What lasts in the reader’s mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy. If the phrase is not affecting the reader, what’s it doing there? Make it do its job or cut it without mercy or remorse.


Margaret Atwood’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

There is a Chinese proverb…

“Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still.”

So slowly I go. Word count down to 179k (from 200k+). Simplifying, clarifying. Altering archs, modifying premise, tweaking plot. All sorts of change. This effort will be the final swipe at this story. When it goes back up online, it will live in that form forever. A first novel is a first novel and I’m willing to let it be that, after I do this final round of revision. The lessons learned from it are substantial and I will move forward to the next one with them in mind.

The Pendulum Still Swings

Writing a novel is to have a pendulum in motion, a measurement of action and inaction, where writing and reflection have their place in the process. This pendulum is particular, however, in the case of novel building. Writing and reflection are not always equal parts, arrived at in perfect and predictable timing. The pendulum arm can dally in one stroke or the other, creating long spells of intense writing that are devoid of much reflection or conversely, periods of reflection so long and necessary that one can forget their goals – forget their vision. I can only say that I’ve felt the pendulum and that it still swings.

What it’s really like

It’s a Saturday morning in June in Northern California. A brief hot spell has generously given way to the gorgeous, low 70’s blue sky I see outside my window. The lawn is drinking the water I set out after mowing it this morning. It’s 9:20am.

Before me rests the 225,000 word manuscript that is System Seven. Pandora radio is streaming my ambient station. Haunting flutes, deep congo drums, and synthesizers paint tension and drama on the canvas of the family room where I write. A tall glass of iced water sits within reach. I’m settled, ready to be the writer.

In revision, which is where I’m at now with the script, every paragraph, every sentence is subject to the prodding and testing necessary to achieve a few things: a.) plot accuracy, b.) story continuity, c.) relevancy, and d.) brevity. Since I’m revising certain premises, the testing for A and B are all important, literally like heart surgery for the story. C and D are also important for the overall health of the script and to improve readability.

What revision feels like varies from moment to moment, hour to hour, etc. The tides of this human’s emotions tend to rise and fall and my desire to finish this script is the boat and oars of the revision process. There are moments when I almost literally crash into the words of a sentence, like hitting a wall, and my resolve shatters, the imagery breaks apart, and I’m left staring at a field of pixels on an advanced Lite Brite screen. My inner self gets out of the chair and walks away. So I step back, take a breath, look at the paragraph, reposition myself in the story, re-ignite the fire of imagination, light the scene, and begin prodding and testing again. It is like digging a ditch.