Rewriting a novel: self-critique

A nice reader told me my previous post How to rewrite a novel using scene cards, was more about “why” than “how”, and I agreed. I wanted to show everyone my new technique, thinking somehow that everything surrounding it was a matter of course… which it isn’t. So I went and renamed that post and will make this a series as I progress in the rewriting process.

In this post, I’ll focus on the first step: rereading and filling my scene cards, then critiquing each scene and the story as a whole.

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Rereading

girl-5-copieWhen reading my first draft, I like to pretend I’m a creative writing teacher providing constructive criticism to their student. This accomplishes two things: 1) it allows me to focus on what’s wrong rather than going straight into problem-solving mode and 2) it puts some distance between me and the draft.

The first point helps me move forward and not get stuck on individual scenes: at this point, the goal is to see the story as a whole, not to troubleshoot each individual scene. That’ll come later.

The second point allows me to see the scenes as they are written and not as I first imagined them or as I remember them. For example, I can see then that even though my narrator doesn’t notice her surrounding much, with next to no setting description she and all the other characters are just talking heads.

For some reason, it also allows me to judge my main character mercilessly. I love her, so I tend to be too compassionate towards her… like a mother who doesn’t see their kid’s flaws. I muffle her harsh words, soften her acts… like her being perfect could somehow make me closer to perfection. It can’t. All it does is make her unreal and boring. It’s not that I didn’t give her flaws; she has plenty of them. But she never acts on an impulse; she’s never conflicted about her own actions; she never let her flaws get in her way. She’s nonhuman.

Distancing myself from the book also helps me tell whether the plot works or not. I had a fairly solid outline for this book, but… either I never looked at it as a reader, or I couldn’t tell before writing the thing that it wouldn’t work.

I kept on throwing obstacles on my MC’s path, not realizing that I shouldn’t have made it so straight and clear to begin with. The result was that she had it too easy AND the obstacles looked like I’d stolen them from a B movie.

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Filling scene cards

After I’ve read each scene, I fill the corresponding card. As an example, here’s my first scene (featuring Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and my terrible handwriting):

Scene 01a

The notes in the margin were written as a quick-reference. I wasn’t sure whether I should rewrite the thing or delete it, but either way, I knew it didn’t work.

Most boxes are fairly straightforward, but I’d like to add a word on scene goals. A scene must always have at least one concrete goal, and one more abstract. For example, in my first scene I want to introduce my main character (concrete) and create empathy, i.e. make the reader care about what happens to her (abstract). For this, I’ll have to set the stage, introduce my MC’s external and internal conflicts, thereby hinting at some of my story’s themes.

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Critiquing

Right after I’ve read the scene, I go ahead and point out its faults in free form. It’s actually halfway between critique and brainstorming. As an example, here’s the back side of my first scene:

Scene 01b

Because it was the very first scene to be reviewed, I didn’t want to come to the conclusion I had to delete it. I tried saving it as much as I could… in vain. It simply didn’t fit in the book anymore. It had value all through the drafting process, because every time I had interrogations about my MC I’d go back and reread this scene to remember who she was, but that was it: it belongs in my MC’s character sheet, not in the book proper.

That being said, some issues relate to a whole bunch of scenes or even the entire book. For those, I have a separate binder divided into as many sections as needed. Currently, it contains notes and improvement ideas on story structure (especially “beats”, i.e. opening image/hook, inciting incident, first plot point, etc.), character development and 2 particular story arcs that don’t work.

It’s important I detach myself emotionally from my draft and not think in terms of how long or hard it would be to change this or that, which would only discourage me. I focus on what’s in front of me, what works, what doesn’t, whether a passage is too long and boring or whether it feels rushed, etc. Then I’ll have to focus on the baby steps I can take to reach the goal, which is a structurally sound and entertaining manuscript. Of course, I probably cannot avoid some degree of emotional ups and downs, but I want to avoid the downs to go so low I get writer’s block (which in my case is almost always due to performance anxiety).

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Notes for the rewrite

Now, this step is about finding problems, not fixing them. But if, while tossing and turning in bed at night or while reading a book on writing I suddenly see how a scene should be, I take notes.

In this case, I realised I didn’t want my book to start in my MC’s head, nor did I want her to introduce herself through narration. I wanted to introduce her by showing what she endures to make her dream of being a professional musician come true (external conflict), and how her issues with appearances and gender identity and double standards have an impact on her life (internal conflict). I might even hint at her total lack of social skills while I’m at it. “Show, don’t tell” as they say. A good example of what this might look like would be the short story Programme by The Loyal Brit.

With that in mind, I printed and filled a new scene card, which I stapled on top of the old one:

Scene 01c

Now I have a place and a date and even a mood, implied in “rough conditions of life”. We get to skip the introduction and go straight to the action and, shortly after, the hook. The card mostly serves as a reminder, so it’s okay if it’s a bit vague. I’ll figure out the details when I rewrite the thing.

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The next step will be to fix the story and fine-tune my characters. Only when that’s done will I actually start rewriting.

First post in this series: Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

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Review: Viral Airwaves

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Claudie Arsenault was Québec City’s NaNoWriMo municipal liaison for several years. I have chatted with her a few times over the internet and even went to her place for a write-in during NaNoWriMo 2011. I don’t know her very well, but still, when she published her first book, Viral Airwaves, I felt I had to read it eventually, if only to show my support to a beautiful person that inspired me a lot.

I admit I delayed it voluntarily, though. I imagined her to be good and I was scared to be proven wrong. I finally purchased her book on an impulse, after having started a literary fiction that would likely be hard on my nerves and realised I wasn’t ready for another one of those yet.

I wanted her to be good with a force I hadn’t realised until I picked up the book with the intent to start reading it… as scared as that time I opened the letter that would tell me whether I was accepted into the only university I had applied to. I had an idea of how hard she works, how passionate she is about writing. If she could produce awesome work, then maybe I could, too, by following her example. I needed her to be good.

I was so scared. My expectations weren’t realistic, I thought. This was just her first book, even though I knew she had written several, already, by the time she published it. It was “just” an independently-then-self-published book, too. I couldn’t expect professional quality. Yet, I could expect no less, either.

That fear, however, died within the first chapter. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute I’ve spent reading this novel.

Review

This was my first time having a book printed from CreateSpace. The cover turned out more pixelized than expected (I don’t know if that’s due to the actual cover quality or the printing press), but the book is otherwise pretty and agreeable to read. The font might be a bit on the small size.

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The language is fluent and agreeable. If I’m not mistaken, Claudie’s first language is French, and I was somewhat afraid it’d show… Now I feel silly about it. The book was obviously professionally revised, possibly more than once. It should have been obvious: the writer I know is too serious about her work to fudge essential steps.

The story is deliciously fast-paced, although it allows for slowdowns once in a while. Those short breaks never grow boring or pointless, however; the 464-page novel is action-packed and even I, who often wonder at the relevance of certain passages in other (ahem, traditionally-published) books, feeling as though the writer didn’t have enough story to fill 300 pages, couldn’t find a paragraph that didn’t belong.

The plot elements are brilliantly weaved into each other, too. I especially appreciated the discreet foreshadowing.

There is more romance than I like in my adventure novels, but… for me the perfect amount would be close to nil so it doesn’t really count. I didn’t buy all the love stories in the book, I rarely do, but I wouldn’t say they were badly handled; only, they aren’t the main focus. However, those are still better and more credible than the love stories in action blockbusters.

The characters are colourful and vivid. Maybe not as deep as the characters from another dystopian novel I reviewed recently, but deep enough. This book is action-oriented, after all. Too much psychology and emotions would have killed its entertaining quality and fast-paced awesomeness. My favourite is probably Treysh, but Andeal was the one I rooted the most for.

There is a bit of humour scattered here and there that either made me smile or laugh out loud. I love humour so this was the cherry on top. And besides, some of the events in the book are so terrible, I was glad for the relief those provided.

Of course, if I wanted to find faults with the book, I probably could. For one, there is so much knocking people out of their consciousness, it’s a miracle no one has any obvious brain damage. But I can forgive it just as I forgive it (among other things) in blockbusters or best-sellers all the time. There would be no point in my being harder on an acquaintance’s book than I’d be on perfect stranger’s, out of paranoia that I might be biased. I’ll have to trust myself on this

The White Renegade

Rating: 9/10

Who would I recommend this to? Lovers of adventure novels, especially if you like fantasy or science-fiction. I don’t especially like science-fiction, but there wasn’t so much science in it as to lose my interest. I mean, they fly in a hot air balloon over trees and rivers: nothing like the grey dullness of spaceships or Coruscant-like cities.

I already have a Kindle version of The White Renegade, a prequel to Viral Airwaves, but now I think I’ll get it printed… I might get City of Strife while I’m at it. I’ve found my self-published gem. I can’t believe it was so close to me the whole time.

If you happen to read the book, I’d love to hear your opinion about it!

Letter to myself: The emotional ups and down of editing

In my last post, I mentioned the technical hardships I faced when trying to edit a novel for the first time. Today, I’ll talk about a much different aspect of editing your very first novel first draft, the emotional hardships, in a letter to myself:

So you’re editing your first draft. You’ve read the glorious parts, those that made it worth being written in the first place. However, you’ve also read all the worst parts, those that will have to be completely rewritten or even reimagined. It was part of the deal from the beginning. But you might have come to feel that those ugly parts make up 75% of the book. As for the remaining 25%, there is still much work to do there.

You’ve spent so much time on your first draft, and it was so hard to get to the end of it, and now it’s like you have to start over. You thought you had 50% – at least – of the job done, but it turns out that wasn’t even 25%.

Now, you don’t want to get discouraged. You want to push through, that’s how things get done. But a novel is long. After having spent a great many hours rereading and critiquing your own work, writing “rewrite this section completely” and “this is terrible” and “this scene has no point”, it’s obvious you’d start feeling down at some point. No matter how intense your passion, too much negative comments directed at you every day is bound to have some impact.

So, now you’re down. You’ve avoided your novel for a few days, to spare your feelings, recharge your battery. It’s tempting to start feeling guilty for those days when you didn’t work on your novel, on making your dream come true. But self-loathing at this point is the worst you could do. Self-loathing is always the worst you could do.

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Relax, don’t feel guilty. You have the right to feel down, it doesn’t mean your resolve is weak. You have the right to a short break to regroup. You can use the break to read or to work on some other story. But then, you have to snap out of it and keep going.

You might want to give up the whole thing. Start a new and “better” story. I can’t tell you not to do that. If you hate the thing, if you can’t even find 25% worth saving because you’ve come to hate the story, you can recycle it and work on something you can love. You don’t have to feel guilty for giving up on a story. It’s not wasted time; it still gave you some experience.

If you love your story, but are disappointed that it didn’t come out as good as you expected, though, you have keep going because that’s what pros do. I love the saying “fake it till you make it: if you want to be a professional writer, do like they do. Follow their process: planning, first draft, rewrite, edit, professional edit, beta reading, edit. Then you can think about finding an agent or publishing.

The good new is: that first draft is so terrible that you can only make it better now. Every change makes it better. Not to mention that seeing how terrible it is (and why) is a power in itself. You know what should be done to make it better, or at least part of it.

Eventually, you’ll have to let it go; accept that your first novel can’t hold a candle to genius first novels like Pride and Prejudice or Harry Potter, that it might not even be worth a 5/10 on your own book review-scale. You’ll have to be content with having finished a novel properly, like a professional writer, and gaining experience doing it. You’ll maybe have to be content with publishing it online and receiving only a lukewarm response to it. You’ll do better on the next book.

But you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it. For now, keep calm and carry on.

Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

The most important of my New Year’s resolutions was to rewrite my first novel. I thought it’d be long, sure, but I hadn’t realised how difficult it would be.

I tried in January, failed, then proceeded to write something else. I’d let the story rest so I could see it with new eyes. I tried again in March and failed again. I figured I’d edit the thing after I was done with my creative writing courses… which I plan on starting this fall.

Eventually, I realised that stalling wasn’t the solution. I needed a method: baby steps to bring me where I wanted to go. There is no doubt taking creative writing courses will make my writing better. But so will writing on my own. Stalling, on the other hand, just makes me waste my time.

I had the idea that I should do several rounds of edit: IMG_20170717_110113a
1) A rough edit, in which I correct anything related to themes, conflict, story structure, and anything related my overall appreciation of the story.
2) A finer edit, in which I correct anything related to character development, facts checking and scenes fine-tuning.
3) A language edit, in which I correct mistakes, remove unwanted repetitions, tighten sentences, and basically make every sentence as elegant and effective as possible.

Each of those rounds may, in turn, be divided as necessary.

I suspect rounds 2 and 3 won’t give me too much difficulty: character development is my greatest strength, scenes fine-tuning can’t be all that different from short-story fine tuning, and language, well… I’m a language professional. It’s round one that’s a bitch.

The main problem I was faced with was that a novel is so long that it’s difficult to remember every little thing that happens in it. Yet, as a perfectionist, I feel the need to know everything that happens. I don’t want scenes to get repetitive, for one; I don’t want to hammer my themes into the reader’s head, but I do want them to be clear; and finally, I want my characters to be consistent and to evolve at a natural pace.

I had seen “scene cards” here and there, but I thought people mostly used them to plan their stories. I can’t use them in that manner yet, my plans are not detailed enough and I do like to surprise myself while writing the first draft. However, I figured I could use them to summarise everything that happens in every scene of the book.

scene card

I found Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and printed a bunch of them. But as I filled them, I realised they weren’t optimal for my needs. Scene cards should probably be tailored to every writer and every book. So I made my own version in MS Word, three per letter-sized page. Feel free to use them or modify them. Here’s a PDF version in case that works better for you.

My novel has a little over 60 scenes in it. Just like that, I reduced an 85,000 words novel into a very manageable 20 pages.

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However, as awesome as it may be, it’s still just a way to make a very detailed summary. There is almost no visible relationship with rewriting or editing.

I must admit I spent a few minutes hours staring alternatively at my cards, then at some part of my manuscript, until I figured the next step: reread the book from cover to cover and critic every scene on the back of the page. Critics include everything from very precise comments about a detail to “rewrite the whole thing” to “delete this scene” (I can safely delete stuff because I’ve kept a copy of my first draft from which I can restore deleted scenes if need be). This method has the added benefit of making me see every scene in relation to the rest of the book. This process doesn’t take too long: I can do a few scenes every day.

The next step will be, most likely, to look at my detailed scene cards and reflect upon the story and everything that happens in it and add even more comments on the back of my scenes and in a note book that I keep for more general comments about the story.

When that’s all done, I can start rewriting efficiently, because I’ll know exactly what needs to be done. And efficiency is important because… basically the whole thing will have to be rewritten to some level.

Yep, you read that right. I honestly thought, when I finished the first draft, that it was “clean” and didn’t need too much editing. But in the meantime, I’ve read and critiqued great books, and I’ve raised my expectations for this novel. That also allowed me to take some distance from my beloved first draft and see it’s worst flaws, at least. For the rest… I’ll find alpha/beta readers and hire an editor.

There is no great writing, only great rewriting.
– Justice Brandeis

Second post in this series: Rewriting a novel: self-critique

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale 01Context

As part of a class assignment, I’ve read an essay titled Never Heard of Them… They Must be Canadian* by Mel Hurtig. The “never heard of them” applied to Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence among others (read the essay if you get the chance, it’s great). I’m sorry to admit it was true for me too: I had never heard of them before. I swore to myself, there and then, to read at least one book from both these writers someday.

When I joined Twitter several years later, I went and followed a few Canadian writers, including Margaret Atwood, whose tweets I enjoy. At last, I became too curious about her and looked for her “best” novel, which seemed to be The Handmaid’s Tale. I can’t tell whether it is her best, but one thing’s for sure: it’s great.

I had no idea what the book was about; I hadn’t read so much as the back cover. I had only a vague idea of the genre, even: something about a dystopian society, somewhere between sci-fi and history, and I’m quite amazed I got even that “close enough”.

Review

The book is a speculative fiction, but there is a non-genre quality about it: it studies human nature in depth and leaves you to make your own opinion. Main themes include power, sexuality and feminism.

The pace is very slow, especially in the beginning. I don’t always like slowness, but here it was welcome. The events are so terrible, I was grateful that the information about “the new world” was given one drop at a time. I’m also glad that I started reading the book early this month, because I could not have binge-read it; it would have affected my mood too much.

The worst thing – or the best thing, but for your feels it’s the worst – is that this dystopian society is set in our own world and is very close to our own society. You feel like it could happen. Actually, horrors like those in the book did happen before, are happening right now in other parts of the world, and most likely will happen again somewhere else in the world. That is what makes it so hard to read.
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That and the fact that the characters are deep and complex and… human. I loved how even those most probably responsible for the worst atrocities were not depicted as overly sadistic monsters. The worst acts can be committed in the belief that they are “for the greater good”.

However, the author is kind: she doesn’t dwell on the atrocities. On the contrary, she constantly diverts your attention toward some little thing, a funny expression, a flower, a dream, for you to get some relief before the next wave of pain. I didn’t cry even once, which I’m thankful for.

Bottom note: this novel is as horrifying as it is brilliantly written.

Now it hits me even harder: how have I not heard of this book or its author outside that one university class? This is the first novel by Margaret Atwood I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

Rating: 10/10

Who would I recommend this to? Everybody over 16 could enjoy this, but it might be of particular interest to women, amateur sociologists and fans of dystopian fiction.

Reference

*Hurtig, Mel.“Never Heard of Them… They Must be Canadian.” The Harbrace Reader for Canadians. Ed. Joanne Buckley. Toronto: Harcourt Canada, 2001. 279-284

The Harbrace Reader for Canadians(By the way, there’s an essay by Margaret Atwood in The Harbrace Reader for Canadians about utopia and several other excellent essays on various subjects, including creative writing – my absolute favourite being MadmanArchitect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process by Betty S. Flowers; this is one of the best books I’ve bought for a university course and I warmly recommend it. Obviously, it is of special interest to Canadians.)

Back to writing!

beesy smallSometimes things look almost perfect: you make a schedule for yourself, you stick to it and get brilliant results. You’re thrilled and want that to last forever. But then… life happens and you get overwhelmed again, running in all directions like a headless chicken: precisely what I’ve been doing for the past, uh… 3 months? Unfortunately, I didn’t get to do actual running, which I usually do during the spring to shed the extra pounds gained during the winter; I only got to make money, which admittedly had become my top priority: going hungry from lack of money is not my preferred weight loss strategy.

Sigh

It’s okay; I know I’m not good with changes, and going from unemployment to working over 50 hours a week is one drastic change. But now, things are settling down, I’ve reduced my working hours to 40-50 hours maximum, and now I’m ready to rethink my schedule. It’s irregular because of my husband’s schedule… but upon the whole, here’s how my time is distributed:

weekly time distribution

Okay, so this doesn’t look too bright (aside from the colours I chose): 5.5 hours is short for me to research/write/edit/revise a blog post, but it’ll have to do. I’m not too happy with having only 7 hours a week to write fiction either, or only 3.5 hours to read, but there isn’t much I can do about it. It’s more than I have for, say, exercising.

I’ll try to steal a few hours when my daughter is playing alone (I’m encouraging her to play alone because that’s something that doesn’t come naturally to her) and the necessary house chores are taken care of to get some writing or blogging done. I might consider handwriting short stories or making detailed plans on paper during those times. I’ve been thinking about writing a series of “episodes” for Wattpad or this blog, or both. That might not even be possible considering speech is the one thing that makes it impossible for me to focus and my daughter is talking all the time, but… I’ll see.

I could also go jogging with my princess in the stroller when it doesn’t rain.

I wish I could cut my hours of sleep to 56 (8 hours/day), but with the pills I take, even sleeping 9 hours a day is a stretch: ideally, I’d sleep 10-12 hours a day. So much time lost.

I can do this!

tiredI hope. Very honestly, I feel tired just thinking about it. But I have to do this. I want to. That’s the way forward, the one leading to my someday being able to call myself a professional writer; the one that won’t make me feel like I’m wasting my time. Not to mention that this schedule will end with the summer: this fall I’m taking a creative writing course and so I’ll free 8-10 hours/week off my work schedule for that purpose. My schedule will still be tight, but a bigger proportion of it will be devoted to writing and that’s encouraging.

Seriously, I can do this.

Fathers are underrated

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In parenting and in children development books, fathers are awfully rare. Those books all about the mother and the child. I guess historically that was mostly true; maybe it still is in some cases, but not in ours.

My husband is the one holding the family together. Without him, I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t think I’d be able to be a single parent.

He didn’t have it easy, either; my postpartum depression was has been almost as hard on him as it’s been on me. For months, he had to take care of a baby and a very sick spouse. He still feels emotional whenever he goes to a hospital to see a doctor, whether it’s for himself or for our daughter…

Even after I was out of the hospital and working again, he was almost our daughter’s sole caretaker for another year. Even now, when he’s there, he’s mostly the one watching over her. No wonder our daughter goes to him for emotional comfort.

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A father is also, most of the time, a spouse, and he does a great job at that, too. He’s the one holding my feet on the ground when I’d otherwise get carried away with the wind. I’m sometimes so lost in my own fictional world, that I start considering life decisions in terms of what would be interesting to read about instead of what’s best for me.

He’s also there to remind me, among other things that I’m human… Metaphorically, of course: I tend to forget that, like anybody else, maybe even more than most people, I need breaks and days off to remain mentally healthy.

Whenever I have a mildly important decision to make, I always seem to want his approval. It’s not like I actually need it or like he’d lash at me for not asking him first, which I wouldn’t tolerate, it’s just… I know he sees things differently than I do and I feel like we need to communicate each other’s points of view so that we have a full 3D view of the situation.

He has his own faults, of course, but in the end, I don’t mind those so much because my own qualities more than make up for them. I don’t believe in such a thing as soulmates, but  what I do believe is that there is nobody in this world whom I’d rather have as a husband.

Happy Father’s Day to the love of my life, and to all other wonderful fathers whose work is so underrated.