March Write Day: Plans to Execute

The shortest month of the year is through, and I half-heartedly wish I had a few more days. It’s been a good month overall, I just had a lull in the middle.

But an ending is also a beginning, and I’m pleased that a new month is starting.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Complete my first round of revisions on Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1.
  2. Read three books.
  3. Exercise at least three times a week.

Complete first round of revisions on Uprooted?

No. I’ve gotten about halfway through my draft. This is the primary lull I mentioned above. I just didn’t sit down enough nights to read through my story. Sometimes revisions, just like writing, is about number of sessions as much as productivity per session.

The good news is that halfway through, I like this story. The pacing is a little disorienting at first, which is intentional, and I can feel it slowing down into its middle rhythm. This first revision pass-through is about the overall flow, so feeling through those ebbs and flows is a good sign of how readers might engage with the story.

This revision process is also highlighting likely next steps for me. I think I want to complete this read-through of Uprooted, focused on overall flow and only obvious edits, and then read through again to trace scene placement and length.

Examining the scene placement and length per scene will help me determine whether particular scenes are unbalanced against others, or where natural breaks in the narrative occur. I wrote this story into ten chapters, but do the chapter breaks make sense? Are they too long? Because this is a novella, I’m starting to think that I should have more numerous but shorter chapters to help make the story more digestible.

I just want to validate that idea with a second read-through.

Once I have a good handle on the overall narrative flow and the scene breakdown of Uprooted, I’ll switch gears and follow the same process for New Earth, allowing me to ensure that the two stories make sense together as well as independently.

Read three books?

No, but I read two and started a third. I also made more progress on A Memory of Light. I got stuck on a longer nonfiction book, Dawn of the Code War, which is a bit of an oral history of the FBI’s, and the US’s, initial foray into cyber attacks. Really interesting read, but not the type of thing I can power through in a weekend.

I’m currently reading a short thriller, The Wrong One, by Dervla McTiernan. I’ve read a few of her Cormac Reilly books, so I did not hesitate to pick up this short story on Audible.

Next, I’m looking for some fantasy / historical fiction. Might be going back to Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series… I’m on book eight.

Exercise three times per week?

YES at least in the back half of the month. I finally bit the bullet and paid for a workout app program thing. I chose Asana Rebel, since they had a one-year subscription deal and I kept seeing their ads. (Your Instagram marketing campaign worked on me, Asana Rebel! Curse you!)

I started with their intro program and am moving onto full yoga sets. It’s not terribly difficult for me to find 10-15 minutes of exercise time in a day. 20-30 minute sessions will be tougher. I’m thinking I’ll intersperse their yoga sessions with resistance training and… dare I say it? Sprinting.

I’m not into running, although I’ve been told I’m built like a runner. I’m not interested in long-distance running, but sprinting to build leg strength sounds okay. I just need to figure out what that type of workout looks like.

Asana Rebel is nice, because they push notifications to you about a weekly goal — mine is three workouts per week — and quiz you on your mood and what types of exercises may help you in the moment. At the moment, I like the structure it provides. I just need to be disciplined in building on top of it, so that’s what March will be about.

Goals for March

  1. Revisions for Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1. I need to complete my first read-through focused on narrative flow and pacing.
    • Then I need to complete a second read-through to reverse engineer scene structure and chapter layout.
  2. Read three books. Pretty straightforward. I also want to continue making good progress on A Memory of Light. I’m at the point where some narrative chips are starting to fall, and it is both dreadful and exciting.
  3. Exercise at least three times a week. The app is making me do three workouts per week, at minimum. So that’s baseline. I also want to start adding in other forms of training, so I’m mentally aiming for 4-5 workouts per week, and I’ll see how my routine develops from there.

Steve D

3 Elements to Revise in an Early Draft

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I’ve started a full revision of The Herb Witch Tales this month. I’m currently revising the third draft of Uprooted, and will move straight into revising the second draft of New Earth.

These novellas form a duology, so it’s important to me that the characters, plots, and narrative themes align between them. I had written the first part in full, started the second part, and then decided to rewrite part one. Now that I’ve finished a subsequent rewrite of part two, I’m taking the time to revise both parts together.

Thus, my focus for this revision phase is first on consistency of those big pieces, knowing I’ll likely have to come back again to revise for smaller details.

That got me thinking about which elements are important to focus on during a given revision phase.

I’ll start by looking at what to focus on when revising an early draft.

3 Elements to Revise in an Early Draft

I’m using the term “early draft” here, because every writer drafts at a different pace. Some take three drafts to get a polished story; others take ten, or fifty. An early draft could be a discovery draft, where you’re just getting words onto paper, or it could be a draft that has already gone through a couple of revisions, but still feels raw.

In any case, you have a completed draft that you know needs some work. Where to begin? I’d like to highlight three places to start.

1 – Scene Development

This might seem obvious, but an early draft likely has a lot of plot holes to fill. Read through your draft with a questioning mind. From scene to scene, are there any questions left unanswered about how your characters are behaving, jumps in time, or events that are not presented to the reader directly?

It’s okay to leave some of these things for the reader to interpret, but that should be an intentional decision. If you’ve skipped a ton of scene development for the purpose of getting that draft finished, then many parts of the story may feel unfinished when you’re revising.

With every scene you revise, ask yourself:

  • Does this scene transition well from the previous scene?
  • Does the scene demonstrate new or reinforce established information about the characters, the plot, or the world they’re in?
  • Does it transition well into the next scene in a way that readers can follow?

2 – Character Consistency

Pay attention to the way your main characters may change – or not change – over the course of the story.

  • Do their attitudes shift, and do these changes serve the narrative?
  • Does each character have consistent voicing — the way the speak, act, fidget, or think?
  • Do their decisions align with what the reader knows about their fears, their motives, and what’s happening around them?
  • Does each character have agency, able to make decisions in reaction to what’s happening around them, rather than being buffeted through each scene like a toy doll in a hurricane?

Similarly, do your side characters have a purpose in your story? These are the folks who may only appear in a few scenes, or in the background of whatever the main characters are doing, but they should be there for a reason. A character who just reacts to what’s going on around them – a child who only complains to their parents, or a sidekick who only cheers on their leader – will fall flat. If you’re taking the time to create a character and place them in a scene, then give them something to contribute.

3 – Narrative Flow

This follows on element number one above, but forces you to take a step back and view your story not just for each individual scene, but for how the entire piece comes together.

  • If the story is intense with drama or action, are there moments of quiet and calm, or is the reader constantly pushed from one crisis into another with no respite?
  • Does the narrative meander from one scene to another, taking random expository detours that last for pages on end?
  • Does the plot flow naturally, or will the reader feel jolted along due to unexpected time jumps, or sudden changes of place?

Finding Your Story’s Intention

None of these things are bad to have in a story, but they should be intentional. Revising an early draft should give you the opportunity to understand, and improve on, the tone, pacing, and style of your story.

And don’t fret the details of Editing or Proofreading just yet. That will come in later revision phases.

Steve D

The 4 Most Frustrating Story Hang-Ups for Writers

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

As a writer, it feels great to find your rhythm with a story. You’re flying along the keyboard — or paper, or vellum — and the words seem to shoot from your fingers. You don’t even seem to have the same tiredness in your hands, or the ink stains on your pinky that you so often get with less fruitful writing ventures.

But we all know those high-flying moments are the anomalies when writing a long piece, like a novella.

More often, you find yourself caught up in some absurdly minute detail that you simply cannot leave behind until you find the perfect word, even if it’s just one among tens of thousands.

These hang-ups can be entirely derailing to a decent writing flow, but you’re not the only one it happens to. Here are a handful of the more frustrating writing hang-ups we’ve all likely encountered.

#1 – That. Perfect. Term. Word.

I mentioned it above, and we’ve all been there. How many times have you searched through a thesaurus to find just the right phrasing? Or some alliterative flair? (I know that wasn’t alliteration, but I didn’t feel like spending several minutes looking for a synonym for flair.) Or even the word with the right etymological root to fit the style of your story?

The answer is too many times. But we’ll all do it again.

#2 – An NPC’s Name, or Clothes, or particular shade of brown hair

I know, I know, writers aren’t supposed to refer to their own creations as “non-playable characters”. Every character is the hero of their own journey, et cetera. But every story has them — characters that you know for a fact you will never see again, but because they’ve met your Main Character in some backwater inn and happen to have a bit of knowledge to help your Main continue their quest, they just have to have a name, and maybe a few clothing descriptors. And a cool tattoo. And strangely penetrating eyes that seem to hide deep-seeded pain. Aaaaaand now you’re writing a short story for them.

I suppose that’s what name generators are for.

#3 – The Dreaded Scene Transition

I definitely struggle with this one. You’re writing a scene that you know has to take your characters to the next place, or the next plot point, but you just can’t seem to make the turn. So it feels like you only have two options: let the transition drag on for another several paragraphs, detailing every step each of your characters are taking, throwing in random chit-chat dialogue that, while entertaining, is certainly not getting them anywhere fast, and overall just refusing to end the current train of thought…

Or you could make an awkward narrative jump that feels like you’re leaving something behind, but you’re not quite sure what. And now you just have to move on.

#4 – The Scene that Grows Too Big

This is sort of the opposite of number three, where a scene grows far beyond what you had intended, either in length, or scope, or even in its emotional weightiness. Maybe some of you wouldn’t consider this a hang-up, but it can be disruptive if it no longer lets your narrative flow in the way you had it outlined. That’s when the Dreaded Scene Transition hits, but you can’t just delete all that great work! So maybe you reform it until it flows better. Or you leave it and change your outline!

More Hang-Ups!

Those are just four potential hang-ups that I definitely run into every now and then, and I’d bet a lot of other writers do, too. Leave a comment with your “favorite” storytelling hang-ups!

Steve D

Book Review: KNIFE OF DREAMS sets up an epic final act for THE WHEEL OF TIME

I recently finished reading Knife of Dreams, The Wheel of Time #11. You may remember that in my previous entries about some of the books in this series, I have lamented the plodding pace of the narrative, especially for particular point-of-view characters.

After a few books’ worth of dragging plotlines, Knife of Dreams finally brings some real momentum to this series, and ties off a few narrative threads in the process.

For the most part, the reader spends several chapters with a particular character at a time, watching their narrative unfold in more depth. Unlike in previous books, however, there is actually forward progress with the main characters, and Jordan even returns to each character towards the end of the book to see where they’ve landed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was glad to find it spent the most time with only three of the primary characters: Mat, Perrin, and Elayne. There are check-in sections with Rand, Egwene, and others, mostly serving as compelling placeholders for things to come in the next book(s).

The three or four smaller plot lines that are all tied off in this momentous installment is clearly guiding the reader and each of the characters towards one thing: the Last Battle. With only three books left in the series — I say that as if each book wasn’t more than 600 pages — Knife of Dreams is definitely setting up the end game for the series.

I’m not ready to forgive the narrative slog that was books 7 through 10 (especially 10). I can see that groundwork that Jordan was laying for the mini-climaxes in previous books. I’m just not convinced that it needed to take as long as it did to get to this point.

Anyway, I feel like I’m over the hump of the middle part of this series, and I’m ready to jump into the final three books, which were completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death. The Gathering Storm (book 12) will be my first introduction to Sanderson’s writing, so I’m excited to see how he adapts Jordan’s story and narrative style. Then I can start reading Sanderson’s own work!

Steve D

Book Review: THE FORT, continues Goldsworthy’s run of compelling Roman military fiction

The Fort, City of Victory Book One is the first in what I assume is a new series of Roman military fiction novels by Adrian Goldsworthy, author of The Vindolanda Saga. I had read and thoroughly enjoyed that trilogy last year, so I jumped at the chance to read Goldsworthy’s newest work, only released in June.

I further hoped that this series would continue the saga of Flavius Ferox, the Roman Centurion and Prince of the Silures of Britannia whose dual-lives are always in conflict as he serves Rome.

The Fort once again follows Ferox, who has just arrived to a new posting in Dacia, a Roman province long troubled by local tribes and in which the Emperor Trajan had only recently established a more permanent foothold.

This continuation of the saga of Flavius Ferox is well written and narrated. The plot beats will feel very familiar to readers of Vindolanda, but I did not find the story as compelling as Goldsworthy’s earlier series. Ferox arrives in his new post in command of a detachment of Brigantes, all sworn to their new Queen Claudia Anica (herself sworn to Rome and now Ferox’s wife), and expecting a battle against the Dacians. The battle comes, of course, and becomes a siege of the fort whose name I can neither spell nor find online. (It’s possible this was fabricated for Goldsworthy’s story, like the titular fortification of Vindolanda of the previous series.)

Aside from mainstays like Vindex, Claudia Anica, and Sulpichia Lepidina, there is a largely new cast of characters. I found the politicking of Roman bureaucrats a bit dull in this story and even difficult to follow. It seemed like several characters were introduced and then discarded before the end of the story, except for Hadrian, tribune sent to Dacia, nephew of Trajan, and (for anyone who knows a bit of Roman history) the future emperor. Without giving away the ending to The Fort, Hadrian’s relationship with Ferox is likely drive much of the personal and political conflict in upcoming stories, and that is something to look forward to.

Other than that, I found myself leaning pretty heavily on Ferox’s interactions with his three close friends to stay attached to this story. I think the best scenes were those between Ferox and Claudia Anica, who lightened the tone of the story while carrying great narrative weight as a character.

The scenes which followed Brassus, a leader among the Dacians, were interesting but only scratched the surface of that people. I don’t feel I really know anything about the Dacians except that they obsess over “ascending” and “purity”, supposedly sacred concepts that are tossed around with no real explanation.

Overall, I enjoyed the story but pretty much knew what to expect from Goldsworthy’s writing and narrative.

The narration in the audiobook version (on Audible) was good, although the pronunciations have all changed. The narrator used softer s sounds in place of the Roman c, which I’m not here to quibble about. It’s just an interesting choice after the strictly Latin pronunciations in the Vindolanda stories.

Steve D

Balancing Reader Feedback with Story Constraints

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

Today I wanted to bring up an interesting conundrum I’ve been facing as I write the third draft of Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1. In a story that is effectively about how one family — and one woman in particular — deals with her entire life being upended, I’m now trying to add more characters.

Uprooted is also a novella. I only intend for it to be 35k-40k words if I can help it, so adding more characters seems counter-intuitive on the surface.

Alpha Reader Feedback

Back in December I asked a couple people to read the second draft of this story and provide some feedback. One of my readers gave me great feedback that I’ve really tried to take to heart in this rewrite.

She said that in settings like mine — a small village in a firmly patriarchal society and culture — the characters would likely have much stronger kinship ties than I had demonstrated in my draft. I focused intensely on the nuclear family of my characters, but that left this reader asking about their immediate relatives, cousins, siblings. aunts and uncles, and the like.

The crux of the story is that tragedy strikes this village, causing my characters to flee. With this now expanded family dynamic, my characters are not as isolated as they had been, but the dynamics of their struggle change. They now have to feed 10 or 15 mouths rather than three or four.

But that’s also 10 or 15 more names to keep track of as the story progresses.

Too Many Characters?

I agreed 100% with this feedback, and I built out a family tree for my protagonist’s family and their clan. This meant that I had to explain what happened to a lot of those family members alongside the more immediate narrative of my characters. What I’ve noticed is that in my third draft, I have to decide when to talk about these extended family members, and when to leave them out.

It should be obvious that the larger clan is still traveling together, and I don’t want to have to list the actions of every single member each day. But I also don’t want to ignore these characters’ existence. After all, they make up the immediate support system for my primary character. She needs them, and thus the reader needs to know something about them.

So I’ve had to figure out how to balance these additional tertiary characters within the more personal plotlines of the three or four characters who really drive the story. If I were writing a full-length novel, I could consider POV sections for a few of these tertiary characters, but Uprooted is not that type of story.

My general rule of thumb has been twofold:

  1. Take a quick tally of the family as they’re moving or something is changing so we (both the reader and I) know where they are.
  2. Try to include these family members in particular scenes, even if they’re just in the background or only offer one line of dialogue.

I think/hope that this makes it clear that these characters are important to the larger family dynamics, but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many names to remember.

Discussion Time!

How do you feel about tertiary characters in a novella? How many is too many?

Steve D

Book Review: EXIT WEST and relatable worlds

Exit West has been in my Audible library for at least over a year — when Audible used to make their Originals content available as part of a monthly selection.

I picked it up and sort of forgot about it, buried at the bottom of my Not Started list. I finally decided to give it a shot.

I ended up enjoying Exit West much more than I had anticipated when I first started. Mohsin Hamid’s narrative starts off slowly, the first couple chapters introducing the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, in terms of their relationships, families, and how they were raised in a predominantly conservative Muslim society.

What’s interesting is that Hamid never names the country in which Saeed and Nadia live, and the particulars of the political conflict that upends their lives is inconsequential. Hamid chooses to focus on how it impacts them to tell a story that could apply to any two people, from any society, at any time in human history.

This is reinforced in the structure of the story. Hamid uses a methodical narrative style to capture vignettes of the lives of his characters. He then extends this to nameless characters we meet only once, snapshots of people’s lives who on the surface have no relation to the protagonists but whose shared experiences enliven the story.

Hamid presents a fictional future that likely already exists in some countries and will be more widespread over the coming decades. As the political conflict quickly turns to civil war around them, Saeed and Nadia are forced to hide out in their own homes before making the heart-wrenching decision to escape through one of the many doors that transports people from one life to another.

This is a world in which human societies are more divided but also more interconnected, where large groups of migrants have to eke out their existence in new places, fundamentally reshaping the identity of the places they come to inhabit, as well as themselves.

Saeed and Nadia try to hold their fraying relationship together among this emotional tumult, and their bond becomes the strongest force holding the narrative itself together.

Speaking of the audiobook version, Hamid’s narration is steady, and emotional notes come not in his inflection, but in the meaning and rhythm of his words.

I’m pleased to find two other stories by Hamid available on Audible, and regret not listening to him sooner.

Steve D

Book Review: CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT, and middle-book syndrome

I just finished reading Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve already mentioned this book a couple times in recent posts, mostly because it took me longer than I expected to get through it. And not in a good way.

Ten books into this series, I’ve run into more than a couple of stretches where there doesn’t seem to be any real narrative movement, and the characters’ insistence on running in place when there’s a path laid out for them has been frustrating.

This book, however, was the hardest installment of this series for me to get through. Rather than running in place, or even building up to something, the characters in this book just did nothing.

There were a lot of conversations, a lot of plans being made without any details as to what they were, or even what they were aiming to achieve, and a lot of schemes.

Always with the schemes in these books.

Schemes within schemes that are so convoluted, so tepidly hinted at by the POV character of the moment, that the reader can’t possibly have any real clue of what’s really happening. There are so many characters now in this series, and they all have their perfect little plans laid out and ready to spring, except the reader has no idea what any of them are, and there are 200 of them!

Ugh.

So, yeah, this book took me some time to get through. I was simply not interested in most of what was happening. I read the last third of this book in fits and starts just trying to get to the end.

The structure of the chapters was at first intriguing to me. The book is structured in such a way that you follow one particular character or set of characters for several chapters in a row before abruptly pivoting to another character. I think this would have been an effective mechanism to develop specific character arcs if most of the chapters didn’t feel like filler content.

Without getting into details, I was particularly interested in both Elayne’s and Mat’s narratives in this book, but I haven’t heard from Elayne since the first third, and Mat’s story took an unexpected if interesting turn at the end.

All of this is to say that I’m happy to be done with this book, and I’m taking a break before getting into book 11.

Jordan has always toed the line between being just vague enough while building suspense. This story did not build anything. The last few chapters are interesting and definitely set up for book 11, but they do not make up for the 700+ pages of what felt like filler content.

Steve D

NaNoWriMo 2020 Update!

If there is one thing I have learned from NaNoWriMo this year, it is that I do not have time to write 50,000 words in one month. And that’s not a complaint or an act of self-deprecation, for which I’m definitely not known.

It’s just an acknowledgment that my life and my priorities have changed since the first few years I participated in NaNo with great success. I’m still happy to be participating, and I’ve made some real progress.

Follow me on NaNo!

Continue reading “NaNoWriMo 2020 Update!”