Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Right on Time

Sharon Wildwind

I have just finished the worst book I have ever written. There are huge gaps in the plot; the characters are flat; the descriptions lackluster; and the whole thing incredibly tiresome. As my husband says, “Right on time.”

We go through this at the end of every book. It started with the final section of difficult text that refused to be shaped. This time it was why a character had done a key thing related to the murder. I wrote a reason. The four-year-old in my head asked, “Why?” I explained the reason. “Why?” I explained the reason for the reason. “Why?”

This went on for about a page and a half. I knew it was crap, but writing crap was better than not writing. I fiddled with everything before and after the explanation, hoping that if I chipped away from both ends, I’d meet myself in the middle. In a glorious moment of revelation the obstruction melted away. I had a clear path back to the beginning of the book and forward to the end.

The book was finished. All that was left were minor details of proof-reading the entire book on the computer, doing a grammar and spelling check, getting a copy printed, proof-reading the printed copy, doing another grammar and spelling check, and making sure it was formatted absolutely correctly.

Mentally moving a book from Work in Progress to Done Except for Tidying is accompanied by a huge adrenalin, endorphin, and catecholamine rush. I could conquer the world! I’d already conquered the world and was standing on a mountain peak, waving the biggest flag you’ve ever seen. This was the greatest book every written in human existence!

That chemical high lasted through getting the copy printed. The print shop did a lousy job. It was really ugly. I consoled myself that this was only the proof-reading copy, which I would never look at again after I made corrections.

What was worse is that as soon as I skimmed through it, I found the first error in sentence #2. The word “to” had inexplicably disappeared. I’ve learned over the years how these strange disappearances happen.

Cutting, copying, pasting, and revising took out unexpected chunks, sometimes single words, sometimes entire sentences, rarely entire paragraphs. There was this wonderful correlation between disappeared words and importance, like having the word “not” disappear when the detective said, “I assure you that we have not found evidence linking your brother to the theft.”

After a while the human brain stops being able to see those omissions and other errors on the computer screen. This is not surprising. The brain has simply been flooded with too many words.

My writing program allows me to count words in a lot of ways, so I did some quick tallies:

13,000 words in the timelines or who did what when? Admittedly, this is an inflated number because this is book number five in the series. I have timelines for the previous four books buried in the document. So it actually works out to only about 2600 new words for this book. Only!

30,000 words on character development

560,000 words for background notes, notes on each scene and sequel as it was written, and five drafts of the book.

Total: slightly over 600,000 words. At the magical 250 words per page, that works out to having written, read, and revised 2,400 pages. No wonder I can’t see an occasional missed “to” or “not.”

It’s also the simplest and best reason I know that I absolutely must have the entire manuscript printed on paper and read that hard copy word-by-word three times: once now; again with a fresh copy after I’ve made the initial corrections; and the final time when I get the Advanced Reading Copy.

Advanced Reading Copy. As Avivah would say, “From your mouth to God’s ears.”

Of course, this has all been written on spec. Selling the book is the next hurdle. So after proof-reading all but the last 30 pages I discovered that the plot gaps aren’t as big as I thought. Actually, there were only two: one required two sentences to fix and the second one required two-thirds of a page to fix. I suspect there is a third one lurking in those last 30 pages, but hey, I'm on a roll. Chances are I can fix that one as well.

The characters occasionally come up with some Crackerjack lines, the descriptions hold together, and while it’s not the best book ever written in the entire history of literature, it’s good enough to leave home and seek its fortune in the world. I’m busy packing its suitcase right now.

The title, in case you're curious, is Loved Honor More and it's about healing wounds. If you’d like the merest taste, click here for a blurb and short excerpt.

Quote for the week:
I’m beginning to think that being a writer is a mental illness that deserves its own DSM classification, perhaps a sub-category under Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders: “Symptoms include anxiety dreams, inability to relax, intermittent feelings of inadequacy alternating with delusions of grandeur, hypersensitivity to criticism, and an abnormal preoccupation with people who don’t even exist.
~Tess Gerritsen, thriller writer


Sheila Connolly said...

Love the quote--Tess nailed it.

I'm intrigued that you have a way of tracking words by type or purpose or whatever. Color-coding? Do you have to type them in, in different ways?

And I agree--reading on paper is a different experience than reading your words on a screen. Sorry, trees.

Sandra Parshall said...

Your experience sounds awfully familiar...

Like Sheila, I want to know how you track the number of words devoted to different aspects of the book.

Anonymous said...

I use this terrific writing program, called Scrivener, which is solely for the Mac. It runs a total of every file as I write it.

I can get a compete count of the entire project by selecting Project then Project Statistics from the pull-down menu. It gives me one figure, all in a lump.

If I want to breakdown the total---how much on characters, how much on chapters, etc---I have to open each file to see the word total at the bottom of the screen.

To get those totals for the blog, I spent about fifteen minutes opening files one-by-one and copying-and-pasting the word count to a spread sheet. Then added the columns.

Okay, okay, it was tedious and this borders on obsessive-compulsive behavior, but I had on nice music on the player, and a cup of tea, and I was actually curious as to the totals because I'd never been able to count everything in one place before.

At least we can do the first 95% of the work on non-tree media. That's some progress.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Remind me--why do we do this, again? The silver lining for each writer is "It's not just me."

Marilynne said...

You must have a book worm in your text. I learned about them while traveling in Australia. The bookworm appears when you close the book at night. Unseen, the bookworm eats up your words, just some here and there, though sometimes it will eat a particularly juicy paragraph. If you were just to open the book again those words would stay gone. The trick is to grab hold of the bookworm by his head, hold the book right, and squeeze him out. In doing that, he drops all the words and leaves them in the book.

The problem is, I know how to do that to a paper book. I'm not sure how you would do it electronically.

Marilynne (who is giggling)

Anonymous said...

Marilynne, you may be giggling, but I'm rolling on the floor laughing. Thank you for telling me about the book worm.

Liz, I have no idea, at this point why we do this. Maybe I can get back to you on that when I'm starting my next book and everything is bright and shiny.

jenny milchman said...

Good luck sending your baby out into the world!!! They all have flaws, as you suggest--but we know we worked to mold them into as perfect shape as they can possibly come.