The Missing Bits

It’s not fair! I went on a personal writing retreat and while I was gone, all the lovely fall colours that had barely begun to emerge before I left, arrived and departed again.

In late October, for instance, the leaves of our ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maple tree were their usual deep burgundy. While my back was turned, they turned… and fell. All that glorious colour is now merely a blood red puddle on the ground. I missed the best part of the show.

While I was pushing to craft my draft novel for NaNoWriMo, I had no thought for what might be happening back in my garden at home.  When I returned, it was a shock to discover a gap between what was, and what now is.

And as I read over parts of my budding manuscript I recognize a familiar truth: there are gaps in my storytelling, too. While I know what happened, my readers are not being given the privilege of seeing those rich details for themselves. They’re still in my head. Mundane bits can be skipped over, but there are some happenings that should be captured in the narrative to add spectacular colour to the story.

I may be back from my offline writing retreat but I still have almost three weeks of NaNoWriMo writing to do. When December arrives I’ll be doing major revisions on the new story that’s currently obsessing me, and I’ll remember the bare trees and all those leaves on the ground. My revisions will include the addition of missing details and description.

(A click will enlarge for a closer look.)

What kind of details do you think readers want to see? What kind would they prefer to skip over?

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“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about,
he may omit things that he knows.

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to
only one ninth of it being above water.” 

Ernest Hemingway
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Glorious Colour or Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud? (Take #2)

When tasks get ahead of me, the calendar gives me the eagle eye, and I don’t have the energy required to catch up… something has to go, and today it’s the blog. With memories of the Surrey Conference still fresh in mind, I hope you’ll excuse me for re-running this post that was originally inspired by Jack’s rendition of the Hippopotamus Song.

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With apologies to Jack Whyte (from whom I learned the song) and Flanders and Swann (who wrote the lyrics), I could think of no better title for this post.

There’s no getting around it. Colour affects me. I’m forever remarking on the multitude of greens in the early spring, or trying to describe the perfect tint of pink edging a garden bloom. It took literally months (ask my exasperated husband!) before I could settle on just the right shade of sage green to repaint our family room walls.

I haven’t had my oils out for a long time, but I well remember the times I dabbed and mixed colours trying for a hue that was exactly right  – working and reworking the colours on my canvas until suddenly I’d gone too far and they were muddy. At that moment there was no way to reclaim the desired effect. The only remedy was to take a palette knife, scrape the canvas clean and begin again.

This morning as I struggled with revisions to a particular scene I muttered about its lack of colour. Characterization was okay but the setting felt artificial, two-dimensional. There’s no lack of information on this subject but knowing and doing are too often a chasm apart. I thought I knew what was needed.

I closed my eyes for a moment and visualized the scene. Then I let my fingers loose to bring descriptive life to it. I gave them free rein, and when they were done I sat back and read the accumulation of words.

Oh, my! Purple prose, with adjectives and adverbs galore! I went through the paragraphs stripping away the superfluous, but that just left bare bones that poked ugly elbows at me. Like a bad painting, the whole thing was past redemption. I’d gone too far. Delete. Delete. Delete. I’ll rewrite from scratch tomorrow.

Colours1Glorious colour is an ethereal glow. Like stained glass its beauty is not in itself but in the light that pours through it, effortlessly enhancing without drawing attention to itself.

That’s the effect I want in my writing.

That’s also what I hope to achieve with my life.

“I am the Light of the world”

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JULY #WIPMADNESS – Week 1

Quick disclaimer to my regular readers. Each Monday during July we’ll be joined by a few rabid writers who are committed to their goals and will be checking in here to report their progress and encourage each other. Please feel free to stick around and join in the banter and goal-setting. (You’ll be eligible to take part in the weekly draws, too.)

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You’ve found me, fellow Wipsters. Yes, this is the Monday check-in place for July’s #wipmadness. I put the coffee on and set out virtual goodies in the hope that some of you would find your way here.  A few non-Wipsters may pop in and help themselves, but most of them are writers, too, so I’m sure you won’t mind sharing.

Did flipping the calendar page yesterday and discovering JULY shock you as much as it did me? Not just because the weather here is still more springish than summerish – I can’t ever recall wearing a winter-weight sweatshirt on the first of July before – but because it proclaimed the year is now more than half gone.

What that means is the goals I set at the beginning of the year should be half achieved by now. But let’s face it… some of the one-month goals I set for just the month of March Madness are still in limbo, so I’m not even going to dare peek at the annual ones. (You can snicker if you want, but are YOU on track to meet all the goals you set for yourself in January or March? In April? May? June? Honestly?)

Sometimes we simply have to wipe the board clean and start again. Goals, objectives, resolutions… whatever we call them… have a way of getting stale. After a while our enthusiasm gets a little wobbly in the knees.

It wouldn’t hurt to take a hard look at why our current goals motivated us in the first place. Were there deadlines to meet, self-imposed or otherwise? Was it a Shiny New Idea we wanted to develop? Maybe a step in the journey towards publication we were anxious to complete? While the goals may have been perfectly logical in the light of January or March optimism, they may seem a little limp and weather-worn now.

Now is the time to look deeply into the heart of our projects and find their inner beauty… find new inspiration in them. It’s time to re-evaluate our goals, find a different approach, and set off with fresh determination. One idea might be to pare goals down into smaller chunks… say, for a week at a time, instead of the whole month. Put gratification within reach.

Artist and author Julia Cameron has a suggestion:

“Sometimes it is difficult to confront our work directly. We lack the nerve to look squarely at the course that lies ahead. This is our fear, and all artists have it. When we are fearful, it is best to sidle up to our next creative jump. Take pen in hand. Number from 1 to 5. List five actions that are indirectly related to your creative work. For example:

  1. Get the extra papers off my desk
  2. Organize my work area
  3. Wash and fold the laundry
  4. Buy new artist supplies
  5. Buy envelopes and stamps to make submissions

Choose one action from your list and execute it.”

That’s today’s challenge for you. Make a list if you think it will help, but decide what it’s going to take to draw fresh joy or satisfaction from your writing project. Then tell us the one action you’ve chosen for this week and how it’s going to help you reach your long term goal.

(Then again, if you’re not bogged down like I am, and are hiking happily along the trail toward your goal, feel free to just list this week’s objective.)

THERE ARE PRIZES!!!
(Of course there are. Did you expect I was beyond using bribery?)

Each Saturday I’ll draw a name from those who comment on the previous Monday’s post, and there will be a prize for the winner. This week’s winner will be able to choose one book from my basket of novels.** I’ll keep all the remaining names, and at the end of the month I’ll draw an extra name to win a copy of Julia Cameron’s book, “THE SOUND OF PAPER.”

How does that sound? (Ack!!… is that a bad pun?) Will it help motivate you during this month when you might otherwise prefer to don your sunglasses and take a holiday from your characters and their dilemmas? I hope so!

Now, let’s hear your actions of choice for this week, or your fresh July goals.

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** Contents of my basket of novels:

  • THE WHOLE TRUTH by James Scott Bell
  • SNOW DAY by Billy Coffey
  • NOT MY DAUGHTER by Barbara Delinsky
  • THE INNOCENT MAN by John Grisham
  • CROSSING OCEANS by Gina Holmes
  • THE DAUGHTER’S WALK by Jane Kirkpatrick

(It’s impossible to get me to part with my newer books yet, but I’ve read these ones, and am ready to share.)

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Starting again from scratch

One of the flower beds at the front of our house is looking bleak. After fifteen years of neglect, several cypress shrubs were overgrown, and pruning worsened their appearance. Like the heather I muttered about last month, they no longer turned an attractive face to the passing public. (Don’t take me literally. I know they couldn’t be seen from the street, but I need a bit of literary license to bolster my rationale!)

Each summer I planted different annuals around them to pretty up the space. A few weeks ago I decided it was no longer helping. So, last week DH and I made the big decision to dig everything out (including the three offending heathers), and we’re starting from scratch.

Fifteen years of weeding, watering and pruning. All that work. For nothing. Well, I suppose not entirely for nothing since the bed looked reasonably nice for ten of those years. The problem is, cypress really aren’t the right plants for that location, but I didn’t realize it fifteen years ago. The only plants we’ve left behind are two helleborus orientalis (lenten roses), which have managed to survive surprisingly well despite being hemmed in by the cypress.

I had hopes for a permanently lush, satisfying-to-behold garden bed, but am now resigned to all the work it’s going to take to begin again. More plant research. Money spent at the nursery. Some back-aching soil amending and digging.

Sometimes we have to do the same thing with a novel. We might spend a year (or several) writing it, fiddling with it, editing and revising, but it never quite meets our expectations. There comes a point when we accept it has no future. If we like the premise, the only option may be to toss out all the old words and start from scratch with new ones. Abandoning all the original work is a tough decision, but what’s the alternative?

Pardon me while I go hunt up my pen… er, I mean my shovel.

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Have you ever had to abandon your darlings and start over again? Did the new writing take less or more time than the original? Was it easier or harder?

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Culling (or, logging your manuscript’s debris)

Culling is a term familiar to most farmers, ranchers and wildlife management officers. It means “to select and remove something without value.”  My DH’s recent logging efforts culled several spindly trees from an area in front of our house. He removed those that had already died and fallen over as well as others that were crowded and struggling for sunlight and nourishment, and wouldn’t survive another summer’s heat.

 

During recent manuscript revisions I culled words – chopped them out as ruthlessly as if they were dead trees destined to become a fire hazard. I slashed at superfluous adverbs and adjectives, descriptions that served no purpose except to pad the word count, and a whole chapter containing a sub-plot that distracted from the character’s journey.

It took weeks to write those words, and just about as long to get rid of them. Some were quite lovely, rolling nicely off the tongue as they did. I was rather fond of them but they had to go. I’ve heard other writers refer to the process as “killing your darlings”, but the brutality of that is too much for me. I prefer culling. It sounds less violent, although I guess they’re just as dead.

The trees will go to a chipper and live again as mulch on a riding trail or garden path. The words? They could show up in a different manuscript or short story, or I might just let them sink below the surface of my creative conscience. If they were unnecessary before, they’ll likely still be without value next time I’m tempted to dredge them up.

Do you find it easy to edit out debris in your writing or is it painful to let go of hard won words?

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Overlooking the Obvious

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You never know what you’ll find when you keep looking. During my visit to Vancouver Island last week I went beachcombing. I was hoping to find sea glass —  bits of broken glass reshaped and frosted by the weathering of salt water and sand.  Thanks to the efforts of my companions I came home with several pieces.

There were other treasures, too: an assortment of shells, attractive stones and driftwood fragments to add to my small collection at home. I also discovered a piece of branching coralline algae, or coral seaweed.

Dr. J. Floor Anthoni, in his article, The intertidal rocky shore, says,

“Coralline algae could well be the most amazing plants in the sea, as they are found from the shallowest rock pool to deeper than any plant can grow; from the cold temperate seas to the warm tropical coral reefs where they are perhaps the most important reef builders.” With deposits of calcium carbonate around their cell walls they can be found encrusted on rocks or as “articulated” branching plants.

(Click photo to enlarge)

This little piece, like the sea glass and shells, isn’t uncommon on our coastal beaches, but it was “a find” for me… one I almost missed. The delicate white branches were easy to overlook among the rocks where the waves had left it, because I was focused entirely on searching for coloured glass. Now that I have it, I think it may become the dominant feature of my whole collection.

Here comes the inevitable writing analogy. (You knew there’d be one, didn’t you?)

During my last two weeks of ms revisions I’ve been bent on streamlining passages, cutting superfluous words and unnecessary scenes. I’ve removed an entire sub-plot, and deleted a chapter. (I hasten to qualify ‘removed’ and ‘deleted’ by saying I paste any significant sections into a blank document to save, just in case I change my mind.)

As I slashed away, I almost … but not quite … did the clichéd toss-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater thing. I axed a gem. Well, perhaps not precious words by someone else’s standards, but a small scene that, when stripped of unessentials, stood out as the ideal way to show an aspect of the protagonist’s character that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Fortunately, I realized what I’d done and was able to retrieve the treasure.

In both cases, on the beach and in my manuscript, I learned that it’s possible to become too focused on one thing and thus miss something else more important.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you worked through a revision only to feel you’ve lost something valuable en route? How can you ensure it doesn’t happen again?

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Are you focused on the future or fixated on the past?

Storms don’t last forever, and neither do vacations. If you’ve read my earlier posts this week (here and here) you’ll know I’ve been away all week, but today it was time to return home.

As we sailed away from Vancouver Island the sky was reminiscent of the two storms we had experienced. Hurricane-force winds on Monday eventually died down to gale-force ones on Wednesday. In between, there was driving rain, sleet and snow, and even a few tantalizingly brief peeks of blue sky. On the whole, it wasn’t pretty! Thankfully, our daughter‘s home suffered nothing more damaging than fifteen hours without electricity.

Today we happened to choose seats in the ferry’s stern lounge, so had a view of the glowering clouds as we left the Island behind. By the time we reached the mainland the sky was clearing with the promise of a better weekend. Those storms that had so recently consumed our attention became a distant memory.

Now that we’ve reached mid-March and I reflect on my writing progress over the past two weeks, I know how easy it would be to let myself get fixated on what I didn’t get done. While I managed to revise twenty-four chapters, after the first couple days I made absolutely no progress on my current w.i.p. No new words at all in two weeks. None.

Right now is when I need a good lecture! I need to tell myself to walk away from the stern — stop looking back at where I’ve been. Instead, I should get myself up to the bow and focus on my destination.

Today is the mid-point of March. I still have two full weeks in which to create those new words. Are you with me? Let’s get at ’em!

Have the past two weeks been productive ones for you? What’s your goal for the next two? Where do you want to be on March 31st?

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“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.”

[Isaiah 43:18-19, NIV]

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The Writer’s Brain (that place where ‘the right word’ disappears)

I hate those days when I sit down to write and my brain won’t cooperate. It’s not that Ms. Muse isn’t around, but that the perfect and plentiful thoughts she provides instantly disappear, falling into the shadows of my cerebral cortex before I can secure them on the page.

It’s not dementia or writer’s block, but that infuriating bleakness in my head I call the creative wilderness. It’s a cavernous void lurking somewhere between eureka and gotcha, where amazing ideas slip away into the dark, whirl around in a vortex, and finally re-emerge, frosted with mediocrity. I had a morning like that a few months ago, when a brilliant idea shimmered for an instant, then dropped out of sight. I struggled to grasp the elusive thought but the words I eventually dug up were lackluster. Nevertheless, they provided crude building blocks, so I pinned them onto the page and continued to write.

Then during recent revisions, a glimmer of the original idea flickered into sight. The sun came out; the temperature rose; the chill receded. I wrote furiously and the scene became what I had long ago envisioned. Gotcha! Finally.

There is a moral here… something along the line of persevering even when the Muse shows me a cold shoulder. Not getting bogged down searching for the perfect words when they’ve been temporarily sucked out of reach. Believing that I can always return to make the inadequate better, but if I allow myself to get dragged to a standstill waiting for the desired words to reappear, the rest of the story may never get written.

Are you one who has to make every scene perfect before moving on to the next, or do you ‘write like the wind’, getting the basics in place, knowing that you’ll strengthen the weak spots in later revisions?

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New Perspectives

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While visiting one of my favourite blogs on Thursday, Susan Atole’s Just… a Moment, I was intrigued by the unusual perspective in her featured photos. She said it was on the High Calling Focus blog that she encountered a challenge to lay on her back for taking photo shots. It was a challenge I couldn’t ignore

This unusual perspective offered design and reflections, glimmers of colours and shapes not previously noticed. The ordinary became extraordinary.

There’s something to be said for lifting our eyes beyond the obvious. If we always look at things from the same perspective, we’re going to keep seeing the same things in the same way. It’s true in life, and it’s true in writing.

I’ve been doing some editing for a friend, and am appalled at how often I’ve found an error in sections already line edited several times. “How could I possibly have missed that?” Every time I read through a chapter on the computer my brain insisted on reading what it expected to find, not necessarily what my eyes were seeing. It wasn’t until I printed the manuscript and read it in the new format that more errors popped out at me. For the final proofing I printed it again, but in a different font, and found still more.

A new perspective provides fresh inspiration when we’re bogged down writing a scene, too. Where do we go when our only idea keeps leading us to a proverbial brick wall? Sometimes we need to take the story on the road … write in a different environment, use different tools, maybe give the scene to a different character.

A different perspective tricks the brain into shifting its thinking. And that new viewpoint may be all that’s needed to stimulate the mind and send it off in a fresh direction.

Besides laying on your back, how might you achieve a new perspective for an existing project? Has a new perspective ever helped you out of a dilemma? 

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Today I’m also talking about Dealing with Transitions at The Pastor’s Wife Speaks Blog. Please click on over and join me there. [I’ve just learned The Pastor’s Wife Speaks blog will be discontinued at the end of November, so this is my last post there.]

Imperfections in Life and Writing

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The autumn colours entice my camera and me out onto woodland paths where vine maples are showing off.

Returning to the back yard I check the lone tree that stretches toward the garden from within the woods. Its colours are changing, too, but I’m disappointed to find a brown blight that spots its leaves.

It has always been spindly, so often nodding in the shade with only a small section able to reach out to the sunlight. The rest of the trunk is perpetually shadowed by crowding evergreens, its roots covered by creek dampened and mouldering debris. Most years the leaves manage to remain clear, but not this year, and I wonder why. There is still a rustic beauty in the etched colours, but it’s blemished. I resolve to clear away the smotherings and try for a better result next year.

I wonder if God looks upon my life efforts, sees the blemishes and is disappointed in the the lack of loveliness in my seasons. Still… in all my imperfections I am one of his creations. Each new season is a fresh opportunity. Each day I can begin again.

There is a comparison in my writing as well — seasons when my well-intentioned writing has faltered and been less than stellar. I labour on to complete the draft, encouraged by the prospect of future revisions. I can make it better.

Renewal  ~  Repentance  ~  Revision

The ongoing cycle seeks to improve, reaching towards elusive perfection.

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Ten months of 2011 have passed. Do you notice things that you want to do differently ‘next time’?

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