Tag Archives: narrative surgery

Scrub Up and Slice In

The revision process for a novel has a series of steps associated with it, much like the stages of grief.

First, you’re kind of enchanted with this thing you wrote, and you spend a lot of time patting yourself on the back: hey look at that neat character I wrote back then, boy that twist was kind of clever, and wow this might not actually be that bad to edit. (See also: my posts from about six weeks ago when I started the current edit.)

Then you begin to hate the thing you wrote, because the more flaws you come across, the more glaring they become and the more likely you are to see more flaws. A snowball rolling downhill, collecting more snow and branches and dead moose until it flattens a town.

Then, resignation: the thing is what it is, and no amount of unicorn-chasing denial or grizzly-bear-wrestling self-hate is going to change it, so with steely resolve, you go to work on it. Narrative Surgery. With no training, no qualifications, and no idea what you’re even supposed to be doing, you scrub up and dive in.

The problem is, like an insane spider’s web, every part of the thing is interconnected. There is no such thing as a “minor correction.” The hip-bone is connected to the leg-bone, but in this metaphor, it’s also connected to the patellar tendon, the lower intestines, one and a half lungs and the eye on the non-heart side (which — surprise! — is not the side you thought it was).

You go to make your incision, to correct that one little nagging issue in the third chapter, and blood starts leaking out of the character resolution in chapter eighteen. You try to tamp that down with a little narrative pressure, but that causes a backup in the side conflict while also necessitating the introduction of brand-new tissue in the opening chapters. You set to work rectifying all this, but because you also have a full-time job and for god’s sake you’re only human, your rectifications themselves are flawed and not as focused as they maybe should be because oh my god there’s inkblood everywhere.


Did I drop my keys in there? I think I dropped my keys in there.

Now you’ve got internal bleeding and contusions popping up under the skin all over the place, and you’re not actually any closer to fixing the problem you set out to fix in the first place, you’re just playing Whack-a-Mole with the fallout from your “fixes.” Worse still, you’re starting to see that the big problem you ignored in the first draft — the one you just stuck a post-it note to your future self on that read YOU DEAL WITH THIS ONE, GOOD LUCK (an actual comment I left for myself around the 1/3 mark of this particular draft) — has metastasized out of control. A broken bone repaired by interweaving itself with all the surrounding tissue. The hive in Aliens that has swollen and spilled over, and now threatens to consume the entire ship. Every blood vessel, every nerve ending, every plot line, every narrative thread seems to run through this one spot, this one tangle of viscera and scar tissue.

And you don’t want to do it. To go to work on this thing will throw the entire project into limbo. The bleeding will be massive, the repair work intensive, the recovery extensive. But that angry little knot, interspersing its evil tentacles through the heart and every extremity of your story, pulses defiantly. Taunting you. And that’s when you realize that you do want to do it, that despite the trauma and triage, despite the emotional and psychological fallout that will surely result, this thing can be saved. It can be made clean again.

So you slice into it.

And as the first gout of narrative blood stain your scrubs, you glance just a little bit further down the chest cavity… and you see another tumor.


So, you know. The edit’s going fine … just fine.

*screams internally*

*dies inside*

*animates self with a straight shot of caffeine to the pleasure center and sheer force of will*

*zombie self continues writing*

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

Writer Moments: The Hero is not the Hero

Funny things happen when you’re writing.

Writing isn’t building a parking deck, with schematics on file at the city office describing exactly how many steel girders go where, how many tons of concrete, how close to paint the lines, how exactly to best get that fresh pee smell in the elevators. Writing is more like surfing. You practice the mechanics, the balance, the paddling and the positioning, but it all means nothing until the right wave hits. But then, when the wave hits, all the preparation goes out the window and you ride what the ocean gives you. (And if that’s not what surfing is like, I apologize. I know as much about surfing as I do about effective lawn maintenance, which is to say, I know it’s a thing that some people who are not me are capable of doing, and I imagine there is some skill involved.)

I’ve learned a lot from writing my current novel, much more than I learned writing the first. The current story has changed so many times that the disassembled cadaver on my table looks more like the bodies of six or seven different deep-sea monstrosities whacked together with crazy glue and culinary twine. It’s either missing a head or it has two heads too many, depending on what angle the light strikes it at. And it’s still not finished. Soon, but not there yet.

And by finished, of course, I mean only the first draft; there is a long period of re-writing ahead of this one, considering all the narrative surgery to be conducted on those half-formed fish-beast parts.

But I am always learning new things about my writing, and a thing I learned today was that this story is about the entirely wrong things.

The chain of events is good. Maybe even exciting. But there was something wrong with my protagonist. I felt a niggling seed of doubt a month or so ago when I axed one of the major supporting characters who just wasn’t doing much. But I’ve been feeling a much fainter, though much more impossible to ignore, sensation at the same time; sort of like how, on a cruise ship, you can get used to the motion of the ocean and forget for a time that you’re bobbing around like a cork, but then a storm hits and you realize, with your entire life at a thirty degree angle, that things are a bit more off-kilter than you realized. And that sensation is that the protagonist of my story isn’t actually the protagonist of the story.

To be clear, this character belongs in the story. She’s even, maybe, integral to it. But far too often, things happen to her rather than the other way around. Kind of like how, in Twilight (and I apologize already for using a Twilight comparison), Bella watches events unfold for three freaking books before she actually does something (and even then, she’s only a small part of what the rest of the world, basically, is already doing without her), whereas Harry Potter grabs his wand and wizard hat (okay, wizards in HP don’t have pointy hats as a rule, but they should) and goes bumblingly about the business of saving the world. Things happen to Bella, whereas Harry Potter goes out and happens to things.

In my story? The character I thought was the protagonist gets plucked out of her own time and wants desperately to get back. And … that’s pretty much it. There are more capable and knowledgeable parties on all sides of her making things happen, and she’s just along for the ride. She helps out here and there, but she never leads the charge. She’s not dead weight, but she’s not slugging above her weight class either.

On the other hand, I’ve got another character who is also plucked out of her own time and also wants desperately to get back, but she fights like a demon against the people trying to help her because she doesn’t believe they’re actually out to help her. She befriends the evil gatekeepers because she doesn’t know well enough not to. Her worldview gets mucked about with more than that bowl full of stale pretzels at the hotel bar, and every time somebody dips their fingers in her sensibilities she fights back and goes in an entirely new direction.

She is, in short, much more interesting than the character I thought was the protagonist. Which means, like a second-string running back when the superstar goes down with an ACL injury, it’s time for her to step up into the bright lights. And sure, this will mean some pretty serious rewriting, but LOLOL I’m going to be rewriting this one for months after the fact already.

And it’s work worth doing, because the story will be better with her at the helm. It’ll be easier for an audience to care about this girl. She doesn’t simply accept the world as it is, she believes it to be better than it is. And when she learns that the world actually isn’t better, she will fight to make it better.

That’s what we want in stories. That’s why Twilight left me feeling empty when I read it. We want a protagonist who does things. We want a protagonist who takes the car out for a spin and yeah, maybe, wrecks it, rather than the salesperson who gets thrown out the window when the whole thing rolls over. We want the guy who grabs the gun and wades into the fray rather than the politician that voted to send him there.

My hero was the wrong hero.

But the real hero has revealed herself.

I can’t be the only one who writes this way. Surely your stories (the ones you’re writing, or the ones you’re living) have surprised you in the same way. Right?

(He shouted into the featureless void.)

The Narrative: Break It to Fix It

So the story is struggling along like a winged pigeon. It’s limping here, stopping to investigate this pile of birdseed, fleeing for its life with halting, awkward steps, trying occasionally to fly and only crashing back to the earth.

Something’s wrong with it, but you can’t put your finger on what it is. You like your premise. Your plot is fine. Characters are not bad either. But when you put it all together, it’s sort of like trying to reassemble the bits of a broken vase. In theory they add up to one complete thing, but in practice it just isn’t happening, and never will, because whatever broke the thing in the first place warped it before it broke.

Still, all the writing advice in the world tells you to keep writing even when the writing sucks, so you keep writing dutifully, pounding your face against the keys in the vain hopes that it won’t suck so bad the next time you come back to it, but each time it’s like you slip a little further down the well, you take another step into the unlit basement, you drift a little closer to the waterfall. Meanwhile you’re doubting yourself. The things you’re writing just don’t feel right, even above and beyond the standard-issue writerly self-doubt that affects all who practice the pen. If you’re writing crap, maybe you are crap, and maybe you should stop writing this really crappy crap and get back to the crap you could be doing that might not be total crap by the time you’re finished with it.

But then, a thought occurs to you, like a lone ray of sunshine piercing through a veil of clouds, or like a ping on the sonar detector you thought was dead when you crash-landed on the alien planet. The story isn’t broken, struggling toward its inevitable awful ending on legs that can barely carry it under the weight of its own suckitude. The story isn’t diseased, shambling forward with shaky, poxy steps while a fever of words burns it from the inside out. The story hasn’t died already, drawing flies to feast on its inkblood oozing out through the plot holes left by your incompetence.

It’s nothing so all-encompassing, so fatal as all that. No, there’s just that one thing wrong with it.

And that one thing is poisoning your entire story.

Maybe your protagonist rescued a bunny from hungry wolves in the first act, and that bunny has turned out to be a real pain in the narrative neck since your hero now has to haul it around to meetings and clean up after it. (I read that rabbit pee can actually corrode aluminum. What a jerk of an animal.) Maybe the plot twist you planted for later in the book is about as unexpected as a jab in the opening round of a boxing match, or a hot day in a Georgia summer.

Problem is, you’ve written the story so far with this one thing in mind, and now you see the thing for the insidious venom that it is, you see it scarring the veins of your precious story, burning the heart out with its slow acid drip. To press on, allowing the poison to remain, is madness; it’ll keep corroding the work, no matter how much you’re now aware of it. To double back, try to excise the poison and correct the damage is just as unthinkable: you can’t throw away the work you’ve done, the time you’ve spent, to begin the Sisyphean task of a massive edit before you’ve even finished a draft. What to do?

Cut off the diseased limb.

Writing the first draft is a combat landing. You parachute in with guns blazing, find a bit of cover and pray to god you can make the rendezvous before your head gets taken off by the shrapnel of an exploding real life obligation. You don’t get to go back and say, no, sorry, I borked the landing, let me get back on the plane and try again. The only way out is through. Got a problematic element? Damn the cannons and ditch the damn thing, then pick up your rifle and wade back into combat. Agonizing over the decision will get you shot, or worse, get you killed: you’ll bog down in the existential doubt over your work, and before you know it you just can’t make yourself pick up the pen today, or tomorrow for that matter, and gosh golly the weekend is coming up, and then you’re dead in the ditch with the thousands upon thousands of other would-be writers who just couldn’t do it because of this or that or the other.

The good news is that if you can survive the incursion — if you can finish a draft — you get as many chances as you like to go back and fix it. Make it less crappy. Take out the bits about boring business meetings and toss in more unicorn deathmatches instead. But you’ll never make it through the draft if your heart isn’t in it. Sure, when you get to the end, your draft might look like a civil war armory after a heavy shelling. It might be dripping with blood and bits of brain, it might be hanging together with the flimsiest of threads, it might be written on chicken bones rattling around in a voodoo medicine bag. But if you can finish it, you can fix it later. You have to pull a rotten tooth to put in an implant. You have to break the fractured bone again to set it properly. You have to break your story to fix it, shatter it into a million pieces and then start looking for the super glue when it’s all said and done.

So, what’s it going to be? Suck it up, tie a tourniquet around the poisoned arm and hack it off at the elbow so you can keep slaughtering zombies with your machete hand (Yeah, I’m mixing my metaphors pretty badly, but THERE’S NO STOPPING NOW)? Or throw your hands up, sit back and die while the poison eats you alive?

Tonight I made the decision to erase one of my three main characters from the story completely. Gone like he never existed. He was dead weight, slowing the story down instead of catapulting it forward, and he’s been poisoning the story since the first day I wrote his name down.

What’s poisoning your story? And how are you going to fix it?

Why I Love/Hate My First Chapter

Beginnings are the worst.

Just ask the guys muscling for position at the starting line of a race; all elbows and hip checks and ankles getting stomped on. Ask the folks dragging themselves out of bed for a pre-dawn workout, fighting against the gravitational pull of the singularity created by a warm bed. Ask the authors, staring at the terrible white expanse of the blank first page.

The beginning of any endeavor is the worst, because each step is a battle. Every inch of ground is an inch that must be won not only from the enemy (your competitors, the weights you’ll lift, the miles you’ll run, the white space you’ll reclaim in ink) but also from your own momentum — momentum that wants to let you slide to the back of the pack, stay in bed, watch TV… do ANYTHING but fight that fight.

So it goes with writing.

I’ve just started a second novel, and MAN is it tempting not to do it. As much as I’m excited about the prospect of a new project, I know that for the few months of fun in drafting I’ll have the long slog of a better part of a year or more in edits ahead. Then, there’s the story itself. I don’t know for entirely sure where it’s going yet. I’ve got some moments and ideas mapped, but it’s still a lump of clay. It needs shaping. The result is that each foray into this new world feels a bit like a fish flopping around on a riverbank: There’s water just over there, just at the edge of vision, and if I can just get there, if I can just find the flow, everything will be okay. Problem is, a fish is designed for swimming, slicing through the water, carving liquid paths in currents and bubbles… the movement comes out as herky-jerky twitching on land, and I can’t even tell if it’s moving me closer to my goal or not.

I’m also pretty sure I’m terrible at writing beginnings anyway. Every word that goes on the page feels like needless exposition; clunky, unnecessary, and obtrusive, like riding an elephant to work. Any attempt at action takes a hard left with an explanation of who this person is, what the place looks like, why it’s even going on… end result? The 3000 words or so I’ve written so far feel positively glacial. My sneaking suspicion is that it’s crap, and I should probably pack this thing in, cut my losses, and do something more productive with my time.


Much as the drafting is frustrating, it is freeing: the first draft is not constrained by the need to be perfect or even good. It doesn’t even have to hang together; it can have unformed limbs, elbows that bend the wrong way, or a vestigial tail. All that crap — the characters that randomly appear and disappear throughout the narrative, the note that you forgot to plant earlier in the story, the the gobs and gobs of exposition that feels like so many monster trucks spinning their wheels, spraying mud all over the walls — can be fixed when the narrative surgery begins, in the edit.

The draft is raw, bleeding genesis, messy and gory, staining the earth red in its wake. (Give me Genesis!)

The draft is rainbows spewing from the netherparts of unicorns, coloring the sky with a riot of sound and fury. It’s a newborn eagle spreading its wings for the first time after its mother boots it out of the nest: nervous at first, stumbling over its own tangle of talons and beak, but then — then! — the wind catches its wings and it soars. The story creates its own momentum and, once tilted over the edge, it rolls and tumbles and picks up crumbs and absorbs stray cats and it barrels down the hill, absorbing everything in its path.

At least, that’s how I think it will be. I’ve only done this once before, after all. But having done it once, the inertia is that much easier to break; the fear of failure is that much easier to overcome.

The first draft is awesome.

The first draft is awful.

The starting is the hardest part, but the good news is, as long as you keep your momentum up, you only have to start once.

Achievement Unlocked: First Edit Complete!

There’s a great moment in Hook, that early 90’s Peter Pan reboot, where Tinkerbell suddenly grows to human size and her house explodes around her as she embraces her true feelings for Peter Pan, confessing her undying and eternal pixie love for him.

Actually, that moment was a little bit weird. Creepy, even, somehow. But that’s off the topic. She unleashes a blast of magic she didn’t know she had, and with a demure little gasp of surprise, she yelps, “I did it!” Just as much in shock as Peter.

Well, that’s me right now.

Because I did it.

I bound up the sprained ankle I mentioned in my last post — you know, the one where I stepped in a literary pothole — and heaved myself bodily across the finish line. And that’s it. It’s over.

Well, not over over. But the first edit is over. Like really, legitimately, no-more-bullsharknado over. The only thing left now is one final pass for formatting, and then I can put the last nail in the coffin and decide who I’m going to burden with the first reading of this coalesced glob of proto-babble I’m tentatively calling a book. And for that step, I’m allowing myself no more than a week. One week — seven days — and then it’s time to figure out who I trust enough to tear my crazily crafted tapestry to shreds.

But here’s a dirty secret. I didn’t want to be finished. No, that’s not right. I was dying to be finished. No…

Truth be told, I was 50-50 split on whether I wanted to be finished with the whole thing or whether I was going to undertake another massive rewrite. It would have been easy to take the rewrite and stretch the process out for another month or more. So easy. I could still do it, in fact.

The fact is, I just slapped a band-aid on the problem of the disappearing character. She had disappeared without a trace, and I just wrote a magical exit from the narrative for her. (There’s magic in my story; I can totally do that.) Solving the problem she presented for me consisted of writing a single paragraph and changing a few sentences in the chapter at hand. That’s all.

But while I was writing the easy fix, a bigger fix crept into my head. A divergent fork in the road. The road overgrown with weeds and bramble and teeming with dark critters and glowing eyes floating in the mist. And this time… this time… I decided to let the harder road be.

You can bet dollars to doughnuts, though, that I wrote down the idea for the rewrite in case I need it later.

So, that’s that. The first edit is concluded. Or so nearly concluded as makes no difference. Concluded in every practical sense. Pat it on the head, send it on its way.

So what does that mean? It means it’s time to stop thinking of this novel as a pet project and get serious about the business of turning it into an actual book that you, reading this, can actually hold in your actual hands. Or, you know, into a collection of ones and zeroes that your handheld computer can belch up at you without the need for all that clumsy processed tree getting in the way. Either way.

And then…

And then, I guess, it’ll be time to don the greasy garb of the pit fighter to begin once again the dirty work of drafting something new. Because momentum matters, and just because the first edit is done is no reason to consider the work finished.

I was reading some notes by Stephen King about how he prepares to work on a story, and he wrote rather anti-eloquently that he gets the idea in mind and then just goes about his life until the muse — and I’m paraphrasing here, but the operative words are definitely his — shits on his head. Maybe I should start carrying a roll of toilet paper around in my man-satchel.

You know, just in case.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

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