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‘Behind the Writer’s Curtain’ Category

  1. How to Rewrite a Novel: The First Three Steps

    August 7, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    In junior high school, I had a math teacher who was part hipster, part geek. He wore white dress shirts, skinny black ties, black glasses, and always had what he referred to as “a plan of action.” I don’t recall what his plan was, or what action it required, but a plan of any kind appealed to my need for control.

    When I write a novel, I plunge in without a plan of any kind. I’m like a detective on a mission of discovery, following a character to see who she is, what messes she gets into, how she gets out of said messes, and how she changes as a result. It makes for an exciting first-draft experience.

    Then—groan—comes the rewrite.

    Here’s where a plan of action would come in handy. My “plan” in the past has been to read through the manuscript, rearrange parts willy-nilly, make a mess of the whole thing, and stuff it back into its cardboard Kinko’s box.

    I have no clue how to tackle a rewrite. Oh, I’ve read books galore on what’s needed plot-wise, character-wise, theme-wise, and every other wise. I’ve strapped on my monster backpack like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, weighed down by all the knowledge I’ve crammed in, and forged ahead on the long trail to rewriting glory, stumbling down roads many have gone before:

    • Resistance Highway
    • Distraction Detour
    • The Avenue of Doubt
    • The Street of Avoidance
    • The Rearranging Roundabout
    • A pit-stop to ask for directions
    • The Valley of the Critic
    • What looked like Plot Paradise but was really a pothole
    • Recharge Vista Point
    • Busyness Boulevard
    • Quitting: a dead end

    On I’ve stumbled, hither and yon, ending right back where I started: with a pack of knowledge and a manuscript snipped into pieces and stuffed into a cardboard box.

    Not this time.

    This time, as I rewrite my novel behind the writer’s curtain, I’ve got a plan of action. I’m mapping the journey step by step. Starting with the first step.

    Are you ready?

    (Drum roll, please)

    Step One

    Set the manuscript aside.

    Whaaat? That’s a step? 

    Believe it or not, it is. A step back. We need the perspective, and our writing needs some breathing room.

    What do we do while it’s breathing? Well, we can do any of these fifteen writing exercises, or work on another writing project, or catch up on our reading, or tackle any of those household chores we’ve put off—if we haven’t already done them as a way to avoid rewriting that novel.

    When the month is up (or whatever time we’ve allotted), we’re ready for:

    Step Two

    Read the manuscript.

    Oh, this is just too easy.

    Not really. When we hunker down and read the thing we might find ourselves groaning, or thumping our forehead with the flat of our palm, or throwing the pages across the room, or eyeing the paper shredder.

    But at least we know where we are on the map. We have some idea of how hard the journey might be. And we start thinking about getting the tools we need to sally forth. Which brings us to:

    Step Three

    Pack yer gear.


    You know, the stuff we need for the trip. Here’s a list:

    First aid supplies: supportive family, friends, and blog readers to prop us up

    Maps: Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, or whatever plotting device we choose to use. Guides, like books, experts, and internet sites to provide the details we need to flesh out the story.

    Food: whatever sustains us when the going gets tough, like inspirational quotes, and treats.

    But let’s not load ourselves down, or spend too much time packing. After all, we’ve got miles to go before we submit.

    This time, I’m better prepared. I’ve read my manuscript. I’ve spent time delving into additional research. Now, with Beat Sheet in hand, I know where I am, and which direction leads to the Land of Publishable Novels.

    Off I go!

    Stay tuned for more action plan steps as I report from the trail.

  2. Rewriting: Making the Commitment

    July 24, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    When we commit to a thing—a relationship, a project, a way of life, a new habit—there comes a time when the road gets rocky. There comes a time when we want to walk away, call it quits. “It’s too hard!” we say. “I can’t do it! This isn’t what I expected!”

    Those statements may be true, but unless the relationship/project/action is a threat to our mental or physical well-being, commitment means staying engaged, no matter what.

    Rewriting a book is like having a relationship with a person. You get acquainted, you check for strengths and weaknesses, you get feedback from others, and you either walk away or take the relationship to the next level.

    But first, you meet.

    The project begins

    Someday, I want to publish a book. The book I publish might not be the one I’m working on now, behind the writer’s curtain. Similar to marriage, if we’re lucky, we land the right guy or girl the first time we date. But usually, it takes a few practice relationships before we develop the skills to forge a lasting bond. It takes dating some bozos before we attract the best match. But that doesn’t mean all those clowns are a waste of time. No! We learn something new with each relationship.

    I accept that this novel might be the practice one. I’m sharpening my skills. And it’s good to take the pressure off, knowing this is a learning experience. Once I mastered that mind-set, that I’m showing up every day, putting in my hours or minutes or whatever time I eek out to learn this craft of rewriting, then all that’s required is for me to make the effort.

    So, I carve out three days—Friday, Saturday and half of Sunday—to devote to my rewrite. First up: read the whole thing.

    As I read, I try not to futz. I resist the urge to straighten the collar and flick lint off the tie and pull up the socks. I just read.

    It’s been at least six months since I’ve looked at my manuscript. Plenty of time to have an unbiased viewpoint. Plenty of time to conclude I need to toss at least half. And not wince at the thought.

    “Okay, it has a pleasing voice, there’s something interesting here, but the front end needs work.”

    I’m able to make this assessment without cringing because I’m not in the throes of first love anymore. The rose colored glasses are off. With time, I’m able to see the flaws as a reader would, not as a writer. And that’s what we’re doing in this first reacquaintance with our manuscript. Reading as a reader.

    So far, so good.

    The project stalls

    After checking out my novel, it’s time to start dating.

    When dating, we get to know each other. We get a closer look at what this person is all about. What is this person’s history? Is there a turning point in their life that affected them? What crises has this person been through, how do they deal with problems, and how evolved are they?

    It’s the same when looking at our manuscript.

    We’re looking for structure, for character arcs. We’re looking for plot points or beats or whatever method we’re using to shore up our story. This is the getting-to-know-you stage: Is there a foundation here, a story, or is it a series of incidents with no conflict? We wouldn’t settle for a boring relationship. A reader won’t settle for a novel where nothing happens.

    At the dating stage, we might need to lower the bar. This guy isn’t Brad Pitt, this girl isn’t Angelina Jolie, but hey, they’ve got a beating heart, right? And they’re decent, and successful on some level, and worth spending time with.

    Well, this novel of mine has a beating heart, but it’s faint, somewhere in the middle. And it’s not bad; I mean it’s not like a third-grader wrote it. The voice is strong at times, and there’s sorta a story in there somewhere, and it’s successful in the sense that I got a first draft down. That’s something, right?

    But first, I need to know what this story is about.

    “Well, it’s about this beatnik who…”

    “It’s about…”


    Trouble. I’m in deep doo-doo. I can’t get a handle on what the piece is about. I ponder. I rack my brain. I bang my head on the desk trying to shake something loose. A premise.

    “Maybe I should choose one of my other novels. One that’s a whole lot clearer.”

    Week one, and I’m ready to throw in the towel. Surprised? Not likely. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I’m a self-confessed commitment-phobic. The act of agreeing to do anything permanently makes me feel like I need to breathe into a paper bag.

    But wait…I vowed to commit to finishing this rewrite, right? Last week I blabbed it to the world. Or at least to sixty people.

    “Maybe they’ve forgotten,” I tell myself. “Maybe I’ll hang up the Gone Fishing sign and go outside and play instead. They’ll never know.”

    These are the thoughts that rattle around my brain. As they rattle, no premise breaks loose.

    The project resumes

    And then comes this reminder…

    It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just choose something. Anything. You can always rework it. Like a sculptor with clay, you keep at it until the shape comes through. Look at this as practice, not like you’re writing The Great American Novel.

    And just like that, the pressure is gone. Poof!

    Like any good relationship, rewriting a novel takes effort. It takes willingness to stick it out during the easy times and the rough, because—surprise, surprise—it ain’t all smooth sailing.

    That’s where vows come in—a reminder not to walk way.

    So, in the spirit of taking that final step, I am officially inviting you to witness my joining of self to novel. Gifts will be accepted after the ceremony.

    I, Diane, promise to show up at the writing chair every day, even when I don’t feel like showing up, even when I’d rather be reading, or eating a chocolate truffle from See’s, or cleaning my refrigerator. I promise to remind myself how I love writing, though at times it feels akin to having my toenails peeled back. I promise to honor the process, reminding myself that all writers get stuck and want to give up, that we’re all constantly honing our craft, trying to become the best writers we can be. And I promise to respect my work, even when it stinks—especially when it stinks—because it’s part of becoming a better writer.

    Takeaway this week:

    Do you have a project you’re committed to doing? Try writing your own vows. Post them as a reminder. Make a ceremony out of it; invite family and friends. Insist on gifts.

    Okay,  maybe not gifts.

    Just chocolate.

  3. Free Your Voice with These Seven Rules of Writing Practice

    July 3, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    Natalie Goldberg, in Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, spells out her rules of writing practice. If you haven’t read them, do. You might want to post them where you write. Let them be your guide behind the writer’s curtain.

    Here are my seven golden rules. Use them to limber up your writing muscles, or, if you write by the seat of your pants, for first drafts. Some are variations of Natalie’s, because they’re that good.

    1. Celebrate writing badly

    Give yourself permission to write the worst stuff on earth, in case it shows up. And it will. When it does? Celebrate. Laugh, snarl, be your own bad self on the page. It’s all good! All of those cliches and disjointed sentences and half-eaten thoughts. Purge that stuff onto the page until your inner editor walks away in disgust. Be a bit manic about it. See where the energy leads. It’s like brainstorming, saying yes to every bad idea. “Bravo! Keep ‘em coming!” You’ve got to get that junk out of the way to find the gold that’s buried underneath. Don’t cross out that sentence, don’t back up on the keyboard. Forge onward!

    2. Write quickly

    Delight in the wind in your hair, the pedal to the metal, ripping down that byway, the words flying, scattering across the page. No pulling over, waiting for the right phrase, the best image. When you find yourself searching for the right word, just write any word. A string of words. And then move on. Quickly. Write in a condensed period of time. Five minutes. Fifteen. Keep the fingers moving on the keyboard, the pen flying across the page. It frees the brain, unsticks the sticky parts.

    3. Don’t make plans

    Be spontaneous on this writing journey. No baggage. An idea, that’s it. Maybe not even that. See what comes. And then riff. Improvise. Say “yes, and…” to every character, every thought, every mood that appears on the page. See the scenery. Hear the voices. Feel the feelings. Taste the tastes. Be in the experience, not in your head. See where the path leads.

    4. Surprise yourself

    It happens naturally, if you don’t make plans. You follow a character and it leads you to 1940’s San Francisco, the Haight. You follow the sentence and it leads you to a circus in Moscow. You follow a street in Paris and it leads you to a story about how your heart broke open from loneliness. Follow, follow, follow, or you won’t get there.

    5. Be a rebel

    Set your voice free. Don’t worry so much about sentence length and active voice and all those writerly rules you’ve learned over the years. Just write whatever comes, in whatever form it takes. As author Jerry Jenkins says, get that hunk of meat down on the page so you can carve it. Chances are, if you give your voice free rein, the amount of carving needed will be minimal. Because here’s the thing: if you break the rules, you know the rules. And all great writers know their craft. It’s there, in your subconscious. You’ll be surprised how much of it bleeds through.

    6. Be a beginner in an expert’s world

    If you know your craft, there’s the expertise. Now show up with a beginner’s mind. What is beginner’s mind? It’s looking at everything new again. What does that sycamore look like? What does that bubble gum ice cream taste like? What can I explore, discover, in the topic of which I write? Fit your tiny feet in those oversize high heels and totter around pretending to be a fancy lady. As a writer, you’re always playing make-believe. Be that child again, experiencing the world for the first time.

    7. Give up, but not on your work

    I wrote this post after spending twenty minutes trying to force a piece that wasn’t working. I finally gave up, walked away. Forcing something never works. Best to let whatever wants to be born come through, slip out. And it will! Easy. When the needle is stuck on the record, playing the same thing over and over, you’ve got to jiggle it. Give it a nudge. Then the music, the ideas, flow. So, when you’re expending too much effort, stop. Walk away. But not from writing. Just from what isn’t working. Later, if the piece is meant to be, it’ll come through.