Writerly Wednesday–The Key to the Enigma

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing is weird. Being a writer is weird. As a writer, you spend most your time thinking about people and situations that aren’t real. You hear voices in your head and see visions. And yet, you aren’t schizophrenic or delusional. It’s a good thing. It’s encouraged.

The weirdest thing about a writer’s mind is, maybe, how it just bubbles away beneath the surface. How all the pieces hover there, just waiting for that bright, shining thread to connect them into something coherent. I’ve had the experience before, and I recently had it again with my current WIP. You’rr struggling with a plot knot, or with a character who just isn’t working. You beat your head against the wall. Nothing. And then! Then the idea is there-your subconscious has somehow worked through it and in a moment of calm, the subconscious pops into your conscious with a solution.

I had been struggling with one half of the setting of my WIP. Something just wasn’t working. It wasn’t anything I could name, but everything was coming out loosey-goosey. It didn’t cohere. I tried a hundred different things: I tried adding characters and switching up the particulars of the setting. It still just wasn’t working. One day as I sat on the bus reading some nonfiction research on the topic, it came to me in a blaze of understanding: move the MCs out of the relative quiet and isolation of an English country house and move them right up to the front lines of war. And bam, just like that, everything seemed to click. In a lot of ways, the setting wasn’t that different. But it was just different enough.

I had a similar experience with Channing. For the longest time, it was set in Baltimore. It took me a while, even after I moved to the DC area, to have that “duh” moment. I don’t know why it took so long, and it’s hard to say exactly what it was about Washington City (i.e., DC) that clicked. It just did.

More recently, as I was writing the prequel to Channing, I found myself battling with Emily’s storyline. Most of it worked, but it just didn’t come together properly. Then, I was reading one of the Outlander books, and there was a scene on a dock and, boom! I knew how to rearrange Emily’s story. Just like that, I found the winning formula. Then another revelation as I walked home from the bus stop one day: pride. That was Emily’s defining trait. That and the idea for a scene at the docks came together and, finally, I had a storyline I was happy with.

I think this kind of eureka moment is a sign that I’m getting better at this whole plotting thing (you’ll notice most my duh moments have to do with plot). It’s not my strongest point, and it doesn’t come all that naturally. I have to push and prod my ideas into a compelling plot. And it seems that my brain is learning how to work that out. It’s coming up with solutions. Years ago, on much earlier projects, it was just fumbling around, and those moments of clarity didn’t come. I was still learning how to make it happen. Now my mind, at least the subconscious part of it, has some idea what it’s doing. If only I could get my conscious mind to do the same . . .

Writerly Wednesday–Bouncing Around

This is going to be an informal kind of blog post, just an update of where I am in my writing. I recently finished editing a manuscript (The Prequel) in response to beta-reader comments. I got back one set a while ago and got the last of the second set of comments about two weeks ago. I was overall pretty pleased with the response. Both readers enjoyed the manuscript, and neither of them had any major problems with it. There was, funnily enough, some disagreement on a few points. One was the title, which one reader liked and the other didn’t. It came from a particular paragraph, which one reader noted she liked and the other noted she didn’t like. So, go figure! In instances like these, I go with my gut, which usually tells me to keep what I have! Both readers agreed that they didn’t like two of the four main characters, but they weren’t written to be likable, and both readers realized that, as well.

I sent the manuscript file off to my agent yesterday, so we’ll see what comments she has. This ms is a prequel to Channing, the story set in Washington DC and the Sea Islands of Georgia in 1854-1858. It’s titled The Cotton Wars and is about the parents of several of the characters in Channing (specifically Harry’s father, Everett’s father and mother, and Hannah’s mother). It takes place in Philadelphia and Georgia starting in 1829. For the record, I do have some very nebulous plans for a sequel, as well, set during the war and Reconstruction.

I finished writing The Cotton Wars ages ago now. I edited the hell out it, especially Emily’s story line, which took forever to get right (the key to Emily, I came to realize, was “pride”). I, however, couldn’t stand not writing new material, so I began a new project. This has been one bear of a project, let me tell you. After banging away at it for months, I finally came to the end of a horrible pile of dreck that weighed in at a whopping 125k words. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t entirely dreck, but it was massively flawed. I allowed it to sit for a while and have finally gotten back to it over the last two months or so, having worked out some of the kinks (funny how the subconscious works away at these problems while you go about your daily life). I’ve been rewriting it and am up to about 65k words. There’s a ton more story to go, but I’m going to hope for the best in coming in under 120k.

You’ll notice that I’m thin on the details. That’s because of the “dreck” thing. This manuscript is a departure for me, as it isn’t exclusively historical and since there’s a framing story. Most the story is historical, but it’s not an era I’ve written in before. All of that is why the project has been such a bear and why I don’t think it’s anywhere near presentable. In fact, this one might end up abandoned in that lovely trunk where sad little novels go to . . . well, maybe not to die, but to molder. We’ll see. This’ll be my last major attempt at a rewrite of it. If I’m not content with where I am–a bit of smoothing-over notwithstanding–then I’ll abandon it. I have at least two other projects to fall back on, projects that are more in my comfort zone (though challenging in other ways).

Time will tell.

A Literary Announcement

Anyone who has read this blog is aware that it has two distinct threads: there’s the history thread (which began with a focus on ancien régime France but shifted to 19th century America) and there’s the writing thread. I’ve blogged a bit about my writing process and given sporadic updates on where I stand in the querying game.

I am pleased to announce that I have signed as a client with Erin Niumata at Folio Literary. I am now one that rare bread of exotic and elegantly plumed birds: an agented author.

The work that snagged me representation by the wonderful Erin Niumata is a historical novel, Channing. It’s set in the Antebellum south and is about a young woman who ends up married to the owner of a large Georgia plantation, and a Quaker who ends up in Georgia for very different reasons.

Now, before I go any further, an explanation of what getting an agent does and does not mean: It means that I have cleared that first, crucial hurdle in the pursuit of becoming a real-live published author. Agents are the primary gatekeepers, and they get (electronic) piles of queries. For a writer, querying agents is a monumental, soul-sucking effort. It’s hard just to get a response, no less an offer of representation from (more on the numbers below). Suffice it to say, it’s kind of a big deal to get an agent. It is, however, just the first step. It means I get to pass on to the second round of gatekeepers: the editors at the publishing houses. They will decide whether to buy the book and publish it. Getting an agent means that I’m a step along a very long road. It could take years before the book is in bookstores near you. And no, there is almost no chance I will get rich (that seems to be something that people think who aren’t familiar with how publishing works). First-time authors generally don’t make enough to live on, so I’m not going to be the next J.K. Rowling.

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Channing.

Channing began in 2010. I was studying abroad in England, getting my Master’s degree in Publishing. I had recently finished my most recent project, Grove of Venus, about ancien régime France and had been querying agents. I was getting good responses but needed to start on something new (I can’t not write). For some reason, I hit on the idea of a duel. That was the spark of an idea that became Channing.

(For the record, Grove of Venus wasn’t my first manuscript. I wrote a 120k word novel set in Roman Britain, but that one is permanently trunked. As for Grove of Venus, it is on the back burner but definitely not forgotten. My response rate for that novel was pretty good, better at least than for Channing. It was, I think, the name “Marie-Antoinette” that attracted attention.)

At first, Channing (which of course wasn’t called that at the time) was going to be set in Georgian England. Mostly, I think that was because there is a limited number of times and places where dueling—of the kind I was picturing—actually happened. I chose England in the late 18th century because, well, I was living in England and dueling was a Thing there in the 18th century. My original idea was something like: girl falls in love with guy, girls and guy are secretly engaged, guy is killed in a duel right before they’re married, and—well, that was as far as I got, really.

Two things changed my mind: a book titled Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman, and a memoir by an English actress named Fanny Kemble who ended up married to the owner of a large Georgian plantation. As it happened, Fanny Kemble’s memoir, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation had a much greater influence on me and, consequently, on Channing (by the way, the title is the name of a plantation, not a person, and has no special significance). The memoir inspired me to place my duel not in Georgian England but in the state of Georgia before the Civil War. It was April 2010 when I started thinking about placing the story in Georgia. In July of that year, I returned to the United States. It’s also the first time I labelled a file as “Channing”.

After I returned to the U.S., I lived with my brother in the old house where I grew up. I’ve always loved that house, and I think it influence me deeply as I started forming an actual plot around my idea of a duel. During that year back home, while I was trying to get a “real” job, I read Gone With the Wind. It was a very different vision of slavery than what was represented in Fanny Kemble’s Journal and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I’d read while in England. I enjoyed the romance and escapism of Gone with the Wind, and I liked Scarlett’s pluck. But I also loved Fanny Kemble’s clear moral stance and her sympathy with the slaves. I wanted to meld these influences into something that was not quite any of them.

It took time to sort it all out. I have files named things like Greenlynch and populated with odd, nebulous characters that barely resemble any of the characters who ended up in Channing. Some names remain, though the characters have changed entirely.

Everett, the male main character, started out as a real Rhett Butler type and became a Quaker (ha!). Augustine was once the surly slave owner (that role was taken over with gusto by Harry, who was once a mild-mannered suitor). Caroline, the female main character, remained for the most part unchanged: she was always a young woman who hadn’t taken sides yet and who found herself pressured into doing so.

Over the next two years or so, I wrote, rewrote, edited, agonized, refined, and agonized some more. Meanwhile, I queried Grove of Venus on and off. And in August of 2011, I got a full-time job and moved to the Washington, D.C., area. Previously, the early parts of the novel had been set in Baltimore. In fact, for several months after I moved to D.C., I continued to research antebellum Baltimore. Yet, as I wrote these early scenes, something just didn’t click. Finally, it hit me: why not set the early bits in Washington City (known as Washington, D.C. today) instead of Baltimore?

Once I made that switch, everything seemed to fall into place. I still had some issues with structure (chronological? flashbacks? alternating chapters?), but I had my story, and it began with a duel. I think my structure problems actually were down to a slight mental block: I wanted the duel to begin the novel because it was the spark of the entire novel (it also is the crucial point of no return, and it also mirrors nicely with the show-down at the end). But in any case, by June 2012 I felt confident enough in what I had to send it to beta readers—that is, to other writers who could comment on the writing and the story. I took feedback, revised, rinsed, and repeated for about a year before I started sending our queries.

And what a daunting experience that can be! I had a relatively poor response rate. For those who don’t know, it’s not unusual to never get a response from agents. I got quite a lot of silence. I ended up with several requests, though the reception was hardly overwhelming. For the record, here are the numbers:

75 queries sent

2 partial requests, rejected

1 full, rejected

1 partial that turned into a full, rejected

1 partial that turned into a full, that turned into a revise-and-resubmit, that turned into another revise-and-resubmit, that turned into an offer of representation

So, that last one obviously is the most important one. In February 2014, I received a request from Erin Niumata for the first several chapters of Channing (that’s what a “partial” is). She liked it enough to request the full manuscript. In April, I received a note from Erin declining the manuscript, but providing some extremely valuable (and spot-on) feedback. I felt I could address all of it, so I asked whether she’d consider a revision. She said yes, so I set to work. I sent the revised manuscript back, and Erin had some more input (again, it was great stuff). So I got to work on another revision. I sent it to her, and. . . . waited. Now, publishing is slow, but I started getting anxious and discouraged only after several months. Then a feeling of foreboding started to set in. Was this her way of declining the revised manuscript? Were my revisions that bad?

I sent a few follow-up emails but got no response. Eek. I was getting that familiar, sinking feeling that this whole trying-to-get-an-agent thing was just an endless game of trying, trying, trying, and never succeeding. I’d been trying for a long time, and hadn’t succeeded yet, so the feeling of dejection was somewhat familiar. On something of a hunch, though, I sent an email from a different email address. And lo and behold, I got a response. I was so incredibly relieved. It so happens that my emails had been trapped by Erin’s junk email folder. She’d been wondering what had happened to me! She asked me to resent the latest revision, so of course I sent it asap.

That was in February of this year. At the very end of March, I got an email from Erin saying she wanted to call to talk about offering representation. I cannot say how ecstatic I was. It has been five years since the story first began to grow in my mind. It had been two and half years since I first asked for beta-reader input. I had been querying for over a year and a half. And I had been writing all my life, querying various projects, always trying to get to this point, always knowing I had it in me somewhere. And finally, there it was: that rare prize, an agent. Validation, a sign I wasn’t crazy, someone who cared about my writing.

Now, by some strange cosmic irony, I had planned a trip to go to Georgia and see the Sea Islands at the end of March. The previous spring, an airline had screwed up my flight, and I got a travel voucher to make up for it. I’d determined to use it to see the setting of Channing. I didn’t know at that point whether I would get an offer of representation from Erin or anyone else, but I didn’t care. I wanted to go to Savannah, and not only because of Channing. I also wanted to see Butler Island, the place where Fanny Kemble stayed while in Georgia, and I wanted to experience the beauty of Savannah. My trip had been booked for months. Then, just a few weeks before the trip, the offer of representation came. I received the paperwork (electronically) while I was in Georgia. It’s eerie, how the timing worked out. I was heading on an exciting trip to see the setting for Channing just as I was signing a contract with an agent for the manuscript . . .

You might wonder why I’ve kept all this under wraps for so long. After all, it’s now August. Well, there are a lot of reasons, but partly it’s because I haven’t gotten around to it, and partly it’s because there wasn’t much happening yet. There were two more rounds of revision after I signed the contract, and we haven’t yet sent the manuscript out to publishers. Why now, then? Partly because I got around to it, and partly because it looks like we’ll be sending the manuscript out on submission next month.

To be clear, not a lot is likely to happen soon. Publishing works at a glacial pace, so it could be several months or longer before a publisher makes an offer (if that happens—sometimes it doesn’t). It could then be a year or so until the book was actually published. But I now have an agent and we’re almost ready to send it out into the world. So . . . buckle your seatbelts!

I’ll leave you with the first sentence of Channing:

Not long after the robins returned that year, Caroline Hanleigh received an invitation from her dearest friend Ellen McIntyre to a house party.

Writerly Wednesday–Notes to Self

Inspiration is a persnickety thing. It doesn’t come when bidden and often comes when not 20150421_132851wanted. Take for example all those time I’m brushing my teeth, taking a shower, or just sitting on the toilet, only to have an idea come to me out of the blue. It’s like a piece of me that’s been missing. Aha. There you are, I think. The solution has always been there, or it feels like it has, lurking under the surface. When the idea strikes, it’s not always possible to run to a computer and write. Sometimes, it’s an idea for much later in the story, so it isn’t time to act on it yet anyway. So, in order not to forget things, I keep a notebook in my purse that has bunches of notes about various things, as well as lists for edits and important dates I need to keep straight. Anything I may forget–and I do have a tendency to forget things–has to be written down.

Aside from my notebook, I also have sticky notes stuck to the walls around my desk, which is in a corner. Some are plot ideas or bits of dialogue, some are questions to myself. Here is a sampling:

"The smoke and noise of battle had faded away into memory and __ lay in the grass before his house with a cigar, looking up a clear blue sky."

“The smoke and noise of battle had faded away into memory and __ lay in the grass before his house with a cigar, looking up a clear blue sky.”

This one is an opening to a novella. The beginning of the sentence stayed the same, but I added the character’s name (Hamilton) and slightly changed the end of the sentence. This novella came to me pretty well-formed already. I only had to fill in the (admittedly large) gaps. One of the clearest things that just came to me, like a bolt of lightning, was this opening.

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Caroline and Augustine have guns, both shoot at Harry, who’s threatening them. Everett dives to protect the children. –Everett gets beat up by a posse. –Caroline wants to help a pregnant lady. Mr. Day beats her for complaining, H and C get into a huge argument. –Jack teaches C to row. –C collapses in tears on E’s shoulder.

These are ideas for Channing. So as not to spoil anything, I will only say that a few of these things happen in the story, and the rest did not.

"Everett: 'You just want to grow up, don't you?' Ellen doesn't approve of the match with Everett. Everett played piano at the hotel--the only place he could get music outside of singing.

Everett: “You just want to grow up, don’t you?”
Ellen doesn’t approve of the match with Everett.
Everett played piano at the hotel–the only place he could get music outside of singing.

And none of these things ended up in the story.

And here, for fun, is one of the quotes I have on my wall for inspiration:

"We will nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth." --A Lincoln

“We will nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth.” –A Lincoln

And here’s a view of my wall:

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From the top, that’s Abraham Lincoln (duh), the unfinished Capitol, Thomas Jefferson, me at Monticello, and Julia Ward Howe.

Writerly Wednesday–Point of View

Yet again, it’s been far too long since I updated this blog. My goal, by the way, is to post at least once every two weeks. I am so NOT accomplishing that goal right now. I also have some exciting things to share. One of them (my recent trip to Georgia) will take some time to pull together, and the other is an announcement that I don’t feel quite ready to make at the moment. So for now, I am going to stick with something relatively simple.

I’m going to write a bit about point of view. Specifically, I’m going to talk about tense and person. You know, past tense versus present tense and first person versus third person.

These are pretty hot topics among writers, especially new-ish writers, who often worry that they’re doing something “wrong”. Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. There is no wrong way or right way. Any choice a writer makes is completely legitimate. The important thing is that it works for the writer and the story.

Many readers dislike present tense and will put down a book that’s written in it. And yet, a hefty portion of young adult is written in present tense, and lots of adult books are in present tense, too, so it’s hardly a fatal flaw. I’m not a big fan of present tense. It always feels a bit gimmicky, as if the present tense alone is meant to make us more invested in what’s happening. We need to be invested in what’s happening without being told breathlessly that it’s happening right now. On top of that, the convention is to tell stories in past tense because, well, the story isn’t actually happening right now. Right now, I the reader am sitting reading a book. Yet, present tense, when handled well, does convey a sense of immediacy, putting the reader more squarely in the middle of the action. And after all, if you actually listen to a person telling a story, they do tend to slip in and out of present tense (for instance, “I was walking down the street yesterday when I see a penny on the ground.”). So it can come off as more more informal and intimate than past tense. A good example of effective present tense is Wolf Hall.

Past tense is more common and is more or less the default. For me as a writer and reader, it’s the most natural way to tell a story. It becomes invisible. Now, it might be invisible because it’s common and not because it’s better. But that doesn’t change the fact that past tense doesn’t stand out like present tense does. Besides, it simply makes more sense (to me): we’re telling a story after it’s happened. You can pretend that you’re telling it as it unfolds, but that requires more suspension of disbelief. Of course, there’s a point of logic: what if the character telling the story (if it’s first person) dies at the end? How could he/she be telling the story in past tense? By the time the story’s over, he/she is dead. So it has to be present tense. Point taken. Yet, very, very few stories anymore are written as if the narrator is actually a person who sat down with pen and paper to tell his/her tale a la Jane Eyre. Even in first person, it’s assumed that the narrator is telling the tale mentally–that they’re going over their own life, putting it into order, and giving us their story. We don’t have to assume that they need time to do this. It could all take place in that instant before he/she is shot dead in the last sentence.

Then there’s first versus third person. There are several types of third person, and I’m quite frankly not that interested in labeling them. The distinctions mostly have to do with how close or far we are from the characters’ thoughts. (Are we hearing their internal dialogue, or are we just watching their actions from the outside without necessarily hearing their thoughts?)

In third person, there’s the danger of what’s called head-hopping. This basically means leaping from one character’s thoughts to another without any cues. It used to be much more common to jump from character to character in close third without a great deal of transition; it’s more frowned upon currently. Like past tense, this is at least partly down to convention. But it also helps prevents confusion.

Me, when I write third, I stick pretty darn close to my characters; it’s pretty deep third, sometimes deeper than others (meaning sometimes we go into the character’s head for his/her direct thoughts, but mostly we’re standing right on their shoulder). When you focus that tightly on the character, you don’t end up seeing things through other characters’ eyes, but you can pretty easily switch from character to character (just use a scene break and start with the point-of-view character’s name in the first few sentences so we know whose perspective we’re in). It also gives a bit of distance, which may be desirable in some stories.

First person has some advantages. Unlike third, you can insert a lot of voice, a la Huckleberry Finn (keep in mind that modern tastes don’t generally allow for that much dialect). We can also get the sensation of the character looking back on himself or herself with the advantage of hindsight. It’s not common for a third-person narrator to comment on the story unfolding on the page (except very obliquely), but in first person, it’s easier to do this (for instance, “I really should have known better at this point.”). Instead of dipping in and out of character thoughts, we’re perpetually in the character’s head. This can be useful when there are secrets to be uncovered. If the first-person narrator doesn’t know, neither do we. On the other hand, first person can be limiting in the same way: we can’t see what the narrator doesn’t see, so the plot has to unfold in front of the narrator’s eyes. Stuff that happens off-stage has to be brought in/alluded to in some other way.

I tend to use first person as commonly as third person. I’ve written a good lot of manuscripts now (three complete novel, one novella, and one project in progress), and they’re pretty evenly balanced. The novel that grew up alongside this blog (about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace) is first person. I wanted to tell the main character’s story, and I don’t think I ever really considered third person. I wanted to imbue the whole episode with a faint air of inevitability and tragedy. The narrator–Nicole–knows what’s coming.

The second novel, set in the Antebellum period, is third-person, but there are two points of view (Caroline and Everett). For about 2/3 of the story, we stick very close to Caroline, but she isn’t telling the story herself; for the other third, ditto for Everett. Nothing is hanging over the story; nothing in particular is to be gained by telling it first-person. It’s also helpful to use third-person since we’re switching perspectives and the use of “I” throughout might get a little confusing. In third, I can just use the names.

The third novel is a prequel to the one above. I stuck with third person for similar reasons. In this case, we have four perspectives, so that much use of “I” would have been way too confusing.

The novella is also in third person, though it’s very, very close third. It’s as close to first-person as you can get without using “I”. We hear the main character’s thoughts and see his delusions, and we never leave his side. So why third? Probably because of the nature of the main character, who would never think to tell his own story. He would always keep it to himself.

And although it isn’t done, my current project is an interesting exercise in point of view. It is entirely in first person. But there are two first-person narrators. The one first-person narrative acts as a frame for the other first-person narrative. The female character narrates, until we get to a point where she and the male character start talking. When he tells his story, we break chapters and go into his first-person narrative. The implication is that this is the story he’s telling her in the middle of her first-person narration. A story within a story. At some points, we stop and switch back to her narration, and we hear them commenting on the story he’s just been telling. Perhaps also interesting is that the two storylines–hers and his–are separated by a hundred years. I promise, it all makes sense in the story. It’s actually a fairly simple device.

Writerly Wednesday–Multiple Main Characters and Word Count

Although I took all of last week off (I already had off Christmas Day and the day after), I felt pretty harried most of that time. There were presents to wrap, goodies to bake, research projects to work on, paintings to, uh, paint, and so on. I’d been storing up all these plans, and they just didn’t fit into one week.

I did, however, find time to complete another editing pass of The Cotton Wars (that’s the working title). As a bit of background, this novel is the story of the parents of three characters in my (as yet unpublished) Antebellum novel, Channing. It takes place between 1829 and 1837 in Philadelphia and Georgia. And because of the backstory told in Channing, it was always clear to me that there would be four main characters: Charles Daniels, his twin brother Archie Daniels, a young actress named Emily Everly who works at their theater in Philly, and a slave woman named Betty. All four are equally important, and I consider them co-main characters.

As I got going, I decided to see how much face-time, so to speak, each character got. In my Excel spreadsheet, I marked from whose point of view each chapter was told and in another cell the word-count.

[Aside: I left chapter 1 blank because it was ambiguous whether the POV was Charles’s or Archie’s. This worried me at first, but as I went along and marked down the POV characters and word count and main events for each chapter, I realized something: it made perfect sense for the first chapter to be more ambiguous. After all, at the beginning of the novel, the brothers are basically indistinguishable to outside observers and are very much in sync with one another. Needless to say, that changes.]

When I reached the end of this round of edits, I had an interesting dataset on hands. Oh, Excel, you sexy beast, you, spitting out data on the fictional characters I created. Ahem. Uh, yeah. With the data, I could show how much of the story was told from each character’s perspective: how many words, how many chapters, what percentage.

Out of 104,100 words (I rounded each chapter to the nearest fifty; Word tells me the total word count is actually 103,950):

38,800 words or 37.3% were from Archie’s POV; he has 19 chapters

29,600 words or 28.4% were from Emily’s POV; she has 13 chapters

20,050 words or 19.3% were from Betty’s POV; she had 13 chapters

14,750 words or 14.2% were from Charles’s POV; he has 10 chapters

900 words or .8% were ambiguous; this is 1 chapter

Which I have to admit reflects, to some degree, my opinion of the characters–not necessarily as “people” but as characters. Archie is extremely fun to write, and I think is the most honest character in the manuscript. But he screws up multiple times and really wouldn’t be the kind of person I’d want to spend time with. Emily is slightly out of her mind and given to saying and thinking and doing startling things. She gets boring after a certain point, and more or less drops off the map–poor girl–until she’s needed again to die. Betty is a fascinating, complicated character, but because of who she is, she doesn’t have a great deal of agency (she’s a slave). That limits me with her, plot-wise, and a lot of the time we spend with her is in her head–which is fine, but spending too much time in anyone’s head without any actual action can be tedious. When she finally takes charge, she gets interesting and the story turns more fully to her. That is where the bulk of her word count comes from. As for Charles, well, he’s a deluded bastard who barely ever realizes his faults. I don’t like him very much, though I think he wants to be a good man and just doesn’t really know how. It’s ironic that he’s the one with the lowest word count even though he’s the only one of the four still alive at the end.

Oh, damn, did I spoil it? Well, that’s okay. If you’ve glanced at Channing (The Cotton Wars is a prequel), you’d pretty much know everyone’s fate. And anyway, they were all born around 1800. Clearly, they all died at some point.

Using a spreadsheet proved to be a nice way not so much to rearrange the plot (I already had it where I wanted it) but to lay out what I already had for analysis. It helps to have one list of chapters, POVs, and events, on one page. It also gives me a place to make any notes of little things I need to fix or check on (to eliminate continuity errors, for instance). It was a really useful exercise, and I might just do the same thing with Channing . . .

If you’re a writer with a manuscript, this kind of analysis might be helpful or at least interesting.

Writerly Wednesday: That Awkward Sentence When . . .

This week, I thought I’d get into some mechanics. This post is about syntax. Exciting, I know.

Awkward sentences pop up all the time. They lead us (the reader) astray, make us wonder who is doing what, or force us to re-read them just to make sense of them. Awkward sentences are annoying to a reader. They’re even more annoying when they’re your own sentences and you don’t know what went wrong.

Why exactly are sentences “awkward”? What’s the flaw in them that makes them difficult to read? In my experience, there is one root cause: trying to do too much in one sentence.

Too many propositions: We start with one idea and eventually, with the aid of a few too many prepositions and/or conjunctions, we end up halfway to China. The sentence in question doesn’t necessarily break any grammatical rules. It just wanders here and there, using “through” and “by” and “before” and “after”. These are usually the sentences where you have to go back and reread it because somebody is “xing the y of the thing that was once in the z and now is with m until after p, when m and n may coincide, if only t would listen”. Yeah, see the craziness?

Too many subjects: By this, I mean grammatical subjects (it could be the same person acting in different ways). When you have several grammatical subjects in one sentence, it’s a decent sign that you have too many actors performing too many actions. Go back to grade school and remember what your first-grade teacher said: a sentence conveys one idea. You can have more than one actor (subject) doing more than one thing (predicate) per sentence, but make sure they’re intrinsically linked. Breaking apart the subjects of a complex sentence might lessen the impact of what you’re trying to say. But it also might clarify what you’re trying to say. Some writers seem to substitute complexity for emotional impact. Here’s a clue: just because you’re packing a lot into one sentence doesn’t make any of it mean more. The more you pile on, the less weight each word has. Some of the most devastating and memorable sentences are the simplest.

Too many actions and bad parallel structure: There are related. One of the most common problems made by enthusiastic young writers is faulty parallel structure. By this I mean a list of things or actions that, when broken down into its component parts, doesn’t make sense. This can be a grammatical error. But a lot of times, a tortured use of parallel structure isn’t wrong, it’s just tortured. Please, leave that poor sentence alone. Don’t weigh it down. Pare it back to its most basic structure. Make sure the same subject is performing each action, make sure each action is in the same tense, make sure each verb has the same number of adverbs, etc. If possible, sum it all up with one, strong verb and leave off the parallel structure altogether.

My experience is that these issues are common to newer writers who are not confident yet with the craft. They’re overreaching themselves a bit in an attempt to sound “writerly”. My, they say, that is a spiffy, complex sentence! It makes me sound smart. But if you don’t have a grasp on it, it’ll get right away from you. And what’s more, syntactical complexity is not a virtue. Good writers are like good parents: firm and in command, but never overbearing.

That said, I’ve written more than a few of my own awkward sentences. My advice to others and to myself: Words are just words, and they can move anywhere and do anything. Break those suckers to pieces and put them back together with loving care. Don’t be afraid of them.

Before I start sounding preachy, here are a couple examples from a recent editing pass of my own writing:

1. The beauty was there still, but time had used up and dried out that beauty so that it was something arid.

Became:

The beauty was there still, but time had used it up and dried it out into something arid.

Because: It was wordy and upon re-reading, it didn’t work.

How: I collapsed the sentence by reducing “beauty” to “it” and thereby getting rid of a few prepositions.

2. Or maybe he was remembering wrong, and he’d asked the question and he had been the one to be slapped.

Became:

Or maybe he was remembering it wrong, and he’d been the one to ask the question and feel the sting of its consequences.

Because: It was a little confusing.

How: I collapsed the second part of the second sentences from “he’d x and he had been the one to x” to “he’d been the one to x and x”. Much simpler.