Plastic Surgery, Novel Style

Industrious bee...if only revision were as bloodless

I completed the most gruesomely delicious month of manuscript revision. I’d received feedback from an interested agent — the most simple and straightforward, beginner-ish feedback that I’d heard in a loooong time. Little did I know that I needed to hear it.

The agent said, I felt the manuscript slowed in the two chapters before the murder and got muddled. I also felt like I lost the voice a little bit, which was so strong in the earlier parts…I think if a scene or dialogue doesn’t serve to move the story forward, you should cut.

I read the two specified chapters while attempting to inhabit her point of view. Which is to say, with pure objectivity. Lo and behold, something clicked. A big ol’ whopping, humiliating, painful, Homer-head-slap DOHing, light flashing, baseball-bat wielding CLICK.

I ended up cutting half the text and combining the chapters, the whole time pondering the weirdness of the brain, or maybe my brain. I can’t tell you how many times I’d ransacked the manuscript. But it took a near stranger with an interest in sales potential over all else to inspire a fundamental shift.

With the fundamental shift in place, I cut, sliced and hacked the entire beloved but aggravating thing. In the process of carving away the fat, a couple of muscular plot ideas appeared, lean and mean and there all along. It was like magic, sharp-edged magic, but magic all the same.

Poor thing needs to heal for a week before I pull out my bloody revision implements once again. Maybe all it will need is a punch here and there. That would be good. Bruises heal faster than cuts…

Then we’ll see what wounds the agent has in store for it. Once the plastic surgery starts, does it ever end?

Reapplying the Bum Glue

My fiction shall not go the way of these African violets!

It’s not that I haven’t written since the economy tanked and my financial situation turned precarious and the contract work I found took over my life in an incredibly stressful way…It’s that I haven’t truly been writing either. Know what I mean?

There’s a self-discipline to sitting down to the writing. There’s also a self-discipline to clearing life-stuff out of the way so I can sit down to the writing. I’m out of practice with both.

So, this morning, I gave myself a lecture:

  1. Whatever you do, do NOT roll over for the return journey to slumberland. It’s your own blasted fault you accidentally read until 1:oo a.m.!
  2. One hour, just one hour, of writing is a-okay. Self-sabotage alert: my all-or-nothing mindset is not working! Look at Michael Robertson, who spoke at the writers conference a few weekends past; he mentioned that given his day job, he writes in 45-minute chunks. A little before work, a little at lunch hour, a little after work.
  3. Turn on the computer and. just. WALK. AWAY. Do not pass go, do not collect stressors from the email queue and distractions from Facebook! However, do open the manuscript so that it greets me when I return with my coffee.
  4. For a change of pace, maybe I can relax with my coffee for 15 minutes before starting the computer hunchback routine. Maybe I can open a novel by an author I admire, turn to any page, and read to get my juices flowing.

Happily, I achieved the written word today. It’s still not enough — there goes Little Miss All-Or-Nothing again — but it’s what I can do right now.

The truth is, I wrote for one and a half hours. The truth is, if I can wiggle past the daily distractions and day-job triggers, the one hour often turns into more.

BOUCHERCON 2010 | Books and Booze by the Bay

Free books. Paradise!

If you haven’t heard of Bouchercon, it’s the annual trade show for mystery writers and their fans. This year it was held in San Francisco, the land of noir.

How could I not love riding the elevator with Laurie R. King and receiving a kind word in response to my desperate attempt at chit-chat? As I recall, I mentioned that I knew her long-time editor way back when.

Or Hank Phillippi Ryan. For a long while I’d only known of her through the Jungle Red group blog. In real life, she was gorgeous, and she was gracious with everyone, famous or not. I almost followed her around in true stalker fashion. I’m not kidding.

Or Heather Graham. Not quite knowing who she was, I babbled something inane (much alcohol consumed, very little sleep…you get it). She was perfectly nice in response. But why oh why was I going on about that old Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy”?

Or sitting with Bryan Gruley in the bar and thinking, This dude is such a cool dude. Anyone could comfortably put back a beer with him without realizing he’s a fabulous writer. (And he’s good-looking too.)

Or running into Gayle Lynds in the bathroom while she was primping. I asked her if I should know who she was — faux pas anyone? She responded with a twinkly little squint so I pretended to recognize her name when she said it. Here’s the thing: Now that I know Lynd’s name, I’ll look for her books.

Or chatting with nice-as-pie Harley Jane Kozak about her agent, whom I also used to know back in the day. Or introducing myself to Dana Stabenow because we were in that Elizabeth George anthology together…

Here’s the only “however”: I participated as an agent-less novelist, with no published novels under my belt. I noticed that a few attendees ceased to be interested in me when they discovered my lowly publishing status. Sad to see the networking gleam fade from their eyes.

BUT, here’s the “however” to the “however”: Librarians and other fans are the best! I don’t know how many nonwriters I met who were enthused to hear about my novel, who wanted to see me in print, who asked for my business card.

As an exercise in extroversion and schmooze-practice, I give myself a 3.2 out of 5.0, and most of that is for effort rather than execution. It’s all good, and I made a bunch of new friends, discovered dozens of new authors, and lookee here: I’m so enthused, have I started blogging again?

I’m Skittish

I think Mr. Greenie is feeling a little skittish too.

I’ve been meaning to write a couple of blog posts for over a week now. I wanted to plug a local novelist, Naseem Rahka, whose debut novel, The Crying Tree, just won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award.

I also wanted to write a post about the first annual Terroir Creative Writers Conference held in McVinnville. For non-Oregonians, McVinnville is a sweet little town in the heart of wine country, about 90 minutes from Portland. The word “terroir” is a winemaking term, not, alas, “terror” + “noir.”

Yet another novel idea preoccupies me. The air-fairy kind of preoccupation that involves a list of everything that interests me right now and a lot of nonfiction reading. Going from one topic to another, letting my mind wander in an imaginative way…Letting the subconscious juices burble…

But enough of that already. Last week I forced myself to get concrete. It’s one thing to amble around in the land of, Oh man, I’d like to write a story that incorporates x and centers around y — quite another thing to actually have a story idea.

So, last Monday, I opened a Word document. I wrote, “I want to write a story about (insert air-fairy inkling here)” and spent the week asking myself a million questions. By Friday, I had almost two pages of particulars (character names, location, central plotline, some backstory, an ending that will probably change but that’s okay).


I’m skittish. The last couple of novel ideas haven’t panned out. I almost have a complex! Second-guessing myself, perhaps, or, worse yet, trying too hard. By which I mean, trying too hard to write something that will for-sure get me published (as if there’s ever a “for-sure”).

This time around I’m trying to listen to my body for those “a-ha” moments that might indicate that I’m onto something worthwhile idea-wise. And I’m trying not to dismiss the fact that my idea seems…well…too outlandish — maybe even stupid?

But what is too outlandish these days? And what’s stupid anyhow? I don’t even know what I mean by that word when I use it. Must be my fear talking, right?

Channeling Novelist Diana Abu-Jaber

Current mood: prickly
Current mood: prickly

I’m highly frustrated right now. I’m supposed to be having fun, experimenting, if you will, with a thriller-ish kind of story so I can improve my plotting and pacing skills. Well this you-know-what’s hard!

I feel like I don’t know anything anymore. Maybe I haven’t mastered as much writing craft as I thought, and I’m telling you, I’m about to throw this lousy thing out, give up, go back to wallowing in all my bad writing habits because at least I was having fun.

It’s interesting because by concentrating on plot/pacing, character automatically takes a backseat. I’m a character gal. I get all inside their heads, so looking at story from a different perspective is whacking out my brain. And I know I might receive comments that both character and plot are important. But of course — but, you see, I’m focusing on plot right now.

I’m reminded of novelist Diana Abu-Jaber. She’s one of those gorgeous, plotless writers. Her prose is full of every kind of sensory description, especially when it comes to food. Crescent is one of my favorite novels simply for its loveliness.

A few years back I heard her speak at a literary festival. She’d recently come out with a — GASP! — mystery. Yee gads. This fascinated me. I read the novel beforehand, and the gorgeous writing was still there (so it was a literary mystery), but so was the suspense. That is to say: the plot.

Here’s what she had to say about her genre switch:

“If you want to learn plot, write a thriller or a mystery.”

“I really needed to get me one to those things — a plot.”

She said she started out with a snobbish attitude, like it would be so easy — it’s just a mystery, right? She tried everything, and her editor kept sending back the manuscript with notes like, “Make it better.” She had to learn how to plant clues, build suspense, and create a great villain. She said that at one point her editor reminded her that we’re not supposed to know who the villain is until the end of the story. She said it was HARD and that now she has the utmost respect for thriller/mystery writers.

From a craft perspective, she started over. But she did it. And if she can do it, so can I. So now I’m channeling Diana Abu-Jaber in hopes that some of her patience will rub off on me. Because I am losing patience. With myself, with the process, with the story itself…sigh…

INSANITY | My Poor Thesaurus

I murdered my thesaurus.

I just sent a message to a few friends. What I want, of course, is for them to reply that I’m not really insane. That this kind of thing is normal and happens to the best of us. I won’t believe them.

Thought I’d share it with you too, because, hey, this is my life as a writer at the moment. The other side of the coin when the writing’s not going well, when indeed you’re wondering: What’s the point of my life?

What I wrote:

I think I’m going insane. Yesterday, I accidentally overwrote all my work on a course module, then started it again, then watched myself (in a fog of something) click NO to saving the changes, and lost it again. I had a complete and total meltdown – the kind in which you pace and cry and scream and want to kill something and you even look at the dog for a millesecond before you throw your beloved thesaurus (not the pocket-sized kind) across the room hard enough to break it in half down the spine. I think in psychiatry they call this “devolving.”

And then today, I couldn’t get stuff on the laptop to work right (or maybe myself to work right) while in a coffeehouse for my supposed lunch hour, and I turned into one of those crazies you sometimes see muttering to themselves and swearing under their breaths and making loony-tune faces.

AND THEN: I somehow forgot that I was on a teleconference call, UNmuted, and proceeded to throw a fit at my computer complete with the f-bomb, and I was pretty darned audible. And it was a childish fit – completely mortifying and I can’t stop obsessing about my mortification. My cheeks are still burning up two hours later.

Something’s seriously wrong with me these days.

So maybe you’re thinking that my subconsious is telling me something. As if I didn’t already know that I’m veering off my best path! Yesterday as I was coming off my meltdown I ruminated as follows: I need money, and I’m only technical-writing for the money. Well then, if I’m going to work for the money, why don’t I attempt to write a romance or a paranormal or a suspense novel? I mean, if I’m working for money wouldn’t writing any type of fiction be better than what I’m currently doing?

Last night, I had to laugh (maybe there’s hope for me yet), however. I’m reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, and I happened to read this passage: …and I’ll spend my declining years in a grimy bed-sit, with my teeth falling out one by one. Oh, I can see it all now: No one will buy my books, and I’ll ply Sidney (read: editor/agent) with tattered, illegible manuscripts, which he’ll pretend to publish out of pity. Doddering and muttering, I’ll wander the streets carrying my pathetic turnips in a string bag (picture my beloved thesaurus), with newspaper tucked into my shoes…Oh God. This way lies insanity.

That’s exactly how I felt, how I have been feeling.

P.S. Later: Just discovered the teleconference session was recorded, and my fit of pique — to put it quaintly — is out there for all the muckety-mucks to hear — again.

Almost Forgot St. Paddy

Wow, 1:30 p.m. and I just realized it’s St. Patrick’s Day. There’s no reason I ought to remember except that I’m part O’Brien and those O’Briens like to spread around their Catholic guilt — even within my heathen veins.


Interestingly enough, I’m emmersed in all things Irish at this moment. I’m swimming in mist and rain, in gloom and dreariness. I’m exploring drystone walls and green landscapes, Celtic tumuli and Medieval relics. Atmospherics everywhere, or so I hope.

My novel is about as contrary to St. Patrick and his missionary goodness as you can get. If anything, I might, just possibly, poke a little fun at Catholicism. No offense to anyone; I figure I can because it’s a sickness that runs in my family. (Kidding! Kind of.)

I’m on the tail-end of this revision. Really. I am. Down to the individual words. Got a wearying list of them I’m “Find”ing because I ran into them too often while reading the printed manuscript. Various forms of the words “shiver” and “lurk.” “Gaze.” “Creak.” “Glance.”

And, for some reason, “smile,” too. Despite the fact that my characters are running around on a serious quest, I’ve got them smiling alot–usually as subterfuge. Gotta remedy that.

This is THE most boring revision task. But it’s necessary, so return I must. Back to all those blasted smiles.

Have you noticed that you fall back on certain words when drafting your stories?

One Manuscript, One Dog, One King-Sized Bed

Big enough bed for all of us
Big enough bed for all of us

Frankly, I’m delirious with exhaustion. I’ve set myself another one of those quick-reading goals during another one of my self-imposed writer’s retreats.

It’s not so much reading a 400-page manuscript in 48 hours that’s got me tired. It’s this task after multiple deadlines I had to complete before I took off. I get that way sometimes, where I gotta clear the decks. So, over the past week, I completed the current revision (goes without saying since I’m here reading it), dealt with my taxes (yikes), met a day-job deadline (hefty), and wrote the short story I mentioned in my last post (compulsive purge).

Trellis wishing for its greenery
Trellis wishing for its greenery



I’m not going to pat myself on the back until I finish this quick-read. One-hundred-fifty more pages to go before I leave this sweet little hotel room tomorrow. And then? Pleasure reading and sleeping and nothing else for a solid 24 hours! I have a light novel waiting for me. The latest Candace Bushnell, whom I’ve never read before. I already can’t wait.

This time around, I’m not splurging on a plush ocean-front view. However, I am lodged on the grounds of a pet-friendly botanical garden called The Oregon Garden. The Oregon Garden Resort opened in October, and it’s so fresh the breeze smells fragrant as a horse stable — all that manure and spring planting. Mmm, I love that smell. It comforts me, reminding me of the horsey girl I once was.

Luna's probably nibbling a little manure back there
Luna's probably nibbling a little manure back there

It’s quiet up here in the foothills, in the middle of nowhere. The Oregon Garden is a tourist attraction that never took off, so I suspect. That’s why this resort now exists with its great package deals. Last night I snuck into the gardens after dark. Frogs and gurgles and weird rustlings accompanied Luna and me. A misty half-moon gave scant light, and I bumbled around with a scaredy-cat thrilled rush, imagining bogeymen, while my dog stopped every ten feet to sniff at doggy delicacies.

But tonight, it’s all work, no play.

And how is the manuscript this time around? Better, much better! Last November, in the ocean-front room, I was mired down with uncooperative story threads. Also, possible new scenes, flow issues, and so on.

First arrivals
First arrivals

This time, I’m hiccuping on smaller stuff like awkward sentences and overused words/phrases. I’m amazed, actually. My story is growing up!

I’m an efficient quick-reader by now, and I’ve created a convenient shorthand. Underlining means come back to this sentence or paragraph because something ain’t right. “WW” means “wrong word,” as in: Is this the best I could do? Or, as in: You’ve already overused this word; get a new one. “Segue” means crappy transition or jumpy thought.

I’ll be up late tonight pushing this exhaustion to the max. But so worth it!

Foul-Weather Mood

slushyWhat a change from yesterday’s green-day bouyancy. The weather mimics my current mood: slushy and gray.

I only had one day-job task today, and it should have taken 30 minutes. Instead, one hiccup led to another, and then it was noon. By then, the weather had turned most foul, and I found myself pacing my apartment in restlessly annoyed agitation. I’ll admit it: Today the day-job interfered with my fiction.

Now I want to throw in the damp, smelly towel (the one I used to dry off the dog after our walk) on the day. This is the struggle with fiction: getting it done despite our foul-weather moods. Am I right, or am I right?

I had a goal: work through a significant portion of my revision notes. I was going to go to th—okay, wait, the electricity just flickered off, the monitor went black but came back, thankfully. I’d best hurry because there might be more of that. But this is my mood! I’m flickering off for the day. I want to head back to bed.

As I was saying, I had a revision plan that included a coffee house, but now I’m not into people. I need a compromise that gives in a little to my slushy mood but not all the way in. Sometimes, the only way I progress is by negotiating with myself. Do you do this?

petsI’ve experienced many a fiction-curtailed funk. Who hasn’t? I’m trying to remember what I’ve done in the past to settle myself down into that special state of mind that my stories like from me, that brain-space that’s fluid and steady and calm, exactly where I’m not at the moment.

In the past, I’ve told myself to write one page. Just one, then I can quit. Often, of course, this leads to more. Today, I hereby coax myself to remedy five bullets-worth of revision notes, the easiest ones. Five easy fixes, that’s all.

And, to further lull me into getting the work done, I shall do this in my unmade bed. What’s the point of a laptop if not getting cozy with it in an emergency situation? The cat and dog are snuggled in and snoozing away at this very moment. So, I’ll join them with laptop and revision notes in hand.

REVISION | Old Thought, New Take


I’ve been working on the current revision in fits and starts since the fall, all the while doubting one aspect of the story, and all because long ago an agent rejected it with the comment that the romance was underdeveloped.

Fine, if I’d written a romance I’d have serious problems, but I didn’t write a romance. However, for years her comment followed me around, so I started to think it had merit in a way I didn’t yet understand.

The truth is, my protagonist does end up with one of the male characters. But the fact that she does isn’t the point of the novel. You know what I mean? If that were the point of the novel, it would be a romance.

But it’s not a romance.

Yet, since the agent rejection, I’ve pondered the love subplot, feeling vaguely uncomfortable. There is something off about it, isn’t there? I thought of adding scenes that showed the pair miscommunicating, coming to terms, falling out again, and so on.

But this would turn it into a romance, a completely different story altogether.

So here I am, right now, sitting with marked-up page 196, my breakfast/lunch, and an epiphany that arrived while I scrambled eggs with spinach. And what a bloody relief! Years, I mean years, this thing has been noodling at me every time I thought about this manuscript.

Ready? Ta-da: It’s not that I have to change the novel to fit the end. Rather, I need to alter the final chapters so the love aspect doesn’t read like it was the point of the novel.

Does this make sense?

It does to me. It’s so simple! And I’m sitting here quietly celebrating as if I’ve discovered the ultimate writing secret. Now, I’m gung-ho again. It’s like magic.

The real mystery is why it took me years to figure out this simple fix!