feel paralyzed by the scope of the task. On the contrary, I've discovered quite the opposite effect... I'm mortified that I can't find enough time to do the work I still need to do.

Charles Stross continues: "you could go broke trying to earn a living if you're that wasteful with your work."

Even if you're not trying to earn a living, being that wasteful with your work can be a source of profound embarrassment. I'm certainly ashamed. The more time and effort you invest in an unpublishable manuscript— without successfully repairing it— the more all the sane and sensible people around you will think you're a graphomaniacal crank. And rightly so.

I'm convinced that epicyclic rewriting was one of the temptations of St. Anthony.

#75 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 03:56 PM:

Thanks, Keith. The HTML version is lovely.

#76 ::: MWT ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 04:17 PM:

This is fascinating reading. And heartening to see all the published writers talk about having to throw out 260,000 words. :) It makes me feel less bad about the sad messy state of my own stuff. So thank you, all of you.

To contribute something to the discussion that isn't my own, there's a lovely sonnet by Lawrence Watt Evans on the subject that I really like.

#77 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 08:39 PM:

I propose the following hypothesis: Epicyclic re-writing tends to get caught up in the fixing of small, inconsequential details likely best fixed all at once in the second draft. (Ie. the problem is "bad writing".)

The kinds of large changes many people here are talking about are, well, *large* changes to the *structure* of the story. It makes sense that they should be made as early as possible in the first draft so that the story doesn't fall over entirely for lack of a good foundation.

So the difference is the magnitude and relative importance of the changes made.

I'm not sure if this is right, but it seems like a reasonable rule of thumb to me. Thoughts?

#78 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2006, 11:27 PM:

I know that one of my own problems is that I can get lost and bogged down in second guessing and re-editing. If i can have an ideal I get it all out and down before I think too much about it.

This is not a useful tactic for writing a novel. and I'm trying to figure it out. My goal is to get something together (I have a whole novel but it is so mary-sue that it's nearly hopeless THOUGH I had an idea that may make it move left in a good way) so I can attend Viable Paradise some time in the near future.

There, I've said it. I have to make it happen. Even if at this end in my well it seems impossible. At least I have a goal.

#79 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 12:52 AM:

I read the document over lunch today at a local coffee cafe. Because it wasn't available as an HTML document at the time, I had to print it out to read it. When I was finished, I was going to throw it out, but then I decided to just leave it on the table instead, in case it might find a home that needed it.

So it all worked out.

#80 ::: Gary Townsend ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 01:55 AM:

Good stuff! Thanks for sharing it.

Alex #1: I've learned a great deal about how to write fiction from studying how to write screenplays.

I've learned quite a lot that has helped my own writing (mostly novels) from books on writing stage plays. In fact, out of all the books I've read, the two books which helped me the most were written by playwrights (one of them was also a novelist and editor).

#81 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 08:39 AM:

Rob Rusick:

I did a Google-search using 'convert PDF HTML' and got a lot of options. Most seem to be for software products which will do this task.

Can't remember the URL now, but there's a location at the Adobe site (at least as of mumble-mumble months ago) where you can put in the URL of a .PDF file and the site will e-mail you a HTML or text version--can't remember which.

#82 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 09:22 AM:

Kevin at 77, that sounds reasonable. I do fix minor things as I'm going back over a section with a major (i.e. consequential to what comes later) revision. But I only go back for the purposes of consequential revision. Minor stuff just gets noted down in my electronic annotation to be fixed when I hit something bigger in that area. When I'm not doing major revision I try to think of the little things in somewhat the same way I do when I'm going over the copyedited manuscript from my publisher—only fix a sentence if it's really really broken. Even then, I flag it and move on the first time I hit it and only change it if it still drives me crazy the second time through.

Actual email if you want a response:

#83 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 10:54 AM:

Glad it helped.

This one's a PDF too, but I'm very proud to have been selected to write for the Hack Writers Library series:

The Hack Writers Guide To Writing The Mystery

I had to write it under a pseudonym because it gave away so many industry secrets.

#84 ::: harthad ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 12:29 PM:

Keith #83: Hoo, oh my, thanks for that.... I now feel completely prepped and ready to crank out that mystery blockbuster after lunch.

Funny, I think my mother may have personally experienced plot #2. That's the power of archetypes for you; life imitates art once again.

#85 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 12:59 PM:

Actually, one of the other titles in the series looks more promising, i.e. Not Writing For Writers. (I've already got all the points in this one down, especially the checklist for writers.)

#86 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2006, 02:07 PM:

MWT: That bit by Lawrence Watt Evans was amusing... but not a sonnet.

Charlie Stross's description of revising only the text of the day before reminded me; before we ever ahd a computer in the house, we had a word processor with a 30k *character* limit. (Came out to just over 10 pages single-spaced)

So waht I'd do was open the file, type until the memory was full. (You can always find just enough to edit out to finish your sentence, if not your paragraph.)

Next morning I'd look over and re-edit everything.
Then I'd print the 10 pages (Leaving me about half a page of text), and start over again.

These days, I'd hate to have that enforced on me, but it was how for the first time, I finished a novel draft, over the course of a summer vacation.

But yeah, for me structural revision is allowed - from the kind Jo Walton described as adding in a thing in the places it would be referenced to the throw out the first draft and start raw.

But I may not just tidy sentence level issues.

#87 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 05:46 AM:

Should we bring up M. Grand from Camus's The Plague, who wanted to write a novel and spent years on end trying to polish the very first sentence to perfection?

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