Writing Technique Deathmatch: Fix Now VS Fix Later

For Steph-174 (1)

Your next opponent is this peacock, because peacocks are assholes.

Time for the ultimate editing showdown: fix your plot holes and story problems as you go, or wait for the end and go back? It’s head-to-head time for these two competitors, so let’s ring the bell and get in there!


Fix That Shit Now


-Less of a nagging sense of doom hanging over the project.

-Can fix the problem while it’s fresh in the mind.

-Nothing to pile up on the MS to-do list, turning it into an impassible quagmire of shit.


-Might realize the fix was another mistake, leading to another fix.

-Endless reiteration through the same five chapters of the manuscript can lead to overclocking your brain and having it melt all over your desk.

-Possibility of never finishing the goddamned thing.

Fix That Shit Later


-Can concentrate more on what’s happening right now in your story.

-Fixing things while in editing mode is easier than trying to fix them in cracked-out-zero-draft mode, because you are marginally less of a lunatic.

-FINISHING. Oh god, finishing, sweet sweet finishing.

-The world might end, rendering the problem moot.


-Might forget what the fix is supposed to be.

-Hard to reference early events if they’re different but you haven’t written them yet.

-Makes actual finish date seem like three days past never, possibly leading to giving up writing altogether and starting your own goat-weaving collective.

Final Verdict:

Edit later on zero drafts and anything else where you’ve got to dump out your brain contents before your sort them; edit now for second drafts, editing passes, and other, more difficult, story wrangling.




Things To Do When You Finish A Novel*

Writers do it old school.

1. Get Your Cake On. You finished a book. That’s a big deal. It might be a sucky book right now, but that doesn’t matter. We’ll talk about editing later, after the post-coital glow has faded. For now, celebrate.

I used to be really bad at this. I’d finish a manuscript and not tell anyone, and if they found out, pretend it was no big deal. I have no idea why I used to pull this crap, but it wasn’t helpful. Acting like it wasn’t worth celebrating made damn sure it wasn’t, and didn’t make me feel good about getting further than 99% of the wannabe writers out there. Which made it harder to do again. Don’t worry; eventually I pulled my head out of my ass and scored some Scotch to celebrate. However you do it—cake, dinner, wine, that thing with the chains and the feathers—mark the occasion. You can get back to the grind tomorrow.

2. Take A Break. At least from that story. Working on something else—particularly something small, like an essay or a short story—is a palette cleanser for your brain. Then you can come back to that first draft with fresh eyes and a clean brain, ready to fix the hell out of it.

Of course, sometimes you can’t take a break. Deadlines exist. In that case, feel free to skip this suggestion and do the first one twice. Twice the cake! Twice the scotch! Twice the chains and feathers!

3. Get Back In The Saddle. Sooner or later, that first draft you churned out is going to need editing. Wait until the idea doesn’t fill you with dread if you can. Then you can look at the inevitable mistakes, wrong turns, and general WTF-ness with more equanimity and less bowel-loosening horror. Relax. It’s not that big a deal. You can fix it. In fact, keep repeating that to yourself over and over again: I can fix this. It will help. If it doesn’t…well, there’s always the leftover Scotch from step one.

Who out there has a finished novel now that November is over? Who’s still working? Who has given up in a flurry of despair and soggy Kleenex? I’m firmly in Category Two**: still motoring along with my eyes on a January-February finish date, but I’m keeping Category Three open!

So: where you at?

*Note for those of you fresh off NaNoWriMo: finishing NaNo is not necessarily finishing a novel, unless your novel happens to be 50,000 words. If it is, cool. If it’s not, I’d advise continuing to work until such a time as you can definitively type The End and mean it. Stopping in the middle just because you hit 50,000 is a great way to accumulate a pile of unfinished manuscripts.

**At least two levels below my Kaiju Rating.

Fast Versus Slow: Picking A Writing Speed

Mm, writer brains.

The eternal debate: fast versus slow. Whether you’re talking about zombies, sex, or writing, everyone’s got an opinion.* Some love the heady, breakneck pace of an out-of-control zero draft, feeling the rush as they careen toward the finish line like a drunk chimp behind the wheel of a tank. Others prefer a slower, more considered pace, choosing words with exact care and placing them with all the deliberation and delicacy of a obsessive-compulsive Faberge egg maker.** So, which way is better? Which way will lead you to novel-finishing glory? Which way will gain you legions of minions fans and AN ARMY WHICH BLACKENS THE EARTH ON WHICH IT WALKS?

I don’t know.

Kind of anti-climactic. Much like the vast majority of arguments about sex.

The thing is, as I’ve said before, no one can tell you how to write. They can only tell you how they write. And even then, it tends to be a homogenized version, as if every day at precisely nine am they sit down with their cup of monkey brains and a freshly-sharpened femur to begin the daily process of scratching out exactly 1000 words. Or 5000, or 500, or 329. I do this, too—the glossing-over, not the femur thing—and it’s just because it’s easier to explain that way. Also, no one wants to listen to an endless daily recitation of how each writing session varies. Or, if they do, presumably they’re already on Twitter where writers like me bitch/snivel/cheer/hoot triumphantly as we live-tweet our days into the void.

There are benefits to writing fast and there are benefits to writing slow. Write fast and you’ll finish fast, but you’re probably going to spend more time editing because THERE IS NO TIME FOR EDITS IN THE THUNDERDOME. Write slow and you’ll probably get something more polished, but you run the risk of never finishing at all and falling prey to the most boring type of creative endeavour, Describing Reasons You Can’t Write.

Which works for you on which day will depend on the following:

-Writing style

-How much planning you did before you started writing

-How much you already know about your story

-How much editing you want to do

-How easily you get bored

-Lifestyle and available writing time

-Caffeine levels

-Blood type

-Star sign

-Number of episodes left of that show you’ve been binge-watching

-Presence of spouse, kids, roommates, a social life, and other things that can take away from writing

-What the hell you feel like doing at the moment when you sit down to write

Through this highly scientific list, you can tell that it all depends.

The only way to find out which one works for you is to try stuff, and note which methods work for you. Try writing an entire chapter in a day, or a single page in a weekend. See which result you like better.

And then be prepared for it to change at any moment, because writing is a bitch like that.

* I would in fact argue that the zombie arguers are more vehement than the sex arguers. Or maybe it’s just that the former can shout their opinions in a crowded restaurant without getting kicked out.

**Presumably, Fabrege.

Why Outlining Won’t Murder Your Story

That smile? That’s because he has a map. And a fabulous moustache.

After several years away, I am returning to hardcore outlining.

I got away from it for a while. Mostly just to try something new. I hadn’t tried to seriously write something long without one since my first writing days, and while those stories turned out to be little more than half-intelligible brain droppings smeared across a page, that might have been due more to my inexperience than the method itself.

It wasn’t.

When I write without a meaningful outline, yes, I get ideas. But there’s no framework for them to hang on, and too often they’re like fireworks: burning bright and pretty to look at, but not much damn use. And there’s a lot of them, so it takes time to sort through the mess.

So I went back to outlining and, man, what a fucking difference.

I finished the final outline for my novel the other day. It’s not a scene-for-scene layout, but it’s pretty close. It’s got every meaningful moment and every decision made by every character that influences the ending laid out.

I hear a lot from the anti-outline brigade about how outlining kills the story. They feel that outlining too tightly, as I have done, kills any sense of creativity and spontaneity. Besides, if the outline is done, why bother writing it? You already know what happens.

First of all, it’s a disservice to your creative mind to assume it’s as fragile as an anaemic butterfly. Creativity is tough, and good ideas always survive. If you story dies at the first sneeze of questioning, maybe it wasn’t strong enough to carry a whole book on its own in the first place.

Secondly, outlining is not writing. It’s not even pretending to write. It’s preparation.

Or, to look at it another way: an outline is to writing what a recipe is to cooking. A recipe is a damn useful thing, especially when you’re making something complicated. Having a good one can keep you from making huge, time-wasting mistakes. But no one would ever suggest that you could satisfy your hunger by writing a recipe for blitzes.

Now, sometimes you just want to jump in without an outline and write for the hell of it. And I still do that. But now that’s part of the prep work, too. I stack all that shit with the outline as I write it, or use them as test-drives for characters or locations or ideas. But when I sit down to do the heavy writing, I’ll have my trusty outline by my side. And the writing will go much smoother and more quickly for it.

As always, your mileage may vary. But if you’ve never tried outlining for fear of crippling some creative organ, put that fear aside as the bullshit it is and give it a go. You might just find the new thing you love.

Prime Cuts: Carving Up Your First Draft

I didn’t need those paragraphs anyway. Or that chapter.

My zero drafts are a mess. Too many words, too much explaining, some really obvious character slips, the occasional monologue*…it’s not pretty.

But it doesn’t have to be. That’s why it’s a zero draft: so I can edit it and make it pretty.

Most of the energy in making the second draft–or, as I call it–the Working Draft–goes into cutting. Getting rid of the crap so I can see what I’ve actually made. Making the writing flow better so that the story comes out without the writing getting in the damn way.

If you want to picture how I edit, imagine a sentient woodchipper and Edward Scissorhands had a mechanized baby that loves red pens and slash-and-burn deforestation.

But how do I know what to get rid of? What gets tossed into my whirring mechanical maw, and what passes by, unnoticed for today?

Simple. There’s a list.

Here are my top picks for how to make your writing go down smoother than the Skittle vodka your cousin made that time.**

1) Kill the passive voice. For a refresher:

“The sundae bar was burned by the fire-breathing velociraptor.” (Passive) [edited: thanks for the catch, sucoletta!}

“The firebreathing velocipraptor burned everything in sight, including the sundae bar.” (Active)

A good hint to discern whether you’re writing passive voice is the use of ‘was’ and its confederates. Changing to active not only makes the writing smoother–less crap to get in the way–it also wastes less words. Which is important if you’re writing to spec.

2) Murder the qualifiers. Here’s a partial list:

very, kinda, sort of, massively, intensely, insanely, a small amount, a vast amount, partially, a little, a bit, a lot…

God, I could just keep going.

In 99% of cases, these add nothing to the sentence they infest like ticks on a monkey’s ass. Degrees can much more elegantly be conveyed if they’re necessary. Leaving you with nothing but clean, useful monkey ass.

However, I’m not from the school of thought that says you should never have adjectives. But only use the ones you need. “Glanced quickly” is not only redundant, it’s wasteful. CUT.

3) Suffocate your desire to explain everything. Go back and read Wednesday’s post (bonus: contains strippers) and remember: showing is generally better than telling. And explaining, whether it’s done by the narrative or by a character, is boring. Not to say that you shouldn’t explain anything, but do so with a light hand.

Note: this doesn’t just apply to the alternative world stuff you’ve made that your are very proud of. Think twice before having characters explain their motivations. One, it should be evident already. Two, no one likes to listen to a bunch of self-justifying crap.

This is the biggest one for me. In the zero draft, I’m generally working out the reasons for things as I go, and they end up coming out of some character’s mouth. On the next pass, I edit that crap out. After all, I already know it, and, for the most part, the reader doesn’t need to. And what they do need to know can be presented in a far more subtle way.

I’m always looking for that new edge, so: what are your tricks? What do you cut out of your zero draft?

*I’ve started leaving a line from The Incredibles as my editing comment: “You caught me monologuing!”

**Taste the rainbow. The burning, chemical rainbow.


The One-Day Stand: Cheating On My Manuscript

I knew that story was trouble the second it walked through my door.

Confession time: I’m taking a day off from my manuscript.*

Not because it’s not going well. Actually, aside from a few surprises—where did that guy come from? Why does she keep flirting with her? What the hell happened to that guy’s head?—it’s chugging along like a well-run train filled with liars, killers, and the occasional standup guy who’s wondering how he got there.*** Things are coming together.

But the day off is neither congratulatory nor a desperate attempt to break free of the project before it destroys me. It’s necessary.

This is a trick I learned from some writing book a long time ago. I can’t remember which one, though I’m tempted to say it was something by James Scott Bell. I can’t check, though, because a couple of those books got lost in one of the many, many moves in which I’ve participated. I tried Googling, but either my Google-fu is weak today or it’s just not out there.

The advice is this: when you reach a certain point in a manuscript, take a break. One day away. Step back from that relentless forward momentum. Then, after that day, look at what you’ve done. Is it living up to your expectations? Is it following the path you laid out in the outline, or the re-outline? Is it shaping up, or is it just plodding along?

And of course the big question: what’s wrong with it?

I find that a good place to take that break—at least the first time—is right around the time when the first act ends. That’s usually at somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words. If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell and the monomyth, it happens when the characters leave the old world behind and enter the new. It is the tipping point. And as such it suits the needs of this break very well.

I reached that point the other day—27,000 words, for anyone who’s interested—so I’m taking the break to review what’s happened so far. Do I need to make a new outline? Do I want to keep this character that just kind of popped up last week? Should I make those world-building changes I was thinking about yesterday? And so on.

This is why I distinguish between the zero draft and the real first draft. The zero is all about forward motion; never look back because you don’t know what might be gaining. The first draft, when you go over the path you made before and make it something worth following, benefits from a little backwards gazing. You can check to see if others can follow. You can make sure the right elements are introduced. If anything strange comes up in the first draft, you can decide if you want to carry it through to the end or kill now before it has a chance to breed.

And once that planning is done, you can move on with confidence.

*”Day off” in this context meaning “day where I work on a different project like the no-good, roundheels** bitch that I am”.
**I was made aware the other day that no one else has used this word on a regular basis since 1956. That’s what I get for reading all that pulp noir fiction.

Height, Weight, and Genital Size: How To Write More Effective Character Descriptions

The first thing I noticed was that he had a bat on his underwear… (Photo Credit for this awesome thing: Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr)

Here’s a thing: I usually don’t know what my characters look like until after the zero draft.

Weird, right? A lot of writers and writing guides will get all up into the physical descriptions. I can understand the reasoning: it makes the characters more concrete, gives them a toehold in reality. And I’m definitely not a fan of those stories where the characters are deliberately not described so that the reader can imagine themselves in their place or some bullshit. If you’re slipping inside the skin of one of my characters, bring some disinfectant. And the ingredients for an exorcism.

No, I don’t give much thought to physical descriptions until after the zero draft because I’m too busy finding out who they are to give a damn what they look like.

During that zero draft, there are two things I concentrate on when it comes to characters: personality and voice. Which is really one thing, since how they speak is an extension of who they are.  So the only physical things I put in are the ones that are integral to either who they are or what happens. If a dude is missing an eye, that’s probably going to come up.*

Think of it like running through the story: all I notice is the important stuff. The things that jump out at me. His eyes. The way she smiles. Those hands, long-fingered and slender and fragile. Then later, I’ll go back and add in some of the other details, if I need to.

My general rule is as follows: imagine you have just seen this person across a crowded coffee shop. What is the one detail that jumps out at you? How they dress? A particular hairstyle? A face tattoo? Other details can be dropped in as necessary, but one striking thing should be the dominant feature. After all, after meeting someone for the first time, how many of you remember their exact hair colour? Whether or not they had freckles? What their nails looked like? Chances are that you will notice the thing that is unusual. The arrogant man with the bloody, close-bitten nails. The woman with two different colour eyes. The punk kid with the foot high bright pink mohawk. And if there’s nothing unusual, that’s a characteristic, too.

For example, throughout the entire zero draft, there was really only one detail I knew about one of my main characters: the colour of his eyes. They’re brown, not dark like the earth but a golden-tinged honey brown, all warmth and light. A boy’s eyes in a killer’s face.

And that was all I needed. Stuff like hair colour wasn’t as important because it didn’t tell me anything about that guy. Now, I’m putting in a few of those details, because I’m editing my way towards a complete sensory experience, but they’re still less important than that single detail.

Next time you get the urge to put in everything from exact height to genital size, ask yourself this: if your characters had a single defining physical characteristic, what would it be? And why?

*If only because it’ll be easier for people to sneak up on him.