The Great Cut & Beyond: Got Grit?

This is my fifteenth post on novel revision. Having reached my word count goal (118,000 words) for my first book, Black Scales, and being hard at work on my second novel, Child of Fire (currently at 69,500 words), I thought I would share some reflections on the importance of passion and perseverance in writing.

Recently, after submitting revisions for an academic paper, a co-author said to me, “You have a lot of grit.” I smiled, not sure if I was receiving a compliment. He proceeded to tell me about a book he’d read by psychologist Angela Duckworth on the subject of grit and how it was the buzz in some academic circles.

Feeling a little flattered, I set about to learn a little research about grit. On her website, Dr. Duckworth explains, “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” She notes that individuals who are more gritty are often more self-controlled, and grittiness is one way to predict success.

Revising and preparing writing for publication takes a lot of grit. For anyone who has cut 50,000+ words from a novel, you know what I mean. Hurdles, pitfalls, and rejections are inevitable challenges all writers face. Therefore, the next time that a rejection roles in, or you get a negative review, resist the temptation to throw up your hands and remind yourself that motivation and self-control are essential to success, and are the cornerstone of grit.

 

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The Great Cut & Beyond: Resisting the Urge to Self-Publish…yet.

This is my fifteenth post on novel revision. Having reached my word count goal (118,000 words) for my first book, Black Scales, and being hard at work on my second novel, Child of Fire (currently at 70,000 words), I thought I would share some reflections on self-publishing.

It’s hard to get traditionally published. Let’s say you’ve finished your book and you think it’s polished enough for prime time. You’ve heard of the benefits of getting an agent and decide that’s the best route for you. You learn about writing query letters and pitches and synopsis. Putting the necessary puzzle pieces together, you go online and compile a list of agents looking for material in your genre, and start querying. The first rejection roles in, then the second, and so on. You begin to question your approach. That’s typically when the thought to self-publish enters your head.

Many of us have heard of authors making their mark in self-publishing. Chris Paolini’s Eragon novel was self-published before it was picked up by Knopf. Not to mention the ‘Amazon Millionaires.’ But what’s the realistic outlook for a self-publish novel? Not so hot.

I read once that the average number of downloads for a self-published book is around 300. Yes, 300. The fact is self-publishing is easy, and whenever something is easy, it’s rarely a sure path to success. A self-publisher will rarely say ‘no’ to your work if you have enough money to pay the publishing fees. Even if your work is top-notch, there’s no certainty that it will be discovered amidst the legion of lesser works.

That’s not to say that self-publishing or e-publishing aren’t reputable avenues for publication, especially for those with an established online platform. Let’s say you have more twitter followers than can fit in a concert hall and as many people visit your blog each day as Starbuck’s. You may have a good shot of getting your self-published work noticed (hint: you probably will get noticed by a few agents too).

So, before you throw up your hands and self-publish that novel, ask yourself, is it ready for publication? Is my query letter, pitch and synopsis agent worthy? Is my online platform sufficient? Have I exhausted all reasonable options of traditional publication? If the answer is no to any of these questions, it’s probably worth resisting that urge to self-publish and put those fingers back on the keys.

 

The Great Cut & Beyond: Use Your Mood

This is my fourteenth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000-word fantasy novel, Black Scales, to make it a more marketable piece of fiction.

Having reached my word count goal (118,000 words) for my first book, Black Scales, and being hard at work on my second novel, Child of Fire (currently at 68,500 words), I thought I would share some more of my thoughts on the process of writing.

I recently read “14 writing tips” on ideas.ted.com by author and essayist, Anne Lamott. Tip 9 caught my attention. “Don’t wait to be “in the mood” to write–unless you want to wait forever.”

We’ve all been there. The day’s work is done (or yet to begin), a cup of our favorite steaming beverage at our side, the cursor blinking expectantly, and we go do the dishes.

“I can honestly tell you that I never feel like writing,” says Anne Lamott.

So, if there is no “writing mood,” then how can we use our mood to effectively write? Use your mood. It’s that simple.

Imagine you’re writing a chapter where two characters share their undying love. The problem is that someone just cut you off on the way home and you’re still irritated. Don’t write the love scene! Write the scene where they break up and want to strangle each other.

This speaks to the larger point of whether or not you are fully aware of your mood. Being able to name our emotional state is essential to using mood. So next time you sit down and stare at that blinking cursor ask yourself, “How do I feel?”

 

 

The Great Cut & Beyond: The Tortoise and the Hare

This is my thirteenth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000-word fantasy novel, Black Scales, to make it a more marketable piece of fiction.

Having reached my word count goal (118,000 words) for my first book, Black Scales, and being hard at work on my second novel, Child of Fire (currently at 67,000 words), I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the process of writing.

Most of us are familiar with Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare. There are two morals to this tale depending on what perspective you look at it. Regarding the Tortoise, the moral is “slow and steady gets it done.” The moral from the Hare’s standpoint is “success depends on using your talents not just having them.” Both of these morals apply to writing.

Procrastination is the devil of us all. At the end of a long day, it is always easier to reach for the television remote than put pen to paper. Compared to the former, I rarely regret the later. Taking time to write, even for just an hour a day, keeps the cobwebs off our craft and leads to success (The Tortoise always wins the race no matter how many times you read the story).

Talent is important also. How many of us know a person who squanders their God given gifts?  (The moral of the Hare). As authors, I think the most important talent to have is an insight into what we don’t know. There may be some perfect writers out there. I’m not one of them. I learn by making mistakes and having others help me solve them. In this way, I continue to grow, regardless of whether I’m a Tortoise or a Hare.

The Great Cut & Beyond: Professional Reflection in the Digital Age

This is my twelfth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000-word fantasy novel, Black Scales, to make it a more marketable piece of fiction.

Having reached my word count goal (118,000 words) for my first novel, Black Scales, and being hard at work on my second one, Child of Fire (currently at 66,000 words), I thought I would share some of my thoughts on professionalism.

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a comic convention, where I had the pleasure (and in a few cases the displeasure) of meeting some of my childhood heroes. The experience was a little jarring and made me think about how we present ourselves in the digital age.

To be clear, I did not anticipate the actors or writers I met to be like the characters they created or portrayed, but I did expect them to act professionally. So what do I mean by that?

I’m sure all of you remember your mother telling you that first impressions are important. In life, in work, and in love, sometimes we only have one shot with people.

Some think that professionalism and stoicism go hand in hand. Not so! Qualities like warmness and humor are often very professional.  Consider the following experience I had with a celebrity at a photo op today:

Me: “Hi, I really like your work. Can we do something fun for this shot like stick our tongues out?”

Celebrity: “That’s not fun for me.”

Me: “Oh, okay.”

Celebrity: “You can stick your tongue out if you like.”

Me: “No, that’s okay.” Cameras flashing. “Nice to meet you.”

I can mentalize a number of reasons why the celebrity refused my request. I accept it. For me, professionalism means letting down my guard if it doesn’t tarnish my scales.

Later in the day, I sat in on a panel with a respected comic creator who was sharing stories about his early career. The speaker answered a question with a very colorful and humorous account and then was asked the same question again by another audience member. Instead of saying, “I just answered that question,” the speaker answered the question again with the same detail and humorous overtones as the first telling.

I smiled outwardly and inwardly. That’s how I want to be. Patient. Present. Thoughtful.

Nowadays, people post almost everything online. A bad impression can go a long way with just a few clicks of a mouse. This is food for thought for writers and readers. Treat others how you wish to be treated, but when it comes to posting things online about somebody, treat them like your favorite grandparent or better yet, yourself! 

 

The Great Cut & Beyond: Punching Out Passive Voice

This is my eleventh post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000-word fantasy novel, Black Scales, to make it a more marketable piece of fiction.

When I started this blog, I anticipated a finite number of posts. Now that my novel is at 118,500 words, I can say that my first goal is complete. I have cut 50,000+ words from my novel.

For better or worse, the process of revision never ends. In keeping with this truth, I have renamed my blog The Great Cut & Beyond. Future posts will discuss revision and publication related topics.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I slip into passive voice without knowing it. Passive voice can be hard to spot, especially after you’ve revised a piece multiple times.

One solution is to have a professional editor look at the work. A reasonable solution if you have the money for it. For the rest of us, a software grammar tool like Grammarly may help.

I am not here to endorse a product, but like other writers (and readers), I try things other people tell me are worth taking a look at. Grammarly has a native app that can be downloaded onto your computer desktop and a browser app that checks the grammar of everything I write online (like right now).

A drawback I have run into with the software is its 100,000 character limit for uploaded documents. This has forced me to upload my novel piecemeal into the software (very irritating). Also, I’ve noticed some formatting changes when uploading and downloading documents like paragraph indentations being lost and changes in the font of odd things like quotation marks.

So now that I’ve stated some of the problems I’ve experienced with Grammarly, what do I like about it? It is good at detecting punctuation mistakes. It picks up when I overuse a word and will offer alternatives (helpful). And perhaps best of all, for those willing to invest a little money for the premium service, it identifies passive voice.

Listed below is one example from my book, Black Scales.

Out of the corner of his eye, Icabus could see the monster angling toward him in an attempt to cut him off. The entirety of its body was covered in a dense matting of fur. It ran partly on all fours and partly like a man with grotesque hands and feet bearing curved claws that reflected the starlight like obsidian.

Grammarly picked up passive voice in the second sentence. After revision…

Out of the corner of his eye, Icabus could see the monster angling toward him in an attempt to cut him off. Bristly fur like a porcupine’s needles covered its body. It ran partly on all fours and partly like a man with grotesque hands and feet bearing curved claws that reflected the starlight like obsidian.

The Great Cut: Getting the First Chapter Right (A Second Look)

This is my tenth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000-word fantasy novel, Black Scales, to make it a more marketable piece of fiction.

When I began my revision journey, I had some very specific goals in mind. I wanted to eliminate information dumps, purple prose, telling verses showing and needless dialogue and descriptions. This helped me get my word count down to 120,154.

Doing a little research at the local library, I noticed that many fantasy novels open up with the story’s protagonist.  Doing a little research online, I came across author C.S. Lakin’s blog about successful first paragraphs where she emphasizes the need to showcase the protagonist’s core need and place him/her in the center of some sort of conflict. Put another was by author Alexandra Sokoloff, “SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT.”

Knowing the importance of my first chapter, I gave it a hard second look (or perhaps 3rd or 4th). Not only was my protagonist’s core need not addressed, my protagonist did not even appear! In fact, my first chapter was dedicated to introducing the book’s antagonist and a few lesser characters. Eek!

Below is the original first chapter of Black Scales that I cut from the book. I also cut the second chapter and re-wrote several subsequent chapters to bring the central protagonist front and center.  My new word count is now at 118,456.

Chapter 1- Furius

     “Bring fire and oil,” Urms ordered. “Check below deck for signs of life.”

Around the ships, firelight appeared in the floating forest as the Gilian tended their lamps. Urms could already feel the moisture leaving his skin. If he stayed out of water long enough it would dry and look almost human.

The deck creaked behind Urms where two Gilian stood holding torches. “Keep watch,” he said.

The door to the captain’s cabin was ajar and Urms pushed it open with his trident. “Men…” he covered his nose.

Blood spattered papers covered the captain’s table and floor. Urms lifted a drawing from the ground.

“This isn’t a map…it’s a battle plan. Get out now!”

A cloaked man blocked the doorway. Behind him, the torchbearers lay dead, their throats slit gill to gill. Standing over them were two other men holding swords.

“Don’t move,” said the lead man. “I don’t want to hurt that pretty skin.”

“Who are you?” Urms muttered.

“This voluptuous man to my left is Bassus. He looks slow but I warn you he’s not. His tall friend to my right is Gurges. Pray you don’t have something he wants. I am Atellus. Welcome to our ships. Our master, Furius, has been expecting you.”

“You will die for this, Atellus,” Urms raised his trident.

“You may want to reconsider that lad,” Atellus winked.

Urms heard a creak and felt the cold touch of sword points against his back.

“Time to drop that fish skewer of yours,” said Atellus. “I won’t ask you again.”

Urms dropped his trident and Atellus motioned him forward with his sword. “Furius’s dreams were right after all. You have gills and everything.”

Urms stepped over his fallen comrades. “You’re monsters.”

“I don’t like how it speaks,” said Gurges. “Shall I teach it some respect?”

“Later,” said Atellus. “Let’s see how the others did?”

Bassus forced Urms to his knees while Gurges bound him with rope. They dragged him to the edge of the deck where the three interlocked ships formed a triangular pool at their center. Urms faced the other captured Gilian and lowered his eyes.

“You are from the Order of Arms, correct?” came a voice from behind Urms. Urms tried to turn to the voice but Gurges backhanded him.

“Look ahead. Speak,” Gurges growled.

“I am,” said Urms. “Who are you?”

Gurges moved to hit Urms again but the unseen man placed his hand between them. “I am Furius of Authia. I recommend not struggling.”

“What do you want?”

“You’ll see. Toss the bodies overboard.”

“Yes, Furius,” Atellus motioned to his men who tossed the Gilian overboard. The bodies floated and were dragged under the water.

“Good.” Furius whispered. He crossed the deck and faced the forest. “I would treat with Arwa, Queen of the Gilian, for the lives of these three prisoners. I will begin executions in ten minutes.”

“Minius, you’re first,” Furius signaled a soldier on an adjacent ship.

Minius pulled out a knife and stood behind his Gilian prisoner. “Yes, Master Furius. Give the signal and it will be done.”

“How do you know of our queen?” asked Urms, quickly glancing back at Furius. Urms thought his face younger than his voice with the gauntness of a man who might have been tortured or plagued with visions.

“I dreamed it,” answered Furius, steadying himself on the ship’s railing.

Near the bow of the ship, the trees on the water drifted apart, forming a long channel. A small ship, illuminated by a golden lantern drifted forward. Standing aft were two figures Urms knew, Herms, of the Order of Rites and Arwa.

“Drop a ladder and get me a chair,” said Furius. “We have guests.”

The men obeyed and Furius sat down and lowered his eyes. When he raised them again, Arwa and Herms were facing him.

“Welcome, Arwa. I am Furius of Authia. These men are what remains of our brave country. I am surprised that the scent of the dead could hide our odor, savage as we are now.”

“My people have heard of Arx Caeli’s war with Authia,” Arwa spoke softly.

Furius leaned forward in his chair. “Did you hear that those of us who survived were marched to Arx Caeli like animals, tortured and left to rot in their dungeons?”

“What do you ask of the people of the lake?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” Furius laughed. “Why does any man enter this Gods’ forsaken place? We seek the island, Apenninus, and the Golden Land.”

“Passage there is forbidden.”

“Yes, I was told you would say that. Minius.”

Minius lifted his captive’s head by the hair and opened his neck with a blade. A torrent of blood spilled down his scales onto his silver shorts and into the water below.

“No!” Urms cried, struggling against his bonds. Gurges silenced him with the hilt of his sword.

Arwa lowered her face. “The Gods will not forgive you for this.”

“The Gods forsook me the day I watched soldiers burn the castle where my son slept. Shall I execute more of your people?”

“No,” Arwa turned to Herms who glanced at the captives and shook his head.

Arwa met Furius’s gaze. “I will lead you to the island only if you release the prisoners.”

Furius’s eyes brightened. “That’s better, but I’ll feel safer with your warriors dead. Kill them!”

“Okay, frog boy, you’re done,” Gurges grinned, grabbing Urms’s hair.

Arwa took Herms’s hand. “You know what you must do. Trust your vision.”

Herms pushed Arwa behind him and raised a bottle from his satchel.

“Get back!” Atellus threw himself in front of Furius.

Herms threw the bottle onto the ground where it exploded in a boom of light. Arwa made for the ladder and Furius’s men fell over each other.

“Get out of my way, fools,” Atellus cursed, pushing them aside.

Gurges relaxed his grip and Urms rose up and struck the man with the back of his head. The soldier stumbled back and before he could right his sword, Herms wrapped Urms in his arms and dove overboard, disappearing into the black, bloody waters.

Arwa put one foot over the railing and Atellus seized her by the hair. She cried out and Atellus pushed her before Furius’s feet.

Furius clapped his hands. “Pathetic, truly pathetic. That Gilian wasn’t even a warrior.”

The soldiers regained their composure and Atellus got down on his knee, “I’m sorry, Master Furius. I have failed you.”

Furius made a dismissive wave. “Secure the queen. She is your charge Atellus. If anything should happen to her, you will know the limits of my forgiveness.”

 

The Great Cut: Purple Prose

This is my ninth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000 word fantasy novel, Black Scales, to make it a more marketable piece of fiction.

Well, after another revision (and a brief break from blogging), I have successfully shaved an additional 5000 words from my total word count now at 120,154.  That’s a total of over 52,000+ words cut!  Wow!

In my previous post, The Great Cut: A Death to Darlings, I discussed cutting descriptions, dialogue and/or backstory that stand apart from the plot, but are particularly liked by the author.

Similar to darlings, writers often have an attraction to their own purple prose, generally classified as wordy, ornate or overly descriptive writing.  Unlike darlings, purple prose can appear in important parts of the story.

Purple prose can take different forms for different writers. For me, descriptions that appear taken from a Victorian ghost story often need a second look.  Abstract descriptions attempting to describe something otherworldly are another example.

In the example below from my novel, I try to describe the experience of oneness my character Nubis experiences when he is able to share the memories of his dead friend, Kail. The result is abstract to say the least. I ultimately cut the paragraph after one of my sample readers commented, “What?” Needless to say, I still like the description.

“It fractured him whole emptying him full. Any loss a gain in momentary infinity held, paralyzed and free in a closed loop of endless love linked imperviously by a thread of Kail’s consciousness speaking now from outside time, present.”

The Great Cut: Excellence vs. Perfection in Revision.

This is my eighth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000 word fantasy novel to make it a marketable piece of fiction.

Well, after 7 weeks I have successfully completed the first pass through my novel with the goal of cutting 50,000+ words.  My final word count is 125,939. That’s over 45,000 words cut!

Earlier this year, I may have poured myself a glass of wine and danced around my bungalow shouting, “It’s finally perfect.” Yet,  today I am reminded of the words of Michael J. Fox when he said, “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”

Revision is a process of excellence not perfection. When I first considered the idea of cutting my novel, I was resistant. I now wonder how many writer’s get stuck right there. If we believe something is perfect it can’t be improved or revised. Taken further, there are no perfect novels but there are plenty of excellent ones.

When I took my first writing class in college, our teacher shared with us a series of revisions E.B. White had made to the introduction of Charolette’s Web. I remember raising my hand and saying, “There’s no way he could have revised the whole book like this.” My teacher simply raised an eyebrow and smiled. I finally get it.

The Great Cut: “Get to the point.” A few points about cutting dialogue.

This is my seventh post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000 word fantasy novel to make it a marketable piece of fiction.

Our characters are a sum of their words and dialogue is the window into their souls. For the writer, dialogue is an intimate channeling, and for the reader, a voyeur’s delight. Sharp, faced paced dialogue keeps the reader engaged and brings clarity to our characters in ways description cannot.

In terms of revision, dialogue has a major influence on pacing. Unnecessary attributions, tags and descriptive elements can slow down a story. Remember that if characters aren’t engaging and memorable then there’s no point to read about them.

Sometimes, we fall too much in love with our characters’ voices and become their muses. Saying too much is usually a greater sin than saying too little. Ask yourself, “Does this dialogue have any meaningful contribution to story or character arc?” If not, you may want to cut it out.

Below, is an example of a scene where my adolescent protagonist, Cana, is talking to a boy, Blandus, about a monster he witnessed. I cut the scene because neither Blandus nor his experience played a significant role in the story arc. It also was not important to Cana’s character arc.

Blandus stood behind his father Laelius who was cutting cheese and wrapping it in cloth. One of the boy’s eyes was bloodshot and his face was covered in bruises.

Lucia stepped into the front of the line and nodded her head respectfully. Laelius’s eyes widened in surprise. “Lucia? I haven’t seen you since…well…before. I heard about Icabus. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you, Laelius,” she spoke quietly. “Is your boy okay?”

Laelius looked over his shoulder nervously. “Oh, he’s fine. He just fell. You know kids.”

A horrified look crossed Blandus’s face and he turned away. Lucia touched Cana and the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you say hi to Blandus while I get a few things?”

Laelius nodded and Cana squeezed between the stands. Laelius handed her a piece of cheese on a stick, “On the house,” he said.

“So what do you have to trade today?” Laelius asked.

As Lucia explained her various tinctures and herbal preparations, including a salve, which she claimed would ease the swelling and soothe Blandus’s face,” Cana sat with Blandus.

“How did you fall?” she asked.

Blandus looked at his Father who was smelling the various contents of Lucia’s bottles. “Out of a tree,” he said.

“I’ve fallen out of a tree and my face never looked like that.” She grabbed one of his hands. “How is it that you did that to your face and you don’t even got a scratch on your hands.”

Blandus looked again to his father, who was still preoccupied, and whispered. “I’ll tell you but you have to promise not to tell anybody?”

Cana nodded and made a crossing motion over her heart. “A few nights ago, I heard the goats crying. I thought they were hungry but when I went to see what was wrong, I was attacked.”

“By what?”

“A monster.”

“A monster?”

Blandus nodded. “Like the one people talk about in the woods, but it wasn’t in the woods, it was in my backyard.”

“You got away. It’s okay now.”

Blandus looked down. “Yah, the monster told me to run and not look back. He killed my goats.”

Blandus began to sob and Laelius looked over his shoulder. “Blandus?”

“I’m okay. My face hurts, that’s all.”

“Better make it two salves,” Laelius said to Lucia, “and one of the dropsy cures for fever.”