A sentence I revised tonight got me reflecting on one of the tiny, subtle things about writing that’s really difficult to teach — mostly because it requires spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about something microscopic, and unpacking it with twenty or a hundred times the number of words involved. I almost never delve into this when I teach creative writing, just because it burns out my energy so fast.
Consider this line:
“I wouldn’t have invited you if all I wanted was a distraction.”
This is a completely ordinary sentence. Not super-memorable, but it’s doing what it needs to, and that’s fine. What I revised it to was this:
“If all I wanted was a distraction, I wouldn’t have invited you.”
Essentially the same sentence; I just swapped the order of the clauses.
Why? Because the important thing in that sentence is the implication that the invitation was issued for more than one reason. Putting the hypothetical after that dilutes the effect. So I rearranged the sentence to make the punch arrive at the end of the sentence.
Now, in reality a person might well choose the first phrasing. We often talk that way. But the job of dialogue is to create an effect, and while sometimes the desired effect is “the casual structures that mimic real speech,” in this case, that wasn’t the goal. There isn’t a clear-cut rule, though, that says “always put the most important thing at the end of the sentence” — sometimes you want it at the front instead. The actual rule is “pay attention to the rhythm of what you write, not just in aural terms, but in terms of where you’re placing the key elements, and make sure the arrangement directs the reader’s attention toward them, without less-critical elements getting in the way.”
Which is a lot more complicated and subjective. In fact, some of you may question the superiority of my second example over my first. Because it’s not just about the one sentence; it’s about the flow of the overall text. (Unfortunately, I can’t quote the surrounding material to you because SPOILERS AHOY.) And even when the whole is available, there can be disagreements over what works best. But when I read a story that’s competent but never quite comes to life, the problem is often (at least in part) at this level: the material is all there, but the sequencing undercuts its effect. Teaching that to someone, however, requires breaking out the red pen and rewriting sentence after sentence, with explanations for why. It’s a huge investment of time and effort, and in the end, the writer needs to develop their own instinct for how these rhythms work.
I am really, really glad we are getting some distance into Book Two before Book One goes in the can.
We went into this series with a (for me) remarkably detailed idea of where the story was going in the long term. But even with that . . . stuff keeps cropping up. Bits and pieces where we say, hmmm, we have to figure that out — and then what we figure out really ought to be reflected in the previous volume. Or we change our minds on a thing because it will serve our later purposes better to do it this way instead of that way, and isn’t it a good thing we still have the option of revising?
That happened in two places this chapter, one a matter of organizational structure for a group in the story, the other a matter of metaphysics. Sadly, we won’t be able to write the entire second book before we have to ship the first one off into the maw of production, but the further we get, the better. We can still make changes even into the copy-edit phase, though it gets more annoying at that point.
As for the chapter itself . . . we’ve been so busy juggling various balls of plot and such (not to mention the interruptions of day jobs and travel) that our rough draft has been feeling rougher than normal. But we had a marathon day of writing yesterday, and I think that had really good results for us packing in something more like our usual density of description, characterization, banter, and interweaving of plots. Everything this chapter was focused on V in one way or another, which gives it a nice feeling of coherence — that’s something we try to aim for, though obviously not every chapter can have that kind of through-line. (Not without feeling totally artificial in its structure, anyway.)
Poor characters, though. Starting next chapter, we’ll be heading into the moments where all the problems between them bare their fangs and bite down. It’s still going to be interleaved with fun things — capers, trickery, dancing, naptime, small fuzzy animals — but shit’s gonna get worse for a while before it gets better.
Word count: ~50,000
Authorial sadism: The whole chapter? It’s basically “let’s dump problems on this character’s head, whee!” But the “I didn’t know” moment in particular is gonna come back to bite him later.
Authorial amusement: “Will you stop that?” (Brought to you by us noticing we’d done a certain thing, like, three times — so R— might as well notice it, too.) Also, the line about justice being revenge in formal dress.
BLR quotient: I guess when the chapter is a survey of various conflicts, I gotta call it for blood.
Twenty years ago today, I finished my first novel.
I often say — because it’s true — that of the basic foundational skills one needs to be a writer, the last one I acquired was the ability to finish what I started. I was writing competent (if not brilliant) prose, characters, and plots before that point, but none of them meant much because unless you’re a celebrity or otherwise have some kind of “in” with the publishing industry, nobody’s likely to buy an unfinished project from an untested writer. Nor should they: I was living proof that being able to get a good start doesn’t mean you can stick the landing.
Why did that change? I more or less tripped and fell into it. I’d written assorted scenes for the novel that joined up into something like a coherent whole, but a guy in our crit group (the one who is now my husband) pointed out that there were problems with the pacing and so forth. He was right, but for a deeper reason: I looked at what I had and realized it wasn’t the beginning of the book. You see, in those days I tended to leap around writing whatever bits sounded exciting, and unsurprisingly, those were mostly from the middle.
So I made a list of stuff that needed to be set up first — worldbuilding to explain, character stuff to establish — and worked out a path through it all that would let me work that stuff into the story. I spent the first half of the summer writing my way down that list, until I finally was ready to stitch it onto the part I already had . . . and realized I had half a novel.
At which point there seemed no reason not to keep going.
Much of what I wrote for the beginning was ultimately cut. I’ve said before that Lies and Prophecy owes a debt to Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin; the connection is much less visible these days, as I wound up revising out a lot of the material that followed the characters through their lives at college in favor of getting to the central plot more rapidly. But it was still an extremely useful thing to do, because it turns out that for me, the “leap around writing the fun bits” approach is a really bad idea. It leads to me writing stuff that isn’t grounded in what came before, and when the time comes to splice things together, the splicing material is very utilitarian, designed to get the story from Point G to Point J as fast as possible. These days I will occasionally skip ahead to write a scene out of order, and of course the structure of Turning Darkness Into Light meant that one threw much of my usual process directly out the window . . . but I still mostly write in order. I have to, if I want good results.
Like the result of finishing what I’d started. Twenty years ago today, for the first time, I had a complete novel: a long story that went from beginning to end with no holes in it. I didn’t publish it until thirteen years and multiple revisions later, but it’s still a watershed in my career. I have a career because of that moment.
(And for those who have been wondering . . . yes, there will be a third book in that series. Various factors have prevented me from writing it yet, but I haven’t forgotten, and by god, I will finish it eventually.)
For October the New Worlds Patreon will be exploring the topic of monsters! Last year we hit witches, faeries, and various kinds of undead; now we explore the beasts of mythology, starting with chimeras. Comment over there!
I know I post these essays for free publicly, but if you’ve been enjoying the series, consider becoming a patron! You can get access to photos, polls, bonus essays, and more, and keep this project going strong.
Man, it’s ten years almost to the day.
In October of 2009 my husband and I took a trip to India. While I was there, I read William Buck’s heavily abridged rendition of the Mahabharata, one of the great Indian epics, and a side character in it really caught my imagination. Enough so that I thought, I’d like to write a short story about this.
Well, it took me ten years and reading four different English-language versions of the Mahabharata (plus spot-checking details in a fifth), but I finally got that short story to happen! And now, in October of 2019, that story is live at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, in both print and podcast forms.
Also out now: a reprint of my short story “The Snow-White Heart” in Flash Fiction Online‘s October issue. It’s been a remarkably busy short story scene here at Swan Tower lately . . . I like it. 🙂
While my husband and I were in Ireland before Worldcon, I picked up The Irish Pocket Potato Recipe Book, which purports to contain “over 110 delicious dishes.” This is a bit of an exaggeration, as many of them are minor alterations on previous recipes, but that’s fine; it’s charmingly idiosyncratic in places rather than Extruded Corporate Product (even if that idiosyncracy means that sometimes it fails to tell you what temperature or how long or why, if it spends time introducing you to different types of potatoes, it then doesn’t specify which types work well in which recipes).
Last night I made a soup recipe out of it that I liked, but which felt as if it would benefit from an addition. It’s billed as a “Provencal potato soup,” with a vegetable stock as the base, then basil, saffron, onions, peeled tomatoes, and of course potatoes. It came out very tomato-y in a way that I want to balance with something else — maybe a green vegetable of some kind. Spinach is the obvious suggestion, but that would make this nearly identical to a tortellini florentine soup I already make, and I’d like it to be more different. My brain went immediately to bok choy for some reason; I’m not sure if that’s a good guess or not. Cabbage? Something else? Doesn’t have to be a leafy green, but we can’t do any form of squash, as my husband is allergic. And if subbing in X would go better with a swap for the basil and/or saffron and/or garlic, that’s fine; I don’t mind altering the herbs and spices.
If you’re somewhere in the vicinity of San Francisco, I’ll be reading at Borderlands Books this Saturday (the 5th) at 3 p.m. I hope to see some of you there!