Jennifer Crusie's Blog
April 22, 2017
Today is Earth Day. Trying to imaging what Trump is going to do with this one, since he praised Frederick Douglass for all the good work he’s doing for Black History Month: “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” Since he has previously suggested that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, I’m assuming he’ll burn an endangered species while strip mining Yellowstone and talking about his YUGE victory. (You lost by more than three million votes, Donald. You’re a loser.)
Fuck that. It’s Jelly Bean Day.
Not even Donald Trump can destroy jelly beans.
April 21, 2017
One of the weirdest things I discovered early in my career was that a story I’ve been writing on a screen not only looks completely different on the page, it reads completely different on the page.
That’s why a paper edit is crucial.
I print the book out and it’s new again, places where there are holes in the story are glaringly clear, places I can easily cut leap out at me. It’s just a brand new story, and that’s invaluable. So why don’t I do the whole thing on paper? Have you forgotten how many drafts I do and how much I change things? If I didn’t have a computer, I don’t think I’d write, it would just be too damn hard. (Pat Gaffney and Krissie both write drafts in longhand; I cannot comprehend that.).
I couldn’t wait to get to the paper edit of this act because I really, really, really wanted to read it for the first time. I did manage to do another major cut before I printed it out, taking it from 41,000 to 35,000, but one of the many great things about a paper edit is that I find a lot more places to cut. Red ink everywhere. Tags showing me how often a motif is repeated. Notes about what to work throughout the act. Notes about the rest of the book. Stains from tea and Diet Coke. Dog hair. It’s all in there.
And then all those changes went back into the computer; I’m not insane. But when I get the other three acts done, I’ll do another paper edit. It’s the only way to really see the book. (Yes, Pam, I’m saving them for you.)
Did you want to read it? . .I’d think you’d be sick of it by now, but if not, here it is.
April 20, 2017
Hey, it’s this Is a Really Good Book Thursday. Tell us the title and author of something delightful to read, fiction or non-fiction. The weekend is coming and we need good books!
April 17, 2017
I’ve been working on the paper edit, cleaning house (the never-ending job), and hosting Krissie and Lani and Sweetness and Light, so I haven’t been here. But I’ve been working, I swear. Doing the second pass through on the paper edit on Act One, so that’ll be up soon (Krissie goes home tomorrow). And Lani took a big bag of yarn home, and Krissie’s car is packed to the roof with it. That sounds like an exaggeration,but it’s not. Here’s what my living room looked like when we started:
[image error][image error]Yes, I have a yarn problem, although it’s much less since I filled Krissie’s car with the stuff. And in my defense, I dumped it all in the middle of the room to sort it; it had been on shelves around the room, not piled on the floor like that.
We also went shopping and I bought birdhouses to put on my fenceposts, so I’ll be doing that this week. And I think I’ve figured out how to put a ceiling in my bedroom, so there’s that. And tonight I’m cleaning out my closet so Krissie will have more bags to put in her car.. So I’ve been VERY productive.
And I did keep working on the paper edit. I have a ton of notes to double check, but mostly I am ready to charge on to the last three acts, which should be roughly 65,000 words and I have 30,000 words already, although you know how that goes, I’ll have to cut a lot of them.
Mostly we just laughed.
April 15, 2017
Today is Rubber Eraser Day.
Try to imagine a world without the ability to erase mistakes. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH.
(Actually, my fave eraser is a Mars Staedtler white..)
April 13, 2017
And it’s This Is a Really Good Book Thursday. Tell us the title and author of something delightful to read, fiction or non-fiction. The weekend is coming and we need good books!
April 11, 2017
[image error]Chapters are useless. They’re arbitrary divisions in a story that serve no purpose except to give readers a chance to put down the book and never come back. Unlike acts, scene sequences, scenes, beats, and all the other narrative units, chapters actually work against structure and meaning: you have to bend the book to make them work.
But they’re standard, so they stay. And I’m about to print out the first act which means I have to figure out where the chapter headings go so I put in transitions between the @#$%^&* chapters I don’t want in there anyway.
The first act is now 30,115 words long, a huge improvement from 41,000 words. I shifted a couple of scenes to Act Two, cut a lot more savagely, and dumped the investigations scenes completely and rewrote that section. Just over 30,000 words gives me room to add things later as I finish the book, and if I don’t, I just have a faster first act. Win/win.
And now I have to carve all that tight writing up with @#$%^&* chapters.
The first chapter was easy: The first two parallel scenes that end when Nick sees Nita for the first time; 6131 words, which is long, but it’s a first chapter, so I’m good with that. Plus it ends as Nita is walking toward Nick, so I’m pretty sure readers will turn the page.
The second chapter was also pretty organic: The scene sequence in the bar, ending when Nita leaves. 5888 words, which is good because each chapter should get shorter. This ending is a little iffier because it’s an ending, not a cliffhanger, but since I have faith that readers will want to know what both Nita and Nick are going to do next, I’m okay with this.
The third section is all right. It ends when Button shoots the bad guy, which is a good breaking point, and it runs 4687 words. I want my chapters between four and five thousand words until I hit Act Four, so this is ballpark, but it means that the next section starts with Button saying, “Are you all right?” to Nita.
Why is that a problem? It means that Chapter Four is the end of a scene–Mort showing up, going out to the porch, etc.–and then ends when Nita leaves the breakfast scene, now because she’s texted that the lieutenant wants to see her. There’s nothing organic about that pairing or particularly strong about that ending, but it’s 4403 words, and that’s close enough for this stage in the book. It’s gonna bother me, but since I know this act will change once I get to the end, I’m letting go for now.
Chapter 5 is Nita with the Lieutenant, Nick with the Mayor, Chloe with Nita, and Nick with Vinnie. I’m okay with this because they both hit the road in the next chapter, so this becomes the start of their day, before they leave home base (the police dept/the bar) and start their investigations. It’s 4513 words.
Chapter 6 is investigations (completely rewritten), ending with their crisis scenes: Nick in Hell seeing the resemblance and Nita at the motel opening the box (that’s new, too). It’s 4486 words.
Act Two now starts with the Max scene, which is actually a good place to start a new PoV since Acts are stories on their own, and Act Two starts a new story,, but I’m going to have mention Max more than the one time I have him in the first act now to establish him.
All in all, I’m much happier with this now, happy enough to do the paper edit and then go back to the rest of the book which is in pieces all over the place. Also I have to clean because this house is a hellhole and Krissie arrives tomorrow. YAY.
And now, to the printer..
April 10, 2017
I’m working on the assumption here that somebody out there is interested in this wonky stuff. If you’re not, feel free to skip. There’s math in this post.
So the Breakfast Scene at the end of the second mini-act was 3,524 words, and it needed to be a lot less. I don’t like scenes that are over 2500, even transition scenes like this one, so that was my upper limit. I ended up at 2560, so pretty good but still more cuts to come on the paper edit. Here’s how I did it.
I already had a decent structure:
Beat 1: Nita questions Nick about Joey. Daphne shows her displeasure; eggs and bacon become a distraction and show Nick’s changing.
Transition: The Mayor shows up, and Nita protects Nick, something she wouldn’t have done at the beginning of the scene..
Beat 2: Nita snags on Nick’s information about missing people and they begin to pool information while Nick develops a taste for French toast.
Transition: Mort shows up, and Nita and Nick remain focused on each other, something neither of them would have done at the beginning of the scene.
Beat 3: Nita wants more info on doughnuts, Nick wants more info on the demon who tried to kill Nita.
Climax: Nita has to go to work. TERRIBLE Climax/Transition out, must rewrite.
I’m good with the general focus of the scene: they’re both investigating and they give each other info and they’re less hostile at the end. So all I have to do it cut it and fix that climax. I wanted a benchmark under 2500 words, give or take a couple hundred words either way, so I blocked it out as 1000/800/600. What I actually have is 1348/971/1205. That’s a lot of cutting, so I split the scene into three different documents because 1348 words are easier to focus than 3,524.
Then I just revised each beat. They’re all Nita vs. Nick, and the conflict is always Nita suspecting Nick, and Nick being honest but hard to believe. The escalation is that with each beat, Nita becomes more receptive, in part because he’s helpful and logical; and in part because they’re sharing breakfast. And with each beat, he edges closer to being a Real Live Boy. Not close yet, he’s not going to get there until the point of no return in the book, but it’s clear the transition is starting.
Romance writing tip: Sharing food is part of the universal courtship ritual, and I do mean ritual. Animals do it, insects do, even educated fleas do it. It’s the reason the modern equivalent of “Let me get to know you first” is going for coffee, not meeting for dinner, and the reason men who are interested in women are uncomfortable with going Dutch. So at the end when Nick says, “I’ll pay,” it’s not about the money, and Nita letting him is not completely because he ate half of her breakfast; it’s a very small step toward their relationship. Which is why the food talk stays even though it would seem as though it should be the first stuff to cut.
So what can go? Oddly enough, most of the investigation stuff because the reader already knows it. The meat in this scene (besides the bacon) is the way Nick begins to fit into Nita’s world, epitomized by the diner, and the way their mutual goals begin to forge a working relationship. That wasn’t going to solve my big problem, the last beat that was 1205 words and needed to be about 600. The only way to do that is to start cutting out paragraphs, and for that scene, the only big thing was the Button stuff, so that went. (It’s in another file, I’ll get it in in Act Two.) At the end of my cuts I had 1012/816/722 (aiming for 1000/800/600) for a total of 2560. That’s still long, but I can get rid of more in the paper edit, so I’m good with that for now.
Then came the next mini-act which was 14000 words and needed to be half that. Argh.
April 9, 2017
Discovery drafts almost always run long. That’s because they’re writer-based drafts, not intended for readers or publication, they’re just the writer getting it all down on paper or screen. You’re supposed to write long on a discovery draft; it’s the writing equivalent of taking the back roads so that you see a lot of stuff. Yes, you’ll get there faster if you take the freeway, but all you’ll see is freeway.
But once you’ve explored, the next time you take the trip, you go for fast-paced and focused: You take the truck draft out on the highway. You cut like crazy.
As always, there are many roads to Oz and if the following doesn’t work for you, ignore it. This is just how I do it.
I break the manuscript into narrative pieces that are each a story on their own.
First I break into acts, the four big chunks that make up the entire novel. I’ve been working on the first act in here, but I have parts of the other acts done, too, because I don’t write in chronological order. (Somewhere, Bob screams.) For the purposes of this discussion, we’re just looking at the first act in discovery form.
So the first thing I did in the transition from discovery to truck draft was to break it into units that had a relationship to each other–parallel scenes, scene sequences, etc.–and then make sure those pieces had a single narrative meaning::
Part 1: Two parallel scenes that propel the main plot protagonist and the subplot protagonist (who are also the love story) from the stable world into the unstable world in conflict.
Part 2: A scene sequence that shows the two meeting in conflict and the first move in their relationship that also establishes one of the major settings in the story and five of the main supporting characters.
Part 3*: A double scene sequence that shows each protagonist beginning to bond with her and his supporting characters, mini-teams, if you will, as they escalate the conflict.
Part 4: A transition scene to bring the protagonists back together again in conflict and begin their bond.
Part 5*: Double sequences of the two protagonists investigating both the mystery and each other separately, putting them in conflict with others and and escalating their frustrations.
Part 6: Parallel scenes of the subplot protagonist and his doppelganger to set up their subplot and escalate Nick’s emotional evolution.
Part 7: The last scene sequence to show how the protagonists begin to become a team under pressure, foreshadowing their love story and that they’ll bring their teams together for the rest of the book.
Most of these pieces were way too long, and the two starred* double-scene-sequence parts were all over the place as far as focus went. But in order to know how much to cut, I had to go back to looking at Act One as a whole.
I figure out the word count benchmarks. Cutting the fat in scenes is easy. It’s when you get to down to muscle and bone that you need some parameters. The entire act was at 41,000 words when I began to cut; my benchmark for a first act is about 33,000, give or take a couple of thousand words either way. Dividing this Act into acts of its own, I knew I wanted four sections that were about 12,000/9,000/7,000/5,000, give or take a thousand or so in each section.
Parts 1 and 2 work as the first mini-act in this Act: from Nita and Button in the car to Nita leaving the bar after the scupper is 12,000 words. I can tighten that and will, but I won’t need to make major cuts. This one ends in the soft turning point of Nita and Nick realizeing that neither of them is what he or she appears to be.
Parts 3 and 4 are the aftermath ending at breakfast where the first tentative relationship begins. This second mini-act is at 11, 459 words, should be 8-10,000 words. Since this part is that meandering double sequence, that’s the place most of those words are going to go, but the breakfast scene is also way too long by about a thousand words, so that’ll get the knife, too. It ends in a soft turning point: Nita and Nick leave breakfast as possible allies, still deeply suspicious about each other.
Parts 5, 6, and the first two scenes of 7 are Nita and Nick’s investigations which make them frustrated and angry, ending with opening the box at the hotel, which was originally part of Part 7 but that I now realize is a short transition scene. That’s 14,333 words and it should be about, oh, 7000. That double scene sequence? Say good-bye to most of it. This act ends when Nita realizes the supernatural is real (Forcas’s head).
Part 7: Nita and Nick begin to understand who each other are and join forces at the climax/hard turning point where they decide to work together, and she tells him she’s in charge. Should be about 5000 words, is 4044. Excellent.
So time to cut.
I look at each piece to see redundancies, unnecessary chat, and extraneous side trails I’ve wander down, and I cut all of that.
As an example, look at the second sequence/second mini-act:
• Button takes Nita home and tells her about the Lieutenant; Nita shows that even drunk she’s a good cop when she gets Button to come across with her story: They’ve moved from strangers to co-workers who know things about each other.
• Nick talks to Dag and discovers he’s in love with Daphne and doesn’t want to go back to Hell.
• Nita tries to stop Button from doing anything rash; Button saves Nita’s life.
• Nick talks to Rab and discovers more about Nita while showing evidence that he’s changing.
• Nita takes the blame for the shooting, moving her partnership with Button into new focus.
The first fix is easy: That should be three scenes:
• Button takes Nita home and tells her about the Lieutenant.
• Nick talks to Dag and Rab and discovers they both want to stay on Earth, making him try to relate to them as human being, moving them from boss and employees to mentor and students.
• Button saves Nita and Nita takes the blame, moving them from co-workers to the beginning o a real partnership.
Because Nick’s scene is going to interrupt Nita’s scenes at a high point, it has to be really short, not just a good parts version but an essential parts version. So this is the part where . . .
I look at each scene in this narrative piece as a unit of its own. We’ve talked about scene structure here, so I’ll just say I do the basics: protagonist, antagonist, conflict, escalating beats, climax. Those two Nick scenes wander and repeat, and putting them together really shows that. But it also shows that there was no there there: there’s no focus to that stitched together scene. So I have to step back and say, “What the hell is this scene about and why should people read it when Nita’s getting shot at over in the other sequence?”
The answer is in the larger chunk that this scene is part of: This narrative piece is about the beginning of teams and the beginning of the protagonists’ change. Pick one, Jenny. It’s about the protagonists change which leads them to actions that form teams as a way of showing that change. MUCH better.
Example: Cutting Part Two
So Nita’s two scenes are now about Nita being honest with Button and questioning her for the truth and on the basis of that taking a risk for her that she wouldn’t have at the beginning.
And Nick’s newly combined scene has to be the parallel to that: Nick being honest with Dag and getting the truth from him, and on the basis of that shifting his by-the-book approach to his mission, something he wouldn’t have done at the beginning.
For Nita, that just means cutting the last double scene to emphasize that. For Nick, it means a massive cut and rewrite. Which is where I look at scene benchmarks: If a scene gets much over 2500 words, I’m not happy.
The first scene in Button’s PoV is 2070 words. That’s easily benchmark territory, so I can just sharpen it as I do the paper edit.
The next scene is Nick’s two combined rambling scenes. They clock in at 3949 words. They should be less than half that, so that’s a major cut based on the focus of the scene. Any important info that goes I can put somewhere else.
The third scene is Nita’s two combined scenes. They add up to 1910 words, which again is benchmark. I can tighten them still because I’ll find redundancies, but that’s still benchmark.
The fourth scene is the transition/breakfast scene. It’s 3,524 words. I’m actually okay with this one being longer than the preceding three because it’s not part of that scene sequence, but 4000 words is about 1500 too many. So major cuts to focus this one.
That means I did a quick read-through of the first scene, hacked the living hell out of the second one, tightened the third one, and then went in with a scalpel on the fourth breakfast scene. Knowing the word counts tells me where to cut, not because it’s an arbitrary number but because it tells me where I went on too long on one story beat.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. Where am I now?
The first part is 2092 words, which is ten words more than the previous draft. In other words, it’s the same, and within my benchmarks.
The second part is 2300 words. I need to cut about another 500 words on the paper edit, to make it shorter than the previous scene, but hey, better than the original 3949.
The third part is at 1792, so still well within the benchmark. I’m good.
The fourth part is now at 2560, instead of 3524. It’s still too long, but much better.
And the good news is, I always find more to cut on a paper edit. It’s the Paper Cut.
So how do you cut a novel?
Divide the entire novel into acts and establish diminishing word count benchmarks for each act.
Divide each act into structural units–parallel scenes, scene sequences, transitions, etc.–and determine what the focus for each unit is, then cut to emphasize that focus.
Combine the structural units into mini-acts and establish diminishing word count benchmarks for each act.
Look at each scene within the mini-acts and cut to focus, using scene word counts as benchmarks.
Put the whole thing back together and do a paper edit, cutting every extraneous paragraph, sentence, and word.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Or as the best book about writing ever published put it:
17. Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
That’s how I cut a story.
I have miscellaneous questions and comments, none of which supports a post of its own, so I’m just jumbling them here. In no particular order:
I am slowly moving the Works in Progress and Everything Else stuff over here from jennycrusie.com, which is why there are two new tabs in the banner now. I haven’t transferred everything over yet, it’s gonna take awhile, but from now on when I post a draft, it’ll be here..
I think the essays stay on the website since they were all published. HOWEVER, it would be nice to have some kind of central system where if you wanted to read about a topic, there’d be a page here that would have links to both Argh and the website. I have no idea what that would be or if it would even be helpful. I did move the Search box up to the top of the right column under the bio box, and I did redo the categories, but there are still over a thousand posts that are uncategorized thanks to the hack, and a search box here does not search the website. The website will eventually link back here on the book pages, I think. You know, you keep putting stuff on the internet for ten years, the content is gonna mount up.
I’m really happy with the Good Book idea, so thank you to those who suggested it and who participated. I have the posts set up for the next two months to load automatically, and then we can look again and see if it’s still working.
Slogging through some of the back posts (it’s gonna take me forever), I tripped over a promise to start doing a Questionable once a week (Questionable Tuesdays? Argh). It slipped my mind, but I still have some Questionables in draft form I could finish and schedule. Of course, that skews the blog even more toward writing wonkiness, so maybe not. It also means that three out of seven days of Argh are pre-programmed, which could be nice since I’m swamped right now, but which could also undercut the annoyingly delightfully erratic personality of the blog..
What non-writing stuff should I be looking at for in here? I know, dogs, but besides that?
In the last pass at Nita, did you see the father reveal coming ahead of time? I only ask because I don’t want Nick looking like an idiot for not seeing it. I’m good with him missing it because it’s so improbable, but not if people have been saying, “Hello, it’s OBVIOUS” for too many pages.
Does Max getting a PoV that late in the first act seem disruptive?
Can we have a round of applause for Mollie the Genius? I told her I didn’t like the look of the thumbs up icon, too impersonal, and that I’d much rather have a heart, and that I also didn’t want any “disagree” options because those are always taken badly (“If you don’t have anything nice to click, don’t click anything at all”). Twenty-four hours later, she delivers. Genius, I tell you.
There may be an infestation of really large spiders in my bedroom (or just one aggressive asshole who keeps leaping on me). Anybody know any good way to repel spiders without killing them? I’m against going to war with nature, but I’m against spiders in my bed, too. (Currently sleeping and typing in the guest room, but Krissie is coming to stay this week and this bed is hers.)
The World of Argh is now linked on the Everything Else page. I’m good with it there, but is anybody still adding to it? Does it still even work? Does anybody use it?
Are we tired of the holiday theme for Cherry Saturdays? I don’t want to bore people, although I did think the Draw a Bird post was brilliant. Also, I don’t know what I’d replace the holidays with.
Another TV series binge watch. Yes or no? I want to do a post on Grimm, but then iZombie seems like a great binge since it’s brilliant and starting up again, and then there’s Limitless because I think it did such interesting things, plus Legion is fairly mindblowing, and Sense8 is coming back, and then there are the older shows like Agent Carter and Galavant, but I’m not sure the binge posts do anything for anybody besides me. I was going to say that I haven’t watched any non-SF/Fantasy shows since Person of Interest, but that was speculative fiction, too, since it was about AIs. Clearly I have lost my grip on reality narratives, and I know not everyone here shares my passion for the paranormal. In my defense, have you seen reality lately?
I think there’s a mouse in the kitchen. I hope it’s a mouse. I don’t think a spider makes that much noise. NOT A NORMAL SPIDER ANYWAY.
And now back to cutting the hell out of the first act.