Why We Dodge Writing Those Difficult Scenes

I might have posted this pic before, but I recently put my screensaver on slide show and I saw this one from a couple of years ago go by. Kind of fun to see your own photograph and think it’s cool. It’s appropriate, too, because we had a rainy weekend. Very unusual for us, especially given the severe drought in the desert Southwest, but we’ve been socked in since Friday, with rain coming and going. The woman at the gym (not the Crazy Gym Lady – she is thankfully long gone) said it’s to be sunny tomorrow and how she’s looking forward to it. About three people jumped on her saying “We need the rain!”

Like we don’t have an average of 325 days of sunshine a year. She can’t give up a few to have some much-needed rain?

~Deep Cleansing Breaths~

I might have been a little sulky this weekend, because I received my developmental edits for Platinum. I know – that was fast! And they really aren’t bad at all, except Editor Deb asked me to write two scenes that I “dodged.”

She did this to me on Rogue’s Pawn, too – pushing me to write this one scene I just SO didn’t want to write. She said

On Platinum, though, I really thought I’d made a considered decision not to write those scenes. I’d kind of had them in my head all along, but when I got to that point in the story, they just didn’t seem to FIT. I mentioned this to her in an email and she replied:

Any time you try to dodge writing something, you should ask yourself why, and try to push through it and make yourself write it anyway. Writing through tougher scenes may often reveal something about your characters, helping you dig further to uncover some truth about them or the story. Whereas avoiding them will often leave readers feeling a bit cheated. They might not be able to put their finger on exactly why or what, but they may sense that a good story could have been great.

I know this. Right?

And this is part of why I really value having an editor like her, because she does push me to write a great book. Left to my own devices, I’d likely allow myself the dodge.

Because it didn’t feel like dodging at the time. I suspect all avoidance techniques are like this. We kid ourselves that we’re not really procrastinating, we’re Doing Research! Oh, I’m not being lazy about getting my wordcount in today, I’m giving myself a break! I’m not avoiding that friend who was a cow to me, I’m just really busy.

It takes a good, hard look in the mirror to parse some of these out. With emotional stuff, that’s why it’s often good to see a counselor, an objective third party who can point out your behavioral dodges. Sometimes your friends can do it, like your critique partners can. But often it takes a professional to hold your hand to the flame and tell you to do better.

Whether it’s easy or not.

Letting the Babies Stay Dead

There’s a long-used term in the writing and publishing world: Kill Your Babies.

This is, of course, a euphemism for being willing to recognize which parts of your work are, well, self-indulgent tripe that needs to be cut. For some reason, it’s often the bits we’re most emotionally attached to in our work that needs to be deleted. I suspect it has something to do with that very attachment that makes those parts not good enough. We’re too invested in the meaning to ourselves to have perspective on how it contributes to the story.

Regardless, we all learn at some point to kill our babies.

What this means for most of us, though, is that we delete the offending passage or section and paste it into a document we save. We call it “Outtakes” maybe, and we keeps it forever, Precious. No, the baby isn’t dead, it’s just…Sleeping. I’m sure there are some ruthless, emotionally balanced authors out there who really, truly delete and forever nuke their babies. But many of us have them, little shriveled corpses in the basements of our laptops, that – who knows? – could one day be reanimated! The baby could live again!

The other day I re-watched Notting Hill, one of my all-time favorite movies. (I know this is my second reference to a movie rewatch. I have this Cold Virus That Will Not Die, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time reclining on the couch, alas.) At any rate, I love this movie so much, that I own it. This time I noticed there are special features and, basking in the glow of the Notting Hill love, I watched those, too. They included Deleted Scenes.

Hot Damn! MOAR Notting Hill to love!

The thing is? Those deleted scenes really sucked. They deserved to be deleted. I don’t know what went wrong with them, but they weren’t in line with the crispness of the rest of the movie. Whoever made the decision to cut those scenes exercised excellent judgment. Afterwards, I was kind of sorry I’d watched them. They diluted my glow ever so slightly with their badness.

And it made me think of all the babies I’ve been saving, just in case I can reanimate them. I’ve noticed a blog trend lately where writers are posting deleted sections of their novels or manuscripts. Kind of a fun thing – like the deleted scenes in the special features – and everyone is always looking for blog topics. Still, I’m wondering if it’s a good idea. If something isn’t good enough to stay in the story, it probably shouldn’t be read by anyone besides your CPs and your editor – who are likely the ones who told you to get rid of it in the first place.

After all, none of us really wants anyone to know about all those zombie babies in the basement. It might look bad.

I’m thinking mine might deserve a decent burial.

Can “That” Really Change Your Voice?

Seems like everyone is dealing with edits lately. I know that’s likely a false observation, based on only a few data points. But one of my CPs was wresting with copy edits she didn’t totally agree with and another received kind of on odd batch of late-breaking line edits after copy edits, mostly eliminating word repetition. Another is coping with pretty deep first round developmental revisions.

For those not in the trenches, there are various rounds of edits we receive from our publishers. They are:

Revise and Resubmit

This is before you get a contract. Usually you’ll get a letter from the acquisitions editor saying what they like about the book, along with what you’d have to change for them to acquire it. A surprising (to me) number of authors won’t do them, saying they won’t “work on spec.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll accept if you revise. Still, as my fab editor Deb Nemeth points out, it takes a substantial amount of time and effort for her to write an R&R letter. It’s much easier to say no. With an R&R, they’re already invested.

Developmental Edits

The first step after you sign your contract. There are one to two rounds of these, usually depending on how well you revise on the first round. These can be overarching changes like “firm up the heroine’s motivation” or “write this chapter in real time, not as a memory.” Sometimes writers react to developmental edits like they’re an insult or as if the author screwed up. No, it happens to established authors all the time and can have a lot more to do with how the publishing house wants to target the book. One friend of mine had grandparents in her YA novel who were way too supportive and helpful. Her editor asked her to go through and make them unsupportive, to add more tension.

Line Edits

This is what it sounds like – the editor goes through the whole book, line by line and scrutinizes every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph. Usually there are two rounds of these. Hopefully the second is far less painful than the first.

Copy Edits

The final round! (Or two.) The Copy Editor is a different person, very specialized who has the job of Quibbling. They fact-check. They fix everything according to House Style (the established rules of the publishing house – for example, Carina has a no colons or semi-colons rule). Copy Editors tend to be very literal. They hate metaphorical language and they love Perfect Grammar above all else.

So, my friend who was angsting over her Copy Edits was upset at having a lot of “thats” inserted. It’s the difference between, for example, “The hammer that she used every day” and “The hammer she used every day.” A lot of writers hate “thats” and work to eliminate them. Copy Editors tend to insert them, for perfect sentence structure. The writer felt that (heh) this changed her voice.

There’s lots to be said about voice – volumes, really. Amusingly, as I was deciding how I could wind this up succinctly, I was discussing on Twitter this book I finished reading  last night, how much I loved it and how, this morning, I’m missing it. And my editor, the aforementioned fabulous Deb, replied: “That feeling of wanting to be back in a story after you finish reading the book? That’s the quality I look for in a submission.”

And that, my friends, will never be affected by a few more that’s.

Heh – at least I amuse myself.

On Not Being Finished

We have a Winter Storm Watch in effect and the moon is giving its own misty ring of warning.

It’s funny, when I finished drafting The Middle Princess last month, I didn’t feel much of anything. No exuberance. No post-partum sorrow. I’m not sure I even mentioned it here.

I understand now that this is because I knew I wasn’t really finished with it.

Oh, I’d written clear through to the end. I’m a beginning-to-end writer, writing the story as if I’m reading it. Which is often how it feels: write the next page so I can find out what happens! But I also knew the ending wasn’t right. I had an idea of how the problems should resolve and I kept thinking it would pop up. Maybe in the next scene? And then the story was done and this magical thing I thought would appear never had.

So, I went straight back to page one and started revising.

I knew all along I’d have to immediately revise. I’m starting to learn my own process and that’s just part of it. Now, let me make clear that this was a painful growth step for me. I know – it sounds absurd. All writers have to revise. But I don’t like it. (Though apparently I do like italics, especially today.) Back in my younger and far more arrogant days, i.e. college, I composed all of my papers on a Brother Correctronic typewriter. For those of you young-uns, this was before the popular use of the home computer and word processing and my typewriter could remember and correct an ENTIRE LINE of text. This was a miracle after years of struggling with white-out and correction tape. In the snow. Uphill both ways. Seriously, people in my dorm lined up to use my typewriter.

Anyway, I wrote all of my papers in one sitting, composed on the typewriter, with no revision. I mostly got away with it, too.

But what I’ve learned about myself as a fiction writer is, because I don’t (can’t) pre-plot, the story drifts as I go. I discover new things about the world and the characters that I didn’t know at the beginning. I’m now more resigned to the ugly need for a “do-over” on each draft.

This is totally how it feels to me. Like I didn’t get it right the first time and I have to do it again. In my head, I understand this is not a reasonable attitude, but…

So, I went back to page one and began revising, reworking and smoothing the story as I went. Making the histories consistent. I hoped that, as I approached the end for a second time, this magical something would appear.

It did.


I don’t know how I missed it the first time, but last week, I found the missing scene. The one that ties up all these little clues I found along the way. I wrote it yesterday and sped right through to the end. Everything fell into place.

This time I felt the relief, the exuberance and sorrow of finishing.

I only wish I could have whipped that final page out of the typewriter with a triumphant flourish.

I kind of miss that part.

Dreck and Melodrama

A photo of me at Bandelier National Monument this last weekend. The cliff dwellings are particularly fun to see, since you can climb up into them.

It’s interesting to sit in these caves and imagine being the person who lived and loved there. The life expectancy of the Ancient Peublo People (we are not to say “Anasazi” anymore, for those who know that term, because it’s not PC. Who knew??) who lived in this canyon was an average of 35 years. Being a good ten years older than that gave me a bit of pause.

We have such a luxury of time in our lives today.

Yesterday I posted about becoming a better writer and Ann Patchett’s analogy of cleaning the pipes. A corollary to this way of thinking, that only occurred to me later in the day, is that those early works just may never be any good. Those “searing works of unendurable melodrama” that we have to clear out of our systems may have to stay in the sludge heap of hazardous waste. Some stuff is so toxic, or just plain irredeemable, that it can’ t be purified, even by dint of repeated revisions.

I’ve worked with wastewater treatment plants – believe me, I know.

Not everything makes it into the effluent. A whole lot of stuff has to be picked out and discarded.

None of us really wants to face this possibility, that the novel we slaved over might, well, stink. Because we devoted so much time to it we believe on a fundamental level that the time invested automatically gives the thing value. It does, but not in the readers-are-going-to-gobble-this-up way. Instead it might be in the Okay-good-thing-that’s-out-of-my-system way. Sometimes the value is all in learning to be able t set something aside.

We hate this because it’s tempting to view the time as wasted. If we can’t sell the product, then we squandered the effort. This kind of thinking is never accurate. Knowing what not to do can be more informative than accidentally hitting gold.

And as for time? We have such a bounty of it.

How Not to Revise

This monsoon season has been a tease. The clouds loom, promising rain, and then evaporate. I watch it on the weather radar – the greens condensing, flashing orange and red – and then it dissolves away again.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been in revision mode, refining The Body Gift. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve been in revising/editing mode for quite some time now. Between revising Obsidian for a revise & resubmit, working on developmental,, line and copy edits for Sapphire and Feeding the Vampire, and now adding to TBG to send to this agent, I haven’t done any real drafting since March.

Sure, some of this has involved adding new words, but really, working on a story that’s already *there* is a different process.

You know how sculptors (it might be a specific one, but I forget who and I’m feeling too lazy to try to find it) say that sculpting is carving away the extra stone, to find the shape that already exists within? (Maybe it was Michelangelo?) I’ve always loved this idea. This is how writing and revising often works for me.

Once a draft is complete and the story is pretty much *there* (this is a technical word I’ve used twice now. feel free to borrow, but use carefully – it’s a powerful term), it’s like a block of marble. Maybe it’s like a rough outline. Or like the horrible, globulous beings that are what remains of people when the transporter malfunctions. Kind of shaped like something, but not really discernible. Not alive, for sure.

I think it works this way for me because I don’t really plan my stories. It’s more like I download big chunks from elsewhere. Unlike A.S. Byatt, however, I don’t get mine in perfect dictation. So there I am, with my amorphous thing, that has some really lovely bits and some pretty damn icky ones. That’s when I begin carving.

Revision is an acquired skill, I believe. It takes care and judgment. You have to be brave enough to knock off big pieces that must go, but also patient enough to do the detail work. Over and over, you have to step back and see how you’re doing. It takes objectivity and precision.

And, oh yes, you can ruin it. I truly believe that.

There comes a point where, instead of refining and polishing, you’re hacking it to bits. Sure, with writing, you can always add it back in. This is the advantage the writer has over a sculptor who accidentally whacks off the nose. The story, however, that brilliantly alive creature, can slowly suffocate, wither away and die if pummeled too much. You’re left with a corpse. Maybe a pretty corpse, but a dead body nonetheless.

I know no one wants to hear this. We all want to believe that, with enough crit, enough time and dedication, we can make the book PERFECT. Maybe a truly practiced writer can. But, just as with sculpting, it takes skill and experience.

This is what I’m learning about revising: it’s important to keep the final image in mind.

We all start with a seminal image or idea. That changes as we go along. But, at some point in the process, (yes, yes, I know you pre-plotters claim you know it before you even start writing) you have to decide on what you want it to look like when you’re done. All revising should be directed to that idea. Don’t get halfway through polishing your Running Dog sculpture and then think, hey! a Running Cat would be way cool! Write down the Running Cat idea and go back to working on the DOG.

Having editorial notes helps with this, because you can keep going back to the line where your editor says “do this.” I’ve started keeping a list of what I’m revising towards. To remind myself of that final image.

I imagine that few sculptors create a perfect sculpture on their first try. This is why most writers I know have at least one novel under the bed, maybe several. Those are the corpses.

Like clouds promising rain, sometimes they don’t produce.

May they rest in peace.

The More We Know

I don’t mind the overnight snow, since we need the moisture. Dust storms have been clouding the valley. Even the daffodils don’t mind. They whispered that they’re built to withstand this kind of thing.

Over at Word Whores – my group blog, if you didn’t know – we’ve been talking this week about drafting styles. Whether you plan it all out ahead of time or discover as you go. Whatever terms you may assign to to those styles, writers seem to fall pretty solidly into one court or another.

On Laura Bickle’s post from yesterday, she talks about her plotting method. The comments conversation has become very interesting, as other writers profess horror or admiration for her detailed outlines.

That she does *before* she writes the book. Ahem.

At any rate, in the comments, the issue of revising came up. It’s long been the lore that the great drawback of not plotting ahead of time is that you spend a lot more time revising. KAK, who is a german dictator under all that red hair and those pretty smiles, declared that every scene must pass the “purpose” test. If it doesn’t serve the overall story, off it goes.

She’s ruthless. Believe me, I know.

I can see her point. And definitely the revising process is more cerebral than drafting for me. The drafting is all about the misting along and letting anyone and everything into the story. Revising brings the critical lens to the entire arc of the story. I’m not sure anyone can revise in a subconscious, misty way.


Okay, I’m a self-confessed sub-conscious, dreamthink, misty writer. I do believe the stories and characters exist in some reality and reveal themselves to me. I rarely feel like I “think” them up. Sometimes I can’t logically defend why someone or something is there. The critical lens would have me delete that stuff. The purpose test would demand excision. Goal, motivation, conflict? They scoff at these bits.

This is where my gut comes in. Neither the conscious, nor the subconscious, but the deep part that is most me. If I don’t trust that part, then I’m not me, for better or worse. The GMC stuff (see above) arises out of classic storytelling. People like to talk about archetypes of the hero’s journey and so forth. The thing is, archetypes, which Jung originally described as subconsciously shared concepts are something, by definition, already exist inside us. We can critically analyze them, but on some levels, they defy conscious definition.

No, I can’t always defend the purpose of a scene. Sometimes it’s because the scene is junk, or something I needed to write through to get somewhere. But one of the most surprising things I discovered over the ten years I spent writing and publishing essays – the things people keyed in on the most, were those things I had not planned. Scenes or images that just popped up when I was writing. Things that, sometimes, I nearly skipped writing, or thought about deleting later, because they seemed extraneous.

I keep reminding myself of that lesson.

First Time’s a Charm

When I was in school, lo these many moons ago, the common wisdom was to save time at the end of the exam to review your answers.

I don’t know if that’s still the advice these days. But it never worked for me. I found that, if I went back and changed my initial answer, I nearly always changed it wrong. Seriously – the questions I’d miss on the test would be the ones I changed upon review.

I don’t know what this says about me, but I’ve noticed it in other areas of my life, too. The first time I try a recipe, it comes out perfectly. After that, not so much. When I try to photograph something, inevitably my first shot is the best. This generally works out fine for me. I prefer to be decisive – make a decision, commit to a course of action and have done – so my experience that my first attempt is usually the best reinforces that preference.

The downside of this is, I really don’t like revising.

In fact, I’ve become superstitious enough over the years about “changing my first answer,” that I fret that revising makes my story worse.

I know, I know. You hear that noise, like marbles clattering around in a jar of olive oil? That’s my critique partners rolling their eyes at me.

Revising is necessary. I understand that, here in my head. It’s my heart that gets all nervous about it.

I once had a John Irving quote that I cut out of a magazine somewhere, that I recall as being “I have learned to have no fear of revising.” I’m almost certain he said it about Cider House Rules. However, the closest I can come online is this one:

No, this isn’t religion, there’s no fear in changing the text.

Superstition and religion. Do I detect a recurring theme?

At any rate, I’ve nearly completed the revision of Act I of The Body Gift. I’m tossed between the exhilaration of seeing how much better the story flows now and genuine terror that I’ve ruined it forever.

(Yes, I know I can change it back – this isn’t rational.)

But, when they’re not rolling their eyes at me, my CPs are reading it and pronouncing it much better.

I don’t know if I get an “A” on it, yet, but at least I haven’t changed it wrong.


I take a lot of photographs, to get the one I want.

This is something I learned a long time ago, from professional photographers. Back then, I thought, well this is something I’ll never do, because film and developing were expensive and was a kid. Seriously. I remember being disappointed in my photos from Girl Scout camp because I could never really capture how things looked. So, I had no funds to devote to getting the right picture and when I did have funds, I still didn’t care enough.

I’m an impatient person. My greatest flaw perhaps? David thinks so. Or at any rate, if he could change one thing about me, that would be it.

Of course, if I got to pick, I’d probably have him be ready to go on time, so there’s a lesson there. Draw your own conclusions.

Still, I’m just not patient with doing one thing multiple times. If I can get away with doing it right the first time, I will. If I can get away with doing it mostly right, or close enough the first time, I will.

The beauty of the digital camera is, I can take lots of photos and easily review and delete them. The downside is, I’m accumulating images. The sunset pic from last night is one of eight I ended up keeping. I had a hard time deciding which to show you.

I don’t like rewriting, either. It feels like retread to me. Back when I typed my papers for college on my Brother Correctronic, I did just that: composed as I typed. One time through and I was done. In my perfect world, I’d write a novel that way, too — beginning to end, one time through.

I know, I know. It’s not a perfect world and I’m not queen of it. Much to my chagrin, I assure you.

So, the New Novel is coming right along, but I’m feeling aggravated with it from time to time because it keeps wriggling and changing under my hands. I thought I was molding one story and it keeps mutating into other things. This is okay, I know. The other writers keep telling me to go with it, let it be what it wants to be, this is magic and so forth.

But what annoys me is: I’m going to have to revise the beginning. Probably multiple times. Gah!

At least I don’t have to do it on paper. Small mercies for an impatient writer.