Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dostoevsky and the Sandy Hook Massacre

Note to my readers: Novels can present and elucidate difficult moral and psychological issues in ways that no other medium can match. The horrifying massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, again demonstrates that Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, has as much relevance today, in 21st-century America, as it did in late-nineteenth-century Russia, when it was written.


I’ve been thinking about Ivan Karamazov lately, and so--a Google search revealed--have a number of columnists, including Ross Douthat of the NYT; Sean Kirst of the Syracuse Standard; and Chris Owen, a blogger on religious topics. In “Pro and Contra,” Part 5 of The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, the oldest brother, and his youngest brother, Alyosha, the putative hero of the novel, discuss the existence of god and the existence of evil in the world. Ivan, who is a learned man, has been reading news accounts of the suffering of small children at the hands of their parents and other tormentors. As a good-hearted, empathetic man, Ivan cannot accept the existence of such evil in the world and explains to Alyosha, a novice monk, why the suffering of small children leads him to despair and doubt about a benevolent God.

The writers I cited above focus on one answer to Ivan’s argument--given implicitly by Alylosha and later in the book more explicitly by Alyosha’s mentor, the kindly Father Zossima-- that at judgment day all will be revealed and we will understand the necessity for suffering. But Ivan doesn’t buy it.

It is not, he tells Alyosha, that he doubts the existence of God, rather that he cannot accept a system in which the ultimate happiness of mankind depends on the unavenged tears of innocents.

"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end,” Ivan tells Alyosha, “but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature ... And to found that edifice on its unavenged tears: would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” Ivan asserts that he would not accept such a bargain, that such a price for admission to heaven is much too high. “And so,” he concludes in one of the most famous passages in the novel, “I hasten to give back my entrance ticket.... It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket."

The moral arguments in The Brothers Karamazov (and other works by Dostoevsky) are so effective because the writer created such believable characters, real-seeming people we can identify with and understand, even when we do not agree with them. Ivan’s arguments have always resonated with me, just as Alyosha’s or Father Zossima’s have rung true to other readers.

Today, more than 130 years after Dostoevsky completed his great novel, Ivan’s words make me  think of Sandy Hook and what happened there. At present it appears possible, even likely, that this unspeakable tragedy may lead to some small measures toward national gun control. It is clear from accounts in the news and on TV that the slaughter has changed a lot of minds on all sides of the political spectrum. If this new perspective does lead to some restrictions on gun possession, it will be a very good thing for our country.

But a part of me hangs back from celebrating. If sensible gun control laws are finally implemented, the message seems to be that a rational gun control policy could not even have been talked about until after the brutal sacrifice of twenty small, innocent children. I can’t help but wonder what Ivan Karamazov would have to say.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

46. How to shape the story as it progresses

I’m around one-third through with the rough draft of PANDORA’S PROMISE, the third book in my Pandora’s series. I began it back in the late eighties, after I had published the first two books, but came to a parting of the ways with my publisher and never finished it.

I continued to work off and on for a couple of years, using one of the methods I describe in my post on how to beat writer’s block, writing at least one sentence each night before going to bed. In this way I amassed more than 20 K words. Several weeks ago I transcribed those hand-written pages, smoothing and expanding as I worked.

I discovered that much of what I had written consisted of notes about what would occur in the book. For example, in the first part of the story Zach and his traveling companions cross a broad mid-continental river that I think of as the Mississippi. 


My notes said, “Zach crossed the wide river, finally meeting the western west.” I expanded this to:

Zach… stood gazing across the wide river as the chill wind, smelling of fish and oil, caressed his face and hair. On the other side was the Western West, a destination he’d dreamed of for many years. It looked no different than the land on the eastern side of the river: meadows edged with woods, gently rolling hills. But Zach could not suppress a thrill at the thought that it was new, and that there might be marvels here beyond his imagining.

 I had not really been plotting or outlining as I continued to expand the draft; rather had been using the technique I have described as “plot-as-you-go.” But I realized that the book was coalescing around four major stories, so I took some time to re-read and worked out a more formal outine (though still not something my old English teacher would have loved).

Unless there are some major surprises, I can tell you now that Pandora’s Promise will be in four Parts, the longest of which will be Part II: The Pros, which follows Zach to the Western West. The second longest will probably be the segment  set two or three generations before the beginning of the first book, in which we learn more about life before the Change. I now know roughly the entire story except for one important strand, which I'm hoping and assuming my subconscious is working on.

The well-known horror/mystery writer, Harry Shannon (, told me that when he plans a book “I find it useful to block out the main sections of a novel in advance, much like one would a screenplay. As Aristotle said, all stories have three essential parts--beginning, middle and end. What triggers each of those sections? How do I avoid a "mid-point" sag half way through? I outline very loosely, though. If I go into great detail I get bored, and never finish the book, because I already know everything that's going to happen!” 

I like Harry’s take on this. And I feel that I’m in a good place with my “threequel” now. I have the beginning, middle and end blocked out in my mind. But there is just enough unknown about the story to keep me going.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

45. Five Truths About Researching a Novel

1. All writing requires research. This is as true for fiction as for nonfiction, even if you’re just writing a short story. I was once assigned to write a short story about Jack Frost for a children’s “horror” anthology. All I knew about Jack Frost was that in some mythologies “he” represents winter. Before writing, I spent some time looking up legends of Jack Frost, to get an idea of what “he” might look and act like. I didn’t use much of the material, but it made me more comfortable in my depiction of Jack Frost as a mischievous but dangerous sprite, which made the story easier to write.

                                14963852-whimsical-cartoon-jack-frostJack Frost

2. You must always sweat the small stuff. As a novelist, your job is to make the world your characters live in as believable as possible. For those who write historical or present-day fiction, it’s important to to at least touch on the minutiae of daily life. What do your characters have for breakfast? What are their leisure-time activities? In science fiction, these realistic details make your world more relatable. In my sf novella The Ptorrigan Lode, which takes place on a space station, there was not much room for detail, but I tried as best I could to give a flavor of the clothing (working women wear chadors, while tourists wear revealing street dress) and eating habits (they “dial up” food at home, and also visit restaurants).

3. Every detail must be followed up. In Pandora’s Genes and Pandora’s Children, I gave long, hard thought to what life would be like in a future world with none of the conveniences we take for granted. I did quite a bit of research on medieval life, and even bought a book on “the forgotten crafts.” Since the Pandora’s world has no petroleum products, my characters use “fish-oil” in lamps. I envisioned some sort of mutant fish that were used for this purpose, but neglected to ask myself how these fish were harvested and processed. Was this done by each household, or was there a small industry? I didn’t think of those questions till they were pointed out by an attentive reader. I have since worked out the answers for myself, and will use them in the third book in the series, which I am now writing

4. No research is ever wasted. As a former writer of nonfiction books, I have researched many, many subjects in depth. One of the topics I used to write about is sports, and I’m finding that my in-depth knowledge of American professional sports is coming in handy while writing the Pandora’s sequel. So is my first-hand  knowledge of the “flyover” parts of this country, which I visited many times on cross-country drives and bus trips when I was younger. Which leads me to:

5: Everything is research.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

44. Skipping from Scene to Scene

My post last week (Beethoven or Mozart—what kind of writer are you?) has gotten me thinking more about my own writing process. I seem to be Beethovian through and through: not only in writing a whole novel, but also when writing small sections within that novel.

Although I only have about thirty new pages (in addition to the 100 pages previously written), I’m working steadily on the third Pandora’s book. But I can’t seem to go in a straight line. As I recommended in an earlier post, I’m focusing on individual scenes. These are scenes that I either have a lot of notes for, or have worked out pretty well in my head. However, as a Beethovian I am incapable of getting all the way through a scene without stopping to make notes as new things occur to me, or add something to a different scene, or change my focus completely.

Some of what I’m writing takes place BEFORE the first book began. In response to requests from many readers, I am telling what happened before and during the Change, explaining exactly how it was caused. I’m having fun with this. I knew most of it, of course, though it was never fully explained in the first two books. But I’m also learning a great deal as I write.

                          7111210-oil-spillMid-21st Century Oil Spill

For example, I have found out how global climate change in the middle of the twenty-first century made the Change worse than it would otherwise have been. I have also discovered that the Gulf Oil Spill in the early part of this century led directly to the terrible mistake that caused the Change.

If you have not read my first two Pandora’s books, none of this will make sense to you, but here is the take-away message: When putting together a long and complicated plot, it is not only allowed, but it can be helpful to write scenes out of sequence. This is especially true if those scenes excite you. You are likely to find, as I am, that these out-of-sequence scenes then inform material that follows and make it much richer, as well as easier to write.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Beethoven or Mozart—what kind of writer are you?

When I was in graduate school in the early eighties, I became fascinated by the idea of “writing process,” which is the approach you take toward your writing.

In a writing theory class I read a paper by a professor of rhetoric, Lillian Bridwell (now Bridwell-Bowles), who posited that there are two types of writers: Beethovian and Mozartean.

Ludwig von Beethoven                                              Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

beethoven_large                                W_a_mozart

The Beethovians, like Beethoven himself, write very rough drafts and spend a lot of time revising. The Mozarteans produce a nearly perfect first draft the first time they write—similar to the way the great composer worked. The theory is that the Mozarteans are PLANNERS, who do most of their revising in their heads before they put anything on paper. The Beethovians need to go through all those planning steps on paper—writing as they go to DISCOVER what they have.

Anyone who has read my posts on my own writing process (e.g., Thurber’s Mud) will see that I am a Beethovian writer. A good friend of mine, a very successful children’s novelist, is the opposite: a nearly pure Mozartean. He doesn’t even revise his manuscripts—just checks them for typos.

These writing types lie on a spectrum, of course: Nobody is 100% either type. Some current theorists think your type may be inborn, and that it is apparently indicative of other cognitive processes. When I began work on the third novel in the Pandora’s series, I thought I’d be able to do it in a linear fashion, especially since I already had around 100 pages written.

Nope. Not a chance. The deeper I get into the novel, the more I think of things that should go earlier—or later—and things that I need to research. As I explained in last week’s post I’m already doing major edits on the electronic version, and the small tablet I was using for notes has evolved into three separate tablets, each filled with scribbles and post-its.

Bridwell’s early research showed that it is more difficult for a Beethovian to write on a computer than for a Mozartean. This is because we Beethovians need to take our time, and also take space, spreading things out to look at the work holistically.

Neither writing process is right, or better than the other. They both just are. Which are you? I will probably have more to say on this topic in future posts.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

43. Now the Work Begins….

Okay, I have finished inputting all the previously-written material, as I posted about last week. I have around 30,000 words and exactly 99 pages. Since the threequel will need to be approximately the same length as the first two books in the series, 90-100,000 words, that means I have around 1/3 the material that I need.

Here are the pages I’ve been inputting all these weeks. I drew blue lines across pages that had already been put into the computer.

PP ms rough pages 8-19-2012 2-37-52 PM 2832x2434

I am going to try to write about five new pages a day, which means I will have a complete rough draft in forty days.

Except, who am I kidding? I know myself, and I know I will never write that much that quickly. But I’ll try to write at least something new each day, and meanwhile will look at the other material that will need to be folded into what I have now. This will be an intense combination of original writing and revision, all at the same time.

As for the material I just finished inputting, there were numerous places where I needed to expand or make other changes. Mostly I didn’t do that, but instead indicated what would need to be done later. I put those things in brackets, as a reminder to myself. This is a good technique for any writer during the creation of a first or second draft. It is often easier to write the difficult but necessary bits later, after you’ve let it marinate in your unconscious for a while. For example, here’s part of a scene from page 96:

Evvy had expected something of this sort. Even so, it took all her will to keep from running, from calling out to Baby for help. This was, after all, part of her plan, which she hoped would soon bring her face to face with Katha.
The men roughly grasped her arms, then stood beside her, holding so tightly she nearly cried out.
[details of surroundings]
“Take her to be prepared,” the headman said.

As indicated, I’ll have to include here more details of where she is, what it looks, sounds, and smells like. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

42. Writing the Second Sequel

Writing the third book in the Pandora’s series--the “threequel,” as I call it-- is turning out to be a very strange experience. I’ve posted about how I wrote the first draft of Pandora’s Genes straight from my subconscious; and in contrast, how I carefully plotted out the young adult books I did for a series. This is different. I started this novel, which I’m calling PANDORA’S PROMISE, many years ago without any very clear idea of where it was going, except that it began as a direct follow-up to the first book’s sequel, Pandora’s Children.


I began writing as I advise in my post on how to keep going when you’re stuck, by writing a minimum of one sentence a night. As often happens when using this method, that one sentence often became two, three, or even a page or more. I wrote these sentences and pages over several months, and when I finished I had quite a pile of papers, which remained in my filing cabinet till a few weeks ago. When I decided to write the threequel, I pulled those pages out and started reading, but soon gave up. There was  so much material that I realized it would be easier to just start inputting, making changes as I went.

In the meantime, since I first wrote those pages, I had also made a start on two other science fiction novels, both of which had very strong ideas that I could not forget. Both were post-holocaust young adult novels. One took place in a traditional post-nuclear-disaster world (as opposed to the Pandora’s World, in which the disaster is recombinant DNA run amok); the other  was set in an unspecified future, blasted world.I never finished either of these books.

Once I started writing Pandora’s Promise in earnest, a couple of funny things happened. First, I very early on discovered that the societal ideas from BOTH the unfinished novels fit perfectly into my threequel. I believe my subconscious had been working on these ideas all these years, and perhaps it had given me the ideas in the first place for the Pandora’s world.

Second, I was astonished to find out that I had a lot more material than I recall having written. I am nearly through inputting the pages and I already have more than 25,000 words and nearly 100 pages. Typing these pages has been fascinating, because there is so much action and excitement, most of which I don’t remember at all.

I haven’t even started looking at the material from the two unfinished novels.
There is a lot of hard work ahead. I’ll need to go through all the already-written material to see what can be used in Pandora’s Promise, and will of course need to make many, many changes in the material that is now in my computer. I’ll probably need to re-read both Pandora’s books, to make sure I don’t put something in the threequel that directly contradicts the things I’ve already presented in the first two books.

But I’m looking forward to this work. Overall, I’m  very pleased with Pandora’s Promise so far. I find myself getting excited as I write and as I think about it. I have not felt this way in a very long time.

Note: I may not continue to write this blog every week as I get deeper into the threequel. If anyone reading this feels strongly that they would like me to continue weekly,  please email me or leave a message here. If you have any questions you’d like me to answer, let me know.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

41. The key to creating three-dimensional secondary characters

In previous posts I talked about several ways to flesh out your main characters, such as basing them on real-life people and fine-tuning your characters’ motivation. But what about secondary characters? For me, the main key to animating less-important characters is visual.


Cut out pictures. This sounds like something you would do in grade school, but it can be helpful in writing a novel, especially one with many characters. Flipping through magazine ads may give you a hint. Once you see a photo that screams: “That’s Celeste!” it may also be easier to grasp her personality.

Think of famous actors who might play the character and then write for that actor. A colleague who has written a successful mystery confided that she was able to write an important secondary character only when she visualized a specific actress in the role. Once she had done that, she could also “hear” the voice, and the character became real to her.

Give your character a quirk. In Pandora’s Genes and its sequel, Pandora’s Children, several generals in the Principal’s army play a role in the story. To keep them straight in my mind, and also to help readers keep them straight, I gave each general a trait that was noted most times they appeared. For example, Ralf is elderly and has a stutter; Marcus dresses like a dandy and spends excessive time on personal grooming; while Eric, who in my mind looks like Hugh Jackman, is hot-headed and impulsive.

It is important to keep the quirks from taking over, or you can end up with a character who is nothing but a collection of tics.

Let the character’s appearance do double duty. The evil drug dealer in The Ptorrigan Lode is described as having a “patchwork face,” which I explain early on is the result of radiation burns. This gives us an idea of how he looks—and also how he has lived his life.

In another example, readers tell me that Ivory, the teenager who befriends Peej and Annie in Going to See Grassy Ella, is a very memorable character. I knew that I wanted her to be very different from the two sisters, and also to have an innocence about her. Ivory became real to me when I began to visualize her as a former student in one of my Freshman English classes, a very bright girl who dressed in what she thought was the height of punk fashion: ripped black clothing, hair dyed blue on one side, the other side of her head shaved; and multiiple piercings on her ear, nose, cheeks, and lips.

Next week I will answer some questions readers have sent or asked in these posts. Please feel free to ask anything you’d like to know, either about my books or about writing. Post a comment here, or email me through the link to my website.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

40. Finding a great opening line

Last week we talked about WHERE to begin a novel. Now let’s take a look at HOW.

In the beginning of your novel ideally you should introduce your main character, illustrate his or her central problem, and do so in a way that grips potential readers.

Here’s a great first line from the Kafka classic Metamorphosis that does all those things at once:


As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

This line also establishes the mood of the story—claustrophobic, dreamlike, and horrifying.

Here is a more mundane example from my young adult novel Going to See Grassy Ella. I had determined that my actual story begins when Peej and Annie, the heroines, decide to run off to New York City so Peej, who has cancer, can visit a faith healer. The first chapter shows them making that decision, along with the necessary background information. To draw the reader in, I decided to make an immediate reference to the most exciting (and comic) part of the novel:

This is the true story of how my sister and I got kidnaped and broke up an international drug ring,” Annie tells us, adding, as a segue: “But it didn’t start out like that.

Many novels begin with a  provocative sentence that raises immediate questions. I began Pandora’s Genes: He knew they had been expecting him. This raises the questions, “Who is HE?” “Who are THEY?” “WHY are they expecting him?”

Take a look at the classic opening to Catch-22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

This opening accomplishes quite a lot: it introduces the main character, sets up a number of questions readers want answered, and establishes the comic voice that Joseph Heller uses throughout the novel.

Here are more ideas to keep in mind for the beginning of your novel:

Know your genre. Mysteries, romances, and sci-fi each have their own conventions. The opening of a mystery often focuses on a crime; romances usually begin by introducing the lovers; and science fiction often throws the reader into the midst of a strange and provocative world.  From George Orwell’s 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.

Ask yourself, would *I* want to keep reading? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.

Don’t start with a prologue, except possibly for a sequel in a series. Readers tend to skip prologues—because they are looking for the action.

Use flashbacks rarely and sparingly, if at all. Again, readers will often skip them. I once read a student novel that started a flashback on the first page that went on for four chapters. By the time the story snapped back to the present, I was completely lost.

Don’t start out with a character sketch. That was how authors often began their novels in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but today’s readers don’t have the patience for it. Instead, drop in information as needed throughout the book, and SHOW us who your character is through her actions and words.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

39. Where does a novel begin?

There are two main considerations in beginning a novel. First--WHERE do you begin? And second, HOW do you begin? This week we’ll look at the first consideration.

A rule of thumb is to begin your story in a place where something compelling happens. A friend of mine who writes young adult adventure novels advises: “Begin the day after everything changed.”

One way to look at it is to decide what the most important conflict in the story is and begin with an illustration of that conflict. That is what I did when I began Pandora’s Genes. As I mentioned in a previous post, it started with a dream, in which I saw a good man reluctantly doing something that he knew was wrong.

You could argue that the story actually begins when he makes the decision to go against his conscience, but the real story is in the consequences of that action as they unfold, and therefore that is where I started the novel.

Columbo.jpPeter Falk as Columbo

In many murder mysteries, the story begins when a body is found, or at the moment of a murder. This decision can vary depending on the sort of mystery it is. If it’s a procedural, you may well begin with the murder, or the events leading up to the murder. Think of the old TV show Columbo, in which all the suspense lay in seeing how Columbo would figure out the events that we, the viewers, had already witnessed.

In other mysteries, the story may begin when the detective first learns of the murder, which may even have been committed long in the past. In this case, readers will see clues as the detective does and put the pieces together with him.

In my science fiction novella, The Ptorrigan Lode, I began with the main character already in trouble, in danger of dying from drug withdrawal on a space station. It is only in the course of the story that we learn how he became addicted in the first place, and why he is on a space station.

A story that begins like this is said to start in media res—in the middle of the action, and it’s long been a common technique with science fiction. Experienced science fiction readers know to be patient and the questions they have about technology or terminology will eventually be answered, either directly or implicitly. This technique is often used in mainstream fiction as well.

Other genres have other conventions for where to begin a story. Romances often begin either at the time or just before the first meeting of the star-crossed lovers. Here again, it’s important to get the story going before worrying about the events that led up to it.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you must begin with some sort of action—physical or emotional. It’s tempting to want to explain how your main character arrived at the action or decision point that actually starts the story, but that’s a tactic that is likely to lose your readers. The best way to explain your character is to show us how she reacts to events throughout the story.

Next week: HOW to begin a novel.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

38. Motivation: Why do your characters do what they do?

In a novel, motivation is the engine that drives your plot. WHY does Sabrina act the way she does? WHAT causes her arch-nemesis, the Zombie King, to relentlessly pursue her?

It is your job as author to know and communicate the answers to those questions. Another way of looking at your character’s motivation is to ask: what does she want?  The answer to this question is one of the six elements of a plot, and it must be answered. Whatever your character most wants must be important, and failure to achieve it must have serious consequences. 

Without something important at stake, your main character’s actions may seem random and readers won’t identify with her. You must also be aware of the motivation of the main secondary characters.

Several years ago, when I was writing a “horror” novel for my young adult series, Phantom Valley, my editor and I got into a lengthy argument because we disagreed on why a ghost was haunting the main character.


That’s how important motivation is: we couldn’t agree on the resolution of the plot until we resolved the motivation of the ghost!

Note that motivation is not the same thing as conflict. Motivation is the WHY; conflict is often the WHY NOT. A good example can be seen in my first science fiction novel, Pandora’s Genes. At the beginning of the story we know that Zach’s primary motivation is to carry out the order of his leader, the Principal, to purchase and deliver to him a young girl, Evvy. But there are also important conflicts that bear on this motivation. For one thing,  the Principal’s directive goes against Zach’s own moral code. Other conflicts include those imposed by the environment (poison bats) and other characters (the brigands who want to kill Zach and kidnap Evvy).

Zach’s moral trepidations here are a good example of inner conflict; the poison bats and brigands are examples of outer conflict. A complex, well-thought-out character will be faced with many examples of both sorts of conflict.

A rule of thumb is that resolution of inner conflict results in a change in attitude, while solving an outer conflict results in a change in circumstance. In Pandora’s Genes, Zach comes to see that he was more complicit than he had believed in the Principal’s wrongdoing; while he eventually overcomes all the outer conflicts and returns home to a situation that is changed by his having resolved the inner conflict.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

37. Novel Writing: Three DO’s and One DON’T

Pandora’s Promise, the novel I am currently writing, is the third book (what I call a “threequel”) in the “Pandora’s Series,” though the first book, Pandora’s Genes, was originally a one-off.

I was already a professional writer when I wrote Pandora’s Genes more than twenty-five years ago, and I have learned a great deal since. Here are some tricks of the trade that theoretically make the process--this time--a little bit easier.

DO know that the process of writing the novel will be long and difficult, with as many ups and downs as the plot twists you present your characters with. Some days you will sit down and the words will flow easily.... Other days you will stare at a blank page and spend your writing time thinking of things to do other than write. I’ve been in this place with my “threequel” lately, but I know it will pass and my passion will return. 

DO work on your novel every day, even if only to to make notes or add a single sentence that you end up crossing out later. This is one of the most important DO’s. Remember to trust your subconscious, and let it know you expect work on the novel to proceed daily.

DO realize that you don’t have to proceed in a straight line. If you are writing a novel on assignment, and have an outline to follow, then you will probably write in a more linear fashion. But even when working from an outline, there is no reason you have to proceed point-by-point. I have always found it easier to skip around a bit. If I’m having difficulty with a scene, for example, it can help to go to a different scene, perhaps later in the book, and write that. Often that later scene will inform the earlier one that was problematic.

DON’T share your work in progress with other people, especially when you are beginning a piece of writing. I have found that telling others can somehow dissipate the impetus to get it down on paper. Once you’ve got a rough draft, you can bring other people—such as members of a writing group--into the process.

When I was well into Pandora’s Genes and knew more or less what would happen for the rest of the book, I began sharing sections (second or third drafts) with a friend who lived across the hall in my apartment building. Her feedback was very helpful, and her positive response helped me keep going through difficult times. But I didn’t even tell her (or anyone else) that I was writing a novel until I already had well over 100 pages.

There is a lengthy section of Pandora’s Promise that I am currently working on that I LOVE. It is important to the story—perhaps the most important of all the story arcs. I want so much to show it to someone or even tell someone about it. But I know that talking about it is likely to dilute the excitement and reality of it in my mind, so for the present I’m keeping quiet.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

36. Self-editing II: Revision checklist

Last week’s post discussed five global ways to approach self-editing. This week, five specific things to check when you’re going over your draft.
1. Check for wordiness, especially at the beginning. A lot of writers tend to do what I call throat-clearing before getting down to work. When you have finished your draft, go back to the beginning and see if there are words, sentences, even whole paragraphs that don’t lead directly to the body of the piece.
Here is an example of what I’m talking about. This is my first stab at the opening of this blog post:
In last week’s post, we examined some global ways to approach self-editing. This week, let’s look at more specific techniques. Here are five things to check when you’re going over your draft.
For more on wordiness, see Less is More for tips on keeping it clear and simple.
2. Show, don’t tell.  Another way to say this is “Dramatize, don’t summarize.“ Example of telling:
Hearing the zombies outside, Evelyn was frightened.
The same scene, dramatized:
CREAK… CREAK… the sound of the rattling door made her shudder, imagining what might be on the other side. Zombies, perhaps dozens of them, pressing against the flimsy wood, trying to break through, to get to her….
             zombie                 zombie             zombie
3. Use the active voice. The active voice is more dynamic and direct than the passive, for both nonfiction and fiction. It is the difference between “mistakes were made” and “the CEO made several mistakes that resulted in the ruination of the company.”
4. Get rid of participles. Whenever possible, simplify by turning participles into verbs or eliminating them altogether.
She was sitting in the overstuffed chair and crying, waiting for the zombies to eat her brains.
She sobbed in the overstuffed chair, waiting for the zombies to eat her brains. 
5. Be ruthless. Sometimes you resist necessary changes because you just plain like a sentence or a section.That happened to me in a passage in Pandora’s Genes. In that scene, the Principal and Zach were discussing the succession for rule of the District. I had the Principal say, “I suppose I always thought I would live forever.”
I liked that sentence. To me, it summed up the Principal’s character. But the scene just didn’t work. The rhythm was wrong and the entire dialogue rang somehow false. It took me seven or eight revisions, trying different ways to insert the sentence, to realize that the sentence simply didn’t fit. Once I got rid of it, I easily finished the scene.
Moral: If something just doesn’t work, and none of the above suggestions help, KILL the thing that doesn’t work.
Next week: Pandora’s Promise: progress report

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

35. Self-editing I: Five Ways to Get Distance from Your Work

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to edit other people’s writing than your own? This is because you start out with an automatic distance from another person’s work. Here are five ways to distance yourself from your own work, which will make editing easier and more effective.


1. Be a reader, not a writer. Try to read what you have written as if someone else had created it. I used to do this by pretending I was reading it in a magazine. As I read, I pictured my words in one of my favorite magazines already set in type. Very often, in that frame of mind, the “non-professional” parts of the writing became apparent to me. I would see, for example,  that I had started the piece too slowly, or that I was digressing--both common writing flaws of mine. I did this both when I was first writing professional nonfiction, and then again when I made the leap to fiction. To tell the truth, I still do it sometimes.

2. Let some time pass before you start to revise. By “some time” I mean “as much time as possible.” Ideally, wait at least a week or longer before revisiting material you have just written. This is not always practical, and certainly not for material that has a deadline, but even setting something aside overnight can give your subconscious time to rework the material.

3. Don’t revise as you go along.  I have a friend who is working on her first novel. She has spent over a year on the first chapter. I quizzed her about this, and as I suspected, she goes back and revises the beginning over and over. For each new sentence she adds, she probably spends time honing six previous sentences. No wonder she hasn’t moved on to chapter two!

This is a common problem among new writers. I believe it is caused by insecurity, and the belief that what you write MUST BE PERFECT. Guess what? No writing is perfect. The most you can hope for is the best you can do. But you won’t know what that is if you don’t finish it. In most cases the best way to finish a piece of writing is to write it as quickly as you can, and only then go back to make changes.  

4. Read out loud. In the comments to my post on revising blog entries, two commenters mentioned reading their work aloud. Journalist Jennifer Willis, who does this with all writing, points out that “It's amazing how many typos and awkward turns of phrase I'll pick up this way that my eyes alone might miss.” Reading aloud is a technique I use also, for both fiction and nonfiction. It is particularly helpful if something just doesn’t quite seem to work and you’re not sure why.

5. Recopy in a different medium. I discussed this technique in a recent post. If you wrote your first draft by hand, type the second draft. If you composed on your computer, try recopying problematic paragraphs or sections by hand. Or use voice-recognition software to re-enter the material. I’ve been experimenting with the dictation software that came with my computer, and find it gives me a completely different perspective on my work.

Next post:  Self-editing II: revision checklist

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

34. Revising Blog Posts

The other day when I told a friend I had to revise a blog post, he sounded surprised. “You mean you edit those posts?” he asked. “But they always seem so effortless--as if you just tossed them off.”


Clear writing should always appear effortless. Unfortunately for writers, however, the smoother writing appears, the more work it usually takes to produce. This is particularly true for short pieces of writing--like blog posts--where every word counts.

I asked the authors of two very different well-known blogs how much they revise. Here is what these successful bloggers told me.

Josh Fruhlinger is the creator of The Comics Curmudgeon, a funny and insightful look at the daily comics. Josh’s legion of followers leave comments by the hundreds each day.

                                Josh Fruhlinger    josh_ms_pacman                     

Josh admits that he doesn’t always have time to do enough re-reading to catch every typo, but:

I do edit my posts, though of course "editing" can span a lot of territory. The way I usually work is that I write my posts in a text editor and then cut and paste into the WordPress interface, then read it over in preview mode and make corrections and rewrites as I do so.  That's the process that I consider editing, though obviously I do also go back and look at what I've already written at various points during the initial writing process.

I've been doing this for almost eight years now and I have it down to something of a science.  A typical post (which could range from 250 words to 750) takes me somewhere between one and two hours to do, from beginning (reading the day's comics) to end.

Michelle Rafter, an author and editor, produces WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age, which covers the business of the writing business for freelancers, entrepreneurial journalists and bloggers. (See below for more information.)

Michelle Rafter head shot Michelle Rafter

Here is her take on revision:

I always edit my posts, some a little, some a lot. Sometimes I see or read something that inspires me and I write a post in a white heat. I save it in Draft mode and schedule it for the date and time I want it to run. Then when I have time allotted to working on the blog, I go in and rework it into a final draft, add an image, category, tags, etc., and either publish or put it in the queue.

Other times I start and finish a post in one sitting. When I do this, I edit as I go, checking a paragraph or two as I finish them to see how they read.

Either way, I always, always, always use WordPress' Preview mode to see what a finished post will look like published. I check spelling, grammar, and sentences that run on too long -- I usually write too much, so I'm constantly whittling down the word count.

Both Josh’s and Michelle’s revision processes are good models for any piece of writing, long or short. Among the things they have In common is that they are well-organized and self-aware as writers. They both know that “Less is More”  when it comes to good writing.

But how, you may wonder, do you become self-aware as a writer? How can you even begin to edit your own work? In the next post, we’ll take a look at this difficult but necessary task.

Note: WordCount, Michelle Rafter’s blog, covers topics including writing and blogging basics, tech tools for writers and media industry news. Rafter also hosts the #wclw writer chat the last Wednesday of the month @ 10 am Pacific, and the annual WordCount Blogathon, a community blogging challenge to post every day in May. WordCount is part of the BlogHer Publishing Network. See it at

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

33. Active revision

There’s no question that revising is the most important part of writing. But I believe that few writers today truly revise. Because we use word processing technology, we no longer go to the root of the word “revision” and literally re-see our work.

In a previous post I mentioned that I wrote and revised Pandora’s Genes on a typewriter. In fact, I went through at least six complete versions of the novel—around 100,000 words. After typing, I made changes in pen or pencil and retyped again.

Something I noticed while working was that EVERY TIME I retyped a page, section, or chapter, I made changes that neither I nor an editor had penciled in. Some of these changes were as simple as fixing a typo nobody had previously noticed, but more often they were subtle changes of word choice, for accuracy or rhythm. Sometimes they were cuts, to avoid wordiness. Sometimes I added a sentence or two, for clarity or verisimilitude.

woman at typewriter

Let me repeat: This sort of change went on EVERY TIME I retyped.

I used to joke that my fingers were smarter than my brain, and there is a grain of truth in this. I think that in some way the fingers access the subconscious—the part of the brain that does most of the work—in a more direct way than the thinking brain does.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, the novelist John Irving says that he writes in longhand, and also revises in longhand. He had previously fed his original copy into a typewriter for subsequent drafts, but prefers the slower approach of longhand. I too slow myself down with longhand, sometimes, even today, when I am confronted with a particularly difficult passage.

Those who write only on word processors never give themselves a chance to slow down, or to re-see their work. Does that mean that today’s published prose is less elegant than that of only twenty years ago?

I’m not sure that question has a definitive answer. In my current work on the sequel to the two Pandora’s books, I’m working from a large stack of handwritten pages I wrote several years ago and then forgot about. I am feeding them into my computer, one page at a time, much as I used to do in the old days. I am editing as I go. In a future post I’ll show some examples of how that is working out. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

32. Three ways to make readers identify with your protagonist

What is the number one thing we novelists want readers to do? (I mean, of course, in addition to actually buy our books.) If you think about it, the answer is that we want them to identify with our main character or characters.

Note that I didn’t say we want them to LIKE our main characters. They may dislike a character, or disapprove of his or her actions, but if you, the writer, can get your readers to root for your characters, they will keep reading.

Here are three surefire ways to get the reader on your character’s side.  

1. Start the character off with a big problem. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is quickly whisked off to the Land of Oz by a cyclone. She’s alone, in a strange land, and has no idea how to get home.As readers, we can’t help but cheer her on.

In the first chapter of Pandora’s Genes, we learn that Zach is faced with a moral dilemma--to do something he knows is wrong (buy a young girl from her family), but feels he must do out of loyalty to his leader. Anyone who has ever faced a conflicting set of choices will root for Zach to resolve his problem one way or another.

In The Ptorrigan Lode, my science fiction novella, Jay Irice, the protagonist, is immediately revealed to be a drug addict who will die if he does not get a fix. I was concerned when I wrote it that readers would find Jay’s situation so distasteful that they would not want to read about him, but apparently many readers became hooked on Jay just as he was hooked on chappa.


2.   Pile on the difficulties. As soon as she gets to Oz, Dorothy discovers she has a mortal enemy in the Wicked Witch of the East. The farther she goes down the yellow brick road, the more perils she and her friends face. In chapter two of Pandora’s Genes, Zach becomes paralyzed by a fly-borne illness, and after he recovers is assaulted and left for dead by robbers. Poor Jay Irice is confronted with one threat  and betrayal after another by a number of other characters, including two that he has deeply trusted. In each of these examples, we as readers want the characters to get out of trouble, and we want to see how they do it.

3. Make the character the agent. This is the most important of the three rules. After going through all the twists and turns of your plot, when the character finally reaches the denouement make sure that he or she SOLVES THE PROBLEMS THROUGH HIS OR HER OWN ACTIONS. Dorothy herself throws water onto the wicked witch. Though Glinda the Good tells Dorothy how to get home, she also points out that escape from Oz was always in Dorothy’s own power. In Pandora’s Genes, Zach undergoes many trials, always escaping from them through his own actions. Where he has help, it is help that he has initiated or earned. He resolves the moral dilemma that began the book through coming to a new self-understanding.

As for Jay Irice, he escapes his seemingly inescapable difficulties through his own efforts in a very surprising way that—for such a short tale-- I cannot give away here. (There is a link to The Ptorrigan Lode on Kindle in the column on the left.)

If there are any writing topics you would like to see in future posts, please either leave a comment here or email me. I will post every week on Wednesdays, and sometimes more often.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

31. The Ending of Pandora’s Genes

In my first Blogathon post here, one month ago, I talked about how Pandora’s Genes came to me in a dream, and how writing the first part quickly, in a few weeks, was “like a three-week orgasm.”

Now I want to tell you about writing the ending, which was both very similar and very different from writing the beginning.

In yesterday’s post I described my frustration when I kept having to rewrite the entire novel. I ultimately rewrote most of it six times. The reason I kept at it was because I LOVED Pandora’s Genes and believed in it. Although it may appear to be just another post-holocaust adventure tale, I felt that I said some important things in it. And the characters were more real to me than my family and friends.

KLancePandorasGenesAEbook cover, designed by Glenace Melton

My final revisions took a few months, and just when I thought I was nearly finished, my editor said to me: “Now, you know you’ll have to change the ending.”


I didn’t know any such thing. I loved the ending, which originally was that Zach, Will, and Evvy would be married, since the most common form of marriage in the Pandora’s world was two or more husbands and a wife.

“Our readers,” my editor told me, “Are not ready for a three-way marriage.”

I was stunned. Stunned and dismayed. It had never occurred to me that I would have to change one of the most important parts of the book. And how could I change it? I was so distraught that for several days I felt as if my mind had gone blank, that my formerly reliable imagination had deserted me.

But I should have trusted my subconscious to come to the rescue.

One night a week or two after the upsetting conversation with my editor, I had another dream. In this dream I was at the end of a long pregnancy and in labor. Many people were gathered around helping me as I pushed the baby out of my body.As the baby was born, I felt pressure, but not pain; warmth, spreading throughout my body, and intense pleasure, very like an orgasm.

When the baby was fully born, I woke up with the new ending for the book in my mind.

I wrote it down before I could forget it, and submitted it. The editor loved it.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

30. From writing a novel to publishing it

In my first blog post this month, I talked about writing the first part of Pandora’s Genes in a kind of white-hot frenzy of creation. It took me about three weeks to get those first 100 or so pages down, and then another several months before I finished the first draft, which was around 400 pages.

I typed it all on my Selectric typewriter, on green paper, which I superstitiously used for all my fiction drafts. Whenever I came to a passage that was too slow or otherwise wasn’t moving, I switched to pen and white paper, then transferred what I had written to the typewriter.

I continued to revise and retype, and a couple of years after I’d started I finally had something that I was happy enough with to take to my agent, who had so far only represented my nonfiction books.

My agent suggested numerous changes, so I spent another several months of revising, retyping, and so on. At last she was happy with it and began sending it out.

After a year’s worth of rejections, we finally got a nibble from Warner books, which was looking for new writers for a new science fiction imprint, Questar. The only catch was that the editor wanted a complete rewrite before she would commit to buying it. So I spent the summer revising the whole thing again, on spec, and finally turned it in, approximately 4 ½ years from when I started writing.

The good news was, she bought it! The bad news… well, she wanted more changes. I’ll tell you about the biggest change tomorrow, but I spent another few months revising again, and then making more changes for the copy editor, until finally the book was done! We had a cover! It was scheduled to come out in six months!

                                              PG First orig coverFirst cover

Except that the head buyer for Waldenbooks, a major player in the sf market in those days, hated the cover. He told our marketing department that he would not order the book unless we got a whole new cover. This would delay the book another six months, but that was not his problem.

It was mine.

A new cover was prepared.pandora

This one was by the great sf artist Don Mattingly, and this time Waldenbooks approved. Approximately six years from the morning I wrote down the dream that became Pandora’s Genes, my book was, finally, published!

Tomorrow: The ending of Pandora’s Genes

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

29. The Future of this Blog

With today’s post I have nearly completed the 31-day WordCount Blogathon challenge. I’ve enjoyed writing these posts and I’m glad I entered the blogathon. But I need to devote more of my energy to writing the third book in the Pandora’s series.

From now on I will post here regularly, but probably only once or twice a week. One post will always be on Wednesday. I’m not sure about the second post, and welcome suggestions.

Here are some of the topics I intend to discuss:

  • Ghostwriting
  • Motivation
  • How to get readers on your protagonist’s side
  • How and when to begin a story
  • What is voice?
  • More advice from my mentor

Please feel free to suggest other topics you would like to see addressed.

BookcoversA 5-19-2012 2-33-34 PM 5120x2880

I also want to spiff up the look of this blog. I’m thinking of including this collage of some of my books covers  in the header. What do you think?

Tomorrow: How I sold and revised Pandora’s Genes.

Monday, May 28, 2012

28. How to deal gracefully with editorial suggestions

First, a disclaimer: I love editors. My first book editor not only improved my writing,  she became one of my best friends and still is. Editors have a hard job, and it has become much harder as the publishing business has changed. In fact, very few editors even have time to edit anymore.

Still, it is always difficult to accept editorial suggestions even when they are spot-on. When I wrote Pandora’s Children, my idea was to tell the whole story, including what had happened before the first book, Pandora’s Genes. So I wrote this very long, very intricately plotted story, switching back and forth not only among the different characters in the present, but also in the past.

When I turned it in my editor hated it.

She told me to take out all of the scenes from the past.

After fuming and feeling certain that I wasn’t really a writer for a few days, I did most of what she asked, though I did still include a few of the scenes that I felt were important.

I haven’t been writing books lately (except for the third book in the Pandora’s series), but I recently sold an erotic short story to a new anthology. My editor loves the story. She wanted very few changes. She did ask me to remove a particular paragraph, saying that it didn’t really add anything to the story.

But that is my favorite paragraph in the whole story! I wanted to say. The story is about an older woman who finds she has become invisible to men. She is thinking about her prospects while listening to a mockingbird. Here is the paragraph:

I stand in the patio breathing deeply as the sun drops toward the pink stucco wall behind the restaurant. Atop a light pole a mockingbird runs through his repertoire.mocker head-on crop 2-27-2004 8-23-54 PM 805x850 Ornithologists have found that mockingbirds sing to establish territory and to attract a mate. If a male fails to find a mate, he doesn’t give up. He keeps singing, day and night, until breeding season is over. I try not to feel sorry for myself. It’s natural, I tell myself. Younger women are prettier.

I liked the paragraph because I felt it added a certain poignancy to the story, plus, I adore mockingbirds. I considered arguing with my editor, but instead I cut all but the first two lines. She knows what she wants. And the truth is, she bought my story. It’s no longer mine.

But as it turns out, I’ve gotten to use the paragraph after all.

Tomorrow: the future of this blog.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

27. Give Yourself Credit as a Writer.

When my first book was published, I finally felt free to call myself a writer. By then, I had been writing professionally for about five years. I’d written hundreds of soap opera scripts, dozens of articles and stories for Scholastic Magazines, and innumerable teaching guides.

But was I really a writer? For some reason, I always felt shy about saying so. “I write for the soaps,” I might say. Or, “I work at Scholastic.” To me in those days, a writer was someone like Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, or Hemingway or even Erle Stanley Gardner.

My first book, Running for Health and Beauty, was the first mass-market book on running for women.Runningpb I wrote it after having started running in my late twenties. But just as with my writing career, I felt very strange about calling myself a runner. I was slow, and I didn’t like to race. I usually said, “I’m just a jogger.” As for my book, my editor chose the title.

One day I was jogging in Central Park with a friend, and told him I felt funny about the title of the book. He asked why, and I said, “Well, I’m not a real runner.” He said, “We’re running, aren’t we?” I said yes. He said, “Then you’re a runner.”

I know now that the same thing is true of writing. Just as not all runners can finish marathons, not all writers can support themselves writing. But in my opinion, anyone who writes is a writer.

If you have the courage to face that blank page and fill it with your dreams, your imaginings, or even an honest account of what is going on in your life, you’re a writer. If expressing yourself on paper is the way you make sense of your life, if you tell stories because you can’t NOT tell them, you are a writer. If you read books on writing or even my writing tips, because you hope to become better at writing, then you’re a writer.

Tomorrow: How to deal gracefully with editorial suggestions

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Friday, May 25, 2012

26. Less is More: how to keep your writing clear and simple

In a guest post on The Writing Well, on May 14, I discussed showing (dramatizing) vs. telling (summarizing) in fiction writing. In order to dramatize without over-dramatizing, it helps to make your language as simple as possible. LESS wordiness almost always means MORE impact.

Be stingy with adjectives and adverbs. The fewer you use, the more powerful your writing. The trick is in choosing the one or two best modifiers.

He angrily slammed his fist on the bar. "Get out of here, you son of a bitch!" he snarled rabidly, his face contorted in rage.


See how much simpler—and more effective—this passage is if you get rid of some of the indicators of anger:

He slammed his fist on the bar. "Get out of here, you son of a bitch!"

Trust your readers... and trust yourself. Sometimes, as writers, we are unsure of our ability to convey strong emotions, so we tend to overdo it. With simple, clear writing, you only need to make your point once--you needn't beat your reader over the head with it. Compare these passages with their simplified revisions:

Her eyes filled with tears of joy. "Oh, Michael," she breathed softly, her face full of love. "It's... it's beautiful," she added, her voice trembling with emotion. Never had she felt such love.

Her eyes filled. "Oh, Michael," she breathed. "It's beautiful."

A sense of power surged strongly through him and he raised his fist in the air, pumping it three times. "Yes!" he cried triumphantly. He would make all the small, petty little people cringe and pay for what they had done to him.

A sense of power surged through him and he raised his fist. "Yes!" he cried. He would make them all pay.

Bear in mind that the context usually gives plenty of hints about what is going on. For example, in the first example above, we would know it is a love scene. In the second, we probably already know how he feels about the people he will "make pay"--and what he feels they have done to him.

Finally, a personal bugaboo, don’t EVER use the word “hysterically” in describing how someone weeps.

“Leave me alone!” she screamed, sobbing hysterically.

All you really need here is:

“Leave me alone!” she sobbed.

Tomorrow: Give yourself credit as a writer.