When to dump your draft and when to fix it.

Revision is a key step in writing and one that I have come to enjoy.  It wasn’t always that way.  I viewed any time I spend revising as time I wasn’t creating.  That is obviously not the case and it took me some time to get over that, but there is one part of revision that will always sting.  When you find a section that isn’t your best work, how do you know when to dump it and when to fix it?

DON’T DOUBLE DOWN

Once you realize that what you have in front of you isn’t any good, stop and assess whether it is worth continuing.  Many writers try to save a dying draft because of the time and energy they put into a piece.  Just because you are emotionally invested in your written words doesn’t mean they are readable. Know when to cut and run.

SOFTEN THE BLOW

Instead of highlighting 30,000 words and hitting the “delete” key, create a “dump” folder.  It is entirely possible for you to go back into this folder later and retrieve key pieces of information or plot, but the odds are that you won’t.  In my heap, I label and sort paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters.  Some sections are totally useless and idle nonsense.  Other sections are about characters and settings that I find fascinating but would bore anyone else.  The book should be the story, not the history.

In the end, revision is critical when creating a story.  Not everyone has the strength to let go of weeks or months of work, but it is necessary at times. When you’re famous and long dead, your children can publish your Silmarillion.  Until then, please keep it to yourself.

How Important is Theme?

Is theme important or are we just looking to be entertained?

There are two philosophies about reading and writing when it comes to theme.  Some feel that the point of reading is to be entertained.  Others believe the purpose of writing is to move the reader and, if there is no theme to a story, then it is a waste of time.  

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

There is something to be said for the writer whose only wish is to entertain.   A good time can be found anywhere.  Movies, television, and Internet memes are all over our devices.  People will buy any type of crime, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, thriller, horror, and romance series you can come up with, so why not cash in?  It isn’t noise, it’s a living.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THEME

Theme is the controlling idea behind a story.  It is more than simply the main idea or the lesson to be learned, theme is the part of a story that makes you feel or moves you emotionally.  The consideration of theme is what separates fiction from literature.  

A QUESTION OF AUDIENCE

The main point I would like to raise in this discussion is about who the reader is for a particular work.  Deciding that is the first step any writer needs to make before putting a single word on paper (or processor). Since the weight of theme is based on preference, an educated reader should know the type of book they pick up before they read it and a savvy writer should figure out if their reader is interested in Mario Puzo or Michael Bay.  

Two Quick Points about Setting

Writing allows you to be in two places at the same time. While I’m sitting in a library in New Jersey, I’m also on the quarter deck of a brig in the Caribbean Sea. With that said, reading allows for the same thing, as long as the writer does his or her job.  The hard part is getting the reader to join you where you want them.  These are two quick points about setting.

PIECING IT TOGETHER

The settings we create come from fragments of what we know.  The gnarled and knotted trees from the woods behind the house in which you grew up now find themselves bordering a clearing in a dark forest of a far away land.  These trees give your characters the same foreboding that you felt when you were seven.  At the same time, the lush and well lit path from your walk in the mountains of Vermont last week seems like your characters’ best chance to escape this forest with their lives. These two pieces of your woodland experience didn’t share a field of view except in the world that you created.

PEOPLE HAVE NO PATIENCE

The days when a writer could go on for pages about the majesty of a mountain are long gone.  People simply do not have the patience for it.  The difference in modern fiction is that the details now need to be artfully dropped into the action.  Even the most beautiful field sits idly until acted upon by characters.

My philosophy on setting is an adaptation of the question: If a tree falls in woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  It may make a sound, but no one cares.

For more on setting, check out my previous posts on World Building and Setting vs. Setting the Scene.

When is it okay to change an existing work?

This week, I received an Amazon “Kindle Quality Notice.”  It stated that Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan had internal errors in which “at least one” reader reported.  The errors weren’t related to formatting or appropriateness in content.  It was about an alleged typo.   Now, to be fair, some of my readers have found keystroke mistakes before and their input is always welcome.  Still, a man is innocent until proven guilty, so I investigated.  

DISCOVERY

The Kindle Quality Notice stated: There are typos in your book. You can see examples of this error at the following location(s): Kindle location: 577; Error description: “I led.” should be “I lied.”

This seemed like an open and shut case until I opened the document and read the whole section.  It is at the start of Chapter 8, when Peter meets James for the second time.

“I’m Peter Pan,” the child said proudly. He was standing on the mast as if it were the floorboards of the deck. I had seen him fly before and although this was nothing new, I was still amazed.

“I’m James,” I told him. It didn’t bother me that I had to reintroduce myself. “We’ve met before.” His blank expression told me of his genuine surprise that we knew each other. “We played weeks ago in my room in Port Royal.”

“Oh,” was all he said, as if bored already. I decided to retell one of the adventures in my literature books as if it were one of ours.

“Did I say my room?” I led. “I meant we played in a magical forest.” His head turned and bent to the side with interest. “You and I had a jolly time robbing wealthy carriages and saving England from the evil prince and his sheriff.” His eyes burst with excitement as I retold the whole adventure.

This wasn’t a typo.  Although “lied” would fit, I purposely chose “led” because young Hook leads Peter in the conversation.  Looking  back, there are other things I would love to change about my writer’s voice from that time, but that word isn’t wrong.  The question is whether it is distracting.

WORD CHOICE

The problem develops from one of an alleged typo to one about a word choice.   James leads Peter in this conversation, but do enough people read it that way or do they see that word as an oddity?  If it gets in the way of the flow of the story, then it doesn’t serve its purpose and it doesn’t belong.  However, the story is nearly one year old and this is a change that is not necessary.  The Artist in me is offended a the idea of making an unneeded change to my work.  The part of me that wants to sell books is more eager to appease any request.  What to do?

VERDICT

I decided to keep it as it is.  If this were a genuine typo, I’d change it, but the section above is narrated by an older James Hook and his voice has to show through.   He would have no problem saying that he “led” his one-time friend this way and that, not as a boast, but to demonstrate his superiority without expressly saying so.  That is good form, after all.

Viewpoint – How close is too close?

How close to the character do you have to be when narrating from a third person perspective?

First, let’s review the difference between perspectives.

FIRST PERSON

First person perspective is written from behind the character’s eyes.  This is the easiest way to narrate if you are starting out because this is how we all live our lives.  We wake up, brush our teeth, go to work, come home, have dinner, and go to bed all without knowing what anyone else is thinking.  We have only what we see and hear to tell the story of our day.

THIRD PERSON

This is more than using pronouns like he, she, or they.  There are two types of third person narration: singular and omniscient.  Omniscient is all knowing and drifts between different characters’ thoughts within a scene.  Singular follows only one character’s thoughts in a scene and is what we’re talking about in this post.

HOW CLOSE IS TOO CLOSE?

The problem with new authors, myself included, is that third person singular narration sometimes floats away from within the character’s head.  Readers don’t need to feel every subtle twitch of emotion, but the narration should flow from what that character sees, hears, and feels.  No one thinks about the color of their own eyes while they’re in a firefight, but they should feel that anxious shutter as the adrenaline grips them.

HOW MUCH INFORMATION IS TOO MUCH?

The general rule is that if the character is unaware of something, that something shouldn’t be written.  If that something is critical to the story, drop pretty obvious clues that the character observes and overlooks but the reader may pick up.  This is a great way to surprise your character in the same way you are surprised in your own life by things you should have paid attention to in the first place.