Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


Today my 5-year-old drew this picture for me on a white board:

 “They look startled because they’re about to be erased,” he explained.

My son is normally quite sensitive about anything dealing with finality. Deflated balloons, dead flies on a windowsill, even a withered leaf can bring tears to his eyes. So I was surprised at his matter-of-fact tone.

“Where do you think these characters will go, after they’re erased?” I asked gently, bracing myself for the emotions around the corner. “Maybe back to Idea Land? Where they came from?”

Idea Land! Yes! A place where half-formed thoughts and two-dimensional characters could run around dead ends or play jump rope with tangled-up plotlines! Cast off characters — from different chapters, even from different books — could all meet up and hang out. Surely that’s where these stick figures were going in that car — and no doubt they’d run into countless abandoned relics from the novel I’m now revising. I let myself drift into this fantasy for a moment. The scenario appealed. Sometimes it’s hard to let go. 

My son snapped me out of my reverie. “No,” he said. “They get devoured.”

“Devoured? By what?”

“By the eraser, of course.”

I had just a moment left to snap this picture, and then these guys were gone.

I missed them. But minutes later he’d drawn a better picture.

I wished I could hit my delete button as boldly as he swiped that eraser. Sometimes I cannot simply cut — I have to retype completely, conjuring everything up again, and not thinking about what I’m lost. I’m always happier with the result. It’s the anticipation before the cuts that feels hard.

Do you cling to old ideas — saving them in a file, printing out scrapped pages? I do this even though I may never look at those files or pages again. I like just knowing they are there. Other writers are more ruthless. 

How do you make peace with cuts when you’re revising?

Okay, so I have this bad track record of working on vacations. I thought I had reformed after a trip to New Mexico several years ago, when I literally chased a FedEx van to get a delivery from a publisher in a remote mountain village. I started traveling without my computer. I told clients well in advance that I would not be available for freelance writing and editing work on certain dates, due to previously scheduled family vacation time. (I actually had to memorize the words and practice saying them).

But putting up walls around a novel you’re revising is not so easy. Especially when you’re in the thick of it and trying to ride that narrative wave. Suddenly those carefully constructed walls start to crumble and slide like a sand castle.

I planned to turn in this phase of my novel revision on June 30. It was done, all ready to go. I thought. Then I discovered a plot glitch. A pretty gnarly tangle. When one of my editors said I could take a few extra days to finish it up, I decided to leap at the chance to fix the problem. Even though it meant I’d be looking at the manuscript while on my family vacation. Even though it meant there was a good chance my family would riot.

My family has been more than patient. I get up early and stay up late. While with them, I try very hard to stay in the moment and not let my mind drift to the Novel.

It is a strange sensation to be surrounded by people on vacation and yet not truly on vacation, since I don’t feel completely free until this problem is solved to the best of my ability. It kind of feels like being separated from revelers and beach-goers by a thin sheet of glass. I’m relaxed, working in a gorgeous setting. Yet I also feel like a radio channel is always on somewhere, connecting me to the book even when I’ve turned off the laptop and walked away.

And because I’m always working on something, or scouting for new material, I do wonder if there is always a channel left on somewhere, distant voices jabbering away. I wonder if I have ever managed to fully detach and relax on vacation. (I got the idea for the novel I’m revising now while on my honeymoon!) On some level I’m always observing, noting, collecting. I’m scribbling ideas on napkins. I seem more vulnerable to this affliction while away from home.

How do writers take a “proper” vacation? And should they?

I’m still buried in revisions, and am working overtime today (whatever “overtime” means for writers) so I can take tomorrow off and attend Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference here in Boston. But as promised, here are some devices and strategies that have been helping me during this phase of revision:

Three Low-Tech Devices To Aid Revision:

1. A large dry-erase calendar. Staples carries all sizes of white boards with blank calendar boxes; you can put in your own dates and change them as needed. I’m altering the time frame of my novel somewhat, as well as the sequence of events and revelations, so it’s great to play around with all this on a calendar before making a mess of the manuscript. I know you can play around with dates and calendars on a computer too, but having key events written on a big, physical calendar really helps me. I can see them at all times, and I can move events around so easily with the dry erase markers. I also have events color coded: major plot events in green, subplot events in blue. Things I’m not sure about, or which are moving around still, in red. Because the main events in my story take place over a span of just a few weeks, this calendar system works for me. I’m not sure what I’d do if I were dealing with a larger span of time. Buy several boards?

2.Post-It Notes. I am chewing through these — I’ve gone through three big packages already. The square ones are just the right size for writing down fragments of ideas, questions, reminders, or small issues to go back and fix. I also flag passages of the novel that I’m going to paste or incorporate somewhere else, so I don’t lose them. I stick them in the hard copy of my manuscript. When I’ve dealt with them, I just throw them out, which is very satisfying. Right now these are working better for me than keeping a log of issues or ideas in a notebook; I simply don’t have time to go wading through lots of handwritten pages. Again, having tangible reminders to work with seems to work better for me than notes or comments within the Word document. It cuts down on time I spend endlessly scrolling through the document.

3.A three-ring binder. I have the hard copy of the manuscript, with my handwritten notes and my abundance of post-it notes, punched into a binder so I can flip through it or reread it like a book. It travels with me in the car and I can look through it or read parts of it at odd times.

Two Strategies for Tracking Changes:

1. A chapter-by-chapter chart. I created a simple table in Word. For each chapter, I log the setting, the time frame, the key characters, and questions that I want the reader to have in mind by the end of the chapter. With the questions, I include questions about the main mystery plot (“Will the gangsters catch up with them?”) as well as the subplot (“Will Edge call Violet?”) I code the subplot questions in blue. This chart helps me see at a glance if I’m varying my locations, moving forward in time clearly or quickly enough, giving various characters adequate time on stage, and weaving the subplot through. The questions at the end of this chapter also help me determine if a chapter is too skimpy or full. If I have few or no questions arising, I haven’t added to the plot enough. If I have too many, the chapter may have too much information — maybe it needs to become two separate chapters or some developments need to move. By the end of the novel, all of these questions should have been answered somewhere. If not, I have loose ends to tie up.

2. Placeholders. Within the manuscript, I frequently type in ALL CAPS to indicate the type of information I need to redistribute or add somewhere. If I don’t have the time or energy to do so, or if I have a problem I need to think through, these are places I can return to later, I can easily see where I need to return when I’m reading through the manuscript. This way, I don’t feel like I get bogged down very often. I’m trying to move forward as much as I can, and go back to trouble spots and rough patches when my mind is most fresh.

Three Psychological Strategies:

1. Remain calm. I try to deal with just a chapter or two a day; if I can do more, great. Thinking of the novel as a whole, or deadlines, would just make me freak out.

2. Eat, sleep, exercise. I try to do one of those things every day!

3. Eat your kid’s Easter candy. Keep that basket right by you. Enough said.

I’m revising, revising, revising. I’ll be back next week with three handy and low-tech revision tips that so far seem to be working. Meanwhile, here’s a picture of my desk. It’s under there somewhere. So am I.

So I’m gearing up to revise my novel (THE FRAME GAME, the one to be published). I have been asked, among other things, to cut the word count by quite a bit. I recognize I have a tendency to over-complicate, so I’m immensely grateful for editorial advice at this stage. And I agree some verbiage has to go. I know I can be excessive. (Witness the essay-like length of most of my blog entries here!) (Witness the over-explanation in this paragraph alone!)

When I used to teach writing, I found that most writers tend to overwrite, like me, or to underwrite. The grass is always greener, I guess. Underwriters, hearing my plight, assure me that at least cutting is easier — I don’t often have much to do in the way of fleshing out scenes or writing all new ones. Yet I envy the economy with which some of my fellow scribes seem to write. I would love to be told to deepen a scene or to add more details!

In the spirit of slashing excess verbiage, I’m keeping today’s blog entry incredibly short. (Excess — incredibly — cut those modifiers!) I’m gearing up for a major revision, gathering my strength, conserving my words.

So as a substitute for any real advice today, I’m going to share a Japanese martial arts performance video. No, I don’t think I’m giving up taiko drumming to pursue sword dancing anytime soon. However, if you watch this performance while thinking of the revision process — and the plight of the writer who needs to slash words — this can be an inspiring image. It inspired me, anyway!

Are you an underwriter or an overwriter? How do you gear up for or begin a major revision? What techniques have you found to help you cut words, paragraphs, or pages?