Lightning and the Lightning Bug

Sunday, August 25, 2013
We've had a lot of lightning in Tucson lately, especially last Thursday afternoon. After taking a break, the monsoon returned in earnest. I was hurrying back from the grocery store when I saw no less than five bolts of lightning stroke from cloud to ground at the same time in the Rincon Mountains. This weekend, moisture from Tropical Depression Nine-E is supposed to flow up from Baja California and give us the biggest chance of rain all season.

Monsoon season is one of the unique things I love about Tucson. In other places I've lived, a day was either rainy or sunny, and it was rainy or sunny for the whole region. Monsoons are totally different. The thunderstorms that pop up every July and leave in September are spotty. I've had rain in my front yard and sunlight in the back. I'll watch a storm darkening the sky to the south, the black clouds moving closer and closer, and then it will skirt my neighborhood and pass by with a few rumbles of distant thunder and splats of raindrops on the windows. When one does pass over, it is intense. The rain sheets down, there's often hail, and near hurricane force winds bend trees and bushes. Roads turn into rivers and, almost as quickly, dry again once the rain passes.

It's hard to believe that monsoon season is coming to an end. By this time, according to my very ambitious planning at the beginning of the year, Deliver Us From Evil (yes, I've decided on the title for Community of Faith Book 2) was supposed to be published. I was supposed to be well into writing Screaming Blue Murder (the working title for the first book my second cozy mystery series) and looking at revisions for that one in October or November. Things don't always work out the way you planned.

When I last left you, I had made the decision to use Holly Lisle's How To Revise Your Novel class to work through the revisions for Deliver Us From Evil (DUFE). This week I finished the worksheets for the first lesson or, as Holly optimistically calls it, Week 1. It took me two and a half weeks to do those 1B worksheets because the first week is re-reading your entire novel and noting in detail what went wrong and what went right with your world, your plot, and your characters. This is a good thing because it makes you really pay attention. It's a bad thing because it takes so long to do. Now, in case you think I'm working extraordinarily slowly, let me reassure you that I'm not. Many people take a lot longer than I did to get through the 1Bs.

Naturally, this week Dean Wesley Smith had to post his updated version of Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing--#3 Rewriting. As I've posted before, DWS is a firm believer in Heinlein's rules. He contends that rewriting kills your originality and your voice.

There are other writers who believe differently. For example, Mark Twain said The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. James Michener said I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter. In a longer quote, James North Patterson said:
"Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing." 
If you read Dean's posts carefully, you'll see that there are processes he goes through that very much resemble rewriting. One of these is what he calls redrafting. If his first reader (usually his wife, Kris Rusch) tells him the story sucks, he'll rewrite the story without referring to the first draft. He'll start fresh and write a second first draft of the story he has in his head. That keeps it coming from the creative side of the brain rather than the critical side.

The second process is something he and Kris call "cycling." As I understand it, this means going back into earlier parts of your draft as you write it to add in things that aren't there. (I don't know if it also means removing things that are there and shouldn't be or not.) This prevents such errors as having "Mary grabbed the carving knife from the kitchen counter" in a climactic scene and not having had a knife on the kitchen counter earlier. Otherwise, it sounds as if the knife magically appeared just when Mary needed it.

Now, both DWS and Kris Rusch have been professional writers for decades. Dean admits to buying into what he calls "the myths" for something like the first seven years of his career. Interestingly enough, Holly Lisle says it took her seven years to learn how to write a novel, which is where her How To Think Sideways and How To Revise Your Novel classes came from. She wanted to help new writers from having to spend seven years learning the lessons she did, just like Dean does. Now I'm wondering if there isn't something about that seven years which is just the time you need to learn how to do what you want to do. It sure explains why there are so few novelists earning a living at writing.

I'm figuring out my process. There are so many things they don't teach you in academic writing classes.  I was looking at MFA programs recently (no, I'm never going to get an MFA, but I'm curious as to what value they add) and determined that most of them spend a lot more time reading than writing. The fiction writing classes usually say that you are going to write one or two short stories or the beginning of a novel.

The beginning of a novel is easy. Ask any number of wannabe writers who have started one. It's getting all the way to the end that's the challenge. Even when you've got a beginning, middle, and end, it's probably not going to climb to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Those of us who are perfectionists have a particularly difficult time getting through the first draft because the more you write, the worse what you're writing seems to be. There's a temptation to go back and fix stuff before moving ahead. But you probably don't know what you should fix until you get to the end and know everything that happens in the story. Everything that you want to keep, that is. That's why NaNoWriMo is so great. It teaches writers to get to the end and not worry about it being perfect.

I've spent a lot of time studying plot structure. I've taken classes and have several books on it and read blog posts about it. I've probably done enough of that now. I know the basic plot formats, what a plot point is, and how a story (unless it's a thriller) should ebb and flow through scene and sequel. Or not. There's a faction that holds that sequels aren't interesting any more. But my point is that, without thinking about it, I'll probably have a twist/plot point at the end of act one, another one in the middle of act two (or the end of act two if you're thinking a four act structure instead of a three), one at the end of act two, and one at the climax, without even consciously thinking that's what they are as I'm writing a draft.

On the other hand, I still need to work on what Mark Twain called the lightning or the lightning bug. I sent the first three chapters of Faith, Hope, and Murder to three different contests because, although I thought I had a solidly constructed plot, I knew there was something missing. One contest judge nailed it. She (or he--they don't give you the names of the judges) said it read like it had been workshopped to death, like all the emotional charge had been taken out of it. Which was amusing, because I hadn't workshopped it at all. I'd barely had critiques done.

But that told me that Margie Lawson's Empowering Characters' Emotions was just the class I needed to make that novel what it needed to be. Since I've only used her techniques once, I mostly have no idea whether the first draft of DUFE has anadiplosis or anaphora or asyndeton. Probably not, although there were some instances of these things I didn't know the name of in my first draft of FH&M. I'm pretty sure it doesn't have backloading of power words. But I know how to go back and rewrite sentences so they do have those qualities. With any luck, when I draft my next novel, I'll be able to use those techniques without thinking about them. More likely, I'll use some instinctively but still have to consciously add in others.

It was a year and a half ago that I decided to indie publish Faith, Hope, and Murder. While I'd written several novels before, this was the first one I knew was worth publishing. I guess that means I've only got five and a half years to go until I really know how I write a novel.

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