Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Writing: My Cheat Sheet

By the time I reached the tenth month of draft one, all I thought about was how badly I wanted to revise.  Now, as I'm entering week eight of revisions, all I think about is how badly I want to send this sucker to betas.  Sigh...

Revisions are tough.  Then again, if you're reading this, you probably know that already.  And you most likely have more experience with the demon than I do.  So, let me ask: are they supposed to give me a bloody headache?

Throughout draft one, I learned a lot about writing.  I learned about the characters, voice, style, and the story I'm trying to share.  My writing improved as I progressed, and I know that's how it should work.

But, that doesn't make it easier to deal with the emotions flooding my brain when I return to weak sections: Paul, what is your freakin' point?  Paul, who the heck cares?  Paul, these fifteen pages can be condensed to a paragraph - it doesn't move the story forward.  Paul, this is boring.  Paul, you said that already.  Paul, stop telling and start showing, sir!  Paul, start entertaining!  Paul, I can't read another page....

My favorite brain buster is when I spend hours on a paragraph, get it sounding better than its original state, and realize the next paragraph needs to be rewritten.  The rewritten paragraph becomes a first draft, sandwiched between two revised drafts, and they can't be served on the same plate.  That rewritten paragraph is a generic condiment smothered on a gourmet entree.  It drives me crazy.  It ruins my entire flow.

I've been in a bad mood for the past twenty-seven years the last week.  I'm rewriting an entire chapter, and though I feel the content is improving, the writing resembles my third grade stories.

Okay, maybe tenth.

So, today I took a break.  I went to the pool and browsed the second half of Stephen King's On Writing for probably the fourth time.  While reading, I jotted the tips I felt were directed at me (you know, cause I'm tight with Stephen King...).  When I got home, I locked myself in my office (formerly known as Borders) and the teacher in me created a cheat sheet.  Even though you have all read the book more than I have, I'm sharing the tips that pinched a nerve today:

1.  Do not dress up your vocabulary.  Use the word you mean to use; chances are, it's the best word to convey your point.

2.  Too many details write an instruction manual.  Include those necessary to transport an image to the reader; leave the rest to the imagination.

3.  Adverbs are not your friend. 

4.  Dialogue tags clutter a novel.  Stick with said as much as possible.

5.  Avoid passive verbs; put the subject in charge of the sentence.

6.  Separate thoughts (rather than one lengthy narration) help the reader comprehend.

7.  Know the beat of your paragraph; keep the rhythm aligned.

8.  When it comes to names, it's always s's (i.e. Thomas's) and never s' (i.e. Thomas').

For those who have read, what key point did you take from King's memoir?  Do you have a favorite revision tip to share?  What other books helped you improve your manuscript?


  1. If you were tight with Stevie, you'd call him Stevie. ;)

    I remember all those points. (Not that I always remember them at the right moment, but you sharing them triggers a vague memory... whatever.) My favorite point was that writers need to put their asses in the chair. I think that was Stephen Ki.. er, Stevie.

    I also noticed the steep learning curve with my ms. That's probably a first novel universal though. At the start of each revision, I'd get frustrated with the quality of writing I'd managed to push out four months earlier, then less so as I moved through the ms towards the end and got to more recent writing. Happened with all four revisions to date.

    And don't long too much for beta: the waiting while your ms is away can be crazy-making. Not that I, er, know, you know? Somebody just told me about it, and I'm pretty sure they were actually, really there and not just a hallucination. I think. Maybe.

  2. I fnd revisions get more enjoyable as you go through the process and start seeing improvements (and actually enjoying reading bits - no, really). It's a slow process, a bit like animation, and you have to grind it out sometimes, occasionally leaving a scene you know isn't quite perfect yet. You can't do it all in one draft, but it will all get done eventually.

    Moody Writing

  3. Wow, Paul, you sound very busy with your writing. I hope it all comes to a beautiful end for you. I'm sure the hard work now will handsomely pay off later!

    Duncan In Kuantan

  4. Wow! You just posted my writing journey. It took nine months to finish the first draft. The entire time I wanted to go back and fix things. I did allow myself to go back and insert commas. Eventually, I forbid the backwards page turn completely.
    Now that I've starting the editing process, it is killing me to see how many times I have repeated myself. This is very hard....mostly on my self-esteem.
    Thanks for your post. It helped.
    Best wishes with your journey.
    PS I will order the Steven's book,if it isn't already on my TBR pile.

  5. It's Murphy's Law of Writers. Whatever part of the process you're not in looks better than the one you're in. I always prefer drafting, though I know that's just me.

    Sounds like you needed the day off. They're important so you don't give in to the You-Suck script (also known as Overthinking Writer Brain). Sounds like it's been playing overtime. That's one reason I write as fast as I do, so I don't give it time to get a foothold.

    I regularly reread On Writing and Bird by Bird! Let's see... your cheat sheet's good, very practical. I would add my favorite writing advice of all time, from Lilith Saintcrow, which is discipline builds momentum. the more you work and the more consistently you write, the easier it gets to show up and consistently write, and when you make something a habit, you can force yourself through the you-suck script because you know you can, because you have done it.

  6. I'm with Jess on the drafting part. I hate revisions simply because for me they usually lead to rewrites. I'm horrible at revisions- I can't seem to get out of my own way usually. I have a very hard time at being objective and knowing what needs to be cut, what paragraph could be 2 sentences instead of six, etc.

    I am getting better since one of my friends who has a book coming out took a look at the first part of my story and helped me revise the first 100 pages. I need to "see" if first how it should be done before I can really apply it correctly.

    Someone just recommended I buy Bird by Bird as well, so I"m glad to see that someone else thinks it good to read as well. Donal Maas is good- his workbook is awesome. Some of the writing activities he has you do I've added into my story and they are usually the parts that don't get cut!

    Thanks for doing the work with your Cheat Sheet. I will be copying it as I still have yet to read On Writing. Ever time I go to the bookstore, they are out of it.

  7. I need your cheat sheet.
    I usually enjoy revisions. I write so bare bones, it's fun to go back and add stuff. And Save the Cat really gave me some good ideas for improvement.

  8. Keep with it, bud -- it's a great feeling when you start knocking out the junk and are left with the story the book is supposed to be.

  9. Today may suck, but when you final accept your final draft as being your absolute final draft (until the betas rip it apart, *wink*) You'll feel THAT much better.
    Stevie's "On Writing" was more than a little crucial to my writing. I can hear his voice berating me for leaving my desk before I've written 2k words, or even 1k which he suggests for newer writers. He pokes me with a sharp needle every time I use an adverb. He can be a pretty scary guy, or so I've heard ;)
    Glad to hear you are working hard, even if it's a painful process, especially since you are losing your writer's den.

  10. It's tough writing. It's tough revising. It's really tough rewriting. But, I can't see how anyone can avoid all 3. Necessary and worth it in the end when you are proud to put your name on your work. Breaks are good, just don't get too comfortable at the pool;) My theory is everything in moderation, even the supposed "no-no's."

  11. Think of it as little successes as you rewrite and edit. I know I've thought, "Bloody hell what were you thinking?" going over a first draft. Then I rewrite and realize how much I've grown as a writer from point A to B. Like I said small successes that point out improvements in the writing. Makes it a lot easier to get through editing - less emotional baggage. (Hugs)Indigo

  12. Yes, but when you get to the very end, Paul, when you've toiled until you've tempered your book like a smith tempers a sword, you'll never be prouder of your accomplishment than when you first hold your book in your hands.

  13. I hope your writing goes better, Paul. I am sure that this cheat sheet will help. Before I started writing, I wrote a list of 'hints' that King gave. I think it was 3 pages long. I never looked back at that, but it sure helped my writing. I love the list you compiled.

    Your beta readers will thank you for your hard work. I'm so glad you finished.

    Draven Ames

  14. Revisions are tough. Both of my manuscripts are still going through the motions of revisions. I'm still trying to figure out how to find what to cut. What a great list. I will have to remember it.
    Sometimes taking a break does help, you can see the progress you made once you step away.
    You will get there,Paul. Good luck!

  15. Michael: Your comment was awesome. I can't imagine how hard it must be waiting to get your ms back. I've sent a few chapters here and there, and I can't sleep until I know what they thought. I am, however, confident your betas are enjoying it :)

    Moody: Love the comparison to animation!

    Duncan: Thanks, as always. Appreciate you standing behind me!

    Lorrie: Thanks. I completely understand how hard this can be on our self-esteem. That's why it's so important to have places to go to vent. I can't figure out how writers made it before the online community existed...(oh, right; they drank a lot!)

    Jess: The you-suck script is perfect!! And I have actually had a copy of Bird by Bird on my desk for a few weeks. I'm thinking I'll crack it open next - right after I finish Tweak!

    Kelly: I think seeing it helps me also; I'm a visual person. I have heard good things about Donald Mass. I'll see what I can find at the Borders closing sale.

    Alex: I've never heard of that one; will definitely check it out. Thanks!

    David: I do enjoy cutting. And killing characters. And killing characters with things used for cutting....I, never mind....

    Nina: I have the same problem! It feels like an eternity since I banged out 2k in one sitting. I can only look at revisions in small chunks.

    Michele: "Everything in moderation" is a good philosophy. Someone will always be around to offer criticism later :)

    Indigo: So true! We have to celebrate the little accomplishments we achieve along the way - it starts with making one tiny section a tad better than it was.

    Jeff: I agree. I'm looking forward to that day (and you'll be holding it too, haha!)

    Draven: Thanks as always, pal! I do think it's helping; it gave me some things to look for, and that's always a great start.

    Christine: I know you are going through the same process and understand the frustrations. Breaks do help, just as long as I don't get too comfortable doing other things. Thankfully, the gym isn't much of a temptation!


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