Editing While You Write



Editing While You Write

There are some authors, like Alistair MacLeod, author of No Great Mischief, who are well-known for editing their work in progress–they have a penchant to pause over each word, looking for the perfect one.

Some writers also are in the habit of stopping during a writing session to evaluate the quality of their writing.  But by and large, I don’t think it’s a good idea. If stopping to edit resulted in “Hey, what a lovely turn of phrase,” I would withdraw the objection. But more often, it degrades into a negative judgement fest. More typical thoughts are “This is junk or “I can’t do this” or “It’s a stupid idea.” Or any other phrases which portray the work as flat, stale, and unprofitable.

In addition, if you edit during the creation phase, you may make premature judgments. Half way in, you may convince yourself that a particular character doesn’t work, can never work, and has no right in the novel. But if you continue including the character, you may find that there is a crucial role for him which only reveals itself as the story roles out.

Frankly, I think this is all a manifestation of writer’s block, so I would avoid giving the pernicious phenomenon a chance to infect you.

Isn’t editing a good thing?

Absolutely. It is the time to catch obvious mistakes of place or season but also a chance to decide whether the whole thing hangs together and whether your characters are as compelling as you want them to be.

But you do it once you’ve finished what you have to say. At least the first draft. Then, you can go to town on editing and even should.

How to avoid self-editing while writing

It can be a hard habit to get out of but I encourage you to try. Instead, just keep writing even if you are morally certain that the scene isn’t going anywhere. Take the scene to its logical conclusion before you wash your hands of it.

I know this feels as if you are pushing a rock up a hill, but often I have found that how you feel about the writing as you are writing has little relationship to its quality or usefulness. A piece you are convinced isn’t worth keeping, may be considered by others as a great, or at least a good, piece. I know you don’t believe me, but honestly, it often works out that way.

Unfortunately, the converse can be true. You think the piece you wrote is Booker Prize material only to get a lukewarm reaction. Just goes to show you that you are not good judge of you own writing in the heat of the moment.

It may seem to make sense to edit as you go, but this is your efficiency side talking. I hope you let your creative side take you where it will rather than stopping to judge a work in progress.

From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach


From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

I know I have mentioned Norman Mailer before, but I can’t find where and in any case, I’d like to go into more detail on his approach than I did originally (I’m pretty sure). Specifically, his realization that you can use an emotion you understand to inform a character in a situation you’re unfamiliar with. He said that although he’d never been a soldier, he knew what it was like to be in fear for his life. He used that emotional appreciation in his debut novel, The Naked and Dead.

Applying the Mailer approach

This is a great way to use events which have happened in your own life to inform your writing without necessarily recreating the original scene. Let’s work through the process.

  1. Consider a character you’re having trouble with. You can’t seem to get the feel of the persona. Say you’ve created an alien on an alien spaceship. Needless to say, you’ve never experienced this situation.
  2. List what you think isn’t working with the character. I don’t care about him. He seems stilted and unreactive.
  3. Pick the biggest problem. Let’s take stilted and unreactive. On the one hand, the stereotype of an alien might exhibit just such qualities. On the other, readers being alienated from your alien doesn’t foretell gripping involvement in your novel. They need to identify or at least empathize.   What do you want the character to be? Spontaneous and curious.
  4. Look into your own life. Take a moment to think about a time—a specific time—when you were spontaneous and curious. On a camping trip when you were ten? The first time you went to a museum? When you turned the car around and went in the opposite direction than planned? Whatever it is, drop into the scene again. Take in all the sensuous details—sounds, smells, images. And tap into how you felt. Excited? Calm? Floating?
  5. Apply to the problem. Take that compendium of feelings and sensations and write from that space, but about your character. How does he feel (show, please)? What does he do? How does his alien nature change, warp, or enhance the feelings you had? Let it flow.

It’s not foolproof

I’m not saying this always works but it can kick you out of a stuck place into something more productive. You’ll know if it’s working if your writing feels emotionally true, even given the alien setting.

In addition, this approach is somewhat mechanical just to illustrate the point. If you can conjure the feelings in your own life and apply them to the character rather than going through these steps, by all means do it. The more organic you can make the process, the more likely it will live on the page.

But sometimes, using auto-biographical bits in your fiction can cause trouble. Next post.

Safe Writing

safeSafe Writing

I know I’ve been driveling on about appearing naked on the page and telling your emotional, if not literal, truth. I absolutely believe that this is the way to compelling story-telling. But it is exhausting. And frustrating. And makes you long to retreat into safe writing.

What is safe writing?

It’s your fallback position. It’s what you find easy to write—whether action, romance, or humor. We all have comfort zones where we feel that we’ve mastered the craft involved and the subject no longer terrifies, if it ever did.

I know a very fine writer who could write sensuously and sensitively about sex. This is no mean feat—most of us have trouble with this type of scene, worried it will be too much or too little; too crass or too vague. But she mastered them. Except for a problem which can be true of any type of fallback writing. Often it seemed that when she had a choice to go deeper into the characters, she would veer off into a sex scene. And since she did it very well, the reader was distracted away from what might have been a more fruitful area.

I’m not suggesting avoiding what you’re good at, but it’s important to be aware when you might be using it as a crutch. Or, better analogy, a scenic route that allows you to avoid the main road.

Why do writers do this?

Risk-free writing is self-protective

I think a common reason is the one illustrated above. Going deeper into the characters usually means going deeper into yourself. Which is undoubtedly scary. A character’s conflict with her mother may bring up painful memories of your life. To avoid revisiting these uncomfortable feelings, you instead create a mother and daughter who get along, support each other, and have each other’s backs. Which you probably can’t write convincingly as you didn’t have the experience of that. So, might not be good writing but it protects you.

Unfortunately, these painful areas are often where the gold is. When you use your experience of similar thoughts or feelings to inform the characters’ psyches, they ring truer because they are truer. Remembering being abandoned and allowing these feelings to be with you as you write can make powerful writing.

But only if you are willing not to play it safe.

Or derivative

The other, more practical, reason to avoid safe writing is that it is often bad writing. Protecting yourself from unpleasant feelings keeps you on the surface. And then the piece feels derivative because you’re not bringing your authentic self to it. The unique voice and perspective that makes you worth reading.

Do I need to be wild and crazy?

No, you don’t need to be wild and crazy in your writing. Unless that is actually you.

But there are two things that you can try to get out of safe writing.

The first is play. Play with what a scene or a character might look and feel like if it was more based on you than on some ideal. Don’t have to use it in your final manuscript but run up a trial balloon.

The second is to be brave. Say you try the experiment and you find (as I think you might) that the worts-and-all character which reflects some part of you is more absorbing than your original writing. Take a deep breath and see if you can use your true feelings as you write.

I know—back to exhausting and scary. But worth it when the real you shows up in your writing.

I Have a Bunch of Scenes. Now What?



 Have a Bunch of Scenes. Now What?

The last post dealt with creating a novel through writing manageable chunks.  I’m not advocating actually writing in such a mechanical way as I prefer a more haphazard, and freer, method. But whichever approach you use, you’ll eventually end up with a bunch of scenes, all of which may tend in the right direction but don’t necessarily read like a fully-realized novel. Which is probably true.

Sub-plots and other useful bits

The main plot is of course important to a novel whether it’s the growth/decline of the protagonist, the resolution of a mystery, or a couple finally getting together. However, it has other components which are equally important. They have to do with creating a fully realized world into which your reader can happily immerse herself.

The setting

In some novels, say ones in the Arctic, the locale itself can almost be a character. It’s not necessary to go that far, but your characters and their actions need to appear in a context. While writing all the little scenes, you have undoubtedly included some background setting. Now, you should review them to see whether you need to amplify or otherwise enhance the setting to create a fully realized world.

This doesn’t mean simply more description although that might be a component. Ask yourself whether the setting itself can and should prompt your characters’ actions. A storm in a forest might clarify or emphasize your heroine’s bravery or timidity. Work lay-offs could reveal how your protagonist reacts to crisis.


Another way to create a fictional world is to trace what happens to other characters in the story. If we return to the Martha story from the last post, does she have a sister, Tanya, who finally rebels against the shoddy treatment Martha dishes out? Rather than just write that one scene to illustrate Martha’s ruthlessness at home, you can create a whole story for Tanya. What was it like growing up with Martha? How has it shaped Tanya’s life? How did she get to the breaking point? Why now and not earlier or later in her life?

There you are—a sub-plot.

Scenes sewn together

A variety of sub-plots makes the reading more interesting and your fictional world deeper and more complex. But it isn’t going to work as a novel if all you have are a bunch of linear sub-plots. Clearly, they need to be woven together.

Actually, during the writing itself, these links and crossovers may have already occurred to you. Hey, Martha could need Tanya to do something for her and Tanya ‘forgets.’ Go with them, by all means.

But in the editing phase, look to where you might be able to kill one or more birds with one stone. For example, say you’ve decided that Tanya is as selfish as Martha. Rather than a scene where Tanya is being selfish and another with Martha demonstrating the same quality, why not show them fighting, both trying to get their way? If you add some setting, you have the beginnings of a fully and more integrated novel.

I have to say, the whole time I’m writing this I have an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. Breaking down a novel into parts is simply a way to show that it can be constructed from little scenes. PLEASE don’t write your novel that way. Let the imagination flow and creativity reign. It is only in the editing that you can and should be more analytic.

Novels are Too Big to Write


Novels are Too Big to Write

Many writers are daunted by the thought of tackling a novel. Takes too much time, I don’t know how to do it, I don’t have the creativity for a whole novel, etc. etc.

What do you like to read? If you live exclusively on a diet of short stories, you can skip this post. But if you also read novels, why aren’t you writing what you like to read? Because, it takes too much time, I don’t know how, yada, yada, yada.

But here’s a secret that famous authors such as Alice Munro and Carol Shields know.

Long pieces of writing are made up of short pieces somehow sewn together. [1]  

I know Alice Munro is known mainly for short stories but her novels, e.g. Lives of Girls and Women, are a series of long short stories woven together.

Novels are little stories sewn together

The problem is that, as a reader, good novels don’t feel like just a series of short stories hung together. They flow, they have a plot which runs the course of the novel, they feel as if they have sprung out of the head of the author as one perfect piece.

They have not. Okay, maybe there is a Mozart equivalent who can go directly from head to finished product, but for everyone else, it’s a more piecemeal activity.

I’m going to break down an example in quite a mechanical way just to show you how it’s done.

An example—Martha, the ruthless

Martha, a ruthless, self-absorbed woman, walks over everyone at work and at home. The novel will end with Martha getting her comeuppance. What are the little scenes you need to write?

Establish Martha character

Near the beginning, you need a scene where Martha shows her character. So, what event or situation would demonstrate this? Humiliating a young colleague in front of co-workers? If important, you also need a scene of Martha being destructive in her personal life.

What happens to this character?

  • She identifies her goal (getting her boss’ job?). Show how she comes to that decision.
  • She trades on her boss’ weaknesses. She sets him up to look indecisive or incompetent to his boss. Probably need a series of scenes on how she engineers this. As the big boss probably needs more than one incident to decide that Martha’s boss has to go, she sets these up, too. Also several scenes.
  • Is it smooth sailing for Martha or does she run into shoals? Shoals are always more interesting. Who or what might impede her? Does her boss catch on? Need a scene where he realizes this. Does he need to make sure he’s right? Another scene where he tests his hypothesis.

How does she get her comeuppance?

How does her downfall come about? Who is doing it and why? Scene needed. What is the plot to bring her down? A series of scenes. How does the comeuppance roll out? A big climactic scene.

As I said, this description is more mechanical than the writing process would actually go. I did this only to show how a story can be broken down into a series of scenes, all of which are manageable length. Writing them puts you on the road to a novel. There is, however, how you sew the scenes together into a novel. Next post.

[1] Shields, Carol, Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing Random House, Canada, 2006 p.24