#87: How to Add Visual Elements to Tactile Descriptions

On Twitter, @birdinflyte_ (she/they) asked for help with “Trying to translate my kinaesthetic visualisation into s’thng that doesn’t make vision focused folk say Add More Description We Can’t See It.” When I asked for clarification, they wrote:

I seem to get that reaction no matter what I write. Right now it’s farm-based fantasy. I don’t visualise visually, never have, only kinaesthetically. Natural instinct for description is t/f movement/touch/interaction, then smell/taste/sound, then vision sketched in round the edges. And then I get told to add more description bc it’s “action in a bubble of fuzzy grey” – clearest crit of my style.

Ex: MC is plowing. I get the uneven ground under her feet, the feel of the reins + plow handles, the way the jolting plow jars her arms what she says to + about the horse pulling it, the swooping turn at the end of furrows, how the sun warms diff sides as she crosses field. For me that’s enough to make the scene clear, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for readers. Most desc adv I’ve found is less vis more other senses, and I’m going the other way, if that makes sense?

Dear @birdinflyte_,

I love your example, which for me is splendidly evocative! In my mind, I immediately get visuals to go with it, drawn from my own experiences with fields and horses and sun. But I can see how someone who’s more oriented toward the visual—or who doesn’t have personal experiences with the things you’re describing—might want a little more to go on.

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#77: Making Your Story the Length You Want

Dear Story Nurse,

I recently finished the first draft of my novel—a mystery set in a pretty traditional fantasy land. The problem? When I did the final word count, it came out to 27K. I’m doing the first round of editing—well, mostly adding scenes that I missed the first time around—and at the rate I’m going, it’s going to roughly double my wordcount, which still won’t bring me to the 80–90K typical of the genre. And I definitely do want this work to be a novel, not a novella. Retooling it for the typically shorter YA market would involve excising a lot of themes important to the story. So how can I get my wordcount up without adding unnecessary fluff?

—Wannabe Novelist (he/him)

Dear Wannabe Novelist,

There are two ways to approach this dilemma. One is the philosophical approach: the story is the length it wants to be, and there isn’t much that you can do about that. The other is the engineering approach: there needs to be enough story structure to support the story’s length, or the whole thing will collapse and that will be sad. I’m going to get into the engineering approach a bit, but I want you to keep the philosophical one in mind, because there are very good reasons that most of the seasoned writers I know tend to end up thinking of story length in those terms.

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#72: What Is Revision?

Dear Story Nurse,

I finished the first draft of my novel a few months ago, and I really want to get it published soon. But every time I try to revise it, I just end up “polishing” it—line-editing or cutting sentences within scenes. I guess at a basic level, I don’t know what writers mean when they say they “re-write” drafts. Do they literally re-write their entire novel, page by page, from scratch? Or do they only re-write the scenes that don’t work? (I know everyone is different, but I also feel like no one gets it right the first time, so I want to know how people go about fixing it).

It took me years to finish the first draft, so the idea of re-writing the entire thing feels really daunting to me. At the same time, I don’t want to simply rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic—I want to save the ship (to borrow from Justine Larbalestier’s metaphor on rewriting). I want to fix any major structural issues. I want the novel to be the best it can be, even before I let beta-readers see it.

What should I do? At its most basic, rudimentary level, what does re-writing a draft mean? What exercises can I do to take baby-steps towards re-writing?

—(Another) Confused Reviser (she/her)

Dear (Another) Confused Reviser,

What a wonderful question, and I’m glad you were willing to ask it! You’re absolutely right that people talk about revising without ever talking about what it can or should entail, and that does a real disservice to writers who are just starting out.

Every draft is different, and every draft needs a different amount and type of rewriting. It often helps to find a good beta reader or three who can point you in useful directions for your specific work. Every writer’s revision process is different too, but I can still make some general suggestions that may help you get a foothold. Continue reading

#57: Second-Guessing Revisions

Hi Story Nurse,

I’ve completed a full draft of my romance novel with a political/dramatic twist (yay!) and i’m staring on the first round of editing (boo!). It’s my understanding that a lot of editing is about cutting, and I don’t deny there are a lot of sentences that could be shorter and a lot of stuff that is not required to be there. Usually, the cutting feels pretty good – especially when I catch hanging threads I meant to do something with, and dropped.

However, I do have some anxiety with cutting some of the longer threads of the story. When I wrote the story and read it in the earlier processes, I really like them. On this edit pass, they don’t seem that great – kind of awkward and not flowing as well as I remembered. However, the next day, they seem wonderful, and the story is really lacking something without them!

Anyway, the summary of the question is: How do you tell what to cut? Is cutting more better than less, or should you cut less the first time around so and come back and trim again, when you’re more sure?

Now I’m thinking that I should leave it in for now, because it will be hard to put it back if I change my mind. (Unless you have some amazing editor software that allows themes to be matched like Photoshop layers.)

Thanks again,
Confused Editor (she/her)

Dear Confused Editor,

Congratulations on finishing your draft! I’m sorry revisions are stressing you out so much. I promise you and your manuscript will come through them just fine. Here are some straightforward suggestions to help you find your way out of your mental tangle. Continue reading

#54: Feeling Guilty About Spilled Words

Dear Story Nurse,

I am in the middle of writing a fantasy novel (target length 120k). The story breaks down into three major sections and I’ve got a solid enough plan that I’m comfortable with it; I’m currently mostly finished with the first section. I’ve already had to start it over once to fix concept problems—fortunately that bit’s taken care of.

However, recently I realized a major subplot wasn’t working; I have the solution, which is to rip it out and replace it with a different subplot, which is intended to both address the reasons I needed the subplot there in the first place and also, you know, be a valuable part of the story in its own right (which is where the original failure was). So, okay, I know what I need to do.

The problem is, as I actually do the thing I’m feeling… really bogged down, like I keep retreading the same old ground. I would love for nothing more than to just get out of this same damn section of the story and actually move on to new ground but if I just move on and leave the replacement for later, a) that’s just making work for future me and b) I feel like I’ll have less of a handle on what actually happened in the bits that I’m scrubbing/replacing.

I feel like the answer is probably ‘suck it up and finish rewriting these bits’ (and that’s been my operating assumption as I’ve kept at it) so I’m not dealing with vestigial remains of dead plot lines but I’m hoping maybe for some guidance or ideas as to What To Do When Cleaning Out Stuff That Didn’t Work When You Still Need To Move Forward. Or maybe some way to make it feel less like I’m in a rut.

—neongrey (they/them)

Dear neongrey,

Your answer is, alas, correct. Some parts of writing are slogs and chores and there’s no way around it. When you’re doing plot tectonics there is a long slow grind and it grinds on forever. But one day it will push up a beautiful volcano that will spew drama-lava all over the place and you’ll be glad you stuck it out.

That metaphor got away from me a bit.

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#39: No Writer Is an Island

Hi Story Nurse!

I started off writing fanfiction in a community with a lot of group and dyad critique. When I got into pro fiction I discovered I had built a great critique toolbox that I used to further myself into an excellent developmental editor.

I can do hard, deep critique for folks where I immediately see the bones of a story and how it is or isn’t fitting together. Structure and content problems are breeze to see and fix. I quickly come up with a fix or offer a variety of options (“You make it the uncle, not the dad, and what if he’s a veterinarian who specializes in rare tropical fish? Or give both tasks to the aunt and make her a world-renowned biologist?” “Hey that improves everything and allows X, Y, and Z, to happen more organically. Thanks, Ajax!”).

When I sit down to work on my own stories I rely heavily on friends, beta readers, and most especially my editor to help fix the broken and disconnected bones of my own story. Often I know something is wrong with my work, but I just can’t see what it is until someone else points it out. If someone shoots me a good fix idea I can run with it and make shine, but I can’t come up with it alone.

How can I turn those good editor eyes on my own work?

—Ajax Bell (they/them)

Dear Ajax Bell,

You’re not at all alone in this. Many, many editors have run into similar issues when they’re writing. (Editor and author Jessica Strawzer just wrote an op-ed for Publishers Weekly on her struggle to accept that all her editing expertise didn’t make it easier for her to write, or to get her fiction published.) Fortunately, that means there’s a known, tried-and-true answer to your question: you can’t.

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#24: Semicolon Surgery

Dear Story Nurse,

I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.

I use too many semicolons.

I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.

Here are some from the last story I wrote:
  • She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
  • The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
  • The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.

Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?

Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)

—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)

Dear Independent Clause,

This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.

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#16: When and How to Hire a Freelance Editor

Dear Story Nurse,

I wrote a novel (women’s commercial fiction) in 2008, and have spent the intervening years revising/editing/rewriting, including workshopping with a writer’s group. I got the piece to a place where I know it’s not 100%, but it’s as close to 100% as I can get it without serious professional help (editor/agent/similar). So I started trying to find an agent. I got a lot of positive feedback, a couple dozen requests for partial manuscripts, and two requests for the full manuscript. Both full manuscript requesters had the same feedback (writing is good, but there are—specific and clear!—issues, and those issues are too much for an agent).

Now I’m at a standstill while I try to figure out what to do. I think I need someone to tell me, “You need to walk away from this piece” or “You need to hire an editor.” Or SOMETHING. What is the next step when you know you’ve done all you can on a piece and it’s still not quite there?

—Jessica (she/her)

Dear Jessica,

I think a great next step would be for you to take a moment to assess what’s led you to seek outside advice and consider outside editing in addition to what you’ve gotten from your writing group and those helpful agents. You say you need “someone” to tell you what to do next. But you’re in charge. Hiring an editor, or not, is your call. Continuing to work on this book, or not, is your call. “Someone” is you. Sit down and listen to your gut. That process may be as simple as saying out loud “I want to walk away from this book” or “I feel like I should walk away from this book” and then seeing whether that statement rings true or makes you want to shout “NO! I’m sticking with it!” But you have to consult yourself, very directly and seriously, and not just rely on what other people recommend.

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#12: Rediscovering Your Story’s Heart

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently working on the third draft of the first novel I’m seriously thinking of seeking publication for, and it’s giving me no end of trouble. The characters have been in my head a lot lately, bugging me to finally get their story out the door, so I was wondering if you could help me out with at least one particular issue I keep running into again and again.

There are several scenes in the novel that I felt (and others agreed) didn’t quite work in previous drafts because of wonky character motivations, general lack of momentum, etc., and I’ve been finding that I’ll rewrite one of those scenes, feel much better about it, but then realize that I’ve messed with the continuity of the story (for example, by screwing up the timeline or eliminating a problematic/semi-useless character). Then when I’m patching up the continuity in another place something ELSE will change, and I end up caught in a seemingly endless cycle of narrative whack-a-mole. Do you have any suggestions for taming these pesky contradictory story elements?

—Revision Wrangler (he/him)

Dear Revision Wrangler,

This is a very common problem around draft three or four. You’re having a classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” moment, where the forest is an actual ecosystem; cutting down one tree turns out to disturb a vole habitat and fewer voles mean the owls go hungry and so on. But don’t panic! Just take a deep breath and step back. No, further back. Zoom all the way out. You want to see that forest as a forest, or maybe even as an irregular green shape on a map with lots of other shapes around it.

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